Days With Kids and Toad

The toad was in the window well when my children found it. Thinking that it was stuck down there, they rescued it by letting it loose in the backyard. I watched my four year old chase it around for a while before he grabbed a stick. Worried for the safety of the toad I inquired why he had the stick. “Because I want it to fetch!” he replied. To M’s disappointment, the toad did not fetch.

The next day the toad was back in the window well. The kids rescued it again. The next day it was back. So we decided the toad lives in our window well and likes it down there. The kids named it Greg, and they check on it every day and play with it a while. I’ve begun to think the toad likes their visits because he’s stopped trying to jump out of their hands, and he doesn’t find a home in a different location.

Greg’s house, complete with toadstool sculpture, a couch, and a tent with a big leaf “tarp”.

Life has been more or less quiet in our house, but the toad seems to be providing some wholesome entertainment for all the children. As the news, the pandemic, and, ahem, presidential debates seem to be getting uglier every day, I find myself relishing the simple joys of home and family life ever the more, and, I must say, I’m enjoying the children’s daily reports on the toad much more than the news reports.

The children report on whether the toad is home or not, and they’ve all begun embellishing the toad’s window-well home. The fourteen year old added a sculpted toadstool and a small, homemade felt tent. She also dug a toad-sized hole in the dirt. The children must have filled the hole with water because later in the day eight-year-old N came running into the house to excitedly report that Greg was in his “pool”. Another day I noticed the children added a fresh pile of leaves to the well for Greg to sit under. N added a large black stone to the well. I think it is a little warmer than the other rocks down there and I see the toad warming himself on it sometimes.

One day eleven-year-old E was slowly walking her scooter around the driveway. I asked her to help me with the lunch dishes, and she replied she would just as soon as Greg was finished with his scooter ride! I looked down and sure enough, there sat Greg on the scooter being driven around the driveway. I’m not an expert on toad behavior, but the toad didn’t jump off, so I concluded he didn’t mind the ride.

We’ve also begun doing some research on toads. We found out that Greg is an American Toad, which is the only toad found in our area. Then we watched some videos and looked up a few sites to figure out Greg’s sex. We determined that Greg is female. Oops. The children now call the toad Greggy as they think that sounds a little more feminine.

N with Greggy

We’ve also learned that American Toads are slightly venomous. Their skin can secrete a substance that is harmful if swallowed, so the children know to wash their hands well if they’ve been touching Greggy.  We’ve also researched about what she likes to eat (prompting F to give her a worm to eat), and we’ve learned about what the toad will do in the winter. It turns out toads are facinating creatures. Greggy will dig beneath some loose soil and bury herself. As it gets colder, she will hibernate the winter away having buried herself below the freeze line. Cold climate toads and frogs basically make their own antifreeze to keep their blood and organs from freezing. Some ice will form on the skin of frogs and toads. Partially frozen, their heart and breathing will stop, but once spring comes and the ice melts, they “spring” to life again, and eat and hop and mate for another season. Frogs and toads do have a limit to the amount of cold they can survive, for some it is as low as 8° F. So I am not sure if Greggy will decide to winter in our window well or not,  but if so, we’ll probably add a thick layer of leaves to help insulate her against getting too cold.

I’m hoping Greggy will hibernate right next to our window so we can see her through the winter, but I’ll trust her to find the best spot. Until then, I’ll be enjoying watching the children lavish kindness on a toad, and I’ll continue hoping that more adults could show such kindness to one another, toadish or not.

Stepping Out in Faith

Stepping Out in Faith

I didn’t exactly hear Jesus’ voice saying to me, “Homeschool all your children.” Instead, I heard my husband’s voice saying to me, “I’m not comfortable sending the children to school this year.” And the man never has opinions. He is the most laid-back, no pressure husband on the face of the earth. If I decide I want to homeschool the children, fine.  Raise the kids Catholic and do a bunch of crazy Catholic stuff at home? Fine. Load up the van and go on a 24-day roadschooling adventure? Fine.  He’s cool with it all. So if he actually has an opinion about something, I think I better listen and respect his desires.

Today is the first day of school. Like many people, I thought that this year would look differently than it does. I had planned to send two of our four children to school. My middle girl would be at school all day, and my four-year-old son would be at 4K for the mornings to give me time to focus on his two other sisters who would be eagerly homeschooling.

It’s a strange thing. Last year I had discerned that school was a better fit for one of our children, but I believe that the will of God can be discerned in the ordinary (or extraordinary) events of life, including in the input of those around us. So when I physically heard my husband say, “I’m not comfortable sending the children to school this year” what I really heard, like the apostles when faced with 5000 hungry people,  was Jesus voice saying, “Feed them yourself.” So here I am, stepping out in faith, to give my best, and believing that the grace of God will make up for what I lack.

Making pizza

Despite some stress, there is also peace, because I believe that God always wills what is best for us — for all of us. So if it is God’s will that E be homeschooled, then it must also be the best thing for me to homeschool her, and the best thing for each member of the family. And when I say “the best thing”, I always mean that it is the best thing for our spirtual health and eternal welfare. Sometimes God’s will is definitely not the easiest, most relaxing, or the most comfortable. Sometimes God’s will brings us to our breaking point, but I believe that the cross transforms us, and we are better in the Resurrection than we ever could be before the cross, in life.

So, here I am, stepping out in faith and trust. I’m looking forward to the joys of this year and happy to have the whole family at home together, and I’m praying for the grace to be transformed through the struggles (like the stuggle of homeschooling a strong-willed child). Perhaps you will say a prayer for me as we begin this path for another year? And let me know if I can say a prayer for you.

“God leads us in the path of life eternal: let us give thanks and praise!” (“Morning Prayer”, Magnificat 22, no. 5, (July 2020)

Fall in Love with Your Today Self

“Does this account spark joy?” I ask myself regularly as I Marie Kondo my Instagram feed. If the account is one rant after another, I typically will not follow. If it is nothing but sales pitches, nope. Instagram is my happy place on the internet, relatively free from the fighting and drama of every other internet place. I also like to be inspired by Instagram accounts, but not made to feel like a failure, and that can be a fine line. Social media comparison can be a real challenge, but I’ve found that people who are great at loving and accepting their real selves, just as they are, encourage me to do the same. So below are three people I love to follow on IG because they really excel at loving their today selves, which definitely sparks joy for me. When I am tempted to lament that my home, my life, and my very self are rarely picture perfect, the example of these Instagram accounts helps me love my real self, just as I am.

Karianna Frey is one of those people that feels like a real friend, as we have followed each other for probably about a decade, but in reality we have never met in real life. Her handle is @kariannafrey and she recently posted a picture of herself on vacation. In the caption she did something I’ve rarely seen a woman do. She mentioned her height and weight. Frey is a taller woman who weighs more than 200 pounds. She also wasn’t sharing her weight to say, “I’ve lost this many pounds so far!” Nope. As far as I know she’s not working toward any weight-loss goals. She was simply sharing her real self in that moment and saying “This is me!” In a world that seems to always convince women that no matter how we look we aren’t perfect enough, it was so refreshing to see someone loving her body and feeling comfortable in her skin.

Another woman I follow is Amanda Martinez Beck, found at @your_body_is_good. Martinez Beck is the author of Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me. She posts daily about fat acceptance and body positivity, and her frequent message of “All bodies are good bodies” is a reminder we could all use, regardless of our body size, but especially those who have internalized the idea that only thin bodies can be good. In her own words, Martinez Beck is a “fat girl”. She has a history of struggling with an eating disorder, and when she was able to embrace her today self, she was also able to see that for her, trying to achieve thinness was a goal that wasn’t in her best interests. Martinez Beck shows that self love isn’t one more mind productivity hack. Maybe adopting a more accepting attitude toward yourself will eventually spur you to work toward some goals, whether mental, physical, professional, or otherwise, but that’s not the point. The real objective is to get yourself to the point where you really understand that even if you accomplish all the personal goals you set for your life, you will still be just as worthy of love then as you are right here, right now. 

 Another woman I follow is Kristin Moras (@kristinmoras). Moras is open about the challenges of dealing with rosacea and acne. She sends a message of skin positivity and posts images of herself with makeup, and also a number of filter-free, makeup-free images. Again, her acceptance of her beauty and worth as a person whether her acne is covered or not, and whether she is having a rosacea flare-up or her skin is calm at the moment, is incredibly inspiring and encouraging. Seeing her image and messages appearing daily in my feed also helped make me aware of my own internal dialogue when it comes to my appearance and to notice the ways I often let images of perfection influence how I think about myself. I don’t think I’m quite at the level of self-acceptance as Moras is, but I have noticed some positive strides toward that. I’m working towards accepting myself as I am, flaws and all. When I can do that, I notice I am better at accepting the unconditional love of those around me too. 

I love that all these accounts show love and acceptance for themselves right where they are—today—rather than thinking that if and when they accomplish whatever personal or physical goal, then they will love and accept themselves. I’m no therapist, but it seems much more mentally healthy to me to love and accept ourselves right where we are, because the truth is that no matter what our present life is like, we are worthy of respect and we do have dignity right now. The way I see it, accepting your today self doesn’t mean that you can’t work toward goals, but it does mean that any goals are undertaken from an attitude of self love rather than shame. In my own experience, negative self talk never motivated me to accomplish anything, in fact it probably made me accomplish less for the simple fact that shame is never empowering. Furthermore, simply shaming myself for not doing something also prevented me from getting in touch with the real reasons behind any behavior. If, say, I had a completely unproductive day, telling myself I was lazy stopped me from asking questions to get to the root of things. Was I feeling overwhelmed? Did a number of things outside my control happen that just ended up derailing my day? Did I have unreasonable expectations about how much I can accomplish in a day in this stage of my life? Furthermore, self love can also help us evaluate our goals with an attitude of freedom, only choosing those goals that are really in our own best interests and letting go of goals that aren’t really serving us.

All of these women remind me to reorient my thinking about myself. Amanda Martinez Beck often explicitly says (and all of the above accounts portray) that our bodies are made for relationships, not perfection. That means that sick bodies, healthy bodies, and bodies of every age, size, ability, or state of imperfection can be in healthy and loving relationships with others. I’ve found that when I see other women loving their today selves, it gives me permission to love my today self too. And I’m beginning to see that when I can love me, I can allow others to love me too, because I’m made for relationships, not perfection. 

 

 

School’s Out For Summer

Well,  my family made it through our first ever year of school! My children in 7th, 5th, and 1st grade finished school in early June. We all learned a lot, and believe me, we are all ready for summer. We’ve also decided on our plans for next school year.

As I mentioned in a post earlier in the year, we chose a school with a blended learning environment. The girls went to school two days a week, and they did school at home three days.  Once Covid-19 hit my husband told me that I sure picked a good year to send the kids to school, haha. So then obviously we were schooling at home full time, which I was grateful the kids’ school was already set up for home learning, but what many homeschoolers were saying was true. Covid-schooling and homeschooling were definitely not the same thing.  Even with the strangeness of this year however, our first foray into schooling was largely positive.

I’m really really grateful that the school we chose exists in the first place.  Previously we had encountered some challenges in our homeschooling, but I didn’t see myself ever making the leap from unschooling to traditional, 5-days-a-week, 7-hours-a-day school. Traditional schooling just seemed so opposite of everything we were doing and such a radical lifestyle change for us that I’m not sure we would have ever made that leap. Thankfully though, this blended school is nearby and we could take advantage of open enrollment, which allowed us to try something somewhere between our usual approach and full-time schooling.

We learned surprisingly/not surprisingly that school is a good fit for our middle daughter. She was the one that we made go to school, and she was not happy about it, but she ended up really liking school. Although it makes me eat some humble pie, I see that she is just more motivated to push herself and learn more from a teacher who is not me. The only thing that wasn’t a fit for her was that at this school we still had to do school at home three days a week (and at the end, every day). She told me her ideal would be to go to school four days a week. Unfortunately her ideal four days isn’t possible, but for next year we enrolled her in our parish’s Classical, Catholic school. A number of little things seemed to confirm that this was the school for her, like the fact that all 6th-graders get ukulele lessons, and E already owns a ukulele and has had some lessons (and she’ll be in 6th grade next year). As a Catholic, I love that as part of school she’ll have adoration and mass every week, and Morning Prayer (or matins) every morning. In regards to one of her personality traits, E is also a natural arguer. It’s always been a part of her and I see that she just can’t help herself sometimes. It’s like she got two dominant, super-active logomachy genes. Hyperactive Logomachy Disorder. Is that a thing? Because if so, E has it. Luckily for her, she has a mother who has many fond memories of being on the Speech and Debate Team in high school and college, and so I’ve been counting down the days when she is old enough to be on a debate team, hoping it could help direct and refine that natural arguing streak. So I really love that when she’s in 7th grade at the Catholic school, she’ll begin taking formal logic. Next year’s school seemed to just have a number of things specifically for E, so between the Catholic school and my prayers to Saint Catherine of Alexandria to help me mother this strong-willed, choleric (but oh-so affectionate) child of mine, hopefully she’ll have what she needs to grow into the person she is meant to be.

When it comes to our oldest child, it was confirmed that F is a complete autodidact. F loves to study in-depth the subjects of her choosing and she often pushes herself to learn and grow in more skills. She just naturally sets goals for herself and pushes herself to achieve them. In the past, she’s had goals such as writing a book, designing and programming a video game, and learning the medium of water color and ink. Although being on the Autism Spectrum Disorder comes with its challenges, I think her drive, focus, and creativity are areas where ASD gives her an advantage. She wants to be homeschooled again next year, and so that is what we will do. This child complained a lot that she would learn better on her own and that memorizing things for tests only to quickly forget them and move on to the next thing isn’t education. (We heard this complaint ALL year.) While I agree with her, and she articulated a major reason why we never sent our children to school before this year, at the same time, I think it was good for her to try school and to have that experience. Although ahead in some subjects, she was “behind” in math, and so I’m grateful that we were able to close some of those gaps. Although I don’t believe that all kids have to learn the same things at the same time, if F chooses to go to college I think it will be helpful for her to not have the challenge of trying to catch up in this area. So I’m feeling more positive about where we are with math and that we are in a good place moving forward. Also, I think it was good for her to learn some non-academic things, like making friends and working in groups at school, and also that in life, sometimes there’s just some hoops to jump through to achieve one’s goals. If she chooses to go to Design school to be an interior designer, there will be classes she likes and classes she doesn’t. Likely for any career-path she chooses, she’ll need to do the fun, creative parts of it, and maybe some businessy, red-tape parts of it too. She chose for herself to go to school this last year and she is choosing to be homeschooled next year, and we are supportive.

For my sunny, easy-going youngest daughter, school was fine. There were no major loves or dislikes, but she would prefer to stay home next year, so that’s fine with us. It did get tedious trying to get N to do all her computer work at times, however, and so it’ll be nice to be able to choose work and tasks that makes learning fun for her, rather than having to do the tasks that the school gives us to do. I’m happy there will be more freedom in our homeschool next year with the ability to tailor schoolwork to her.

Also, our son M turns four next month and so, for the first time ever, we are sending a child to 4K. It is in the mornings Monday through Friday, and I think he’ll enjoy it. He’ll basically have story time, play time, and snack time, and learn songs about the weather and days of the week, and then come home,  and he’ll go to the same Catholic school that his older sister E is going to.

For myself, I’m glad that we’ve found a solution that works for our family. A few years ago I never saw myself sending my children to school, but never say never they say (especially when it comes to how one will parent). Today I see education with more fluidity and I’m so grateful that we live in a country and an area where there are lots of education options and that we are able to choose the best option for each child’s personality and needs and also the needs of our family as a whole. So here’s to a relaxing summer and hopefully another positive school year!

A Collective Grief

A Collective Grief

Recently I was in conversation with a friend. We mentioned current events, and she admitted that she had been feeling quite sad as of late, and even issues unrelated to current topics seemed to be surfacing and getting her down. For myself, having recently experienced my sixth miscarriage, and having supported a number of grieving women through pregnancy loss, her response (though having nothing to do with miscarriage), made a lot of sense to me. I recognized it immediately as grief. In fact, I would venture to say that our whole nation is experiencing a sort of collective grief right now.  Even for those who have not personally lost a loved one in the pandemic, who have not experienced economic upheaval, who are not members of George Floyd’s family, or who are not directly impacted by the events occurring since his death, may still be experiencing grief. Obviously it is a different level and kind of grief than those more directly impacted by these events experience, but it is a grief nonetheless. So I thought it would  be appropriate to share a few things I’ve learned about grief.

  1. You can postpone grief, but you can’t avoid it entirely. It’s not healthy to shove it down and pretend everything is okay. It’s also not healthy to tell yourself you have no right to grieve. Even though others might have it a lot worse than you, and we certainly want to keep things in perspective, likely every person in our country has lost a way of life and the loss of what they thought their lives would be like right now.  Obviously, Black, Indigenous, and other persons of color have a whole complicated set of emotions and reactions right now, but even White people are grieving. From my perspective, I’ve seen a number of White people losing their sense of innocence about the extent of racism and how much people of color still are affected by it, whether outrightly or through implicit bias. As Black people and other minorities spoke about their personal experiences of injustice and racism en masse, I saw a number of White people genuinely shocked and surprised. For me, I was surprised at White people’s surprise, but I wasn’t surprised by stories of racism. I myself would be incredibly shocked if any visible minority in the US has not experienced racism, but I would also guess that the darker one’s color, the more racism they have experienced. The point is, however, whatever our skin color, we probably all have a lot of complicated emotions happening right now, (some more complicated than others), but whatever they are I think you have a right to feel them. So, feel your feelings. It’s okay.
  2.  I’ve said this before, but I think I should say it again. For every new grief you experience, all previous griefs that have not been fully dealt with will come up and you will have the old grief added to the new. (This is why it’s really important to allow the grief to come in the first place.) Like my friend discovered, experiencing the hardships and losses of the present are going to bring up unrelated losses. I’m sure that, for a lot of people, tons of stuff is rising to the surface right now. Again, feel them, and try to deal with them in healthy ways.
  3. We’ve all been experiencing several months now of disruption, and that’s not even taking into account any kind of issues that we might have been experiencing before everything started. If there’s one thing repeated miscarriage has taught me, is that it’s okay to take a break from sadness.  Sometimes when we are deep in grief, in quick moments when laughter occurs or joy seems to be rising to the surface, we can be tempted to push that down too, feeling like we shouldn’t feel joy right now. Something that has been helpful for me, is to consciously allow both sorrow and joy, and maybe even to schedule both if needed. I’ve had times when I was grieving and all I wanted was to lie in bed and cry, but I had little kids to take care of, so I had to pull myself together and just do what needed to be done. Maybe I had a job to go to and I needed to not be a blubbering mess. In those times, it was helpful to schedule grief, that is, to actually set aside a time when I would feel all my feelings, and cry, and do what I felt I needed to do to mourn. At other times, when I felt like grief had settled over me and accompanied me wherever I went and whatever I did, it was helpful to consciously allow and even schedule joy. Maybe that meant allowing myself enjoy a gathering with friends for an evening, or even letting myself laugh while watching a comedy at home.

I’ve learned that soul-wrenching grief can happen simultaneously with soul-filling joy. One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, and, in fact, in this life, those two usually go together and exist in the same moment. However, if we can allow ourselves space to feel our own feelings, process our thoughts, and to listen and try to understand the perspectives of others, I believe we will all be the better for it. Peace.

New Feminism is True Feminism

 

When people ask what I do, I typically reply that I’m a homemaker. However, I’m also privileged to walk with women and couples learning Fertility Awareness. I am incredibly grateful for having learned Fertility Awareness early in my marriage, and being able to teach others in its use is something that I love to do. I have many reasons why I love it, but one major reason is because I’m a feminist and I believe that Fertility Awareness is founded upon the ideals of respect and reverence for the female body and its use encourages an attitude of genuine self care for women.

In the 1960s, Dr John Billings began studying the female cycle, trying to understand its fertility cycle. After numerous studies and listening to the observations of hundreds (thousands?) of women, Doctors John and Evelyn Billings, along with the help of their colleagues, were able to set forth the first modern method of Fertility Awareness that, unlike the Calendar Rhythm method of previous generations, allowed real women to understand their individual cycles with great accuracy and to use their knowledge to plan their family size with great effectiveness. I love that their attitude was one of simply trying to understand what was, seeing the female body as good and healthy in itself, rather than trying to change or alter women’s bodies with an attitude of female inadequacy.

When it comes to artificial birth control, on the other hand,  its history is fraught with misogyny and racism. Dr. Ellen Grant, in her book The Bitter Pill describes how the first birth control pill was designed to be used by men, but because one male had slight shrinkage of one testicle, the whole endeavor was called off, and the pill was redesigned for use by women. In the first human study for the redesigned pill, three women died from it and all that was done in response was to adjust the dosage. The atrocities don’t end there. I’m not going to recap every cruel act that has been performed on women and particularly women of color in the name of birth control (I would need to write a book for that), but here’s an interesting article on the subject of the history of keeping birth control side effects secret from women (or even the knowledge of what the medication was designed for).

Unfortunately, the shady dealings of the birth control industry isn’t even relegated to the distant past. In the last 20 years several class action lawsuits have been brought against birth control companies. Yaz, Yazmin, Essure, Navaring, Orthoevra, and more have all been the subject of these lawsuits, due to the extreme side effects of death, permanent infertility, or various issues of permanent debilitation. In some cases, the product has been removed from the market, but in others, like Yaz, the FDA decided to simply add another warning to the birth control insert. When it comes to women making informed consent, I’m not sure the small insert goes far enough as many women don’t read them. As a Fertility Awareness Instructor, I help a number of women seeking to transition from the use of artificial birth control to a natural means of understanding and working with their fertility. When I discuss the fact that oral contraceptives were classified as a Group One Carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2005 for breast, liver, and cervical cancer, and that the risk of developing cancer is highest for women who use oral contraceptives for four or more years prior to their first full-term pregnancy, in my anecdotal experience, I have yet to have one client who says that she was informed of these risks. The typical response I see from women is shock and anger that no one ever told them this.

I believe that artificial birth control, instead of being women’s liberator as it is often touted to be, is quintessentially anti-feminist. The whole mindset of birth control is one that values external control of the female body and disdain for our natural processes, attitudes which are completely at odds with authentic feminism. Again and again the well-crafted narrative is that artificial birth control is worth celebrating because it has allowed women to succeed and achieve their dreams. As a woman, I resent the insinuation that my natural functioning is flawed or that I need to handicap my fertility in order to achieve the goals and dreams I have for myself, especially when it means that the price for career advancement or furthering education is living at less than my optimum level of health. Because, of course, hormonal birth control does not just cease women’s ovulation in a vacuum. It impairs her whole systemic functioning, and decreases women’s overall well-being. It affects vitamin absorption, mood, memory, energy levels, alters the actual size of her brain, and even affects women’s choice of mate. Furthermore, rather than demanding real respect for our bodies and fighting for workplace and societal changes that accommodate women’s needs, like paid parental leave, flexible scheduling, and more, we are encouraged to deny our legitimate needs, and even risk our health — anything so long as we get a seat at the coveted men’s tables.

Not only does a birth control culture not advance the legitimate rights of women, it, in fact, sets us back because it perpetuates a culture that ignores women’s needs (like access to medical solutions that treat disorders rather than mask them, for example). To me, fighting for access to contraceptives is like fighting in support of the cultural narrative and belief that women, in our most natural state, are inferior to men and the only way we can reach our fullest potential is to handicap and assault our biology. It is fighting for women’s “right” to damage ourselves in accommodation to a misogynist mindset rather than fight for the culture to accommodate and honor women’s essential needs, and recognition of our equality just as we are. It is fighting for people to pity those of us who (in their opinion) have the misfortune of being born female, rather than fighting for a culture of care and reverence for the dignity of being female. It fights for women bearing the sole burden of side effects when our natural biology is assaulted rather and advocating for a culture of care and support for the unique and authentic needs we have.

Artificial birth control was founded in misogyny and therefore it will never bring the liberation or the recognition of women’s equality that women seek. Furthermore, it seems like fighting an uphill battle to ask men to recognize our dignity when we ourselves do not accept and respect our own bodies or really even view them as equal to men’s. With Fertility Awareness, on the other hand, women experience the real liberation of working with our biology rather than assaulting it, and our partners are expected to do the same.

 

 

Striving for Sanity During Social Distancing

It was probably a year or more ago that I listened to a podcast while I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes. I wish I could remember more than a couple key takeaways from it. As it is I don’t remember the source of the podcast, (maybe NPR?), the name of the person interviewed, or any other information helpful enough to allow me to actually find it again. But I remember the subject of the podcast and some of the content that really struck me.

The person interviewed was a psychologist who specialized in treating people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said a couple of interesting things that I remember. One, he told about a particular study that looked at outcomes for people who had experienced natural disasters. He said when a hurricane or something hits and then the survivors immediately get to work clearing debris, rebuilding, and doing all that physical work, they have better mental health outcomes than if they are told to just stay still for awhile. If FEMA comes in, and advises people to just wait until they can assess things and get a plan together and it prevents people from getting to work right away, (and the people have little to do but basically sit around and think and worry), they are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of the natural disaster. If they can immediately do the physical work of rebuilding their homes and communities, they tend to be much more resilient.

The second thing I remember from the interview, was the psychologist spoke about a moment of revelation he had while speaking with a client who was struggling with PTSD. The veteran was often triggered by various occurrences in life and was having trouble coping. As the psychologist was taking him through an exercise to help him realize that he is safe now and and no longer needs to worry about warzone threats, the man replied that he knows he is safe now. Intellectually, he completely realizes that driving in his car and going about his day he is pretty safe, but his body still doesn’t feel safe. The psychologist realized that his whole practice was designed to help people realize something that on an intellectual level they already knew. But simply knowing that they were safe, didn’t mean their body’s blood pressure didn’t still rise, their heart didn’t still race, or their adrenaline didn’t still skyrocket at certain moments. As a result of this new awareness, the psychologist began shifting his practice, which now includes giving his clients physical experiences of safety. He found that when the body could really experience safety while the mind practices what it knows, then his clients had great improvement in their PTSD symptoms.

So I thought of this interview again in light of the whole Covid-19 quarantines. One, we are all living in a situation of heightened stress and uncertainty, and two, unless we are healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, or a manufacturer or grower of an essential good,  most of us are being told to stay home and do nothing. So how do we keep ourselves sane?

For myself, here’s what I’m doing.

  1. I’m trying to stay informed enough to keep myself and my family safe, but I am not filling my feeds with minute by minute updates of all the misery in the world. I check in on news updates once a day, and otherwise I try to occupy my mind with what is right in front of me: my family and doing what I am able to do right now, which is spending time with them and building a safe and happy home for all of us. I’ve also had a number of coffee dates with friends via Google Hangouts. That social time has really been essential for me.
  2. I am trying to make sure I do physical work. I think doing something physical is really helpful in calming the mind. So I’m baking, cleaning, and tackling some household projects.

    Sourdough bread!
  3. I’m still limiting screen time. I get it. Sometimes you just need to turn your brain off. Fine. I just don’t want the cycle of my days to be anxiously reading all the corona updates, followed by escaping to Netflix, then repeating. So I try to break up the anxiety scrolling with some more nourishing and calming things.
  4. One criticism I have of the American culture as a whole is that we’ve been living life at an untenable pace, which we break up by using some mode of escaping, but do we really live a thriving life? And do we have real, soul-nourishing leisure? Put another way, do we, as a whole, live a life that we don’t need to escape from? So I’m making an effort to make time for leisure. I define leisure as something that is restful and also filling. I could binge-watch me some Tiger King. (I hear it’s great at getting your mind off of present worries for awhile), but if I don’t feel happier, more fulfilled after watching it, then its not leisure; it’s an escape. Real leisure is fulfilling and we leave such activities I think feeling more ready to take on the challenges of life, and our spirits feel nourished. We are living in trying, worrisome times right now, and we need to make some deposits toward our mental health whenever we can, and I think leisure is a great way to do that. For me, I’ve been dusting off my old piano music (and practicing some new music) and playing the piano daily. For you, it might be watching a quality film, reading a good book, painting, crafting, baking, building, or something else. Whatever it is, I think it should be a priority. Leisure is essential.
  5. I’m trying to do as the psychologist suggested: I’m giving my body experiences of safety. I’m baking bread that fills the house with its wonderful aroma; I’m lighting candles and listening to beautiful, calming music. I’m striving to make my home not just a landing pad, but a true sanctuary for us all.

I hope theses measures keep my family sane through all of this, help us grow as a family, and help us thrive and increase our resiliency to face whatever challenges will come. I’d love to know what mental health measures help you.

Keeping Your Kids Calm During a Crisis

Keeping Kids Calm During a Crisis

It just so happens that I have been re-reading one of my favorite parenting books in preparation for a talk I was scheduled to give at my alma mater next month. I don’t know if the talk will actually proceed as scheduled now, but the book, fortunately enough and so fresh in my mind, has so much excellent advice to parents on what and how much to share with your children about Covid-19.

The excellent book is titled Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. He has been a school counselor, researcher, and educator, and a family counselor. In the book, he discusses how he had worked with children living in refugee camps in war-torn countries who, with little surprise, exhibited many signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After this time, he then spent some time in a school with children in London, and began to see some surprisingly familiar behaviors.  Payne writes:

I had been trained to associate PTSD with very large wartime events, with life-changing traumas that leave their victims shaken in no small measure. My work over the last twenty years has taken me to many war-torn areas: Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland, as well as to Russia and Hungary during and just after perestroika. I didn’t expect to find “War-torn” children in this relatively affluent area in England, but sure enough, that’s what I was finding. What struck me first were the similarities in the problematic behaviors adopted by these seemingly disparate groups of children. After so many instances of clinical deja vu, I couldn’t ignore my instincts. Certain of the symptoms and behaviors, I was becoming more and more convinced of the cause. And as I looked more closely at their lives, I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached. Adult life was flooding in unchecked. Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy  trying  to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful. The children were suffering form a different kind of war: the undeclared war on childhood. (8)

Payne goes on to explain that the first-world children, though never having experienced the horrors of the refugee children, nevertheless, experienced such a consistent threshold of small stresses, and rarely dissipating, that they developed a form of PTSD, that Payne coined, Cumulative Stress Reaction, or CSR for short.

Nadia in tree (1)

The cause of CSR was too much. Children’s lives are often led at the same pace as adult life with too much information, too many possessions, too-filled schedules, and too few grounding rhythms. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining how many families have been able to reduce or entirely alleviate their children’s behavior problems by implementing a program of simplification.

Although I recommend the whole book, the one aspect I’d like to discuss in this post is Payne’s advice to protect our children (and their childhoods) by being careful of how much information is presented to them. Payne describes how one couple was so proud of their “citizen of the world son” who was incredibly well-informed about the issue of climate change and seemed to be on his way toward becoming a little activist. Payne writes, “James’s understanding of global warming seemed to rival Al Gore’s. That much was apparent. James was also, clearly, becoming a very anxious little fellow.” (4) Payne advocates treating childhood as a sacred time to be safeguarded and protected which allows for the slow development of identity, well-being, and resiliency.

One aspect of children is that they exist so effortlessly fully immersed in the present moment. The younger the child, the more “in the moment” they are. However, not having lived life long enough, children don’t have the perspective of adulthood that comes with time. We may have learned that there are times in life that can be really challenging, but the difficulty doesn’t last forever and things can get better. Children may not know the human history of survival. They may not know of past generations surviving war, threat of starvation, plague, natural disasters, and all the other things anyone’s ancestors are sure to have experienced. For children, when the “now” is scary and uncertain, it can be so much more stressful than for an adult.

Mateo and cake

The solution then, is to protect childhood. Don’t give your kids all the information. Tell them what they really need to know. Obviously probably nearly every child in our country has been affected by the pandemic, there is a certain amount of information they need to know. Don’t lie to them, but don’t make them privy to too much information. They don’t need to hear about the coffins piling up in Italy, the numbers of people dying around the world. They don’t need minute-by-minute updates from the constantly-on news channel on how fast the virus is spreading and if its getting ever closer and closer to you or spreading there. Tell them the necessary information, but strive to make your home a safe place, safe from Covid but also safe from the stress of too much information.

In this time when so many adults must be feeling enormous stress and many must be facing the real possibility of losing their livelihoods, protect your children from these fears and burdens until they need to become informed of them. Confide your fears, worries, and stresses in other adults, and protect your children’s childhoods. Of course children will experience some stress—it is part of life—but by safeguarding childhood from the constantly encroaching adult world, we are actually wiring them for resiliency.

 

Work Cited:

Payne, Kim John. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)

In Praise of Smaller Homes

Early in our marriage, my husband and I were dirt poor, and I’m happy to say that now we aren’t. When our circumstances changed seemingly overnight with a new job for my husband, I vowed to myself that I would always be satisfied with what we had and not strive for the ever elusive “more”. I had seen firsthand how well-off people could still perpetually want “just a bit” more than they had. The pull of more can be hard to detach from and recently I was reminded that sometimes smaller and simpler can definitely be better.

I have always felt that our house was made perfectly for our family (despite the fact that it was built a few decades before either my husband or me were born). When I was house-hunting, I wanted a house with lots of bedrooms and functional spaces. With five bedrooms and well thought-out shelving in several spaces throughout the house, my priorities were met. But, among the first-world problems that I have to deal with in my home, is the fact that that I don’t have a family room in addition to a living room. We have just the one living space, so if the kids have made a mess in it and then someone knocks on the door, our guest gets treated  to our very “lived-in traditional” decor.  So, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a front room that we didn’t use much and always stayed tidy for guests?

Oh, and there’s no master en-suite in this house. Can’t forget that. It has two full bathrooms: one upstairs and one on the main floor. Yes, the bathroom on our main floor is really stellar and, with its dual sinks, glass shower enclosure, and plenty of storage, it was a huge selling point. The bathroom upstairs, (the one near all the bedrooms) however, has just a little storage and one sink. Because of this, my husband and I keep all our bathroom items in the main floor bathroom and shower there typically, rather than in the bathroom that is upstairs nearer our bedroom. So, you know, sometimes I think an en-suite would be nice.

In November, however, we got some new flooring installed in our main floor. With the installation, staining, and drying that had to happen, our family couldn’t even walk on the floor for a few days and so we stayed at an AirBnb in our area during that time. The house had five bedrooms with one bedroom set up like an office, just like my house, which was important since my husband works from home and is in the office eight hours a day.  The AirBnb house, however, had a nice white and beautiful living room (which I vowed I would not let the kids even look at for fear their glance would stain the host’s beautiful white furniture), and an additional family room downstairs, which would be a perfectly acceptable place for the children to hang out. It also had a master bedroom with an attached bathroom.

New flooring in my living room! No more “white” carpet full of stains.

When we arrived, seeing the modern layout, the gleaming white spaces, the sprawling square footage, I thought, “I can see myself living here.” Just a few days later, however, I began to appreciate my house more and more. It ended up that sprawling spaces and dual everything wasn’t everything I thought it would be. Firstly, because AirBnb house had a master en-suite in addition to another first floor bath, I knew there was no reason for anyone to enter the master bath. So we ended up being much less concerned about keeping it tidy. Rather than putting our toiletries, hair dryer, and other items in the drawers and off the counter when not in use like we do at home, we kept all our stuff on the counter. So every morning and every night I was treated to a cluttery bathroom.

The same thing happened with the family room. There was no need for, say, my daughter’s math tutor to see the family room downstairs so that didn’t really need to be tidied up too much. In the end what happened was that the spaces that we used and inhabited most frequently were messy and often cluttered with our stuff. In contrast, in my own home with just one living room, and “my” bathroom being the main floor bathroom, we continually tidy to keep those rooms looking pretty presentable. The living room and the main floor bathroom are never more than a five minute tidy away from looking clean and put-together. Therefore, it ends up happening that the spaces that I myself inhabit most frequently — the space I go to when I first wake up, the last space I go before bed,  and the space that my family just hangs out in — is typically fairly clean and put together. And all this means that I am calmer and happier in these spaces than if these spaces were always messy.

It’s like when we moved into our house about five years ago. I was looking forward to finally having a school room for all our homeschooling stuff. Finally, I thought, I wouldn’t have to spend half my day cleaning up the dining room table: eat a meal, clean the table, do some school work, clear the table, eat again, clean the table, do more school work, clean the table, and on and on. In our new house I would have a space designated for school projects and we could spread out and if the school stuff stayed out, it was fine. What ended up happening, however, was that with the art projects and other random stuff spread across the school room in varying stages of completeness, we rarely used the school room. It was always too messy. So we ended up using the dining room table for school stuff anyway, and every so often I would tackle what would be the monumental task of cleaning the school room. So recently, we got rid of the school room and turned it into the shared bedroom of my oldest two girls, and our designated school space is, once again, the dining room table.

Ironically, the ample square footage of AirBnb house has helped me appreciate the fact that I don’t have the “luxury” of extra living spaces that can stay messy. It means we frequently tidy and the rooms don’t get so messy that they become overwhelming to clean. I’m definitely happier when my private spaces (that a guest might also use and see) are clean and organized. I know when my own spaces are generally well-kept, I feel happier and calmer, and if an unexpected guest gets treated once in awhile to the lived-in look, well, a little humility and keepin’ it real probably does me good. Cheers to smaller, more manageable homes!

New Year, New Goals

I typically don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, or if I do, I make them at the beginning of the Liturgical Year starting with Advent. The end of 2019 was full of letting go, though—lots of it—so the beginning of 2020 seemed a natural time to think about some goals for myself moving forward.

I do have a couple rules about resolutions, though:

  1. They can’t be  based in guilt! That is, they need to be things that I want to do but just haven’t made the time for or sat down to figure out exactly how I will fit those things into my life. So if I’m thinking I should do it, but I really don’t want to, I know I’m not going to end up sticking with it.
  2. My goals should be achievable. I can’t overwhelm myself with trying to make big changes or trying to accomplish too much. I start very small. I think this mentality has helped me make a lot of lasting changes. As an example, some years ago I didn’t give myself the goal of completely overhauling EVERYTHING we ate and how we prepared it. My goal was to simply learn to make bone broth, and that was it. Once I had that down and that one routine was incorporated into our lives, then I learned how to make sauerkraut. Now, years later, my family has come so far in our food journey, and my husband and I make many things ourselves from scratch, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was the accumulation of lots of little steps, as we just incorporated the next right thing when the time felt right. I think if my goal had been huge, I would have stopped before I even got going.

With those rules in place, these are the goals that I’ve been working on for these first few weeks of 2020:

  1. Exercise. I know, I know. It’s cliche to have this goal for the New Year, but this is something that I need to do for myself. I have a bum knee, and when my legs aren’t toned, my knee really feels it. When I am fit, my knee gives me no problems. And let’s face it, we mothers often are so busy taking care of others that we put ourselves last. But, although our diet is really excellent, my exercise level is not. I follow a couple fitness people on Instagram and they get up at, like, 5:00 am every morning to exercise vigorously. This concept of getting out of bed to exercise makes every fiber of my body scream out in protest. I like to start my days slowly and quietly. I wake up, make my coffee, meditate for 30 minutes, and then peacefully begin my day. So with the idea of making a small do-able change, I am using an exercise app to exercise 10 minutes every evening. Sure it’s small, but I’m already noticing improvements, and it’s something I can do right now that is not overwhelming. Also importantly, if I miss a day, no guilt! If I exercise five days a week, or three, or even one, that is all better than exercising no days a week which is what I was doing before, right? So I celebrate progress, not beat myself up for not attaining perfection.
  2. Blog more. I set the goal of blogging every week (which I’ve already broken), but even if some weeks it doesn’t happen, I think overall, writing regularly will be a good thing. Writing is what I love doing, and I want to develop and keep at my craft.

    My Sourdough Starter, affectionately named Bubbles
  3. Learn to make sourdough bread. This is one of those things that I’ve been wanting to learn how to do for years now but have never gotten around to actually doing it. But then I came across the Sourdough Schoolhouse. I took advantage of a sale and the fact that a class was starting in early January to jump in. So far I’ve made my own Sourdough starter from scratch, and I’m planning on making my first sourdough bread this week. One thing allowing me time to bake is the fact that my work-from-home husband did almost all the cooking over Christmas vacation. In doing this, he discovered that he really loves to cook (and he cooks better than I do). So he decided to rearrange his work schedule to be able to cook dinner every night. Now, he goes to work an hour earlier in the morning (at 9:30 am) so that he can take that hour break around dinnertime to cook. When he decided to do this, I was like, “FAR BE IT FROM ME to discourage my husband in pursuing his hobbies!” I mean, of course, whatever goals and healthy leisure activities he has for himself, I want to support him in those, right?! And this leads me to goal four.

    Chris cooking dinner
  4. Celebrate and observe more feasts. I follow lots of Catholic accounts on Instagram and so many beautiful moms are really superb at living the liturgical year with their families. For each feast day they make special desserts or have special activities they do as a family, and watching them has been very inspiring to me, but I always felt too busy to plan and implement this. Or maybe I’d plan it, but when the feast day came around, I’d get too overwhelmed to actually do anything about it. Now, however, with my husband taking over the chore of dinner  that I am supporting my husband in his cooking hobby, I’ve decided to make dessert every day. Most days it’s something simple, like sauteed apples topped with a dollop of cultured cream, or a simple pudding. I don’t make dessert on Fridays, as Friday is a day of penance, but my goal is that on Sundays and special feast days, I will make a bigger dessert, like cake or pie. A special dessert plus lighting candles at the dinner table will go a long way, I think, at helping to set those special days apart.

Well, that’s what I have been up to these first few weeks of 2020. Are you working toward some goals? New Year’s or otherwise? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.