Because East Coast Halloweens Need No Help Being Ruined.

Sitting in the path of a hurricane on the news – the likes of which were supposed to be cataclysmal – didn’t phase us. Every year, it feels like, we bottle up clean water (because people yell at us until we do), buy a few extra batteries and hunker down for a few hours without electricity. Then, nothing really happens.

Our town is notorious for overestimating the effect of weather. The stores run out of basic necessities for life like water and bread two days before and it’s all they want to cover on the radio, like it’s literally the only the thing going on in all the world. This storm! Right here! This unprecedented, ruinous event. “I mean, Delaware just doesn’t see weather like this,” they say.. every time.

It was only a category one so far, but this one was different because it was actually coming straight at us, and it’s size was just… seriously incredible. Even my husband who’s the skeptic of all skeptics and never watches the news, didn’t mind us having it on. I don’t know much about hurricanes, (except that they never really happen to us) but the 20 foot thrashing waves that proceeded it’s landfall weren’t laughably small. So, mostly because we were the only house on the street or ..you know, the East Coast who hadn’t yet, we took an afternoon to stack patio furniture, potted plants  and tricycles into the garage. Spencer cleaned the gutters, we tied the trash and recycling bins shut, I lugged the Shop Vac into the basement where it tends to flood on bad enough days, and together, we deflated our Halloween decorations.

It wasn’t until then that I stopped to think: Wow, Halloween. Maybe it really would have to be cancelled.

The talk that had started bubbling up a few days ago all over the eastern seaboard of postponing the holiday literally made me laugh out loud. But my attitude was changing.

It was getting serious enough now that Halloween – HALLOWEEN – was actually the last thing on everybody’s tongue. As we packed up the yard, neighbors vowed to pray for one another – out loud like it wasn’t even embarrassing to be so dramatic, and when we got back inside, relief funds were being discussed and negotiated in press conferences all over the news. The president urged us to take this seriously. At one point the Governor of a neighboring small state announced that it was officially too dangerous for any more rescue crews to go back in for people who never evacuated the beaches, and that they’d have to ride out of the disaster in their public shelters, which were sure to be little more than a memory within a few hours, until morning. Our prayers were said to be with them. It was grim.

Then, it happened.

In the middle of the afternoon, every room went dark. There was a quick flicker, some beeping, and then it was out for good. Days, they said, we’d be without power – and here it was, arriving sooner than we’d thought.

Generators could be heard kicking onto a start up the street, even over all the eerie commotion. The five of us hunkered down beneath blankets, a little excited with nothing to do with ourselves but grin and giggle and gossip about all the exaggerated stories we’ve heard. We leaned on each other for a while, listening to the swaying and the creaking of sideways rain torpedoing through compromised branches some 40 feet above us. It was still light outside so it wasn’t long before all of us were bent over the sofa, peering out the living room window into the misty, grey street. You couldn’t even see the rain because it was moving so fast in the air that it never seemed to land. The trees, still pretty thick with leaves that hadn’t even changed much in color, caught the wind like a sail and bent these unsinkable ships of mother nature’s design, like they were a bushel of old, white dandelions.

The kids were entranced; quiet, and in visible awe. Spencer and I traded a few looks over their heads, suppressing laughter. It was pretty cool to see them this way, knowing more than they did that they were entirely safe.

It was also only two hours before the power was back on. In the morning, the storm had passed. A few lines were down and some branches fell, but the brunt of it hit the beaches, as always, and basically fell asleep, snoring kind of loud. At one point, when we realized that the power wasn’t going to be lost again, we tossed around the idea of manually turning off the power just to stir up a little excitement. I mean, it seemed such a shame to plan ghost stories by candlelight and flashlight crafts without ever getting the chance to do them. Come on! It wasn’t even dark outside when the lights went out.

As for now, the only catastrophe around here is that Halloween will go on in really shitty weather, which is certainly nothing new to Delawarians. The storm blew in air as cold as hate and, even though it isn’t uprooting trees at this point, doesn’t exactly beg you to greet it in razor thin nylon.

But this, to me, is an eastern seaboard Halloween: weather that isn’t dangerous enough to cancel tradition, but blows at high velocity all the same. Costumes at 40 bucks per kid, all hidden under bundles of outerwear; hats, having to fit awkwardly under masks that kids don’t want to wear three houses into the night; and teenage girls that look ridiculous, trying desperately to be sexy at the totally-worth-it cost of Pneumonia and full-body freezer-burn, taking up space in line at doors that make the whole process of going to every house take so much longer than it has to.

Surprisingly, though, it’s never as much about that stuff as it is about the other stuff. It’s also kids, who will be totally entranced; steadfast in their excitement and in visible awe that’ll take more than a long, hot, chatty bath to wear off. It’s also Moms and Dads trading grins over the heads of their distracted children, who have utterly no idea how senselessly much they are treasured. And it’s sending the kids to bed finally, curling up under the hum of a heater kicking on for the first time all season, and eating 90% of everything the baby collected because – well, she’s a baby and that’s just good parenting.

So today, knowing that it’ll all be just fine, I’ll prepare for disaster; for blustery winds and inconsolable children and what is sure to seem at times like the end of the world. Because it wouldn’t be a Delaware event without drastically over-estimating the damage.

Even One.

Matthew’s just waking up from a short, “quiet time” nap. He’s been in his room for an hour now; drawing for 40 minutes, singing to his radio for five of them, crashed on the floor in a heap of blankets for twenty. It’s a labored start, but he’s a different boy with just a few heavy winks of REM. Without a word, he eases into my lap, nestles his head onto my chest. Tucking two knobby knees into his torso, he lets me comb through his hair with the tips of my fingers. I love his hair. I love this boy.

It’s finally quiet. At least for an hour or two, I have him to myself and I’m so glad. I’m as much a contrast to myself from earlier in the day as he is. The sink is wet with the fresh absence of dishes, laundry is folded in a basket on the bed, dinner is stewing up an aroma from the crock pot, and everything Mary needed me for this morning is finally done. Crossing chores off a list everyday does for me what accidentally falling asleep for a while does to him, and for the first time all day we’re deeply at peace. I’m happy just to lay here with my boy; I could just do it all day. But he hasn’t had preschool yet, so I pull out a book – which in our house, lay in stacks that are rarely more than an arm’s reach away – and together, we start to read.

He repositions himself in way that lets him point to the words. So much as a sigh of complaint is nowhere to be heard in any room of the house. Oh, Why, Why, Why, I ask myself, can’t it just always be this easy? Sometimes knowing them this way is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a apart of in all the days of my life.

Falling into a routine with both kids is absolutely, still the most cagey part of being new to homeschool. It’s the one part I just wish was over, already. I was sure by now we’d have found our definite rhythm, but it’s such a toss up from day to day depending on everybody’s inconstant mood. What happens is that if Mary’s actually cooperating, then Matthew isn’t; and if both of them are doing their part to help the day run smoothly, then Scarlett’s an inconsolable nightmare.

Mind you, it sounds worse than it is, really. I’m surprised that it’s so often only one of them at a time causing a ruckus, especially when none of the three of them are above it. It helps that I’m ever-conscious of the fact that it could usually be much worse. And to their credit, even if a certain child’s been a bit of hellion all morning, when they see that another one of them is giving me a problem, they’ll pitch in to help me out however they can. Even Scarlett’s learned to suck up a little when the timings right and she can see that Mommy needs a little mercy.

Every day it’s a race to put out the torch before one of them can pass it to the next in line; the torch of inconvenient, age appropriate behavior.

That’s motherhood, though, whether you homeschool or not. I try to remember that although homeschooling definitely puts my ass deeper into the trenches of motherhood than I would be otherwise, it also puts me in a better position to parent them through the difficult phases. Assuming of course that I survive the sibling rivalry of this year before Matthew goes off to kindergarten, they’ll have become mavericks in the art of conflict resolution by the end of it all – of that, I’m sure.

That isn’t to say that our days are bad –  though they are usually a mess, I’ll give you that. It’s kind of like controlled chaos, but backward, I guess. The chaos is totally out of my control most of the time, but either through luck or sheer will or supernatural intervention, we end up learning a lot and having fun and reaping the rewards of our work in plentiful ways – not the least of which are pictures that prove as much to me as anyone else that, yes, we are doing a pretty bang up job if I do say so myself.

Moments like this are what it’s all about though. They’re the retribution I couldn’t trade for all the minutes to myself that life could offer, if it meant I had to miss even one like this. Even one. Next year he’ll be in full-time kindergarten, and I’m gonna miss this hair in the cradle of my neck over a soft-spoken story, like I have never missed anything, anything, anything in all of my life. People say that in my eyes, this boy can do no wrong, and I’ve made a regular habit of listing off ways that I’ve proven that not to be true, time and time again. I hold him to a pretty high standard of behavior and I don’t go easy on him when he’s crossed a line.

But there are those secret times, time just like this, that I can safely admit to myself that they’re probably right.

And I don’t even care.

Autumn at Home.

We’re encompassed by a big, pink, comfy sky. It’s the perfect backdrop for pictures of her in the front yard, wearing my favorite pair of skirted, denim overalls. The grass is too long, so I try to keep it out of frame. Weeds are grabbing at our ankles in certain spots, and the sidewalk is cracked, littered with sticks. This is home.

When I take pictures of her riding that old, beaten up trike – the one that wears the proud color scheme of plastic left out in the rain no less than 200 times and that belonged to her brother before he outgrew it –  I notice how small the houses are in our neighborhood. Again, this is home, I laugh to myself. In this weird way, I’m invested so emotionally into everyone of them. They are as much a part of our home as the places our floorboards creak on our way to the coffee pot early in the morning, but I still wonder if we’ll ever make our way out. Someof them are really nice, with landscaping that looks like it’s worth more than my life, owned by either really enthusiastic first-time buyers or friendly retired folk whose grandchildren like to swim at their house in the summer. Some are literally falling apart at the grout. Most lounge somewhere in between. I try not to point the camera at ones that make it look like we live in a glorified trailer park, our own some days included in the ones I consciously keep out of frame. But this is home, and I love it for all that it is, all that it holds, and all that it promises.

Decorating for Halloween was neat in that way things are when you do them for the first time, but our yard isn’t in it’s best shape ever and I’m not thrilled about drawing more attention to it with inflatable ghosts and Dollar Tree cobwebs. When you have a small house, you do what you can to make it look like something you take enough pride in for other people to view seriously. It’s not a status thing; it’s a thing I can’t explain because it’s all still a little new to me. The small, red brick face of this house, with it’s little, white railing, grey roof in need of replacement and blue shutters we painted ourselves, is the cover art of our story. It will never be grand, but I hope, at least, people can see that it’s loved.

When Autumn rolls around, the little steps we’ve taken to keep our yard manicured all through the warmer seasons give up on themselves. Today, rocks everywhere are out of place. Markers that fell under the patio furniture days are ago still lay there uncapped. And the only thing poking out from behind the lip of our stout garden bed fencing, which by the way is crooked from children playing on it all summer, are the dead stems of decapitated flowers that used to pop with color. Our hibiscus is yellowing right of the big, bay window, and that inflatable atrocity makes a thick, black cord have to run through our yard.

But worst of all, is that the leaves are starting to fall.

You can keep your colorless, barren landscapes and itchy, bulking fashion. Frankly, winter makes me want to forget that there is even an outside to miss. All fall serves to do is remind me that I better get started.

Once in a while though, after you’ve already begun to accept that the last taste of summer has been sipped, the sun will rise to unveil a surprisingly warm day for the end of October. And girls like me will have to drop everything to run out and hold hands with one, last day in bare knees before she has to go, for real this time. We planned a hike that was sure to be fantastic had we ever gotten to it, and settled comfortably instead for a walk around the block before dark. There was only the warm whisper of a breeze, our cats trailing in and out of the garden beds alongside us the whole way, neighbors waving. Scarlett smiles up at me, unwittingly searching for reassurance that they’re nothing to fear.

It’s practically perfect.

Surprised, I hear Matthew behind us, and I turn. He’s squealing in a voice that still seems kind of high for a boy his age. It’s the voice he has when a friend in Spiderman shoes is by his side, a grown-up is off his back for a while, and everything is right in the world — his outside voice. So free-range, it’s just shy of yelling, even though nothing he’s saying is important. It’s so different than inside, everything is. All the grown-ups do is laugh and feel good when they hear him being louder than he probably should, cheering him on when he does anything to break a sweat. His friend’s mom decided to take them all for a walk while he was playing at their house. Scarlett’s friend of two months younger sees her. We wait for them under a neighbor’s tree, halfway around the block, and they catch up fast. Matthew and his friend breathlessly give me a hug, like it’s the unlikeliest of places in the world to see us.

Now, it’s perfect.

Walking home, we pass 30 or 40 different houses. Every yard has a character so different than the one next to it even though the architecture doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative distinction. Dogs pace behind gates of obviously different price range, grills stand covered in tarps that look like a sports team jersey, cats stalk unimpressed, and birds flit out of the way.

Then we get home. I stand with my bare knees in a skirt that picks up the wind and dances around my thighs. I hug myself, pulling closed the sides of my sweater, facing the street. I look around at this place that I love so much with a blank, unhappy stare, and I remember Autumn.

Autumn Pasquale, a 12 year old girl. On a bike ride around her neighborhood, she was lured into a house, killed, and left to be discovered by investigators in a recycling bin two days later. It was five days ago now.

Looking on, I realize that I love this place a little less. I wonder about everyone I don’t know, about everyone I think that I do. I worry about the good neighbors my children will miss out on ever really being close to because I have to doubt every living thing around us. I think about my kids, and I mourn for all the freedom they’ll never really have because of stories this, so close to home.

Homeschool: Parenting To The Extreme.

Last night, I reached over my new, dog-eared book, clicked out the light and turned over in my bed, making a promise to myself. That if I ever write anything about homeschooling in the future, any kind of advice for newcomers, that I’ll never, ever be one of those people who say, “relax, you can do this” and leave it at that. I needed help when we first started. Until I got it, in fact, in the words of a few great reads buried within a sea of largely unrelatable ones about what it should be like to homeschool, I was sinking in little defeat after little, unrelenting defeat. Sonya Haskins said it best in her book, Homeschooling for the Rest of Us, when she voiced: “Parenting is a lot of work. Homeschooling is parenting to the extreme.”

Amen, sister.

A-freaking-men.

Homeschooling has drastically changed the way that I parent my children. (Not just educate.) It’s had to. For a spell, while homeschooling solved a plethora of issues we had hoped that it would, it also sent a whole new slew of problems spiraling out of control, like a blender turned on with the lid still off. I tried my best to keep up with damage control, but my best always seemed to fall short of what our family needed. Asking for help was an impossibility. I’d taken this venture on myself, at the sacrifice of our family’s peace. I knew that essentially, I’d have to handle it that way. And there were times that I didn’t even know where to begin. There was just so much to fix.

Homeschooling puts the issues your child has already been facing right at your doorstep, all up in your face and sometimes, breathing down your neck with no relief. Homeschooling doesn’t just add complications to family life. It leaves no room for doubt about issues you used to have the luxury of not realizing were there. You no longer have to peek through a small window every once in a blue moon, hoping to catch a fair glimpse of the big picture. You aren’t missing anything all of a sudden – which is as much a curse sometimes as it is a blessing. All of it is there: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the copiously unfair. Yours, entirely, to do something with.

A few months in, my approach is changing. I’m holding Mary more accountable lately, and to a higher standard. The complaints have gone up, but so has the quality of work she’s turning in, and the frequency that she smiles. To balance it out, I’ve let up on a lot of things too. She gets up when she’s ready to now instead of strictly at 8:00, but she isn’t finished for the day until all of her work is turned in. These are luxuries we didn’t have the first week of school. It’s an indication of two major victories. 1.) Mary takes the responsibility as seriously now as she needs to, to do well. 2.) We’ve graduated in the ranks; we’re no longer the fumbling newbies we used to be.

One of the silver linings to being homeschooled for Mary was supposed to be that she could sleep in a little. When she found out a few days before school actually began in August that I needed her in the schoolroom by 9:00 for at least a few weeks, the news was not well received. But I needed to know then that she’d take this venture seriously, so until she could show me that she would, rules were put in place to ensure that work got done. Today, she doesn’t need so much of that structure – which means that homeschooling gets to look a lot more like homeschooling is supposed to: organic, footloose and flexible.

If I had one major goal that I could pick from the thousands I’ve taken on in this endeavor, it would be to get her self-motivated. A close second would be to teach her what it means to receive and show respect. Anyone can follow an order if they’re forced to — I want her to excel because it’s in her best interest, and she knows it. Mary’s quick to point out whenever she’s given the chance here, that she doesn’t genuinely care about any of this crap. She doesn’t realize that that’s fine in this stage. Being self-motivated, to me, doesn’t mean jumping for joy at the opportunity to work hard. Sometimes it just means getting it done now so that you aren’t stuck doing it later.

It’s illustrated to me time and time again that the more effort I exert into caring, the less she will. It’s directly correlated, like two ends of a pulley. This is also exactly what’s laid out in widely renowned books about parenting, like Parenting With Love and Logic. I’ve known for a long time that as long as you do all of the caring for your children, they never have to. But I’ve never been forced to implement the idea, whether I was ready for it or not. Homeschooling put my ass in that seat. If I didn’t learn to stay disciplined in my ability to leave it all up to her, the work wouldn’t even get done. Point blank. As long as I wanted so intensely for her to care, she knew that I wouldn’t, in a million years let her fail. And you know what? She was right.

That isn’t the case anymore, and it’s probably the biggest shift in parenting philosophy I’ve ever put into practice.

Yesterday, for example, I sat down with her and looked forward to reading from our History text together, while she worked on a related assignment. But before I could start, her attitude was flagrantly drab, so much that her desire to overthrow the whole lesson plan was beyond the ability to ignore. Against my better judgement, I asked for her cooperation. I admitted that I wanted this to be fun, if only she could give it the opportunity. I warned her. But she took the opening as an invitation, instead, to make another dig, more aggressively. I got pissed, and I did the only thing I could do – the thing I was frustrated with myself for not doing in the first place, when I knew that I should have.

I walked away.

When I walk away, Mary knows that she has to read through the lesson herself. Homeschool is designed to involve the instructor as much or as little as the child needs for them to be. It’s geared to creating self-motivated learners. That means that everything she needs to learn the lesson is in a book at her disposal. I create extra games, stories, videos, demonstrations and activities to make it more personal than that, but if it’s necessary, she actually needs very little involvement from me outside of help and clarification. That gives me the freedom to walk away if I’m not being treated with the respect I deserve.

Respecting teachers has been a problem for her in the past, and it hasn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke just because her teacher now is me.

After walking out and getting a few stress-relieving chores out of the way (while admittedly muttering some garbage about “ungrateful, little…” under my breath) she worked. In ten minutes flat, she was done. Then, she moved onto the next assignment, rocked it out, asked a few quick questions for clarification, and then apologized in a way that was heartfelt and unforced. I noticed that while I worked on preschool activities with Matthew (because she was handling the 7th grade workload on her own), she followed, sitting next to us wherever we went. For the rest of the day, we unbegrudgingly worked side-by-side, separately, but more “on the same page” than on some of our best, more structured days that have come before.

I reminded her to stay on task a few times, but for the most part – if she wanted a break, I gave it to her. Because she woke up late, and asked to take a few hours to clean her room instead of do assignments, this meant that we were still working on a civics assignment while watching the presidential debate at 6:00. She despises politics like nothing else in the universe. But for over an hour, she was sharp, involved, and full of initiative until the assignment was done.

If that doesn’t illustrate respect and self-motivation to the umpteenth degree, then I don’t know what does.

Crafting With Moses.

Grappling Mary’s assignments this week without forgetting about Matthew was tough.  He’s come to me almost incessantly, asking to do some sort of craft or activity, only to be shooed away apologetically for “just a little while longer”. If you follow my homeschooling blog, you may have noticed a stark lack of cute pictures like this.

Sinister, I know. To make up for it, Friday, he was my focus.

Mary’s social studies curriculum covers the ancient world this year, highlighting events in biblical history as they relate to other events around the world taking place at the same time. Matthew gets such a kick out of stories from the bible, the way small children often do, and I don’t want to squander a second of that all-natural, totally volitional fascination. So when it came to studying Egypt in the late 1400’s B.C., I knew a Moses craft would be in high demand.

Pinterest had a number of cute little ditties on the subject for a pre-school crowd.

      

I chose a variation of this one, which is cuter than ours, but required a purchase of parts.

This blog, however, had just the loophole for me, with a collection of absolutely adorable bible characters available for free to print. We’ve been printing them out for weeks now, posting characters that we learn about in our studies to our ongoing timeline. This time, I printed just the sheet with Moses, sized him nice and small, and chose to make our own version of the craft above. Having just watched Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt over breakfast, we had BIGGER waves in mind. (The only technical hiccup here is the fact that Moses is already holding the ten commandments in the printable picture, which had not been given to him yet – small content error in the eyes of a preschooler, so we used it anyway.)

The whole shebang took about 15 minutes start to finish, left minimal mess, and was a goldmine of teachable moments. The best part, though, is having the efforts of your little one be rewarded at the end with something so cool to display. No dry time, and by using cardstock, it was even sturdy enough for him to pass among his friends later on in the afternoon when they came over to play. I love crafts for Matthew particularly because they compel him to explain every detail of what he learned when he’s showing off whatever it is he made.

Here’s what he did, all on his own:

        

1.) I instructed him to draw a line down the middle of one sheet of cardstock in order to cut it into two equal halves.

2.) He made the cut – no simple feat for small hands!

3.) On one side of each cardstock half, he had to cut a row of slits. (Halfway through the second sheet, he needed to rest his hand. But when I offered to take over, recovery was swift!)

4.) Then, he rolled the halves until they formed a tube, so that when he let go, they rolled upward a little on their own.

5.) He figured out where the glue would need to go on the full sheet of cardstock so that the rolled half from the other sheet would come up like a wave when it was attached to the top. He did this for both sides.

(While he did this, I cut a small shape from a toilet paper tube about the size of Moses, so that we could paste him to something sturdy.)

6.) Matthew cut Moses out and pasted him to the piece of toilet paper tube, which helped to ensure Moses would stand upright.

I glued our nice, stiff Moses in between the two waves and – Voila! Fun, new centerpiece for the living room mantel. :-)

Always In Your Corner. Psyche!

As middleman between my husband and our kids I keep a few rules for myself. One of them is that I don’t bombard him, as soon as he lumbers through the door among a symphony of jangling keys, with a long list of obligations that need his attention or complaints about the kids.

The infamous “they” say that, although we don’t often realize it, small transitions like that of just arriving somewhere, can make processing new information harder than after the person has had about 10 minutes to adjust. (For Spencer that means stealing a few kisses and promptly making a B-line for the toilet.) It’s a little thing, but life with three kids is enough of a circus without our adding to preexisting frustration. It makes Spencer laugh in that condescending “aren’t you adorable?” sort of way, but I take pride in recognizing small ways to make it all run a little smoother – even if they elicit good-natured teasing from him about the way I “read too much”. Maybe it’s all a bunch of malarkey. I guess I just figure that if it doesn’t hurt to implement, and there’s arguably something important at stake, then why take a chance on the matter? I like having the whole family know that I’m one person they can always count on to be  unsinkably at their side.

Yesterday, for a little while, I didn’t care anymore. I just thirsted to complain, and I’ll be honest: I wanted the kids to hear. Just this once. This breaks like four of my self-imposed rules. Big ones.

In my defense, Spencer was in the bathroom and that just happens to be within a 2 to 10 foot radius of their bedrooms. Plus, I was pissed. My little mother-of-the-year complex could have gone to hell.

Look, I’m not trying to be the world’s most fantastic mother. But I take pride in doing this mom-thing well. I take pride in reaching for a higher level of understanding as to what my children are going through, a deeper patience, a richer companionship between all the members of my family and I. So I try not to dump my grievances on Spencer after he’s worked a fifteen hour day, and I try not to be within earshot of (deceptively) easily effected children when I do unload a little about the ways in which they’ve disappointed me. They’re feelings are more precious to me than porcelain to a doll, I just sometimes wish that my feelings meant a little something to them, too. And that’s a blasphemous thing to admit for a mom. We’re supposed to fit this mold of these almighty beings, impenetrable to the snide remarks and hurled insults of overly entitled children.

Usually, I think I do pretty well. But yesterday struck a new nerve with me somehow. Mary mocked everything out of my mouth almost, taking clear advantage of my every effort to be friendly and available in response, and Matthew learned from Mary to shout: GOD, JUST KILL ME in reply to being made to clean his room. It wasn’t the worst day we’ve ever had, but it was a backslide from the ones we’ve been working toward with a respectable degree of success.

Maybe it was the PMS, maybe it was the added stress of being so behind on the housework, maybe it’s that I’m still growing into motherhood a little and I haven’t become entirely superhuman yet.  But I felt markedly outnumbered.

When I vented, baby on hip, to Spencer, it built me back up a little to have them hear that I had someone mighty in my corner. Someone that had a power over them that even I didn’t. Someone like Dad. I may rule the roost most of the time, but this is a guy who could strike fear into the heart of anybody in 3 words or less. And that guy’s on my team, bitc — I mean, dear children.

Let me interject here by saying that I don’t like the thought of fostering family feud, in any direction or context. But as the kids grow into bigger and bigger pains in our asses, I see with evermore clarity that that’s probably just how it’s going to be sometimes despite my efforts. Teenagers will slam doors, four-year-olds will have front row seats to seminars on how to sass their mother taught by expert older siblings, and toddlers will slap us when we ask them nicely to please stop ruining everything we own.

I’m not a doctor of child psychology or anything, so I’m not sure yet how (though I’m sure that it will; wtf doesn’t these days?) this’ll damage my children for life – but there’s something about the commiserating with my husband about things like this at the end of a bad day that… I don’t know, doesn’t feel so entirely wrong. Something about the way that he makes me laugh, giving horrible advice I would never take seriously. Something about the way that, without having to actually step in at all sometimes, he can give me a new perspective just by referring to them in secret as ungrateful cuss-words.

Whether it’s for comic relief or a camaraderie of complete, fed-up seriousness, I know that he’s the place I can go to let my hair down. He’s the one person that would never blame me for admitting that they really piss me the bleep off sometimes. He’s a friend.

Being the sorry sap that I am though, yesterday I felt remarkably guilty afterward for complaining to my husband about the kids – our precious babies, who do so much even on their worst days to make us both proud. I want to focus entirely on the good that they do, and I shame myself too much for the times I have to admit out loud to someone that they sometimes, sometimes tempt me to do things parenting experts today would no doubt wag the finger at me for.

When people ask why I like to keep a blog I normally give them the generic load of bull about how I hope that someday my kids will read it. It’s partly true. There’s a lot of stuff in the things that I write about them – be it in a hardback journal, the five-line message on the backside of a photograph, or a blog like this – that I’d love for them to hear, to see, to know. Because of that, I rarely use a place like this to vent; I’m not sure I want them having to see this side of it. You know, the truth.

Sometimes, though, I’m not so sure it’d be an awful thing for them to hear when they’re old enough to take it; to know that more often then we’ll ever care to admit, while they were up in their bedrooms cursing our existence (although we’d never have it in us to be truly cruel), we were just a few rooms away, having fun at their expense too. In fact, it probably made us better parents face-to-face. That’s gotta count for something.

Toddler Activities: Tuesday, at FML O’clock.

In the cooler months of September – May, Matthew likes going to something called “tot skate” every Tuesday at noon. I’m stoked about this one in particular. We haven’t been to tot skate in almost six months, and this time Scarlett is two. This time, she’ll get her very own pair of teeny-tiny skates!

Moments like these, I love having the number of children I do. Sometimes Spencer and I trade looks with each other that say, ‘seriously, I love you, but why the @#$% did we have so many kids?’ There are plenty of upsides though. For one, every time you turn around, there’s a new development to celebrate. Something so bleeping cute it makes you forget for a little while that so many things about raising them is a bigger pain in the ass than you bargained for.

Mary’s as grateful as anyone for activities that break up the monotony of our school day. But getting out of the house at the time these “tot” activities are when you have a middle-schooler with you is weighed down by one big, whopping flaw. It usually means pulling into the neighborhood around the same time school buses are dropping off everyone else – and then sheepishly having to remind your poor sap of a student that they still have, like, have a day’s worth of crap to do.

Their 10-12 o’clock start times aren’t great, but I owe these things to Matt and Scarlett. Striving to make it work, I figure there’s a little fresh air, exercise and socialization involved in it for all of us. (If nothing else, Mary gets a cookie at the snack break and lolly at the end. Hook, line and sinker.) I pack a folder of worksheets for her to complete while I skate with the kids, and I deem this crisis averted.

We get there, successfully strap wheels to the feet of both small kids, and make our delightfully unsteady path to the floor.

Then I make the rookie (novice, DUMBASS) mistake of presenting it to her as an option. “Here you go,” I say. “I packed a few activities for you to do if you want.” (… if you want. Did I just @#$%^&* say ‘if you want’?)

She opts out. It’s a real shocker.

Okayy. Hiccup #1.

It’s a capricious situation that can go one of two ways. Opting out of a confrontation with an audience when I have kids on wheels to worry about, I caution her that choosing not to complete them now would be a pretty big waste of time. It is, however, her choice. It’s quiet here, I tell her. There are comfortable tables at which to work. By the time we get home, it’ll be close to two and even if she completes the folder, we have other assignments to start after lunch. She’s nonplussed. So, that’s that. Not begrudgingly, we move on, tag teaming her brother and sister on skates. It’s hilariously fun.

Matthew’s wheels are WAY too loose, so much that even when he stands entirely still with the rest of his class, they’re maniacally wandering in opposite directions. His arms are flailing willy-nilly 99% of the time, making a show of how hopelessly out of control he is. He falls in a thousand ways, laughing all the time. Unaffected, as if he seriously can’t feel any of it – he gets up, watching the instructor with a studious scrutiny between jerks, spasms and hard crash landings. Unlike the sofa-acrobatics we’re used to at home, this I get to laugh at and cheer for. I’m having a blast.

Scarlett is too! There’s a tantrum in the beginning, but that’s over and she’s totally into it now. When the big kids race from one end of the rink to another, practicing their brake technique with a game of red-light, green-light, she clops her feet around like a newborn foul, oblivious to the fact that she could never keep up. I’m tell you, if cuteness could kill.

It’s all going too well. The universe catches on straightaway and runs interference.

Matthew says something that Mary thinks might have been an insult to a woman standing nearby. She tells me, in front of the person she thinks he may have insulted, about the transgression. I nod, giving her a look, but Matthew shouts protest. He did not!, he starts to interrupt, but Mary won’t stop talking, so he gets increasingly flustered by the millisecond. MARY! NO I DIDN’T! YOU HEARD ME WRONG! MARY!! STOP TALKING!! In fractions of time too small to react, he’s pulling at her clothes, humiliated at the false accusation. She hits him back. I believe that she heard him wrong, but at this point, he’s in trouble for putting his hands on her and shouting.

I’m calm. After correcting Matthew, I mention quietly to Mary that to avoid him reacting out of embarrassment, maybe next time she can tell me in private. I’m not scolding her at all, but I manage to piss her off. I always baby Matthew, she sasses. I say that it’s because he’s four, but (this burns me up because there’s no way for me to dispute it until he actually turns 12 and she throws it at me all the time) when he turns 12, I’ll still let him get away with everything. 

This is one accusation that, even coming from a 12-year-old, gets under my skin. Matthew spends half his life in the time-out corner, being reprimanded for screwing up. But if there’s ever a time I get the luxury of showing him a little patience and understanding of the fact that he’s four, suddenly, I’m playing favorites. It’s childish of me, but I feel like it’s unfair.

As if on cue, Scarlett throws a tantrum. FML. Raising three kids is impossible to do with any degree of skill. It shouldn’t matter, but the fact that there’s an audience makes it all seem somehow harder.

Quite honestly, I think to myself collecting the baby, Mary got away with acting like a four-year-old until she was at least 9 and half; if she’s seeking fairness, I’d have to give up correcting him almost ever. I debate telling her that. Then I DO tell her that. But then I breathe, remembering that perceptions of injustice come with the age, and I explain to her why I reacted that way. She understands and genuinely apologizes. I do too. Then Matthew.

Exhausted and ready to go, we leave with our lollipops. Everyone says they had fun. If there’s one thing you can be sure of with these guys, they won’t blow smoke up your rear. If they say they had fun, you know it’s the truth.

All things considered, I’m really proud of them. Matthew showed a remarkable perseverance. Scarlett took on a new challenge for the first time with gusto, actually following instruction from the teacher a good year and a half before Matthew ever would have. And Mary was not only a big help, she patiently allowed her brother and sister to enjoy themselves for an hour and a half, never once making a big deal about how boring it could have been if she wanted to see it that way. She showed a lot of consideration, and that made me proudest of all.

I took them out to Wendy’s for lunch as a treat. Mary and I studied together over chili and fries, while Scarlett and Matthew pushed the boundaries of controlled chaos, bringing attention to our table that seemed to make more people giggle in our direction than get pissed. In moments like these, even when I’m not sure I can follow it up with a decent justification, I still love having the number of kids that I do.

The Last Days of Childhood.

Yesterday morning I put a stamp on the envelope of Matthew’s kindergarten application. It’s a charter school twenty minutes away that’ll teach him math in Greek. I told facebook to keep it’s fingers crossed, half joking. Then I thought about it far longer than I expected to, keeping myself up last night with thoughts of all we’ve done to prepare for this next phase of his life. I wondered if it was enough, if it was too much, if there’s even such a thing as either.

I do want him to get into it (badly), but that isn’t what this mind-seize is about. If he has to go to Pleasantville or Thurgood Marshall elementary, I won’t throw myself off the edge of an overpass. This worry is about only having a year with him before kindergarten – and that’s probably because the other day, Spencer said this:

“Come on, let him live a little, Mommy. Seriously, do you realize that this is his last year of freedom? This is the last he’ll ever know of waking up whenever he wants, playing for as long as he wants, managing his time HOWEVER he wants. He’ll never have this freedom again. Let him live it up!”

Of course, this was following my hand-on-hip response to him handing our four-year-old a Coke-a-Cola 10 minutes before bed, but still. The sentiment was true. Painfully accurate, like a kick to the shin. God, this really is a crucial, fleeting time. So it begs the question: what do we do with it?

I feel a massive responsibility here because I’m the one in charge of his time. Since he isn’t going to a traditional pre-school, I have an obligation to invest a fair chunk of our time to preparing him for the “rigorous” curriculum ahead. Then again, my eldest child just got her period; the last thing on Earth I want to do is rush the process of growing them up.

I’m not even sure what it is I think I have to work so hard at “preparing” him for. Matthew’s always dealt well with change. We can leave him anywhere, with anybody. I can’t promise he’ll behave, but I can promise that (though he’ll be over-the-moon to see us pick him up), he won’t care we left. In fact, that whole over-the-moon bit is a bullshit ruse to fluff our egos; he does it to be polite. To him, new experiences have always been a welcomed adventure. He’s afraid of rides that go too high and too fast at the same time, but he’ll try them at least once just to make sure, and he isn’t afraid of new people or places or rules. He’s a sweet, take-charge kid.

And the boy is smart. By the way, do you mean to tell me there’s no place to indicate on a kindergarten application that this kid, right here, will someday be president of the United States? Like, for real?

I have no reason to worry that he isn’t as prepared for kindergarten academically or cognitively as he’ll ever need to be, but (probably because I’m a little bit of a psychopath) I ache to teach him more. He’s never led me to believe he’ll have trouble making more friends in a week than we can afford to feed at his 6th birthday party, but I get a tiny pang of apprehension if it’s been more than two days that he’s not visited a friend or more than a week since he’s learned a new name.

Enrollment is a year away, but it’s all just moving too fast. It’s hard to explain because I don’t want this process to take any longer than it has to, either. Keeping him home with me forever wouldn’t even help; he’d still grow, he’d still leave my side a little more every year, taking on more responsibility that I can’t shoulder for him – that I have less and less to do with even teaching him to carry. In a way, I kind of look forward to it just being over, and him being in that next phase of life so that I can be there for him, completely, knowing exactly the way that I need to be. Right now, there’s too much freedom, and I don’t like being uncertain about what to do with it.

If we spend half an hour at the park, for example, I wonder if it was half an hour well spent. Could we have been doing something somehow more enriching with our time, or should I have let him linger there a while longer. I wonder if I should be preparing him for classroom consequences by tolerating less, or I should pamper him in leniency while he still has a chance to savor the prerogative of a mother’s sympathetic shoulder.

This, of course, is a far cry from how he feels about these developments.

He’s been asking about how much longer he has to wait before he can go to school, like he’s expecting power rangers to chaperone recess or Santa Clause to cut his grapes in the cafeteria. Kindergarten, to him, is like some magical afterlife that he can’t wait to be promoted to. But I’m treating the boy like he’s some terminally ill family pet that I’m spoiling with extra table scraps, trying to ensure that at least his last days with me are comfortable ones. It’s pathetic and unnecessary, but that’s why I want it to be over. I’m not handling this with a whole ton of emotional grace.

 

~

So Saturday, a hot and breezless noon in the front yard evaporated into a cool, windswept twilight; the first of this year’s fall. Bantering between toys and friends from one yard to the next, Matthew was mosquito-bitten, filthy and free. His cheeks were flush with the color of fresh air and fun, his jacket barely hanging onto him. It took more than a dozen attempts at wrangling him inside before he was forced to comply. When he finally did, exhaustion had the chance to set in and he cried like it was the end of the world.

This is where I’d love to report that any doubts I had about what he needs from us right now, during this transitory time, dissipated into thin air. That we  scooped him up, smothered him in just the right dose of understanding and reassurance, and that it was fine. Or that we stayed strong in the face of his protest and would not tolerate any less than our due respect, and that it paid off. But it was messier than usual. We shooed him into the back door as best we could, one of us lecturing him and the other quietly helping to clean up the yard; then, out of guilt and uncertainty, trading roles. I start lecturing and Spencer lightens up on him a little, offering to help him pick up so that it won’t be so overwhelming for him. It doesn’t make his protest worse, but it doesn’t make it better, either.

Spencer’s battling the same demons I am, though I doubt it’s consciously. Where one night he’s nudging me to lighten up, to give the boy a little freedom, to let him march to the beat of his own drum while he still has the opportunity – the next, he’s exasperated at our “own child’s” unwillingness to march on demand at the crack of our voices. Plus, that little nugget of wisdom he gave me to chew on the other day wasn’t the first of it’s kind – which means that even if he doesn’t talk about it ad nauseam the way I do, it’s on his mind. We’re struggling to find a middle ground, here, and it sucks to feel like neither one of us has a grip on exactly what we need – or want – to do.

I sure wish that I could preserve this time in a jar on the mantle: the eccentrically sweet smell of dandelions and peanut butter and boyhood all stepping at once into an afternoon bath; the distinct thrill of a new library book every other Tuesday morning; the weight of his body, uneven and giggly in my arms at exactly this age. But more so I wish that I could do it without clipping his wings – without actually trapping him. Spencer and I are imperfect parents to an imperfect boy (or, you know, at least that’s what they tell me), and we don’t always agree on where to go or how to get there with him. Juggling so many of our own individual ideals and priorities and dreams for him can sometimes throw a wrench or two in even our best laid compromises. But what we both want the most for this boy is pretty straightforward.

We just want him to live like there’s nothing holding him back, not even us.

Her Birthday.

We’ve been so busy adjusting lately that Scarlett turning two was sort of marginalized right up until it actually happened.

Then the day came. And suddenly, our little punk woke up looking just the same as she had everyday before it for quite some time, but being this brand new, unfamiliar number. And I can’t explain why it mattered, but it suddenly did.

Before she woke up I wrote this long, embarrassing letter to her and then poured over photographs, highlighting some of the sweetest moments I’m sure to ever experience in all the vastness of my life. Then, we dressed her in the first of her fall outfits and went on a family outing to the orchard. The orchard has been dubbed the official tradition for our family in celebrating Scarlett. It just so happened to be the first place that we took her to as a newborn, fresh from the hospital bassinet. Well, that’s not true. Actually the first place she had ever gone as a newborn was a wedding that I was a bridesmaid in – which is pretty notable for a kid who’s ten days old, but the orchard was the first place our family had gone, officially complete. Seeing the photo afterward of myself, hunched together with these four ridiculous people I’ve come to love in such a short time like the hibiscus loves a summer breeze, grinning under that universally unflattering 2:00 sun in a wagon of hey was incomparable to any other I’ve felt before or since. The week she turned one, we wound up there again. I can’t remember now if it was coincidence or not. But the picture of her actually leaning over the wagon herself this time, smiling like she somehow knew this would wind up being the kind of photograph we’d have to show at her high school graduation party – it made me want to never, ever stop getting ones like it. So far, we haven’t.

This year, being so mentally beat from adjusting to homeschool and its accompanying changes to family life, we decided just to forgo the party and take her there instead. We invited a few family and friends – most of whom couldn’t make it on such short notice –  but there was no cake, only a handful of balloons her brother and sister blew up in the car ride there, and no money spent other than the price of admission and the nine dollars splurged on a toy broom and dustpan I had her pick out from the store herself.

It was one of the greatest days in Stucky family history, though – without any of that. In fact, I think it was even better without any of the usual distractions. Because, like everyday since the one in which we perched her, looking terribly uncomfortable on top of a pumpkin at eleven days old, it was filled with her in a hundred irreplaceable ways. Ways that make everyday as a part of our family, incredible.

And seriously, wow. Just look at all we have to celebrate over cider and doughnuts. Just take a look real quick, at how enormously lucky we are.