Relating to parents with fewer (than 9) children


I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and as always, my friends were more than generous with their suggestions. Someone asked me two very good and related questions:

– How do you respectfully communicate with parents who are sometimes and/or all the times overwhelmed with a single child or two, when you have many (ie; not pulling the “you have it easy” card and edifying and respecting them as parents)?

– Likewise, how should those with a singleton respectfully communicate with you and your family?

I found these questions interesting because my problem is usually the opposite: people with smaller families are afraid to complain to me about their problems because they assume that I have it worst, or they apologize for feeling overwhelmed. In other words, they project their own feelings of inadequacy unto me. My challenge is not to communicate respectfully with them but to convince them that I understand.

How should people communicate with me? Respectfully is always appreciated. But if I’m allowed a second request, it would be to stop calling me (A) a Saint/Hero, or (B) Crazy. It makes me really uncomfortable to be called a saint because I’m not. I have character flaws the size of Texas, and I have been born into so much privilege I would be insufferable had I not allowed the size of my family to humble me a little. Being called crazy is just insulting. It’s probably better to err on the side of making me really uncomfortable by calling me a saint than insulting me by calling me insane. But I’m at a point where I avoid telling strangers how many children I have because intelligent conversation tends to die there. And that’s not cool because my family is my life’s work and I am immensely proud of it. Ask me anything and I’ll talk your ear off (just like I’m doing right now). Don’t just stand there with your mouth agape calling me a Saint or a Nut.

I think it’s important for everyone to know that I’ve been overwhelmed since 1996. I was struggling with two children, and with three children, and with four children… you get the idea. Nature abhors a vacuum and when given 24h, each one of us fills them to the brim. We used to wash clothes and dishes by hand and we thought that inventing the washing machine and the dishwasher would free us up. But instead of enjoying the extra time, we replaced homemaking chores with work chores. When a promotion gives us more disposable income we incur more expenses. We fill our houses with stuff and when we get a bigger house, we get more stuff. If we can’t get a bigger house, we rent a condo for our stuff (Dymon anyone?) Whether we fill the void with activities, worries or things, we take our 24h and 3 lbs of brain and use them to the max.

People feel like they have their hands full with one child because they do. It’s not my place to tell them how their hands should be full or to pass judgment on the wisdom or advisability of filling their 24h the way they do. When it comes to time in a day or in a year, we’re all dealt the same hand. Time is the great equalizer.

The truth is, I love people, and I love diversity. I love how in the words of Don Henry sung by Miranda Lambert:

Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning
It takes all kinds of kinds.”

Listen, I have 9 children spread over 18 years. I’ve been pregnant 11 times in the last 22 years. I have been entirely focused on my family at the exclusion of everything else. If everyone was like me, the world would not be a better place. We would be missing a lot of art, a lot of excellence, a lot of invention, a lot of service and a lot of philanthropy.

Walk with me for a minute. I am a talented musician. Music comes easily to me. But I gave up honing my skills 22 years ago when I had my first child. I didn’t play any music for 12 years until I picked it up again 2 years ago. Now I dabble, I play a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it poorly. The basics still comes easy to me but I hit a wall as soon as hard work comes in the picture. Jason Isbell is almost 40. He spent the first 37 years of his life playing the guitar and getting his head and heart smashed in creative ways. He had nothing else to worry about than his own foibles before he got sober, married Amanda Shires, and had a daughter. How many hours of writing, noodling, and living went into writing Last of My Kind or Speed Trap Town? I drove 5h to upstate New-York last Summer to see Jason Isbell in concert. I have 9 children and I can tell you: outside of the four walls of my house, I never touched anyone’s life to the point where they would buy a ticket, book an Airbnb and drive 5h to watch me do my thing. Don’t try to tell me my writing is touching lives: I tried crowdfunding this blog two years ago and 7 readers committed to paying a total of $63 a month, two of them were related to me. Of the 500-ish people who read my blog, only 7 thought it was worth paying for. That did my head in for a while, that’s why I stopped writing for two years. I’m a fragile little thing that way. Jason Isbell is touching lives, including mine. The world needs him to spend a fair amount of time navel-gazing his way into thoughtful lyrics, practicing his guitar and touring the United States.

My point is not that you should be Jason Isbell or make a ton of money blogging if you have only one child. My point is that everyone leaves their fingerprint on the world and every fingerprint is different. I’m volunteering at my children’s school for the first time in 18 years! Who do you think raised funds for activities, helped with field trips, decorated the school and organized the movie nights my children have enjoyed since my oldest started school in 2000? People with two kids and a job, that’s who.

One of my parents’ dearest friends is helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada, accompanying them to the grocery store, acting as a cultural translator, teaching them how to access the services they need, finding volunteers to fix bicycles for their children, and businesses to donate food and clothing. How many children of her own does she have? None. Do you think people like me are doing what she’s doing? No, they’re not.

Sometimes getting up in the morning is heroic. Some of my friends do not volunteer. They do not run successful businesses. Some of them have grown up in dysfunctional families, some of them have suffered abuse, some of them have overcome physical and/or mental health challenges. And every day they get up and they do their level best to give their children a kind of love they have never received. I watch in awe as some of my friends create happy families out of thin air, having never been in one. They are studying and learning through trial and error the fundamentals of loving, of being patient, of being self-sacrificing, all things that I learned from my parents like my first language. Some people work way harder at normal life than I do. Raising one child is as hard for them as raising 9 is for me because I received so much from life.

And some people are just selfish. Some people are jerks. Some people roll their eyes and tell me “I don’t know how you can have 9, I only have two and it’s too much” *in front of their children*. Some people are just clueless. Last week I was volunteering at our school’s book sale during the parent-teacher meetings and the children had written lists of book suggestions to help their parents in their shopping. One mother picked up her grade 5 daughter’s list and seeing with horror that it had been written in script rather than cursives, called home to tear a strip off the kid for writing like a baby. Told her she was personally insulted by it. Asked her why she would embarrass her that way. Said she was going to buy her the books but since she had written like a grade 1 kid, wasn’t going to reward that. Her sister would get books but not her. Told her never to insult her like that again. Repeated everything twice to drive it in. I felt so bad I wanted to drive to her house, find her daughter and give her a hug. I’m sure this mom loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. I’m sure this mom thinks her brand of tough love is how you raise competent, well-rounded adults. I’m sure this woman doesn’t have 9 children and probably shouldn’t have 9 children. It’s ok not to have too many children when your parenting toolbox includes shaming and belittling.

When people tell me they are overwhelmed with 1 or 2 or 3 children, I simply say “I was overwhelmed with 3 too!” Which is 100% the honest-to-goodness truth. I remind them what is difficult about their lives. Your children are all under 4. Or you have 3 active boys. Or your husband works two jobs. Or you suffer from anxiety and depression. Or you had fertility struggles. Or you live with your aging parents. Or you are a single parent. Don’t look at me and feel bad. Look at where you are. If you feel like you can stretch a little more, stretch a little more. If you can’t, don’t injure yourself. Accept the pace. Try to finish a little ahead of where you started, try to leave the world a little better than how you found it. If everyone reaches just a little farther, we’ll come out ahead in the end.

How do I respectfully communicate with people who only have one child? I just assume that their lives are as full as mine, just with different things. I don’t need to know everyone’s story to assume they have one.

 

 

Podcast Episode 15 – Making room for your interests and passions in the middle of chaos


In this episode of the Véro Show, I reflect on finding room for our interets and passions in the middle of motherhood and tackle the question of vocation and whether motherhood should be enough to sustain us.  Just a regular Wednesday…

I mention a few cool things in this podcast. First I quote Phil Collins. I don’t need to link to this video but I will anyway because if you know a more perfect break-up song, I won’t believe you (but *please* if you recently lost someone through death or divorce, be kind to yourself and give this song a pass for 5 or 10 years, ok?):

This songs pairs really well with this episode of This American Life 

I also mention Wild Wild Country, a six-part documentary available on Netflix:

And here is the interview with Maclain and Chapman Way and producer Mark Duplass on The Big Picture podcast.

I’m also watching (ahem, re-watching) (ahem, re-re-re-watching) Gran Hotel:

If you want to know why you should watch it, you may want to read my gushy blog post about it: Netflix and Chills

And here’s the podcast page for Radio Ambulante.

I just finished watching Masaan on Netflix, a Hindi movie about people navigating difficult circumstances in the midst of a punishing moral code and a strict caste system. It’s not a feel good movie but it’s one you have a duty to watch if you enjoy a lot of Masala movies. Because India is not exactly what it’s shown to be in high gloss Bollywood productions. This trailer doesn’t have subtitles —  you’ll get the gist of it —  but the movie does.

 

The Yelling Challenge


(Before we get started, note that I use “yelling” as a catchall for the many ways in which our voice expresses anger, exasperation or plain old done-with-it-ness. I was reminded of that by my 9 year-old daughter this morning who accused me of “yelling at her” during church when I asked her to take her feet off her brother. I told her that had I been yelling during Consecration, everyone would be looking at me right now. It wasn’t yelling but it wasn’t exactly sunshine and ponies either.)
Yelling challenges are not what your children think they are. Paul — my husband — and the children often have a yelling challenge whereby everyone is encouraged to yell as much as they can for one minute. Those are the things you can do when Dad is in charge. Moms are challenged to steer their children in the right direction without getting angry.
 
I have done my share of yelling and paid my dues to the stop-yelling-challenges clubs of everywhere. With the help of carbon dating, I can pin my first hopeful foray into calmer parenting to my pregnancy with David in 2005-06. My fourth child was 4 years-old and this fifth baby felt like a new beginning, a chance to be the non-spanking, non-threatening, attachment-minded parent I admired. I’ve been trying ever since.
 
Here’s what happens when I stop yelling or threatening: stuff stops happening. The truth is that no one moves until I yell or threaten. You know what I’m talking about right? I call it the “Oh Shit” threshold.
 
What is that about anyway? Some say that children spend so much energy keeping it together for those who sorta like them — friends, peers, teachers — that they have none left for those who love them unconditionally. And while I find comfort in these platitudes, I still wonder why my children are so much nicer to their father than they are to me. I find no truth in the suggestion that my children’s attachment to my husband is faulty, that they perceive his love as conditional, that he exists in the periphery of their emotional lives, among the friends, peers, teachers and daycare workers. My husband is equally submerged in the murky waters of parenting. I can’t reassure myself with the myth of perfect attachment causing children to act like jerks.
 
So here I am, just a girl, standing in front of her blog, asking it why she has to choose between doing everything herself or turn into a screaming banshee. Both options have led me straight into the pits of burn-out and depression and I’m wondering if I can crack this nut or if I’m condemned to parent from a place of perpetual angst.
 
As adults we often forget how often children have to do things they’d rather not do. We take their dependance for granted and even resent it at time. We earn a living for them, hunt, gather, provide the shelter and safety that they are incapable of providing for themselves. In return, we expect them to eat the food we provide and stay in the shelter of our choice while we parent ourselves out of a job. Immaturity leaves children with little true agency. We may try to give them the illusion of agency while we lift them out of Ettenmoors but nobody is dupe. The process of maturing is where our way meets the highway: it’s the lifelong tug-of-war between our desire to go as far as we can on our own steam and our realization that we need others. In many ways, parenting is teaching our children to make room for others.
 
We were all born in a struggle between the individual wanting to grow fast and wild and the need to keep other people in our lives. Human babies are born with nothing but the need to form relationships. This is the only way they can survive. The back-and-forth between needing others and needing to be our own person creates that “oh shit” threshold. How far can we refuse to do something without compromising our survival (or if you are a grown-up, the survival of your marriage, the keeping of your job, the avoiding of the prison…). The relative height of this threshold and how often it will trip us as we learn to manage it vary with our individual temperaments and personalities.
 
Parenting is the work of sculpting a functional individual out of the primary matter we are given. The influence of the artist and the proprieties of the matter are present in every work of art. That’s why some people grow into functional members of society and others act like 3 year-olds well into adulthood. Lack of self-control, sulking, selfishness, impulsivity, helplessness: we were all 3 year-olds once. Adults who can’t flush their toilets, wipe their microwaves or return a favour without sulking exasperate those who have done the work of growing up, of letting the individual be formed and molded. The irritation is not born of being completely foreign to these lower instincts but from from having reluctantly grown out of them.
 
When I stopped yelling and blowing my lid, I expected that there would be a time of painful transition where nothing would happen. I reasoned that if my husband, who is the calmer, more respected, parent faced a lower “Oh Shit” threshold, lowering the pitch of my parenting would naturally lower the threshold. The children would not suddenly snap into respect mode but if I remained equanimous through the chaos, the balance of the universe would eventually be restored. It’s easy to slide back into old patterns when new patterns don’t bring about the needed change. I had the support and understanding of my husband and I knew that this change would be positive regardless of how long it took to see results.
 
So when did it all turn around? Well, I’m still waiting. Kind of.
 
I never saw results in the compliance department. My children are very impulsive — apple, meet tree. When I ask for something, most of them say no and walk away or simply ignore my request, leaving me with a choice between calmly doing it myself or losing my ever-loving mind. It’s difficult. I’m burned out from the amount of work I have to do without help. Every day I have to choose between burning out from doing everything for everyone or burning out from yelling at everyone. There is no smooth sailing. It’s my life and it’s a complicated dynamic of temperaments, personalities, habits and education. My biggest concern is not that don’t have a gaggle of compliant Stepford Kids but that the image of motherhood I project is one of constant exasperation. I wish they saw me doing something well instead of seeing me struggle with the simplest tasks, like bath time and meal time.
 
Yelling, like spanking, is not a decision, it’s a reaction. To eliminate the yelling, we have to eliminate the irritation. Our sensitivity to our children’s lack of cooperation is not a factor of how egregious the provocation is but of how burned out we are. The same light touch on the arm causes no pain on healthy skin and excruciating pain on burned skin. And it’s hard to heal a burn when something is constantly poking at it.
 
The yelling challenge is not to lower our voice but to lower our pain. It’s the impossible task of healing while walking through fire, of containing the uncontainable, of giving more than we were given, of paying one without robbing the other. It’s the challenge of loving unconditionally while acting like we don’t care.

Self-care in the midst of chaos: is it even possible?


** This week’s podcast on self-care and was inspired by this blog post, originally published on Vie de Cirque in 2015. **

As a mother of many, I am often asked about self-care and finding time for oneself in the midst of chaos. Where can a mother find peace when the things that bring her joy — like hobbies and travels — are incompatible with parenting a tribe?

The question of “me-time” is one that is close to my heart because everyone wants to know. In an article for the Ottawa Citizen published in January 2014, I answered that I had to find “me-time” in the midst of chaos. It’s true but simplistic. The ability to find inner peace when your life is a pinball machine is a work in progress. I often feel like I am hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. So how do I go about finding my place in a household where my work is forever answering everybody’s pressing demands but mine?

To explain my understanding of self-care, I must go back a few years. I got pregnant with my oldest child when I was 21, unmarried and in Law School. My boyfriend (now husband) was a junior officer in the Armed Forces. He was deployed overseas and we didn’t move-in together until shortly before our first child was born. Our second child was born 14 months later. People around us quietly believed that our hasty marriage was doomed from the start. My husband deployed overseas again and our third child was conceived upon his return. I finished my law degree while expecting her. My husband’s traveling schedule and the demands of providing for a growing family were such that we decided that he would work while I stayed home with the children. I decided not to write the Bar exams at that time: the cost of putting 3 children in daycare while I pursued my studies for an intense year of studies, work placements and exams.

After our third child was born, we decided that our family was complete. I always dreamed of having 5 children, as had my husband, but I was hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. That’s when our fourth child was conceived and born. When I think back on that period of my life, I hear the song from Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl:

Nobody knows when she started her skid, she was only 27 and she had 5 kids

I was severely struggling with my imposed vocation as a stay-at-home mother of four young children. I had studied to become a lawyer, a challenging course of studies where I had excelled. Now I was a full-time mother in full downfall from my pedestal. My peers were starting to advance in their careers, moving into cute houses in trendy neighbourhoods. I was moving out of a world of visibility and rewards and into a world of invisibility feeling like a failure. People my age had no children, my friends with children had 10 years on me and had chosen to stay home. I was dreaming of living in a trendy neighbourhood with matching furniture as opposed to my perfectly adequate little semi-detached house with a mismatch of hand-me-down pieces.

I was neither very good or very happy in my vocation. I was trapped in a spiral of self-loathing, grasping at anything that made me feel better, regardless of whether it was good, healthy or moral.  I believed that my unhappiness was the result of forgetting myself for too long. Of neglecting my goals and ambitions in the pursuit of an ideal that wasn’t mine. But the more “me time” I took the deeper I sank.

It took a ride to rock bottom before I understood that my family and I were in this together. That focusing on me at the exclusion of my family was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Mothers: there is no amount of stuff, credit, spa treatments and girls nights out that can buy you happiness in your marriage and family. So often I read desperate pleas from mothers who cannot find peace and happiness in their own family and there is always someone to suggest more “me time”. A night away, a day at the spa, a week in a resort, working outside the home. Don’t get me wrong: I love a pedicure as much as the next girl. But your happiness and your physical and mental health cannot hinge on an expensive getaway. Or even a cheap one. What I learned from my stay in the trenches of unhappiness is that you can’t outrun yourself. Indulging in temporary make-beliefs only makes the return to reality colder and darker.

Addressing underlying causes of unhappiness can be difficult. Children are too young to understand that they need to give mommy some space. Your life partner should be the one caring for you. If you don’t have a supportive partner, maintaining your sense of balance in family life will fall on your shoulders and you will have to build fences around the non-negotiables of your life. Fences and families don’t mix. If your life partner — husband, boyfriend, mother — is not looking after your needs, you need to fix your relationship. A happy marriage is the most important self-care you can give yourself, not to mention the very thing your children need the most to be happy and secure as they grow.

After I had my 4th child and disappeared in the fog of depression, my husband and I came to the conclusion that I was simply not cut out to be a homemaker. I still believed that having a stay-at-home parent was best for children but I simply couldn’t be that parent. I headed back to school to pursue graduate studies in law. But even though I excelled in my academic studies, the belief that I wasn’t cut out to care for my children was haunting me.

I found work as a political attaché and juggled family life and paid employment for the following 4 years. I learned that nothing was going to be easy. I could work to make our family-work balance manageable or I could work to become the mother I always wanted to be. I chose the later. Nowadays, I am a homeschooling stay-at-home mother. I have the large family I never dared to dream I would have.

Self-care starts with physical and mental health. I try to eat well, not too much, and exercise. I get regular medical check-ups to make sure that any physical or mental struggles are properly identified and treated. I make room for spiritual practices like prayer and a sacramental life. I see a friendly spiritual director and I receive the Sacrament of reconciliation once or twice a month. But where I draw the line for myself is the type of self-care that takes away from my family, whether it is by causing financial strain or emotional absenteeism. If you need to spend money you don’t have, or if you need to completely check-out of your role as mother to feel alive and whole, you need to address the underlying causes of your feelings. Going out with friends, sharing a meal, being pampered or getting relief from your daily occupations are some of life’s greatest pleasures. You should seek these opportunities for the joy they bring you, not as a matter of survival.

My husband and I have turned the self-care equation around. Instead of seeing me as the result of the equation, we’ve made our common vision of family life the result of the equation. Self-care happens in the context of the vision of family life we want to achieve: a happy, united, and well adjusted Catholic, large, homeschooling, family, living in the country. The pursuit of my dreams and ambitions are part of the equation yielding that result. Being physically and mentally fit, growing in faith and fortitude, laughing, looking pretty, feeling like I can leave for a weekend without societal collapse and starvation, are all part of the equation. My husband and children benefit from the result and therefore are part of ensuring that I get enough and adequate self-care. Knowing that they have my well-being in mind frees me from having to worry and pursue my well-being selfishly, like a desert wanderer searches for water. I am no longer afraid of disappearing behind my children because we are a team, not a competition.

Caring for a family of 11 is still hard on a good day and there is precious little time for self-care in the traditional sense. I have to rely on a “broken windows approach” to keeping my essential space in a large family: I don’t share my morning coffee and I am almost obsessive about using the bathroom by myself. I find great joy in having coffee with an old friend, seeing my siblings and my parents, and enjoying a few seconds of quiet in a tidy house  (not between 1 and 2 am). There is always someone in my personal space and I have worked hard, emotionally and spiritually, to learn to love it.

Finally feeling good at what I do: that’s better than all the pedicures in the world.

 

 

Podcast 001. Homeschooling: Is it for you?


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Episode 001. Discerning Homeschooling. Last summer I gave a talk titled “Homeschooling: is it for you?” and I decided to record it as my first podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it!

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