In this podcast, I share my thoughts on my failed Kickstarter campaign, my writing workshop in New-York City, meeting Seth Godin and not expecting my creative work to pay-off. You can find the podcast show notes and links to stuff I talk about in the podcast show notes by clicking on the earphones.
Today marks the launch of my long-awaited website Fearless Family Life.The vagaries of life in a large family tend to stretch every possible timeline beyond recognition but I also suffered from an uncomfortable want of knowing where to take this train.
Over the last year, I have had countless opportunities to reflect on the direction I wanted to move in. At first, I did what most business-minded writers would do and looked at popular parenting blogs. Parenting seems to be as divided as politics, from the more liberal “it’s ok to suck, you have it so hard” to the more conservative “parenting is a war to be won”. In between lies the world of listicles: 10 reasons why your toddler is a jerk and Why good moms start drinking before 9. As an educated woman with both a love for my children and a struggle to be the best person I can be, I found these messages confusing and wholly uninspiring.
The truth is that parenting is hard but we are all stronger than we think. Whether we started our journey from a position of strength or a position of weakness, whatever our challenges are, we can always push ourselves a little farther. Strength builds in increments: fearless family life is about taking the next step on our parenting journey, from wherever we currently are.
In family life, our fears are too often born of our own judgment. We love to read about overcoming mommy-guilt but women are crumbling under the weight of their own expectations. Being fearless is refusing to be guided by our fear of inadequacy. It’s about challenging ourselves without judgment.
Fearless Family Life is my gift of encouragement to you. It’s here to tell you that you can do this. It’s here to share the most important lesson I learned in 20 years of family life: that you love your children better than anyone. Fearless Family Life is about allowing yourself to be guided by love rather than fear, by hope rather than shame. It’s about stepping into the world of possibilities and looking up to where you are going instead of down and around on everyone else’s journey.
Imagine that you and your family are in a boat. You can work together to get somewhere or you can work against each other and sink. Whatever you decide, you’re in this together.
In the pantry, a jar sits on a shelve, lonely and unused. Its bright red colour livens the mess of spices and aromatics standing at attention in a practical array. Bird’s Eye chili peppers, dried to a dusty crisp, artifacts of a summer’s past.
We had planned a large garden, tilled long and narrow mounds on which we planted gourds, lettuces and root vegetables, our knowledge of gardening inversely proportional to our enthusiasm. Seeds of hot peppers thrown on the edge of a row of romaine lettuce testified to our inexperience. They should have been sprouted indoors while the deep brown earth laid dormant under a crust of snow and ice.
Shortly after laying our cornucopia underground, we had seen our own little buds sprouting deep inside the warm comfort of the womb. Twins. Bed rest. Our garden was left to fend for itself as we fought the forces of chaos on the home front. Within a few weeks in July weeds choked everything but the sturdiest squashes, potatoes, and zucchinis. “No wonder that’s what the pioneers ate,” I thought as I laid hatching. The spring rains gorged the edible plants as well as the weeds, the summer sun ripened them. The children picked what could be salvaged and eaten raw and the twin buds rested and grew. Summer lingered into September, then exceptionally into October and the weeds got more luscious. The twin buds matured and bloomed and I was released to the garden just in time to harvest a late crop of red hot chili peppers before fall threw its blanket of frost, smothering weeds and herbs alike. I strung the peppers on a thread with a sewing needle and hung them to dry in a south-facing window, letting the summer rain evaporate from the taunt red flesh.
Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, the sequence of a year. The peppers adorned our window for a year, long dried but too hot to complement our family’s dishes. Some were rehydrated with boiling water, cooked with oil and garlic and made into chili garlic sauce following Margaret’s authentic Malaysian recipe. We used it by the drop, careful not to breathe deeply while the jar was open.
The house and the garden wrapped their weight around our necks like a boat anchor, dragging our family into a wake of debt and fear. When we decided to sell our house to pay off all our debts the peppers were duly packed into a glass jar, wrapped in packing paper, and moved to our new landing, a relic of the dreams we left behind as we looked up and ahead. The peppers remained untouched as we welcomed our ninth child and moved again when we made our home in the highlands.
Here they live, a vibrant reminder of a summer past when we learned the wisdom of letting things grow as they must.
Hey! Thank you so much to those of you who are still reading these posts and watching the clips while I work on re-launching my blog. We’re making some progress, with lots of ideas and little time to implement them. But we’re moving forward, which is always better than the opposite.
Last week’s post was all about our favorite Thanksgiving Recipes and this week’s post will not be too much different: we literally ate leftovers all week. Instead of showing you the warmed-over version of what I cooked, I’m giving you the pictures from the day it was served. It looks a lot better that way.
I am still blown-away by how generous people were to our family after my miscarriage a month ago. I’m emphasising it because we’ve had meals prepared for our family for a month now and… How can I say this… It’s been eye-opening and humbling. I have never brought a meal to someone who has miscarried. I remember once dropping something off at the house of an acquaintance who had recently miscarried. It was on recycling day and her curb was covered,I mean covered, with empty pizza boxes. It was as if my family had kept all the pizza boxes for two years in the garage and suddenly put them out to the curb. I remember thinking (yes, I am that aweful of a person) “Really?” It just seemed so extreme to me. In the back of my head, the thought that maybe someone was taking advantage of the situation might have reared it’s ugly head. Now I can tell you: yes, really. A dear friend who sent us a gift card for M&M wrote in her card to expect a complicated miscarriage to have the same footprint as a full term pregnancy. I’m starting to believe it. Long story to say: people have been feeding us, people are absolutely amazing, it is as appreciated as it is needed.
Thanksgiving has marked the end of my post-traumatic love fest with comfort foods. Now is the time to get serious with health and wellness, starting with cleaning-up my eating. My eating is pretty clean already and I am researching to what extent claims that gluten and dairy can worsten a thyroid condition may be trusted. Separting the wheat (ha!) from the pseudo-science is an extreme sport, let me tell you. I’d love to read your experiences with food elimination and if you were successful in turning-off the little voice in your head telling you that there is no medical basis to gluten sensitivity. I’m so eager to feel good again and I’ve received such confusing and inappropriate care from my doctor that I feel like any twerp on Facebook with a made-up degree could sign me up for a kool-aid retreat if it promised results.
I made Artisan Bread. I’m not very good at it, especially at getting the crust just right. I love how the kids all made turkey sandwiches right off the bat. As they say, leftovers are the best part.
For veggies we had lettuce, cranberry apple orange sauce and boozy squash. Oh and sinful Brussel Sprouts, with cheese, bacon and onions. My husband made mashed potatoes and we researched on Google why mashed potatoes get gluey. Answer: overcooked and overworked. Turns out potatoes are fragile little things. You need to gently coax the starch out lest it comes out galloping and turn your mash to glue.
Once we were all turkeyed out, we went for a walk. You know the nice thing about being completely wiped-out-of-shape? You can take a 4km slow walk and you’ll feel like you just run 12km.
Isn’t my country road absolutely stunning?
I’m not back to my normal level of cooking and photographing yet so this week I thought I would bore you with my high tech meal planning tool and how I use it.
First, a few ground rules.
- I do not shop specials. We live in the country and the mileage involved in shopping specials makes it moot. My time is valuable.
- I buy all my meat from Costco. Costco’s regular prices usually match grocery store’s sale prices. Someday I will buy ethically produced, grass fed, local meat. I just don’t have the enough cycles to submit to the waiting-lists-suddenly-buy-a-whole-hog game. Someday.
- My husband does the Costco. He always buys the same things and I figured out how to use them. It’s a modern version of the hunter/gatherer gig: he brings home the mammoth and I cook it. We buy meat, dairy, eggs and bread at Costco, among other things.
- I do the produce and grocery runs two or three times a week.
- I’m not sharing how much we pay in groceries every month because (a) it’s obscene, and (b) it increases every week these days.
My meal planning tool is called a clipboard. By that, I mean an actual board with a clip on top where I can affix paper and tuck a writing implement. On the piece of paper, I write the days of the week and I leave room for notes. Notes are usually events or activities that have an incidence on meal preparation. For instance, if we are going to a party or if I need to have supper ready earlier than usual or if I am coming home from an afternoon activity later than 3pm, etc. (because if dinner hasn’t started by 3:00, it’s not happening.) On the right hand side is a grocery list column, to write…. The grocery list! I know: high tech doesn’t even begin to describe it.
(If you think that Excel would do all this for me, (a) you are probably right, (b) you have never seen me use Excel, it’s stand-up comedy; and (c) some teenager stole my mouse and I’m using the track pad on my lap top 100% of the time. Using Excel with a track pad is prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under “cruel and unusual punishment.” I don’t get paid enough for that shtuff.)
Once my little spreadsheet is written, I take the clipboard with me for a walk. We have a pantry and two freezers, both of which contain things I can’t remember. I make a menu based of the mammoth parts my husband has hunted down from Costco. Then I check the grocery items I will need to accompany said pieces of meat. I write everything down on the paper with a pen. At that point, I might also ask the family for input since, you know, there is never anything good to eat here. At that point, my entire family might answer: “I don’t know. Food?” And this is how I end-up with hundreds of dollars’ worth of nothing good.
(Normally it would be written in French but I made this one just for you).
And there you have it. Large family, high tech, meal planning. The clipboard lives in my purse afterwards.
Before I let you go, I just wanted to share our Sunday meal. My friend Sue’s amazing pulled pork (which I took from the freezer) and beer bread. I had never made beer bread, I didn’t even know what it was, but I got the idea from one of Simcha Fisher’s “What’s for supper?” blog posts. Since I want to be as awesome as Simcha, I decided to give it a try. It’s seriously amazingly good, especially with pulled pork. I used this recipe: http://www.food.com/recipe/beer-bread-73440 and yes, I sifted the flour and it turned out perfectly.
What did we eat this week?
Monday was Labour Day. My husband took the children to visit family but it was David’s turn to process our family’s friendly virus. I took a pass and stayed home with the sick and the underage. We had chips and ice cream for supper. Yes we did.
Remember the Thai squash soup with coconut and shrimp I made last week? I usually buy a second bag of shrimps to add to the leftover (because there is soup leftovers but never shrimps). Then we have a second round of squash soup.
Last weekend I mentioned making Spicy Peanut Chicken (with pork) in the slow cooker. I warmed it up on Wednesday and we ate it with fresh corn. My 9 year-old son announced that he was thirsty so I asked him to go get the water jug for the family. Without missing a beat he told me, very matter-of-factly: “No, I’m just going to get water for myself.” Err, no buddy, please bring back the water jug for the family, said I. “Ok then, I’m not thirsty.” he replied. “You can still get the water jug please. Which led to him saying no, me taking away his plate until he came back with the water jug, and he stomping away to get said water. Friends, if you wonder how we can raise such self-centered children in a family of 11, imagine if we had stopped at 2! Believe me, the world is a better place because we have 9 and it’s not because we are superior human beings. Pride runs strong in that gene line.
Spaghetti sauce day. My children and I are not fond of chunks in our spaghetti sauce. I like to put all the veggies and herbs in the food processor and give them a whirl. I don’t puree them to soup level but I find that along not having chunks, it mixes-up the flavours nicely. This specimen has red bell pepper, cremini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, fresh herbs from my potted garden (basil, chive and parsley), dried oregano and sage. I saute the veggie mash in olive oil, add an entire Costco pallet of tomato sauce and 3kg of ground beef. I stir until the meat is all separated and let it simmer forever. Add salt and pepper to taste et voila. That day, I also made orange cranberry muffins and oatmeal chocolate chip muffins. Our homeschool had to be on auto-pilot and we didn’t get around to do history and science. Note to self: you can’t cook up a storm and homeschool at the same time. I use this recipe for the cranberry orange muffins. I use frozen cranberries instead of fresh and it works fine. Just a note about the streusel topping: it’s a simple mix of sugar and orange rind. I prefer to put the orange rind in the muffin batter. The streusel falls apart when freezing anyway. On a more positive note, sugar mixed-up with orange rind and left to sit on the counter for a day can be eaten with a spoon or melted over a candle and shot-up your arm, oh my goodness, someone make it stop!!
When I did a Whole 30 back in January I had to stop eating pasta. I discovered zucchini noodles and I actually prefer them now to pasta. I don’t have a veggie spiralizer so I use my veggie peeler and peel the zucchinis until I am almost peeling the tip of my fingers (sometimes I do.). Lucas enjoys chopping the leftover zucchinis with a big knife. As an aside, I used to pay a whole lot of money so my kids could do just that at a Montessori preschool. Which brings me to homeschooling preschool: stop worrying already!! If I got a dime every time a stressed out mom asks about a preschool curriculum, I could retire happy. Preschools need a curriculum because they are accountable to their clients. Preschool is just life. You need to live with your children and engage with them positively. Read to them, snuggle with them, let them help with cooking if you have the patience to do so. Take them outside and show them the dirt: here’s your preschool curriculum.
Back to the zucchini noodles… I slice an onion or two in very thin slices, smash some garlic and saute everything in olive oil with salt, pepper and dried oregano, then I cover for a while to let it steam a little. Zucchinis lose their water like nothing else so 6 zucchinis is barely enough for two adults. Unless they are the giant ones that neighbours leave on your doorstep.
My teenage daughter announced that she would make crepes for supper. I said: “Fine!” She used the recipe from Ricardo but I prefer Josee di Stasio’s recipe. I usually quadruple it — that would be 4 cups of flour and a whole dozen of eggs — add beer to the milk and keep it in the fridge in an air tight container. The kids will make crepes for breakfast, snack or lunch using the batter all week.
Et voila, this is it for this week. I’m sparing you the weekend because it ended-up in take-out pizza.
The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.
As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?
My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.
My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.
In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.
Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”
- Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
- Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
- Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
- Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
- Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
- Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
- Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.
To plan or not to plan, that is the question…
In a recent Facebook post, I asked friends to send me their homeschooling questions, as if I could answer any of them as I emerge from a very difficult first year and enter the second. I meant to write a Q&A type of post but the questions were too far ranging to fit on one page, each one deserving a full post to itself. The first question came from Jenna. She asked (edited for length):
“I always love hearing about how/when homeschoolers fit in planning….and getting a glimpse of what a typical day looks like. I am constantly battling with the idea that we need to have a structured routine, but fail to have one every single day. Sometimes I feel great about our go-with-the-flow approach, and sometimes I feel like my kids need more consistency and I should work harder at that.”
I think that personal style and what works for your family are key. For us, planning is a must. Like you, I tend to fall on the go-with-the-flow end of the spectrum but it is a complete fail with my children. In fact, nothing guarantees a bad day like not having a plan. As a result, I need to walk roughshod over my personal preference and manage to work with what works best for my children. And that’s a lesson plan, attached to a schedule. My children need to know what to expect or their brains short-circuit. On the positive side, when they have a lesson plan clearly laid-out, they work well and thoroughly.
Last year, I planned our work using Laura Berquist’s Designing you Own Classical Curriculum and Jesse Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind . While I really liked the classical approach, it required a lot of work and advanced planning on my part, especially since my children were something-less-than-enthusiastic. Their school experience had not prepared them for the type of work and inquiry that the classical curriculum demanded.
Mid-year I started using spiral bound notebooks to prepare the children’s workweek. If I had a chunk of time on Sunday I would plan the entire week day-by-day. That rarely happened so I was normally planning one day at a time, after the kids’ bedtime. When the children got up in the morning, they knew right away what they had to do and would often power through most of their school day in a few hours. Whenever we didn’t get to the end of the list, the work got reported to the next day. I never scheduled Fridays and used it as a bumper day to finish the week’s work.
Using the spiral notebooks really made things easier for everyone but I was still struggling to keep on top of the highschoolers: making sure that their work was completed properly and corrected, that areas of concern were addressed, etc. As former school students, they both had a tendency to stop working whenever they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve.
As a result, this year I registered the highschoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School. They are taking online classes in math and religion, have tutors for the other subjects (science, English, history, latin) and I teach French using these resources. The Mother of Divine Grace syllabi are very clearly (and expertly) broken down in assignments by days and by weeks. The curriculum is demanding, clocking-in at 5 to 6 hours per day for the highschoolers. In other words, it will suck back a lot of our homeschooling flexibility. But the reality is that my teens don’t know how to use their time wisely. I was hoping that homeschooling flexibility would allow them to delve into new interests and develop their talents but it hasn’t. Unless Tumblr, Netflix and Starbucks count as talents.
Another dimension of planning are your needs as a parent. As usual, a little bit of critical self-examination can go a long way. I find that there is a very predictable arc to my day depending on where my butt sits around 7:30 am. If I am on the couch with my phone, in my pajamas, having my coffee, chances are I’m still there at 10am (or more likely I got up in a panic as the twins dumped a bucket of outside gravel into the couch and I am now cleaning it up as they flush dominoes down the septic tank and Damien is drinking toilet water from the dog’s water dish. I wish I was making this up.) If I have gotten-up before the kids, stretched a bit, said my morning prayers, eaten and dressed, I’m less likely to get caught-up in the wave of chaos that represents my family. Because my brain is impervious to routines – no matter how long I stick to a routine it never becomes second nature – a plan help me remember where I’m supposed to be at a certain time and what I’m supposed to do.
Finally, one last dimension of planning is that it really clears hours off my day. I know because I’ve been operating plan-less for most of the last 9 months and the insanity of doing all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the homeschooling for a family of 11 is really catching-up with me now. A plan allows me to assign tasks to the children and keep them accountable. It’s easier to keep them doing their chores if there is a predictable list of work I can pin to their foreheads. Left to my own devise, I tend to rely heavily on the most naturally helpful children, which of course breeds resentment on one end and unrealistic expectations of being left alone at the other end. I purchased Managers of their homes in a fit of despair last year but it’s still shrink-wrapped and glaring at me. I’m scared witless of this thing but I’m afraid we’re at that point of disorganization.Many friends have also recommended Holly Pierlot A Mother’s Rule of Life but I can’t buy another book until I have read all those I ordered last year so it may have to wait until I’m in a nursing home.
My thoughts on planning, in a nutshell: If you think you need it, give it a try. If you are happy and healthy, why fix what is not broken? I would much prefer following my children’s learning cues and enquiries, if the cues weren’t always about Paw Patrol.