Down the rabbit hole…

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been down a deep, dark rabbit hole of inquiry – pretty much one of my favourite things outside of writing.

One of my guilty pleasures is this podcast called, “At Home”. I’m honestly not sure why I love it so much. The four women who host the podcast are quite different from me. First of all, they are evangelical Christians. Second, they all have multiple school-aged children. Third, they homeschool. I don’t know why I enjoy it, maybe it’s because I have a secret dream to host a podcast someday, or maybe it’s my ever-burning desire to be in a girl-band, or maybe it’s just my love of good conversation with good friends around a kitchen table – but I love listening to these four women. They are strong, they are thoughtful, they are devoted, capable, hard-working moms, and they are friends.

I’ve listened to their ideas and opinions on cleaning products, sibling rivalry, poetry, travel, meal planning and more; but none has sent me off on a new avenue of inquiry quite like their episode on Charlotte Mason.

Charlotte Mason…ahhh where even to start? She was a teacher, a school founder, a homeschool curriculum developer, a writer, an editor, a devout Christian, and an educational philosopher. Oh, and she lived over a hundred years ago, the bulk of her life’s work published between 1890 and 1920.

When I tell my friends that I’ve been fascinated by the writings of this woman, they mostly look at me with trepidation. “Oh dear, what kind of kool-aid has Heather been drinking?” Okay well bear with me while I elucidate exactly what strikes me so about her writing.

  1. Charlotte Mason believed that children are born persons.

Children are not blank slates upon which we impress different templates. They are born whole beings, with feelings, fears, likes, and dislikes. They deserve respect for their personhood for where they are developmentally just as any other person. This seems like a pretty obvious notion these days – of course children are persons most of us would say – but honestly I’m not so sure that we actually practice that in our parenting and our schools. How often we refer to “the baby”! How quickly we are encouraged to dismiss our child’s cries for us in the night in the interest of “sleep training”. How often we tweet with the hashtag #reasonmykidiscrying that, while making light of the complexities of parenting, does nothing to recognize the child’s opinions or desires as legitimate to them (as ridiculous and as frustrating as they may seem to us). I mean sometimes I have to laugh at the absurdity of toddler emotions or else I’d cry – but on the whole I think I agree with Mason that it’s important to respect my kid’s emotions, as over-the-top as they may be.

2. Charlotte Mason believed that “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

By this she meant that children need to be educated in their own natural environment (a positive, loving, curious, and challenging one), with good habits (learning for the sake of satisfying curiosity and doing things “right” as opposed to “regurgitating memorized facts because the teacher said to”) and reading living books to inspire living, breathing ideas for their whole lives.

She wrote, “Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”

3. Charlotte Mason believed in teaching living ideas and through living books.

Not all books are created equal. I guess I always kind of knew that – I’ve definitely struggled through some books and raced through others. But I kind of had this notion that if a book was published it must have been vetted and it must be good, right? It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you read, right? I no longer think this is the case. There is a HUGE difference in quality in children’s (and adult) literature published today. A lot of it has no plot or characters and is mostly designed with bright colours to grab a kid’s attention and entertain, to compete with all the excitement that comes on screens. But there aren’t necessarily any big ideas for them to chew on, to think about. Many books don’t inspire them to learn more, to ask questions, to put themselves in the shoes of another, or develop their focus/attention span.

Living books can be both fiction or non-fiction. They are usually written by one person (as opposed to a committee or publishing team) who has passion for the subject. They don’t talk down to children but use high quality language (not just “see spot run”) that is enchanting to read. They are the books that you probably still have from your childhood gathering dust in the basement. Pull them out! Share them with your kids! They are the books you hugged, the books your mother hugged, the books your grandfather hugged. They taught you facts about the world without you even being aware you were learning.

Charlotte Mason wrote, “They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” (Vol. 2, p. 263).

Once I cottoned on to the idea of living books, I aimed to only provide DK with the best quality books in our home (although admittedly this is partly for my own sanity – reading Disney’s Cars Best Buddies might actually kill me), as it is my view that as a parent I should expose DK to the best the world has to offer. I was absolutely surprised when I discovered that he has an enormous appetite for reading when the books are actually well written (go figure).

Some of DK’s favourite books right now are:

  • Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
  • Motor Goose by Rebecca Colby
  • Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
  • Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman
  • I love Bugs! by Emma Dodd
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Bears and a Birthday by Shirley Parenteau
  • Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone
  • A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman
  • The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
  • If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw
  • Red is Best by Kathy Stinson
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

He also likes Disney Cars Best Buddies, but just like candy, I don’t read that to him every day because there’s so much out there that is better to feast upon!

4. Charlotte Mason believed in the importance of child’s play, particularly outdoor play.

I would not say I am an outdoorsy person; I’m not a big fan of hiking up mountains, I don’t like swimming in the ocean, I don’t like the greasiness of suncreen on my skin but I burn like bacon without it. However, when DK was born, he would sleep in the stroller as long as it was moving outside, so we went for walks. A lot of walks. I began to need a walk in the fresh air every day just as I needed my coffee. Around this time, I read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and I became convicted that the childhood I wanted for DK included time to run freely outside among the plants and the animals that we have lived among for all of humanity and not one hunched over a computer monitor lost in a virtual world.

I want DK to be a child for as long as possible. My childhood was wonderful but I still feel like it was over too quickly. There are so many outside pressures these days, especially in Silicon Valley, to race ahead, read early, to be a code-writing prodigy at 3, to have a leveled-up World of Warcraft character at 4. I don’t want to talk down to him, but I also don’t want him to abandon his childish ways and be too comfortable in the adult world.

I particularly resonated with her philosophy when I read,

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”

Yes. Yes. Let me repeat that: “Perhaps a mother’s first duty is to secure for them a quiet growing time….the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”

DK will have the rest of his childhood once he’s in school to sit inside hunched over a computer screen. He will have the rest of his adulthood to go to work every day and likely sit inside at a desk hunched over a computer screen. So why would I rush it?

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The quote above reminds me of one of my early memories. I was about 5 and I had just spent the entire day playing with neighbourhood children in our townhouse courtyard. We had a water fight and I blew my first bubble with Bubbalicious Strawberry bubblegum. The sun was cooling off and kids were going inside for their suppers. I lay outside in a hammock we kids had made from construction fencing thinking, “This was the best day of my life”. I remember never wanting to forget it. It was the best day.

I don’t remember my best day of television. I remember a lot of wonderful days outside playing freely with my friends. I want memories like that for DK too, and because of the high-tech culture we live in with basically any show or game he wants available at the swipe of a finger, we have to be even more diligent with carving away time away from our gadgets.

5. Charlotte Mason believed in short lessons, no grades, and free afternoons.

I am a self-proclaimed school nerd. I loved school. Of the characters I’ve read of in books, I identify the most with Hermione Granger – a bookworm who’s biggest fear is failing her exams. I love learning and I loved the structured box and safety of school. But I wonder if I’d be better at math if I hadn’t been given grades at all, but just left to plug away at it. The thing is about a lot of learning, you either get it, or you don’t. What does it matter if you score 75% on a math test, suggesting you understood 75% of the material before moving on to the next rung on the math ladder? Wouldn’t it be better if we let our kids move at their own pace and understand 100% of it before moving on? If we expected comprehension, then grades wouldn’t matter. Grades suggest an ideal and a contest with others. But learning should be for the sake of learning, not to compare with others.

I also like how Charlotte Mason advocated for short lessons to avoid the mind-wanderings and need to repeat and re-learn when attention drifts. It does seem more efficient if you give 100% of your focus and attention to the subject when you are learning it for a short amount of time than 40% of your focus and attention when learning the subject over a much longer period.

~

So much of stay at home motherhood seems to be a slog. It’s a lot of sweeping the floor and composting food scraps your kid spat out. It’s dealing with a lot of tears (most of them not mine), it’s changing a lot of diapers. Society these days seems to prize the working mother who can do it all (does she even exist?) and I’ll admit I have struggled with “being just a mom” and not working outside the home. Charlotte Mason’s writings have truly inspired me that it is indeed a high calling. She has lifted up the importance of motherhood, and even though she lived over a hundred years ago, she has showed me that I can do things differently for my kids.

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Book Review: There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akëson McGurk

I’m kind of old school when it comes to reading – I like my books in a paper copy, ideally from a library. But, DK doesn’t give me a lot of time to just sit and read these days – so I mostly read on my phone in bits and snips nowadays – while waiting in line for a coffee, while waiting for the shower water to heat up, while rocking DK to sleep in my arms, while sitting in my car while DK sleeps in the carseat…I can log some serious word count doing these activities.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akëson McGurk is one book I read in its entirety on my phone while waiting around for things.

It is an easy and engaging read about a mother from Sweden raising her two daughters in rural Indiana. In it, she reflects on her own childhood and Swedish parenting traditions in contrast to how things are typically done in the United States. Whilst growing up in Sweden, she spent tons of time outdoors, in all kinds of weather, and she realized that her daughters were not receiving the same outdoor childhood experiences because so much of American culture is sheltered indoors. And so, she decides to take them for a six month live-abroad experience to her hometown in Sweden to expose her daughters to a different attitude towards the outdoors and simultaneously investigate Swedish parenting trends and whether, just like the in the USA, children’s time is increasingly spent indoors on technology.

I would not consider myself an outdoors-y person. I am a beginner hiker, I hate mountain switchbacks, my bike seat hurts my butt, I am afraid of most wild critters big and small. I find vegetables I’ve grown myself in my garden to be untrustworthy and unappetizing. I know the names of about six plants in my yard (grass, moss, umbrella tree, cactus, chives, rose bush). I’m not exactly sure what a weed is. I have gone tent camping but not without my car, my cooler, my Coleman stove and bottled water. I’ve never slept under the stars. I do not know what “gaiters” are. I do not compost. I’d probably die in the woods before I figured out how to use a compass. Actually, I don’t even own a compass.

So many books in the man-and-nature subgenre seem to be written by hard-core nature people, which I guess is a good thing – we don’t want the blind leading the blind here. I wouldn’t want a nature guidebook written by Paris Hilton when I’m about the trek into the trees, but I was genuinely surprised at how “normal” Linda Akëson McGurk’s life and experiences with nature were – kind of like mine. A lesser writer would have easily come across as holier-than-thou. But Linda Akëson McGurk seems like a pretty normal mom going about and doing her life in pretty normal ways. However, differently from many of her American peers in the Midwest, she gets outside with her daughters and her dogs everyday. She doesn’t let the weather tell her “no”. I feel like we could be friends, she and I, and so I’m going to refer to her as Linda and not as McGurk for the rest of this post, because it just seems more fitting to the friendship I’ve conjured in my head.

As a Canadian raised in the 90s, I grew up similarly – outdoor recess every single day: wind, rain, snow or shine. Linda writes,

“Scandinavians get through the winter by maintaining a sense of normalcy. Snow happens. Sleet happens. Ice happens. Cold temperatures happen. Life goes on. The trains may not run on time after a big snow dump, but society doesn’t shut down either. Weather-related school closures are virtually unheard of.”

The only days I remember recess being indoors is when it got frigidly cold (I think the rule was if it was colder than -22˚C without a windchill, we got to stay inside and play card games). The only time school was ever cancelled for snowfall was March 1998 when we had over two feet of snow so the bus couldn’t come to get us. And school was only cancelled for extreme cold a handful of times (the rule for cancellation was colder than -38˚C without a windchill). You were expected to go to school dressed for the weather outside, and we did, for the most part (until junior high school and we wanted to look “cool” in our Chuck Taylor sneakers and bell bottomed jeans in ankle deep snow. Now looking back, we didn’t look cool…we looked cold).

Basically my winter outfit every day of high school.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing” is a Scandinavian phrase repeated over and over in homes and in schools. I know this is true – when I dressed for Canadian winters, I could walk the twenty minutes to work every day of the year. When I didn’t dress for the weather and wore Chuck Taylors on ice – it was a misery.

Inspired by Linda’s example with her girls, I resolved to get outside with DK every day, rain or shine. This is not hard here in California. It’s beautiful most of the time and even when it rains it is rarely windy and cold. It was a lot harder to do when we went home to Canada for Christmas. I had all the gear for DK. Snowpants, waterproof mitts, toque, snow boots, winter jacket. I even got him a little sled. But oh man did he ever hate the cold air on his face, made even colder by the tears now freezing to his cheeks. He also hated to wear his mitts – ripping them off as soon as I put them on only to cry because his fingers were freezing. My visit home in winter gave me a deep appreciation and sympathy for what my best friend Amanda goes through when she bundles her toddlers up every day in layers and layers of snowsuits to send them outside for a total of the ten minutes they can handle it. Amanda and I may have the same widely-shared Canadian belief that fresh air is good for you – but she truly earns that badge doing outdoor Canadian winters with toddlers.

To keep good on my promise to myself and to DK, today, in spite of the rain went outside. We put on his splash pants, his rain coat and his rain boots, my rain boots, my rain jacket  and my travel coffee mug and we went exploring. I’m glad we did, because DK loves drains. He always has to walk on them when we are out and about and it wasn’t until we were out in the rain that I realized – duh, drains are WAY MORE FUN TODAY! We spent quite a long time following the flow of water, dropping sticks and leaves toward the drain (don’t worry, I didn’t let them clog the drains) and stomping in the “river” of water.

I was further inspired by Linda’s chapter on the Swedish mentality towards environmentalism and building sustainable communities. While living an “eco-friendly” lifestyle is something I had heard of before, I kind of thought of it as either way too hardcore (umm sawdust toilets anyone?) or a way to further pad the pockets of big companies trying to get you to buy the more expensive “eco” version of their exact same product. “Organic” to me, was just an extra tax on the wealthy. To me, the problems on the planet seem so massive and I’m only one person who can control so little – so I’ve just kind of approached it like, “What’s the point? I’m not going to get a sawdust toilet.” I like how Linda frames it that we are not teaching our children to be activists, we are teaching them to love nature and respect nature. She quotes Mulle,

“If you can help children love nature, they will take care of nature, because you cherish things you love.” -Mulle

Teaching DK about taking care of our planet is not about telling him (yet) about deforestation and species extinction and global warming and the plastic island floating in the Pacific ocean. Right now, it is about teaching him what goes in the recycling, in the compost, and in the garbage. As he gets older, it’s about giving him ownership over what he consumes and wastes. And even older, it’s about the major problems our planet faces and what he can do about it.

I already diligently divide my waste into recycling, compost (we recently got a city collected compost bin), reusables for kids crafts, and finally, trash. After reading this chapter, I made a couple resolutions:

  • First, to bring a bag to collect bits of trash Devon always inevitably finds along our walks at the park or around our neighbourhood and pick some up myself.  Currently, most of the time I say, “yucky! Don’t touch”. But really, it’s usually just a candy wrapper, it’s not that gross, and he’s usually already touched it by the time I’ve said anything – so at that point, is there any point to making him drop it? No. He should put it in the trash. And then use some hand wipes that I keep in the stroller.
  • Second, to re-educate myself on the organic/conventional debate for what is better for our planet in terms of what I buy. I looked into this in 2014 when “natural” products were the all the rage. I still think a lot of them are complete hogwash…but I do concede that eating locally equals a much lower carbon footprint in terms of transporting the food from the field to my face.

A third and final chapter that I will talk about (because dang this post is getting long, can you tell I enjoyed this book and it made me think?!) is aptly titled, “A little dirt won’t hurt (nor will a little rain)”. In it, she talks about the culture of unstructured outdoor after school play in Sweden and how bringing her girls there for six months ignited a lot more imaginative play as they played outside with the local neighbourhood kids. She writes,

“Back in Indiana I had always been the one orchestrating outdoor play as soon as the girls got home in the afternoon, trying to entice them with sidewalk chalk, creek investigations, and picnics at the park. Some days it didn’t matter how hard I tried; they still weren’t up for it…[Now in Sweden] For the first time, they will spontaneously stay out and play for hours, and I’m the one saying no when they want to go back outside after dinner. Something has happened and I think I know what it is. I was a good enough playmate for them for years, but what they needed was other children to inspire them.

As I read this, I reflected on my own childhood experiences. We did a lot of outdoor things with my parents – we built snowmen together, we played in giant piles of raked leaves, we played basketball together…and they are all great memories. But the outdoor experiences that stick out far more than any of the other ones are when I was alone with my brother and my peers playing “horses” or “fairies”.

DK is still little – and I *think* I’m a pretty good playmate for him but as he gets older, I want him to be able to have some of these outdoor play experiences with his peers outside of organized sports. While I’m still noodling around with how I can achieve this without moving to Sweden, not too mention the oxymoron of “scheduling” or “arranging” unstructured play time…(is it even possible if it’s not part of the culture?) – I’ve got some ideas – but more on that next week!

All in all, I would highly recommend reading “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akëson McGurk if you’re looking for an easy read to inspire you to try things a little bit differently with your kids. While we all can’t just leave for Sweden, I do think it is possible, following Linda’s example, to encourage more of an outdoor-first culture at home.

 

 

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather – Just Poisonous Things

Silicon Valley is like one endless suburb. Big Head in the aptly named show, “Silicon Valley” said it best when he wondered, “Why is this place so expensive? It’s such a shithole…”

Okay, a shithole is a bit strong of a word – because the weather is amazing and there are thousands of fun family-friendly activities you can do around here within an hour’s drive from your front door. But it is an endless, expensive suburb.

Surprisingly for such a sea of single-story residences, there is a lot of open space reserved for nature. It’s a wonderful spot for hiking, cycling, sailing, climbing, horseback riding, and kitesurfing. But even more surprisingly, natural environments here are not very child-friendly – at least for newcomers it seems that way.

Perhaps it is the lengthly list of horrifying predators your kid can encounter in the open space preserves around here: ticks with lyme disease, poisonous black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and poison oak are EVERYWHERE.

Growing up in the City of Calgary, my friends and I would ride our bikes to “the ravine”, a natural creek-way that ran through the centre of our subdivision. We would build forts from fallen branches and sticks. We would skip rocks across the creek. We would run with our dogs off-leash, weaving together strands of sweetgrass, and come home covered in mud.

Some summers, my family would vacation at my grandparent’s cabin on a lake in Newfoundland. My brother and I would play in the sawdust piles from chopping wood for the stove, wander through “our trails” in the woods, build forts, dig up potatoes in the garden, swim in the lake, and pick wildflowers. We would be outside from breakfast until after supper. My grandma would heat up water on the woodstove for our baths.

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Fishing on the pond with my grandma.

 

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“The bog” a few hundred feet from my grandparents house – where we were absolutely *not* allowed to go, as it was an extremely deep marsh that my grandpa had once tried to measure its depth and never found it. Even though we had freedom to roam – we never went in the bog.

Some day, I’d love for DK to have similar childhood experiences immersed in nature, making his home in the woods. Right now we can’t even afford to buy a primary residence, let alone a summer cabin – but a girl can dream.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by literature about children’s experiences in nature, diving into: “There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McGurk, “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators” by David Sobel, “Hands on Nature” by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell,  “Last Child in the Woods”; “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life”, all three by Richard Louv. I plan to do reviews of each of these books on this blog – so check back for more details about each book in the coming weeks.

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A common theme that runs through each of these works is the importance of unstructured childhood play in nature and how little of it children get these days.

In “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, ““In the United States, children are spending less time playing outside – or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.” (p. 34) At the same time, there has been a drastic increase in the number of clinically obese children, with one in six children in the USA fitting that descriptor (CDC 2018).

We are told to limit screen time and do more exercise – but what kind of exercise? Where? One 2014 survey found that 68% of American parents do not think children aged nine and under should be allowed to play unsupervised at playgrounds and 43% want a law preventing children aged 12 and under from playing unsupervised at playgrounds (McGurk 2017).

There is only so much time for organized sports in a day – but going to the park for thirty minutes before supper is do-able. And while organized sports do teach many things – teamwork, hand-eye coordination – I would argue that running around on a man-made soccer field hardly conjures a sense of kinship with our natural world.

So where do I go from here? I believe in the importance of nature-based play for DK’s childhood – but at the same time, a mountain lion killing a deer mere feet from a trail that I frequent with DK is a little close for comfort.

I asked in my local mom’s group – what did people do as children who were born and raised in the Bay Area? And their answers re-assured me – they ran and played without worry.

  • Mountain lion attacks on people are rare (there have been fourteen mountain lion attacks on people in California since 1986, only three of which were fatal. Of the fourteen victims of attacks, five were children). Mountain lions are notoriously evasive. It is rare to even see one. Keep your toddlers close, don’t go out at dawn and dusk and you’re unlikely to be affected.
  • Rattlesnakes are only really a problem when they are surprised by a silent hiker who steps on them – which children rarely are. The bigger risk is that I drop dead from cardiac arrest if I see one – I am so phobic of snakes. As researchers at the University of Florida put it, “The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero, because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year)…you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.”
  • Black widow spiders are fearful of people and while they are reputed to be the most venomous spider in North America – their venom is rarely fatal to humans. Black widow spiders are not hanging around on every leaf waiting for DK to come near them – they are seriously introverted recluses who hang out in dark, dry shelters like rodent holes, hollow stumps and shed eaves, generally areas that I discourage DK from sticking his hands. So, it is unlikely that DK will even come in contact with one if one should be around, and if he does – it is unlikely he will get bit unless he provokes it. Additionally, it’s only the females who have poisonous venom, and even then – a bite these days with access to medical care and anti-venom is unlikely to result in death.
  • Tick bites are not ideal – but it is clear when you have a tick bite as their bodies will be visibly burrowing into the skin (k, I know I’m trying to reassure people here, but let’s take a moment to say, THE HORROR!!!!), so while DK getting bit by a tick would suck – it’s treatable and we can send the tick for testing for presence of lyme disease and drug treatment, if necessary. The Mayo Clinic writes, “Only a minority of blacklegged tick bites leads to Lyme disease. The longer the tick remains attached to your skin, the greater your risk of getting the disease. Lyme infection is unlikely if the tick is attached for less than 36 to 48 hours.”
  • Poison Oak. What can I say? It’s everywhere. It has clusters of three leaves – but sometimes five, but sometimes seven, but once seventeen. It is green, but sometimes yellow and sometimes red. Sometimes the leaves are shiny. It sometimes has berries. It sometimes has white flowers.  It sometimes doesn’t have leaves – but the leafless stems will give you a rash just the same. Basically – it’s always a nightmare for a parent of a wandering toddler. I don’t really know what to say other than I expect someone in my family to get a rash from poison oak at some point. It is not fatal. It is itchy and treatable and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Maybe I’ll buy the child who gets a contact rash a special trophy or medal of honour to lighten the mood and make it feel more like an accomplishment of a well-lived life.

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I guess what it all boils down to is I’m not going to prevent my son from experiencing unstructured play in nature. I’m going to *hopefully* teach him to be aware of his surroundings, announce his presence to the surrounding critters, check for ticks, and stay away from plants with three leaves, or five, or seven…oh what the hell, never mind, I’ll start polishing that trophy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a parent as an Enneagram 2

When I was in grad school, my friend Sarah introduced me to the Enneagram.

“Take this test! I bet I know which number you are but I want to see if I’m right.”

A few minutes later, “it looks like I’m a…Two?” I said.

“That’s what I thought. I’m a Nine.”

Two? Nine? What did this mean? Little did I know then how much I would learn about myself…my strengths and weaknesses as a friend, spouse and parent through studying the Enneagram.

To give you a brief synopsis, the Enneagram is a tool for personal and spiritual development. Through it, you can identify your basic personality type (1-9) as well as wings (sub-types) and learn about unhealthy and healthy practices to help you live as your best self.

You know those times when you do or say something stupid, even though it was well-intentioned? I’ve found all of those ‘mistakes’ can be explained by my Two-ness and where I am on the healthy-unhealthy continuum.

You know those times when you feel deeply hurt by somebody or something and you rationally know it’s silly and it’s not a big deal – but it pierced your heart? Well maybe only Twos know what I’m talking about…but in any case, the Enneagram has helped me explore and understand and accept those emotions so I can move on.

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I’m a Two, the “Helper”. And the more I read about it, the more embarrassed and insecure I became because OMG It’s TOTALLY me.

Here’s a rundown on the 2, from the Enneagram Institute:

Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.

I feel best about myself when I am helpful to others. I rarely feel like I need “me time” or a “break” from DK. I love hosting parties for friends, I love introducing people to others I think they will find mutually interesting. I have all the time in the world for my friends and family. I will say, “Yes” to anything. I will “volunteer” for anything. I will say, “I’m good,” when someone asks if I need any help. I will push myself to the point of exhaustion and anxiety to help others. I will bubble like a cauldron of resentment when I do things to help people and they don’t notice. I will force my help and my ideas on people even when they don’t want it and then I will act the role of wounded victim when they say it’s too much. I tell ya, I’m a real treat.

When I think of hell, I imagine lying in a hospital bed surrounded by my friends and family and unable to communicate to them. However, I can hear and understand everything they say – and as it turns out they actually think I’m the worst person on the planet and give detailed examples of every single time I offended them or hurt them. Just the thought of that now makes my palms sweat.

As a parent, I am very attached to DK. I believe it’s important to respond to his needs promptly. I rarely let him cry out – dropping whatever I’m doing to answer his plea. My Two-ness gives me almost un-ending energy to make time for my family. But my Two-ness can also be enabling, smothering and manipulative.

Enabling

One of the great things about being a Two is that I can easily anticipate needs. I will notice when someone’s glass is empty. I will listen in the gaps of what someone is saying to what they aren’t saying and offer help and comfort in those gaps. I can literally feel when someone in a crowded room feels out of place or left out or uncomfortable and I will turn on the charm like a light switch to engage them in conversation.

But, I will also let people get lazy in my presence. DK doesn’t have to use his words to ask me – I will get him what he wants. My husband doesn’t need to set an alarm in the mornings, do laundry or go grocery shopping – he knows that I will wake him up, make sure he has clean underpants and food in his belly. Shy people stick by my side as I carry the conversation, asking questions and coming up with topics so they don’t have to stand there in uncomfortable silence.

As a Two-parent, I have to sit back and force myself to watch DK struggle. To other Enneagram types, this would not even be a necessary consideration. They would not have to actively think about not engaging – but I have to ACTIVELY and FORCIBLY stop myself from intervening.

Smothering

As a Two, I love to help others – even when they don’t want my help and definitely didn’t ask for it. I love sharing information (hello, this blog!) that I think others may find useful. But that doesn’t mean people actually want to hear it. So what if I notice you struggling with communicating with your coworkers and I learned about DISC Communication Styles and can tell you how that helped me enormously in communicating with neurosurgeons, engineers, and artists at my previous job? That doesn’t mean I should share it. I have learned that sometimes people just want to vent – they don’t want help, they don’t want a solution. They just want to be heard.

I have read and heard from other mothers further along on the parenting trajectory from me that you do not want to obey your child’s every command. Just because my kid  is in tears, screaming “I want that chocolate bar” at the grocery store – does not mean I should get it for him. In fact, it means the opposite – I must NOT get it for him, lest I raise a spoiled brat. But helping others and putting their wants and needs ahead of my own comes so naturally to me that I know will absentmindedly offer him the chocolate bar before he even says that he wants it – although that still does not mean he should have it. My challenge as a Two-parent is to say “No” more often than I think I should.  

Manipulative

The dark side of the two is an unpleasant sort of fellow. A manipulative, controlling, passive aggressive witch who does lots of nice things for you – but there are a ton of strings attached.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile says, “Though they’re not always conscious of it, the help un-evolved Twos provide others comes with strings attached. They want something in return: love, appreciation, attention, and the unspoken promise of a future emotional and material support. Their giving is calculated and manipulative. Twos think if they can wrest appreciation and approval, and evoke a feeling of indebtedness in others, then others will sense when they require help and provide for their needs without their having to ask for it”.

This is my fantasy.

Seriously. I daydream while I fold my husband’s underwear that he will come home, give me a big hug, say, “What would I do without you!? My underwear would never be folded and I’d go naked through the streets. My hyper-sensitive nose can smell the garbage from here, let me take it out now without delay!”

As a Two, I have to actively engage my kids and spouse in household chores – and be okay when they aren’t done quite to my standards. I have to ask for help.

Being Healthy

As moms, we talk a lot about self-care. It is important for all types to engage in self-care – but especially Twos – because we so easily get lost in our giving to others and the more we give, the unhealthier we become with our giving – and soon we aren’t doing things for our kids and spouse because we love them, we are doing things for our kids and spouse because we want them to love us. Not the same, and for a Two – the distinction is a chasm for emotional well-being.

Self-care for me means saying “No” a lot more than I want to and asking myself “Am I doing this because I want to help or am I doing this because I want to appear helpful?”. When I put myself first and do what to me feels incredibly selfish but to my husband and anyone who is not a Two is just normal functioning, I have energy to do things I enjoy, like write.

Cron and Stabile write, “When they’re feeling secure, Twos move to the healthy side of Four, where they’re okay with not having to pretend they love everybody.” You know I’ve been doing my homework  when I don’t care if you like me or not. “These twos have some understanding of the need for self-care and can focus inward, where they invest in themselves by doing creative things, which brings them joy.” (hello, blog!) “This is the place Twos can imagine feeling good about themselves when they aren’t helping someone else.”

So, here is my soul – bared on the page. And now you know, that if I’m saying Yes to everyone else and No to you – it’s not you, it’s that I’m tapped out and to say Yes to you would be to say Yes with tons of strings attached – and trust me, you don’t want that!

Like Mother, Like Son

I always thought I hated poetry. Figuring it out in school was tedious: “What did the author mean in this verse?”, “What are 5 reasons the author chose the word “blue” in this stanza?” As a teenager, it was cool to like music and the lyrics of rap songs, but reading poetry was for losers. 🤷🏻‍♀️ And so I declared to hate poetry to be one with my peers and it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I picked up a poetry anthology and said with each page I turned, “ooh I love that poem.”

For Christmas this year, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of a most beloved book of poetry that her father gave her and that I have read from almost every time I have visited their home. I’ve taken it out many times from the library and am glad to finally have my own copy.

I have poured over many of its poems, but one poem that has particularly resonated with me lately is Like Mother, Like Son by Margaret Johnston Grafflin.

Do you know that your soul is of my soul such a part,
That you seem to be fibre and core of my heart?
None other can pain me as you, dear, can do,
None other can please me or praise me as you.

Remember the world will be quick with its blame
If shadow or stain ever darken your name.
“Like mother, like son” is a saying so true
The world will judge largely the “mother” by you.

By yours then the task, if task it shall be,
To force the proud world to do homage to me.
Be sure it will say, when its verdict you’ve won,
“She reaped as she sowed. Lo! This is her son.”

To me, this poem is both uplifting and stressful. I love the sentiment to send my son out into the world to do good and make me proud. I strive to be the kind of mother who fills her son’s soul with generosity, goodness, humility, kindness, and love. But then the stress of it sinks in – what if, because of the world we live in and in spite of my best efforts – he grows up to be a miserable, angry, greedy man?

In Silicon Valley, especially among the high-tech circles, I notice there is a lot of emphasis on pre-school. When DK was ten months old, other moms were asking me which preschools I’d toured.

“But he’s only ten months old…” I’d respond.

“I’ve toured seven, and I’ve got my name on the waitlist at six of them,” one mom told me.

“But she’s only a year old!”

“If you want the right preschool, you have to get your name on the list now,”

“That’s insane.”

“Maybe. But if you want to get into the right private school, you need the right preschool. And forget Stanford without the right private school,” she said matter-of-factly.

Stanford?! My son couldn’t even use a spoon yet. I was stressed enough about his interest in learning to walk, let alone heaping on the pressure of an ivy league admission.

The thing with high-tech families in Silicon Valley is that often at least one parent is ivy league educated – so the pressure to raise a child who achieves at least an ivy league education is very real, and the pressure on teens in this area “to force the proud world to do homage to me” is intense, even culminating in a devastating suicide cluster a couple years ago.

It brings to mind another poem in this anthology, “Making a Man” by Nixon Waterman.

Hurry the baby as fast as you can,
Hurry him, worry him, make him a man.
Off with his baby clothes, get him in pants,
Feed him on brain foods and make him advance.
Hustle him, soon as he’s able to walk,
Into a grammar school; cram him with talk.
Fill his poor head full of figures and facts,
Keep on a-jamming them in till it cracks.
Once boys grew up at a rational rate,
Now we develop a man while you wait,
Rush him through college, compel him to grab
Of every known subject a dip and a dab.
Get him in business and after the cash,
All by the time he can grow a mustache.
Let him forget he was ever a boy,
Make gold his god and its jingle his joy.
Keep him a-hustling and clean out of breath,
Until he wins – nervous prostration and death.

I’m not saying an ivy-league education is not valuable or worth pursuing – but it’s not  something I’d trade DK’s childhood for.

While I think the sentiment of pride in your children’s achievements is nice in Grafflin’s poem – I think the pressure she speaks of is very dangerous, both for the mother and for the son. I do not want DK to feel like my happiness is dependent upon his success. I do, however, hope he is a moral and just human being. My challenge as a mother will be to listen to my thoughts above and let DK be DK – not hover, not manipulate, not try to mold him like playdough, as described by Mary O’Donnell in Promise.I try not to cast too much shade.

I try not to cast too much shade.
Sin would be
to use the excuse
of her growth in my womb,
to imagine her as a limb of myself.
She is her own tree,
late-winter’s indomitable shoot.
She takes cupfuls of sun.

I stand well clear
as the branches stretch
like flutes playing allegros.
Not for anything
would I poison her
with an act of possession,
conceal her from the woodsman
whose task is to make room for all.

RinkydinkMum in 2018

Becoming a mum for the first time is a rocky transition.

When you’re pregnant, you’re sooo looking forward to meeting your little bundle of joy and becoming a parent and you want to punch every well-meaning truth-speaker who tells you to “enjoy life while you can”, “you can’t even understand how much your life is going to change”, and “be selfish now!”

I know I hated people who said that to me. Of course I know life is going to change. Why do you think I signed up for this in the first place? I can’t wait for my life to change. Enjoy life? My life will be even more enjoyable once I welcome my baby into the world. Seriously, I hated those people. But now, 17 months in, with daily 3 am nightwakings, mopping my floor every day from far-flung-food, and listening to the constant frustrated whines of a young toddler – I find myself saying to my pregnant friends, “Congratulations! You’re about to walk off a cliff of delusion. Enjoy your life while you still can.”

Once you become a mom, shit gets HELLA-REAL and you realize very quickly that while you thought of yourself as a pretty selfless person – happy to give your time and energies to others – you didn’t even know how to spell the word before becoming a mother.

In the newborn phases, people say “Oh the newborn phase is the worst, the sleep deprivation is just killer.” But you read Happiest Baby on the Block and you and your newborn are coping just fine. So you start to find your identity as a new mom, deciding to set up camp as an attachment/baby-wearing/co-sleeping/positive discipline/no-screen-time parent and you truck along not realizing that again, the parents who are a year or two ahead of you on the parenting trajectory shake their heads and think, “She just doesn’t understand. Just wait until ___”.

I’ve made some big mistakes this past year in my relationships with some other mothers. And I’ve paid the price and been hurt in retaliation for some poorly chosen words.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what I want for RinkydinkMum – do I want it to be a sounding board of my ideas/opinions on parenting (No!), do I want it to be a place where I highlight my parenting achievements and showcase myself as a supermom? (BARF, ABSOLUTELY NOT). I want it to be an honest, authentic account of being a mom. My successes and failures, information I’ve found interesting or helpful, and perspectives I don’t know that I agree with, but can wrestle with in an open and honest way. Lastly, and most importantly for 2018, I want my blog to be a place where I lift up the triumphs and trials of other mothers in the thick of this confusing, exhausting, ever-changing, loving, infuriating journey.

I’ve mentioned before that once-upon-a-time I completed a Master’s in Anthropology. I studied “mutual interest communities”, a fancy, non-embarrassing way to say “Harry Potter fans”. Seriously. My thesis was entitled “Trust, Friendship, and Hogwarts Houses”. I read a lot of books on ethnography (“the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.”) and I thought maybe in 2018, I’d attempt to make RinkydinkMum more of an ethnographic account of motherhood in Silicon Valley; Providing a voice and a platform for other mothers to share their stories of motherhood.

Do you have a story about motherhood you’d like to share! Let me know!

Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!

Sometimes I feel like I don’t really know *who* I am exactly. Am I this kind of mom? Or that kind? Is my personal style classy preppy or boho cozy? Am I a bangs girl or full-of-regret bangs girl? I waffle a lot. My interests change constantly. I’m into blogging right now…but in six months? Might be time for some watercolours….just gotta ride the ship of my fleeting fancy.

But, one thing I do know without a doubt about myself is that I love Christmas. I love everything about Christmas. I love the good deeds and the feel-good spirit. I love the cookies and candy canes. I love red and green and silver and gold and glitter and snow and fluff. Christmas cards and carols and the smell of cinnamon and cloves. I love setting up my Christmas tree, stringing twinkle lights, lighting candles and snuggling on the couch, sipping a Christmas tea while reading a good book. Wrapped up in all this joy is my all-time favourite hobby – giving people presents. I literally Christmas shop all year. I’ve had my father-in-law’s gift picked out since May.

In California, it is definitely harder to get into the Christmas spirit because it’s still over 20 degrees (Celsius) in November, but I don’t let that stop me. I let tradition guide the way, and if there’s another thing I love just as much as Christmas, it’s family traditions. So here are some traditions that we have started in our family to welcome autumn and usher in the holiday season.

1) We host an annual Friendsgiving Party on Canadian Thanksgiving (the second weekend in October). This year I asked friends to bring a dish of something that reminds them of home and/or brings them comfort. One of the cool things about living in diverse Silicon Valley is we had culinary traditions from all over the world at this feast. We had Palak Chole Tikki (an Indian spinach garbanzo patty), a French olive loaf, and Canadian butter tarts. We had mac and cheese and mashed potatoes and meat pie and bbq chicken. This themed potluck was a lot fun and not a lot of work for me because everyone contributed, so I could also socialize and spend time with our friends instead of stuck at a stove top!

2) We don’t have family in California for American Thanksgiving and most of our friends head home to different corners of the country to celebrate with their families or they are immigrants like us and don’t really celebrate the holiday. Some years we have been invited to friends’ feasts but usually my husband takes the on-call shift at work over thanksgiving which means he has to be internet connected at all time and ready to solve a software glitch at any time, which makes travel tough. This year we opted to stay home and have a four day staycation over the thanksgiving long weekend and have some quality family R&R before the craziness of holiday parties and Christmas travel. And instead of making a huge turkey dinner for two people and a baby – we made homemade pizzas and this was so fun and tasty I think maybe we will do it again next year!

3) We set up our Christmas decorations on Black Friday

It takes a lot of self control to not set up our tree November 1st. I love the beauty of the Christmas tree – but I also know that I can over-do it by going too big too soon and by December 24th, I’m ready for Christmas to be over. So I have to hold back and we set up the tree the day after American Thanksgiving. One thing I LOVE about the house we live in is it has this huge space above the fireplace that fits the Christmas tree. This is awesome with a toddler in the house because he can’t grab at the tree and constantly take the ornaments off.

Another favourite of mine for Christmas decor is these tiny santa hats I found at Michael’s a couple of years ago. They fit perfectly on my existing mantle figurines, so I can dress them up instead of hiding them away.

4) I host a Christmas Pyjama Breakfast for my mom-friends and Devon’s baby-friends. This is the second year that I’ve done it and I find it really fun. We have breakfast, we wear our jammies, we take pictures of the kids, and we play Pass The Present. This year I gathered up some little self-care gifts (tiny bottles of alcohol, single serve bags of coffee, chocolates, face masks) for my friends and I bought a pack of Christmas cards and puff-stickers from the dollar store for each kid (who were all between 12mos – 2 1/2). Then I alternated between mom-kid gifts and wrapped them one on top of the other until I had a giant ball of presents and wrapping paper to pass around. This was the perfect game for the age-group – the kids loved passing the present and unwrapping each layer. The cards were also the perfect little present for this age group – they liked opening the envelopes, pulling out the cards and pressing the puff stickers.

5) We have our little family Christmas with just the three of us before we head home to Canada to celebrate with grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. Usually we go out for lunch after we open presents and weather permitting (which it pretty much always has) we sit outside on the patio because we can!

What about you? What are some family traditions you’ve started to bring in the holiday season? Would love to hear your comments.

From our family to yours we hope you had a wonderful December and a great 2018!

Merry Christmas!