Large Family Eating: Meal planning edition


I’m not back to my normal level of cooking and photographing yet so this week I thought I would bore you with my high tech meal planning tool and how I use it.

First, a few ground rules.

  • I do not shop specials. We live in the country and the mileage involved in shopping specials makes it moot. My time is valuable.
  • I buy all my meat from Costco. Costco’s regular prices usually match grocery store’s sale prices. Someday I will buy ethically produced, grass fed, local meat. I just don’t have the enough cycles to submit to the waiting-lists-suddenly-buy-a-whole-hog game. Someday.
  • My husband does the Costco. He always buys the same things and I figured out how to use them. It’s a modern version of the hunter/gatherer gig: he brings home the mammoth and I cook it. We buy meat, dairy, eggs and bread at Costco, among other things.
  • I do the produce and grocery runs two or three times a week.
  • I’m not sharing how much we pay in groceries every month because (a) it’s obscene, and (b) it increases every week these days.

My meal planning tool is called a clipboard. By that, I mean an actual board with a clip on top where I can affix paper and tuck a writing implement. On the piece of paper, I write the days of the week and I leave room for notes. Notes are usually events or activities that have an incidence on meal preparation. For instance, if we are going to a party or if I need to have supper ready earlier than usual or if I am coming home from an afternoon activity later than 3pm, etc. (because if dinner hasn’t started by 3:00, it’s not happening.) On the right hand side  is a grocery list column, to write…. The grocery list! I know: high tech doesn’t even begin to describe it.

(If you think that Excel would do all this for me, (a) you are probably right, (b) you have never seen me use Excel, it’s stand-up comedy; and (c) some teenager stole my mouse and I’m using the track pad on my lap top 100% of the time. Using Excel with a track pad is prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under  “cruel and unusual punishment.” I don’t get paid enough for that shtuff.)

 

There’s always song lyrics on my lists. This one is from Taylor Swift ‘s All Too Well. That song is superbly written. I have a songwriting hobby that is mostly limited to listening to other people’s work and wishing I could write like that.

Once my little spreadsheet is written, I take the clipboard with me for a walk. We have a pantry and two freezers, both of which contain things I can’t remember. I make a menu based of the mammoth parts my husband has hunted down from Costco. Then I check the grocery items I will need to accompany said pieces of meat. I write everything down on the paper with a pen. At that point, I might also ask the family for input since, you know, there is never anything good to eat here. At that point, my entire family might answer: “I don’t know. Food?” And this is how I end-up with hundreds of dollars’ worth of nothing good.

Fries for Friday’s dinner? Check.

(Normally it would be written in French but I made this one just for you).

And there you have it. Large family, high tech, meal planning. The clipboard lives in my purse afterwards.

Before I let you go, I just wanted to share our Sunday meal. My friend Sue’s amazing pulled pork (which I took from the freezer) and beer bread. I had never made beer bread, I didn’t even know what it was, but I got the idea from one of Simcha Fisher’s “What’s for supper?” blog posts. Since I want to be as awesome as Simcha, I decided to give it a try. It’s seriously amazingly good, especially with pulled pork. I used this recipe: http://www.food.com/recipe/beer-bread-73440 and yes, I sifted the flour and it turned out perfectly.

This will definitely make you as awesome as Simcha in the kitchen. As for the becoming a gifted writer and successful blogger,  I’m still working on it.

What’s for supper vol. 5: The generosity of others


This week’s dinner round-up was delegated to the generosity of others. I bring meals to others in their time of need, that’s my shtick, and it has been a singular blessing to have my family fed by others as I recover from last week’s health crisis. Feeding the hungry is at the top of the list of corporal works of mercy in the Catholic Church, it shouldn’t be surprising that a hot meal in a time of need feeds the body as well as the soul. Still it’s one thing to bring a meal to a friend in need and another one to receive it. Words cannot express the gratitude felt when someone takes-on the intimidating task of feeding a family of 11.

The days of the week have all been mixed-up and I can’t really remember what we ate when. I also wasn’t home for 3 days and goodness knows what happened then, food-wise. All I know is that some pizza was ordered and when I came home from the hospital one of my children exclaimed: “We were like orphans! It was AWESOME!”

ON THE FIRST DAY

(Which might have been Monday? Or was it Sunday? Yes it was Sunday because I missed Mass.)

When I came home from the hospital, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. My oldest daughter had been to Mass that morning and asked our parish priest if he would come to our house to give me the anointing of the sick. It was the first time in my life that I was sick enough to receive the anointing of the sick and it deeply moved me. He also brought me Communion and pizza for the kids. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy in one fell swoop, he’s an awesome guy.

ON THE SECOND DAY

My mother came to spend the day with me. Sometimes a girl just needs her mama. My husband made me some liver and onions. Of course, the kids were not too eager to share so we still have leftovers. Anyone? Sadly, 3 meals of liver and some pretty hardcore iron supplements didn’t impress my hemoglobin much. It went down further and I was back in hospital on the third day.

ON THE THIRD DAY

IMG_4205The children ate at the IKEA cafeteria while I went back  to the hospital for a blood transfusion.

IMG_4114
If canned yellow beans don’t pump you back up, what will? *Big Wink*

IMG_4307 I wanted to post a picture of my hand and my IV pump but I thought that the sight of blood and a big needle might make some of you squeamish. Instead, here is the picture of me before the transfusion and after the first unit.  That’s just the difference it made on the outside. I was also given some delicious hospital food. A friend came to pick me up at the hospital and drove me home. I felt like a blood-doped athlete and joked about starting my marathon training that evening.

ON THE FOURTH DAY

A friend who always has a lot of common sense wisdom to share suggested that I eat ice cream 3 meals a day until my heart felt better. I might have done that on the fourth day. I might need to find a way to do that without needing to wear maternity clothes because that ain’t helping much. See “marathon training” above. Training starts with “waking and talking at the same time.” The things we take for granted, I’m telling you…

ON THE FIFTH DAY

Collage_Sue soup

I received a visit from two dear friends who brought me soup, casseroles and chicken broth. In case the first 4 volumes of “What’s for Dinner” have not made that point clear, feeding a family of 11 day after day after day is hard work. It looms really large in my daily horizon. It’s more work than homeschooling, it’s more work than breastfeeding, it’s more work than laundry, it’s probably 50% of my daily effort expenditure, 365 day a year except for that blessed week at Family Camp when we hire a camp cook. If I were to leave for a weekend away (*snort* like that ever happened), I would need to make or plan all the meals in advance. When I give birth, I make sure I have a month’s worth of dinners in the freezer, make that three months for twins (we bought a second deep freeze for the occasion, if you are expecting twins do it, it will be worth every penny and you’ll make it up in savings on pizza and take-out, take my word for it.) When friends bring me meals, it is the single most helpful thing they can do to keep me off my feet. Because even when I’m supposed to be resting — as I am now — the question “What’s for supper?” invariably lands on my desk every day around 4 pm. It’s just the way the world goes round.

ON THE SIXTH DAY

Collage_cake twins bd

It was the twins’ 4th birthday. There’s always a party here to keep your mind off what ails ya.

Collage_Birthday twins

No hair was burned in the making of this collage.

ON THE SEVENTH DAY

My mother will be back to make some meals to get me ready for next week. Because that’s the beautiful thing about feeding your children: IT NEVER ENDS! Not only is my mother still feeding me, she is feeding me times 11! Except that now it’s different. I know because I have children and someday they will still need me. And I will still be there.

What’s for supper? Vol. 4: More muffins and spaghetti sauce


What did we eat this week?

MONDAY


Monday was Labour Day. My husband took the children to visit family but it was David’s turn to process our family’s friendly virus. I took a pass and stayed home with the sick and the underage. We had chips and ice cream for supper. Yes we did.

TUESDAY

Remember the Thai squash soup with coconut and shrimp I made last week? I usually buy a second bag of shrimps to add to the leftover (because there is soup leftovers but never shrimps). Then we have a second round of squash soup.

WEDNESDAY

Collage_Spicy peanut pork

Last weekend I mentioned making Spicy Peanut Chicken (with pork) in the slow cooker. I warmed it up on Wednesday and we ate it with fresh corn. My 9 year-old son announced that he was thirsty so I asked him to go get the water jug for the family. Without missing a beat he told me, very matter-of-factly: “No, I’m just going to get water for myself.” Err, no buddy, please bring back the water jug for the family, said I. “Ok then, I’m not thirsty.” he replied. “You can still get the water jug please. Which led to him saying no, me taking away his plate until he came back with the water jug, and he stomping away to get said water. Friends, if you wonder how we can raise such self-centered children in a family of 11, imagine if we had stopped at 2! Believe me, the world is a better place because we have 9 and it’s not because we are superior human beings. Pride runs strong in that gene line.

THURSDAY

collage_spaghetti sauce

Spaghetti sauce day. My children and I are not fond of chunks in our spaghetti sauce. I like to put all the veggies and herbs in the food processor and give them a whirl. I don’t puree them to soup level but I find that along not having chunks, it mixes-up the flavours nicely. This specimen has red bell pepper, cremini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, fresh herbs from my potted garden (basil, chive and parsley), dried oregano and sage. I saute the veggie mash in olive oil, add an entire Costco pallet of tomato sauce and 3kg of ground beef. I stir until the meat is all separated and let it simmer forever. Add salt and pepper to taste et voila. That day, I also made orange cranberry muffins and oatmeal chocolate chip muffins. Our homeschool had to be on auto-pilot and we didn’t get around to do history and science. Note to self: you can’t cook up a storm and homeschool at the same time. I use this recipe for the cranberry orange muffins. I use frozen cranberries instead of fresh and it works fine. Just a note about the streusel topping: it’s a simple mix of sugar and orange rind. I prefer to put the orange rind in the muffin batter. The streusel falls apart when freezing anyway. On a more positive note, sugar mixed-up with orange rind and left to sit on the counter for a day can be eaten with a spoon or melted over a candle and shot-up your arm, oh my goodness, someone make it stop!!

STILL THURSDAY

Collage_znoodles

When I did a Whole 30 back in January I had to stop eating pasta. I discovered zucchini noodles and I actually prefer them now to pasta. I don’t have a veggie spiralizer so I use my veggie peeler and peel the zucchinis until I am almost peeling the tip of my fingers (sometimes I do.). Lucas enjoys chopping the leftover zucchinis with a big knife. As an aside, I used to pay a whole lot of money so my kids could do just that at a Montessori preschool. Which brings me to homeschooling preschool: stop worrying already!! If I got a dime every time a stressed out mom asks about a preschool curriculum, I could retire happy. Preschools need a curriculum because they are accountable to their clients. Preschool is just life. You need to live with your children and engage with them positively. Read to them, snuggle with them, let them help with cooking if you have the patience to do so. Take them outside and show them the dirt: here’s your preschool curriculum.

Back to the zucchini noodles… I slice an onion or two in very thin slices, smash some garlic and saute everything in olive oil with salt, pepper and dried oregano, then I cover for a while to let it steam a little. Zucchinis lose their water like nothing else so 6 zucchinis is barely enough for two adults. Unless they are the giant ones that neighbours leave on your doorstep.

Collage_znoodles with sauce

 

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY

Collage_crepes

My teenage daughter announced that she would make crepes for supper. I said: “Fine!” She used the recipe from Ricardo but I prefer Josee di Stasio’s recipe. I usually quadruple it — that would be 4 cups of flour and a whole dozen of eggs — add beer to the milk and keep it in the fridge in an air tight container. The kids will make crepes for breakfast, snack or lunch using the batter all week.

Et voila, this is it for this week. I’m sparing you the weekend because it ended-up in take-out pizza.

 

What’s for supper Vol. 3: Pork, fries, and pizza two meals in a row


Last week I posted about all the delicious foods I cook for my family and admittedly, it had been a good week. This week has been less stellar, a combination of not feeling it, having a parade of sick babies and being too hot to cook (summer’s last Hurrah has seen temperatures rise over 30 degrees Celsius in my area.) We’ve also had to shop for fall clothes, go to the clinic (twice) and generally cope with sleepless nights and hectic days. Don’t forget to visit the instigator of the What’s for supper linkup, Simcha Fisher.

In true social media fashion, I neglected to take pictures on our less-than-stellar meals. You can take my word for it though, it really happened!

MONDAY

Edit_What's for supper II Mon

Chicken drumsticks, green beans and leftover red cabbage slaw. Any coleslaw gets better after a few days in the fridge, remember that. I cook the entire Costco pallet of chicken drumsticks regardless of the number of people eating. If we have 11 people around the table, it will barely be enough but this time we had leftovers. You are probably wondering what I use to marinate the chicken to perfection. Nothing, that’s what. I often hear about people who can’t figure out how I fit everything in a day. But the truth is (a) I don’t; and (b) I cut corners everywhere. Who has time to manage marinade? Not me. I have lost pounds of meat to spoilage because I kept forgetting to marinate the wretched thing day after day. If I feel like a master cook, I might remember salt and pepper. And guess what? The kids don’t care: it’s chicken! Remember the simple things like salt, pepper and onion flakes.

TUESDAY

On Tuesday my parents came for a visit and asked me to call-in a pizza pick-up that the children would like. I called the pick-up and they showed-up with the pizza. And some desserts. And some cookies. And lollipops. And juice. After they left, it was too hot to cook but mercifully there was enough pizza, desserts and juice to make a second meal out of it. This is one I forgot to immortalize so you’ll have to believe me. Nobody died, nobody got scurvy and children’s protection did not show-up at my house.

WEDNESDAY

Edit_Costco

On Wednesday, we decided to do an errands run into town. Which in husband-speak meant: shop for clothes at the children’s consignment store, buy groceries, socks and underwear at the Superstore, go to Costco, eat and hit the mall with the teenagers for their clothes shopping. Believe it or not, we made it (with 5 minutes to spare before the mall closed). We have this thing figured out. We can do Costco and supper in under an hour. First we hit the club. Then my husband takes one teen to do the groceries (we need two carts) and I hit the snack bar with the rest of them. We eat fries, chicken fingers and hot dogs, we never buy drinks. My husband comes out the cash line and eats the leftovers and the teenager grabs a poutine for the road. Bam!! No, I don’t have pictures of that one either.

THURSDAY

Collage_Squash soup with shrimps

Thai squash and coconut soup with shrimps. This is hands down my family’s favorite soup. I rarely make it because it involves peeling and cubing a squash, which makes me run for the hills. Thankfully butternut squash keeps forever in the pantry: I had two specimen waiting since the beginning of August and so I decided to be a good mom and make something all my kids enjoyed. A few notes if you are trying this recipe (you should):

  • My children don’t like chunks in their soup so I skip the part where half the squash is boiled and the other half is kept in cubes for the soup. I just boil and process the whole darn thing. Well, the two of them in my case.
  • The recipe instructs you to chop the onion, sweet pepper etc. “finely” or something equally egregious. What you should know now is that everything gets processed in a blender at some point. So don’t obsess over having perfectly square cubes or you’ll cry later. I chop everything coarsely.
  • If you use fish sauce, don’t forget to crank the range hood way up while it evaporates or the stinky fishy smell will not only cling to your clothes and your hair, it will make the kids run upstairs and swear never to taste what smells so awful. Your husband will come home and wonder who’s rotting in the cellar. Just make sure the air is on full blast before you add the fish sauce.
  • I use raw peeled shrimps. They taste way better — less rubbery — if they cook in the soup but who has time to peel whole shrimps? Not me. You don’t need to blast the heat to cook the shrimps and the coconut milk. In fact, both will be better off if you cook them slightly using residual heat (if the shrimps are small) or on a low simmer. I have yet to find raw peeled shrimps anywhere else than Superstore.
  • An immersion blender is your best friend. It makes the clean-up so unbelievably quicker than using the regular blender. This is a staple of the large family kitchen: I make soup, batter, whipped cream using the immersion blender.

FRIDAY

edit_sick twins

Friday was sick day. I spend the day trapped under various feverish children and the children had a sports night at church. I threw together my usual freezer meal: fish and chips. I also served a big bowl of fruits (melon and nectarines). I’m not a meal absolutist: leaving  bowl of fruit out ready to eat counts as vitamins and fibers, who says you have to have some horrible veggie that no one likes on offer?

Edit_What's for supper II Fri

 

 

 

SATURDAY

Today is the Feast of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and we are celebrating by eating pork Vindaloo, rice and naan bread.{***EDIT: a friend asked me on Facebook how I got the children to eat vindaloo since it’s very spicy. I don’t put chili pepper that’s how. We add spice after.} Follow the links to find the recipes I used. I had 3+ kg of pork loin from Costco so I cubed it and separated it in two batches of 3-4 lbs each. I turned the first batch into pork vindaloo. I used the recipe linked above, added a bit of water to the vindaloo spice paste and threw everything in the slow cooker. The smell was heavenly. I turned the other batch into slow-cooker spicy peanut chicken (yeah, yeah, I know it’s pork) from the gluten-free slow-cooker book by Judith Finlayson. I also have her book of Paleo slow-cooker recipes and everything is fantastic. The reviews on GoodReads are low because people can’t cook and expect the slow cooker to do all the work. I like the books because it makes my recipes taste like the Indian restaurant and my house smell good. I highly recommend those two books if you prefer cooking from scratch from recipes that don’t start with a can of Campbell mushroom soup. Now, the last time I posted about these books, someone asked me what a gluten-free slow-cooker was. The recipes are gluten-free, not the machine. If you want a gluten-free slow-cooker just buy a normal slow-cooker and never cook foods containing gluten in it. Ta-daa. As for the slow-cooker that turns normal food into delicious gluten-free foods, the prototype is still in development.

Collage_Pork slow cookers

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have two slow-cookers. The larger one is sold at Costco and often comes on sale for under $40. It works just fine.

At 5:30 pm, the children were hungry as a fresh batch of oatmeal chocolate chip muffins came out of the oven. They had a few each and weren’t hungry for supper. We saw an opportunity and decided to keep the pork vindaloo and naan bread for a late supper with the teenagers. We essentially fed the children chocolate chips muffins with a side of pasta and hot dogs and let them watch a movie. Sadly, I did not get a picture of that either.

Collage_Naan baking

For the naan bread, I used the basic Artisan Bread recipe. It was decent but it didn’t taste the way it was supposed to. Next time, I’ll try making it with a real naan dough recipe. We had a chat with the girls about Blessed Mother Theresa that devolved into the futility of arguing online with Internet atheists and devolved even further into the hilarity of my (French) pronunciation of the word “atheist.”

Collage_Pork vindaloo

 

 

 

 

 

 

SUNDAY

On Sunday, we grabbed fresh fries from the Chip Wagon in Almonte (the one by the Esso Yes So!), butter tarts from the grocery store and celebrated carbs of all shapes and sizes. Supper will be leftovers. Have a great week everyone!

Homeschooling Questions: To plan or not to plan?


To plan or not to plan, that is the question…
In a recent Facebook post, I asked friends to send me their homeschooling questions, as if I could answer any of them as I emerge from a very difficult first year and enter the second. I meant to write a Q&A type of post but the questions were too far ranging to fit on one page, each one deserving a full post to itself. The first question came from Jenna. She asked (edited for length):

“I always love hearing about how/when homeschoolers fit in planning….and getting a glimpse of what a typical day looks like. I am constantly battling with the idea that we need to have a structured routine, but fail to have one every single day. Sometimes I feel great about our go-with-the-flow approach, and sometimes I feel like my kids need more consistency and I should work harder at that.”

I think that personal style and what works for your family are key. For us, planning is a must. Like you, I tend to fall on the go-with-the-flow end of the spectrum but it is a complete fail with my children. In fact, nothing guarantees a bad day like not having a plan. As a result, I need to walk roughshod over my personal preference and manage to work with what works best for my children. And that’s a lesson plan, attached to a schedule. My children need to know what to expect or their brains short-circuit. On the positive side, when they have a lesson plan clearly laid-out, they work well and thoroughly.

user-experience-vs-design
Last year, I planned our work using Laura Berquist’s Designing you Own Classical Curriculum and Jesse Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind . While I really liked the classical approach, it required a lot of work and advanced planning on my part, especially since my children were something-less-than-enthusiastic. Their school experience had not prepared them for the type of work and inquiry that the classical curriculum demanded.
Mid-year I started using spiral bound notebooks to prepare the children’s workweek.  If I had a chunk of time on Sunday I would plan the entire week day-by-day. That rarely happened so I was normally planning one day at a time, after the kids’ bedtime. When the children got up in the morning, they knew right away what they had to do and would often power through most of their school day in a few hours. Whenever we didn’t get to the end of the list, the work got reported to the next day. I never scheduled Fridays and used it as a bumper day to finish the week’s work.

Using the spiral notebooks really made things easier for everyone but I was still struggling to keep on top of the highschoolers: making sure that their work was completed properly and corrected, that areas of concern were addressed, etc. As former school students, they both had a tendency to stop working whenever they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve.
As a result, this year I registered the highschoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School. They are taking online classes in math and religion, have tutors for the other subjects (science, English, history, latin) and I teach French using these resources. The Mother of Divine Grace syllabi are very clearly (and expertly) broken down in assignments by days and by weeks. The curriculum is demanding, clocking-in at 5 to 6 hours per day for the highschoolers. In other words, it will suck back a lot of our homeschooling flexibility. But the reality is that my teens don’t know how to use their time wisely. I was hoping that homeschooling flexibility would allow them to delve into new interests and develop their talents but it hasn’t. Unless Tumblr, Netflix and Starbucks count as talents.
Another dimension of planning are your needs as a parent. As usual, a little bit of critical self-examination can go a long way. I find that there is a very predictable arc to my day depending on where my butt sits around 7:30 am. If I am on the couch with my phone, in my pajamas, having my coffee, chances are I’m still there at 10am (or more likely I got up in a panic as the twins dumped a bucket of outside gravel into the couch and I am now cleaning it up as they flush dominoes down the septic tank and Damien is drinking toilet water from the dog’s water dish. I wish I was making this up.) If I have gotten-up before the kids, stretched a bit, said my morning prayers, eaten and dressed, I’m less likely to get caught-up in the wave of chaos that represents my family. Because my brain is impervious to routines – no matter how long I stick to a routine it never becomes second nature – a plan help me remember where I’m supposed to be at a certain time and what I’m supposed to do.
Finally, one last dimension of planning is that it really clears hours off my day. I know because I’ve been operating plan-less for most of the last 9 months and the insanity of doing all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the homeschooling for a family of 11 is really catching-up with me now. A plan allows me to assign tasks to the children and keep them accountable. It’s easier to keep them doing their chores if there is a predictable list of work I can pin to their foreheads. Left to my own devise, I tend to rely heavily on the most naturally helpful children, which of course breeds resentment on one end and unrealistic expectations of being left alone at the other end. I purchased Managers of their homes  in a fit of despair last year but it’s still shrink-wrapped and glaring at me. I’m scared witless of this thing but I’m afraid we’re at that point of disorganization.Many friends have also recommended Holly Pierlot A Mother’s Rule of Life  but I can’t buy another book until I have read all those I ordered last year so it may have to wait until I’m in a nursing home.
My thoughts on planning, in a nutshell: If you think you need it, give it a try. If you are happy and healthy, why fix what is not broken? I would much prefer following my children’s learning cues and enquiries, if the cues weren’t always about Paw Patrol.

Confronting Envy


It started innocently enough with an online sale. The kind of online sale that let’s you meet likeminded parents: cloth diapers, children’s bikes. This one was for a ring sling. While teaching the buyer to use my ring sling, we had stricken a conversation about twins. This young mama had 6 month-old twins, her first children. I looked at her with the confidence of the mother who has it all figured out and said: “I know how tough it is right now but don’t worry: they’ll sleep someday, it gets better.” She said: “Oh sleep is no problem! Since they were born we made sure to have a really consistent bedtime routine and when we tuck them in their beds they know it’s sleep time and they just go to sleep!”

Well, I try hard not to swear but F-my-luck. I haven’t slept a good night since 2009 and having twins nearly killed me. From the day they were born until Lucas was 16 months I did not sleep longer than 45 minutes in a row. When he was 10 months-old I realized that I had seen every single hour on my alarm clock, every single night, for the last 10 months so I got rid of the alarm clock. It was easier than getting rid of the baby. That young mom’s innocent comment made me feel like maybe I had missed something. Maybe I could have been sleeping all this time and my restless nights were due to a lack of skills or determination. And those negative feelings reopened a door I had long thought closed: the door of envy.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined envy as sorrow at the good fortune of others. Its flip side is rejoicing at the downfall of others. Envy is that silent “YES!!” moment when we learn of the downfall of someone we had been envying. As if something in us died when our neighbor succeeded.

IMG_3623

I struggled for many years with envy after my older children were born. I was convinced that my decision to put my career on hold while my children were young (ha! Famous last words as I still have young children almost 20 years later) was the right decision for our family. Yet, I looked with envy at the material things my friends who worked outside the home could afford. Vacations, cute clothes, and my holy grail, matching furniture. I mentally wished that their children would grow-up troubled as if I needed to see the proof that having a parent at home was better for children. As if nothing I was doing would have been worth it unless my children were happy and their children were screwed-up.

Now that I am a bit older and a bit wiser — and that I have a house full of matching IKEA furniture — envy doesn’t rear its ugly head the same way it did when I was younger. I no longer envy material things as much as accomplishments. I envy confidence, safety, and a sense of control. Which is ironic isn’t it, since I decided to have a large family? But this is how fear works in the darkest confines of our souls, keeping us from becoming a better, bigger, version of ourselves.

I caught myself wishing that this young mom’s twins would suddenly stop sleeping so well. To show her that she wasn’t really in control. I wished that she would discover that her parenting skills at imposing a bedtime routine that sent her kids straight into Morpheus’ arms had everything to do with her children’s natural disposition to sleep on cue. I assumed that they must have been bottle-fed in hospital and molded to an institutional schedule. What are we breastfeeding mothers to do when our healthy children protest our best attempts to conform them to our schedule? We are not going home at the end of our shift!

IMG_1134

A few months later, I learned that a friend with children had sold her house and purchased a similar-sized house in a less desirable suburban neighbourhood. The difference in prices allowed her and her husband to pay-off their mortgage and live comfortably debt-free.  I could just taste the freedom. Completely debt-free, home owning, new vehicle driving, holidaying, while in their prime earning years, with school-aged children…. Life: does it get better than that?

Well, of course the husband, you know…. And the wife well… That’s not mentioning the way their kids…. And the issues at school… Here comes envy again with its messy greasy hands leaving fingerprints all over my best wishes. Envy is the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. It stains what should be beautiful and inspiring and filters it through a dirty lens. Turned on itself, it makes us look like a diminished version of ourselves. Envy is self-limitation. It’s locking ourselves in a cage, with the key, wishing every one would join us in when we could simply fly away.

I realized that my envy was not only holding me down, it was preventing me from growing from my experiences and choices, whether good or bad. It also made small-fry of the fruits of those experiences and forks in the road. My life as a mother of 9 is fodder for this blog and countless helpful interventions with friends and strangers alike. I made poor financial and academic decisions that set me back in my career ambitions and my financial independence but these decisions have lead me down a path where I met dear friends, learned valuable lessons and grew more than I ever did playing it safe. Envy renders us myopic, deliberately blurring out distance and perspective, only allowing us to see what is directly in front of us. IMG_4132

How many “mommy wars” and “mama drama” are rooted in envy? How many poor choices are motivated by envy? How farther along would we be if we simply chose to learn from those who have done things better, or even just differently, than we have?

C.S. Lewis described hell as a door locked on the inside. When we let envy     pollute our relationships with others, we are not only locking ourselves in but expecting everyone to join us.

Why are we doing this?


We moved last week, the realization of 3 years of planning and strategic decision-making. In 2010, when I announced that I was expecting twins to a friend (and fellow twin mama) she exclaimed: “This is wonderful! This will really focus you on your family!” I remember being a little taken-aback. We had 6 children, why did she think we were not family-focused already? I should have known better than to question the wisdom of a mother of 10. Of course she was right. After welcoming the twins in 2011, the futility of our lifestyle really hit us like a ton of brick. My husband was working himself to an early grave for the sake of keeping us ensconced in our busy and abundant lifestyle. We decided to sell our house, pay-off our debts, offload a lot of our stuff and live a life that was more coherent with our beliefs and principles. We bought a piece of land in the country where we eventually built a house. A house designed with the needs and requirements of a large homeschooling family in mind, where square-footage is not a thing in and of itself.
Our little piece of Canadian shield sits about an hour’s drive away from the east end of Ottawa where our children were born and raised. It is a radical move from a suburban lifestyle to a rural lifestyle, from school to homeschool, and it leaves no one indifferent.

Decisions based on convictions rarely leave people indifferent. Returning to school full time to get a Master’s degree didn’t leave people indifferent. Selling our house to pay off our debts and move into a rental house didn’t leave people indifferent. Having another child didn’t leave people indifferent. Building a house in the country didn’t leave people indifferent. Homeschooling didn’t leave people indifferent. We always elicit a reaction. We are either living the dream or delusional.

Last week, we moved 9 children away from the community they have known since birth. Four of those 9 children are teenagers. Rightfully, people are asking: “What are the children thinking about this move?” Uprooting teenagers is a bold move, especially in the absence of a non-negotiable driver such as a job posting. But if anyone thinks that we’re delusional to move teenagers on purpose, let me assure you that this move, at this time, is intentional. We are under no illusion that the move will be seamless or even easy for our teenagers but we are doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our family.

We are committed to make it work for our teenagers and we are often asking for their input on ways to facilitate the transition. Don’t get me wrong, the teenagers never held the power to stop the move. But there is a difference between asking for input and veto power. Our teenagers know that we have an ear for well thought-through plans. They do not like to plan much — neither do their friends – preferring to pick-up as they go. We believe — and this is how this decision was intentional — that the cream of friendships will rise to the top. This happens to most of us through the post-secondary years. Our move has only provoked a natural progression of high school dalliances and connections. We see this as a positive aspect of the move, not a negative one. Our society sees the teenage years as an end in itself, a last grab at the freedom of childhood. We see the teenage years as a transition into adulthood. Our vision for our family is to raise adults, not big children. It’s very difficult to cast this approach as essentially affirmative when the children grow-up in a cultural environment where this formation is seen as essentially restrictive. I love the analogy of arrows in the hand of the warrior: to launch arrows, you need tension. If you make everything easy for your teenagers to avoid tension, the arrow will fall flatly to the ground. Too much tension and the bow breaks, not enough tension and the arrow doesn’t launch. Moving teenagers is causing some tension, I will not lie. However, we see tension as an essential component of growth, maturation and individualization.

Our decision to move to the country was also a decision to slow right down. We wanted to move away from the tyranny of activities and the pressure of wanting to keep-up with everyone else. We were tired of fighting our environment to instill the values we wanted to instill in our children. Here, in the country the rhythms are different, the expectations are different. For instance, our new church’s children’s choir rehearsal takes place right after Mass while the families are still around. No need to book another evening off for choir practice. All the children are welcome, regardless of age, because everybody needs to make the most out of their country mileage. This is just an example of the many ways in which country folks are more practical. This is how we want our family to start thinking and living.

You may read this in complete agreement or recoil in horror, your reaction is rooted in your own values and priorities. I believe that the proof will be in the fruit. I will tend my garden and let the fruit ripen.

So you want to pull your kids out of school


Our decision to homeschool coincided with the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario’s public schools. I am not familiar with the details of the recent changes occurring in Ontario kindergarten classrooms but parents are telling me that the increase in school population brought-on by full day kindergarten has bumped-up class sizes across the board as other classes are combined to make room for the additional kindergarten classes. A field of portables – complete with graffiti – sprouted beside a shiny new neighbourhood’s public school (begging the question “how did you not see this coming and couldn’t you have built the school the right size in the first place?”) and a large extension to another new school was built in the schoolyard. In the land of “play-based learning” space to run around doing nothing is at a premium.

From full day kindergarten, to poor academic placement, to special needs, parents express a growing concern that while the school system is staffed by dedicated teachers and well-meaning principals, it is not serving the needs of their individual children very well. And so they ask about homeschooling. A lot.

A friend recently inquired about homeschooling and my reply inspired this blog post. Her question was not so much “why homeschool?” or even “how to homeschool?” but “what can I expect after pulling children out of school?” and “How will I stay sane?”

The sanity question is very much undetermined at this point. Homeschooling is hard and we are still negotiating the learning curve. My days are long and the nights are short. I remain sane by remembering why we are doing this. Thankfully, having five children older than the four youngest gives me perspective on how quickly this season will pass. I keep simple goals in mind on an hourly basis (don’t get angry, don’t yell, breathe) and the big picture in sight whenever I feel like quitting.

At this point in our homeschool journey – we started 2 months ago with 3 school-age children and will be adding a fourth in January – we are mostly learning to learn in different ways. The Internet calls it “deschooling” but I prefer using “deprogramming” to describe the process of bringing children home. We often assume (at least I did) that homeschooling is “doing school at home” – and for some that’s exactly what it is – but in reality, homeschooling is a paradigm shift. You will notice this paradigm shift in the comments you receive from people who do not support homeschooling: you can’t teach unless you are a teacher, you need to isolate children from their home environment for learning to occur, you need a lot of material support, you need a curriculum telling you exactly what needs to be learned when, you need a large group of same-age peers for socialization to happen. We are conditioned from a very young age to believe that schooling happens in a box. The physical act of removing the children from the box does not necessary change our thinking. There is a lot to learn in homeschooling and curriculum is only part of it. Here are a few unwritten lessons from my first two months of homeschooling after 14 years of school:

1. You will need to teach your children to trust you as a teacher. I had an interesting exchange with one of my daughters during the summer prior to the start of our homeschooling journey. We were talking about menstrual cycles – well, I was doing the talking — and I said: “When your periods start, they may not be regular for a while. You may skip weeks or even months.” And she looked at me with the kind of look you would give a lost puppy and said “I know mom, I’ve been to health class.” And this sums it up: your children, after years of conventional schooling, may love you and even respect you but their learning has been compartmentalized between the “home stuff” and the “school stuff”. You don’t understand their “new math” and “modern grammar”, you are no longer welcome to help in the classroom and your children don’t expect you to know jack squat. Don’t expect to jump into pre-algebra and traditional logic and think that your children will suddenly trust your superior brain. As far as they’re concerned, this homeschooling thing might just be another one of your “phases”, like that vegetarian kick of 2002. By the way, your mom and their teachers think the same way.

2. You will have to learn to learn at home. After years in school, your children are used to learning at school and flopping at home. The proximity to the kitchen, the toy room and the TV/computer can challenge academic work. I spent the entire month of September guarding the fridge. I’m not sure how they coped with fixed snack-times in school when I see how much fuel they need to keep their concentration.

3. You will learn to smooth the kinks in your relationship and discipline before learning can occur. Regardless of how good your relationship is, you can only teach so much if you don’t get along well with your children. And I mean this in the most loving way possible: we all love our children on the inside but the day-to-day grind often gets in the way of a cordial rapport on the outside. Parents of teenagers and toddlers, you know what I mean. To homeschool, you need to get along with your children on the inside AND the outside. It doesn’t mean that they become compliant little Stepford Kids but you need a basis of genuine compliance to move ahead with homeschooling. Learning to obtain compliance from your children without damaging your relationship – yelling, nagging or generally getting fed-up – may take weeks or even months but it needs to be done first. If you can’t get your children to clean-up their rooms without a fight, you have a taste of what homeschooling will look like day after day, hour after hour, until you quit in despair. Character before curriculum. I repeat this to myself about 2000 times a week.

4. Your children will have to learn to live with each other in close quarters. Your children may get along well at home or they may fight like cats and dogs, either way they will learn to work and live with each other. At school, they have been socialized to play strictly with children their own age. They have also been socialized into “girl play” and “boy play”. Boys and girls who play well together are often told they are in love with each other. Boys who enjoy “girl play” are often told they are gay. We all have stories of children who play well all summer with a younger neighbour only to royally ignore their best friend on school ground. We all have stories of older siblings who will not be seen with their younger siblings at school or on the school bus. Your children need to unlearn all this wonderful socialization to get along well in the context of the homeschool, especially if they are boys and girls. It may sound far-fetched but for our first month of home schooling, my biggest obstacle to teaching was the constant fighting between my 5 year-old and my 8 year-old. And I have 3 year-old twins and an infant, it says a lot.

5. You will learn to walk in confidence to the beat of your own drum. You will face opposition, criticism and soul-crushing doubt. The biggest failure predictor for homeschooling families (other than obvious challenges such as income loss, death and mental illness) is lack of confidence. If you doubt your ability to homeschool, there are good chances that you will prove yourself right. A few days ago, I heard a beloved family member explain to me how she didn’t think I could raise forward-thinking, engaging and open-minded teenagers in the context of the homeschool. A friend later suggested that she doubted my ability to teach advanced academics on the topics I did not master myself. Both are valid concerns coming from people I respect and care about, even though they show a lack of research on the ins and outs of homeschooling. I went to bed reeling, first thinking I would ruin my children forever, and then thinking I would prove everybody wrong. I got up this morning with a bone to pick and lined-up my little circus monkeys for a full day of academics. By lunchtime, I had to bitch-slap myself a few times to regain focus: I am not training circus monkeys, I am raising people. I will prove everybody wrong, all in good time. The proof will be in the fruit but I have to let the fruit ripen. Whenever I feel like I need to prove something to someone, I repeat to myself “Let the fruit ripen.”

Homeschooling is a journey of discovery, about yourself, about your children, and about the world around you. Whenever I feel wobbly and unsure, I remind myself that I am only taking my first steps. We will learn, we will grow and we will become stronger.