Friday, May 30, 2014

Strawberry picking....and parenthood

I have a weird love for picking fruits & vegetables.

For a long time I have tried to understand this love, since I tend to be a pretty lazy gardener who plants lots of perennials because they require so little work but provide lovely payoff.  I have grown strawberries and tomatoes in the past and have put in eggplant and watermelon this year, but I treat them like my perennials, which means they aren't terrific producers.

But few things make me as happy or provide me with as great a calm as picking produce.

D's grandpa, Papaw Chester, puts in a garden every year at my mother-in-law's house but tends not to be too interested in doing much with what is grown, so every Sunday I stroll back to the garden and harvest okra, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers.  When the apple tree in her yard
 produces, I can be counted on to climb a ladder and get whatever is within stretching-on-tiptoes reach.

Last year I took the kids blueberry picking, and the year before that it was peach and raspberry picking.  This week my parents, M and I went strawberry picking.

As I was picking, I thought about why I enjoy it so.

Maybe I'm too steeped in The Grapes of Wrath and My Antonia, having just read them in recent weeks, but I think harvesting makes me mindful of not only where my food comes from, but where I come from (a long-line of vegetable growers) and where other people come from.

I pick for enjoyment, but many people pick out of necessity, and there are few jobs as physically demanding as harvesting by hand.  I think of migrant farmers who come to this country and willingly do the work that so many Americans would think beneath them to do.   I think of the movie The Butler, which I watched this weekend, and its reference to cotton-pickers, the heat, the nicks on fingers and the back-breaking ache of bending over.   When I'm harvesting I think of pioneers, struggling daily to make enough food to survive.

When I'm picking I think of the hope that goes into gardening.....any flower but especially fruits and vegetables.  It is very much an act of faith, so much like parenting.  You tend and water and care and sometimes, months later or many years later, as in the case of orchards, you are rewarded with the reassurance that you helped produce something that can sustain others.

Sometimes, even when you care and nurture and do everything you are supposed to do as a gardener, things beyond your control keep the fruit or vegetable from being all that it could be.  Weather.  Deer.  Rabbits.  Disease.

Like parenting.

Gardening and picking fruits and vegetables is a meditation on serenity, doing what I can, knowing what I can't and understanding the difference.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

30 weeks in review (the teaching gig)

Next week marks the end of 30 weeks of teaching at the cottage school.

It was just what I needed.

It was just enough to engage me and relight the spark of loving to teach.
It was just enough money to make me feel like my skills are valuable and needed.
It was just enough time away from stay-at-home motherhood to reinvigorate me.

I feel like I helped my students better understand literature, but working with them was also a huge learning experience for me that had nothing to do with literature.

I had preconceptions of what homeschooled children are like, and this experience helped turn those preconceptions on their heads.

Going into it, I anticipated socially backwards kids with big heads, full of themselves and what they knew.
Wasn't true.
Going into it, I anticipated kids who were far more intelligent than me, who were all years ahead of their public school peers.
Wasn't true.
Going into it, I anticipated closed-minded religious zealots.
Wasn't true.

What I found is that one or two of the kids was a little too certain of their intelligence, which broader life experience and wisdom will surely knock out of them.  The honest truth is that the kids who were too sure of and vocal about their intelligence are really, really, really bright.  What they lack is the esteem or maturity to understand that they don't have to boast about it; it shines through everything they say and write.

What I found is that every child I taught is at a different level, with differing skills and talents, and none of them is smarter than their 40-year-old teacher (only because I've learned that life experience is a far greater educator than I've ever given it credit for being).  Some of my middle school students' reading and writing skills were below my own 4th grader's skills, which didn't make me think poorly of homeschooling but did make me feel better about public schooling.  It did make me recognize that one of the downsides of homeschooling is that a parent doesn't have access to the specialized resources that are freely available in formal school settings for kids who have learning challenges, like dyslexia, dysgraphia and other communicative challenges.  

What I found was that there are all sorts of reasons people choose to homeschool.  Although religion is part of it, so is the desire to protect children with food allergies and help kids who don't learn well in the more confining strictures of formalized school.  I never had anyone lambast me with overzealous religious high-handedness.

Just as working in a downtown school wasn't scary or dangerous as I thought it might be some 14 years ago, working in a cottage school setting changed my perspective on that schooling experience too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

School lunches

Once a week G hassles me to come eat lunch with him.  So I do.
And sadly it is sort of a treat for me to eat a public school lunch.  
I dislike kitchen work to the extent that I don't even want to fix myself a sandwich.  
(For those of my friends who are amazed at how much "energy" I have because I write and read books and do house-related projects, I want you to let that sentence sink in: 
Too lazy to fix own sandwich.)

School lunches get a lot of flack for being tasteless or unhealthy, but I haven't found them to be that way.  
I'm in no way suggesting it is the stuff of Michelin-starred restaurants, but they are better than some of the crap I see kids bring from home.

Today I noticed the boy across from me was eating a Lunchable that included Oreo cookies.  

Now I am not a fan of Lunchables mostly because I can give my kids pepperoni and crackers for WAY less than $4.  I also don't think they are a terribly healthy choice since if they come with a fruit or vegetable at all it is an overprocessed one.  (N is allowed 1 Lunchable per year; G and M don't know what they are.)

But one Lunchable in and of itself is not the end of a kid's nutritional life.  

However, what I really noticed was that the kid also had a container of Hunts puddling, a sandwich baggie of Fruit Loops, and a package of fruit chew snacks in his lunch box.

It was at that point that I thought, "Holy f*cking cow!  That is a lot of junk in one lunch."

I'm a label reader for one reason:  my gestational diabetes when I was pregnant with N.  It changed me for life.  I also happen to be writing an article about kids and nutrition for a local magazine, so it is on my mind.

It is my nature to internally rag myself about what I could be doing better as a mom and as a person, in general, which is probably everything.  
But I now try to use comparative analysis to help me feel like I suck a little less.  

When I feel like I'm not a very fit person, I read this, even though I know it is geared to an older population.  But hey, I'm 40 now.  

When I feel like a terrible dresser, I read this.  (Although I should probably review my state just to make sure I haven't actually made the site with my own brand of "I don't care what I throw on.")  

When I feel like a terrible mom for fussing at my kids, I read (WARNING: if you have postpartum mood issues and aren't in full recovery, you better skip) this.  

And evidently, when I feel like I'm not feeding my kids all that is good and wholesome, I just need to go eat lunch with my kindergartener.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The lost iPod, both good and bad

We lost the iPod, and it is sorta driving me crazy.
I know millions of people have lost their mobile phones or dropped them into a thousand pieces or misplaced loads of techie gear, but this is the first lost expensive item.
(Wait, there was that time I hid the bank safe deposit box key too well and had to pay $100 for them to break into it, only to find the key a few months later in the summer towels.)

Its loss bothers me because I hate wasting money and because now I won't have any music with which to workout at the gym (although I will likely swipe N's iPod mini because she steals my sh*t all the time, and paybacks are hell).

But at the same time, its loss is almost a relief.

The kids fought over that thing constantly.
It was the kind with a screen, so they could videotape themselves and watch their silly antics over and over.  It is enough to listen to one's kids make noise, but to listen to one's kids making noise while also listening to their tape-recorded selves making noise is a little more surround sound than I can take.

They had also discovered the 3 games on there, so they would get distracted with that.
N had been swiping it to make American Girl videos in her room.
M took it everywhere (which is why it was lost....somewhere in Kroger, I think, since I've called everywhere else we went last week), and I let him because him dorking around with it allowed me to

The ipod had become a babysitter.
It had become one more thing the kids would screech for when we got in the car.
One more thing for me to keep up with, and it is hard enough to just keep up with my life.

I'm not sure it is worth replacing something that was only useful for the 60 minutes a week I actually make it to the gym and drove me batty the other 10,020 minutes of my week.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Standardized testing pep-talk letter

N will take the state standardized tests at school soon, and parents have been asked to write their child(ren) an encouraging letter, urging them to give their best effort.

I will write the letter, but I am debating what I will write.

I understand why the schools want parents to write these letters.  I get that so much emphasis is placed on these tests, and that the teachers and administrators are often just towing the line....doing what they must to ensure that scores go up, and they don't suffer the penalties of state legislators who don't know what the fuck they are doing.  Legislating things that can't be legislated, like that all children will learn and test the same and have the exact same seed of knowledge in their heads.

The letter request sorta galls me, even though I know that is not the intent.  I know this letter is sent to all the parents, including the ones who don't instill those learning behaviors and skills that I have worked to instill since my children popped out of my uterus.  It makes me sad to think of the kids whose parents won't write them letters.

Here are some of the things I want to say in my letter:

*This test, while meaningful in the context of 4th grade, is meaningless in the grand scheme of your life so don't stress over it.  Ask yourself in all you do "Will this matter in 5 years?"  If it won't, don't freak out about it much.

*Do your best, not just on this test, but in all that you do.  Not because of your school or because of me and Daddy, but because doing your best makes YOU feel good about yourself.

*Grades and test scores don't mean much to me.  They don't always indicate what parents think they indicate.  I would expect you to be proficient and/or distinguished because I know your skill set, but that skill set is not something you can control.  The brain you have is out of your control.  You happen to have really good comprehension skills.  Some kids do not.  Getting a proficient or distinguished doesn't make you special.  Kids who get lower scores might have other skill sets that standardized testing simply doesn't measure.  Or they might have parents who never took the brain their child had an tried to optimize it.  Daddy and I were taught to value education, and we pass that along to you and your brothers.  Not every kid has parents who do that.

*I'm much more concerned with how deep of a thinker you are, whether you reflect on your thoughts, your actions, your feelings.  Whether you treat others and yourself with respect and kindness.  No standardized test in the world measures those things, and those are tendencies you will use until you die.  They will serve you much more than fractions or knowing how electricity runs through a circuit.

*Standardized tests suck the fun out of learning, but don't allow that to happen.  Find things that interest you and read about them, experience them.  There is always delight in learning....always.  The world unfolds in magical ways if you seek its wonders openly.

Now go take that stupid test.

My new favorite book (that I wish had been published 10 years ago)

I am reading All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior.  It has reinforced things that I've been discovering about raising children over the past decade.  I sure wish it had been around when N was born because it would have saved me much, much anxiety.

The gist of the book is this:
1. the culture of childhood has changed dramatically since World War II.  Kids used to work/serve a clear purpose in the success and survival of the family.
2. the role of women has changed dramatically since World War II.  College educations, professional roles, and birth control have changed the way women think of themselves and motherhood.
3. the role of men has also changed due in large part to the role of women changing.

Given how short of a time-frame in which all 3 of these changes have happened, it makes complete sense that modern parents are all "WTF?"

It soothes me a bit to know that what makes me feel most guilty as a mom is something that most moms throughout time haven't had to feel guilty about.  It truly is a "new" phenomenon, this savoring of our children, of their every moment.  Feeling like we should be engaging them, entertaining them, keeping them busy, utilizing every last ounce of their brain power for betterment.

Treasuring one's life takes a whole lot of work and doesn't take into account the true monotonous drudgery that is life, even middle class life in the US.  There can be pride taken in making the food for one's family, washing the clothes, keeping one's family alive, but modern day conveniences sorta take a lot of this pride out of a parent's hands.  When I say I washed my family's clothes, I didn't really.  The machine did it, and I simply supervised that the machine was operational.

And really, when I think about it, there is no pride in survival.  When humans work very, very hard to survive I don't know that there is the time or energy to even think about pride.  Survival is it's own reward.

So what, exactly, are we supposed to do with ourselves if not engage our children?

I ask this question to myself as I think about the summer months.  I've already started a list of "things to do with the children," which includes visiting Papaw Tommy's gravesite (N's pick) and building a volcano model (G's pick).  If I plan nothing for them to do, they pester me, and I feel antsy and guilty and angry with them.  If I plan everything, I run myself ragged trying to play concierge......something that has not been the experience of mothers throughout the history of man.

Therein lies the challenge of navigating this modern parenthood bit:  moderating.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pre-teen technology angst followed by parental angst

I had been thinking that perhaps D could get me an iPad for Mother's Day for the sole purpose of acquiring some of the same educational apps the kids use at school which they would use over the summer.  Our piano teacher told me about a cool app for practicing notes, and there are plenty of reading apps that both G and N could use.

When I mentioned this possibility today to N and G at breakfast, they immediately launched into all the things they were gonna do with MY iPad, and none of them had anything to do with educational apps.  I very quickly shut that conversation down by telling D to forget the iPad idea.  All I would like is a nice straw bristle broom for outside (which is honestly the truth....that would make me plenty happy).

What pissed me off was how the kids usurped my gadget before I ever even owned the gadget.  It seemed even more ungrateful and spoiled than what my kids usually are (and I try really, really hard to keep them from acting in a Veruca Salt-type manner).

Soon after I said, "Forget it.  No iPad," N was in her room crying because lots of her friends have iPod Touches and text each other every night.  Now N doesn't usually ever talk on the phone, and when she does, I often hear her say, "Well, what else do you have to talk about?"  She always finishes her phone call by announcing how long the phone call was, and it usually isn't very long.

I am not actually a Luddite, although compared to other parents I definitely skew in that direction.  I think technology can be wonderful, but I also think too many parents put technology into their children's hands without a firm understanding of its repercussions.

I spoke to N's teacher about this today (the specific episode in my house over the iPad), and she told me how she overhears some of the girls having conversations about their texts which mostly are things like, "Why don't you like me?," "Why did you say that in that way today?" and others of a similar vein.  Aside from all the battles it would cause between me and N, it could potentially cause heartache to her because of all the weird girl drama that can unfold far more easily via electronic media.  She will have enough of that when she is in middle school, and I don't want to prematurely open Pandora's box.

At age 10, I cannot think of any circumstances in which N needs to text.  What do 10-year-olds possibly have to say to each other that needs to be texted?  "I farted. It smells?"

If we did get an iPad, there would be so many rules on when she could use it and how she could use it and for how long she could use it that it might not even be worth having it.  We have a laptop that she uses to watch American Girl youtube videos and she has started making her own American Girl movies herself, and I don't have a problem with this since it is a creative endeavor.  She doesn't need an iPad for this.

Sometimes I try to play the "Well, both of so-and-so's parents work so they can afford pricey gadgets," but it occurred to me today that this is not really true, nor does it paint the proper picture for the kids.  We could afford to get all of them DSs or iPads, but I would rather spend money on a nice family vacation to the beach.  Perhaps other families can afford both, and perhaps we could too with scrimping, but we choose to have experiences over things.

The whole technology-in-kids'-hands is really a small part of a bigger problem I have, which is this general trend of giving kids things or experiences that, at least in my mind, are adult things and experiences.  They are things and experiences that adults work for, pay for, and should enjoy.
Like manicures and pedicures.  I had my first one when I was 29.  I paid for it.  I enjoyed it.  I had my second one when I was 36.  I enjoyed that one too.  But these are not cheap, and I don't think my 10-year-old, who chips her nail polish off her fingers 12 minutes after I put it on is going to value it as an adult would.

Another is sending high school seniors on pricey Spring Break trips.  Do you know where I went for Spring Break as a senior in high school?  Cincinnati, OH.  My friend and I went to the art museum one day and the zoo the next.  We had fun, made for a good memory and it didn't cost a blue million dollars.

If kids get these things as kids, what in the world will they expect to get as adults?  Are we setting their expectations to be ridiculously high?  Will they work as hard for things if so much has just been given to them?

Much of parenting is beyond my control, but I know there are some things I don't want to sow because the reaping will be painful.  Possibly moreso for my children than for me.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

OT continues, therapy does not

G and I met with the therapist for the last time this week, provided things continue as they are.  We can always touch base with Ms. Stacy if problems should arise.

Sometimes I wonder whether things would have gotten better on their own, over the course of 5 months, but I don't really think they would have.  I think I had long had difficulty handling him and, unfortunately, this (combined with excruciating sleep deprivation) made me develop some pretty negative feelings about him.  My patience bucket was chronically empty when it came to dealing with G.

Therapy "for G," in conjunction with his OT, has helped both of us.  If nothing else, they have been G's "special things" that he only does with me.  An expensive couple things, but whatever.  Our relationship is much improved, and I am thankful for that. The OT really has made a big difference for him, and I really don't understand it, but he is MUCH less particular about textures and his shoes being super-tight and many of those sensory issues that he whined about incessantly.

He has begun asking to try different foods (shocking) and even trying bites of things.  This week it was roast and corn.

Yes, maybe in other people's houses their kids eat roast and potatoes and corn with ease, but in my house that doesn't happen with G.  But I can see that in time it might happen on a more regular basis.  Him taking even one bite of these things willingly is a huge win.  Ms. Carolyn, his OT gal, has been working with him for weeks and weeks on grape texture.

G is still a headstrong kid, but I have learned to stay completely detached, completely unemotional when he gets on one of his kicks (which can be really hard, although it seems to get easier the more you do it).  He gets upsets, he cries a bit, but then he settles, and it is over.  My ramped up emotions only made his episodes worse.  His "work" with a therapist was really a two-for-one, because it was me learning how to manage him.  It took her to help me figure out some of the things G needed that I hadn't been providing.  It is not my natural inclination to do these things, but I have to in order to help him manage himself better.  Eventually, he will adopt these skills on his own.

I brush him every night, which sounds really weird if you've never had a kid do OT, but it is relaxing for him and is easy for me to do.  I've really had to stick to procedures/routines a lot more firmly than I used to, which doesn't come easily for me.  I'm more lamby-pamby, but G needs that strict structure so I've created charts for this and that and the other.

I decided to retry the sleeping bag next to my bed thing, which was unbelievably unsuccessful when he was 3-4 years old.  It is working quite well now, which means I am staying in my bed more and not sharing a twin mattress with a 6-year-old who has had a growth spurt.

He had a brief episode the Friday and Saturday before Easter (which immediately reminded me of Christmas 2013, the December from hell).  It was like everything we had done, as far as he has come, was temporarily undone.  The problem?  The Easter Bunny coming, and all the anxiety that goes along with holidays for G.  He was very worked about up what he would do if he got scared in the night and needed to come out of his bedroom but then the Easter Bunny would hear him.  I told him he should go to sleep in his own bed, and I would carry him to the sleeping bag by me when I went to bed.  Around 11:30, I brought him to the sleeping bag, and I didn't hear a peep from him all night.

He has been fine since then.

So we will continue with OT, paying in full once we reach the 25-26 week limit for our insurance because I cannot consider stopping if G will continue to benefit.  We finally reached our deductible so are now only paying $25 a session, which is a marvelous break from the $85 each week that we have been paying since January.  

It is nice to take joy in G most of the time now.  To be able to look past his sometimes challenging behavior and see a smart, truly funny kid who makes me laugh.  That had not been happening with any great regularity for far too long.