Ontario’s new Health and Phys Ed curriculum: this is not a cafeteria

The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.

This? That's me in my natural state.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later. 

I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?

As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):

Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.

Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.

In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast  tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):

“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”

(You can read the entire address here.)

Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:


I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.

Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.

What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?

Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.

If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.

Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.

The family, a conference

I have been invited to speak at a conference on the family taking place next week at Dominican College in Ottawa. My topic is Christian virtue and the family. You can find registration information here. Please send me your best thoughts and prayers! Being added to the line-up late in the game means that I have little time to prepare. If you are in Ottawa, consider coming! I would hate to speak to an empty room.

Why I don’t spank or “The day my daughter slayed me.”

Yesterday, I was advised to spank my children for getting out of bed after bedtime. I was venting about our bedtime routine, gone wild with the longer summer days and the end of napping for the twins. Our twins are 2-and-a-half and our daughter is 5. All three have a hard time stopping long enough to let sleep overcome them. After sharing with friends everything we had tried, one of them suggested spanking them if they got out of bed. I was taken aback, a little speechless, and blurted out: “They would have no idea why I’m hitting them.” I would have liked to be able to say: “I never spank my children.”

I used to spank but I don’t anymore. When my four older children were young, I believed that spanking was part of any parent’s discipline toolbox. I believed, as I had been told by other parents, that nothing cleared the air like a good swat on the bum. That spanking was the only way to ensure compliance in certain situations. That some defiant behaviours such as willful disobedience and lying should be nipped in the bud quickly and unequivocally through spanking. The books I read were reasonable. Nobody suggested spanking infants or school-aged children. Every author or speaker insisted that parents should never spank in anger. That the bum-swat should be applied swiftly and unemotionally to children who are too young to understand the gravity of their actions. All the while, spanking made my children angry or miserable, not compliant. And rather than be unemotional about it, I was racked by guilt and the impression that there had to be a better way to raise respectful and considerate children. The reality was that I always spanked in anger: when I wasn’t angry, I could always find more constructive and respectful ways to get what I needed from my children.

When my 5th child was born, I decided to stop spanking. I decided that if hitting my child was the only way to gain the upper hand, I deserved to lose that hand. I would drop an argument before resorting to spanking. You see, the problem with spanking or yelling or any anger-fuelled response is that it works. It works to blow-off steam; it works to obtain compliance from our children; it works to leave a lasting impression. The problem with spanking is not whether it works or not, but why it works so well. A toddler who resorts to hitting and biting understands how expedient physical punishment can be. And when I spanked my children, however rarely, I felt at the mental capacity of a toddler. There had to be a better way, for my children and for myself as I sought to become a better parent.

Why does spanking work? Is it merely the fear of pain that snaps our children back on the straight and narrow? Is the pain inflicted on your bum by a parent the same as the pain that is inflicted by a fall on the playground? Does spanking work on defiance just like a fat lip works on couch acrobatics? Or is there something about the pain inflicted by a parent that makes it more efficient? Any parent of a playground acrobat knows that pain is not always a deterrent. My two-year-old son was chasing a soccer ball in the driveway when the ball rolled under our van. Without thinking twice about his height in relation to the van’s clearance, he ducked under the van but hit the bumper then the pavement face first. He stood-up, shook himself up, and carried on the pursuit with a bad case of road rash. Without a single tear. Yet, the same day, when he was particularly defiant at bed time, I flicked his diaper area with one finger to hurry him along and the screams of pain were completely disproportionate to the “pain” I had inflicted. If pain was the only deterrent involved in spanking, toddlers who bite, hit and shove would be widely respected at home and on the playground. There is a singularity to parents hitting children that makes the pain more searing. We often justify spanking by saying that we do not really hurt our children. We know, even if we do not like to admit it, that spanking is not about the physical pain we inflict but about its emotional impact on our children. Spanking works. Not because it hurts but because the hurt comes from our hand.

When we hit our children, no matter how good the reason seems to be, we use the love and trust that bind us to our children against them. We play-up their natural fear of losing our love and affection and use it against them. Because let’s be honest here, what makes spanking so expedient is not the fear of physical pain but the fear of loss. And the loss feared is the most profound. Hitting our children, when it works in achieving compliance, is hitting at their core, not their bums. This breaks my heart when I think about it. In hindsight, I am glad that spanking never worked for us. I take comfort in the fact that it made my children angry rather than compliant. I am thankful that they were secure enough in my love to call my bluff.

Spanking works, but it works for the wrong reasons. It is also a behavior that is self-reinforcing because it yields immediate results while giving vent to our frustration. The positive feedback loop afforded by spanking when we are at our wits’ end quickly becomes hardwired. Even 10 years after I made the decision to stop spanking, I can still be heard threatening my children with a bum-whacking whenever I reach the end of my rope. I never follow through and they know that. But I hate that my mind still goes there more often than I like to admit. And my children, when looking after their younger siblings, can often be heard threatening them with a spanking if they don’t straighten-up. The urge to hit in frustration is a powerful one. Once our brain has tasted the relief, it is hard to give it up.

I still hit the wall. Often. It happens when my children are simply so defiant and disobedient that hitting seems to be the only way to get respect. It happens at bedtime when the children take 2 hours to fall asleep and I need a break. It happens when they run away from me in a busy parking lot. It happens when I am desperately trying to leave and my efforts are met with stubborn resistance. It happens when my children are disrespectful and mean to me and each other. It happened recently when the twins and my 5 year-old were playing in the bath tub. That was the day my daughter slayed me.

The children were in the bath tub, all 3 of them. I turned my back for 5 seconds to pick-up my crying infant and in that split second, they dumped the entire content of a large jug of expensive body wash in the bath tub. I didn’t realize it immediately until they started crying because the soap was hurting them. Yes, soap, in large quantity, will burn your skin. I was so mad! This was not the first time. Earlier, we had vacuumed the entire content of a sunscreen bottle carefully massaged into our carpet. For my children, if it can be dumped or smeared, it has no reason to stay in a container. This is an ongoing issue with my 3 youngest, one of whom is old enough to know better. My daughter was crying that the soap was hurting her private parts. I was mad at her for letting the twins dump a $15 soap bottle in the bath without even calling me. In exasperation I said: “I am so mad at you, I really feel like giving you a good spanking!” And she blurted out, in tears:

“No! Don’t hit my bum! My bum already hurts! I don’t need a spanking when my bum hurts like this, I NEED A HUG!!”

I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Even today, I can’t think about this episode without feeling a big lump in my throat. When our children push us to the limit, they are more likely in need of more care and affection than a sound ass-whippin’. My children resist bed time when I am too busy to take them to the park after dinner. My 8 year-old middle child is rude when I’ve been putting off our game of Uno once too many. My 5 year-old is defiant when she needs more thoughtful attention, not more spanking. As for my toddlers, their thirst for discovery, their curiosity and their unbridled energy are qualities than needs careful supervision until they can be channeled into useful accomplishments. I will no longer hit my children in response to my failures to parent in a thoughtful and intentional way.

Parenting will bring you to your knees. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong. But ultimately, the flaws of stubborn determination, independence and curiosity will blossom into their most successful qualities. Don’t spank it out of them.


More than friends

I wanted to call this post “I am not friend with my kids” but it really sounds awful doesn’t it?

It was in reference to this widely shared blog post: I am friends with my kids. I started answering in my head before reading the text, on the basis of the title alone. When I finally took the time to read, I realized that, gah, I completely agreed with the gist of the author’s ideas.  The title is definitely an attention grabber but her position is more nuanced.

Parenting with respect is crucial to the development of a strong and healthy relationship with our children. If the importance of mutual respect in parenting is eluding you, you haven’t reached the teenage years yet.  When we live in the fast-paced and eminently physical world of young children, the immediate nature of parenting with a Big Stick can be appealing. But when you wake-up one morning with the real, potentially life-altering, problems of the teen age, it’s too late to wish for wide open lines of communication if they never existed. Our children need to know that they are loved and that we appreciate their presence in our lives. It is not a guarantee of smooth sailing but how would you rather cross the Atlantic? In a sailboat or a canoe?

While a healthy parenting relationship has a lot in common with friendship, it is a unique relationship that shouldn’t be so readily assimilated to the sometimes fickle and often temporary nature of friendship. Especially children’s friendships.  My children have dozens of friends but I’m their only mother. If I am their friend, who will be their mother?

The type of parenting illustrated in the blog post I am friend with my kids stands in opposition to what I would call “traditional” types of parenting. As a parent who opposes — as I do — corporal punishment, harsh consequences, isolation and threats as parenting tools, the author draws parallels between parenting and friendship along those lines: I don’t hit my friends, I don’t threaten my friends, I don’t isolate my friends when they are sad, I seek to understand my friends, I don’t yell at my friends. But if parenting can have some of the attributes of friendship, it is also so much more! I have skin in the game. My children’s friends do not.

Skin in the game matters because it gets us through the sort of tough times that friendship would not weather. Children can be little jerks. They can be rude, ungrateful, demanding. Year after year. Like friendship, the parent-child relationship is reciprocal but the giving and the receiving play-out over a lifetime. If my friends treated me like my kids do over a 20 year period, the relationship would probably die by the wayside, as the ebb and flow of life took us along different paths.  My kids are a ton of fun, don’t get me wrong. But the giving sure outweighs the receiving. In other words, the fact that my children have not yet died of exposure is the surest sign that not being their friend works to their benefits.

Skin in the game is also what motivates us to teach hard lessons and uphold unpopular principles for their own long-term good. My friends don’t care what I eat. My friends don’t care if I never eat a fruit. They may care if I eat like an animal and never invite me out but that’s about it. In fact, much of the learning that happens in the family such as self-discipline, impulse-control and good, caring manners, enables us to have and maintain healthy friendships later in life. Healthy relationships don’t start with friendship. Family is the root relationship from which all other healthy (or unhealthy) relationships flow.  Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet, learning to make way to others, learning to love people we don’t always like, learning to work when we don’t feel like it can all be taught in the family and better prepare our children to face the big wide world of relationships: from friendships to partnerships to employment relationships. But they are not always easy lessons and may not endear us to our children (or vice versa). How would you feel if one of your friends was on your case about your eating habits the same way we are with our children? Sounds a little off, doesn’t it?

As the giving and receiving of the parent-child relationship plays out over a lifetime, I can see the relatively-near future when our parents will become more dependent and, as age takes its toll, more fragile and irascible. Caring for an elderly parent bears some eerie resemblance with the care they provided us as we were growing-up. They can become demanding, ungrateful, and frustrated by their limitations. And just like they cared for us when we were little jerks, we will let them treat us in ways we would never accept from a friend. We will give of ourselves in ways we never thought we could. This is the way unconditional love flows.

I want my children to expect more than friendship from their parents. I want to be more than friends.


Warts and all

I had a moment the other morning. You know the kind? A “Mother of the Year” moment.

I’m telling you this because I used to think that mothers of large families were different. I used to think they had a special gift, a special patience, a special temperament. That they were “good with children,” whereas I wasn’t.  I used to think that mothers of large families found joy in the little aggravations of motherhood, whereas I found exasperation. I used to think that they had boundless patience and energy, whereas I ran out of both shortly after getting up in the morning.

I am now one of those mothers. I have 8 children including a pair of twins. I am expecting my 9th child in the spring of 2014. I am a member of the large family club although I expect someone to knock at my door and revoke my membership any day. Mothers of large family are inspirations. They make people think they can do it too. I don’t think anyone looks at me that way. Or maybe they look at me and think: “Yeah… let’s not and say we did.”

Mothers of large families have moments too. Moments like the other morning, when my 4 year-old woke-up just a little too early. I dragged my sorry behind to the kitchen to help her with breakfast before she could wake-up the twins. No luck: I heard one baby stir and thought that I may be able to nurse him back to sleep for another hour or two. I hurried to prepare my daughter’s bowl of cereal before the crying twin could wake-up his sister. Doing so, I inadvertently poured the milk instead of letting her do it. We’ve all done this right? Except that the difference between you and I is that you only have two children: I’ve had 17 years to learn these lessons and I still screw-up.

I am nursing one baby to the sound of a major melt down in the kitchen. She is screaming like her arm has been chewed-off by a shark. The second baby starts waking-up. I return the first baby to his bed and leave the room. Return to the kitchen and that’s when I had my “moment”. I grabbed my daughter by the arms, sat her down a little too firmly in front of her bowl of cereal and told her to stop screaming. Actually, I may have told her to shut-up. I did not threaten to tape her mouth shut with duct tape although the fleeting though may have crossed my mind. My entire day was going up in smoke: the twins up before 6 am meant that they would certainly fall asleep in the car when I left for errands at 9; the short car nap would certainly knee-cap the afternoon nap; no afternoon nap means no work in the afternoon; no afternoon nap means a hellish supper time; a hellish supper time makes everybody cranky and uncooperative. And I dumped all this squarely on my 4 year-old’s shoulders. Because yeah, she should know, right?

By now, I was back nursing my second twin back to sleep but my daughter was no longer screaming: she was wailing and sobbing for a hug. And from upstairs, stuck nursing in the dark, my heart sank. My child is only 4 and her need for affection and affirmation is gigantic. Not that my other children’s needs are less significant. But this particular child feels everything keenly. The frustration of having the milk poured for her but also her mother’s disapproval and anger. The firm arm grab, the harsh tone of voice, they just broke her apart. And now, I was at a loss to understand how after parenting so many children for so many years, I could still let a 4 year-old get the best of me.

I did give her a big hug. And I did apologize. Later that evening, as we were reading bedtime stories and cuddling in bed, I still felt the sting of failure but she didn’t seem to remember. We read about the wolf and the seven kids, naming each kid after her siblings, puzzling as always over who would be left out (all the kids are swallowed whole by the wolf so it’s a blessing really.) My little tantrum of the morning seemed all but forgotten.

In the balance of our parenting, we all hope that the happy, cozy, moments, the ones that we share around a bedtime story or a family walk in the park will outweigh the moments when we lose it. That’s why we need to love and cherish our children at every opportunity. So that on the whole, they’ll remember their childhood as a happy one, and their parents as loving. I don’t know yet how my children will remember me: a loving mom or a tired old hag with a short fuse? Maybe it will be a bit of both.

I used to parent with very clear goals and expectations in mind. I still parent with vision. But the minute expectations about my children’s table manners and church etiquette have given way to a broader vision of happiness and respect for themselves and others. If I can’t be a perfect parent, I will cover my imperfections with an extra layer of love and forgiveness. I hope that my children will remember the love over the imperfections. Warts and all.


Cooking for a crowd

The more I learn about the mainstream food supply, the least I want my family to eat from it. As a mother, I am conscious about creating healthy eating habits and raising children who are healthy in mind and body. For years now, I have been striving to cook from scratch using real ingredients and avoid heavily processed foods. Avoiding processed food is a challenge especially when it comes to school lunches: the need for speed and convenience, both at the assembly and intake levels, tend to trump my best laid plans. It doesn’t help when the teachers consider a jello cup with sad pieces of peaches a “healthy snack” but not a homemade baked oatmeal bar. My eyes rolled so far, I almost injured my shoulder blades.

While in my previous job, I had the opportunity to read briefing material on the raising, transport and slaughter of meat animals. I became increasingly concerned about the ethics and morality of participating in the meat-supply system. Not only for health reasons but also as a Christian: in Christian ethics, man was given dominion over the animals. In exchange for the proteins, we are expected to be good stewards of God’s creation and I am not convinced that we are living up to the task. I dream of the day when I can source all my family’s food to healthy and ethical agriculture, but as the 100-mile diet enters yuppydom, our family of 10 simply cannot keep-up with the double-employed with 1/4 of the children families. We need more vitamins than a $6.99 8-oz crate of local organic strawberries can provide. A Lot More.

Since I couldn’t beat one or join the other, I decided to reduce our family’s meat intake significantly. In the long run, I am hoping to reduce it to a point where we can afford to buy a few local, grass-fed carcasses and store them in the freezer. Learning to cook vegetarian has been a growth experience: after 17 years of feeding my family a certain way, I had to re-think most of my cooking habits and reflexes. I quickly fell into a rut and my children grit their teeth and waited for this “new thing” to be over. But I was not to be so easily defeated! I asked for vegetarian cook book suggestions from my friends and found two pearls on Amazon’s used books service (why pay $34 when you can pay $5.30?): The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks for a Crowd and Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emonds.

No more excuses!

The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks for a Crowd is a restaurant’s cookbook with restaurant’s serving sizes: it makes soup by the gallon, which is exactly what I need to feed my family and freeze some leftovers. As I am writing now, I am making a few gallons (how many litres is that?) of vegetable stock ad the house smells heavenly.

The first recipe I tried from Vegetarian Planet was the Thai Tofu with red curry sauce. The recipe has nothing red or containing curry in its ingredient list. I kept feeling like the it would be a disaster somehow but it turned out wonderfully tasty and delicious. The children – against all hope – loved it. The coconut rice with scallions (rice cooked with water and a can of coconut milk) was amazing and even my non-rice-lover loved it.

Thai Tofu and coconut rice with scallions

The second recipe I tried from Vegetarian Planet was equally delicious although my younger children decided not to like it. I made the Deep Dish Pumpkin and Potato Pie. Since I had run out of cheese, I added 2 eggs to the mix to allow it to set. While it was very tasty and fulfilling, the children felt defrauded because it was not a pumpkin pie as advertized. Sad. They declared it a waste of a pumpkin although I am almost certain that they hardly tasted it.

Deep Dish Pumpkin and Potato Pie
Deep Dish Pumpkin and Potato Pie

All in all, the children still insist that they must have steak every day to stave off decrepitude. But having tasty vegetarian recipes on hand sure is making the transition to a less-meat-centered diet more pleasant. Tonight, we are having French Onion soup…. I bet nobody will complain about that one!

If my blogging is any indication…

I would say that life gets busier as the twins hit toddlerhood. I used to have time to blog but now, I take 30 minutes to check Facebook before I go to bed and that’s the extent of my online presence. I’m not sure where time went. It seems to run through my fingers like water, one day after the next.

Here’s what a day looks like when I work. I work 3 days a week.

5:15 Wake-up. That’s an hour earlier than the children. I need the hour to wake-up before the children descend on the kitchen. Believe me, this makes me a better person. During this hour, I drink my coffee and maybe do a bit of non-demanding work like formatting my writing portfolio. Most of the time, I read the paper and check what happened on Facebook overnight.

Blogging: early in the morning or late at night
Blogging: early in the morning or late at night

6:00 My three teenagers wake-up. No, scratch that. My two oldest teenagers wake-up. Their sister sleeps through the alarm, the pots and pans, and a nuclear apocalypse.

During the weekend, I make cookie dough that I roll into logs and refrigerate, kind of like a homemade Pillsbury cookie thing. As the kids get-up, I bake cookies for their lunches. It makes them better people.

6:15 The teenagers descend on the kitchen and start making breakfast and putting their lunches together. If they are in a good mood, this can be a pleasant time. When the grocery is running low, it is very unpleasant.

6:30 I realize that the youngest of the three teenagers is missing-in-action. I send someone, usually me, to wake her up.  She looks at me with eyes wide open, she may even answer me. It doesn’t mean that she is awake.

6:45 The younger four start waking-up in no set order. This is when the fun begins. Except that it’s not always fun. I may or may not have a series of temper tantrums over this or that. I may wonder why they didn’t stay in bed, as I would if I was still tired. Mystery.

Between 6:30 and 7:20, I start harassing my teenagers to do their morning chores. They need to empty the dishwasher (so I can fill it), feed the dog (so it can go out to poop) and take the dog out to poop (so she can go in her crate for the day). This is the part where they start complaining about the unfairness of life: what, you mean that our meals are cooked, our bills are paid, and we have to empty the clean dishwasher?? What’s next? Put away the laundry that is washed for us??

If the twins are still sleeping, I have time to have a shower. If not, it will have to wait until everybody is off to school.

7:00 My spider-sense alerts me to the fact that I have not yet seen my youngest teenager. If we’re lucky, she’s up and getting dressed. If not watch-out because the bus comes in 20 minutes. She will touch down in the kitchen like a tornado and in a whirlwind of orders, barked and otherwise, will get ready to go to school. She may accusingly declare that since I made her in such a way that she doesn’t wake-up at the sound of the alarm, it is my responsibility to ensure that she is up and dressed at a reasonable time. Yeah, my kids say funny stuff like that all the time. The problem is that they believe it.

Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.
Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.

The twins are getting up. I nurse them and give them breakfast. Oatmeal with fruits or cold cereals with fruits and yogourt.

7:30 The first batch of children is off to school. I realize that my elementary school kids are still snoozing. Crap. I keep promising myself to get them up at 7:00.

My 4 year-old demands a “giant hug”. This means that I must sit on the couch with her for as long as her Hugness desires. It’s a pit stop for physical affection: when the tank is full, she drives away.

Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. "You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!"
Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. “You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!”

I rotate between helping the younger children with their breakfast and making 3 lunches. Our lunches consist of a main meal (sandwich, pizza made on naan bread, pasta with cheese…), a fruit, cookies, juice or water in a bottle and a snack like yogourt, apple sauce or popcorn (we have a corn popper. My neighbour wasn’t able to sell it at her garage sale 15 years ago so she gave it to me. Best money I never spent: we use it daily).

By now, the twins are done with breakfast and covered in yogourt or oatmeal. _MG_9284

Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.
Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.


8:00 I start giving my kids the final bus countdown. “20 minutes until you walk away!” I busy myself with a game of kids-whack-a-mole: lunch! socks! uniforms! Baby in the dishwasher! Lunch! _MG_9281

8:20 I shoo my elementary school kids off to school. This usually involve a mad rush for matching shoes  and a desperate cry for “Did you sign my tests?” followed by a flurry of papers being pulled out of the bag as I am trying to push stuff into the bag. Chaos ensues.

8:21 The second batch of kids are gone. I take a deep breath and feel like a deserve a drink. I have a condescending thought for all the people who think that 8:30 am is early. Normally, I should be getting in the car to go to work. More likely though, I am still un-showered and in my pjs. My husband comes out of his home office and asks: “Aren’t you going to work?” I reply: “Of course I am, why are you asking?”

8:30 Showered, sort of dressed, hair…. bah. Whatever. I look for my daughter’s socks. I pick the first two. They never match. One day, I gave her matching socks and she laughed. She doesn’t even know that socks come in matching pairs, this child of the Hand-Me-Downs. Manage expectations People, this will keep you sane. I look at what my daughter is wearing. It usually involves layers, textures and patterns. Lots of patterns. I tell my husband that the Montessori teachers must appreciate the fact that she dresses entirely on her own. He doubts it. IMG_2783

8:40 The “You’re late” school bus drives by my house. That’s the bus I’m never supposed to see because I’m supposed to be long gone, driving my daughter to preschool. We get in the van and drive away.

8:50 Drop-off at preschool.

9:30 I get to work. I write correspondence for a federal Member of Parliament. What this means is that when people write to their MP, I answer. My boss reads my replies and edits them as needed. I can tell how his week is going by the amount of edits. He can probably do the same. I work 3 days a week. On the days I am not at work, I would be going for a run with the twins and my dog.

2:30 I get off work, pick-up a few food items on my way to preschool, pick-up my daughter and possibly other people too. There is a graph that explains when and where I am to pick up which child on any given day. It was trained into me. “This is not a drill, soldier. This is a live project. You’re a go.” (Except that Matt Damon  is not in the van with me).

4:00 I get home with my daughter. The teens are already home. The twins are crazy cranky and initiate the whole whine-and-cheese fest for mom. I nurse one while the other has a complete meltdown. I nurse the other. If I am lucky, I still have some frozen meals prepared. If not, I have to make supper while my three younger children compete to see who can drive mom nuts the fastest to the most spectacular effect. I play a game of kids-whack-a-mole involving serving 4 different snacks while trying to keep the twins from doing what twins do best: induce chaos. With one hand, I make supper while keeping the kids from raiding the fridge with the other hand, and closing the cupboard doors with the other hand, while retrieving the hand-mixer with the other hand, while getting a twin out of the (stored) deep-fryer with the other hand, while grabbing a juice bottle just before the other twin pours it on his face with the other hand. Twin whack-a-mole is a fun game except that my sense of humour is deficient.

I usually end-up with a cranky kid on my back. IMG_2776

5:15 I fix myself a double cappuccino. For the second half of the day.

5:30 or 6:30 We eat. And by “eat” I mean that I stuff my face with one hand while feeding the twins with the other. My husband and teenagers are trying to have an intelligent conversation about world events while the younger children exercise their right to free expression. My husband tries to tell me something. It usually ends with “….nevermind, I’ll tell you in 25 years.”

6:30 The twins have their baths and get ready for bed. I get the 4 younger children cleaned and ready for bed while my husband cleans the kitchen. On any given day, there is a waltz of activities and teens comings-and-goings. By 7:00 pm, the twins are down and we get bedtime routines started for the next 2. My husband and 7 year-old son are reading The Chronicles of Narnia together. I go lie down with my 4 year-old until she settles enough to fall asleep. This may require a few stories and more songs. I may go a little nuts as I sit there with her, mentally running through my to-do list like an endless reel.

8:30 By now, the four youngest children are asleep for sure. We cycle laundry, finish cleaning the kitchen. My husband and I often go for coffee or ice cream in the evening if the house is somewhat under control. Or we may go on a grocery date. I know, so hot!

10:00 pm Ideally, we would go to bed now. In reality, we can still be found chatting with our teenagers or wasting time watching a movie (him) or checking social media (me). This is when, in theory, I would be blogging but I’m not.

11:00 pm One of the twins wakes-up. Usually Lucas. I nurse him back to sleep for the night and go to bed.

3:00-4:00 am The other twin wakes-up.  I nurse her back to sleep. Return to bed. Find the 4 year-old curled-up in my place. Return her back to her bed (located right at the foot of mine, it’s a short push and a shove).

5:15 am The next day….

The Human Library Project: The Mother of 8 book speaks to herself about it

I had the honour to be part of the Human Library Project this year in my city and a friend asked if I would write a blog post about the experience. It was a unique experience and I’m not sure where to start, so let’s start with a definition.

On the Human Library Day, readers get to “borrow” a Human Book for a 20 minute one-on-one conversation. The premise of the Human Library project is to give individuals the opportunity to meet people they would not otherwise encounter. A week before the Human Library day, I had the chance to appreciate the Human Library experience when I attended the Human Book orientation. When I arrived, I sat beside Zelda Marshall also known as The Drag Queen book. I shook her hand and introduced myself as The Mother of 8 book and her response was an enthusiastic: “Wow! I have a ton of questions for YOU!” and all I could think was: “Likewise”. It made me realize that mothers of 8 children were likely as foreign to Zelda’s day-to-day environment as Drag Queens were to mine. I didn’t get to ask many questions to Zelda that day, but as the Human Books introduced themselves one by one I grew in my appreciation of the unique opportunities offered by the Human Library project.

A week later, I arrived at my assigned library branch and met my fellow books. I was sharing the Human Library space with a recovering compulsive gambler, a Chef, a female firefighter, a person living with bipolar disorder, and a CBC radio newscaster. The Human Library set-up takes up a relatively small corner of the library space. Chairs are organized face-to-face but each book is separated from the other by a shared coffee table. You are no more isolated than you would be in a coffee shop having a private conversation with other customers chatting around you. Readers line-up at the library counter and ask to borrow the Human Book they would like to speak to. If they are among the first, they can go right away. If not, they are asked to come back at their assigned time. I believe that all the books were signed-out for the day before lunch time. Each one-on-one conversation lasts 20 minutes and the Human Book gets a 10 minute break before the next reader. In reality, the conversation wraps-up into the 10 minute break and a 5 minute break is more likely. I was warned early-on to take my breaks as the day would be exhausting. I think that “exhausting” is a relative notion: I was sitting in a comfy chair with a coffee instead of chasing, driving, cooking for, grocery shopping with, and generally cleaning after a family of 10. This was fun! But when I got home, I was spent!

My readers were all female and either young women with one or no children, or older women. It’s funny because I was expecting more women with children but really, they can’t come to the Human Library on a Saturday. They are too busy running their families! Some readers came with specific questions. Others just sat and waited for me to start. Then each conversation took a life of its own. Most readers were curious about the role of the older children in taking care of the little ones, the logistics of cooking and cleaning and how growing in a large family affects the character and personalities of the children. One young woman wanted to talk about contraception, human sexuality, natural family planning and the relationship between spouses in a large family. We talked about teenage pregnancies, abortion and why too many young women see their value through the lens of their sexual availability and desirability. It was my most memorable conversation. One grand-mother asked specifically about disciplining toddlers in preparation for a trip to visit her daughter and grandson. I don’t remember all my readers’ names but I remember their faces. Each of them unique. Each conversation breaking barriers and enlarging horizons.

I loved every minute of my Human Library experience. I enjoyed doing media, a long-lost dream of mine. I enjoyed talking about my blessed life – and challenges – as a Mother of 8. I really connected with my readers and I hope that they took home as much as I did.


Reflection on daycare, work and the absence of both Pt1

I was privileged to be interviewed for a Globe & Mail piece on childcare. You can find the piece here. When Roma Luciw interviewed me, we were pulling into Rivière-du-Loup Qc after 10 hours on the road. I wasn’t sure what the article would be about but I hoped that I sounded sane. The daycare tipping point, or the decision to stay home or go to work from a daycare cost perspective:

When does it make sense to put your career on hold and look after the kids versus going back to work and forking out the money for child care?

It’s a directed look at childcare and I am always in support of more public discussion about women, family, children and society. But the decision to work for a pay cheque is rarely as one-dimensional as the piece’s angle. I propose this series of posts as a reflection on childcare beyond basic math.   It’s not about assigning blame or responsibility where no blame is deserved or responsibility owed. It’s a reflection about how we can do better for our sake and for our children’s sake.

Continue reading “Reflection on daycare, work and the absence of both Pt1”