Screens and Books

Earlier this week, I took Max and our 5 year old neighbor to the library for baby story time. There were about 50 people crammed into the little room, though, and Max said no thank you to that. At 16 months, he's sort of at the upper end of the age range for that particular program anyway. I will start taking him to the toddler program soon. We tiptoed out of the room and went back to the children's section, where both children did nothing but swipe screens and mash keyboards despite my best efforts to get them interested in books.

I despise the computers that are set up in the children's rooms. The toddlers are drawn to them like moths to a light, but are unable to interact in any meaningful way. At best, they navigate to some sort of tv program with overly shrill character voices screaming about the color yellow. THE SUN IS YELLOW! CLICK THE YELLOW SUN!

After all that, the book about colors is very boring to Max, I suppose. My neighbor was basically doing the same thing, on an iPad that was mounted to a little security post. App to app to app....she never found one she liked or could navigate herself and she didn't want me to help her. Swipe, swipe, swipe. That was the actual activity she wished to engage in.

I abandoned the idea of reading together in the library and just picked some books out to take home.

I was observing some 4th grade students in a classroom many years ago, coincidentally in a school that is right down the street from where I currently live. When I asked one of the boys what he was doing on the computer set up in the back of the room, he said "I click this button and it teaches me things." I asked him what he was learning. He shrugged, and went back to clicking "NEXT PAGE" without so much as glancing at the text. He had also learned to hit the Escape button to get out of the program when he failed to answer the correct questions and the "NEXT PAGE" button wasn't there.

M works for an educational software company, and I know there is much more that goes into designing and developing a good app for kids, including a lot more attention to accessibility to language and disabilities. (Also, many things have changed since 2003.) I'm definitely not opposed to kids using technology....I'm just frequently disturbed with how it plays out in real life.

Once we got into the car, the kids were both excited to read their books, and as the other children came home they were eager to page through the collection of books we had checked out.

My strategy for picking out books is to browse a section and just pull out a few books that appeal to me at first glance. If I like them, I look up the authors and see what else they have published and might go and find that.

This week I found "Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives" by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. This book is pretty simple, but informative. In addition to giving some good facts about how many babies certain animals have, or how many sets of antlers they grow, it offers a good explanation of how to calculate averages, and how an average does not necessarily represent a consistent and regular pattern over a lifetime. For instance, reproduction often peaks during a particular phase of an animal's life, or growth accelerates during youth but slows as they age.

Next time I will look for "Pick, Pull, Snap!: Where a Flower Once Bloomed," also by Lola M. Schaefer, and the Over and Under series by Kate Messner.


Life with Three

I can still vividly remember the first car outing we took as a family of five. Well, I can't remember where we went, but I do remember loading up the kids, adjusting all the latches and seat belts, losing and finding and losing shoes, and involuntarily sucking in my breath when I finally shut the door because it didn't seem like everything was fitting. And of course, the crying. We have very loud children.

M and I were laughing but also agreeing that we would never go anywhere, ever again.

I was thinking about that today when I was loading up the kids...bikes, helmets, overnight bag, snacks, water bottles. I babysit the neighbors a few days a week and everybody is a different height and weight, so I have a revolving collection of car seats and boosters depending on who will be in the car. I know which ones go with latch and which only work with seat belts and when Max's rear facing seat has to be in the middle, which is a pain for getting him in and out, but works better for getting everyone else buckled. I have all these tricks now...keep shoes off Max until we arrive at our destination as he flings them all over the car. Books and magazines make the best entertainment and do not require charging.  TMBG's "No!" and pretty much anything by Raffi appeals to both children and adults. Put Max in the car first and then load it up so he doesn't wreak havoc in the house.

It definitely still takes a minute, but it feels like a totally normal part of life now.

Just like the conveyor belt showers at the end of the day, and buying 3 gallons of milk every week and not being able to legally book one hotel room anymore.


Spring Break!

Laurel and Marko's schools are both closed this week, which is great fun, but also, whew a lot of energy in my house. This morning I took them to a new-to-us playground and on a hike down a creek bed. Everyone had fun on that part of the excursion and I can see us going back to that park a lot this summer. Then we had to go grocery shopping, which was fine for the first 20 minutes or so and excruciating for the last 10. I got that stupid race car cart which is impossible to push around without knocking over the old ladies. The boys loved it at first, but at some point Max decided he only wanted to steer Marko's steering wheel and they can squeal like little pigs when they are fighting. Laurel whined the entire time about not getting to ride in the race car cart, as if she would even fit in there if she tried. I haven't even been grocery shopping in like 2 months because I started ordering them and you just have to pull in next to the store and they load your car for you. But I remembered why it is definitely worth the $4.95.

Tonight we went full-yinzer and ate dinner at Primanti Brothers. Cousin Sam had some extra baseball tickets so M took Laurel and Marko, but we met up for dinner beforehand. We planned to go to the Peruvian chicken place, but they were closed, unfortunately.

Other noteworthy events of the day include Max saying "I love you" to me at bedtime and the kids putting away all of their laundry, without being asked.

We've been having "family meetings" once a week where we discuss problems our household is having and try to come up with solutions. I recently read this quote by Richard Branson (super rich business guy with an inexplicably bad haircut): "Train people well enough that they can leave, treat them well enough so that they don't want to."

Obviously my kids are not employees, but I've been thinking about all the skills and practice I want them to have while they are kids and I can sort of guide them through it, and also trying to treat them like valuable members of our family whose opinions we respect. There is so much that is just faster to do yourself when it comes to household stuff, but I want my kids to know how to make a bed and sew a button back on and cook mashed potatoes that aren't lumpy and rally neighbors to a cause and negotiate a good price on something. We're starting with laundry and dusting and scrambled eggs. They are catching on to the laundry.


Toddler Time

Max is a delight. I think he's everyone's favorite. Laurel, who dislike waking up under any condition, happily eases out of sleep if we send Max into her room to give her a hug in the morning. He laughs when he farts. He laughs when we make fart noises. He laughs when we put him in bed at night to be tucked in, a funny little chuckle that tells us he had a good day and he's good and tired and it feels so nice to lay down. (And then he sleeps for 12 hours, waking up only once to drink a cup of milk. Hallelujah!) He gives really great hugs. He loves cucumbers. He recently started looking at books quietly on his own when he's in his room while the rest of us are getting dressed. M and I have enjoyed parenting him through this first year and almost-a-half, which is not to say the other two were harder, just that we have more confidence now.  Most mornings, M gets up with Max at 5:30 or 6 and they eat breakfast together. M never sets an alarm. Max just wakes up and starts shouting "DAD! DAD! DAD!" from his crib until M goes and picks him up. I pretend to be asleep, but really I'm laying there listening to them talk to each other while M makes coffee and slices up bananas. It's one of my favorite things.

But some days I feel a little guilty about the things I can't do with Laurel and Marko because we have a toddler in tow. Every single trip out of the house is complicated by all the stuff you have to take along for Max. (The epi-pen and benedryl first aid kit plus diapers and a change of clothes.) I always try to stay home during his afternoon nap time, which often interferes with potential playdates with school friends or outings that take the whole day. In wet spring weather, he goes directly for every mud puddle, plops right down into it and starts drinking it...if I let him out of the stroller at the park he walks way too slow, but if we want to go at the pace Laurel and Marko prefer, he ends up being trapped in the stroller. He spends a lot of time dumping containers out so that he can use the container as a ladder. It's not unusual that we find him on top of the piano. He's a total basket case by 6:30 and wants to go to bed, which is right smack in the middle of the time the rest of us would rather be eating dinner. I seem to miscalculate this every single night. When he was a baby, he definitely got dragged along with the rest of us, but now that he is a toddler, he seems to be setting the tone.



Laurel is getting a knitting lesson from Marlene, our neighbor who walks her to school each morning. Laurel has been desperate to learn. Several other girls from school have been getting together for lessons from one of the moms. They show up with shaggy balls of yarn that have been knit and unraveled, knit and unraveled. Occasionally, one of them triumphantly shares a completed project...a scarf or a headband. They are only in first grade, so I'm impressed. I taught myself when I was about 20 years old. At the moment, my broken finger is nagging me too much to demonstrate. Marlene kindly offered to come over and give some lessons. I've been chopping up cabbage for slaw in the kitchen, trying to stay out of sight so they wouldn't lose their focus. I can hear Marlene's firm and gentle voice, but I hear almost nothing from Laurel.

Laurel's one of those naturally redshirted kids, all my kids are actually. With an early November birthday, she's one of the oldest children in her class, among the first to read and most of the skills of first grade come very easily to her. I've been concerned about this because when things are challenging or don't come very quickly to her, she gives up. She has a quick temper so this often happens in a very dramatic fashion. But with this knitting thing, she's so motivated to learn that I can see her moving through that frustration, coaxed on by Marlene's insistence. Marlene's mother taught her all the domestic arts...crochet, knitting, sewing, embroidery. I never met her mother, but I can sense Marlene channeling her.

I hope this doesn't sound too creepy, but one of my favorite things about this stage of parenting is eavesdropping on my kids when they are off playing or learning something. How they act outside of my direct sphere of influence tells a lot about what I have actually taught them.


Who is in your wolf pack?

I just found a little book Laurel made out of post-it notes. "Laurel's Book of Happy Picshrs and Wrds." it said. One of the pages included the title "wolf pack" and listed all the kids she runs around with after school. There are a few families who pick up their kids and end up hanging out for a while. Sometimes they actually do howl like wolves, but within the context of playing out these elaborate make-believe worlds. They drag around tree branches and stones and dig in the dirt and everyone takes on a pseudonym or sometimes an animal persona.

Our kids don't do too many formal activities. Laurel is in Girl Scouts and Marko just finished a session of gymnastics, but that is pretty much it.  Sometimes I worry that they are missing out, because kids around here tend to be enrolled in a lot of classes and lessons and camps. But mostly I am grateful for the space it leaves in our lives right now.

When I was a kid, our next door neighbor never even turned her car off. She just pulled in and out of the driveway a million times a day to shuttle her four kids around. They ate in the car. I always thought they were over-scheduled, but it recently occurred to me that if my kids each do just one sport and the seasons overlap, that could be a practice or a game every single day of the week. I could be stuck in my car for weeks at a time.

But for now, we have days that feel very full, but require little in the way of rushing. And wolf packs.


Managing Vs. Connecting

Sometimes I spend too much time looking at my kids as something to be managed. And truly, if I don't manage at all, terrible messes and much chaos falls upon our home. However, thinking of parenting as an opportunity to build a relationship is a much different way of looking at it. Max is one. I can control a lot of his behavior because I can control his environment. Put things out of reach and so forth. Plus, he's with me all the time. Laurel was once one, but is now seven. When I type that, it seems like she's still young, but when I look at her, she looks like she's practically a teenager. The ways that I am able to control her environment are quickly disappearing. She already lives a lot of her life beyond my watchful eye. I'm not going to stop paying attention avoid setting reasonable boundaries, ever. But now is the time to establish some good communication habits, and time set aside for private and quiet conversation. Today we went out for coffee/hot chocolate. We took journals and books and hung out for a good long while, plus there is a nice mile long walk to the coffee shop. No little brothers in sight. She's different in this setting. Nothing serious came up...this time. But I don't want our only 1:1 time to be when something serious is happening. 


Day in the Life

My life is not particularly interesting or unique at the moment, but it feels like I'm doing the right things. And possibly even the Right Thing. That is to say, I am doing the Work I am called to do, and can achieve some level of flow in carrying it out. I'm not sure I'll remember this in 10 years, so I wanted to record it somewhere.

Max woke up before 6. If he wakes up crying, I can usually coax him back to sleep. But if he stands up in his crib and starts saying "Dadadadadadadadada..." then it's no use. M got up with him and they ate breakfast together, which apparently included a lot of blueberries (I learned this later in the day and you can guess how). I got up around 6:30. I think I can sense when M has finished making the coffee. Laurel and Marko are somewhat self sufficient in the morning when it comes to getting dressed and putting their pajamas away, but we always fix them breakfast. Breakfast is a total free-for-all in our house right now...not the way I'd like it to be, but haven't figured out a way to make one breakfast that everyone can eat. Max is allergic to eggs. M and Marko love eating bacon and eggs. Laurel is basically a vegetarian and usually won't eat bacon. Marko always asks for toast but doesn't eat it. I never fix my own breakfast and just dine on rejected breakfasts. Today Marko ate a bowl of cheerios, Max ate blueberries and toast, Laurel ate two English muffins (toasted, with jam), M made some kind of egg-thing, and I drank a lot of coffee. Later in the morning I was cleaning out the fridge and I ate a cheese and pickle sandwich someone had made and packed up but apparently forgotten. It was delicious.

Marko had preschool, so I drove him there and dropped M off at the busway on the way. We had a few extra minutes, so I stopped at Target because the kids ran out of toothpaste. I stopped by my friend's house for a short visit. Her daughter is just a little younger than Max, but has a very articulate "hi," which she pairs with an enthusiastic wave. Max ate a banana there and we tried to make plans for a better hanging-out time but were thwarted by our conflicting nap schedules.

I thought Max would fall asleep in the car so I went to the car wash, but it scared him. He was still awake when I got home and so I put him down for a nap and then spent the next 45 minutes carting boxes of things-to-be-donated that were piling up in the basement onto the front porch and scheduled a pickup from the VVA. I washed the breakfast dishes and made a lunch for Marko to eat. I wiped down the pantry shelf I had just cleared out because we had peanuts in there at one point and we just found out that Max is allergic to peanuts. I listened to a podcast but kept wandering too far away from my computer to really hear it so I don't even remember which one it was. When Max woke up he ate some oatmeal and mixed vegetables and a hot dog. He seemed like he could keep going, but it was time to pick up Marko so we headed back to the car.

Today I had to babysit, so after picking up Marko we went to get our neighbor, who is 5 and also goes to preschool, but a different preschool, so picking up both of them at noon is always a rush. We sing Scout songs in the car on the way home. I stopped on the way to pick up my grocery order. It was very warm so I nixed the idea of stopping at the park on the way. Would have been fun to play but I had 2 gallons of milk in the back of the truck. (And yes, my house goes through 2 or sometimes 3 gallons of milk a week.)

When we got home, they were too excited to play...they absolutely could not focus on lunch. They kept leaving the table and I am being super strict about eating at the table because of this food allergy thing with Max. So I put their lunches away and they went upstairs to set up a tea party. Max had a graham cracker and then we danced enthusiastically to Party Rock Anthem. Well, I danced and Max did deep squats, which is his toddler version of dancing, I think. Sometimes he does some fancy footwork, but he didn't break that out today. I gave him the whole container of poker chips and he poured them all out and then stacked them up and knocked them over. We did that for a while, and then Max went down for another nap and I made the preschoolers eat their lunches. Then we built a giant train track loop, but they started fighting over the engine that has a battery in it. I let them duke it out and went to chop vegetables for dinner. When I came back they were cutting a piece of wrapping paper into ten million teeny tiny pieces with scissors. I thought about stopping them, but they were getting along so well and very focused and that's a fine motor skill.

Max woke up screaming, but quickly calmed down. I had just enough time to change Max's diaper and give him a cup of milk before getting everyone into shoes and coats and out the door to pick up the big kids....Laurel from school and our neighbor from the bus stop in front of our houses. It was pretty warm today, so we played outside for a while. By the time I have gathered everyone from school, I have 5 kids in my care so the last hour or two of the day is just about maintaining harmony. Mainly this involves slow, deep breathing on my part. I was successful in getting dinner into the crockpot earlier in the day, so I could actually really pay attention to everyone and the afternoon passed without too much chaos. My own kids always behave worse than the neighbors. They swear more, yell louder and run in the house. But today wasn't too bad and by the time the neighbor kids left, mine were ready for dinner and bed. My kids seem to really pay attention to the daylight; when the sun sets early, they go to bed. In summer, they are able to stay up later. This means we don't really do much or see people in the winter months, but I'm starting to be ok with that.

I made Sloppy Lennies, which is like a vegan version of sloppy joes. Everyone ate it, with minimal complaints - definitely not the norm. I recently made Laurel and Marko binders with a list of their morning and evening chores, and Marko picked up all of those little paper scraps he cut out earlier and Laurel ran the vacuum. I told them they could use their Kindles if they were showered and in pajamas by 6:30, and they actually did it. By 7, M was home from work and helped finish putting the kids to bed. Max was having trouble falling asleep (I actually think he was waiting for M) and Laurel and Marko like to have M read them a story (they are doing the Hobbit right now). I washed the dishes and watched some youtube videos on how to fix the derailleur on my bicycle.

And now it's 9:00pm and time for bed. Not having the jobs I used to have means not having a stack of IEPs to write or lessons to plan after I get the kids in bed. And how blissful it is without the steady stream of text/email/phone replies on my to-do list. I definitely do not miss that life. My email inbox can actually be ignored for days at a time without calamity. I volunteer with the Girl Scouts right now and there's a few things I need to do for that, but I can do them tomorrow. Today was a pretty good day...I made some cash babysitting, played with kids, cooked a nutritious and affordable meal, got some fresh air, and have somehow convinced a 7 year old that vacuuming the house is a privilege.


America, the Beautiful

The first thing I can remember learning about America was that people came here to escape religious persecution. My family was very religious so this narrative made sense to me at age 8 and I felt personally grateful that I was free to go to church. The second thing I learned was that America was a melting pot. This was an appealing idea as well, although as a child I had very limited experience actually living alongside people with different languages, cultures, religions or skin tones. Obviously, these lessons were a bit on the overly simplistic side. As I grew up I discovered all the ways that make it hard to live next to people who are different than you are and all the ways people can fight about it and offend each other, and how this is a human problem and not limited to my country.

The next thing I learned about America was how beautiful she is. I fell in love with her as M and I traveled thousands of miles by car and on foot. A lot of that is captured on this blog. I can still remember the first time I saw the land start to drop away into canyons as we drove into Texas. Hugging redwoods in California. Catching my first glimpses of the Smoky Mountains from the AT. Katahdin rising up over the lakes of Maine. All along the way, we experienced incredible hospitality and a lot of our preconceived notions about people from a particular area were changed.

Now with three children of my own, I view every issue through the lens of Mother. I can't help it. I sympathize with parents around the world who want to keep their children safe and fed and healthy but are out of options in their home countries. What if I had to watch out for suicide bombers when I got on a bus or went to the market? What if Laurel couldn't go to school or vote or have a job when she grew up? What would it be like to get on a raft with them and cross a sea? How would I handle it if I had to be separated from M? It makes me absolutely sick to think of every political conversation, policy, law and speech that does not explicitly acknowledge the fact that we are talking about PEOPLE, who are all pretty much just trying to do the best they can with what they've got.

Of course for lots of immigrants, the situation is not that dire. Perhaps they just want to be a part of America...go to school, run a business, practice their religion, or live in a place that has such natural marvels as the Grand Canyon, or just live around a great big mix of different sorts of people and be generally free to be yourself. I think people coming here - and bringing their religious beliefs, languages, food and culture - makes my life better and improves our country as a whole. (The food/restaurant situation in America without our immigrants would be terrible. No falafel?? No green curry??)

Am I worried about somebody harming my family? I'm a mom, so yes, I worry about everything. But foreign terrorists are waaaay back in the line....behind car wrecks, lead poisoning, cancer, and accidental shootings by toddlers because these are all higher on the list of things that are actually likely to happen to us...or have already happened to us.

One thing I wonder is if it makes sense to teach kids an idealized version of America when they are little and let their understanding of the complexities evolve over time. Or, do they need the full story from the beginning....


Back to Life, Back to Reality

Remember that time I went away for 7 days by myself? Yes, it was amazing. Yes, the kids were fine with M (Well not "fine" since a stomach virus went through the house, causing massive loads of laundry and lack of sleep, but fine in the general sense that he just handled it. As parents do.) And yes, I missed my family. Max especially, because we are usually together. He formed a stronger bond with M, though, and that was kind of neat to see. I also remember that happening sort of naturally with each kid as they got out of the baby phase. I remember the first time Laurel got hurt and ran to M instead of me. It was Mother's Day 2011.

However.... it was amazing to sleep for 7 days, uninterrupted, and wake up on my own. I marveled at how easy it was to get dressed and leave the house. Traveling alone is a totally different experience. I basically had to stop myself from asking the other passengers if they needed to go to the potty. I read three books and two magazines, and subscribed to three new podcasts. I also just sat in silence and stared out the window quite a bit. My sister and I went to the aquarium in La Jolla and spent hours staring at the fish tanks and not moving on until we found every single fish or anemone that was on the sign. I get to do lots of educational trips with the kids at home, but there is usually a steady 1-2-3 count going on in my head (or 1-2-3-4-5 if I'm babysitting) as I track the kids.

I knew that Max was probably not going to move immediately into sleeping through the night, but he's gotten a lot better. Most night, I only wake up with him once after I've gone to sleep. I don't feel like a zombie anymore. I'd like to wean myself off the serious coffee habit I've developed over the past year, but other than that, I'm feeling pretty good.