Vacations and holidays on the cheap

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I am just catching my breath after a string of Jewish holidays that lasted nearly a month, and afforded quite a lot of in-between days that are commonly used for family outings. As a family living on a budget, we almost always choose to avoid any sort of entertainment one must pay for (be it amusement parks, zoos, petting zoos, or even the swimming pool).

There are more than enough places, we have found out, that we can visit, and pleasantly spend our time in, without paying a thing, or paying very little: beaches, parks, historical sites, farms that encourage visitors without charging a fee, and so forth. Furthermore, we take advantage of having many friends who farm or homestead, and visit them (and, of course, invite them to visit us in return).

The price of gas, naturally, is a consideration as well. There are some lovely places that open their gates to the public for free, but as they are so far from us, just the ride there and back is pricey. We focus, therefore, on our area, and always find something new to explore. You should try it as well.

If you have family or friends who have gone out on vacation themselves, and left an empty house, they might allow you to stay in their place for free (and will sometimes be quite happy with the arrangement, if you throw some pet-sitting or watering the plants into the bargain). This gives you a whole new area to explore, with a convenient, free base.

Another expense that people often don’t think of is eating out. When you go somewhere, after a couple of hours naturally you will begin to feel peckish. This is even truer for children, who seem to become insatiably hungry the moment they are strapped to the car seat. So make sure to pack up healthy snacks for the ride, a nutritious lunch for the whole family, and a big bottle of water. Ideas for non-mess food: egg and/or tuna sandwiches, cold pasta, sliced fruits and vegetables, cold sliced quiches, hard-boiled eggs, a trail mix of nuts and raisins, and salads with stuff like lentils, quinoa or beans will keep you going for a long time.

Vacationing and family outings in general don’t need to be budget-breakers. Just try it and see for yourself!

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Not all on our own

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Image: exhausted mom
Reading this excellent post made me think about many things. In essence I agree; Me Time is often over-emphasized, over-rated and, worst of all, over-indulged, as in the notion that you are allowed to do almost anything that will make you “happy” or more comfortable.

However, it is true that motherhood can be draining. It is a joy, it is the greatest project of my life, but it is also hard, hard work 24/7. I will even venture to say that so far, things haven’t even really become easier as the children grow. The challenges are simply different. Sure, I get more sleep now than I did when I had newborns, and my day is more orderly, but frankly, breastfeeding and changing diapers was more… straightforward than handling some of the behavioral problems and educational choices we are facing now.

Before we reminisce about how our great-grandmothers did it all on their own and didn’t ask for any help or time off, I would like to step in and say I don’t believe it was the case at all. Childcare wasn’t the exclusive task of the mother. Our great-grandmothers lived in a much more supportive community, and often close to family who could offer some help. A woman of that time could, perhaps, see her mother on a daily basis; or perhaps she lived near her sister, who had children of the same age, and each of them could take a turn watching the little ones. Or if there was no family nearby, neighbors would often step into its place. I’m not saying it always happened, but it was common.

When my two eldest children were toddlers, I had basically two choices: either I stay home with them all day, every day, no breaks (my husband worked long hours) – or I put them in daycare and I’m away from them all day, every day. But I didn’t want or need to be away from my children all day; I only needed an occasional break to refresh me and provide some variety. So I always had them at home with me, for better or worse.

In the past, it was common to let young children play outside and explore on their own – such young children that today it would be considered criminal neglect. The outdoors were safer, and there was almost always some responsible adult outside at every hour of the day.

My great-grandmother used to have a maid. Not a live-in maid, but someone who came on a regular basis and helped around the house. You will say, “it may be so, but she didn’t have a washing machine.” That is true – however, according to my Grandma, the children wore the same clothes all week and only got clean ones for Shabbat. You can imagine how those clothes looked at the end of the week (there were five boys in that family!). Can you imagine not giving your child fresh clothes to wear every day, perhaps more than once a day? If my daughters get a little stain or spill on their clothes – and it happens often, as you can imagine – they start to wail and beg for a change, and sometimes I have to put my foot down, especially if it happens an hour before bath-time.

So what is my point? Feeling tired and drained is bad enough. Feeling guilty because you are tired and drained and you don’t think you are supposed to feel this way is far, far worse. It is perfectly normal to want to feel refreshed and rejuvenated by doing something different. This doesn’t always have to involve spending time away from your family – I have learned to say yes to my husband’s offers of little escapades in the middle of the week, even if there are dishes piled up in the sink.

I have learned to put my feet up in the middle of the day for a short while, and to lock the bedroom door and say, “Mommy is resting”. Usually this means only a few minutes of lying down, with or without a book, but sometimes I manage to steal a cat nap.

I have also learned to enjoy my children more, and to participate in their fun activities rather than frantically say, “oh, good, they are occupied. Now let’s proceed to the next thing on the to-do list.”

I know there are moms out there who are struggling; who live far away from any family, and in places where it is uncommon to rely on friends or neighbors. Who spend all day, every day with their children and are so exhausted that a day in the office may seem like heaven sometimes. What I would like to say that it is normal to feel tired. It is normal to want help. And if you live in the way many live these days – a relatively isolated nuclear family – your best and only source of help will probably be your husband.

Before you feel guilty (“he has been working all day!”), remember that a break can mean not only putting your feet up, but also simply doing something different from what you did all day. I used to be all of a “no, no, let me, I’ll do everything” person. But then I realized that after my husband comes home, or on weekends – after he has had time to eat and rest, and do some of his own stuff, of course – he is perfectly happy to take charge of some childcare and household tasks, and doesn’t see that as a burden. There is a novelty in that to him, because it’s a change from what he has been doing all day and all week.

Would you go into the kitchen late in the evening and start cooking? I wouldn’t, because by late evening I have seen enough of the kitchen for the day. But my husband is often inspired to cook or bake after he has come home from work, or on Fridays. For him, it’s recreation, not a chore. Also, often I’ll have tired, squabbling kids in the evening, but the moment there’s a knock on the door, they run swift as the wind to open and are so good and happy when they are around their father. Why? Because we all benefit from a change. The children, too.

I realize there are also single mothers (and often not by choice) out there. My heart truly goes out to them and I hope they, too, find the right healing balance for themselves and their children.

Nutrition – defeatism, real change and investment of time

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While I was in university, several of our professors repeated that there is almost no way to acquire all the needed vitamins and minerals from the typical modern diet, and thus progressed to say that synthetic supplements in the form of pills, and artificial fortification of widely used foods, are recommended to the population.

It is true, they argue, that what would really be optimal is a whole series of radical changes in the modern diet, but since these aren’t feasible, supplements should be taken. Similarly, since people are unable to give up their sugar addictions, it would be useless to try and make them do that. At most, we should recommend artificial sweeteners to replace refined sugar, based on the evidence that these are harmless in moderate amounts.

To me, even then and especially now, such an attitude seems not only defeatist, but also very underestimating of people’s willpower, intelligence and determination. Shouldn’t we believe that in the light of scientific evidence and proper encouragement, many people will go to great lengths to do what is needed in order to gain good health for themselves and their children?

“Children will never give up sweets,” they say. Thus, it is acceptable to feed them ice-cream and highly sweetened milk products in order to reach the needed daily calcium intake. “Children don’t like vegetables,” and so, it is alright to give them sugar-bombarded, poisonous-colored breakfast cereal because it has some synthetic vitamins stuck in it by the benevolent food industry. This is saying it’s impossible for little children to like and eat with relish simple, wholesome and healthy foods.

True, it might be more challenging, but it isn’t impossible for the committed parent, especially as children tend to copy what they see. If we consistently sit down to good, proper family meals consisting of good healthy foods, this is what the children will see as their model. Food should be a prize, not a chore. We never make a fuss when our daughter trifles with her food, nor attempt to make her eat a full portion when she clearly has no appetite for it, nor offer rewards in the form of sweets.

“People don’t have time to cook,” and so commercially prepared meals indisputably become usual fare. The often overlooked fact is that the modern diet is correlated with the modern lifestyle – rushed, crazy, and highly stressful. If you want to eat healthy homemade food, it doesn’t mean you need to spend all day in the kitchen preparing gourmet meals, but it does usually mean investing more time in food preparation. It means slowing down to plan ahead and think. If the morning is always spent in insane rush of both parents hurrying to get the children out of the house and get out themselves, each going his own separate way, chances are that someone will reach for that box of sugared cereal, rather than make a simple and nutritious breakfast of oatmeal porridge, scrambled eggs and toast.

The habit of family meals is something else we have been robbed off. Even when the family eats together, it often means that they all sit in front of the television with their eyes glued to the screen, many times eating convenience food of inferior quality and taste. A lot more than nutrition is compromised; we are losing the fellowship of the family table, the easy conversation over dinner, the laughter and exchange of ideas, and what happens by-and-by – the training of children in good eating habits and proper behavior. Even with the quality of food in conventional stores so compromised, we would still all be far better off simply with the investment of time to prepare good, proper, simple, nutritious and economical meals.

Needless to say, a mother at home makes a huge difference. Most often, it is her who keeps the cooking fires burning; it is her who gathers the family around the table, nicely set, and offers delicious hot dinner, at the end of which her children will go to bed well-fed, full and sleepy. But of course, conventional nutritionists will not tell women to stay home, if at all possible, and cook for their families. It isn’t politically correct.

The only hope is that people will see for themselves that the lifestyle so many are trying to maintain is nearly always impossible to combine with good health and vibrant family and community life. Our homes have been empty all day for too long, locked up, dark and cold. Our freezers have been stocked, for too long, with food that will temporarily satisfy the hunger while offering no real health benefits. For too long, we have looked for the secret to health and long life in all the wrong places, giving in to the calorie counting craze.

My belief is that nothing will make a real difference unless home, family, and consequently the family table, return to occupy their traditional proper place in our society. This is far more complex than calories, fats, vitamins and DRI. This is about the whole course our life will take from now on.

September 1st

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September the 1st, the date so many parents are longingly looking forward to, is upon us. And though homeschooling obviously isn’t the way for every family (though I believe it can be the way for many more families than those practicing it today), I do find it a little sad that not more parents can enjoy the summer vacation with their kids.

Undoubtedly, there is a very practical reason for the collective sigh of relief that is going to sound once the school buses come to take the children away. In most households in Israel, not only do both parents work, but both parents work an increasingly high number of hours (how family friendly this practice is, and whether there are alternatives, is probably a topic for a whole different post). There is a real, big discrepancy between the days children are out of school and the days parents can take off work. Thus begins a merry-go-round of summer camps, summer schools, babysitters, driving the children off to grandparents, and in many cases, leaving them home alone way too long and too early. Every year, parents campaign for the shortening of summer vacation, stating that the education system is out of tune with real life. I’m mainly saddened by the tone of these discussions, which make children appear to have become a liability.

I’m convinced it’s more than that, however. Many parents, even if they can take time off work, just aren’t comfortable with the idea of spending time with their children at home for any length of time. Thus the typical summer crowding of malls, amusement parks and waterparks, zoos, and any place that usually serves to amuse children. Without a home-based routine, summer becomes a time of chaos, and parents understandably feel they want order restored.

We used to have a simple year-round routine when the girls were little(r), but last year we found a small family-based study group in the area, and when it broke up for the summer, while we didn’t experience the school withdrawal symptoms common in most families, I did have to deal with some attitude problems. For example, whenever I tried to teach something, I would hear whining and remarks such as, “this isn’t what summer is for!” To which I would respond, “Oh, right, I forgot – your brains have gone on vacation and stopped working.” A few days were mostly enough to fix this.

I often hear, “don’t your kids drive you up the wall?” and the answer is, of course they do. Kids whine, fight, test their boundaries, and sometimes I do feel like I need out, or I will explode. It’s important to remember, however, that taking a break, while it can be refreshing, does not solve problems. I have had instances when children fought over something silly (“over dead air space”, as a friend of mine aptly puts it), were taken by their dad to the library or the park for distraction, and resumed the same argument the moment they got home!! Now, clearly the solution isn’t to always keep children away from home, or siblings away from each other (preferably on leashes and in cages). Problems need to be addressed and attitudes worked on. And believe me, I have had my moments of utter despondency. I have clutched my hair and yelled myself hoarse, and I know this can be so very hard. I’m just saying that you’ll have to deal with the same problems whether you home educate or not, although admittedly every little issue is magnified when it has been raining for days on end and you’re all cooped up at home day and night.

In Israel, summer vacation is shortly followed by the string of Jewish holidays that leave many parents at a loss again. What I suggest for every family, homeschooling or not, is the cultivation of quiet contentment among children (and parents) that will enable you to stay home together as a family, and entertain yourselves inexpensively by things like reading, crafts, walks, and picnics in parks. I know some families that flat out refuse to put themselves in the heavy traffic flow on the middle days of Sukkot, for example, and they save a whole lot of time, money and frustration. If you do take trips, you needn’t go far – exploring your own area can be more interesting than you think.

Stay-at-home mothers, social pressure and feelings of inferiority

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and I only hope I have enough eloquence to express myself properly.

In the first neighborhood where my husband and I lived as a young couple with children, it was lonely during the day. Most women worked, except those who stayed home with the really tiny babies. Most children were in daycare by 6 months of age. When people heard that Shira, then less than 3 years old, wasn’t going to attend any type of daycare or preschool that year, they were shocked. No, more than shocked – scandalized. Certain that I’m depriving my child of a very important developmental step. “You’ll have to work very, very hard with her at home to be as good as a daycare,” one Mom told me. I didn’t work hard. I just enjoyed life and we did fine.

I felt very much alone. In all the time we lived there, I didn’t meet one person who shared my views about education and family life. Still, I was convicted that what we’re doing is the right choice for our family. This gave me strength, though at times I reverted to what I now call “the no choice tactic” – telling people “I’m staying home to watch over my children because daycare would be too expensive”; “I’m not getting a job because there aren’t any good jobs available locally, and I don’t drive”. Call me weak, but sometimes it was just easier to do that instead of arguing with people.

Then we moved to our next neighborhood, where I instantly felt at home. Most women were homemakers. Most children were home at least until they were three years old. There was a homeschooling family with girls the same age as mine, and we immediately hit it off. We hosted sleepovers. We hung out in the mornings, watching over the kids. Until I was there I didn’t even realize how good it feels to fit in, to be – if not like everyone else – not a freak either.

Seasons passed, and due to a combination of various circumstances we were forced to move again, to the place where we live now. Socially, I now find myself in the same place as in our first neighborhood, with one further disadvantage: my children are now older, which makes my desire for us to stay together and learn as a family stand out even more. Also, I keenly feel the loss of that environment in our old home which was so supportive of our educational choices.

I see the women all around me. They are all such good women, mothers, friends. They all love their children, take care of them and teach them, just the way I do. They all nurture their homes, cook nutritious meals, and bake delicious treats, just the way I do. Only they do it part-time rather than full-time. They also work hard outside the home – as a personal sacrifice rather than a career achievement, I must add. Many of the men here struggle to provide for their families, and so their wives step in and work extra. Several are nurses working night shift, sacrificing their sleep so they can later be with their children during the day. The families all manage on a very tight budget, even with both parents working.

I am, truly, full of respect for these women. Seeing them sometimes makes me feel spoiled, indulged. Not that I sit twiddling my thumbs at home; I have three children and am a freelance writer and editor. I get no help with household chores or child care. I thrift shop and have become a really economical cook. Still, I sometimes wonder what it is about me that makes it nearly impossible to even let a baby out of my sight, let alone go to work for part of each day. Is something wrong with me?

But I guess that what makes me ache most is the feeling of mental isolation. I would so love to develop close, trusting relationships with at least some of my neighbors. I feel that what we have in common – the love for our G-d, our families, our children, our homes – is far bigger than our differences. Unfortunately our neighbors feel differently. I sense people are wary around us. Like it’s not enough to have a lot in common; like you have to be exactly the same to be friends. And I think that’s a real pity.

I guess the key here is that nobody should feel threatened by the different choices others make. I don’t pass judgment on the Mom whose young children are in daycare from 8 to 4, and then in various afternoon classes from 4 to 6 (though I might think this lifestyle is quite hectic). Similarly she shouldn’t pass judgment on me (though she might privately think our lives are boring). We can disagree on some issues, but we can agree on many others. And we can be friends. At least that’s what I believe.

A Walk With Grandma

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I hope it’s normal that, every time I happen to come across this poem, I just sit for a minute and cry. These simple words are so touching. I also remember my own Grandma, who was such a quiet and soothing presence, and who was always ready to play board games and tell stories about her childhood, early life, and numerous relatives whom I had never met.

Grandma is wise. She knows there is really nothing bigger, better and more beautiful than the fluffy clouds in the sky, the flower growing at the roadside, the butterfly fluttering around a rosebush. She has done it all. She has seen it all. She knows there is nothing more important than telling a story, taking a walk, baking cookies on a cold winter afternoon.

We don’t have to live to Grandma’s age to appreciate the little things that really matter. Though our lives are busy, may we not let this prevent us from slowing down and walking with “short steps” alongside the child in our life, or the little child hidden within us.
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P.S: my latest novel, Wild Children, is currently at a 0.99$ discount on Kindle (until next Thursday), so if any of you are looking for a new dystopian/light SciFi read, you might want to check it out!

When you are just swamped

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You don’t remember when you’ve last had a night of uninterrupted sleep. You haven’t washed your hair in three weeks. Your friends send anxious messages asking if they’ve offended you somehow, because you haven’t returned their calls for ages. There’s a dark unrecognized sticky puddle under your fridge that you are going to tackle as soon as you have the opportunity – and you’ve been saying this for two months at least.

It seems you are on a treadmill, running and running and never getting anywhere.

Congratulations! You are a Mom to little ones.

This is often the picture of my day-to-day life. Sometimes toddlers can actually be even more intense than newborns. So it’s not like things don’t get done… but admittedly, very little gets done, and this little costs a major effort. The two things that get me through right now are the following:

1. Appreciate the small things. You’ve washed the dishes? Emptied the garbage can? Wiped the bathroom mirror? Great! So what if these aren’t major projects or fancy meals you can show off at the end of the day (because, you know, a sink can refill itself in the span of an hour around here). You still deserve to be appreciated for your efforts in keeping a clean, livable home.

2. Take advantage of the little snippets of time. If the baby is settled down on the rug with a couple of toys, you know you probably don’t have hours to rearrange your closet. But you do have five minutes to take the washing off the line or water the house plants.

And, finally, this too shall pass. From my experience babies get a lot better at entertaining themselves once they start crawling. And, in the more distant future, they might find the company of other people to be more exciting than their mother’s. So we had better enjoy this while it lasts.