Full Circle.

In April, our year-long paid subscription to Reading Eggs for Matthew will be over. This week, if it weren’t for a little make-up work, Mary would be on her final project in Mechanics. The year is winding down like an old, extended tape measurer someone just let rip. I can’t believe daffodils have already sprouted with the promise of anything, anything other than winter.

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On Tuesday, Mary helped me to pack up all of the kids and the new dog to go for a run. It was nothing big, just a jog around the block – but it was. It took us twenty minutes to get everything we needed for it in order, which wasn’t expedited by Scarlett taking off her jacket and leaving a shoe by the sofa every time I did anything at all that did not involve my hands being clasped directly on her zipper. It wasn’t a big deal because I just didn’t have it in me to actually drive us all down to the park trail we used to try this at when I was a more ambitious homeschooler. But it was a big deal because managing a crew the size and general demeanor of mine while taking care of myself – if only in small ways – is a feat, and I did that shit like a boss.
It was kind of symbolic for me, the way everything went so well on our little run around the block endeavor. In the beginning of the year, trying to keep physical education a thriving part of our curriculum was a fiery disaster. Not only did she fight me every step of the way like she did with everything back then, but I was less equipped to handle her combativeness from the exhaustion of my own workout, while working with only a sliver of patience after juggling the younger two. She had gym two days a week at her old school, and I was eager and enthusiastic to keep up with that. In the end, it just wasn’t worth the battle and I chose instead to focus on her core subjects while we straightened out behavior issues that interfered with other, more elective courses.

While we missed out on important classes like phys ed and art, we did a tremendous amount of character building over long, no pressure, time wasting talks that we would have never had otherwise. It was that imperative down time which ended up making all the difference in building her trust and turning her behavior around.

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Grabbing a Shamrock Shake the day before St. Patrick’s Day, after helping her little sister make a shamrock necklace at the library.

So now that behavior is virtually a non-issue, we can finally start having a lot of that fun we missed out on before. I love working with her now. For a long time, to counter all of the criticism she threw at anything I considered fun, I kept all of our lessons bare bone dry. No frills, no fun, but no fighting. She couldn’t argue with assignments that were straight out of the text.

Now she asks for science experiments to do when all that’s required for the day’s lesson is a crossword puzzle or simple demonstration. She asks to learn about things that aren’t even part of the curriculum. Sometimes she’ll ask to do more than one project suggestion for a lesson that she comes across in her book; and the extra credit she gets for going above and beyond the minimal requirement are a total afterthought. It took a while, but eventually, the results of not forcing fun on her had an unexpected benefit.

It helped her take the initiative to make learning fun, herself. That’s a skill she can carry with her back to GRM, and a skill that’ll serve her well throughout life, if she can hang onto it.

Much to my comfort, she’s asking a lot about art and ‘gym’ lately. (Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-y-y-y-y-y!)

She walked into the kitchen holding a pair of pink running shoes I bought her from Target back in September, while I dressed Scarlett for our run. It was a pair that she begrudgingly picked out for home school phys ed. because I made her, and immediately hated once we got home. She admired them in front of me. “I forgot how cute these shoes were! It’s funny how these ended up being, like, the style now. Everyone I see wears shoes like this for working out. I’m glad I still have them!”

The loud, messy, geek-out, break-a-sweat fun I get to have with them now has been a long time coming. Not every day looks like exactly what I imagined home school would, back when it was but a dream that hadn’t yet been squashed like a total bitch by reality. But some days really, really do. And I love that.

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A Pet Parent.

The last few weeks, things have fallen beautifully into place for us. It took time (to put it graciously) for us to find a rhythm that worked, but we’re there. Everyone’s on the same page, working toward the same goal – everyday. Mary’s grades are way up, but more importantly, she’s clearly matured academically more than a year. I am so proud of her.

Like, seriously. I don’t even know where to begin describing the extent to which her attitude lately has improved. It’s been killing me that after such a tumultuous beginning, there has been so little time to enjoy writing about her success. I’ll admit, less time in front of the computer (even doing something I really enjoy, like writing) has been kind of nice, though.

So, it figures that as soon as things slow down around here, I’d find a way to ramp them back up.

Meet Benson!

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If you’re a face book friend of mine, you know that I’ve had a pretty vicious case of puppy fever this year. It’s strange for me, too. As a little girl I used to cry myself to sleep over the stone cold, hopeless reality that my parents would never, ever let me get a dog. When finally they cracked, it was a disaster. I loved those dogs. But owning them, for my parents, must have been a nightmare.

Dog one got knocked up by the unruly bay retriever one street away that was always getting loose with her. Together, they made our second outrageously mannered dog. Those three dogs had a bond like I never knew could exist between an animal family, and regularly bolted out the door to meet up for troublesome, off-leash adventures through the neighborhood. I never minded their behavioral problems growing up — but when I became a parent, it was as if I had been exposed to the matrix my mom endured. The idea of putting myself and my beloved little house through the turmoil of puppy training and dog co-habitation was not at all desirable to me.

I like the way Meagan Francis put it in her article on Babble about how kids are easier to raise than dogs. Something about having kids you actually gave birth to (or at least share a species with) pulling on you all day long really drives the romance of caring for another fully-dependent creature out the window.

To liven up the family just enough, that innate animal lover in me settled on a couple of cats who fit our lifestyle well. With a whole slew of kids already, they were enough. They are gorgeous, self-reliant, and just affectionate enough that they’ll agree to cuddle whenever you ask, but could really give a shit less if a week passed before you found the time.

Gradually, we started to sound like grandparents when it came to visiting any one of our constant pet rescuing, shelter volunteering, animal fostering, pitbull activist friends. We’d always say to each other, “Gosh, their dogs sure are beautiful… Yeah, I’m with you though – still glad it’s not US trudging them out to pee first thing every morning, rain or shine.”

Riley, a free beagle my brother was looking to rehome, happened to us on a whim, which is rarely the best way to go about bringing anything important into your life. But he turned out to be one of the coolest things our family ever endured. His time with us was short. But to this day, Matthew and Spencer vow he’s still an important member of this family. When it came to getting a new dog, though, there was no desire. Not even from the kids. We never would have gotten rid of him voluntarily (and genuinely, we were heartbroken that he never came back) — but it was kind of like… George Costanza when Susan died of cheap glue poisoning. No one was rushing back out to replace him.

Eventually, and kind of surprisingly, all of that deteriorated one day. Well, not all at once. But in nice big clumps, all of our trepidation about owning a dog someday down the road fell away. It started to be one of those things we kind of wanted. Something we looked forward to. Until eventually we were talking about it in a really excited way. We looked up breeders and bookmarked the web addresses of reputable shelters. We talked about names. I paid more attention to the relationships between my childless friends and the dogs that they love.

The part of me that has to overanalyze everything can recognize that this probably has to do with Scarlett reaching an age of measurable independence. She is no longer a baby. We’re in no position to have more. And even though I do not (in even the smallest measure) want more kids, that instinct to nurture and raise a fully dependant being is still very much alive. And at this point, constantly nagging. It’s become pretty clear to me since we brought him home that this is less about wanting us to be a “dog family” than I thought it was, and more about me just wanting to extend the reach of my experience as a parent. I like that Matthew will be able to put so much loyalty into a being that depends on him, I like that Spencer will devote Saturdays to taking it out to for activities it’s breed naturally craves, and I like that Scarlett will have a k-9 pal to grow up with. But really, I wanted a dog for myself.

Lucky for me, Benson is happy to sustain me.

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This one is exactly nothing like his more brazen, high-energy predecessor. He is a doll baby; medium energy, bashful and already remarkably obedient. I have never been more in love with an animal.

I’d really love to talk about our adventures so far in training, but someone has to go potty. Hello, pre-blizzard temperatures!

The Littlest Geek.

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Before I knew it, Saturday was here and happening and then, just like that, it was gone. We were stuffing crates of leftover catering into the fridge, peeling off panty hoes and hanging up ties.

We’d taken the week off of school to prepare for throwing my parents’ anniversary party, and the first two days of being back in action were sort of a drag. But Tuesday night, Spencer started to feel under the weather and the next day, he was home. For some reason, even though he was sick the whole time, all of us thought it was really fun to have Daddy with us on a school day. (Unfortunately, Mary caught the bug too, so most of her day consisted of videos and worksheets that she could do curled up on the couch, per her request. Oh yeah, plus lots and lots of Twilight reading.)

One thing block scheduling is really great for, is allowing me to keep focus even when I have to switch gears from one kid to the next. Even though we didn’t get to tackle 7th grade science the way I wanted to from her being sick, I already spent the morning planning it out. Instead of making an electromagnet and doing a subsequent experiment, we read straight from the text and then discussed new vocabulary and concepts over a worksheet before letting her move on to mechanics on her own. But after all that prep, I was still in the mood to geek out and explore, so it was cool that with the little kids, I got to have my fun.

I cut up a handful of pipe cleaners and then laid out some fun magnets of varying shapes and sizes. (At first Matthew helped me, which was a great fine motor exercise for him. But while I did the rest, he and Scarlett were totally sucked into the documentary on electromagnetic spectrum that Mary had playing on her laptop. It was cute watching him get so excited about the cool waves and the prisms he recognized immediately from his Pink Floyd t-shirt – and then hearing Mary explain to him exactly what they were.) (It was even cuter when Scarlett ran back to me just to report that she’d seen the color purple! PURPLE, MOMMY! PURPLE!)

I emptied their behavior jar and used it to hold our pipe cleaner pieces. When the kids found out that they could manipulate the pieces from outside of the jar with a magnet, they were giggling all over the place! Every time Matthew discovered something new (some of the bigger magnets weren’t as strong; the magnets won’t stick to the jar unless there are enough pipe cleaner pieces holding it up) he’d shout it out in that ever-enthusiastic way he always does. Then Scarlett would stand up in her seat, look me in the face with a very serious expression, and repeat what he said in toddler-eeze.

It never fails to amaze me how much Scarlett is actually capable of participating in stuff like this now.

This is just an aside, but can someone please tell me just what in the hell makes it so hard to remember that the baby of the family eventually grows up like all the rest of them? With Matthew and Mary I’ve always been so excited for the next new and exciting age, that I hardly ever noticed the last one dissipating behind us. With Scarlett, every new and exciting age that catches up to her feels more like a punch in the gut, impossible to ignore. Watching her little wheels turn yesterday while she tried to figure out new ways to manipulate the awesome new toy we made, was – as always, these days – bittersweet.

Funny how the sweet part of that deal is always so worth it though. Right?

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Keeping It Constructive.

I don’t often write just because I need to unload, but this is going to be one of those times. I have nothing insightful to share here… just a circumstance I’m trying to figure out in print, because mapping it out in my brain so far hasn’t done a damn thing to help.

We all have ways that we’re crappy parents. Normally, knowing that I struggle in certain departments of parenting doesn’t bother me. I figure that if we at least know about the ways we’re crappy, we’re not that bad off. At least we’re in a position to eventually fix it… you know, when we figure out how.

One of the ways I know I’m bad is feeling so often like I need to vent about Mary. It’s not one of those things I’m okay with. I’m constantly checking myself about it and trying to figure out how to knock it the hell off without driving myself to insanity in the process of keeping so much pent up frustration to myself.

When Spencer comes home and there’s a minute away from the kids, or a friend calls with lamentations about some way their younger kid drives them crazy, I have no problem rattling off to them all the ways Matthew puts me through the wringer. Maybe their should be, but there is no guilt. It feels good – constructive even – to get it off my chest. It doesn’t feel that way with Mary. I guess she’s just at a more complicated age.

I won’t try to over analyze it, but her self esteem is obliviously in a fragile state of growth. She, herself, is pretty thick skinned. But no twelve year old is a rock of self-assurance. I have to be so careful about the things I chose to come to her directly about. I don’t want the only council she hears from me to be about stuff she needs to work on, you know? I know from being that age, that it’s going to feel that way to her, no matter what. I don’t want to add to that unless it’s necessary.

But at this age, talking about her to other people feels wrong too. It doesn’t feel like harmlessly discussing parenting issues the way it does when I talk about the younger kids. She’s old enough now that it just feels like talking behind another person’s back. On the few occasions she’s overheard me only jokingly chiming in with another parent about what a difficult age hers can be, it’s hurt her feelings.

Nothing sucks worse than hurting your kid’s feelings. Nothing.

So I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. But then it gets a little more complicated than that.

She’s at that age… the age we’ve all been through… where jealousy is rampant. There is a viciously competitive spirit growing inside of her and guiding it toward constructive outlets has been no simple task lately. The only things coming out of her mouth about anyone — especially her friends, are awful. What starts as a perfectly nice conversation between the two of us during the day about someone, almost without fail, morphs into a list ten feet long about all the ways that person is positively nasty and intolerable.

I’m not talking about a few complaints. I’m not even talking about one, specific person. I’m talking about the fact that a conversation about anyone will eventually (if it’s allowed to) turn into her working herself up to a boiling point. Everything that makes a friend of hers happy is viewed as selfishly snatching credit away from her. The people who are close to her just can’t win. Every perfectly nice thing they do or think or say to her is fuel for a rant as soon as they leave.

I try to tell her that these feelings are normal (though unacceptable) and then encourage her to really think about why a good thing happening to her friend is so terrible. It always ends in her being viciously angry with me for not knowing or understanding anything.

Nothing is more infuriating to her than when I don’t jump into cutting her friends down with her. Then, she’ll start using things her friends said to her in confidence against them, assuring me that I don’t know how awful they really are. The worst part is feeling so badly for the people she’s cutting down. I want to teach her how to control her jealousy-driven behavior, but I don’t know how to do that without making her feel further self-conscious.

I have to tread so lightly here. Because everything I do seems to make the problem worse, I’ve even tried to simply lend an ear and try to understand. But doing that does not feel right. I know I’m only advocating a poisonous habit of being vicious and catty, which will only hurt her down the road. But even when I assure her first that feeling competitive is totally normal, the conversation ends in her feeling like I think she’s a rotten person. And that’s not true.

 

 

Here I go probably overanalyzing things again, but maybe there’s a connection. I told Spencer a few months ago that I want us to really be conscious of the example we set for Mary by not talking about people behind their back. If we want to discuss something that gets under out skin about someone who isn’t around, that we need to do it in a way that isn’t unnecessarily vicious. Also, we need to really go out of our way to show her that when good things happen for other people in our own lives, that it feels good to celebrate in their successes or dumb good fortune with them.

I’m no child psychologist, but I know that a faltering self-esteem is usually at the root of jealous behavior – which is why cattiness thrives like wildfire in those awkward middle school years. And I can’t think of anything worse for a kid’s self-esteem than feeling like all their parent does is complain about them.

Even when I know Mary can’t hear it, there’s a guilt that tugs away at me when I finally open up to someone about all of the ways that raising her can be so difficult and confusing. I know that I’m not really complaining about her, but rather, trying to decode her behavior. Nonetheless. It starts to feel good… like maybe this person I’m talking to will understand and be able to offer me a fresh perspective… but something doesn’t let me finish. I always wind up wrapping it up and tucking it back inside of my frazzled, overworked brain to figure out in solitude. Which feels impossible.

It can be so alienating… to not have many mom-friends who are raising a stepchild, much less one just fifteen years younger than they. It gets tough to shoulder such an unforgiving weight of responsibility without help or advice from people who know what it’s like. There are just so many confusing emotions that I want to share — which I can’t help feeling like it isn’t that far off from what she’s experiencing.

Maybe I’m just trying hard to relate. Or maybe all it boils down to for the both of us, is a fighting need to talk, even if what you have to say isn’t always perfectly constructive.

Staying Me.

 

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When I was younger, being an artist had always been more of an obligation than a gift. I always liked to draw, but not as much as people expected. Every week in fifth grade my illustration of our class’s reading was chosen to be replicated in mural form on a giant roll of paper that hung out in the hall. I had to replicate the same drawing I had just turned in, except at 40 times the size, every Thursday. I wound up painting murals for every school I went to (plus a church I used to attend, plus a job I used to work) in one classroom or another. I think even at a young age I liked having a sense of purpose, but secretly, I could not stand painting murals. I’m talented at something that, unfortunately can be pretty boring when there are better things to do with so much time. And there usually was.

When I’m in the zone, I can really enjoy myself. It’s getting myself to want to be in that zone that’s a different story. At least, it used to be. Growing up, people would ask me to draw or paint things for them all the time. It started in second grade and never stopped. All through middle and high school, I made mall money sketching out portraits of people with their boyfriends for three-month anniversaries. Somewhere around seventeen, I realized I had started taking on the commissions solely because I knew that if I didn’t obligate myself, I’d stop drawing altogether.

Sometimes that made calling myself an ‘artist’ hard to do. What kind of an artist doesn’t live and breathe for their work?

Now that I’m an adult, with such a tight squeeze on time I can do anything for myself, that’s changing. For the first time in my life, I’m actually craving time to be creative. Like, wildly. It’s on my brain all the time. I want to sharpen my skills, I want to be covered in charcoal smears, I want to make something badass. I want to feel like I can do something cool and fun and hard and just for me.

And it’s because this year has sucked all the life out of who I am. No, really. It has and it is.

I’m a river run completely dry. In a word, and for the first time since I’ve started down this path of marriage and motherhood, I’m miserable. But, believe it or not, it’s a good thing — I can see that now. It means that there’s a me behind motherhood that I don’t think I would have cared to find without this.

It makes sense. I like the ‘me’ I’ve found through motherhood infinitely more than any other one I’ve ever been. It was like finally finding my color; that shade of make-up or cut of dress that set my eyes on fire and could hack away my every flaw. I suddenly loved who I was, because of what I had made, even if no one else did. I saw parts of me evident in my children, either through nature or nurture, and I realized that I really, genuinely, whole-heartedly like those things. Even when I made mistakes in my role, I had a confidence in myself that never existed before.

On the flipside, it made me never miss being naked. There was no desire to rediscover a ‘me’ independent of them. In fact, I could feel that becoming true, and I couldn’t make myself care.

When we decided to homeshool, I was already used to going above and beyond for my three kids. I had a hard time believing that essentially just adding a change to our routine could really be that much harder. As it was, my every waking hour belonged to someone else. I peed at the same time I settled disputes between siblings that couldn’t wait. Even during my long, rejuvenating winter bubble baths on the weekend, reserved for catching up on good books, Scarlett stood tubside, quietly stacking bubbles on my knee. I never minded.

Homeschooling was harder though. It was like going from a place where the air wasn’t as fresh as it used to be, to having the air sucked right out from my lungs. Everything I identified with: my soft-spoken, understanding nature; my easy-going attitude – all of it was gone. In order to keep any sense of control over our life, I had to become a bull. Nothing else would cut it. It was rough, and it changed me.

What’s weird is that I so enjoy the act of teaching. I enjoy the challenge of staying organized. I thoroughly enjoy being so in on the action during their “aha!” moments of educational discovery. I enjoy the immense benefits it’s provided my children. On a whole, I have a great respect for the institution. But it has been at the heavy cost of losing, I swear, the last drops of my youth. Grey hair, sunken flesh under my eyes, lines in places I shouldn’t have them yet and headaches that feel like they pause between onsets instead of ever really going away, are just all part and parcel. It’s gotten easier, but these first six months must have aged me nine years.

I’ll tell you this, I don’t feel twenty-seven. I feel like I’ve made my children proud, but that I’ve lost myself in the process, which was not the outcome I ever expected. I thought that being their mom was the end all and be all of what I was now. I thought that no matter how much this experience stretched me, that I could handle it, because that’s all I was now: a parent. There was no other place for me to put my energy. But apparently, that’s not true. There are other parts of me begging to be acknowledged.

And you know what? I like that.

I like knowing that I haven’t lost every part of who I am to being a mom. I like that there are parts of me, having nothing to do with them, that I actually miss. I like knowing that the old me hasn’t been replaced; she’s just moved over so that other parts of me had room to grow.

She moved over a long time ago for their birth. Then for their health. And this year, she did it for their education. No part of me – not the mom or anything else – can regret that. Time for them will always be time well spent.

I only know what next year is supposed to hold. Lord knows, that’s no promise. But I am greatly looking forward to a little elbow room, and the first chance in a long time, to really fill my lungs. The first chance in maybe ever, to really be an artist.

 

 

Here’s To A New Beginning.

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Before you go off and do anymore growing up, I have something important to say. This birthday letter is different because it isn’t about praising you to the Heavens or giving thanks that you are healthy or even about how much I have loved you from the minute your were placed in my arms five years ago, all squawky and mad.

It’s about the fact that our relationship is about to change.

I doubt there’s anything significant from the year of being four or even much from being five that you’ll vividly remember, so I periodically write it down, because I have a feeling a lot of what I’ve been through raising you this year is a precursor to what I always will. And if it is, I’ll need a good head start preparing.

This year with you has been primarily about un-training myself to be your friend. Getting tough. And take my word for it, Matthew, it has sucked from your end all the way to mine. I can tell that this year will really be the first that I’m more parts sworn enemy of yours than the best, best bud I’ve always been. That’s just the natural course we’re on. We’ve reached that age.

You are five. I know, I know. It sounds like such an unblemished age still, but this is where you test the boundaries of where I’m willing to go for you. Yesterday, we couldn’t go to Build-A-Bear for your birthday because I told you ahead of time that I wanted to take you, and you knew that I was excited. Something about expecting you to behave makes it all the more difficult for you to do. It always has. It’s like performance anxiety or something. (The month of December is torture for kids like you. Or, maybe just you – hell, I don’t know.) In any case, sometime during the day, you told me that you didn’t love me anymore because I would not let you leave your room until it was clean.

You are five. You are five, with a vengeance.

And even though there are so many gorgeous things I’m celebrating about this new age with you, (too many to list parenthetically) that part of it really has sucked, buddy. I know it hasn’t been easy on you, learning how to take direction like a responsible young man; learning how to respect my wishes like I have some divine power of you. I tell myself that it’s hard on you because you have the heart of a leader, and you can’t help it if big things like that take some growing into.. Then again, people tell me I have a tendency to exaggerate when it comes to you, and that’s probably true.

I have to take their word for it. I’ve never been so biased, or so protective of anyone as I am over you. I don’t even know why because it doesn’t feel like you need it. It has to be that mother/son phenomena, because there is something so unabashedly fierce about the way I want to protect everything in you that is natural. I have a hard time seeing any innate quality with which you were born as less than a gift. I just do.

But that’s no way to parent. I mean, me feeling that way about you is not something I can help, but it is something I have to try sometimes not to always act on. Your better interest relies on me being a rock for you in ways that are not always fun. I demand, for example, that you treat everyone with the same level of respect that I demand of them toward you. And oh, how you have fought me on it. But I have lovingly, dutifully fought back. I tell you it’s all in the name of some ‘love’ you don’t understand. Love, to you has always been a soft place for you land; a warm place for you to retreat. It’s always been comfortable and nice and easy for you to accept. This part of love is a pain in your ass. But this part of love is what you need to grow up strong. This part of love is something I refuse to fail you in.

Confucius would have a ball with you. You have the hardest time swallowing this cockamamie idea that other people deserve more respect than they have to give you just because they were born a few generations ahead. It’s already our biggest issue, this problem you have with authority. I actually think it’s endearing for you to be so bravely confident in your own way, mostly because I’ve struggled to have genuine confidence all my life. But I promise, your teachers won’t. Or, for that matter, any of the women in your world who will succeed me later on in life.
So I squint my eyes, and I do you a favor. I try to see past the rose colored tint in my glasses, toward a truer you. Don’t worry, this doesn’t change anything. I’ll always sing your praises to anyone within earshot. And I’ll always do it where you can hear me, just to make sure you know. And I’ll whisper in your ear first thing in the morning and after you’ve fallen asleep at night for as long as I can, that you are mighty and unbreakable and capable of such wonderful things because I believe them, because I’m your mom. I will still be that safe and comfortable and ever-accepting place for you to retreat. But in this next phase of life, it may not always look like it.

When those times come… When I fight against you, son, understand something. Understand that I never really am. When it feels like I am fighting against you, trust that I am fighting for you, with you, ever at your side because I am on your side – always. I will protect those good and courageous and righteous parts of you with all of the ferocity of a mother protecting the life of her only son, because I will be.

Of course, there will come a time when I will have to back off. I promise to.

Don’t get excited. We’re not there yet.

This year, I’ll begin to teach you things that are hard for you to understand, things that sometimes cut against your natural, headstrong grain. I’ll try my best to do it in simple terms and baby steps so that none of it is too much for you at once. But I’ll do it in a way that is less tolerant than you approve of. And I will be a rock, unyielding to guilt and tantrums and tears and threats and slippery tactics I know, at a certain point, you’ll have the balls to pull. You are compassionate and you are emotional, which will probably make you a very easy person to trust. But you are still your father’s son — so opposite of me, with a win-at-all-costs, unapologetic confidence. And I’m ready for that, because these past five years have taught me that I’ll need to be. You are a deadly combination of your mom and your dad. (You’re welcome.)

Today you are five but that won’t always be the case. I’m laying a foundation this year, for the way I want to parent you at 12, at 17, at 21. It won’t always seem from your perspective that there’s a method to my madness, but my goals in parenting you are pretty simple. I want to nurture the natural you: be it mind, body or spirit. You were born with so many strengths, inner strengths that can break a man if he lets them. You are already so fearless, smart, strong, handsome, compassionate and loyal. A big part of my job will be to have you see that other people can be too.

My world has always revolved in so many ways around you. Soon you’ll learn that the real one doesn’t. That’ll take some getting used to, but it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.

From this day forth, I promise to make it look like I’m standing two steps back, while always staying three steps ahead. I promise to let you be every age, exactly the way you were built to: with a vengeance. And I promise to love you fiercely, whether your ornery ass wants me to or not. Always.

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Happy birthday, my big-hearted baby boy. Let’s do this.

A Few Notes on Writing This Semester.

(This is unedited because I’m pressed for time, so cut me a little slack if I ramble or spell opportunity wrong. Watch out, world. I’m not looking back today.)

Last week, Mary did something pretty cool. She came up with an idea that she liked enough to discuss with me in the middle of world history, and then she wrote about it in a letter to the president!

Impressively, it wasn’t even an assignment. The idea was something she came up with out of the blue, entirely on her own. I just suggested she consider telling it to someone more important than me. I love her writing curriculum, so we’ve never veered away from it before. I’m glad we made the exception in this case. It was a great multifaceted experience. It gave her an opportunity to 1.) apply her budding comprehension of politics 2.) map out a way to word her ideas so that they stayed concise while being effectively specific, and then 3.) format her letter to the specifications given on the white house webpage. I was really proud of her! Better than that, she was proud of herself. She even pulled at my arm while I was on the phone with my mom, making sure I told her about it.

Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that is not even sarcastic. I didn’t know life could be so kind.

Over the weekend, Mary saw her mom for the first time in what (I believe) has been a full two years. Mary loved telling me how smart everyone said that she was. I love that she loved it.

This semester in writing, Mary’s has just done so much growing.

Right now, we’re delving big-time into description. Namely, people. In week one, we studied public personalities (celebrities, newscasters, etc.) and the ways that maintaining an on-air persona help them to do a specific job. For example, it’s imperative that an evening news reporter convey that they are intelligent and trustworthy, more than, say, bubbly and talkative. They’d work to maintain steady “eye” contact with the camera, and only shift their position to give short, quick nods. Mary chose a ten second clip of Zayn from One Direction promoting the MTV Video Music Awards to study. She wrote that he sat with an arched back, knees bouncing casually while his sneakers hung off the rungs of a stool. He lifted his eye brows a lot when he talked and fluctuated his tone, which made him feel very personable. Our mannerisms have a lot to say about our personalities, and we’ve learned to use that in writing descriptions.

Her assignments have forced her to ask a lot of great questions through some pretty neat assignments. What do the mannerisms our friends have, tell us about them? Are there any features on our own faces that illustrate aspects of our personality? What happens if you take a previously written description, and reword it so that the person or place you’ve described isn’t revealed until the very end? What if you take a ten-second description and write it as if the person you described were an animal that had human characteristics? How would your paper improve if you took out every single “it was”, “there is”?

We’ve learned to avoid stuffing an entire description about someone in the first sentence of their introduction. Instead, try using something that they do within the story as a way to give more detail about the style of their hair or the fabric on their clothing.

We’ve learned to drastically narrow down the moments we choose to describe. For one exercise she had to craft a cardboard frame and that week, only describe what she saw within the small opening, regardless of how dull, which helped her to practice pulling less obvious details from a scene. It reinforced a previous lesson on the way shorter sentences pack more of a punch. “Superverbs” which are a single, more capable word used to replace a boring verb next to an adverb, are continually put into practice, helping to keep our descriptions from being watered down with length. We’re always stretching our vocabulary, striving to use more effective verbs, poetic adjectives and concrete nouns. Variety in sentence structure is another place we’ve focused effort. At the end of last week, we learned that beginning sentences with a prepositional phrase can be a very effective way to write step-by-steps without getting caught up, having to repeat “then”, “next”, or “after that” more than once in any paragraph.

We’ve also begun to use a set of checklists for revising independently. Our checklists focus solely on content, ensuring that students are left with quality pieces at the end of each assignment. Editing is something she’s become a real pro at this year. Not only does she have an entire curriculum dedicated strictly to editing, with exercises to be completed once-a-week, she also has the most rigorous grammar course I, for one, have ever seen. (Luckily for her, I love grammar enough for the both of us, so we get through it just fine.) She also takes a spelling course whose benefit is twofold. Obviously, being a wicked speller has it’s advantages. But I never realized what an effective way it could be to bulk up vocabulary. She must learn ten new words a week, not to mention the tenses and other forms of base words she wouldn’t recognize without the daily training she gets, breaking unfamiliar words down to their root. (Wow, I hope that makes sense.) The best part is that she’s learning these new words by asking, herself. I’m not just giving her a list and making her regurgitate their definitions for a test. I ask her to spell words that she’s never seen before, and if it’s one she doesn’t know even after I use it in a sentence, she wants to ask. Then I’ll use it in a second sentence, and she usually follows it up by offering a sentence of her own and asking if that’s the way you’d use it. It’s brilliant. I love it.

Also, also, also! I’m excited because Mary gave me permission to share some of her writing examples on here. Yay! I plan to do it very soon. It’ll be fun for me!

A Change for the Better.

Last week was the smoothest, most enjoyable week we have ever had homeschooling. Not a big shocker there.

Mary was just starting to gracefully accept that homeschooling would be a part of her life for the next year and a half, when we hit her with the idea that… well, maybe we won’t after all. Needless to say, warming up to the idea wasn’t much of a process for her. For the past seven days, she has been an unstoppable ray of early-rising, enthusiastic cooperation, beaming in through every window of the house. And I have not minded it.

“Can we start doing physical fitness again!? I’d love to work out with you this afternoon! Let’s work out everyday. In fact, I have this great idea for a health challenge next week. Wow, I never realized how much I love these running shoes!” These are the sort of things coming out of her mouth now. Obviously, the change derives from nothing more than getting what she’s wanted all year, so I have mixed emotions about it. This is the same kid who, from day one, has fiercely refused to participate in so much as a conversation about health, much less put the adorable pink running shoes I bought her to any use. It just wasn’t worth having all of my energy and enthusiasm depleted when there were so many other more imperative subjects not to compromise.

While at first it sort of irked me that she could flip so easily – after all, it only highlighted how much she could have given me all along vs. what she clearly put effort into NOT giving me instead, purely for spite – I’ve since realized that being bitter about it would only work against me. At this rate, we can still get so much out of her seventh grade year at home. So I’m taking that enthusiasm and milking it for all I can.

Not The Baby Anymore.

I really hated having to write the last post that I did, because although homeschooling has put a major strain on us, Mary’s blossomed so much from it. No, this post is not about my little ones growing up. It’s about my biggest one, and teaching her that… well, no, she is not the baby anymore.

Homeschooling really is not the terribly negative thing I made it out to be in yesterday’s post, for the sake of keeping it concise and on the point. I wrote about never being so unhappy before, but I’m only unhappy about having everything I sacrifice (to homeschool) be so drastically taken for granted. (Of course, I realize this is just what teenagers do sometimes. Still, it was a golden learning opportunity for her: people won’t take crap like that lying down. I think she got the point. I think that was good.)

When I don’t feel that way, I know that what we sacrifice for this lifestyle is mostly worth the benefit. And genuinely, I don’t always feel taken for granted. In fact, what stung most about… well, what I had to have my talk with Mary about, is that she’s been making such remarkable strides. I was blindsided. Her demeanor has really been turning around; I’ve noticed her being much kinder, going out of her way to do the responsible thing, and crediting home school for progress she could tell that she was making, before I’d even give her back a grade. (That showed me she was taking pride in a job well done, instead of refusing to try out of spite – which is what the first solid month of homeschool was all about).

Last week marked a turning point for us. Spencer and I decided that we’ll go ahead and try our hand at putting her back into a different school next year. Things have changed drastically since last year, both for the better and for the worse. The more I consider it, the more confident I am that this is a better time to do it than waiting until 9th grade.

What sort of got the ball rolling for me was actually something that isn’t going to seem like it’s even related. Stay with me…

The other day, Mary found out that a friend of ours –  a parent from the neighborhood, who makes it abundantly obvious they adore Mary to pieces, wasn’t comfortable with her babysitting just yet. Mary came to Spencer and I about it, all puppy dog eyes and confusion. “They think I’m irresponsible,” she said, having just pried their daughter for the reason. “You don’t think I’m irresponsible, do you? They let [so-and-so] babysit. And I know how to change diapers and put Scarlett to bed and give her a bath and cook.” It was a blow to her ego, but Spencer and I were both very grateful, actually, that she found this out. We very gently told her that, well, we would probably make the same decision.

Most kids are good about buttering up an adult to get their way when it’s convenient — our girl could be a professional. Charm, to her, is like a switch at her disposal. I’ve never seen anyone so black and white with it before. She’ll literally go from using an Elvis lip to mock every warning out of my mouth, declaring tempestuously not to care about any measure I could possibly take to punish her — to suddenly laying a head on my shoulder, in the very next instant, pleading pretty, pretty please to be able to go to the mall… while she compliments my hair.

It’s impossible not to love the kid… and you can trust me on that, ’cause she ain’t afraid to test it.

It was good for her to see that all the conveniently planted charm in the world, without having a few solid character traits to back it up, won’t cut it in the real world. Namely, in this case, responsibility. She has become very capable lately, which is something to be proud of. But it’s only part of it, we told her.  We said that showing she can be cool-headed and respectful, even when it may not suit her immediate purpose, would probably go a very long way from here.

It’s important to us that our kids not grow up feeling entitled. I think at a certain age that goes beyond just earning privileges around the house, like video games after homework. And Mary has always been our most entitled baby. When I married Spencer, the poor kid went from being an only child all her life to suddenly having a new mom and two siblings in the span of three years. We’ve always cut her a lot of slack, sympathizing with the facets of her life that do, genuinely, warrant some. We were always weary, for instance, of using the whole “you have to set an example for your little brother” angle on her, lest she resent him for it. I think some of the long term affects of those good intentions are beginning to manifest now in a less-than-desirable way. I don’t blame her for it a bit. But I think we’ve taught her to use sympathy as a way to navigate the world. I also think that now that she’s in a place in her life where there isn’t much to get sympathy about — let’s face it: the girl really does have it good — she’s sort of lost. Sort of grasping at straws, if you will.

I mean, if you have to make up stories to get sympathy from people who care enough about you to be concerned, I think that’s a pretty good indication that maybe you’ve developed an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Our entire life has been put on hold to show Mary that she’s our number one priority right now. Really, she’s never not been our number one priority. The only exception being, maybe, when Scarlett was in the hospital. Even then, as I recall, I was handling things over the phone that she was pulling between family members.

And let me interject that this is not just academically we’re talking about. She’s praised to the Heavens for treating her little brother with a respect that he is simply expected, at four, to show their little sister. She gets newer and vastly more expensive clothes three times as often, while growing at a fraction of the rate her smaller siblings do. And because her gifts are generally smaller in size, we wind up spending probably twice what we do on both her siblings COMBINED at Christmas. To us, she seems relatively appreciative. (Taking with a grain of salt, the bouts of ungratefulness that come with just being at a self-absorbed age, of course.) But maybe homeschooling, with all of the ways it forces us to put her needs so far above everyone else’s, is just too much. For all of us, including her.

I definitely am no fan of feeling like such a martyr.

This Time, I Talk. You Listen.

For two days, I couldn’t look at her. I’ve never been in such a bad place with one of my kids before.

She obviously resented me for homeschooling her, for following through with the high standard I told her that I would hold her to if we were put in this position. But now, I resented her right the hell back. Mad does not describe what I was.

I knew that it was my responsibility to talk this out with her. I’m the mom. The problem was, I couldn’t do it subjectively enough to pull any sort of lesson from the experience. Not yet. If I talked to her any sooner than I did, while the salty taste of distrust was still so pungent on my tongue, it wouldn’t have been very productive. I would have been doing it more for myself than for her, and that’s a line I don’t cross with my kids.

Last night I finally asked her to help me peel potatoes for dinner. It was time. Matthew played video games in our living room for the first time, giving Mary and I a minute to talk that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. She was nervous. I was a hundred things at once.

I started by telling her a story of a time that I did something similar (though minuscule in comparison) as a kid, and the trouble I got into for it, and why. I told her that I didn’t understand it at the time, but that the lesson stuck with me enough that today, I want to pass it on to her.

It was a lesson on integrity.

One thousand, five hundred dollars I spent on your curriculum, all told. My entire summer, I put into watching teaching seminars online and reading books and studying history. Months, I put into refinishing an entire room of our house to give to you for school. (One dark wood-paneled wall in particular, I reminded, took eight coats of paint. I scrubbed rust off of the floor until I couldn’t feel my knees.) I wake up everyday before dawn, and instead of writing or painting or sorting through photos I took the day before like I used to enjoy doing with my morning coffee last year, I color code weekly schedules for you and I plan activities down to the hour, months in advance. I spend whole Saturdays glued to the copier, paper clipping lessons and organizing everything into a neat little filing system. I read through homeschool articles and teaching blogs that bore me to the core of my soul, so that I can collect ideas on how to be more engaging for you when I teach. I clean up from every craft and project and experiment that we do, and I do it happily, even when the entire rest of my house is an embarrassment to our way of life. I’ve taken on your chores, so that you don’t have to focus on anything more than school.

This is something I’ve striven for you not to have to know. But, Mary, everything else in our family life has suffered. Matthew never behaved this way last year, because last year I was a better and more fair parents to him. Last year, he wasn’t expected to keep his mouth shut and stay out of things from sun up to sun down, day after day, while I make you the bigger priority. I’m lucky if I have the opportunity to read to Scarlett once a day, much less get her out of the house to play – and I sit up at night sometimes wrought with guilt over the fact that her speech development is probably suffering because I don’t make the time for her. I’m too busy fighting with you. Daddy hasn’t come home to a hot meal in months, because after all of that painstaking and passionate planning I put into homeschooling you, all you have to do is refuse to work for an hour — and all of that organization I worked so hard to accomplish, unravels.

Instead of getting through our school day in the 4 to 6 hours I schedule it to easily be completed, I, your dad, your siblings suffer the consequence of you refusing to work, or treating me with such blatant disrespect in the midst of a lesson, that I have to walk away. It’s me who has to spend the evening hours making up for all the work you refused to do in the morning when it was assigned; it’s me who has to reteach every lesson to you (once when I actually assign it in the morning, and then again hours later when you finally begrudgingly agree to get it over with)  — while I’m supposed to be tending to responsibilities I have concerning everyone else in the family. I have a sinkful of dishes I’m not getting around to until 4:30, when I should be getting ready to unwind and maybe finally take a shower. I’m scrambling to put laundry away after everyone else is in bed. Daddy doesn’t have a hot meal waiting for him when he gets home because you’ve only just by then agreed to let me teach you science. Look around, I said. My house is falling apart. I work my fingers to the bone every weekend trying to catch up on housework that’s impossible to keep up with because while 50% of my time at home with you goes into homeschooling, the other 50% goes into struggling with your behavior. I go three days at a time between showers. Daddy has to go four days in a row sometimes without sandwiches for lunch because shopping has to be perpetually put off until a day when you agree to do all of your schoolwork before it’s too late to get out of the house!

You have 100% of my time. You have 100% of my attention. You have 100% of everything in me right now.

I told her that I have never been so miserable. I have never worked so hard to be treated so badly in return. Homeschooling, I reminded her, was a lifestyle change I took on as a necessity. A sacrifice I made. It was a position I was put into by her. Did I not give you six months in public school to convince me that you could handle not being taken out? On the last day of school, did I not have to drive you home myself because “extensive profanity” had you suspended from being able to ride the school bus for the rest of the year?

How dare you, after all of this time, continue to behave like I deserve retaliation for doing this to you. How dare you.

The thing is, it’s not your fault for not knowing how miserable this experience has made me, because I worked very hard to not let you see it. I wanted you to have no doubt that I was nothing but happy to do anything for you that you needed from me. I would walk through fire for you, kid, and I wanted you to know that. I wanted THAT to be what you saw. I know that you’re only a kid and I can’t expect you to have the capacity of an adult to appreciate things you don’t fully understand. So I never expected appreciation. But I did not expect this. You need to know that I am grossly disappointed in you for lying about the effort I put into homeschooling you. What you did was callous and irresponsible. I know you know that.

In all the six years that I’ve raised you, I have made mistakes along the way. But I have taught you to have respect for your father and I. I have taught you to appreciate the devotion other people put into their relationship with you. And I have taught you to have integrity. In lying about a member of this family, Mary, you gravely disappointed me.

She was biting on her finger with a far off look on her face when she nodded, a tear falling from her jawline and disappearing onto her lap. “I was mad at you,” she said after a minute, in more of an admitting way than a defensive one. It isn’t like her to listen quietly, especially while being reprimanded for something she’s actually done. This was a new and a very genuine response. It made me proud, and I let her know.

After that, the conversation brightened up fast. She stayed with me in the kitchen to talk even after the potatoes were peeled, offering help with other medial chores instead of going back to Mario Kart in the living room. I crumbled bacon over a cutting board and she passed me the paper towels and we gossiped about her old friends from school. I stirred garlic into the onions while they seared over a flame and she cried into her sleeve a little about her mom, which almost always happens when we have a strong parent/child moment like the one we had tonight. In less than a minute, she was smiling again, teasing me for the way I do something. The weight of sadness around her mom has already thinned so much, dissipating into smaller clouds spread farther apart as the years gone by make a terrible part of life feel strangely normal. Waiting for Spencer to come home, I loped in and out of five or six different, much happier topics with her, leaving the lecture behind with a strong sense of accomplishment. Both of us, very glad it was over.

I may have been too hard on her. But I don’t feel like I was. I want to raise a woman of integrity, not one ruled by her emotions. On the other hand, I think it was good for her to see that she isn’t the only one who has emotions. I think it was perfectly healthy for her to see that I was hurt by what she did. I think it was good for both of us to have a moment of real honesty about what this experience has been like from both sides of the fence.