Little Bare Feet in the Doorway.

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And then they wake up, and just like that it’s Christmas morning.

All those weeks of instagramming little toy elves, 24 days of having an advent calendar chocolate with breakfast, are done and dusted. Little bare feet in our doorway are the bells of Christmas. “Mommy, Daddy, are you awake?” they whisper. The perfect juxtaposition of quiet, just before everyone’s favorite ruckus.

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Making Snowflakes for Newtown.

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When I was little, before I knew what a national tragedy was, I used to think that grown-ups all just pretended to care about things like that. I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine crying over the hurt of a total stranger the way I’d seen or heard adults doing before. My mom used to tell me, in slow, reminiscent detail, about being in Miss So-and-So’s second grade class the day Kennedy was assassinated. Then there’s that country song about the whole word crying when the space shuttle Explorer fell out of the sky. In 10th grade, when my whole school was sent home early because our country was under attack, I still had a hard time feeling personally connected to those who went to work that day and never came home, or to the millions of family members devastated by the sonic boom following every single, tragic death. Of course it was awful and sad and serious, but I still came home and microwaved a hot pocket and watched t.v. at my friend’s townhouse and was glad I didn’t have homework.

I’ve cried so many times over what happened in Connecticut. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Maybe it’s because they weren’t. I don’t know, but I have a hard time understanding anyone who can’t cry over this.

I had to wave Mary away when she came home from girl scouts on Tuesday, and told me that six of them were girl scout Daisies. I had to Lamaze-breathe myself out of crying in front of the Ninjago lego sets at Toys ‘R Us, because I read that morning one of the little boys shot, loved those stupid things. I bet his mom had Christmas shopping almost done… She might be wondering what to do with that very $30.00 toy now that there’s no Noah to unwrap it.

Aaaaand, I have to stop.

Anyway, in the days that followed, there have been choirs of children singing Silent Night on comedy shows, and the flags have been set at half mast as if these children were the tiniest of soldiers; these teachers, the most badass of heroes. And the president cried on air, just mustering the gall to tell our country what happened.

A teacher, patting her eyes with a tissue but managing a smile, told us a story about one lion-hearted little boy who said to her as they were locked in a bathroom, “It’s okay, I know karate! I’ll lead the way out.”

Freckle-dotted faces of children who never even stopped believing there’s a tooth fairy yet, have littered the news. The last time I thought to check it, The Huffington Post had been alive and rowdy with political opinion. Three days ago the biggest story on there was the Eulogy of a six-year-old’s mommy, saying one last upbeat and crushingly brave goodbye. I sobbed all the way through the second half, locking myself in the bathroom until I could breathe enough of the pink out from behind my glasses.

And this one — ugh, this one hit me the worst.

I don’t know these kids. But I know what it’s like to fear for the safety of my children every waking moment (and for that matter, even in my reoccurring dreams) like there is nothing, nothing, nothing worse than losing them in even the gentlest, most peaceful of ways. I keep trying not to care because it’s four days before Christmas and every time Silent Night comes on, I’m a worthless puddle of grief. I can’t think or focus on anything but knowing that this really happened to somebody else’s Matthew and Mary and Scarlett. And for a long time after that, I don’t care a lot about very much else.

So the reason I’m writing this, even though I told myself that I wouldn’t, is because I’ve been wracking my brain for something helpful to do. How in the hell you can possibly help grieving people so far away, dealing with the intentional murders of their smallest family members days before Christmas — I had no idea. But I wanted to find something, and that’s honestly never happened to me before, so I thought it important to act on.

This morning I found this: Snowflakes for Newtown at I Can Teach My Child.

Obviously, the many survivors of the kindergarten massacre won’t be returning to their old, sullied classrooms. There’s a new building being set up for them to go back to in January, but there’s no doubt that it’ll be hard. There’s a lot that we can’t do for those kids. But what we can do, is make snowflakes. If all of us around the country make a few snowflakes with our kids this holiday and mail them to the new school in Connecticut, those precious babies – whose innocence has been ripped from their souls far, far too soon – will return in January to a cheerful, little Winter Wonderland of snow.

That’s pretty cool. Small, but big, ya know?

Mary made something with her girl scout troop also, that they’ll be mailing to the school. I’m curious to know if anyone else is aware of, or can come up with, any ways (seriously, at all) to contribute – either to the families of victims or to help make life easier for the surviving teachers and students, or just to give our condolences to the community of Newtown, whose Christmas this year is sure to be a hard one. If so, leave a comment and I’ll do everything I can to spread the word.

Let me know if you guys make snowflakes today. Before we drop our letters off to Santa, it’s certainly what we’ll be doing over here!

Being a Homeschool Mom on the Holidays – oh, and All the Magic of Christmas, Too. No Pressure.

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Now that we’re at the end of our pre-planned schedule, organization is getting muddy.

Yesterday I took an hour to get our Christmas cards in order and it threw off our whole Thursday. Days that we leave the house are troublesome always, and that’s exactly what we have to do today – again, which will likely push us even (at least a little) further behind. Because I’m responsible for the health and upkeep of five people, four mice, two cats and a house, I have to pack us all into the minivan and pull out of here a lot.

I just can’t wait for things to get back to normal. Which is like, exactly the opposite of what my holiday spirit usually sounds like – or especially, what a homeschool mom’s is supposed to.

Being a mom is a lot of work on it’s own. Being a mom on the holidays is more work. Being a novice homeschool mom on the holidays to three kids is quite literally maddening. There are harder things that I could be obligated to, I know that and I appreciate it, believe me. But this season in this phase of my life comes with a lot of pressure. I am responsible in so many ways for keeping the magic alive, and I’m sorry, it’s fun – it is. But it’s just a lot to live up to right now.

Today I have to get a shower before we buy a new broom, go on a nature walk and do the library.

Speaking of which (real quick): have you ever walked around for three days on a floor that usually requires sweeping 3 times a day, but hasn’t been swept at all? I don’t know how a broom handle actually snaps in half, but ours did. The crunch under my feet, when I’m already feeling behind on so much, has me ready to blow a gasket – and I don’t even know what that is.

I’m positively dreading that I have to take time for something so unrelated to school. Oh, I don’t mind nature walks, having to buy things for the house or spending quality time at the library because each one is school-related, and that’s my number one priority right now. It’s the shower I begrudge, which, to a younger me would have been unfathomable. (And even to the older me is still kind of gross.) It used to be that I couldn’t function without a shower. Now I wake up on the days I don’t need one celebrating that it’s one less obligation I have to plan around. There are already so many predictably unpredictable deviations that happen as a natural consequence of working with kids, that throwing in my own personal hygiene is what always seems to tip the scale.

Wow, that sentence was depressing.

Anyway, the holidays are making it especially hard. I hate to be one more person in the world bitching about something that on every level, should be slowed down to appreciate, so I’ll make this quick. Bare with me for just a paragraph.

I have to design, print, embellish and mail out holiday cards because ordering them is too unnecessary an expense right now. I have to keep up with the tree that is destroyed on a continuous, nightly loop because of our new kitten. I have to “find” Elfie every morning before the kids are awake – which Mary always reminds me in secret code I could be doing better. I have to decorate, which makes me feel even more obligated to have the house presentable enough to fully enjoy. I have to shop and wrap and plan in preparation for the holiday itself, while keeping an impossible number of presents well-hidden from snoopy children. I have to do holiday crafts and baking with the kids and not cuss at the mess left for me to clean afterward, because that would kind negate the point of doing it in the first place. I have to make time for spiritual lessons surrounding the holidays. I have to cart them around to holiday activities (visiting santa, making gingerbread houses at the library, themed skating), not to mention a THOUSAND birthdays that all seem to fall in December – not the least of which is my husband’s. (Seriously people, whatever aphrodesiac about March is so coercive it actually causes you to think: hm, Christmas falls exactly nine months ahead of today and I STILL want to do this with you right now — I’d like to know about.) And there’s a lot of pressure to do it all, while surfing the everyday wave of chaos, with a smile. It’s not just exhausting, it’s just flatly impossible to keep up with entirely, day after day. So to top it with a cherry, I finish just about everyday, feeling like I’ve still fallen short.

If I devote myself to everything at once, my heart just isn’t into any of it all the way. If I try focusing on a few major priorities at once, whatever I didn’t have time for STILL taunts me until I get to it. Yes, laundry, I SEE YOU, I GET IT.

But the one thing that I won’t let myself let slide on is school for the kids. Or at least, that’s what I told myself just before I did.

Yesterday was something I don’t want to repeat. I was so frustrated with how disorganized everything suddenly felt, that I decided to let nothing stop us from getting caught up – on housework, on schoolwork, on holiday stuff, on everything. We were still doing spelling after dark while I simultaneously jumped from cooking dinner to wiping down neglected appliances around the kitchen. Mary was a good sport about it, but that’s exactly my problem. She’s finally at a place where she doesn’t hate being homeschooled. Her behavior and general enthusiasm is what I’ve dreamed of working with from the beginning, so she’s the last thing I want winding up at the mercy of my struggle to keep up. I’m extremely proud of her… She’s a big priority to me right now.

My plan for the day is pretty simple and straightforward, but one that I know I have to keep chipping away at in order to not fall further behind.

I’ll wake her up early enough to be showered and fed by the time Matthew and I are done with preschool. There’s leftover sausage gravy from yesterday so breakfast should be quick and easy. Elfie is already situated, so that’s done.

Matthew and I will do our usual morning routine: calendar, phonics, math, and reading while Scarlett plays at our feet.

Scarlett will join us for read-aloud just before an early nap. We’ll read Scooby-Doo and the Egyptian Treasure Something-or-Other, and then the Revolutionary War picture book before they go back to the library. I really wanted Mary to do a book report on Miss Peregrines House for Peculiar Children, but we just ran out of time. The books area already a day or two late so they can’t be renewed either. Meh.. It wasn’t even part of her curriculum material – I just thought it would fun. You win some, you lose some. At least reading it was fun.

Mary and I will do grammar, writing, and mechanics before going to the library. Ideally, Matthew will clean his room while this is happening, but that’s aiming pretty high. While we’re out, we’ll pick up the new broom that we desperately need, I’ll take out cash to get those pesky library fines off my back, then we’ll stop at the park near the library, where we can take a little nature walk. On our walk I’m hoping to let the kids collect a bag of small treasures, like berries, pine needles and cones for a “nature wreath” craft I pinned last night. We’ll get home and do that, which will count toward art. Afterward, we’ll sit down to really focus most of our energy on science — which is, coincidentally all ABOUT energy today. Last week we did our first lapbooking activity, and I’m hoping to make it a weekly Friday endeavor for physics so that at the end of the year, we’ll have a cool, 3-D display for each lesson. (From this point on, anyway.) I also have a little video about energy set up and we’ll do our regular, weekly experiment while the baby takes a second nap.

Having kids on the holidays is literally, in every sense of the word, priceless. I cherish it like nothing else in the world but this could possibly be loved. There’s nothing I’d trade it for: no amount of carefree nights out with childless friends, no romantic wintry dates, no ostentatious gifts that my husband and I could afford to exchange between ourselves. I wouldn’t trade my mess-making time with these brats for all the free time or clean floors or phone calls made in peace the good Lord could have offered me instead.

I’m frazzled, but it’s just because living up to everything that they deserve means so much. Really, that sentiment alone – just typing it out, kind of helps to pull it all back into perspective.

That, and knowing that pretty soon at least, I’ll be able to sweep the fucking floor.

Teaching Humility.

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Stepping out of the bathroom, a towel heavy on my head, he was the first thing my wandering eyes caught. Watching him play quietly in his room is always a treat, but this was new.

Sitting just on the edge of his bed, his little knees were cradling a book – a big one – open to some random page of an unnumbered chapter in the middle. His eyes were locked in a sturdy gaze over the page, his body stiff with concentration — except for a murmur brushing his lips.

The only bathroom we have faces all three of their bedrooms, so no matter what time of day or night it is, it’s just habit to look in on them on my way out. I usually stop there, wrapped in a towel, watching them for a minute while I pass the time it takes to shimmy a second one over my hair and swab the dampness out of my ears.

His legs are so short that his size 10 sneakers have to rest on the lip of wood nesting his mattress. He is four, really reading a nineteen chapter book about Abraham Lincoln, published in the sixties and pulled from a box of library recycling just before it was trashed. His dad, an unpolished, big-hearted recycling truck driver, knows how much I love reading “crap like this” to the kids, so he’s always coming home with books that almost didn’t make it.

He doesn’t understanding half of what he’s reading yet, not from a book like that. He’s skipping over words that are more than a few syllables long, unless they’re familiar enough to try sounding out. But he’s working hard at something, just because he feels like it.

What’s shocking about it is that ten minutes before, he was rocking the house with a lung-scathing tantrum. His sister was dragging him by the wrist out of her room and I could hear Matthew calling her a stupid jerk idiot. I had pulled the curtain back grudgingly and was literally screaming to be heard under the hissing hot water, through the barrier of the closed bathroom door, and over their combined volume on the other side, while he kicked repeatedly at a wall. “GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW, MATTHEW! MATTHEW, COME IN HERE AND TELL ME THE PROBLEM! MATTHEW!”

So I expected to see him sitting on the floor when I got out, still seething in a pile of thrown-about toys, arms crossed and face scrunched. Our days always turn again and again from feeling like I’ve got none of this under control, to being positively on top of it all, like I should have someone being paid to follow me around and take notes. I’m shocked, but not floored. Chaos will ensue again, you can be sure of that.

“Wow. Whatcha got there, bud?”

“Mommy!!” An urgency charges over him, snapping his trance like pretzel while he clumsily flutters through pages. “Look at these cool pictures – hold on, I’ll find ’em…” His lips wouldn’t stop moving except to rapidly suck in spit that sometimes collects when he talks really fast — a habit that drives his sister up the wall because it’s gross and embarrassing. “I found this book about a president! His name is not APE, it’s ABE. I opened it and I saw, guess what word!: RIDE. And then I saw another word next to it that I didn’t know and I did my tech-a-nique that you showed me and I sounded it and it said FREEDOM. Like slaves! Like in our book about Thanksgiving! And then I kept lookin’ and there was THE and there was IS and there was BUT and there was MEN and there was ABOUT and there was GUNS and there was LOTS of words that I know. HERE’S THE PICTURE! Look!!”

I cocked my head over the page and we both laughed, scrunching up our noses at each other and then back at the book. Staring up at us was an inky illustration of a hand doing something poetic that wouldn’t make sense to any kid sporting cartoon tank-engines on the side of his shoe. I almost explained it to him, what the picture metaphor was trying to say. But I decided instead to let him be four and just think it was funny.

“I think it’s about the country or somethin'” he said. “It says the U-nine-ed States a lot — like in the ‘ledge of allegiance!, but I don’t know all the words. Just, like, some of ’em.”

~

Lately, being a good parent to Matthew has meant focusing on humility. He’s a good-hearted little boy. He prays more often than I do, sometimes even taking my hand in his out of the blue and asking if I’ll help him pray for stuff. Meaningful stuff, like that his sister sleeps well tonight after having a nightmare the day before. He’s nurturing and tender to children who are smaller than him, he’s very accepting of anyone who’s different, and he’s a born defender of the weak. He’s always been the first to speak up for anyone being talked down to — at as little as two years old, he’d square off to his pop-pop or uncle or father and tell them with a stomp of his foot not to talk to his cousin, or his mom-mom, or his cat “like that anymore!” He was born high energy with a fire-eating temper, but at the core of who he is, he’s really a very special, one-of-a-kind kid. It’s not hard to be radiantly proud of myself for being the vessel that brought him into the world. To me, (as well it should be) this kid is magic.

But part of that magic is being a perfectionist. When he was two, he’d struggle, tear-stained and petulant over not being able to write a capital A with a perfect point at the top. He’d throw things after trying 27 times and he’d cry and he’d call himself stupid until he got it. It was his process, and try as I would to tell him that he didn’t have to learn this stuff yet, he’d hate himself until he got it. And even then he wouldn’t beam with pride; just put it aside, breathe easy a time or two and go on to play with something else. It’s two years later, and now we have a new problem. He knows that he is smart, but he actually believes that he is smarter than other kids. In fact, the other day, he told me that he was smarter than me – and his dad, combined. He didn’t even say it in a way that was meant to sting. He said it as though he were stating a fact, one that I should be proud of.

This is what Spencer always worried about. My husband, ever the graceful one with words, swore that every super smart kid he ever knew was annoying as hell when they were small and then grew up to be a total dick. Then again, too many kids nowadays take no pride in being successful at school. So where do you toe the line? And how do you draw it for a kid this small to understand?

So now, I tell him that he is smart. But I remind him every time that being “smart” is not about how much he knows. It’s about how excited he gets to learn about the things that he doesn’t know yet. I tell him on a regular loop that everyone has things they haven’t learned yet – even the very, very smartest grown-ups in the world. And that the wisest people are the ones who are proud to admit there are still lots of things they don’t know, and are excited about it! — because it means that they still have lots of opportunities to learn. Learning is what makes us smart, not already knowing more than the next guy.

The impression was not immediate. At first, he stomped off pouting, claiming that I hurt his feelings because I wasn’t proud of him for being smarter than me. He even tried to take a gentle approach on another day saying, “Yeah, I get it. But, still,” with a condescending tilt of his head and a hand on my shoulder, “I AM actually smarter than you. I just won’t say it to you anymore.”    -_-       You’re killin’ me, Smalls.

But after a couple of repetitions, it sank in. We’re learning to be the parents our little boy needs; one that nurture a love of even old, forgotten books. Ones that offer him the best of educations. Ones that prize humility over accomplishment. Ones that love him for all that he is, no matter what. But ones that do our part to make sure he grows up strong in all aspects of life – not just the ones that come naturally, or that we like best.

Their needs are changing all the time. But our pride in them never will. To us, he will always be a gift to the world. Just, you know.. a slightly more humble one.

Homeschool Kinks, Ironing Out Our Morning Routine.

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Christmas vacation is rounding the bend, which means that our family is approaching the last of our pre-planned school weeks. Double. Gulp.

Back in august I knew that a requisite of figuring out how to homeschool successfully would be making positive use of trial and error. So when I created our schedule, I didn’t want us obligated to one, specific method for the whole year. Christmas break is my wiggle room; my opportunity to evaluate our routines; keep what works and trash what doesn’t. My last color coordinated day is on the last week of Christmas. From that point on, my file folders are empty, copies have yet to be printed, and my planner is a blank slate.

It’s liberating, but like most things that are, it’s also considerably intimidating. I want to jump out of our comfort zone a little bit, shake things up! But I also don’t want to muck up what I know already works, at least most of the time. Then again, every time I think about how far we come, coupled with how much could still be improved on, I get all revved up. So today, I’m rolling up my sleeves.

Yesterday was a pretty typical day so in the middle of our organized train wreck 10:00 a.m. routine, I whipped out my notebook and started jotting down ideas. We had arguing, we had meltdowns, we had a late start and shopping didn’t get done; we had breakthroughs, we had cheering and we had a relatively good report for dad at the end of the day. The kids’ rooms were clean, laundry had a healthy dent in it, and dinner was on the table by 6:30. It was also one of our longest and busiest, being a Monday, so it was a great day to gauge realistically.

This is what it looked like:

I knew that Mary hadn’t slept well the night before so I let her sleep until 9:30.

Note: Right out of the gate, this is our hairiest issue: whether or not to be a drill sergeant over the time we start. Over the first weeks of homeschool, this was by far what she fought me on the most. I expected her dressed and fed, pencil in hand by 9:00, which she thought was radically unfair. One of the “only” good things about homeschooling, as far as she was convinced, was the liberty to sleep in a little. I stuck to my guns for a few months and then gave in a bit, which was actually nice for a while. It worked out well enough for me to consider relaxing about permanently. She wasn’t nearly as hostile with an extra 45 minutes of sleep, which meant that we ended up finishing no later than we would have if we’d have gotten the early start but clashed at every ten second interval. Everyone was happier. But the freedom stopped being appreciated when it became the norm and the same old issues cropped up, only we were dealing with them until even later in the day now. And since there were no concrete rules about when to get up and how fast to be ready, it wasn’t easy for me to reprimand either. One of the first changes will be reinstating the mandatory 9:00 a.m. start – relaxing about it only on days there’s a reason to.

She took way too long picking out what to wear and making this elaborate breakfast and doing her make-up, which she knows she can only take time to do if she wakes up with her alarm at 8:30 – though you wouldn’t know it by the way she farts all over it like it doesn’t exist. The rule is that if she wants to sleep in until I’m forced to wake her up, she loses those privileges and has to wait until we break for lunch. She didn’t argue though, so I said my piece about it and we moved on.

We met in the schoolroom for grammar, which I think we’ll do more often too.

Note: The schoolroom has been an issue for Mary. I was really proud of myself over the summer for single-handedly saving one room of our basement from essentially being a dungeon to basically becoming a shrine to some of Pinterest’s best do-it-yourself ideas. I love this room, and Matthew does too. But almost to spite me, Mary refuses to work in it. She’d rather work up at the dining room table, which is fine except that I’m constantly having to cart things like art supplies, not to mention forty pounds at a time of textbooks, up and down the stairs; it all clutters the main area of the house, which is the very issue the schoolroom was built to avoid; and I don’t have use of the dry erase board for demonstrations. It’s also where so many things are hung and displayed that it’s useful for her to see everyday. The more I think about it, the more it aggravates me that we already use it as seldom as we do.

I love that she works so diligently at the dining room table, which is why I haven’t bitched about it as much as I’ve sometimes wanted to. Though yesterday, when I had us work back in the schoolroom because I knew I’d be needing the board, she did really well. In fact, Matthew did too. (After a meltdown, anyway – which was my next note.) So maybe we’ll agree to meet in the schoolroom for just at least the first part of the day during grammar.

While I taught Mary’s determining adjectives lesson at the board, I offered Matt an activity that I knew would keep him stimulated and occupied for as long as I needed him not to run around like a rabid squirrel. He was pumped when we first started, but grew petulantly frustrated with me for gently insisting that the numbers not just be Velcroed on the calendar whatever way he feels like putting them – 340,000 times. If anything, the activity was too easy for him so I couldn’t figure out what was to blame. I tried to call him over to show him something I thought would help, but he crossed his arms, refusing to move. When that didn’t bother me as much as he wanted it to, he started throwing things as I answered questions for Mary.

Note: Even though outbursts like this are expected when you’re dealing with a four-year-old sometimes, it’s intensely nerve-wracking to deal with when it interrupts an older child working so well. Both of them are about as easily distracted by each other as a bathing kitten by a darting red laser. A five minute deviation could derail her whole attitude. But I had to take the time Matthew required. Luckily, when he got on track, he was a saint – even earning candy as a reward for how hard he worked to spell a whole list of new words. But it was emotionally exhausting for me, which is not fun so early in the day.

I tried to think of a solution here, (like maybe not trying to work with both of them at once) but honestly, Matthew got back on track so well that I don’t know it’s worth trying to change. It’s really rough sometimes switching between two such different activities and levels thirty times a minute, but there are too many benefits I wouldn’t want to risk losing. They distract each other less when they’re both busy working, and they influence each other to stay on task just by doing it themselves. Part of me would love to keep Matthew buried in a Spongebob workbook for much longer than I do because as soon as he’s free to play, chances of disaster unfurling while we’re consumed in something that should not be interrupted, go rocketing through the roof. But he’s a kid and kids aren’t wired to handle stress so if I make him “work” for more than a few short hours, he turns into a living Chuckie doll. Lesser of evils, that’s what we’re working with here.

Next, Mary had to edit the crap out of this one paper for her next Language Arts subject. This afforded me the time to knock out like eight tons of preschool stuff with Matthew. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned much about the baby yet, that’s because life works that way: one minute everything on the planet is working against you and the next, everyone’s cooperating so much you’re wondering if it’s an elaborately planned practical joke. The baby just roamed around, reading books and playing with blocks and by some miracle, not even making much of a mess. Matthew and I sang his days of the week song, numbered the calendar, said the day, practiced writing the date and then recited the pledge of allegiance, which he almost has memorized. We did a reading exercise, where every time he came across a word that made him stumble, we put it on the board and dissected it together. After that, he read the book from start to finish, super fluently. (Super awesome moment, he was WAY proud!)

Then I read to the baby on the sofa before laying her down for a nap.

While she napped, Matt and I worked on his silent GH words. He noticed that the word ‘light’ tripped him up three times during our reading exercise and actually asked to be taught how to understand why in the “freaking world” it’s spelled in a way that makes utterly no sense. He was way into trying to name words that belong to the ‘ight’ family. I wrote them all down for him on a dry erase handwriting practice board, using pale yellow for the silent duo. Then it was his job to trace the gh in dark green.

Mary rocked her writing, Scarlett rocked her nap, Matthew rocked his workbook page after that and I rocked the hell out of an awesome mid-day bubble bath before lunch. Not everything went according to plan, but it was nice. Mary even said that homeschool moms should get paid by the government to do it – that way, more people would do it, which she said would be “better” (I repeat: “BETTER”) for society since homeschool makes kids so smart! Wow, what a turn-around from the perspective she used to have.

Then again, today is a new day, and the baby who had to be cared for back to sleep for half an hour in the middle of the night, literally just woke up screaming like a raptor at the top of her lungs. Ah, a sure sign of promise! Let the note-taking commence.

The Good Kid. Easy to Love, Easy to Slight.

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Scarlett is already easier than Matthew or Mary ever have been. If Mary didn’t exist as evidence to the contrary, I’m sure I’d be one of those women who swears by the light of the moon that girls are just by nature, easier than boys.

Scarlett has her moments, but one thing about her that never fails to amuse us is the way that she will just agree to do things because, I don’t know… we told her to?

It’s new, this power that we have. We’re three kids in and this is the first we’ve ever known of a child hopping-to something we actually want them hopping to, when we want them hopping to it. She finds her way into trouble, sure.. coloring on walls, dumping cereal onto the carpet just to play in the mess, believe me – I could keep going..  And if she’s in even the slightest of moods, she’ll utterly refuse to eat anything but a vitamin. But the child doesn’t say no to us. In fact, when we are in a position to redirect her, she’s quick as a bunny to say, “Okay” and get to work helping with the clean-up or to dole out any requisite apology.

Matthew will tell us no all the live-long day. He’ll say it to anybody, too, which has become a concern for us going into kindergarten. He learned it from Mary and Mary probably picked it up from her dad. I wasn’t always the no-sayer I’ve become, but caring for a houseful of people who live by the word like a mantra will do that to you. I try to counter everybody’s impulses by using other words myself – or just being open to things – but needless to say, the baby hears me say it.

Still, she has, by some miracle of God, managed to evade both nature and nurture for at least the first few years of life in regard to that tireless word. And she’s two, so that’s impressive. She’s at an age where saying no is to be more frequently expected than power outages in a hurricane. I don’t know if it’ll last forever, but I do know that even while it lasts, I have a responsibility to her. To not take advantage of the fact that she’s the easy one. To not slight her of attention or praise because there are so many opportunities to give it. To make sure she’s not always playing it safe, the way easy ones often do, because it’s so easy to let them.

I don’t like fitting my kids into a mold, making predictions about how they’ll turn out based on the glimpses I have now. I don’t want to cage them into a box of anybody’s expectations, especially my own. They’ll surprise me if I give them the space to, and I look forward to telling them how proud it makes me when they do. Above so many other priorities, I want each them to be their own person.

That’s what makes disciplining the older two so difficult for me sometimes. They’re so naturally sure of themselves, so full of opinions and ideas that don’t scare them. I want to teach them how to channel those things so that they aren’t a burden to other people, but a gift. I want to teach them self-control and respect without always saying some form of sit down, shut up; don’t speak unless spoken to.

Mary, for example, can be such a pain with the way she is always diving into fixing or making  stuff on her own. Stuff that usually isn’t even broken. Spencer and I were talking about it the other day when she wasn’t around. She’ll break something trying to fix it, until it’s either improved upon (in her opinion, mind you, not yours) or irreparably destroyed, and then leave it in a drawer somewhere to be forgotten about before she’ll ever ask for help, much less if it’s okay for her to touch.

She was the kid who had to press every button in the elevator when she was six, turn every knob on somebody else’s new gadget, pull on every cord at the hardware store until something fell down. It used to drive me nuts. It still does drive me nuts! But these are the qualities that have made her enthusiastic in science and good with solving problems and impressive at getting things done faster than anyone else. She figures things out because she isn’t afraid to break them. She isn’t afraid to try a new idea. She’s brave. She’s always looking for a better way to get something done – even if it means that a lot of times she’s wrong, and there’s a terrible mess to clean up because of it.

I know that Matthew will be the same way. He’s already so much like Mary: cocky, stubborn, impulsive. But wildly creative, not easily intimidated, smart.

Mary’s curiosity has gotten her into a lot of trouble over the years. But I can’t tell you how many times she’s actually been the one to fix or figure things out that we thought long ago were hopeless causes. As Spencer and I were having this conversation he said that just the day before, she taught him how to turn the airbag off in his truck so she could ride up front. He always assumed the guy who sold him the truck just forgot to include the key for it, but because she wanted to ride in the front seat badly enough, she figured it out. How? By messing with crap we would have told her not to. Sometimes the good qualities that they have take some digging or polishing to find. But because they do, I’m also more aware of them, more attached to them. It would be easy to write either one of them off as difficult kids in certain ways, but because I love them as much as I do and because I won’t let myself just believe that they’re anything but the best kids ever, I’m always looking for things to praise them for.

I never really felt slighted by my parents, but my mom says that it happened. I think I turned out to be the most awesome person ever, obviously, but I’ve always had a complex about feeling important. I don’t know if the two are related, but I’m not willing to assume that they aren’t at Scarlett’s expense. I’d rather play it safe and do my part to make sure she knows that just because good decisions come to her without so much of our interference, that we still care what she chooses. We still notice her.

Mary and Matthew have been harder to raise than I expected kids to be when I first started being a mom. As a natural consequence, they get more attention. But not just the negative kind. In an effort not to always feel like the enemy, I have to put in extra time with them that’s positive. You know, to balance the good with the bad. Time that shows I admire them as much as I begrudge the annoying shit that they are alwayyyyyys doing. Because I do. When one of them has had a particularly rough day behavior-wise, I make sure to approach them when things are back to neutral, and talk about anything other than that. Monster trucks, YouTube, whatever. Usually it leads to apologies for how the day has gone, but even if it doesn’t, it ensures that the last words spoken between us weren’t aggressive ones. One day, I’ll be more memory to them than presence. It’d be cool if I didn’t sound like Cruella Deville to them in every one.

walking

Right now it’s easy to love on my piece of cake baby 24/7, to appreciate the break that she gives.

Last night, Spencer had had enough of a little habit she was slipping into. She’s in a phase right now where she’ll ask for something, but then fall the to floor crying the moment you hand it to her. Her crying fits are like kittens complaining compared to what her brother could do at that age, but it was the third time in half an hour. He smacked a cup onto the counter with just enough force to grab her attention. Then he knelt down to her level on the floor, pointed a strong Daddy finger at the milk she wanted 15 seconds ago and said, “That’s enough, Scarlett. When someone hands you something, you don’t treat them rudely. You take it and say thank you. Now, up off the floor.”

Her response?

“Okay, Daddy. Okay.”

And just like that, she was picking herself up off the floor, dusting off her puffy bottom and being unexpectedly scooped up for a flurry of kisses six feet off the ground. In the middle of all the affection, she hugged him back, straightened herself upright in his arms and said, “Thank you a-milk, Daddy.”

See what I mean? Easy. A parent’s dream. Even if only for now.

But if it is not just for now, and she really is preordained to just be our one, easy kid, then I promise to still put in the time. I promise to find her when the house is quiet for a fleeting moment and ask her how things have been, even when I’m sure they’re probably more fine with her than anyone else. I promise to stay on her back about grades, even if it feels like she’s got it under control. I promise to smell her breath for alcohol, even when I trust there’s no reason to, just to be sure. I promise that even if our world is torn apart because her brother knocks up some chick he barely knows at seventeen (Dear God, may that be just a supremely ridiculous exaggeration, thanks), I’ll remember to ask how her totally vanilla, nothing-to-worry-about boyfriend is doing.

I promise to always make it just as apparent to her as to my other kids that she is important, that her decisions matter, and that I am always here – even when she doesn’t need me to be constantly up her butt.

Pewter Santa Key.

key

Bare, rambunctious feet shake the house, ripping through the hall after a knock at the door. Mary helps from our side this year to build the suspense. “Who could be knocking at this time of night?”

He wastes no time considering who it could be before working the lock, both elbows out, all of his weight in the effort. He forces it to turn with a heavy thud, then lunges himself in the 6:00 black. He stands there, alone against the empty cold of November after dark, clearly more excited than confused when nothing happens for a second. Then his head drops, and laughter jumps up out of him at such a force it throws him back a step or two, flapping off into an echo.

“ELF-IIIE!” he laughs, maniacally in all the thrill, breath appearing against the dark in rapid, reappearing puffs.

There was no mistaking the culprit. Peering off to the side with a painted grin – familiar, even cloaked in shadow. It’s lap was crowded with a narrow, green box under the loops of a dark bow. And he was sitting on a book. The Elf on the Shelf. 

“YOU GUYS!” Matthew whipped around, leaning on the knob, dipping into the living room yellow. “Elfie came! It’s Christmas now! He came and knocked on our door and he brought us a present!!”

In the box was a heavy, pewter key with a quick note from Santa. The note explains that we’re to leave this special key by the door on Christmas Eve so that Santa can make it in quietly, even if we don’t have a chimney. Incidentally, Matthew had just asked the day before how in the world Santa could make it into our house through the chimney when our fireplace is artificial. Ever since he’s been telling his friends that Santa can DEFINITELY hear him, even when it doesn’t feel like he’s around. “He heard my question and he answered it and left a key and EVERYTHING!”

snowfamily

Santa is at his height of meaning this year, over little red elves and stories that only come out to be flipped through when a Christmas tree dominates the living room. Every other piece of furniture has been shimmied to it’s new, winter position to accommodate our welcomed, cumbersome guest. The Night Before Christmas, The Elf on the Shelf, Thomas’s Holiday Adventure are all stacked in easy reach on a side table next to the couch where Pippi Longstocking and Harry Potter used to be. Whole days will be devoted to pulling out decorations, sweeping needles and icing cookies, painting pine cones over newspaper and dancing to bad, jazzy music like we just can’t get enough. The black of night is alive with colors that two-step on rooftops and play in snow. Our living room is alive with ribbons of light and thick with the cinnamon scents of nature. Everything feels old and new; familiar, but way out of the ordinary. It feels like tradition, really being tradition.

My first Christmas in this house felt, among better sensations, so forced and strange. I loved the new familiarities that came with living here; his shirts being in my laundry, Mary’s peanut butter messes on the counter. I loved what that first Christmas stood for, and I had fun. But it took a few years for us to find our traditions. It took a few years for Christmas to be something we could call ours. That first Christmas was really new and neat and significant. But it felt like a day that was trying to be Christmas, as apposed to one that just was. We had to make it, instead of letting it come to us like a gift or a promise.

Our history may be ankle-deep in the grand scheme of things, our family is still new and young, still something we’re in the process of making. But the holidays now, are distinctly ours. Hunting for chocolate on the days of an advent calendar, finding an elf every morning who hides in the night, shopping in secret… those things feel like home, as cloying and immovable to me as a home should be at the holidays. Christmas would come to us now even if we never decorated or danced around or watered a tree at all.

So much sparkling, new thrill of just being together is lulled to sleep by half a decade of adding children to the world and making it all work. I don’t get a warm, delightful feeling anymore when Mary leaves a mess for me to wipe from the counter or Spencer’s laundry is spun together with mine on folding day. But on Christmas, when everything feels so much like home that being anywhere else in the world at that time would feel utterly flat and void of meaning, it all comes rushing back in the form of something new. We pull out the first of those familiar decorations and a swarm of jingling history, young and powerful and growing well, come too. That sparkling, new thrill is a part of our history, sewn into the tapestry of who we are. It, all alone, is what makes the holidays sparkle.

Whether our traditions are five years old or two years old or new to us this week, this Christmas is ours.