In this podcast episode, I share the events that led to our decision to stop homeschooling and the moment of clarity when it all became evident. In the podcast, I refer to the show notes: you can find them here.
I don’t often take to my blog to ask for help but this is a matter of extreme annoyance and one of the reasons I homeschooled for as long as I did: school lunches!
When we decided to keep the children at home, my first shock was to realize how much they ate and how often. No wonder they stepped off the school bus in a state of complete discombobulation: they never had enough to eat. Not that I sent them off with insufficient provisions: some of their snacks came home untouched. But the convergence of not enough time to eat and the state of some snacks after a few hours at the bottom of the school bag meant that the children ate what could be eaten and left the rest.
I find that packaged snacks are high in cheap carbohydrates — which my children burn through in a matter of minutes — and that fresh snacks don’t keep well. Fruits are nice and everything but they get smooched or go brown. If your children eat bruised and battered fruits, congratulations, your medal is in the mail. Mine don’t. Nuts are verboten, fish puts you on the no-fly list, egg smells, warm dairy is a germ broth…. It’s getting complicated.
On the eve of the children’s return to school, I decided to bite the golden bullet and take the advice of a few friends who recommended the Planetbox lunch kits. If my husband asks, the whole thing was $75. On day two, I’m happy to report that the boxes make packing lunches a breeze and that they return home completely empty. The Rover box is too small to pack an entire day’s worth of food for my children so I send their main meal in a Thermos. This is still early in the game but I think that the boxes help the children see what they can eat (as opposed to that smashed granola at the bottom of the lunch bag) and the stainless steel keeps it in one piece. If anything, the boxes calm my anxieties about my children going hungry at school and that’s worth money to me. That said, I’m still looking for suggestions on what to pack in said boxes.
So what do you do oh wizened parents? What are your greatest hits?
** 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.
Having a lot of children raises eyebrows. Heck, having children in any circumstances not reflecting a perfect sequence of material acquisition and career advancement raises eyebrows. Having a large family flies in the face of common sense. Thankfully for my children, common sense ain’t that common.
While we know the reasons that reason ignores, and while each child coming after the second adds a new thickness to our hides, comments about family size always hurt. The intensity of the burn ranges from mild annoyance at the grocery store to lasting pain and resentment at the hands of our families. No one likes to feel like an idiot, not even mothers of 4+ children.
We have 9 kids so we’ve been raising eyebrows since 1999. I have almost heard it all. I have heard really awkward. Awkward as your three year-old making a clear-as-springwater observation about someone’s dress or facial hair. I have heard outrageous. Outrageous as only an older person with cognitive issues and no filter could possibly muster. No one has ever called me “selfish” but most moms of many have been called selfish to their face. Come spend a weekend with 5+ kids, it’ll knock the selfish right outta ya. I rent my family by the week — if you can last that long — for self-centered relaxation. Try it if you dare.
I am asked often how I deal with negative comments about my family’s size. I have a supernatural ability to ignore things that bug me, that’s the easy answer. I’m like the Penguins in Madagascar:
That said, I had two meaningful interactions with older folks when I was a young mom expecting my third child. One had had one child (whether by choice or circumstances, I don’t know) and that one child had died suddenly in his mid-forties. The second had had 10 children in close range. The one with one child still had regrets at age 80 about not spending more time with his family, about not seeing his son grow-up. The one with 10 children told me of the people in her nursing home: “All these people were sorry for me when I was having my children one after the other. Now they think I’m lucky.”
These two conversations had a profound impact on me. On my perspective on having children and making family-centered decisions. It taught me that (1) none of us gets another kick at the can once our fertile years are behind us and once our kids are grown; and (2) that raising young children is the grunt work of parenting, the tiling of the field from which the harvest will later come forth. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition: we don’t get to pour the time, care and affection we didn’t pour into our children once they are grown and we don’t get to have more children once we are older and lonelier. The blessings of children are not the sleepless nights, the bum-wipings and the ear-piercing shrieks. No. Those are the latrines of parenting. The blessings come later, once the field has been tended and nurtured, early in the morning, late at night, in the cold, in the rain, back-broken and exhausted, when you felt like it and when you did not.
Most people make their family size decisions in the here and now. That’s fine, whatever floats your goat. But we never consider what comes after the crazy years of raising small children. Of course two children under 3 is enough! Children under 6 are crazy animals. Maybe some people have large families because they love being pregnant while chasing a potty-training toddler who still doesn’t sleep through the night but I sure as heck did not. I have more children because I know that however intense these years are, they are but a flash in comparison to the other lifetime I will spend in my older years.
Bear with me for a second. I started my family at 21, now I’m 42. That’s 21 years of having little kids in the house. Assuming my 9th is my last, I have another 5 years of little-kid-madness ahead of me, for a total of 26 years. Insane right? That said, assuming I live as long or longer than my grandparents, who died between the ages of 80 and 100, I have another 42 years — probably more like 50 — of life without small-kid-insanity on the horizon. Fifty year. I haven’t even been alive that long! That’s what I mean by “another lifetime”: 40-50 years of friendship and support and family meals and visits and help and whatever other amazing things will come out of having a large gang of properly attached people around me. And no one will burn-out supporting me because the work will be split 9 ways, times their spouses, times their own kids.
My husband and I were on a dinner date last year and while chatting with the waitress she pointed at a large group seated nearby. She mentioned that it was a group of 14 celebrating their mother and grandmother’s 80th birthday. All her children and grandchildren were present around the table and the matriarch was beaming, seated in the center of the table as I had seen my own grandparents do so many times when their descendants were visiting. I counted 4 grown children and their spouses with 6 grandchildren among them. The small popular restaurant was almost full and renovations were underway to open-up a mezzanine overlooking the main floor. I told my husband: “It just occurred to me that if most of our children get married and have children, and if some of their children have spouses and children, we will need to book the entire restaurant when we turn 80. It will be full to the rafters.”
When I get totally overwhelmed by the present moment, I remember the “after” and the rafters. People who think we are nuts today can’t see what we’re seeing. This is the truth.
I was listening to the CBC Radio: Spark podcast on the effects of parental use of technology on children. This hit close to home. I use my iPhone for everything — from reading and writing to looking up recipes, words and maps, taking pictures, recording voice memos, shooting and editing my YouTube videos, communicating with my parents, husband and children, checking the weather, traffic, the news, streaming music and podcasts, look-up knitting patterns, get calendar reminders, learning Spanish on Duolingo, Netflix & Chillaxing, I must forgetting some — often fielding accusations from my children of being “always stuck to my phone”. My technology use is mostly family-related, serving their needs more than mine but appearances don’t lie: I use my phone a lot. I also remember how lonely, isolated and depressed I was before being able to connect to friends via social media. The podcast didn’t make any earth-shattering revelations for anyone who is aware that young children need their parents to be emotionally engaged. Whether you are distracted by your work, your book, your latest fling or the money you just don’t have, the question is not whether being tethered to your phone is harmful but whether it is harmful in different or more severe ways than everything else going on in your life. The study discussed in the podcast points to a shrinking attention span for children when their parents’ attention wanders.
Where the podcast rubbed my buttons the wrong way was with this quote:
“I see parents mindlessly pushing their kid on a swing while looking at their phone”
To be fair, the message was not that it is wrong to check your phone at the park but that your device should not prevent you from engaging in the normal activities of parenting such as the park. The image of the parent revelling in every ounce of childhood is one that won’t die. Once you are done cooking, cleaning, shopping, organizing, cuddling, control-towering, time-managing, refereeing and driving, you should also make a public display of gleeful cheer-leading while your children ask you for the 12 millionth time to look at them climb the slide backward for the 20 millionth time. I’m sorry but no. There is a surface covered in expensive, obsessively safe, kinetically-correct, expert-approved, City-stamped, edible, equipment right here. It has been designed to foster cooperative play with other children who are, conveniently, here at the same time you are, doing exactly the same thing you are. I gave you a bunch of siblings and believe me, it’s not because I like hospital food. So don’t mind me while I sit my ass down on this bench right here and check my phone while you have fun.
I wrote the first part of this debrief about 6 weeks after my miscarriage last September. Now that my due date has come and gone, I find myself dealing with a new range of emotions as I move past the shock of the miscarriage itself and into the realization of the broader ramifications of recovering from a significant health crisis.
I started showing signs of peri-menopause after the twins were born when I was 37. Low progesterone, erratic cycles, just the usual. When my husband and I decided to have another child in 2015, we knew that I was walking into a growing chance of miscarriage. I had never miscarried before but I knew enough women who had been through this ordeal not to expect to be spared forever. Through the years, pregnancy after pregnancy, I had always been acutely aware of my luck and of the increasing likelihood that it would eventually run out.
We conceived in May of 2015. I took a pregnancy test as soon as my periods were late and it came back negative. As my periods got later and later and pregnancy tests kept showing a negative result, I knew that this pregnancy was probably precarious. I took a third test, this one positive and my periods started the next day. It was a non-event. We celebrated the tiny flicker of life that had dwelled in me privately, without informing our children or our families. We were thankful that we had “tried” for this one. That we had known from day 1 that it was a possibility. The next cycle, I got pregnant again. This time, a strong positive test informed us of the existence of our baby number 10. We told our families right away and started informing friends and acquaintances as we saw them in person. It was an ideal pregnancy. For once I didn’t have any nausea. I started wearing maternity clothes in August and I met with my new midwife in early September. When I met my midwife, she offered to listen to the baby’s heartbeat adding: “I don’t like searching for a heartbeat at 10 weeks because we often don’t hear it and it really makes parents nervous.” I assured her that I knew what was in the realm of possibilities and we searched, in vain, for a heartbeat. I kept a brave face because I knew that 10 weeks was too early but in previous pregnancies I had always been able to hear a heartbeat at my first appointment. In other words, “normal” wasn’t normal for me.
The next day, I started seeing some spotting. “Bleeding is not normal but it’s common” my midwife told me, “you don’t need to do anything unless the bleeding becomes a concern.” And so I waited. I relied on the encouraging words of friends who had gone through episodes of bleeding and visualized myself at an ultrasound being showed a healthy beating heart and a pesky hematoma.
Two days shy of completing my 12th week of pregnancy, I was in the basement with my husband sorting through all the newborn clothes when I started bleeding heavily. I was not feeling any cramping or contractions, it was like my body was trying to flush the fetus by opening the faucet. I headed for the hospital wearing three menstrual pads and sitting on a towel.
I soaked through everything during the 20-minute drive to the hospital. I immediately went to the bathroom as I felt a giant blood clot coming through. It was so big that it fell in the toilet with a splash and splattered blood all over the walls and the floor. I called the nurse for help and she casually walked-in, flushed the toilet and helped me back to my gurney. Was it my fetus? I will never know. A few hours later when the gynecologist was able to remove the retained tissue causing the hemorrhage there was only parts of a tiny placenta, a tiny cord and a tiny, ripped-up, sac left. I told my husband to take pictures of whatever came out. That’s all I have, along with my unshakable belief in my fetus’ unique, eternal soul.
I eventually passed out from the blood loss a few minutes after joking: “I can bleed like this for *days* with no side effect!!” — loosely quoting Meet the Robinsons because what else are you going to do while everyone is watching you miscarry but quote Disney movies? I fought it hard until a nurse told me: “You’re in a hospital, we’re here, you’re lying down, you can go.” Suddenly, there was no more pain and no more worry. I was completely comfortable even as I felt and heard people rushing around me, insert an IV into each of my arm and push a bolus of saltwater into my body. I knew that there was nothing I could do but pray and let people do their work. I remembered a friend who was in labor and thought that I could offer-up my loss for her son’s healthy birth. So I prayed and I floated. There was nothing else I could do but rest in the arms of God and trust. I still remember the supernatural calm and clarity of the time I spent “under” with a smile.
I’m telling you all this because before my miscarriage I thought that I would handle miscarriage with sadness but also an understanding that pregnancy loss was an integral part of the experience of motherhood. When I lost the first pregnancy in May, I knew that my low progesterone would make it difficult to carry a pregnancy past the first few weeks and I thought that I would keep trying. Now, I must come to terms with the fact that even trying to conceive in the current circumstances would be unhealthy. Walking into repeated miscarriages is more than an exercise in accepting God’s will, as I have read in some forums, it’s a gamble with your health. A miscarriage can be as straightforward as a heavy period or it may cause a hemorrhage, require surgery, a blood transfusion or even a hysterectomy. We simply don’t know how and when our bodies will pull the plug on a pregnancy and this has been, for me, a very painful realization. Can I sacrifice my health — a health that is not only my own but that of the family who depends on me — to have the child that I so painfully desire?
Lately, I have been struggling with the notion of sacrificial love. The Catholic Church — to which I belong — is all about sacrificial love. In the Catholic Church, nothing should be held back from God. Our lives are not our own. We know that Heaven is opened to those who are “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” This self-sacrificing perfection is acquired in this world or in the next through purgatory — but it must be acquired before we can rise to eternal life. Saints’ stories are rife with men and women who have sacrificed their health and even their lives in the pursuit of holiness. But it is equally rife with stories of ordinary people seeking holiness through quiet, ordinary lives, in their work, their families and their communities. Is the desire for another child a sign that I am called to offer-up my health in the pursuit of self-sacrificial love? Or, if we believe as the Evangelist Matthew tells us, that where our treasure is, there our heart is also, is the desire for another child the earthly attachment that needs to be offered-up, sacrificed?
This is the discernment that has been gripping my heart and my soul since the due date that wasn’t. While I was still supposed to be pregnant, I was struggling with the loss of what should have been. But when the friends and acquaintances who were due at the same time I was started welcoming their babies earthside, the bellies lost their anonymity and their babies were obviously not mine. I shed the feeling of present loss like a snakeskin and moved into foreboding, a realization that the future would look very different from what I thought it would be. In discerning whether I am called to sacrifice my health or my desire for another child, this fear is telling. Fear is never from God. When I start comparing myself to others and feeling like I “only” have 9 children, when I start feeling inadequate because I didn’t have a certain number of children, when the desire for another child overshadows my gratitude for my existing 9 amazing children, when I start feeling less, when I see a mother of 10, 11, 12 as more worthy than I am, I know that I am idolizing a larger family, that I am beholding a golden calf. Sacrifices should not be easy. When getting pregnant despite the health implications appears easier than accepting the end of my reproductive years as it is, I know where I need to direct my spiritual gaze.
And thus I will give until it hurts, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, as I know that it will be returned to me in eternity where I will finally meet the children I never had.