My daughter loves grocery shopping with me, which works out well because she’s actually a fun shopping buddy. She’s a foodie too, so we enjoy choosing which foods we will eat the coming week. Like most three year olds, Violet has many many “wants” and shopping can easily become a nightmare with this age demographic and their demands. Thankfully for me, right now, Violet is satisfied with merely adding her desires to her “wish list”, an invisible list I keep in my head. We stroll around Target and she points at things and says “ooh I want the princess sandwich bags on my list! And the pink straws on my list” and I will say “I’ve added it” and she will squeal with delight and exclaim “I have the longest list in the world!” Yes my darling, you do.
I also have a pretty long list of wants, though now at the stage of life where I feel restricted by square footage and interest rates, my wants are less tangible. I want long-term health. I want a close relationship with my husband and my children. I want time. I want to be inspired. I want a friend to run errands with.
And unlike my daughter, who is still innocent of the responsibilities life throws at us, I have a list of “shoulds”. I should drink more water. I should make smoothies. I should take my kids to the beach. I should clean the toilets. And the big one for me these days…I should get more sleep.
I also want to get more sleep. My entire wish list could just be “I want sleep” and I’d be satisfied.
Good sleep is critical to our health, and yet it is not spoken about very often. Growing up attending public school we took a health class that touched on nutrition, sex education, the harms of drugs, and drunk driving – but I don’t think we ever learned about the importance and benefits of sleep. Perhaps if we did learn about the science of sleep in high school, we would have learned that the science points to a change in the natural circadian rhythm (the hours in a 24 hour day in which you feel tired) of teenaged-brains the world over. Teenagers naturally shift to staying awake later at night and sleeping in until late morning. If you have a hard time waking your teen up in time to make their 8 am class, there is brain science to explain it – it’s like waking you up at 3 am.
According to Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep, sleep helps our bodies heal and reset from a day of living. A good night’s sleep before a day of learning helps us retain information, and a good night’s sleep after a day of learning helps secure what we’ve learned in our memory. Sleep helps our bodies fight off infection and recover from injury. Sleep even helps control our hunger – when we get too little sleep, hormones that signal hunger are more elevated, driving us to eat more than we need. When I complain to my husband about life or health or just anything really, the solution I should prescribe to myself is SLEEP. I know it. Professor Walker’s book confirmed it. And yet, it is evasive.
It seems I have been on a quest for better sleep for years – searching for the perfect pillow, creating a bedtime routine, actually following the bedtime routine, eliminating alcohol from my life, cutting down on screen time after 8 pm, cutting back on any caffeine after 12 pm – all of these things have helped me get better sleep, even though I do most of them imperfectly. Despite my honest efforts, I wake up almost every single night between 3 and 4 am and lay awake for an hour or more. Sometimes I never fall back to sleep before my alarm goes off at 6 am. Some nights I work myself into a perfect storm of sleeplessness, putting threats and coercion into the mix in my brain. If I don’t fall asleep right now, I’ll be too tired and grumpy to do all the things I want to do. Of course, putting ultimatums on myself has never worked to bring back the sleep fairy.
And then one day, I read a passage that released something in me and helped a lot.
“Night after sleepless night, I tossed and turned and worried. Why couldn’t I sleep? What was the matter with me? My life was stressful, but no more so than usual. I’d tried hot milk, reading in bed, soft music, even a visit to the doctor, but still I couldn’t get more than a few hours sleep. I was in a panic!
I spoke about my concerns [with a friend]. What had helped him was to accept the situation fully and admit that he was powerless to make himself sleep. In retrospect, he said, his sleeplessness had been a blessing; it had kept him too tired to get into trouble.
I realized that the same was true for me. Instead of worrying compulsively. […] lately I’ve been too tired to be overly involved in anything that wasn’t my concern. I had often prayed to be released from my obsessive worry,and now, in an unexpected way, my prayers seem to have been answered.”
Courage to Change, Al-Anon Family Groups
I am learning to trust that when I do my best to sleep, my body will respond with the amount of sleep it needs to do the tasks it needs to do.
Not every task needs to be done. I am a body with limits and to everything there is a season.
In this dark corner of physical and emotional exhaustion, I found a freedom that no one but me has ever expected me to do it all. I can rest when I need rest. And my body gave me just enough sleep to get through the biggest emotional priorities and nothing else. And that’s okay.
I am happy to report that I now sleep through the night probably 6 nights a week. Letting go has been a gift.
How is your sleep? How could you improve your sleep? Could you let go of trying to control your sleep and just let it be?
Ps: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link. If you’re interested in reading Dr. Walker’s book and you click on the hyperlink above I’ll get a small commission. It’s just one small way you can support me in my blog and I’m so grateful!
In August 2022, my mom died. It hasn’t been easy being a mother to young children (ages 6 and 3) through this period of grieving my own mother, and while their memories of my mom are so beautiful, sometimes it was also difficult to answer their questions about what happened to Grandma Gale.
My daughter, age 3, took to drawing lots of pictures of Grandma Gale. Here are some of her pieces.
My son really took to books about death, grief, and life. These were very helpful in answering his 6-year-old questions about what happened.
If you’ve lost a loved one, I am so sorry for your loss. Perhaps these books will help you navigate this loss with your young children.
In The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup, Fox dies and his animal friends gather around and share happy memories they had with fox as they process their sadness that he is gone. A tree grows in the place where fox laid down to rest and it shelters the animals in their future lives, just as we carry memories of our loved ones forward in our lives.
What Happens When a Loved One Dies by Dr. Jillian Roberts was my son’s most requested book in the months after my mom passed away. He’s very science-minded and likes non-fiction books that explain things. This book was a gentle and accurate way to explain what happens when someone dies. It answers questions like “What does death mean?”, “Do people die too?”, “What is a soul?” “Why do I feel sad?”, “What can I do to feel better?” and words like funeral, heaven, afterlife. Even though it includes words like heaven, it is explained in a broader context – that are are many different ideas and beliefs about what happens after someone dies. Some people believe this, some people believe that. It was a good explanatory read to my son who was encountering a lot of these concepts for the first time.
Tomie de Paola is one of my favourite kids authors. We are loving his autobiographical series (26 Fairmount Avenue) as family read-alouds and Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is in a similar style. It tells the story of Tommy’s love of his great-grandmother and how he feels when she dies. It’s a beautiful story and my kids love it.
The Invisible Web by Patrice Karst is not so much about death but about the interconnectedness of people both past and present. It is a lovely story about how we are still connected to our loved ones even once they’ve passed away.
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon is similar to The Invisible Web – it is a poem about the interconnectedness of the world and how we come together in community as part of living. My kids and I had conversations about all the people that came to Grandma Gale’s funeral and how she knew them all and how her life connected us to all of them.
Someday by Alison McGhee is more for me than for my kids. I don’t actually think it was written for children, but for adults. It brought me a lot of comfort in losing my mom, reminding me that it is part of the circle of life, and that losing my mom is what is naturally supposed to happen (and not the other way around, a mother losing her daughter). It mentions different kinds of grief and loss through the stages of life – like a daughter going off to college, and a daughter losing her mother when she herself has a child. It’s a real tear-jerker for me.
Hopefully these books are helpful to you if you find yourself in a similar phase of life. If you have any you’d like to recommend to me, please reach out to me!
I have applied to the Amazon Affiliate program for these links above, so please know if you click and buy through my blog I will receive a small commission from your purchase and I am grateful for your support!
Back at the start of our homeschool year, I planned out a few rewards to motivate my son to complete all that was required of him each day. Every day that he completes all the things on his school schedule, he gets a stamp. The stamps accumulate to earn him different rides on public transit. He loves trains so this was highly motivating for him. My son really struggles with transitions and also really dislikes having his time managed, so the transition from free play all day to homeschool expectations was rough, and this chart really helped. Here is an example of his train ride rewards chart.
The plan was to take an overnight trip as a family to San Francisco once he had earned the BART, San Francisco streetcar and Caltrain levels. We live about a 50-minute drive south in Silicon Valley and walking distance from a Caltrain station. So we planned to walk to the Caltrain, take Caltrain to the BART transfer station at Millbrae, and stay at a hotel walking distance from the Powell BART station on Market street. Then the following day we would ride the San Francisco streetcar on Market street along the Embarcadero.
I found a hotel in the area with an indoor pool (The Intercontinental) and booked us in for one night December 27. Of course we got sick. So I rescheduled for two weeks later. Then we got sick again. So I rescheduled for two weeks after that. That weekend was absolutely pouring rain and I didn’t want to trek and walk in a downpour with two kids so I rescheduled again for mid-February. Then that date came along and my kids had fevers, so I rescheduled it AGAIN for this past week. Thankfully because I joined the free IHG rewards program when I booked the hotel and I booked directly through their hotel website rather than a third party site like Expedia or Hotels.com, it was no problem at all to shift the reservation this many times.
Finally we set off on our journey on a Saturday morning in late February, walking to the Sunnyvale Caltrain station from our home. We each carried one backpack and my husband had a plastic bag with the kids swim floaties in it. That was it – an overnight trip with the kids with just some small backpacks – it was the lightest I’ve ever traveled since becoming a parent. Finally no stroller, no travel potty, no diapers, no teething rings or pack n’play. What even is this life of freedom?
We transferred to the BART and bought clipper cards to use for the rest of our transit journey.
Sadly the BART has a reputation of being sketchy AF and ridership is way down. I am happy to report that we had no problems, a practically empty car both times we rode the BART and both times our fellow riders seemed to be physically and mentally well. There were several cameras in the cars, signs about the rules for riding, advertisements for how to text the BART police, BART employees around, as well as BART police presence at the stations. I was worried about the BART station at Powell street in SF but other than it smelling like “old oil” (which is how my son described the smell of marijuana) we did not see anything alarming. We thought briefly about trying to use the bathroom there (because 3 year olds can rarely wait), but there was actually a security-manned line for access to the toilets, which I guess is reassuring from a safety perspective but the security guard kind of just gave me a tight-lipped tiny headshake to say “no, trust me, no”. Yeah…on second thought maybe a BART bathroom is not the place for a child.
We found the exit and walked the couple of blocks to our hotel. We checked in and took the elevator to the 28th floor of the Intercontinental on Howard street. Our room had a beautiful view. And a beautifully clean bathroom.
We were getting hungry for lunch, so we headed nextdoor to the Westfield mall food court for some Blondie’s Pizza, Shake Shack burgers and Korean BBQ. I love a good food court feast!
A couple blocks away from the mall food court was the Children’s Creativity Museum, so we checked that out for a couple of hours and the kids had a great time creating masterpieces.
Then we took the kids to play at a playground next to the museum. Nearby there was also an ice skating rink (indoors), a bowling alley, two movie theatres, the SF Museum of Modern Art, and several performing arts venues.
I had been wondering how safe I’d feel in public spaces in downtown San Francisco because lately the media paints SF as being some sort of dystopian hellscape with criminals and drug addled zombies everywhere. I didn’t notice anyone who fit that description actually at all. Maybe it was that I was expecting a lot worse so was pleasantly surprised, or maybe they’ve really worked hard to clean up the parts of SF frequented by tourists and young families – but at least in the blocks around the children’s museums and the shopping malls, it seemed quite safe in the daylight hours we were out.
We went to a second nearby food court and then headed back to the hotel for a swim in their INDOOR heated pool. And this pool was warm! Like bathtub warm. It also had a hot tub.
After swimming for a couple of hours with the kids, we took them for dessert at the hotel restaurant and then the kids were so tired from our day that they basically put themselves to bed. I didn’t even know they could do that.
The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel restaurant again (there were other places nearby but this was convenient) and then another long swim at the pool. We were offered a late check out, and headed back to the room to pack our backpacks just in time to grab lunch before heading on the SF streetcar to the Exploratorium.
The Exploratorium was really fun – the kids had a great time with all the hands on science exhibits. My son is really into pendulums and just wanted to see one pendulum. Well to all you fellow pendulum lovers out there, I am happy to report the Exploratorium delivers at least 15 pendulum exhibits. You will not go home without seeing at least one pendulum.
My favorite exhibit was the beetles and maggots case where they put in dead rat carcasses so you could see the state of decomposition over 5 weeks. Of course I forgot to take a picture, but I’m sure you can imagine it. So yeah, there’s something for everyone at the Exploratorium!
Then it was time to head back to our home in Sunnyvale. We walked to the Embarcadero BART station from the Exploratorium, which took us about 30 minutes at a tired 3 year old’s pace. We caught the BART, transferred to the Caltrain and walked home in the rain.
All in all, a great overnight away in San Francisco with our kids!
PS: One of my favourite Canadian bloggers, Krysta Shippelt at the.Shipshow, inspired me to stop making excuses and start making memories and travel more with my kids. Krysta is my cousin-in-law (is that a thing?) and I am honestly in awe of her strength. She traveled with her 4 kids in wintry Canadian conditions to the mountains while her husband was away for work. And to throw in an extra challenge she takes all 4 of them swimming. Alone. Oh and did I mention her youngest is 18 months old? Another time (when they had 2 kids) they flew to New Zealand to go camping. Undaunted by a long flight, jet lag, a million things that could go wrong (and sometimes do), they just travel. If Krysta can do it, I can too. And so can you. See her blog here.
Hey reader! I’m trying something new and putting a few Amazon affiliate links to products I like and use. If you’re looking for a new backpack for your train-loving kiddo, maybe consider the one in my post!
One thing my family looks forward to at the end of a long week of homeschool is our Friday morning tea times. It’s the perfect way to cap off a hard week of trying, struggling, encouraging, focusing, refocusing, praying (or cursing) under my breath, repeating, repeating, repeating.
On Friday mornings, we begin by getting our Right Start Math lesson out of the way. If I’m really organized and following my own advice, I have oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough in my fridge that my daughter and I mixed up the day before, while my son was at his drop-off music class. I plop some cookies onto a cookie sheet with parchment paper (so I don’t have to clean later) and put them into the oven to bake while we finish math. The promise of fresh-baked cookies is a great motivator to get through that last math lesson of the week. But life is busy and I am a mere mortal, so more often than not, nothing is freshly baked.
After math is done, my daughter and I set the table for tea time. We use the fancy blue and white dishes that I have been collecting at thrift stores for years, a tablecloth or placemats, candles, and a tea pot. We plate the freshly baked cookies or (more realistically) pull some Oreos or Graham crackers from the pantry to set nicely on serving plates. We cut up some fruit, prepare a bowl of yogurt, or make some toast. We put on the kettle to make a small pot of tea. And since my son won’t drink tea, we get him a nutritional chocolate shake to pour into his teacup.
As an aside, I am obsessed with this little teapot I got from Amazon. It’s pretty, just the right size for 2-3 cups of tea, and it has a tea strainer inside for looseleaf tea. I also love double espresso mugs for my children’s tea and chocolate milk – the double espresso cup size is perfect for little hands. While I collected the plates and bowls from thrift stores, if you want a similar look right now, you could check out these bowls and/or these plates on Amazon.
We light candles and eat our treats, practice our table manners, and I read small portions from our different books. I then ask the kids to tell me back in their own words what we read about and we have a family conversation over tea about our school week.
After tea time, the kids get time for free play before we head out for our weekly nature walk, followed by swimming lessons and then takeout for supper on Friday nights.
A lovely way to end the week.
Of course my house looks like a bomb went off – Fridays are so busy there’s very little time to clean, but what’s a little mess for a lot of memories?
Ps: To my readers, this post contains Amazon affiliate links. It’s just a small way you can support me, if you’re inspired by what you’ve read. I am so grateful for your readership!
I’d like to write about how I plan for our homeschool week, but every time I try to start it just feels like it’s far too much to explain because behind the simple structure I have designed to make it easy for me to know what we are doing daily and weekly – there is a lot. I get bogged down feeling like I need to start at the beginning, because really that’s where the planning starts – at the philosophy underlying everything we do, but it would be the length of a book to start there.
And who has time to read that?
So in an effort to just share a bit more about how we homeschool, I’m just going to write about what I do on Sunday afternoons.
I have a master spreadsheet that I call my “forecast”. The forecast, like the weather, can change depending on what we’ve got going on, but generally it tells us what lies ahead.
I created this spreadsheet by first putting the weeks of a “term” in columns along the top. The number of weeks in a term is somewhere between 7-12, depending on when breaks fall. Changing terms every 12 weeks also makes for a more manageable sized spreadsheet.
In the rows are the subjects we cover in a week of homeschooling. There is a lot that goes into the why and what and how of these subjects. To explain that would be an entire book chapter, at least, and Charlotte Mason wrote 6 volumes on the subject, so I’m not going to attempt that in this blog post and just leave it there. Though one important thing to note is that each subject takes only about ten to twenty minutes per day that it is scheduled. Overall, each of our school days is about 2.5 hours of concentrated “work”.
Under each subject are the days of the week that we do that subject. I schedule one portion of one book per subject per day. Or, for purchased curriculums, like Right Start Math, I schedule one lesson per day. Some subjects we do every day (math, writing, reading, drawing) while others are once or twice per week.
For example, on Mondays when we study Geography, we read one chapter or lesson from the book Living Geography (about 3 pages) and we read one word entry in our Geography A to Z dictionary. It’s not a lot of content.
A key part of the our day’s work is the kids narrating back to me in their own words what we just read about. So after we read our pages from our geography books, we talk about places we’ve been that reflect what we’ve just read, we look at our globe, we look at maps, we go for walks around the neighbourhood, we draw our own maps.
Then on Wednesdays when we cover geography again, we read one chapter from the book Jenny Goes to Sea by Esther Averill, a book about a cat that sails around the world as a ship’s cat (a working cat charged with keeping the mice and rats out of the ship’s cargo).
On Fridays we go for a nature walk and geography naturally again comes up again as we walk and explore different landscapes, often pulling together things we read earlier in the week into real-life wanderings. Charlotte Mason called this the Science of Relations – when learners bring together different things they’ve learned and apply it to new contexts.
But I’m getting lost again in the details. So back to the point of this post – once a week, on Sunday afternoons, I sit down with this spreadsheet that I have printed off (I like working off paper) and I fill in the blanks of the Skeleton Schedule I created for our week. Every week I print off a blank Skeleton Schedule and fill it in with the chapters or lessons we will be doing that day. Because of the master schedule It takes about 10 minutes to fill these papers in and I’m ready to go for another week.
Every morning (or night before if I really have my shit together) I gather the books off the shelf that we will be using for the next day. I keep all our schoolbooks and school materials on a shelf in the dining room where we do our school work at the dining room table.
Other daily school materials like notebooks, every day school supplies, I keep in a basket in the room as well. But how I organize all the stuff that comes with homeschooling preschool and grade 1, is a blog post for another day.
Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I am seeing many people online choose a word to focus on for their year ahead; Words like joy, freedom, vitality, strength, and truth.
I have also been doing this for the last few years, but of course the end of the year comes and I don’t even recognize the word I chose for the year because life derails my aspirations. Even when I decide not to set specific resolutions but rather an intentional word for the year – the universe says “nice try” and I find myself reflecting back on the year and seeing it had an entirely different theme to what I anticipated.
I don’t know about you, but so far for me, the decade of the 2020s has sucked.
2020 started off great and I had the best of intentions to cultivate more “adventure” in my life, only to reflect back on 2020 and find that the theme of the year was “home”.
In 2021 my word for the year was “health” and while I did get my own health back on track that year, the idea of “health” took a complete u-turn as my mom suffered a rare CVST stroke in October of 2021. All of a sudden I had to be confronted with the reality that sometimes, despite our best efforts to take care of our health – shit just happens. The word for 2021 ended up being “unpredictable”.
I entered 2022 as a ball of anxiety and worry. I chose “peace” for my word, but my year was anything but peaceful. My mom’s health continued to decline and she was hospitalized several times. Looking back at my Resting Heart Rate from my Apple watch data, I bet you can tell when.
Devastatingly we had to pull her from life support at the end of August after near-constant seizure activity in the scar tissue of her stroke made a life-worth-living an impossibility. My word for 2022 ended up being “anguish”.
To be honest, I’m not super optimistic heading into 2023. The world seems to be heading towards a financial crunch and lately it seems my kids bring home a different virus every week. So I’ve been considering my word for 2023 very carefully. In previous years my intentional words were all nouns; all changeable and redefine-able by the other words around it in a sentence. I had a boring adventure. It was a year of haphazard health. My mom now rests in peace. My intentions in this decade have all been words easily derailed by forces beyond my control.
So this year I’m choosing a verb. Something I do. Something I do slowly, or beautifully, or happily, or gratefully, or angrily, or tearfully. But still, a verb is something I do and I control. This year my verb is “create”.
I consume a lot. I eat. I read. I watch. I buy. But I don’t create nearly as much. My consumption is passive and procrastinatory. My consumption is usually not even that good for me; I drink too much caffeine, I eat too much sugar, I buy junk from Amazon to fill a right-now need, I re-watch the same things on tv. I consume to avoid the more difficult task of creating. I don’t write very often any more. I often feel like I need to read another book on the subject before I could possibly write about it with any informed opinion. But really, five books on the subject is *probably* enough for a blog post. I get takeout or eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs as often as I cook. I buy things that I could make. It’s just easier to consume. It’s safer to consume. It’s more comfortable to consume. But creating fills me with more of a sense of self-worth and purpose, which, I am told (from all my reading on the subject), are two cornerstones of happiness.
Creating takes more time, so the next thing to do, now that I’ve decided on my “verb”, is carve out time in my weekly rhythm to “create”. Some of the ‘consuming’ time will have to go out the window, along with those intentional nouns. Can I set aside one evening a week to write instead of read or watch TV?
What about you? Do you choose a word to focus your year ahead? Reflecting back, how have your intentional words panned out over the year? Would you like to try a verb-year with me? What is your verb?
I just finished reading “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” by Vivek H. Murthy, who is the current Surgeon General of the United States. It was a fascinating read, made even more interesting knowing that it went to press just as the pandemic started – so Dr. Murthy wrote about the medical impacts of loneliness before the world had to isolate from loved ones for months at a time. The research and the advice in this book are even more salient these days – two years into a pandemic where humanity’s social fabric has been shredded.
There is a lot worth discussing in this book, but one part that really sat with me and challenged my thinking is the following passage.
“The Paradox of Loneliness”
“If Loneliness is so bad for our health, it would make sense that we would do everything in our power to connect with other people at the first sign of social isolation. Often, that’s just what does happen. When the biological process works as designed, the anxiety we feel in the first flush of loneliness will motivate us to find “our people”: We’ll go home to Mom. Or hug our spouse. We’ll help a neighbor or call an old friend. If we’re able to find and connect with people we trust, and if they’re responsive and genuinely understanding, the loneliness will subside and our stress state will recede. This is how most of us get through situational loneliness, such as the lost feeling that can descend when we move to a new town or start a new school or job.
But it’s not always easy to find or make those connections. When we become chronically lonely, most of us are inclined to withdraw, whether we mean to or not. John Cacioppo [professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago] determined that our threat perception changes when we’re lonely, so we push people away and see risk and threat in benign social opportunities. John’s widow, Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who was his close collaborator and has taken on the role of continuing and expanding his work on loneliness at the University of Chicago, found that lonely brains detect social threats twice as fast as non-lonely brains. This may seem like a paradoxical response to a mechanism that evolution designed to prevent isolation, but from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense.
When our ancestors were separated from the safety of the group, they needed to react defensively even to marginal threats, since they might well turn out to be lethal. But in modern life that same hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats. Fleeing into self-preservation mode, we’ll avoid people and distrust even those who reach out to help us. With prolonged loneliness, we’ll decline invitations and stop answering the phone.
Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security,which can appear to others as self-involvement. These two elements – the threat perception shift and the increased focus on self – are key parts of the hypervigilance story that makes it difficult to engage with others when we’re lonely.
Then the reactions begin. Those who’d like to help start running away, leaving us feeling even more alone. Before long we’re trapped in a vicious cycle of suspicion, jealousy, and resentment. Loneliness thus fuels more loneliness until the fracture leads to severe alienation. Clearly, the solution is more complicated than telling someone who’s lonely to go to a party or “just be with people”. (emphasis mine)
As I digested this passage, I thought of the time earlier on in the pandemic – when we were all sheltering-in-place here in Santa Clara County for most of 2020. We were not allowed to see anyone outside of our immediate home unit. We were not allowed to drive outside of our county lines. Only essential businesses were open. At first the posts on my Facebook were encouraging – people coming together and saying we can flatten the curve if we all stay home. But gradually, as the loneliness settled into our brains, we became more antagonistic with one another. In our county at least, lines were drawn – if you wore a mask, you were a good person. If you didn’t wear a mask (or you didn’t wear it properly) you were the problem and the reason people were dying from covid (even if you didn’t have covid and therefore couldn’t possibly pass it on).
This period of time was pretty distressing to me because my four-year-old son would absolutely not wear a mask. I had many friends and other parents online tell me it was my parenting – I wasn’t modeling wearing a mask, I wasn’t choosing the right kind of mask, I wasn’t doing some magic parenting trick to get him to wear a mask. Because my son wouldn’t wear a mask, I had several friends who would not spend time with us even outdoors. We were not welcome at places like the fully-outdoor San Francisco zoo or our neighborhood playgrounds. We were told that my son was not welcome to pick up halloween candy from the end of a driveway if he wasn’t wearing a mask. A security guard came up to him in the outdoor library plaza and told him to put on a mask or we couldn’t pick up our books. We were told at a shoe store that we couldn’t buy shoes from them if he didn’t put a mask on.
I felt stared at and judged everywhere we went. My son began to internalize his struggles and his self-esteem plummeted as he became more socially excluded. Finally, I asked his pediatrician for an exemption letter and he wrote us one immediately. The psychological and social harm of long-term isolation and exclusion were costing us much more than the mask was possibly protecting us and others from covid-19. As we were able to socialize more, his hypervigilant state calmed down and he began wearing a mask.
Of course, all of this I experienced through my own lonely-brain lens. I was defensive and I pulled away from people who I perceived to be a social threat to us – I’ll call them “the mask police.” Even friends who were clear with me that they understood my son’s struggles and it was okay – I still perceived them as a social threat and I pulled away. It’s like I couldn’t get my brain to stop. I had a hard time trusting others and I felt bitter.
Meanwhile, the “mask police” were themselves also functioning in a “lonely brain state”. They saw my unmasked son as a threat to their safety and in response, they pulled away from me. To repeat Dr. Murthy’s quote above, “hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats…Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security,which can appear to others as self-involvement”. We were all in our own states of hypervigilance – and we saw different things as threats to our health and safety. The more isolated and lonely we became, the more likely we were to jump to conclusions about someone and stick them in a box we labeled “bad people”.
This hypervigilance came up again when the vaccines came out. Our lonely brains saw unvaccinated folks as threats to our well-being, even when we were fully-vaccinated against the virus and thus, unlikely to die or even experience hospitalization. Rather than lovingly talking to our loved-ones about how worried we were about their health, our hypervigilant brains blamed them for our continued isolation and saw them as a threat to our survival, even once we had antibodies to the virus we feared. I regret many conversations I had with loved ones during this time as I tried (without success, I might add) to convince them of the benefits of vaccines by speaking unkindly and threatening to socially ostracize them. To anyone I hurt with unkind remarks or social pressure, I am truly sorry. Now that my brain is less lonely and I no longer feel like I am in a state of hypervigilance, I see your humanity. Being in a state of hypervigilance doesn’t excuse anyone’s bad behaviour, but at least I can now understand why my brain seemed to be so angry with people whom my heart loved.
Online social networks like Facebook did not help with the lonely-brain at all. Maybe Facebook made us feel more socially connected, but it was a facade. It was more of a social distraction than quality social time with others. It was also a great place for people to vent their frustrations about anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers out into the void without really considering the human face and individual struggles and stories behind people’s choices. My lonely-brain became even more lonely reading Facebook posts in the Sunnyvale Moms Group about how kids who aren’t masked should have to leave the playground. I was in a psychological tail-spin.
So what is the antidote to the lonely-brain phenomenon? Connection. Face to face connection. Conversation.
Something changed for me when I started using the app Marco Polo to connect with a few close girlfriends every day. Marco Polo allows you to send a private video message to friends. It’s like leaving a voicemail on someone’s phone, but it is a video. The only people who can see the video are the ones you sent it to. I could send videos sharing my life and my thoughts to one friend, or to a group chat of a few friends. As moms with busy schedules, it is hard to find time to connect with other moms on Facetime or in person – but Marco Polo helped us see into each others’ lives when we had to be apart. In time, my lonely brain felt better and even though it wasn’t in person or live, it was still better than text or the impersonal void of a Facebook newsfeed.
This past year, I’ve been trying to get my family back “out there” and to engage in community again. I believe it is vitally important to our mental and physical health. I started volunteering at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, I started attending Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, I signed my kids up for gymnastics, music class and boy scouts. We started having neighbourhood kids over to play at our house. My husband returned to work at the office. I started asking friends to go for early Saturday morning hikes with me. I gathered a group of moms together to celebrate our strength through this pandemic. All of these activities helped heal my lonely brain.
Though I will also admit, that one thing that surprised me, is how exhausting it was. Even though I believe socializing with others is vital to my mental health, I found myself unexpectedly wiped out by many of my social interactions.
I’ve heard from many others who say the same thing – before the pandemic they loved to socialize, they loved to host, to attend events. And while they still feel drawn to try these things again, the very activities that used to energize them now leave them feeling depleted.
What is up with that?
Could it be that we were all just closet introverts with highly trained extroversion muscles that have gotten weak over the last two years of the pandemic? Is socializing a muscle that can atrophy over time? Or could it be that we are all very empathetic people and we can easily feel the emotions of those around us? With everyone so tense in these gatherings (for a variety of reasons), perhaps we take on that tension and just feel exhausted at the end of it all?
I’m thinking it’s perhaps a combination of the two. I do feel the energy in a room as palpable as I can feel the carpet underneath my feet. Being around tense, nervous, anxious, and upset people leaves me feeling the same way. I also think perhaps all the efforts that come with socializing are muscular – and these muscles get stronger the more you socialize. My social muscles needed for groups larger than three people are weak and just like any other muscle, need to be exercised little by little.
What do you think? Can you look back at parts of your pandemic experience and say, “yes, I think I was pretty lonely then and maybe that’s why I said those hurtful things”? Is it easier to comprehend the dissension and friction in society these days when we look at it through a lens of loneliness? Can we forgive those who have hurt us these last few years by recognizing that they were an isolated, lonely human and in a state of hypervigilance? Can we see that their brains had been hijacked by an instinctive drive for survival? Something for us all to consider as we try to move forward beyond the pandemic.
Today I am 6 months alcohol-free. I started cutting back last January as part of a weight-loss goal, but I noticed as I cut back, that the nights that I didn’t have any wine, I slept better. I also felt less anxious the next day. I realized that I had been self-medicating with wine to help calm my anxieties, but in fact, it was making it worse.
At first, cutting back was really hard. Like embarrassingly hard. (2020 was rough y’all and I maybe relied on the wine a bit more than I should have….) I realized that a trigger for me for pouring a glass of wine was coming down the stairs after my kids were tucked into bed. So I stopped coming down the stairs after I tucked them in. I bought a kettle and some chamomile tea and I put it with a mug in my bathroom. Instead of coming down the stairs, pouring a large glass of wine and flopping on the couch to watch tv, I stayed upstairs in my bedroom. I drank sleepytime tea and I read. I cut back drinking gradually – drinking less each week than I had the week before, eventually going several weeks between glasses of wine. And then June 28, 2021 I decided to go a full year without alcohol, just to see how I’d feel. So far, it has been life changing for me. I‘ve never felt healthier or stronger. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back.
I used to say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a glass of wine.
Now I say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a good night’s sleep and to not feel anxious tomorrow.
Anyways, I share this as hopefully an encouragement for anyone trying to kick any bad habit, but also to explain why I’ve shied away from evening gatherings where there would be an expectation of alcohol. I am finally feeling like I’m getting to a place where I can go out with friends and have a club soda and not feel like a loser or worse, feeling like I’m making other people uncomfortable by not drinking. 6 months in, my mind doesn’t really default to or crave wine very often anymore; but it is funny how old neuro pathways can spring up on you – a couple of months ago, I went through airport security and before my mind thought about finding my gate, it thought about finding the bar.
More than anyone, I need to thank my husband for quiety supporting me on this journey this year. Keeping our home dry, and being my cheerleader in his no-pressure no-big-deal-if-you-fail way.
Below is a picture of the books I read in 2021, while I stayed upstairs and drank tea. I recommend them all, but my favourites were: Secondhand, The TeaGirl of Hummingbird Lane, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, and Longitude.
I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.
I am slowly and tentatively emerging from my pandemic bubble. Omicron is still up in the air, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” As I emerge, I find myself grieving a bit for life pre-Covid and the sense of community we’ve all lost.
By community, I don’t mean crowds. I do not miss the busyness of people. I do not miss Christmas shopping line-ups or even Christmas parties with hours of small talk. I don’t miss the atmosphere of everyone having their own agendas and doing their own things side by side.
I also find myself fortunate to have rich friendships and deep connections with others: my kids, my husband, my neighbours, and – with the help of technology (Marco Polo and FaceTime) my friends and family back home. When I speak about grieving a loss of community, I don’t mean intimate relationships. It’s been hard to put my finger on – what do I mean by loss of community?
I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.
In chatting with my husband about this, he identifies a similar feeling in loss of community through almost two years of remote work. My husband works for a large company with offices all over the world. Before the pandemic, when everyone was working in-person in their respective offices, there was a fair amount of “tribalism” between sites – different sites would oppose one another in coming up with a solution to a common problem. Yet, after almost two years of working remote, that tribalism has completely disintegrated – which is a good thing. People are collaborating across worksites more harmoniously. However, at the same time, he also feels they have lost a team-wide excitement for working on a problem together and a motivation for achieving a common goal together. As humans we are built to be in community and, at times, in healthy competition with one another. We come up with ingenious solutions to problems when we are supported and challenged by our peers in community.
I miss the rituals of community and the feeling of unity that comes when people participate in a ritual that transcends social structures. Anthropology super-nerds, like myself, will recognize this as what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. “During the period of the ritual, rank and status are forgotten as members think of themselves as a community. This helps cement unity among community members.”
In the weeks before Covid shut everything down, we were busy with our weekly nature walk group, our Mothers of Preschoolers Group (MOPS), and having friends over for dinner. And while none of that seems as inherently ritualistic as say, a wedding, there were elements of ritual there. Take for example, my moms group (MOPS) meetings.
Moms Group Meetings
Every second friday, I would drop my kids off at childcare and go into a theatre space next door to enjoy a hot potluck breakfast with 100 other moms seated at tables. We’d listen to a speaker and eat a hot meal with no kids asking us questions or pulling at our clothes. We didn’t have to cut anyone else’s food, or hop up from the table to fetch someone water or grab a cloth to wipe up a spill.
Stay with me while I get into some nerdy anthropology theory over this. One anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep wrote about rites of passage, defined as “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, and death” (Oxford Dictionary). Van Gennep argued that all rites of passage had three phases: separation, the liminal phase, and aggregation. One familiar rite of passage is a graduation ceremony, so I’ll use it as an example. In the separation phase, the ritual-participant is separated from their role in the social structure – they sit apart from their families in special gowns. In the liminal phase, ritual-participants are neither here nor there – they are betwixt and between and form a new kind of community with the other ritual-participants. The students sit together as one and wait for their turn to cross the stage and receive their diploma. In the aggregation phase, students are reunited with their families, the tassel has been pulled to the other side of their hats, they have a diploma in-hand, and they are reunited in the social structure with a new status – that of a graduate.
Victor Turner took this further in his book The Ritual Process. He expands the idea of these phases to other rituals, not just rites of passage. Rituals are “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony” (Cambridge Dictionary). My moms group meetings were rituals, not rites of passage – but I see the same phases present. First, in the separation phase, we dropped our kids off at childcare. Then, in the liminal phase, we sat together, undefined by the number of children with us or our visible parenting style. We ate together and we learned together listening to a speaker brought in especially for us. Turner writes, “What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purposes is the blend they offer of low lines and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites, with a “moment in and out of time,” and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol, if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”(p. 96) In the liminal phase of our weekly ritual, we were women eating together in communitas – we were not only “Mom of multiples”, “Working mom”, “Stepmom”, “SAHM” or any of the other mom-statuses we ascribe to ourselves. In the third phase, we were reunited with our social status of “mother” as we picked up our children from childcare and continued about our days in this role, inspired through our participation in the ritual.
Victor Turner continued, “There is a dialectic here, for the immediacy of communitas gives way to the mediacy of structure, while, in rites de passage [or rituals], men are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas. What is certain is that no society can function adequately without this dialectic.” (p. 129.) Through this ritual, we moms were released from the expectations and constant responsibility of motherhood to eat together in communitas, and then return to pick up the kids and our responsibilities, re-inspired and refueled for the days ahead. Since the pandemic began and many of these sorts of community “rituals” ceased, I’ve noticed how much I miss them.
Recently my husband attended a summit for his work – his first in-person work meetings since the pandemic began. He found the meetings to be incredibly productive. Participants were “released” from the expectations and daily structure of responding to online messages in order to work together on a specific problem in communitas. They left the summit with a clear direction and inspired by a sense of teamwork and accomplishment. When people say they want to continue to work remote even after the pandemic, I don’t know if they realize what they’ll be missing without communitas.
As we’ve moved away from so many in-person rituals in favour of two-dimensional online interactions over zoom and through status updates, comments and hashtags, I also feel a loss of reverence. While this pandemic would have been impossible without all the technologies available to us to interact with one another online, I have yet to experience a moment of reverence through them. I’ve missed the awe and wonder, the anticipation, and the deep respect for the moment, the place, or the person that allows a hush to fall over a crowd. The awkward silence at the beginning of a zoom call is not reverence.
While being at home with two young children through this pandemic was life-giving and purposeful and in many ways it saved my sanity – potty-training, whining, and night terrors are also not reverent.
In an attempt to find what was missing, I decided to attend a nearby Presbyterian church. Previously, this church would not have been my style. I used to feel deeply uncomfortable with liturgy. I’ve always felt awkward with call-and-response prayers and with communion. And I treated hymns with derision. I preferred “cool” churches – with contemporary music, dark concert-like venues, coffee, and denim. And yet, in a moment when the entire congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together, I felt both communitas and reverence for the first time in years.
To me, there was something so moving about a whole group of people reciting the same thing together. It reminded me of going to a Taylor Swift concert with my brother when she stopped singing and fifty thousand fans filled in the gap with a resounding chorus of her lyrics. Except instead of a song that has been around for a few years, we were reciting a prayer that has been prayed by millions of people over thousands of years and translated into hundreds of languages. A prayer people have recited together in community, and in the stillness of the night kneeling alone by their beds. I can’t think of any other collection of words that has connected humanity across time and space as the Lord’s Prayer. Can you?
Right Brain Left Brain
I don’t think reverence has to be religious. A great many secular moments from graduations to Taylor Swift concerts to the carving of the Christmas roast can be reverent too.
Recently, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. The author was a neuroscientist who had a stroke and remembered the experience of having her left brain completely destroyed by the hemorrhage. Several years later, when she had regained her ability to speak and write, she wrote about the experience of living in her right brain – a place where she felt no judgment or self-criticism – she just felt at peace and one with the world. Dr. Bolte Taylor describes the differences between the right brain and the left brain as this – imagine you hike to the top of a mountain. You get to the peak powered solely by your own body and you are surrounded by a beautiful view of a cascade of mountains and a crystal clear sky. Your right brain is in awe of the beauty that surrounds you. Your right brain perceives the majesty and makes you feel like you are one with the universe, whilst at the same time a tiny speck on the enormous planet. Meanwhile, your left brain is assessing whether or not you need to put on a sweater, if you’re hungry, what you should eat, and which angle to take the selfie.
It made me think, maybe reverence, is just something that exercises our right brain, just as talking exercises our left brain. Maybe it’s something our brains need. Maybe there is one true religion or God. Or maybe humanity has sought out God and the supernatural because it’s what our right-brain is wired to do – to perceive the incredible and feel at one with the whole.
However you experience communitas and reverence, whether in a sacred or secular way, I think it’s a fundamental part of the human experience.
I know I’m in a rut because of the pandemic. I could go out and socialize, but I’m happy in my house and it’s so much energy to get back out there again. But I know I need to. I know my kids need to be in community again. My husband is still enjoying remote work, but he knows he needs to get back to the office so he can feel part of something important again, rather than just another cog in the machine.
Community gives us a sense of purpose, belonging and significance. And the love, beauty, and harmony that comes with feeling part of a community is fuel for our right-brains. I have lived much of this pandemic in my left brain – analyzing COVID stats, deciding whether I should wear a mask in this particular case or not, questioning whether I have a tickle in my throat or COVID. I am ready to re-engage with my right-brain. What about you?
Last week we celebrated my daughter’s second birthday. As a pandemic toddler – she really doesn’t have any friends, so we decided to celebrate with two of our vaccinated neighbors who have been surrogate grandmas to her during all these months of Shelter-in-Place. One of these neighbors has a dog who lounges out on his front lawn most mornings and we stop in to see him whenever he is outside. He came to her party dressed in his fancy Hawaiian shirt and V fed him a plateful of milkbone cookies.
Now that the two year old milestone has come and gone, I’m now turning my eyes to that big, scary, horrible, messy parenting task of potty training. She’s very ready, and has already used the potty a few times. It’s more me holding her back, not committing the time and the energy to the training. And so, I’m gearing up and giving myself a pep talk to get it done.
And it needs to be a pretty big pep talk.
With my son, potty training was awful. I decided to wait until after V was born to start because I knew that many kids have regressions after the birth of a new sibling. DK was 2 years, 9 months when V was born, so I figured – what’s a few more months? It would be a good time to train him with a newborn around, right? Newborns sleep so much of the day and we are going to be home so much – potty training will just fit right in there.
Boy was that ever a dumb plan.
Fast forward to 6 weeks after V was born, I decided out of the blue to begin potty training. Remember, I was sleep deprived, I had never potty trained anyone before, or really seen any child be potty trained, and I had half-skimmed “Oh Crap Potty Training”. I had not taught DK how to pull down or pull up his own pants, I had not taught him how to rip toilet paper (and he may have been the first two-year old in the history of toddlers who never tried to unravel the toilet paper), he never played around the house naked, and he was scared of the sound of the toilet flushing, It went as well as you would expect it to go considering these limitations.
I started off trying to follow the advice of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady – just do completely naked potty training, watch your child very closely and try to catch him right before he pees and get him on the potty. Well, with a newborn who also needed near constant attention, that translated to – clean a bunch of pee off the floor and feel like a failure.
Around day 3 of naked potty training, DK had to have a bowel movement. He was crying and pleading with me to give him a diaper and I refused, all in the name of a greater good. He was agitated and running around, clearly uncomfortable. I tried to get him to sit down on the potty but he refused. I put V down safely in her crib, where she began to scream, and I tried to hold DK down on the potty. That did not work. He ran away and as he ran, he pooped – a stream of shit spraying on the floor behind him. Everyone was screaming, including me, and then DK ran back around through the mess and tracked poop all over the house at a gallop.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I got us out of that mess. I somehow cleaned everything up on my hands and knees, tears trickling down my face to a soundtrack of V screaming in the background and DK dancing around me with a contented gut.
It was a serious low point for me in parenting and I gave up potty training for several months after that.
I felt like I committed a human rights violation – forcing him to poop in a way he didn’t feel comfortable. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to go to jail – but among the top reasons is having to use the toilet in an open room with other people watching. Being forced to soil oneself is one of the most degrading things that could happen to a person. Wasn’t I asking him to do the same thing, but in reverse? He was comfortable in diapers, and here I was demanding he do it differently, against his will.
He wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. The whole experience for me was so stressful, I had to have my mom come out 6 months later and help me. She had a bit more experience with potty training a toddler (my brother and I are, after all, potty-trained) and she also was able to be a bit calmer and matter-of-fact about it. Whereas for me, I felt like I had earned a great big F on my parenting report card in the subject “Potty Training”. It was hard to stay relaxed when I felt so much pressure to get it done and get it done right.
When my mom came to visit, we threw out the guidance of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady who said to not use rewards and to not use training underwear. We let DK wear training undies and when he sat still on the potty for 30 seconds on the phone timer, he got a chocolate chip. Over the span of a couple of weeks he earned two chocolate chips for peeing on the potty, three for pooping in the potty – and much later I upped the ante and gave him four chocolate chips if he would poop in the big toilet (so that I didn’t have to clean the potty every time).
The trend these days in my parenting circles is to focus on intrinsic rewards – not extrinsic rewards for motivation. After all, you don’t want your child to only do things for the extrinsic reward (a chocolate chip), you want them to want to do things because of the personal satisfaction it brings (bathroom self-sufficiency and privacy). I do believe in the importance of intrinsic motivation – but when it comes to doing hard things that are out of our comfort zones, or things that we don’t really want to do, extrinsic rewards work very well. This is why we get paid at our jobs. Very few people show up to work every day and give it their all because they are personally satisfied to do it. Maybe there are some children out there who genuinely want to change up the way they’ve had bowel movements their entire lives – but my child was not one of them. At three and a half years old, he was firmly in the “why fix what ain’t broken” camp and needed the promise of a chocolate chip reward to see the “why”.
Another idea my mom brought with her was after every try or potty-related-anything, she would get DK to choose a sticker, have him stick it to a blank piece of paper and then above it she would write what he got the sticker for. It wasn’t a fancy potty training chart, it was just a piece of paper with stickers and writing – but over the course of the day, the paper would get filled with all of his tries – big and little, successful and unsuccessful. At the end of every day when we were reading him his bedtime stories, we would read back over his potty experiences of the day, reminding him of and praising him for all of his efforts.
By the time my mom left, we (she) had mostly potty trained him. When we left the house to go to the playground though, I still felt insecure, so I’d put a diaper on him. This was another one of my mistakes because old habits die hard and as soon as that diaper was on him, his body would relax and release and he’d have a bowel movement – every single time. So after a week of that, I strengthened my resolve and got rid of the diapers once and for all. Surprisingly to me, we didn’t have many accidents.
I learned a lot from potty training DK that I am carrying forward with me as I begin potty training V:
I threw him off the deep end. I didn’t teach him some of the basic things first – like undressing and dressing himself. I didn’t normalize the toilet flushing or let him play with rolls of toilet paper. With V, we switched her to Pampers 360 Fit diapers just after she was a year old. These diapers pull up and down like underwear instead of securing them with the side tabs. We’ve worked with her on dressing herself and pulling up and pulling down her own pants. We’ve taught her to wash her own hands at the sink and how to dry them with the towel. We’ve taught her how to rip toilet paper and flush it down the toilet.
I gave her access to potties earlier than I did with DK. She also had more access to seeing other people use the toilet than he did.
It’s okay to use extrinsic rewards for hard habit changes
When mom is flailing, it’s okay for grandma to step in.
Overly enthusiastic praise is not for every child. DK hates overly enthusiastic praise. He actually preferred to keep potty training a secret. He did not want to tell Daddy, he wanted everyone detached and unconcerned about his progress. It’s amusing now that he ever wanted complete secrecy because nowadays he announces to the entire house that he’s going to the bathroom and precisely what he plans to do in there.
Back before we had washing machines or disposable diapers – babies wore cloth diapers and mothers had to wash them by hand. I get annoyed when I have to carry a dirty diaper down the stairs and put it outside in the garbage – so I can only imagine how much mothers hated the job of hand-washing a poopy piece of cloth. Mothers were motivated to potty train their babies as early as possible to eliminate this extra work and used extreme and harsher methods of potty-training to achieve success.
Two inventions came along that shrunk this housekeeping burden; Disposable diapers and electric washing machines both began making their way into American homes in the 1940s. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the popular narrative on potty-training and encouraged parents to wait to train until the child showed interest and was psychologically ready – an average age of about 18 months old at the time.
As disposable diapers became more accessible, more parents delayed potty-training – waiting for “readiness”. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocated a child-led approach. Pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton helped popularize this trend to wait for child readiness. However Brazelton held a financial relationship with disposable diaper company Pampers – a company absolutely interested in keeping children in diapers as long as possible. Over the years, disposable diaper companies made their diapers more absorbent, more comfortable, and for bigger bodies. By 2001 the average age for potty training was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.
I can’t help but wonder why children in the 1950s were psychologically and physiologically ready at 18 months old and yet children today are not psychologically or physiologically ready until 3 years old (on average).
The parenting trend in 2021 is to wait for “readiness” but I think with DK I honestly missed the signs and procrastinated way too long. By the time I got around to it with him – he had entered the stage of toddlerhood (30 months+) where he realized he is his own person and wanted to exert his will to see what it would take to break me. It made the whole “you will use a potty from now on” thing a real battle of wills. I am determined to potty train V before she stops wanting to please me.
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day was published in 1974. Azrin and Foxx developed and tested the method with 200 children of different sexes, backgrounds, abilities and ages. It is a bit old-school – but we’ve been teaching children how to relieve themselves in a culturally appropriate way for thousands of years, so I don’t see why we need to re-invent the wheel with every generation. It is a kind and firm approach that teaches the potty routine.
While I’m not sure that I will be successful at training V in less than a day (that seems like a really high bar), I am going to try the method in this book. I’ve already laid out the groundwork that they specifically mention as the pre-training steps:
1) Learn to dress and undress herself
2) Allow her to watch you (and others) use the toilet
3) Teach her the words associated with potty-training (e.g. wet, dry, stand up, sit down, potty, toilet etc).
4) Teach her “to cooperate in following your instructions” (“V, can you go get me a club soda please?” is one of our favourite games).
Okay, check, check, check and check. V can do all of that.
I am setting aside Sunday May 30 as the day to begin. My husband is going to take DK out of the house for much of the day. I am going to be prepared with a brand new potty training doll, a selection of toddler-friendly juice boxes and some salty snacks. I am going to put my phone on airplane mode and give her my undivided attention and go through this training program.
Then when it’s all done, I’ll be able to tell you, dear reader, if it worked. Are you ready? Is the anticipation of my success or failure killing you? Well without further ado…
Diary of a Mom, Day 1 of Potty Training the Azrin/Foxx method, Sunday May 30, evening
Well, it actually went pretty well! I had everything prepared the night before – training underwear in a size 4T so that the waist and thighs are quite loose, salty snacks, a selection of toddler juice-boxes, water bottles, M&Ms and Raisinettes. The raisinettes (chocolate covered raisins) were a particularly excellent choice because V loves them so they were highly motivating for her, but also because raisins will help with bowel movements over the next few days.
I also purchased a doll that wets (This one, expensive – yes, but cheaper than 3 months worth of diapers) and I wrapped it up for her as a present. This morning I sent my husband and son out for the day to go on train adventures together and with the house quiet and me able to give V my undivided attention, I gave her the present and we began.
The doll was a huge hit! She loved teaching the doll how to go potty, rewarding the doll for a successful pee, and emptying the potty. I followed the advice in the book and we played with the doll for quite a while, filling the doll and V up with liquids as we played. “Baby drinks! V drinks! Mommy drinks!” “Cheers!” Practicing with the doll helped her enormously and within the first two hours she peed on the potty twice of her own initiative and she also pooped (PRAISE THE TOILETING GODS). We had one accident right before nap time, so I decided to power through and do underwear at nap time. She stayed dry through her nap, but despite our best efforts she had two accidents after her nap. But then, with prompting she used the potty successfully three more times before bed! So all in all a very successful first day. She’s wearing a diaper to bed tonight.
Diary of a Mom, Day 2 of Potty-Training, Monday, May 31
Yesterday was new and exciting. Today V was not as into the potty-training experience. She seemed unsure if she wanted this new way to be her life now. She wasn’t completely opposed, just uncertain and uncommitted. We had a few accidents, but she helped clean herself up and then we did a few practice runs from the spot where the accident happened to the potty as per the Azrin/Foxx method. She LOVED doing these practice runs – running quickly to the potty, quickly pulling down her pants and sitting down. We did it over and over again after an accident and she squealed with delight. DK joined in and we were all running around the house in glee. Since she was in the middle of playing but was far away from the potty when the accident happened, I think the running-to-the-potty practice helped her with some confidence of what she can do differently next time to not have wet pants. Tomorrow I think we will try some running to the potty practice when she still has dry pants.
One part of this method that I like is the use of the question “do you have dry pants?” as opposed to “did you pee your pants?”. The first question just asks the child to reflect on the facts – the pants are wet or they are dry; whereas the second question assigns blame.
Diary of a Mom, Day 3 of Potty Training, Tuesday, June 1st
I decided to cancel our weekly nature walk with friends today in favor of staying home and continuing to practice with the potty. This was a good decision. V was excited to keep potty training and she had many successes and only one accident. She was keen to try and eager to eat chocolate-covered raisins as her reward. I actually had to go to Target to buy more chocolate-covered raisins as now she wants DK to have chocolate-covered raisins with her to celebrate a potty success (which is so sweet I could cry). I am tired but optimistic.
Diary of a Mom, Day 4 of Potty Training, Wednesday, June 2nd
Today was a long day. We had many accidents in the morning. A friend came over to play in the afternoon, which was a fun and much-needed playdate for the kids, but V was pretty distracted with playing and didn’t want to stop to use the potty. I am starting to doubt that this was a good idea and whether I misread the readiness signs.
Diary of a Mom, Day 5 of Potty Training, Thursday, June 3rd
Okay, as a mom, I am the one who struggled with potty training today. We made progress and I know I must focus on the success we had. But it’s taking so long! It’s hard not to feel like with every accident or emotional outburst that it’s a sign that I misjudged her readiness. I think that’s the greatest lie we Millennial parents tell ourselves. I know my child is far more capable than I give her credit for. It’s my own laziness, insecurity, and desire for instant gratification that is holding her back. Personally, I want to give up today. Go back to diapers because it’s easier. Admit defeat.
But to do that would be to tell her that I don’t believe in her, that I don’t believe she can do it. And sometimes believing in your kid is what they need to get themselves across big hurdles.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Diary of a Mom, Day 6 of Potty Training, Friday June 4th
On Fridays I take the kids to the playground and they both needed to get out of the house and climb and swing and slide. I was feeling down about the day before and I was prepared to put V back in a diaper for this excursion. To my surprise when she woke up this morning, she was all about using the potty. She had a potty success and then wanted to wear her undies to the park. I packed our travel potty and showed her how it would work before we left. At the playground she came and asked me for the potty a few times, wanting to try it but wasn’t successful. Yes, I was THAT MOTHER who brought a potty to the playground and had her kid pull down her pants and use it next to the stroller.
Despite our best efforts and V communicating her need for the potty and trying her best, we had an accident. I forgot to pack a spare change of socks, so we had to go home. I thought of spare undies and shorts – but I forgot that when pee dribbles down your leg, it makes your socks wet. Whoops, #momfail. This afternoon we had more success with V initiating using the potty of her own accord while wearing undies. I’m feeling optimistic that we are halfway there.
Update: Of course literally AS I TYPED that last sentence on my laptop at the kitchen counter V pooped in her undies. So getting overly confident is a bad idea.
Further update (end of day): She’s getting it! She’s getting it! We’ve now had three successes where she initiates a bathroom break all by herself, gets herself on the potty and does her business. Hurrah!!! I see a light at the end of this tunnel. I am not giving up.
Diary of a Mom, Day 9 of Potty Training, Monday.
I am now saying “this girl is potty trained”. She has used the potty numerous times of her own initiation over the last couple of days. The final two pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place today. First, she woke up with a dry diaper and got herself on the potty on her own. Second, she initiated bowel movements on the potty. So I think we are trained and I’m personally impressed with the Azrin/Foxx method. It’s possible it was the girl, possible it was the readiness, but I also think their method was clear and made sense to her and to me. It helped me be consistent in training which I think helped complete the training quickly.
To any mom endeavouring to potty train soon – I do recommend checking out this book. While some of the method I adapted to 2021 sensibilities (I didn’t like the phrasing they used for expressing disapproval at having wet pants), I think on the whole, parents in 2021 should not be skeptical of a potty training method used in the 1970s. It is kind and straightforward. It is not child-led, but it is respectful of the child and it gives the child the undivided attention they need from adults when learning something new and challenging.
I’d love to hear from you if you try this method! Did it work? Did it not work? Can I bring you chocolate? If any of my local friends are interested in borrowing my copy of this book and the doll that wets – let me know! I’m happy to lend it out.
*To my children: I realize I am posting about your potty training experiences on the internet, and you may be absolutely horrified of this when you are in jr. high. I promise I will take the post down before you turn 9 years old, unless this post goes viral and becomes the post that launches me into professional writing and pays for your college tuition. In that unlikely event, I promise to pay for your therapy.
Just so you know, the links to the book and the potty doll are Amazon referral links, so if you purchase through my links, I will get a small commission and I am so grateful for your support!
Azrin, Nathan H., Foxx, Richard M. 1974. Potty Training in Less Than a Day. Pocket Books.