Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 146: Inspiration Strikes

Know what’s weird? Kids change their minds about things in the blink of an eye. One week they’re eating two pounds of strawberries a day and I can’t buy enough to keep up; the next, nobody likes strawberries and we have six pounds of them growing mould in our fridge. While Mr. December is often right when he says that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, that seems to be untrue when it comes to our kids. They surprise us all the time.

Ever since the great dreadlock de-tangling of 2020 a couple of weeks ago, R has been a bit better about agreeing to have her hair brushed daily. But a few days ago she shocked the heck out of me by asking for “Laura Ingalls hair.” Then E, who wants to do everything R does, piped up that she wanted “Laura hair” too.

R’s been reading the Little House series, you see, and is fascinated with all things Laura. She tells us all about the intricacies of pioneer life: about how they built a door with no nails, how a sod house was built, and (obviously) how Laura and Mary wore their hair (in braids, Laura’s always tied with pink ribbons, and Mary’s with blue.)

Even though I don’t generally force or coerce my kids to brush their hair, I’m happy to do it for them when they ask me. I let them watch something on my phone while I work, which gives me time to do it neatly and gives them a distraction from the pain of having their knots brushed out. They watching Netflix happily while I watch their hair go from a messy tangle to long, smooth, shimmering spun gold.

It’s probably something evolutionary that makes grooming my kids so satisfying (I draw the line at eating stuff that I find in their hair, though.) It’s also a very sweet and tender moment — when they’re not screaming, “Ow! Too hard!” As they get bigger and more independent, and I increasingly respond to their requests with some variation of “Do it yourself,” braiding their hair is something I can do for them, sitting right up close and caressing their hair while I brush and then braid. Maybe that’s why they like it too.

(Who am I kidding? They’re mostly in it for the screen time.)

Whatever the reason, I’m relieved that the dreadlock days are over — for now — and I get to enjoy admiring not one, but two little girls with golden braids.

family fun · Jewy goodness · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 145: Spaceballs: The Blog Post

Spaceballs is a good one for family movie night,” Mr. December told me. What did I know? I’d never seen it before, but I knew it starred people like Rick Moranis and John Candy, who I really only knew from family-friendly movies. I deferred to his judgment, and the decision was made. Unfortunately.

Readers, I’m sorry to tell you that Mel Brooks is not aging well. His movies, I mean — he looked hale and hearty last time I saw him on YouTube. But some of the moments in Spaceballs are truly awful: sexist and racist jokes that wouldn’t have passed muster ten years ago, along with all the “Druish princess” gags that reinforce pretty much every Jewish stereotype. While those stereotypes show up in plenty of self-deprecating Jewish jokes, they’re not jokes I would tell in mixed company. There are enough antisemitic tropes flying around these days — no need to add to them ourselves. Every time another “Druish” joke came up, I felt icky.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that my kids didn’t get any of those jokes — but I was. It seems we only see the progress we’ve made if we remember to look behind us. Some of the jokes were so passé that the kids didn’t even realize what they were hearing. When “Dark Helmet” ordered the surgeon to restore the princess’s old nose, Mr. December and I howled with laughter. The kids didn’t get it at all, and I found myself feeling thankful that they’re growing up in a world where people seem to be less and less interested in erasing their “ethnic” features. Maybe not the whole outside world, mind you, but certainly the sphere in which I’m raising my kids.

The Producers aside, I’m putting a moratorium on screening Mel Brooks films in this house unless they’re accompanied by a history lesson explaining why it was funny then, but isn’t anymore. Which is a shame, because I generally like Mel Brooks. His movies, though, are a product of the times in which they were made — times that I don’t remember as being filled with prejudice and misogyny, but apparently were.

(Just so you know, it took me fifteen tries before I spelled misogyny correctly. #notawomensstudiesmajor)

The good news is that apparently we’ve made significant progress. Next time someone tells me that our society is going to hell in a handbasket, I’ll tell them to go watch some old Mel Brooks movies. Those films have not aged well, but at least they make us look pretty darn enlightened.

birthing babies · Good Grief · waxing philosophical

Day 140: I Thought I’d Be Sad

I thought I’d be sad when I finally weaned my last baby. I loved breastfeeding them and couldn’t imagine every wanting to stop. But one day I realized that whenever E was ready to stop, that would be fine with me. I thought I’d be sad, but I wasn’t. Nor was I happy. I just was. E was weaned, and it was okay.

I thought I’d be sad about not having a baby in the house anymore. I love babies — the baby years are my forte when it comes to parenting. We had nine straight years of diapers, sleepless nights, babywearing, and peek-a-boo. I thought I’d be sad, but I wasn’t. Our family was ready for new experiences, for being able to go places without a huge stroller or a diaper bag, for having toys with tiny little choking-hazard parts strewn around the house, and it was okay.

I thought I’d be sad when I couldn’t lift my kids up in my arms and carry them around anymore. But they got heavy and my arms got tired, and I found that I enjoyed walking hand-in-hand with them or watching them go on ahead, strong and independent. It was okay.

From the moment our first child was born, we heard this message from all sides: “Enjoy it while it lasts!” “I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.” “One day you’ll miss these times!” Everyone implied that as we moved on from the baby phase we’d be bereft. It was as though we were supposed to mourn our babies growing up. And indeed, I cried when our oldest outgrew her newborn-sized diapers at four weeks old.

Many years ago I was talking to a friend about how I felt after my miscarriage. I described having this awful empty feeling in my belly where the baby should have still been. “But Sara,” she asked me, “did you have that same feeling when your belly was empty after giving birth to a living baby?”

Did I? Probably, but the emptiness in my abdomen was nothing compared to the fullness in my arms and my heart. It was a transition, not a loss, and it was okay.

It’s probably in my nature to feel thankful and content with what I have now. Do I miss high school? High school was a phenomenal experience that I’ll never replicate, but I love this time in my life, building a home and raising my kids. Do I miss the newlywed days when Mr. December and I lived downtown and could just decide, at the last minute, to walk across the street for dinner and a movie on a random weeknight? A little. But If we had that, we couldn’t have this. Life changes; the world changes; people change.

My favourite neighbour, Olga (may her memory be a blessing), often said that things would happen “in the fullness of time.” I love that notion. I think that when things change before their time — when someone dies suddenly or too young, when a pregnancy ends in anything other than a live birth, when anything in life gets snatched away without something else arriving in its place — that’s when shock, pain, and grief set in. But in my life, there’s usually a bit of serenity and grace around big changes. I’ve been able to let go of what’s over and embrace what’s coming.

And you know what? It’s been okay.

blogging · education · family fun · Jewy goodness · Kids · parenting · The COVID files · waxing philosophical

Day 136: The Destroyer

When K was born and I announced her name to our parents and brothers, Mr. December’s brother piped up: “Oh, you mean like the Hindu goddess of destruction?”

“What? No!” I said, and shrugged it off. He says a lot of weird things.

A month later, I couldn’t shrug it off anymore. Apparently Mr. December’s friends were all familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon that they recognized K’s name. Then again, maybe they’d just seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a few too many times.

K has lived up to her (unintentional) namesake at various points in her life. There was the time she dumped the canister of flour on the kitchen floor and then crawled through it; the time she clawed her natural latex mattress to shreds while its cover was in the wash; and her treatment of pretty much every duotang she’s ever put in her school bag.

But this summer’s destruction has really taken the cake. K has killed our swingset — twice. And just yesterday, after I’d fixed the swingset for the second time, she broke the attached slide by (can you guess?) swinging too hard.

This shouldn’t surprise me. The swingset is almost as old as K and is probably at the end of its life. K is what folks call a “sensory-seeking kid” — she needs really intense sensory input to calm and organize her system. Things that would make me dizzy — spinning super fast in an office chair, doing 100 back drops in a row on the trampoline — help her to calm down.

A Hindu friend pointed out that K is not just a goddess of destruction; rather, she destroys things in order to make space for something new. If that’s the case, our K is doing a great job — we need a new slide and probably a new swingset. Maybe if it’s broken beyond repair we’ll finally get around to building a new one.

Today was Tisha B’av, a fast day on the Jewish calendar. It’s a day of collective mourning, in memory of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (temple) where Jews from all over came on holy days to pray and make sacrifices. When the temple was destroyed, Jewish life as it was known ceased to exist. Without a temple, there were no sacrifices. The Jewish people were exiled. The priests could no longer perform their duties. Everything was ruined.

In the wake of that destruction the Jews had to forge new ways to worship and to remain connected to each other and to their ancestral home. They initiated weekly Torah readings so that the populace would hear the entire Torah read each year; clarified, discussed, and codified Jewish Law; and developed a new form of prayer to stand in for the sacrifices that could no longer be offered.

Most years on Tisha B’av I wonder whether I really am mourning the destruction of the temple. Would I prefer that we were still sacrificing bulls on the temple mount in Jerusalem and relying on a dynastic family of priests to facilitate our relationship with God?

No. I love this Judaism, the one that was built after the destruction of the temple. I love the way we grapple with our holy texts and the way the home is a mikdash me’at (a small temple), the true centre of Jewish life. I love that what distinguishes our leaders is learning, not lineage. I can see so clearly that the Jews of temple times would never have voluntarily destroyed the Beit Hamikdash, but without the destruction, would we ever have dared to eliminate animal sacrifice and adopt a more democratic model of religious leadership?

I doubt it. I couldn’t even pull the trigger on a lifestyle that we lived only because it was the way everyone was living; the children spent all day at school and returned home tired and cranky; Mr. December was at the office all day and got maybe an hour and a half of time with the kids before bedtime; the children had different extracurricular activities at different times in different places, and I was their chauffeur (last year I made six trips every Tuesday evening.)

It’s true that I flirted with the idea of homeschooling, of doing less, of biking more and living a more local lifestyle. But I don’t think I would ever have been able to make that move if COVID hadn’t come along and demolished the existing structure of our lives. Suddenly, Mr. December is working from home and gets to see the kids frequently throughout the day. Extracurriculars might as well not exist for my kids, who don’t like doing things like dance class online. We have all day to be together. Just yesterday I realized that I’m getting to spend some alone time with each child every day. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do that on weekdays before.

Our swingset is ruined — we’ll likely build a new one that can withstand K’s vigorous swinging, and maybe even includes monkey bars or a ninja line. The temple was destroyed — but we have a beautiful religion and culture based on learning, faith, and the pursuit of justice, with the Jewish home at its centre. Our pre-COVID life has been disrupted — and now we have the incredible opportunity to build a better one.

bikes planes and automobiles · education · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 135: Learning

E is learning to ride a bike.

You’d think that since E is my fourth child, I might remember how to teach this skill. You’d be wrong. It appears that teaching bike skills is like potty training: so exhausting and frustrating that my brain has erased all memory of the last time I did it.

This time I was armed with a new gadget: a “Balance Buddy”, which is a real back-saver. Instead of holding onto the underside of the bike seat and one handlebar, I just hold a nice, tall handle and walk behind the bike as E pedals.

Her determination to master biking reminds me of how she learned to walk. Every time she falls, she says, “I’m gonna do this!” and tries again. I’d love to say that it’s a beautiful example of self-motivated learning, but I’d be lying. The truth is that she gets a chocolate chip every time she tries to lift her feet off the ground, every time she falls, and everytime she gets back up. She had her first epic wipeout about an hour ago, which got her a scraped knee and four chocolate chips.

When she hit the pavement I ran to her. “Hooray!” I said. “Your first wipeout! Awesome!” She stopped crying, stared at me, and brightened considerably when I told her that a scraped knee was worth an extra two chocolate chips. After that she was back up and bolder than before, yelling at me to let go.

It makes me wonder how schools might be different if we rewarded failing and trying again, instead of just lauding the successful attempts. How much more creativity would we see? What if failure was seen as learning, and the only negative outcome was if you stopped trying?

community · education · family fun · gardening · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 127: Orchard Schooling

It began with a Facebook post: “Does anybody have any leftover white latex paint?”

I did, of course. When we were building the house we tried what seemed like hundreds of different whites before settling on Chantilly Lace. For the last two years their sample-sized pots have been lined up like soldiers awaiting deployment. I couldn’t throw them out — surely they’d come in handy one day, I thought.

“One day” was today.

The Facebook post was from the woman who runs the stewardship group at our local community orchard. Throughout the year a group of volunteers takes care of the fruit trees — feeding, mulching, watering, and doing anything else they can to ensure a successful harvest. The white paint would be diluted and painted onto the trees’ trunks to protect them from insects, animals, and the sun. I immediately offered them my paint and then volunteered my children (and myself) to do the painting.

K has had a lot of difficult, unproductive days in the last week. It’s not that she’s unmotivated; on the contrary, the fact that she can’t get herself to sit down and do her work is very upsetting to her. I’m not sure what’s wrong or how to fix it in the short term. In the long term, I think some executive function coaching might be in order.

This morning, though, K was at her best. She mowed the lawn before breakfast. When we arrived at the orchard she sprang into action, first mixing the paint with water, then moving from one fruit tree to the next to coat their trunks with white paint. She worked without a break for an hour and a half. In that time I heard no complaints or yelling. She asked questions about what we were doing and why, and really listened to the answers. In short, she was a model volunteer.

R and E painted a tree each, and then a pet tortoise arrived at the park with its owner (a friend of the stewardship coordinator) in tow. I didn’t get much more work out of them after that, but they spent an hour learning about tortoises.

Our time in the orchard reinforced so many of my beliefs about homeschooling. The biggest one is that school focuses on such a narrow band of disciplines and skills that K doesn’t get to exercise her strengths very often. This morning she had to observe the trees closely (to see if there was any seeping sap or other indicators of disease); communicate problems and questions; listen attentively; and do a thorough job of the task she was assigned. Moreover, the work she was doing had a clear purpose and utility, and it was appreciated by other people.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Purposeful, real work with others in the community can turn a frustrated, sometimes combative kid into a cooperative and industrious one. School doesn’t allow enough time for that sort of thing (heck, they don’t even trust the kids to retrieve their own coats.) Homeschooling, on the other hand, is chock full of opportunities for children to discover their strengths and use them to become valued members of the community.

better homes than yours · education · family fun · Just the two of us · Keepin' it real · love and marriage · The COVID files · waxing philosophical

Day 122: What Have We done?

Three years ago Mr. December and I signed a contract with a builder to completely gut, renovate, and add on to our home. We had done all the due diligence: checked references, compared pricing and contract types, and planned for several years. Still, after we had signed the contract and drunk a toast (the architect brought champagne), everyone went home and I felt a sinking sensation in my chest. I turned to Mr. December and asked,

“What have we done?”

Sixteen years ago, the night before our wedding, I was suddenly anxious. Holy cow, I thought, this is big. This is for life. Am I ready for this? After dating for eight years I was more than ready, but that evening I was very, very nervous.

After a fabulous wedding and honeymoon we came back home to his our apartment. I moved my stuff in. We went to IKEA, came home, and assembled everything together. It was exactly what I had wanted. But one afternoon I just had a hollow feeling in my chest, and I started to cry.

What have I done? I asked myself.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. December asked.

“I just… I just realized that I miss my mom,” I sobbed. “I miss being in my parents’ house. Playing house here is nice, but I don’t think I’m ready for this. I wanna go home!”

Mr. December, bless his unflappable soul, just hugged me and said, “So spend tomorrow at your parents’ house.”

I did; Then I came home to our apartment and everything felt fine.

This morning we booked a cottage rental for the whole month of September. We’ve adopted a system for large transactions: one of us does the research and makes the arrangements, and the other presses the final “confirm” button to make it happen. It’s a way to take shared responsibility for the outcome (and shared blame in case things don’t go well.) I’m generally the planner; This time I spent at least a month combing through possible cottages, creating spreadsheets and rubrics to weigh their pros and cons. Mr. December and I huddled together at my desk to decide between the two finalists.

“You know,” he pointed out, “Committing to this is basically a commitment to homeschool the kids. It makes no sense to go away for all of September if we want them in school. Are you okay with that?” I thought for a moment, then nodded resolutely.

“Okay,” he said. “Here goes.” He clicked “reserve”… and that was it. Transaction approved, reservations confirmed. Mr. December went back downstairs to get some work done and as I sat at my computer, staring at the screen, I felt the anxiety settle in my chest.

What have we done?

Later I confessed to Mr. December, “I feel like we made the wrong choice. I’ve been feeling anxious ever since we booked the cottage.”

“Me too,” he admitted. “It’s a normal reaction to making a big decision.”

He’s right: it is. So right now I’m listening to my inner voice as it freaks out and tells me that I’ll never have a day alone in a quiet house again; I’m doomed to spend the next year fighting with my kids over things like punctuation; and we’ve clearly done the wrong thing. I’m listening to that voice, and I’m taking a deep breath and thinking, It’s okay. It’s normal to feel this way. We’ll take it as it comes. We’ve planned for this. We’ll be okay.

So that’s it. We’re embarking on a new adventure. We’re homeschooling (and Mr. December is working remotely,) which means we can be pretty much anywhere (COVID permitting): the cottage, Barbados, Israel… anywhere. This feels huge. Epic. Amazing.

Good Lord, what have we done?

community · education · Keepin' it real · Kids · mental health · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 111: Boundaries

Well, I just got read the riot act by a friend of mine. I was lamenting how difficult it was for me to say “no” to things like playdates; she pointed out that I don’t owe anybody a reason for not wanting to make plans. “No” is, apparently, a sufficient answer.

Mind. Blown.

I grew up with the notion that when you’re invited to do something, you say yes unless there’s a direct conflict. And when you have to say no, you explain why you can’t do it so the other person doesn’t feel bad. Mr. December was the first person I knew who would actually say, upon being invited to something, “No.” And when asked why not: “I don’t want to.”

That was news to me. I could just skip events because I didn’t want to go? Wow.

So back to my friend and her words of wisdom. She said, “Sara, you and I are forty years old. We are too old to be letting people deplete our energy when they’re not even particularly close to us!” Well, when she put it that way, it sounded absurd. Why on earth would I say “yes” to something for someone I rarely (if ever) see or speak to, and then be too tired to read my kids a book at bedtime? How messed up is that? And how messed up is it that I couldn’t really see that for thirty-nine years of my life?

As Ontario gradually opens back up and people are allowed to gather in small groups again, I’ve felt my anxiety level rising. I’ve been very happy in this little cocoon, with my closest family, on our own schedule. Saying “no” to other people is always a bit stressful for me, as if I feel responsible for their feelings if I say no to whatever they’re asking me to do. I’ve found myself wishing more often than not that I could just live this life for a few more years.

The truth is that I should be able to craft the life I want for me and my kids. Mr. December and I had a conversation on Friday (standing in the freezing waters of Lake Ontario) about how we’d like to do something brave or outrageously different, like homeschooling for the year and travelling with the kids. Or something far simpler, like putting a six-month moratorium on evening or weekend extracurricular activities, in order to preserve time for a work period in the morning and family time in the evenings.

Sometimes fear creeps in: If our kids take a year off extracurriculars (dance, choir, etc) will they be very behind most kids their age when they go back? Will they be missing out on gaining skills and mastery in those areas?

Maybe. But maybe they’ll be just where they need to be — at home with us, playing outdoors with their best buddies, spending time with their grandparents, and learning the importance of family, community, and being able to set your own boundaries.

Just the two of us · Keepin' it real · love and marriage · waxing philosophical

Day 96: How could I have known?

Today is our sixteenth wedding anniversary, although I’ve known Mr. December for 25 years and we’ve been a couple for 23 of those. This was us perhaps two years into our relationship.

I’ve always known we would get married. I don’t know how I knew; let’s call it a flash of intuition. There was no way I could have known, the first time I saw him, that he was my other half.

Where I’m a writer, he’s fluent in math and numbers. I’m spontaneous; he’s a planner. I’m creative and handy, and he’s analytical. Even though we were both music majors in high school, our musical skills were complete opposites. He could sightread music very, very well but struggled when it came to ear training; I learned music very quickly by ear and aced every ear-training or dictation test, but had to work very hard at sightreading.

With our children, I excelled with babies and toddlers (which he decisively did not,) but with school-age kids he was (and is) a superstar. I fill our home with creativity and beauty while he creates structure. I love highway driving; he dislikes driving in general.

When we built our house, I did the creative design and chose finishing materials while Mr. December was delving into the technical specs of different kinds of insulation and cladding. We often played good cop/bad cop. Sometimes we still do.

More than once or twice, complete strangers have told us that we’re obviously a good team.

When we fight it’s doubly painful: not only am I fighting with my husband, but I can’t talk it over with my closest confidant, because he’s both of those things. We’ve weathered grief and frustration and illness together, and we’ve been blessed with tremendous sources of joy and comfort. We are tremendously fortunate and privileged.

It’s a bit of a running joke that I was certain of our future together long before he even asked me out. I once told him, “[girlfriend at the time] isn’t good for you. You deserve better — you deserve me.”

He looked at me regretfully and said, “But I love [girlfriend] and she’s the one I’m going to marry.”

“Over my dead body,” I muttered resolutely.

Eight years after that conversation, as we walked back up the aisle after the Chuppah (the Jewish wedding ceremony,) I looked at Mr. December, kissed him, and said, “I told you so.”

I still don’t understand how I could have known, but am I ever glad I did.

Happy Anniversary, my love!

better homes than yours · blogging · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 94: Failure is important. Failure in public, even more so.

A few weeks ago, a friend messaged me after reading my blog and said something like, “Wow, you’re a supermom. Amazing. I can’t do any of that stuff!”

My response: “Yeah, well… I can’t hold down a full-time job. So there’s that.”

And then she asked me why I feel the need to downplay my talents.

We are living in the era of Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. Everybody posts photos of their dinner, their kids, their up-cycled furniture, and their Disney cruises (yes, P, I’m looking at you!). It’s easy to get the impression that those people’s lives are always picture-perfect and that they would never have an evening where they slammed a box of cereal down on the table while proclaiming, “Tonight’s dinner is Whatever the heck you want served with a side of Get it your own d**n self!”

There’s a meme that periodically makes the rounds: “Don’t compare your bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel,” it reminds us. A lovely sentiment, and yet we keep on comparing ourselves and feeling like our lives come up short somehow.

The thing is, we’re always going to compare ourselves to others. Some of us are more prone to it, but in the end we all do to some degree — it’s human nature. That’s why I feel the need to offer a disclaimer after people compliment something they saw on my blog. I would hate for someone to read my posts and then go away feeling that they weren’t good enough somehow. I live a charmed life for the most part, but I still have bad days, unkind thoughts, and huge gaps in my skill set. I wasn’t just deflecting when I responded to that friend; I truly am impressed by people who can work a full-time job with some measure of success and still come home and be a parent and a partner. I can’t get it together to manage that.

When I meet people and they ask me what I do, I usually tell them about my professional qualifications despite the fact that I haven’t practiced said profession in over 13 years. I used to very honestly say, “I’m a stay-at-home mom to four kids,” but that seemed to be a conversation killer, as if not pursuing a career means I’ve been lobotomized and have no interests outside of parenting. That’s my insecurity — it might not be anyone else’s. But I talk about it openly because I think it helps others to know that even people who come across publicly as “having it all together” fall apart sometimes.

In the spirit of keeping it real, I’ll tell you what tonight’s post was going to be about.

We had a lovely evening: dinner outside followed by K teaching E tricks on the trampoline. Then I announced that we would be making homemade ice cream — in a bag! We measured the ingredients and followed all the instructions. Then I froze my hands off throwing the bag of salted ice around alone (the girls thought I had said “back porch” when I thought they said “front porch” and even after fifteen minutes they didn’t think of checking the front to see if I was there.) When we finally removed the outer bag of ice and rinsed all the salt water away, the girls eagerly crowded around the sink to catch the first glimpse of our homemade strawberry ice cream. I opened the inner bag and there it was:

A strawberry milkshake.

The ice cream didn’t freeze. I don’t know why, but it was disappointingly liquid. There went my idea for a blog post about a beautiful evening with my children topped off by photogenic homemade treats. The only reason E agreed to go to bed was that I put the milkshake in the freezer and promised she could have ice cream for breakfast tomorrow.

I did take a picture for you, halfway through the process. I think it captures the mood quite nicely.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for… milkshake?