Working in our pajamas

There are some days when, if it weren’t for the necessity to go out and feed the chickens, I’d probably remain in my fuzzy pajamas all day long. As the critters do need to be fed, and as someone might pass by and wonder at seeing me in pink pajamas and fluffy socks at midday, I get dressed, put on my muck boots, and trudge out with a box of feed in hand. Moral: if you want to have more motivation for self-discipline, keep animals. If nothing else, it will make you get dressed properly in the morning.

For most families, structure is something integral to every day. They get up, fly through the routine of dressing and breakfast, and everyone goes off their own separate ways for the days. For those who both work and learn from home, the situation is very different. We are pretty much in each other’s hair every day and all day long, and that is by necessity a mess-generator (both physically and mentally). Structure is important; it doesn’t have to stick to conventional routines or hours, but it must be there.

One of my favorite homeschooling resources, The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, has a chapter on schedules called Structure, or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School? Here’s a quote:

“Often families who start out with a fairly rigid structure find themselves becoming more relaxed and flexible as they grow more comfortable with homeschooling, whereas those who began with an informal and casual style may discover the need for more structure.”

We’ve been in both these places. Some years ago, a homeschooling friend told me that in her family, and in all homeschooling families she knows, later hours and more flexible meal times for kids are the norm. I bristled. Not with us! Dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, story time at 7:00, bedtime and blissful silence by 7:30. And you know what, for a long while I adhered to these principles religiously. But I paid dearly for it. Stress, tension, and constant chafing with my kids became the norm. On the other hand, I wouldn’t adopt my husband’s suggestion of just letting them run about until they drop off from sheer exhaustion. These days I’m more flexible, but I do know, and so do my kids, that once we’re on the track of dinner-baths-reading time, it leads to bedtime and that’s that.

Another great quote from The Homeschooling Handbook:

“Figuring out which part of which ideas will work for you is not easy. Often the ideas you find most attractive and expect will best fit your family don’t work for you at all. Or they work for a year or two and then suddenly seem ridiculous. Just remember that your kids are growing and changing and the relationships among you all are changing as well. It’s unrealistic to expect homeschooling to remain the same in the midst of those changes.”

Of kitchen sinks and gratitude

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Illustration photo: Huffington Post

Last Friday I awoke to the sounds of gushing water from the kitchen. It actually sounded like a small, gurgling stream. Bleary-eyed, I rolled off the bed and went to see what’s the deal; I discovered a small lake spreading out from under the kitchen sink.

Of course, I did what any rational woman would do in such a situation – I ran to shake my husband awake, panting, “Quick! Quick! There’s an emergency! We’re all drowning!”. My husband opened one eye, stepped into the kitchen, took a look at the whole thing and closed off the pipeline leading to the sink. While I was mopping up this miniature Lake Windermere, he remarked, “Well, at least the kitchen floor will be clean.”

He explained to me that there’s something wrong with the kitchen pipeline (you don’t say?!). Did it rust through? Got nibbled on by mice? Punctured by evil aliens? I didn’t care; I just wanted the use of my kitchen sink back. It didn’t help that Friday is the busiest day in Orthodox Jewish households, growing progressively crazier as the clock ticks toward afternoon and the lighting of Shabbat candles.

In case you are wondering, washing dishes in the bathroom sink is not very convenient.

I’m sure my husband, who is a real handyman, will put this right eventually, but this kitchen sink incident got me thinking of all the other things we normally take for granted – our comforts and conveniences, the abundance of food and clothes, our spacious, well-heated homes, our civil rights and freedoms, our families, health, and very life. So let us stop for a moment to appreciate it all. Celebrate the kitchen sink!

This week we marked our son Israel’s second birthday. I am so happy and grateful to be the mother of this little boy. With my older girls, I was very young and newly married and it was Mommy Boot Camp all the way for the most part. But once Tehilla, our second daughter, was out of her toddler years and I realized I might never have another baby again, I shed many tears. When Israel was born all felt like a gift; it still does. For the past two years, I am grateful to say I have been able to appreciate so many things about his infancy and toddlerhood – just relax, enjoy and let go. We all sit on the floor a lot, playing with Lego, blocks or toy trains, and I no longer have that itch telling me I have to get going and move on to do something more important.

I guess this post is just a record of thanksgiving. For children, families, life, and comfortable homes with modern conveniences. I thank God for what I have, really I do.

Just please, fix that kitchen sink.

When everyone is sick

About a week and a half ago, I woke in the middle of the night because Israel vomited all over me (what a way to wake up, huh?). At first I thought (hoped) it was only a fluke, but when he continued being sick in the morning, and my two other children picked up after him, I realized we’re in trouble. Then, as my husband and I I began feeling sick ourselves, I had this sinking uh-oh feeling, because few things are more exhausting than caring for a bunch of sick children when you are not on your best form yourself. I vividly remember the night when I had to get up every hour to take care of another vomiting kid, and then found it difficult to fall asleep again because I felt so queasy. On the up side, it was an opportunity to finish reading a book I’ve been hacking at for ages.

Luckily, it didn’t last long – a couple of days at most – but these were a very intense couple of days which left us totally drained and with a mountain-high pile of stinky clothes and bedding to wash. Oh, and should I mention that exactly at that time, the water pump leading to our area broke down? The stinky pile had to wait, while it got stinkier and stinkier and, eventually, some sheets developed horrible mold and had to be thrown out.

What a time. I also wrote a post about this on Mother Earth News:

“If you also have to deal with a houseful of sick little ones, this can be particularly challenging, especially if your kids, like ours, are used to running in and out of doors at all times and find it frustrating to sit or lie down still and quiet. It helps to provide some quiet amusement in the form of books, coloring books, sketching pads, and other quiet, non-messy crafts. Let your children curl up with you in bed for some reading together, or allow them to spread a board game or puzzle on the floor while you are relaxing on the couch. Movies can have their place, too, of course, but in general I find that prolonged staring into a screen contributes to fatigue and doesn’t promote the overall sense of well-being.”

The Diaper Debate

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A long time ago, when I was pregnant for the first time and we had many lofty ideas about our own capabilities, my husband and I talked about cloth diapers. We pretty much decided we are going to use them, for the sake of frugality, sustainability and baby’s skin health. It just seemed the right choice all around, until one day, when I was getting pretty big, we had the following conversation.

DH: “But where would we wash the diapers?”

Me: “What do you mean, where? We put them in the washing machine.”

DH: (wrinkling his nose): “What, you’ll put poopy diapers in the same machine that we use to wash our clothes?”

Me: “Not in the same cycle. We’ll wash them separately, you know.” 

DH: “I still think that’s gross. Think of all the bacteria that will be left over.”

Me: “Well, what do you suggest?”

DH: “My Mom always washed our diapers by hand.”

Do I have to tell you? We’ve been using disposables ever since. And at times I’ve been feeling guilty about it, too, especially when I haul out a big garbage bag full of almost nothing but diapers and think about it adding to some tremendous landfill.

It wasn’t just the gross factor that put us off; we’ve had plenty of poop in our washing machine anyway over the years, what with newborn blow-outs and all. There were periods when changing a poopy diaper equaled changing a whole baby outfit, every time. We’re still all alive and well.

It was also that conveniently made cloth diapers are a pretty hefty initial investment, one we hesitated to make, and I’m not up to sewing my own. And, of course, there’s the convenience; at times, I’ve been so overwhelmed by laundry (especially not having a drier, on long rainy weeks in winter) that voluntarily adding more seemed an effort of will beyond my capability.

As a compromise, I have tried doing early potty-training, with babies running around bare-bottomed around the house on many a summer day. The little tushies got a pleasant breeze, we saved some money on diapers, and I felt better about the ecological aspect of it all.

In the place where we live now, we have frequent electricity and water shortages, up to the point that everybody living in the neighborhood often gets requests to save on electricity and water as much as possible by trying to minimize the usage of air conditioners, ovens and, of course, washing machines. An extra load of diapers every day or two just doesn’t seem feasible in such conditions.  I actually believe that in Israel, where water is a precious commodity, bio-degradable diapers may be more eco-friendly than cloth.

There had to be, however, a compromise: green and convenient; eco-friendly but disposable. So lately I’ve started looking into the option of switching to bio-degradable disposable diapers, such as these. I’d love to hear from any of you who care to share your experience. Cloth? Bio-degradable? Plain ol’ Pampers?

When Children Fight: book review

When Children Fight, by Miriam Levi, was a very timely read for me this week. Sibling fights have been the perennial challenge in our house for a couple of years now; we have two girls, currently 7.5 and soon to be 6 who, as a friend of mine very aptly puts it, “will fight over dead air space”.

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“Do you imagine that nobody else’s kids fight the way yours do? “Hearing shrieks and screams, I stormed into the playroom ready to screech, ‘What’s going on here?!’ But stopped myself, remembering the lessons from Miriam’s workshop. Lo and behold – the next thing I heard was – silence!”

Don’t get me wrong, most days I really appreciate having two girls close together in age. It really simplifies things when doing school, crafts, or any special activities – most of the time they can do anything together (of course with expected age-appropriate differences). They also always have a playmate, which is especially important because in the area we currently live, there really aren’t very many girls close to their age, and as you know, not all children of the same age hit it off together.

The problem is, sometimes my two daughters don’t hit it off together either. There are few things more frustrating than a sudden episode of loud whining, screeching, name-calling, hitting, taunting, etc, especially when a baby or toddler is having a nap, or you are trying to get dinner done – and especially when, after digging in, you realize this fight is about some scrap of a chewed-on pencil, or because someone looked at someone not quite the right way.

First I’m ashamed of my children acting this way. Then I’m ashamed of myself for yelling.

Since we homeschool, sibling antagonism is exacerbated. Yes, pretty much all families with more than one child deal with sibling rivalry, not just the homeschooling ones, but because we are together so much more, problems can’t be brushed aside or misted over by lengthy breaks from each other. They must be dealt with, promptly and effectively.

So yes, you can imagine the title of Miriam’s book spoke right to me when I grabbed it from the library. I whizzed through it in two days – it’s a compact, practical, straightforward, easy-to-read Judaism-based guide to dealing with those draining and exhausting sibling fights. Miriam doesn’t dig deep into complicated psychological theories: she gives slice-of-life examples of unhealthy sibling dynamics and their solutions.

I think the most important thing I gleaned from When Children Fight is that I don’t need to interfere in every single fight, every single time. I can’t prevent all fighting; it will always be there at some level, and not every dispute will be settled in a 100% fair, harmonious way. That’s life. Try to let your children solve the problem themselves, Miriam says. I tried that, drawing a red line at hitting and offensive name-calling. I withdrew from trying to personally solve every dispute of “but I had it first” and “she will never let me use it”, and let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised by how creative my daughters can be at resolving their conflicts when they know they are on their own.

One thing I do have to say, though, is that this book is like a home first-aid medical kit: it contains some band-aids and iodine, but not things needed to treat more serious injuries. That is to say, it deals with a generally normal, well-functioning Jewish family where sibling dynamics are a little jarring. It doesn’t go into more complicated real-life issues such as severe, persistent disobedience, behavioral problems, ADD, or issues that spring when a family deals with trauma due to divorce, illness, or loss of a loved one.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed When Children Fight and no doubt will return to it for reference in the future.

* Illustration image: oliviamainville.com

Nothing Special

I was always one of the top students in my class; I grew up hearing how talented I am, how I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind to. While I was studying for my degree, it was the same – I kept hearing how intelligent I am and how much is expected of me. Yet even then, I already felt the pull of my heart to be a wife and mother, and shortly after getting out of university I was blessed to meet a man who appreciated a wife who works in her home and cares for the children.

The few years that followed were some of the most intense of my life. I’ve had two children spaced close together, and many months were a blur of sleep-deprivation and constantly changing diapers. I’ve mostly gotten into stride now, so much that the addition of a third baby to our family went relatively smoothly, and I’m able to enjoy my life with my children, however…

… I had to step down and confess that I’m nothing special after all.

It was a humbling realization.

Am I doing important work? Yes. I’m raising my children and providing a safe haven for my family. Am I spending my days in a worthwhile, productive way? Yes (well, at least I try). Am I irreplaceable for my children? Yes. Flawed and imperfect as I am, I am the only mother they have. Would I trade what I do for anything else? No.

But still, I do just what women all over the world do. I take care of my children and the house, I clean, I cook, I do the laundry… I’m doing the same work countless generations of women always did. I can no longer pride myself on some very expertly written paper that got top grades, or on a lecture I gave in front of a professional, interested audience. There’s no applause, no impressed audience, and no financial benefits. Today’s achievements consist of cleaning the stove, mopping the floor and reading a chapter of Pippi Longstocking to my children.

This led me to re-evaluating my worth, based not on what I managed to do (which someone somewhere can do better, no matter how hard I try), but on my being what I am… a wife and a mother. Like any woman, in the sense of what I do, but uniquely important from the perspective of my family and precious as a child of G-d.

Mostly this has been a process of shedding layers of pride. This is no longer about my talents, my expectations, my ambitions, my capabilities… it is about taking care of others, humility, and lots and lots of prayer. This may sound like sacrifice, but it isn’t really, because my journey is shaping me into a different person, one I like a lot better, and also one who is a lot happier and has a much truer sense of self-worth and dignity.