Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who Are These Modern Moms?

I got up this morning and did my morning routine... well, most of it. I showered, brushed my teeth, applied lotion, got dressed. I didn't do my hair or makeup because my Vascular Plant Taxonomy class was cancelled today. So, instead, I'm going to stay home and study for the mid-term exam we'll have next Thursday.

Normally, I'd have class in the morning, four days a week. Then, I'd be working on my research project on the fifth day. On my current agenda: I'm making a giant paper mache shark for M's birthday this weekend, for which I'm still waiting on wrapping paper I ordered, and I'm not even making her cake this year, because I don't have an entire day to devote to it. The holidays are quickly approaching and I still have to figure out who is house-sitting for the week of Thanksgiving, one of my kids doesn't have a Halloween costume yet and we haven't done our pumpkin shopping. When we went shooting a couple of weekends ago, I discovered that ear plugs are completely impractical for children's ears, so I did some hunting for better solutions on Amazon. But I'm not comfortable buying something like this without seeing it, so shopping for over-the-ear ear protection is on the schedule for this weekend. I need to get back up the green roof tomorrow to get working on percent coverage estimates, now that I've managed (just last night) to throw together a reasonably useful map of the quadrats we finally finished marking out (about a week ago).  I have Plant Tax homework to do, and I've got a Genetics exam on Monday...

Oh, yeah! And it's Fall Break?! My two public school kids have a week off in October for no apparent reason. This week. That means all four kids are just home... all... the... time.

Who are these moms who are drinking wine, shopping a all the weird grocery stores, and taking their kids to Toys R Us and having play dates? My house is a mess. I do all of my shopping at two stores: Costco and Target. Because if I can get it at Costco, I don't have to buy it again for a month, and Target has everything else all in one place, so I don't have to waste my time shopping around. My time is valuable because I don't have much of a discretionary time budget right now. In fact, even as I sit here typing this, I'm thinking about all of the other things I could/should be working on: the shark, the homework, the studying. There's always something.

Ultimately, I don't think I would be happy if I didn't challenge myself. It's difficult, and I complain, and I'm sure it's pretty annoying to be Papa, sometimes as a result. Still, in the end, I get the satisfaction of having overcome an obstacle... having accomplished something difficult. As my friend and research partner (a girl of equal or greater levels of motivation) recently said, "A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there."

Monday, September 12, 2016

School is Cool?

It has been almost a month since we decided to put M and S in public school. Shortly after they started their classes, I started mine: I am on campus five days a week this semester and I have field work to do. I knew it was going to be a difficult schedule and an uncomfortable transition, but assumed we just needed some time to adjust. Now, I'm not sure.

Laundry isn't getting done or folded. The playroom is rarely getting cleaned. Every time papa mentions some as yet unscheduled activity, I want to shoot it down because I immediately assume anything new is going to be the thing that makes my google calendar explode. On top of that stress, I'm having very mixed feelings about this public school business.

M is in first grade. She's doing fine. She's a little behind with her reading, but we knew that. I think sending her to school has renewed her motivation to pick up sight words and work through short books. Something about having her teacher backing us up, and sending home packets of stuff to work on has made her more serious. She's got someone new to impress, I guess.

Her teacher, a young man so tall and muscular that he would be intimidating if he weren't so darn friendly, is optimistic. He also uses a program called "class dojo" to keep in contact with parents, which I really appreciate. I have had to use the app to ask him for advice on getting the dry erase markers out of her clothes, and he is able to inform me if she is having a moody day.

S, on the other hand, is in fourth grade. She is struggling with more than just the academic part of public school. Her teacher says she's struggling with math and handwriting. The handwriting doesn't surprise me, but she's doing the math homework just fine, with almost no help... and choking on the quizzes in class. She made friends, but her friends are the target of playground bullying. She shares her classroom table with two boys who argue with each other constantly and have no interest in her, and a girl who doesn't speak much English. She doesn't want to go. She mopes every weekday morning, and her teacher describes her (on the phone with me) as "sad".

I have talked to S's teacher only once. I have never seen her. I knew about the playground bullying several days before I was able to tell her teacher... who apparently didn't know. I could have guessed that S was sad in class, but I didn't know until the end of last week, when she finally called.

S says she feels like her teacher cares about her. So, now that she knows about the playground situation, and I know about the all-day sadness, it's time to see if things improve. The teacher wants to try moving S to a different table and says the school takes bullying "very seriously". But I'm skeptical about bullying policies. I'm not sure that any amount of "seriously" is going to fix the problem. Still, we intend to give this a few more weeks to work itself out before we deploy the parachute... and we're not quite sure what that is going to be just yet.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Tough Decision

Some of you might have caught wind of the rumor that some of my kids are about to start school. I'm sure that's confusing, or disappointing, or exciting, or something, for you to hear. Most of the people who know me these days seem to think of me as a homeschooling, full-time student mom with some kind of mystical unicorn abilities that keep me from exploding. Let me address that rumor: I will still be homeschooling, just fewer of my kids for now. Also, I'm pretty sure I do have some kind of mystical unicorn powers and if I exploded, there'd be glitter everywhere.

Today, I'm going to the local elementary school to finish the paperwork that will allow two of my daughters to attend school. This has been an incredibly difficult decision. I'm not sure if it's the right decision, so I won't bother trying to defend it. But let me explain it.

I've been pretty overwhelmed lately. C still has persistent potty problems, and my multi-tasking is not strong enough to give her enough attention while also trying to teach S math, and M reading, and chase a three-year-old who constantly wants me to play "ring the gack" with him (thanks, Dr. Seuss). In part it is my college education getting in the way. But, also, I'm hoping that a formal school environment will help encourage M to read and S to learn math because they are falling behind in those areas at home.

So, S and M are about to be off to public school. I cried about it. I've lost a lot of sleep. I've wanted to give up and just keep them home because of how frustrating the enrollment process has been... because, let's be honest, no one is excited to go through a long, difficult negotiation just to achieve something they're not even sure they want. It's nearly impossible to stay motivated.

Reminding myself why I started homeschooling seems to help.

When I was first faced with the decision of schooling, all of the girls were clearly struggling to cope with our shared past. We were getting settled in to a new life and I wasn't comfortable sending them straight off to school. They were fragile and, to varying degrees, broken. I lost my job and I was going through a nasty divorce, being verbally torn down as I tried to rebuild out daughters. But now they're vibrant, confident, and difficult... just as little ladies should be.

The other reason I kept them home was that C had potty problems. I didn't think it would be fair to send a girl who was still having frequent accidents to public school. Stigma aside, I needed her home so we could attend a variety of medical appointments and procedures, and so we could work together on the problem. And this is an on-going problem, which we seem to have to find new solutions for all the time. I think she needs more of my time and attention and less of her siblings' distractions.

I didn't follow this path because I thought I could do a better job, or because I thought it was my calling, or anything like that. I chose this life for what I still believe to be good reasons. And, for those same reasons, I think it's time to make a change.

We will certainly still supplement their education at home. And we're already looking at wait-listing them at better schools. I just think it's time to start letting go.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Out On a Limb Together

Saturday is a good day to celebrate. When one of the kids has a birthday on a weekday, we usually celebrate on the following Saturday. We also chose to celebrate our anniversary on the first Saturday in August, instead of tying it to a numerical date. It was the first Saturday in August when we decided to make our relationship official, and Saturdays are great for celebrating.

This Saturday will be our fifth anniversary. I have now been enjoying Papa's company for longer than I spent married to my ex, including the two years I spent divorcing him. He has been around for about half of the twins' lives and 5/6 of M's.

For me, the last five years have been a long road of recovery. It seems that every time I think I have overcome the damage imparted by my life before I met Papa, I stumble upon another dusty corner that needs repair... another lingering weakness I'm only beginning to see the origins of.

Papa recently asked me if he should apply for this job he heard about in Denmark. The thought of such a huge change and unique opportunity made me smile, but I immediately began considering the consequences: Would I be able to continue my studies? Would homeschooling still be a reasonable option, and how would it work? What is the cost of living compared to here?

It wasn't until later that I realized there were a lot of questions I didn't even begin to consider, because I knew Papa was already thinking about them. And some of the questions that did run through my mind were things I knew he would have considered as well. In fact, once I was able to take a step back from my initial reaction, I realized that I felt no pressure at all, because I knew he would think responsibly about things instead of leaving that burden entirely on me.

When I met Papa, he was working for the public school system, doing tech support stuff. He had job security, decent pay, insurance, and a great retirement plan. He just wasn't happy. More than a year ago, he decided he wanted to find a new job, so he started applying for software developing positions. When he started really talking about accepting a position and quitting his secure job, I panicked. Would he get paid enough to make up for the benefits he would be losing? What if he got fired, or the company collapsed? What if he just hated working there and wanted to quit within months of leaving the job that had everything... except job satisfaction?

Talking with him about it helped me realize that I was projecting my working-poor, small-town, plains-state up-bringing on him. *Where I come from* you don't quit the job you hate at the manufacturing plant just because you hate it. You have insurance and a retirement plan and they're never going to fire you, so you suck it up. Because there aren't a lot of other options in a small town anyway and you've got people to feed.

I also *come from* a marriage to someone who didn't seem to be at all concerned about the consequences of his actions most of the time. We had no savings or emergency fund and he made decisions about his career and our lives seemingly on a whim without thinking about the future.

But I am not *where I come from* for a reason.

Papa took the new job after he reassured me with the safety net of making sure he could go back to this job with the school district if it didn't work out. But it did. And, since then, he has negotiated a raise and continued considering other jobs where he might be even more excited about his work, and I'm learning to be okay with that.

Papa and I have spent five years going out on a limb together. He is not dragging me along behind him while he takes unreasonable risks. We are walking, hand-in-hand into new frontiers, having packed our bags and planned for the unknown together. He is not going to blame me if things fall apart, and I won't blame him, because we are in this together and if things do fall apart, we'll be too busy picking up the pieces and building something new.

  • Five years of healing
  • Five years of ever improving happiness
  • Five years of crazy adventures
  • Five years of balancing caution with excitement
  • Five years of working together
  • And no sign of slowing down

Friday, July 29, 2016

Unrealistic Expectations

I just finished that three-week intensive course on field methods which involved poison ivy exposure and several days of sweating without showers. The girls all went to their great-grandparents' house in Colorado Springs for a week while I camped at the field site. Cub stayed home with Papa, who worked from home for the first time so I could go be a sweaty (but kick-ass) mess. I couldn't do what I do without help from all of the incredible people in my life.

Even so, I have a very hard time getting things done. In fact, lots of things don't get done. I gave my final presentation yesterday. I was home at about noon. Since then, I have been trying to catch up on laundry, vacuuming, yard maintenance, general tidying and cleaning, and sleep. But there's a fallen limb in our back yard which has been sitting in the same place for months because Papa and I can't seem to find the simultaneous time and energy to hack it up with a hatchet.

During a regular semester, I fill my "off" days with laundry, cleaning, and appointments. Homeschooling get sprinkled in between switching loads or while we sit in the waiting room or while I'm technically doing my own homework, or as we share a meal. I need to get the kids to the dentist, but I keep forgetting to call the office, and when I do think about it, the thought of trying to wedge one more thing into the calendar is a little upsetting.

Saturdays are our leisure days. We go to the park or the zoo or the museum. Sometimes we stay home and play video games together. Sundays are filled with grocery shopping. We spend so much time grocery shopping.

And, next semester, it looks like I might be taking a 9am class on Tuesday and Thursday and an 8am class on Monday and Wednesday. Plus, I have an online class and I'm trying to get involved with an undergraduate research project.

People are always telling me they don't know how I do it. The truth is, I don't know either. It seems like I'm constantly having to cut corners and make sacrifices. And, once a season or so, I have a minor melt-down and cry a little bit about how much pressure I deal with and the sisyphean struggles of being a mom and a woman.

Despite the fact that we, as a society, are beginning to accept that not every man marries a woman and that not every woman becomes a mother or a homemaker, we are still judging ourselves and other women based on ridiculous "happy homemaker" metrics from the 50's like:

  • The relative order or chaos of her home
  • The deliciousness, creativity, and from-scratchness of her food
  • The stylishness of her hair
  • Her makeup skills and commitment to doing her makeup every day
  • Her fashion sense
  • Her kids (by any standard you can imagine)
I know because I do it, even though I know better. I know because I see other people doing it even though, if I asked them about it, I'm sure most would say it's wrong. And I know because I judge myself by these standards, in part because I assume others will. 

But you know what?

I can maintain my makeup and my fashion sense and cook from-scratch meals every day if I'm also on a tight schedule teaching my kids to be little angels and maintaining my cutting edge hair style and cleaning and organizing my house... AND going to school. Someday I'll have a career and I definitely won't be able to do it all then. We can't ask women (or anyone for that matter) to juggle this many obligations. 

If I were the president, or the first lady for that matter, I doubt I'd have to cook all my own meals and clean my house and somehow also be the main source of child care and the leader of the free world all while looking amazing. But the peanut gallery is always going to be there to judge me for not spending enough time with my kids, not keeping my house clean enough or my yard pretty enough if I have a career... and then judge me for being lazy and complacent and perpetuating gender stereotypes if I choose to be a stay-at-home mom.

So I think I need to take a step back and realize that I'm asking too much of myself. Maybe that's because society seems to ask too much of all women, but regardless, I can refuse to get caught up in it. The trouble is, I'm not sure I'm ever going to be okay with lowering my standards, even if I stop caring what other people think. But it's a start. 

In conclusion: Screw you, societal standards. My standards are already an impossible challenge for me to meet and I can't be bothered to care about yours too.  

Monday, July 25, 2016

Be Imperfect

My school is attempting to reintroduce a "Field Methods in Plant Ecology" course. It's a three-week intensive course that I am taking right now, and we all agree that there is far too much information to cram into just three weeks. I've learned a lot and had a lot of fun, but I've consistently felt like I couldn't keep up. It's an important class for anyone who wants to work in the field with their biology degree, so I suck it up and stick to it.

Last week, we spent Monday through Friday at a state park, running transects, laying quadrats, taking voucher specimens and soil samples, and recording data from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm with highs in the 90s. Because I live 45 minutes away from the field site, I chose to reserve a camp site and pitch a tent with a few of my (now much closer) friends who were also braving the heat for credits.

By day, my sun glasses were sliding down my nose in slicks of sweat. My awesome science nerd hat (with the brim that goes all... the way... around) was saving me from squinting and sun burn, but contributing to a pretty gross hair style by collecting sweat at the band. I waded in the river in my field clothes, which provided a chance to relax and a short period of relief via evaporative cooling. I accidentally came in contact with poison ivy while in the woods and had to use river mud for friction to hopefully wash away the oils and prevent urushiol-induced contact dermatitis (read: river mud exfoliating facials). After that, I started covering myself even more to prevent further exposure.

I got a bit of sun burn on my nose because I forgot to reapply sun screen. My forehead broke out where my hat pressed against it all day. On the last day, I chose which shirt to wear based on strength of stench.

By night, I filled out my field notebook by the light of a camp lantern, took hobo showers, and slept in a backpacking tent.

Come the end of the week, I felt pretty gross. But I learned something.

Obviously, I learned some awesome methods for sampling vegetation for study. I also learned that you really should do this stuff at the crack of dawn and then disappear into the air conditioning somewhere once the sun starts to beat down on your science-nerd hat. But I also learned something unexpected: being gross is important to me.

When I came home, I swore I was smelly. I hadn't shaved in a week. My hair had been rinsed but not washed for four days. Still, Papa thought I was amazing and insists I never smell bad, "Seriously. You're like magic." Coming home to him, seeing that he didn't mind the sweaty mess I had become, was reassuring, but more importantly, I had given myself permission to be that sweaty mess and it was okay.

You can't be perfectly preened all the time... or, if you can, you're not being nearly adventurous enough. So, if that's not an option, you're going to have to come to terms with giving zero shits what other people think about you.

This is not my first "fewer if any showers" adventure. I've been gross for good reasons many times before. In fact, I've taken two other classes of this type. I guess I like to earn credits for sweating. I'm familiar with this form of (what I would call) therapy. I just never thought of it as therapeutic before this. Maybe we all need river mud facials once in a while.    

Friday, July 15, 2016

I Want to Talk About Privilege

Privilege is defined as a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. We call it a privilege when we let our kids pick what we have for dinner because they did well on their homework or when an older sibling is allowed to explore the neighborhood alone while a younger sibling is not. 

Privilege isn't always fair. Sometimes the sixteen-year-old gets to drive the car even though she is far less responsible than her thirteen-year-old sister, because driving is a privilege given to sixteen-year-olds with a certain amount of disregard for practicality, under the guise that "it's normal".

For that reason, and other reasons, privilege doesn't always make people happy. My three-year-old is pretty chafed about not being allowed in our back yard by himself. In his case, he just doesn't understand why the unequal distribution of privilege is reasonable. He keeps harassing the chickens, heedlessly wandering out the gate, and otherwise making questionable decisions when no one is looking. But what if I took privileges away from my children because another child lied about something my child did? What if I took privileges away because of a presupposition about children in general without ever giving my children a chance to prove themselves? 

Actually, I think all parents are guilty of that last one. We have to be. We put babies in cribs because, although our child hasn't yet become mobile, we know that children generally do.  We keep putting our toddler down for a nap because we're pretty sure kids need naps, even if we haven't tested that theory on this particular toddler. We limit screen time because studies show that less is best, even though "studies show" just means "generally, for most kids". 

This is important. we apply privilege to our kids based on generalized ideas because it is much easier than testing every theory individually on each child. In fact, I don't think we could do that if we tried. Generalizations are important for allocation of privilege in parenting. 

Problems arise when we start using those generalizations to judge the way other parents choose to allocate privilege for their children. As long as what they're doing isn't illegal, I think we need to consider that maybe the parent knows best. For example: My niece gets more screen time than my kids. None of my kids have ever shown a particular inclination to learn from electronic devices or shows. My niece, on the other hand, is three years old and trying to teach herself to spell and read with an app on a tablet. 

So far, you're with me because this doesn't make you uncomfortable. 

So let's talk about racial privilege. Remember, a privilege is a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. Up to now, we've been talking about privileges bestowed upon our children by concession (on our part) or effort (on theirs). Racial privilege is decided at birth. 

If you needed to shop for an educational children's book, would you have trouble finding one with a central character who shares your ethnicity? "Once Upon A Potty", probably the most popular potty training book aimed at toddlers, is available in two variations: White boy and white girl.

If you had neighbors of a different race and there was a dispute, how concerned would you be that they might just call authorities? My kids used to play with our neighbor's young relatives every time they would visit. Then, we had an incident that involved a young boy kissing one of our daughters and we told his parents. Now, the neighbors hardly talk to us. We are white and our neighbors are black. I worry that we unknowingly and unintentionally threatened them.

Do you ever worry that if you make a choice that goes against the grain or results in a mistake, it will be chalked up to your ethnicity? I have this problem with gender privilege. I am frequently concerned that if I appear soft, disorganized, too mean, too nice, or too caring it will be brushed off as part of my femininity and not attributed to me as a person.

With recent events... shootings and revolts... I think this is an incredibly important topic, even if it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Privilege doesn't affect all people of a given race equally, and not all people are guilty of perpetuating it. But the fact remains, it is easier to grow up white in America because there is always a place for you. There is always a doll that looks like you, a hair product that works for you, a book that relates to you, a teacher who gets you. And it's easier to be a white adult in America because people don't make nearly as many negative assumptions about you. If you want to go to that "ethnic hair products" place because you like their dye selection, you might feel a little out of place, but they will still help you find what you're looking for without tailing you to make sure you don't steal anything. This is what people mean when they talk about white privilege.  

Some people are uncomfortable talking about this with their children. Some would say we should avoid talking about it with our children because we don't want to pass this social problem down to the next generation. I say that's all the more reason to tell them. 

We teach our children about all kinds of things we never want to happen to or around them. We tell them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the consequences of irresponsible sex and other behaviors. If we didn't tell them about these boogeymen, they wouldn't just go away. The same is true with racial privilege. I'm going to tell my kids about privilege so I can arm them against contributing to, or even simply ignoring the problem. I hope they see a time when racial privilege doesn't exist, but if that never happens, I hope they are at least aware that they have it, so they can use it to fight the good fight.