Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting the Nine Days wrong

I caught myself thinking today that maybe I am "doing" the Nine Days wrong. It is supposed to be a time of sadness and mourning. We are supposed to curtail activities that bring us joy and pleasure such as eating meat, drinking wine, listening to live music, enjoying water activities and prolonged baths, wearing freshly laundered clothes, making large purchases and participating in joyful gatherings. However, I found myself actually looking forward to many of these restrictions. No meat? No problem, I can finally make my beloved Indian food. I can make mac-n-cheese and pizza. In fact, I have so many dairy or meat-free meals that I can make that I do not have enough dinners during these Nine Days to make them all. No swimming? I can stop worrying about 2 yo trying to drown herself in the deeper end of the pool. I do not have to worry about moldering bathing suits and towels. Less laundry? Yes, please! Just wear what you have! And wear it again! Fewer fun outings? Less prep, less stuff to pack, fewer kids complaining that it is too hot, they are too tired, they cannot eat what I've packed, they didn't want to come in the first place. No large purchases? More money in the account, less looking around because I won't buy anyway, less decision making. No large gatherings? I'm an introvert.

So is that the attitude that I am supposed to be taking into Nine Days? Am I doing it wrong?

Then I thought: all of these restrictions were placed so people would have more time to look inward, spend with their immediate family, focus on the internal instead of being distracted (or entertained) by the external. There is a famous Gemara about not mourning excessively over the destruction of Beis Hamikdash, which is exactly why Chazal limited our mourning to these expressions.

I wonder whether not feeling repressed by them is a benefit that allows me to feel less emotional pain as I turn to look inward.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dinner in an hour

This is not a foodie blog and I do not have pictures to go with what I am about to post, but I figured it might be helpful to some mom out there.

We went to a lake to swim with some homeschool friends, so I did not get started on dinner till 4. I had it on the table at 5 (fine, 5:05 for transparency's sake). No, it was not take-out. No, it was not chicken nuggets or frozen pizza. It was a solid dinner: soup, main, starch, veggie. No, it was not a miracle.

This morning I pulled a bag of chicken cutlets from the freezer. Since I buy them at Costco, I usually divide the large family pack into two bags before freezing. This bag had breasts sliced in half, so it defrosted quickly.

At 4 I turned the oven up to 400, rinsed the breasts and put them in the pan. I sprinkled them with sesame oil, soy sauce, onion flakes, garlic powder, ginger and a drizzle of honey. Then I mixed them in the pan so the breasts were well-coated, covered them with foil and stuck them in the oven. Next, I rinsed one cup of rice in another pan, added 1 3/4 cups of water, a drizzle of olive oil, covered that pan, and stuck it in the oven with the chicken.

I usually make this quick zucchini soup. two onions, chopped, 4-6 zucchini, chopped into chunks, vegetable broth to cover, 1/4 cup of rice, bring to a boil, add seasoning, simmer for 20 minutes, puree with immersion blender straight in the pot, voila! Except that I like to doctor it up: add quinoa instead of rice, or throw in extra veggies. Today, as I was reaching for a bag of quinoa, I found a package of edamame noodles from Costco. They were brittle, they were green, and they had zero appeal of the noodles, so they were sitting in the pantry. An evil genius idea of a substitution: why don't I crumble them in instead of quinoa, then puree and nobody will know? Look at all the extra protein! Look at me salvaging what I'm sure were expensive noodles, languishing here! Hehe! So in they went. I made a mental note to remove any traces of what I did before the kids who will come to set the table express their opinion on my substitution without a taste test.

While the soup was simmering, I pulled out a bag of string beans and another pan. I trimmed the ends, tossed them with a bit of olive oil, spread them in a pan and sprinkled with salt. Then they went in the oven together with the chicken and rice.

I checked my phone. I stretched. This dinner was practically cooking itself. I uncovered the chicken so it could get dry in its sauce. I threw a bunch of parsley from my garden into the soup (it's about the only thing that grew in the garden, but it sounds very foodie of me now: freshly snipped parsley! In reality, I was too lazy to go and get scissors, so I twisted and yanked). I pureed the soup while adding cumin and curry and called the kids to set the table.

They fought. Just because I had dinner under control did not mean that they turn into angels. One child provoked another. By the time, I took a bathroom break, a steady wail in stereo leaked under the door. One child touched another. One child lost dessert.

It was dinnertime. Dinner was served.

They ate the soup with the green edamame noodles incorporated into it. Hint: soup croutons make all soup taste better. Some asked for seconds. They discussed how much fun they had playing with their friends, making elaborate sand dams.

Save this post for the next time dinner prep gets in the way of getting together with some friends and spending the day at the beach.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

To each their own

Twice a year Artscroll holds a large book sale: they give you 20% off everything. I try to time my book browsing to this time period. It is accompanied by numerous email reminders and a glossy catalog that arrives in the mail. I do not always buy, but I do browse heavily.

Since I will be homeschooling 11 yo next year, I asked him for his input in what kinds of books he was interested in. He opened the catalog, got fixated on the cookbooks, then told me he does not want anything. Except he did want one thing. It was an oversized illustrated coffee table book of the Beit Hamikdash. I was eyeing that book myself for years, but its price was making it into an unjustified purchase. We have so many resources available online, for free. We have other books with the Beit Hamikdash payout. Our money would be better spent on other causes. So every time I longingly looked at that page, I said: not now.

11 yo might have known exactly what I was thinking (or possibly even saying out loud in the past), so he immediately took his request back by saying that he does not expect us to spend that kind of money on a book. I stopped him: do you really want it? He said, yes, but it's too much. I went on Amazon to see if it can be bought used for less. No. I checked whether it is available in a smaller size. No. I resolved to buy the book. Then I added a few other titles to the mix: historical narratives, biographies, a book on Shmirat HaLashon (The laws of speech), halacha pocket guides, and a small group of inspirational quotes and stories.

The packages arrived today. When it was brought in after Shabbos was over, 11 yo ripped the whole package apart to get to his Beit Hamikdash book. He oohed and aahed over the spread. He asked me whether he can bring it into his room, a code expression for reading it in bed.I asked him to leave it on the coffee table till the morning. His excitement over this book was so genuine, so palpable.

Yet my heart is heavy.This is the same kid that failed Judaics this year, that thinks that he can't learn, that is burned out on Hebrew and Gemara and halacha. This same child miserably told me on Friday night that there is no purpose in Shabbos now because when he was in school he looked forward to Shabbos as a two-day break before he had to go back to school and start all over again. Mind you, he was not horribly miserable the whole year, and he had a very decent Shabbos once he lifted himself from the funk. But I keep on thinking how he needs such an untraditional approach to his education that none of the standard rules apply.

For now, I am recording it that he is ecstatic to receive a Beit Hamikdash book, so he is willing and eager to engage with Judaism on his terms. Now, please G-d, give me the courage to guide him so his spark of desire to learn grows and does not diminish.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

screen at mealtime

"Mom, you're on your phone again. If you can be on your screen, then we will all bring ours to the table."

Guilty as charged. I looked up and saw them all. They don't even all own screens, but the message stung. Yet I said, "Look at you guys. Two of you are again sitting with your knees higher than the level of the table, one of you is continuously screaming how dinner is yucky. Is the baby falling asleep in that puddle of soup she made on her high chair? And one of you has his elbows in my personal space. Until you produce better company, is it any wonder that I want to get lost in my screen?"

Yes, I've actually said that. Not my proudest parenting moment, and it might backfire spectacularly when they will start bringing their own screens to mask parental droning. But for the moment, they were quiet.

Dinners have been a mess lately. By lately, I mean for many years.If I do not start up a meaningful conversation and constantly direct it, most of the dinner ends up being filled up with talk about Pokemon, some latest cartoon, bizarre sounds, and taunts. Throw in a 4-year-old who preemptively starts screeching that dinner is yucky, and a baby who does artistic food splatters, and there is nothing to look forward to. I don't think I've had a civilized dinner, somewhere where you have to use proper manners in a very long time. When we were in Israel, my husband and I wandered into this street square where they served fine cuisine. It was a true French restaurant, where one could order gourmet food while the music played on the stage in the background. But my husband wasn't hungry, so he really didn't want to sit down and eat. I ordered dessert and a glass of wine, pretending that I am having a fancier meal than I am. But I was not dressed up since we were just planning to go walking on our last night of stay. I was wearing a hoodie. My husband was busy setting up the live stream of the musical performance on his phone while I was slowly sipping my wine with my creme brulee. It was a chance for a formal meal, according to the rules of the etiquette but it did not happen.

A friend shared this gem with me today. Somehow, she always seems to know what will resonate with me, and for that, I am grateful. My husband is not home tonight. I will be giving my mirror image another pep talk right after the shower but before I collapse. Until I will be able to be treated to a proper meal time with proper manners, what's a little technology to get through the night?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The plan for next year

I know it's the end of May. I know that most people have decided long ago what they will be doing with their kids the following school year. But that is not how we roll. We roll with agony, with false starts, with negotiations, with doubts. As of Friday, I finally know what we are doing.

Call it hashgacha pratit, call it prayer, call it coincidence, but a spot opened up for my 2 yo at the same school that my oldest is attending. We did not even apply, let alone get on the waiting list. We just spoke to the financial office to see what it would cost us to enroll all four children in one school. We got our answer, but then there was no spot for her because we started the conversation so late. So we did not even apply. I spoke to the director of their current preschool about next year and was told that since 4 yo will be in pre-K, it would have to be five days a week program, less he misses something important in his preparation for kindergarten, Insert giant eye roll here from an unschooly mom. Then we got into the financial side and for some reason, even though I had all the papers ready to sign, the same financial organization was not sharing our file with the preschool. It dragged on for almost two weeks till I got an unexpected phone call that they are expanding 2 yo class at the other school, the same financial package as before, are we committing? One school, one calendar, one schedule for pick up and drop off, one location? Are you kidding: we are committing. And this commitment gave me just the right push to decide that 11 yo, my second son, will be homeschooled next year.

He had an OK year at school. He adjusted to the schedule, the workload, the homework. But he did not adjust to bullying that was taking place and that both he and I tried to address with the administration. He was utterly lost in gemara because that's what happens when you take a child who is still struggling to read Hebrew, throw him with condescending boys who had a few years of gemara (8th graders), switch a rebbe in the middle of the year and give him tests where he aces one and fails the next. "I hate gemara." Brilliant, just what I wanted the school to do to you and your approach to learning.

I have taken him to yet another psychologist and we collected yet another diagnosis and another set of suggested accommodations. Funny how they all sounded like what I did back in the day when I homeschooled him: no time pressured work, minimize written output, don't make him write long answers where a short one would suffice, offer typing or voice dictation instead of writing, keep environment distraction-free and quiet, give him extra time on tasks and tests... I wanted to meet with the principal and discuss the accommodations, but he was more interested in getting us to sign the tuition contract. Then he was more interested in discussing his standardized scores. My child who has anxiety had to take three MAP tests this year just so they would confirm what I already knew from IOWAs: he reads and comprehends on a high school level and is a level ahead in math. The principal was arguing that this shows how the school is helping him flourish. I was thinking of the same child cowering in the kitchen corner that morning, fully dressed in his uniform, crying how he does not like school... He has been begging to go back to homeschooling the whole year but I was not sure whether I have it in me.

Thank you, G-d, for everything turning out just as it should. Apparently, coming full circle is putting my typical kids into school and keeping my different child at home. Now please just give me strength, passion, and patience to pull this off and to keep on meeting his needs.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"All or nothing" thinking

One of the things that my therapist keeps bringing up is "all or nothing" thinking. In a nutshell, it is exactly as it sounds: either have it all, or nothing at all. I apparently suffer from it. It is not healthy because, well, I cannot have it all, and, as a result, I keep on feeling like I have none. Once you have none, what's the point of trying?

I have been thinking about this for a while. I know that it is better to be flexible, to enjoy even increments, to reframe small victories and defeats as just that. However, I have also been thinking how that's directly opposite of what brings happiness and satisfaction (not contentment, as that does seem to come from highs not being so high and lows not being so low).

A lovely poem, courtesy of Well-Trained Mind:

Work While you Work

Submitted By: Nancy Keslin
Work while you work,
Play while you play,
This is the way
To be happy each day.

All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by half
Are never done right.
Author: Unknown

A lovely sentiment, isn't it? And a perfect example of "all or nothing" thinking. We encourage our children to memorize it.

"I always type with one hand while wearing
 a white sweater. My baby's foot is
 perfectly positioned to spill
a cup of coffee all over my sweater.
Unless she chooses to spill that glass
of freshly squeezed orange juice over my laptop first". 
Then there is work itself. Either you are a working mom (guilt over not staying home with your kids, missing out special moments, etc, etc) or you are a SAHM (guilt over not contributing to income, wasting education, etc). Anyone who says "work from home" has not tried to actually work from home. It is not like those images: the babies do not let you type or complete phone calls. If you want to work from home, you need a space where you can escape, lock the door and not answer unless there is gushing blood. Or hire a sitter, which defeats the "staying home with kids" feeling. Besides, it is hard to do work with all your might when there is laundry to be washed, dinner to be started, plants to be watered, behinds to be wiped. So many "work from home" people, men and women alike, escape to Starbucks or some other location where the rest of house is not beckoning with the never-ending list of chores.

I have a four year old. He is in preschool every day from 9:30 till 1:30. I thought and thought and approached them about sending him next year, for a longer day, but only two or three days a week. No, nope. He is four, so it's pre-K, so he needs to go five days a week so he doesn't miss anything. Or don't send him at all. All or nothing thinking. I have been telling them that I do not worry about curriculum gaps because going to the zoo or being read to at home or unloading groceries is just as important as learning about a community helper of the week. They said, maybe, just maybe, if I send him four days a week it could work.

I wish I could send my older kids to school just for Judaics, but it's either the whole deal, or nothing. I wish there was a flexible education program where you sign up for a few gloomy winter weeks and then get the kids back to enjoy glorious spring days. I wish I could take them on multi-day trips and still get some structure when we come back, or unload some of the learning in the areas where I am weak. But schools and programs are rigid: either you sign up and commit to a full day, a semester, a year, or don't even bother.

And then something funny happens. Just as I got all my kids into schools, admitted an end to homeschooling, and their learning became someone else's responsibility, just as they all insisted has to be done to implement curriculum and achieve results, I am bombarded with school communications. Science fair! Scholastic! Curriculum night! Parent-teacher conferences! Learning opportunity alongside your child! And if you say "no thank you", now you are a bad parent for not being invested in your child's education. Multiply that by three schools, and you are constantly saying "no" and constantly feeling like you are directly messing your child up.

I had this conflict come up in a visceral way with preschool. They were having a special visitor day at the same time I was supposed to see my therapist. So I had to choose: be a good parent by coming to my kids' school, or a be a good parent by trying to claw out from a major depression? Guilt all around because you cannot have it all, because you cannot clone yourself and be in two places at the same time.

At the same time, if I am reading a book, I just want to focus on the book and not be interrupted every five minutes. If I am cooking, I just want to be cooking. If I am signing up for art class, I want to attend all the sessions. And if I am relaxing, I just want to be relaxing.

Anyone else has trouble with this?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"What do you do all day?"

Yesterday, at breakfast that is nowadays a blur of cereal bowls, not-yet-packed lunches and 2 yo asking to be fed, as I hastily slurp my pre-driving coffee, a child asked me: "Mom, what are you really good at?" A question like that is the reason I feel like I have been living a midlife crisis even though I am technically too young for one. I retorted: "Keeping you all alive!" while thinking "Oh my gosh, what AM I good at? Obviously nothing visible, otherwise I would not be asked. Corollary: I am good at nothing. What am I doing with my life? What kind of a role model am I to my children?They caught on that it's all a sham. They will never grow up to be productive individuals..."

Before the train of thought went too far, 4 yo piped in: "You are very good at driving!" Yes, I drive. I drive a lot.With kids at three schools, all I do is drive: drop them off and pick them up. Drive to gymnastics. drove to taekwondo. Drive to museums. Drive to the park, to the store, to appointments. Drive to an aquarium out of state. I drive. I AM good at driving.

After agreeing with him, I thought out loud: "I am also getting good at just being. Not doing things, but just being me." That one sailed over their heads and my husband raised his eyebrows, but it's true. This past year has been a steep learning curve in getting good at just being. I can wrap it up in fancy terminology like developing potential, aligning heart, soul and body, self-actualization, transcendental meditation, self-awareness. I can wrap it up in less flattering terms like self-care, laziness, ennui, indulgence. But, essentially, this past year I have hit a brick wall where the question "What do I want?" had to be answered and not dismissed. I started with what I do NOT want. I did not want to multitask. I did not want to carve out time to "get things done" or be superproductive or accomplish amazing feats. I did not want those motivational quotes that passive-aggressively suggest that only if you tried harder and wanted it badly enough, you could do anything. I will not climb Mount Everest. I will not hack my way through jungles. I will not conduct scientific research in Antarctica. Besides, when you are so busy striving to achieve one thing or another, you are by definition not at peace. You get the adrenaline rush of action.You get dopamine load of achievement, finishing that marathon, climbing that mountain, getting that promotion. But the next day, when the hoopla subsides, you face yourself in the mirror and there is no more rush to carry the day. And you are still you. Are you at peace with what you see? Hint: strive and strife are related. Or are you still not enough and you need to prove to the world that you are more than what they see? Moreover, is your harsh inner critic still at it: you are just faking it. If you stop doing all these amazing things, they (whoever they are) will see that you are a fake.

So I have been not doing much.

"What are you doing?" Not much.

I used to judge others harshly for that. I was worried that if I did not judge others first, they would judge me. They would see through me and expose me as a fraud. So better run, keep busy, go places, do things. It is preferred to do things that come with external tangible recognition. Trophies, plaques, diplomas, awards, raises, mementos are all fair game.

But five years of homeschooling changed that. Moreover, the foray into unschooling did more for me than the time we spent poring over the workbooks and curriculum. I had to decide: what do I really need my kids to know so they can function in the world on their own? Not ancient Roman history. Not quadratic equations. The more I thought and the more I observed, the more I smashed my preconceived notions of what kind of education matters. I saw my children just being, and being happy at that. I saw them delight in playing in the creek, or in the sand, or lounging on the couch, or rereading the same book for the fiftieth time. I saw them find alone time and time to ask others to join the game. I saw them pick up objects and craft them. I saw them talk to each other, blurt out things, spontaneously dance, swing babies around, make surprises.

But I saw them just being.

Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice their state of being for my being. I spent the last thirteen years parenting in a very hands-on way. There was a lot to do, and it was never-ending. There was nursing and diapering and blowouts and accidents and hours on the potty and hours of laundry. There were meals to plan, shop for, cook, set up, clean up. There was instructing and cajoling and bickering and imploring and fighting. But there was so much doing. Now that my older ones are 11 and 13, the doing does not end once the younger ones go to bed. They want to do stuff with me.They want to talk to me. They want to show me that latest craze. Oh, odfI am deeply grateful that they share a bit of what makes them tick with me, but that time to BE that could have come with early bedtime is not there for me anymore.

I did not use to feel this way. I think it took five kids and over ten years of this intense doing for me to reach the point where I could not postpone my being any longer. I needed to look in the mirror and truly think about what I see, not just how prudent the image appears to the rest of the world.

The scary part is that I don't know where this journey will take me.Will I get my bearings to homeschool again? Will I utterly disconnect from my kids? Will I pick up a new profession, craft, hobby? Will I spin out of control, lose touch with reality?