Large Family Eating: The Thanksgiving Edition Cont’d


Last week’s post was all about our favorite Thanksgiving Recipes and this week’s post will not be too much different: we literally ate leftovers all week. Instead of showing you the warmed-over version of what I cooked, I’m giving you the pictures from the day it was served. It looks a lot better that way.

I am still blown-away by how generous people were to our family after my miscarriage a month ago. I’m emphasising it because we’ve had meals prepared for our family for a month now and… How can I say this… It’s been eye-opening and humbling. I have never brought a meal to someone who has miscarried. I remember once dropping something off at the house of an acquaintance who had recently miscarried. It was on recycling day and her curb was covered,I mean covered, with empty pizza boxes. It was as if my family had kept all the pizza boxes for two years in the garage and suddenly put them out to the curb. I remember thinking (yes, I am that aweful of a person) “Really?” It just seemed so extreme to me. In the back of my head, the thought that maybe someone was taking advantage of the situation might have reared it’s ugly head. Now I can tell you: yes, really. A dear friend who sent us a gift card for M&M wrote in her card to expect a complicated miscarriage to have the same footprint as a full term pregnancy. I’m starting to believe it. Long story to say: people have been feeding us, people are absolutely amazing, it is as appreciated as it is needed.

Thanksgiving has marked the end of my post-traumatic love fest with comfort foods. Now is the time to get serious with health and wellness, starting with cleaning-up my eating. My eating is pretty clean already and I am researching to what extent claims that gluten and dairy can worsten a thyroid condition may be trusted. Separting the wheat (ha!) from the pseudo-science is an extreme sport, let me tell you. I’d love to read your experiences with food elimination and if you were successful in turning-off the little voice in your head telling you that there is no medical basis to gluten sensitivity. I’m so eager to feel good again and I’ve received such confusing and inappropriate care from my doctor that I feel like any twerp on Facebook with a made-up degree could sign me up for a kool-aid retreat if it promised results.

Collage_Thanksgiving Bread

I made Artisan Bread. I’m not very good at it, especially at getting the crust just right. I love how the kids all made turkey sandwiches right off the bat. As they say, leftovers are the best part.

Collage_Thanksgiving veggies

For veggies we had lettuce, cranberry apple orange sauce and boozy squash. Oh and sinful Brussel Sprouts, with cheese, bacon and onions. My husband made mashed potatoes and we researched on Google why mashed potatoes get gluey. Answer: overcooked and overworked. Turns out potatoes are fragile little things. You need to gently coax the starch out lest it comes out galloping and turn your mash to glue.

Collage_Thanksgiving squash

Collage_Thanksgiving turkey

Once we were all turkeyed out, we went for a walk. You know the nice thing about being completely wiped-out-of-shape? You can take a 4km slow walk and you’ll feel like you just run 12km.

Isn’t my country road absolutely stunning?

Collage_Walk in Middleville

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. 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.

 

Homeschooling Questions: Working with different ages, grades and interests


The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.

 

As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?

 

My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.

 

My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.

 

In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.

 

Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”

  1. Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
  2. Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
  3. Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
  4. Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
  5. Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
  6. Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
  7. Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.

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!

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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.

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.

Whine and cheese


 

This post started as a description of a bad day. We all have them, don’t we? No matter how heavy or light our burden, some days (weeks, months) just won’t end. Or so it seems. The whine was spurred by a somewhat critical “You make everything look easy” from a friend. This shook me a little because if anything looks easy I can assure you that it’s all fluff and no substance. Anybody who sees me in real life – as opposed to social media – knows that whatever it is I’m doing, I’m (a) fumbling all the way; and (b) not doing it all that well. Every. Single. Day. I recently posted late birthday wishes to my father on Facebook, hoping that a public self-shaming would make-up for my poor daughterly behaviour, adding:

“Next time any of you wonders how Véro does it, remember that I don’t.”

That’s it in a nutshell. For every finite “thing” I do, there’s an equal amount of something else that doesn’t happen. My days, like yours, have 24h. If you look at what I don’t do, you will notice that the list of what I get done pales in comparison. That’s why I find it very irritating when people bow before me, which happens about 10 times a day when I am out and about with my family. Yes, you read that well, people bow before me. They actually, physically, bow before me. You can’t imagine how uncomfortable being worshiped can make you feel when you are not — you know — God.

Not only am I not God, I’m a wretched sinner. I order my life in concentric circles, building priorities from the centre and adding larger circles as I master the smaller ones. The smaller circles are my husband and children, my home life, around that core is my family, parents, siblings, in-laws; around the family circle are friends and close ones, this circle extends into my community. The largest circle would be those in need of my time and talent but who are not directly linked to me by the bonds of family, friendship or community. My faith radiates through from the core, informing how I (try to) relate to myself and others.

On a good day, I might make it to circle number 2. Everything else – friends, community, service – falls by the wayside. My every hour is consumed by caring for my basic needs and raising my children in a cheerful, peaceful and stable home where they can grow happy and healthy. Putting good food on the table, having clean clothes, a happy face and a listening ear takes-up my entire day. I am horrible at keeping in touch with my parents and siblings. I never remember anyone’s birthday, and when I do I don’t do anything about it. I’m a write-off when it comes to social graces like thank you notes. I have very few real friends left, and those who stick by me have precious little needs. I am not involved in my community; our family gives money to a few good causes because we can’t find the time to help out in a more meaningful way. If you are impressed because I manage to keep 9 children fed, dressed and somewhat educated assuming that I am also doing what normally productive members of the society do on the side, be informed that there is no side here: it’s all inner circle with a smattering of social media. In a nutshell it takes me 24h a day to be a decent wife and mother. That’s nothing to bow to.

Unlike some of my friends with larger-than-average families, I don’t have children with special needs. I don’t even have children with learning difficulties. In fact, all my children are above average students. They are physically, mentally and emotionally sound. My parents, my in-laws and my siblings are all in good health and economically wealthy enough to cover their needs as they age. There is no strife on either side of our extended family. There are no obvious mental health or substance abuse problems in our immediate family. We have been undeservedly spared by grief and loss. I should be able to do more with my 24h but for the limitations of my own person, my intelligence, my heart and my body. I am raising children whom I hope will be positive contributors to society, competent men and women committed to live by principles of integrity. I hope to look happy and peaceful doing it because the least I can do for the world from the confines of my kitchen – where I spend most of my life cooking, cleaning and homeschooling – is to give my children an example of self-giving that makes them want to choose others before themselves as they grow-up. Some days I fail miserably and that’s why I am still stuck in the innermost circles, trying to be a good mother, daughter, wife and sister before I move outward and onward.

Next time you are tempted to feel inadequate or bow before me or anyone else, remember that people like me need people with less stringent family obligations to make the world go round. Because I sure ain’t doin’ it. I need people like you to volunteer on school trips with my children, participate in bake sales, sit on board of directors, work as doctors, nurses and midwives, teachers, managers and creators. If you are dealing with loss, grief, illness, special needs or below average intelligence, you are already doing more than I am with my 9 healthy and bright children. So don’t bow. Don’t feel inadequate. Just go out and do your thing. From talking with you, I know that the more you already do, the more likely you are to feel like you’re not doing enough. Fill your 24h with purpose and hold you head up high.

Now go.