Archive for the ‘The Not Supermom Series’ Category

More of the Nitty-Gritty

May 12, 2006 @ 3:45 am | Filed under:

This post really belongs in my comments, but it got so long I’m just going to post it here.

CityMom asked:

Here’s another question—how much of the fact that your tide has come back in do you think has to do wtih the girls being older now then they were when Wonderboy was born? I am starting to notice that my oldest will keep learning and helping us to keep on task with school routines even when I am sort of losing track of things, I would imagine that your older girls, with the true love of learning that you have instilled in them, are making this happen?

This is a point I wanted to add to my initial response to the kind mom who said:

My 5th is the same age as yours, so about 3 weeks. I have not been able to start school up again, ( of course they are always doing something educational….) I have been blessed with healthy children, so we have no unusual circumstances, and yet I look at your web site and I am flabbergasted! My oldest is 7, I have a 5YO, 3YO and a 2YO. Are you just really organized???

We have the same number of children, but where this mom has a three-year-old, I have an almost-eleven-year-old, and that is a major difference. I have an extra pair of helping hands where she has another pair of hands needing lots of help—busy, busy hands, to boot. Ten-year-olds can be an awful lot of help. (I always think about Anne of Green Gables taking care of three sets of twins before the age of ten. I mean, I know she was fictional, but Montgomery was reflecting the norm for her community.) Whenever I want to work one-on-one with any of the children, I can have either Jane or Rose entertain Wonderboy. It isn’t organization, it’s delegation.

As for CityMom’s point, I think she is absolutely on the mark: it was easy to slip back to our routine after the baby arrived because my three older children are old enough to maintain the routine without a lot of prodding from me. They know how to do their chores, unsupervised. And our lesson time together is a fun chunk of the morning which we all enjoy. We listen to our Latin vocabulary chants together (Beanie likes this best of all) and then Jane and Rose can do their Latin bookwork independently. Then Jane goes to another (quieter) room to do her Math-U-See page; if she gets stuck on any problem she is supposed to circle it and bring it to me when she has finished the page. Meanwhile, Rose sits beside me and does her math. For the most part, she completes the work without my help while I play with her brother. Both girls can check their own work against the answer keys, and together we go over any problems they’ve missed.

Those are our only formal lessons; after that work is finished, we spend the next hour or two with our various read-alouds (always accompanied by Mr. Putty, of course—Rose never lets me forget) while Wonderboy plays with Legos or Wedgits in our midst. Friday is our hands-on day for art and science: we move to the kitchen or porch for the messy stuff. Personally, I prefer the read-alouds; I had to carve out a day for the ooey gooey needs-seventeen-ingredients-and/or-a-microscope kind of activities—and commit myself by announcing it to the girls—or else I would never get around to making it happen.

Adjusting to life with this baby has been the easiest transition yet—really!—easier than when I had just one baby, or two. Having a couple of seven-and-ups makes a huge difference. And Wonderboy got off to such a rough start…probably anything would seem easy compared to that.

Speaking of the new baby, can you believe she’s a month old today? Snoozing here beside me, just as sweet as can be….

Nuts, Bolts, and Pegs

May 7, 2006 @ 3:58 am | Filed under: ,

(Part 3 of The Not Supermom Series.)

Kristie writes:

One quick question…
Language arts…looking at your day, do your kids write, do dictation, read etc. or is this in tides (besides the reading, it is obvious that is the lifestyle in homes where literature is loved..)
Thanks so much

Betty asks:

Now for the nitty gritty. When do you find it best to shower? What type of language arts do you do (I saw that was asked already)? Do the kids do chores? I think half my battle is just getting the children to work on their little jobs and then 2 yr. old starts getting fussy, and soon it’s lunch time and the only thing anybody has done is copywork.

These are great questions, and they cover a lot of ground so I’ll probably answer over a couple of posts. Let’s start with Betty’s nitty-gritty: showers, chores, practical scheduling concerns. (I’ll tackle language arts tomorrow.)

Like many homeschooling moms, I love looking at people’s daily schedules, like the ones in the Large Family Logistics files. It can be extremely helpful to see how other mothers order their days. With that in mind, I thought I’d sketch out part of our typical day’s routine. Mind you, this is our spring new-baby routine. When the community pool opens in June, this schedule will go out the window and we’ll discover a whole new flow to our days. But thanks to what my friend Leonie calls “pegs,” the most important elements of our day will remain in place even if the time of day they happen shifts around from season to season.

It was several years ago that Leonie introduced me and the other moms on the Catholic Charlotte Mason list to her habit of “pegging” one activity to another. The basic concept is that there are certain things that happen in our homes every day: meals, getting dressed, bedtime, and so forth. These things may not happen at the exact same time day in and day out—dinner might be at 6:00 one night and 6:30 the next—but they do happen pretty much every day, occuring within a fairly consistent general time frame. These activities, Leonie explained, can serve as “pegs” on which to hang other activities. An example from my home is the way we have pegged music to breakfast: I pick one piece of music per week, a symphony perhaps, to play every morning while the girls are eating. Breakfast is the peg, the fixed activity which I know will happen every day. Music is the secondary activity I have hung upon that peg.

Most households already make use of pegs, whether the family realizes it or not. If you read your kids a bedtime story every night, there’s a peg: the read-aloud is pegged to going-to-bed. When FlyLady tells you to shine your sink every night or wipe down your bathroom counter after you brush your teeth, she’s preaching pegging, though she doesn’t call it by that name.

Leonie’s brilliantly simple notion was the best piece of household advice anyone ever gave me. Thanks to pegs, no matter how topsy-turvy our lives have become (and believe me, we’ve spent a lot of time upside down), I’ve been able to make sure that the things I hold dear have not dropped by the wayside in times of stress. Children must always be fed, so why not peg music to one meal and poetry to another? If the baby naps every afternoon, it may be convenient to peg big sister’s science experiments or arts-and-crafts time to baby’s naptime. If you go grocery shopping on the same day every week, a trip to the library might be pegged to the outing. If dad does the bedtime read-aloud, mom might want to peg herself a shower at that interval. Pegs help ensure that the important but non-essential activities don’t get lost in the shuffle of essentials.

For me, a really helpful aspect of pegging is that it provides rhythm and pleasant structure without binding us to a strict minute-by-minute schedule. I cannot guarantee that the baby’s nap will be the exact same length of time every morning. But if I know that she will nap every morning and if I’ve pegged, say, a read-aloud and math to her nap, I’ll be sure to grab that read-aloud as soon as the baby goes to sleep rather than fritter away the nap checking mail or chatting with a neighbor. The kids know that they can count on baby’s naptime for some one-on-one with mom. Children like their days to have rhythm; they like the quiet security of a routine. Pegs allow us to provide the routine without getting stressed about the ticking away of minutes on a clock.

So here are some of the pegs in use around here.

• Music—pegged to breakfast (as already mentioned).

• Kids’ morning chores (brush hair, brush teeth, make bed, wipe bathroom sinks)—pegged to getting dressed.

• Kids practice piano—pegged to my shower/dress/make bed/clean bathroom time.

• “FlyLady Time”—not a peg exactly (nothing is pegged to it), but a regular part of our routine. This is when we do our daily housework following a plan based on the FlyLady and Large Family Logistics schedules.

• Morning lesson time. The schedule is fluid and subject to spontaneous abandonment but its chief elements are: morning prayer, Latin, math, history read-aloud, and poetry. Other activities include science experiments, drawing, nature journaling, picture study, German, sign language, geography (with Mr. Putty), or whatever the children are wrapped up in at the moment.

• Morning walk—pegged to lunch. For half an hour or so before we eat lunch, we try to get outside every day. We haven’t gone on a real nature walk since a month before the bairn was born (but I am hoping to return to that before long). For now we are just puttering around the yard or walking to the neighborhood playground…during Grandma’s visit, Wonderboy fell in love with the swings.

• We used to have a read-aloud pegged to lunch, but ever since the baby was born it keeps slipping off the peg.

• Wonderboy’s nap: Several things are pegged to this. First, as I’ve written about before, the girls all have an hour of quiet time (to read or play alone) while I eat lunch, read mail, pay bills, etc. Twice a week Jane does a written narration during this block of time.

• Then (still during the nap) I have one-on-one time with each girl. OK, the nap isn’t long enough for EVERYONE to get one-on-one every day, but I can fit in half an hour each with two of the girls, so we just sort of rotate through everyone. During Beanie’s time, I read picture books to her. During Rose’s one-on-one, she does her Greek and/or I read to her—”A read-aloud all of my own, Mommy.” (Jane often gets computer time while I’m doing those things.) Often, Jane’s one-on-one is spent helping me with dinner prep: an activity she adores and I pretend to. (Jane is reading this and laughing. She knows I don’t like to cook. She knows I know she loves it. She knows I try to put on a game face and act like I’m having fun, and she knows that nearly always turns into real fun. We call this the Uncle Jay Rule of Life in honor of a piece of advice Scott’s brother gave him long ago before some unappealing social event—which is to say, any social event, as far as my hermit-like husband is concerned: Act happy, and you will usually find yourself being happy. As usual, Jay is quite right.)

• After Wonderboy’s nap, he likes to cuddle on the couch and have his yogurt smoothie (part of our endless quest to fatten him up). To this pleasant time of day I have pegged read-aloud time with the girls—either our current Shakespeare play or current novel.

• Afternoon play time—usually pegged to my writing time, but I have one more week of babymoon left.

• Kids’ dinnertime—on this peg we often hang some music: Scott plays guitar and I sing while the kids eat. We used to do this almost every night; now it is more sporadic.

• Dinnertime for Scott and me (we usually eat after the kids)—kids do evening chores. (Put on pajamas, clean room, brush teeth.) They nearly always peg a Jim Weiss story tape to their chores (or if their room is really messy, they put on the Annie soundtrack and belt out “Hard Knock Life”).

• Scott reads to girls—pegged to bedtime. I read to Wonderboy—ditto. And reading is pegged to our own bedtime, too: but I usually fall asleep before I’ve gotten far. (Alas.)

I’m sure we have more pegs, but these are the primary and most consistent ones. The simple principle of attaching a “want-to-do” to a “must-do” has, more than anything else, helped us to keep up with the pursuits we care about and to enjoy our daily chores, even in the wake of a toddler’s surgery, a parent’s book deadline, or a delicious new baby’s arrival.


May 5, 2006 @ 10:51 am | Filed under: , ,

(Part 2 of The Not Supermom Series.)

The Deputy Headmistress directed me toward this post at Dominion Family, and I have come to trust the DHM’s recommendations.

Writing on the importance of educating both mind and soul, Cindy says:

“This does not mean I shy away from rigorous study. I love rigorous study. It is just that I don’t confuse taking a test with learning. I try not to forget the things that can’t be measured: poetry in the heart, deep discussions, time for thoughtful reflections, love of beauty, the fellowship of suffering, the euphoric feeling of using the right word, honest toil, gentle breezes and warm days.”

Beautiful, and right on the mark.

This is exactly what I am getting at when I talk about striving for a joyful atmosphere in our home. As Cindy points out, Charlotte Mason has a great deal to say about the importance of “atmosphere” in education: Education itself, she says, is an atmosphere; it is a life. “Atmosphere,” writes Michele Quigley,

“is many faceted, from the actual physical aspects of the home to the tone and spirit of family life. In creating an atmosphere of learning, the child has easy access to the materials needed. Books are put where the child can get at them, art supplies are easily reached and musical instruments placed in a special but accessible area. There are beautiful art prints to look at and beautiful music with which to inspire the mind and soul.”

There it is again, that mind/soul connection that Cindy spoke of in her post. I am reminded of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family (Meet the Austins, The Moon by Night, A Ring of Endless Light—which last is one of my three Most Deeply Moving picks from Semicolon’s recent booklist). Life in the Austin household means symphonies booming in the background during housecleaning, family in-jokes about literature and art, animated dinner-table discussions about The Big Questions of Life, evening sing-alongs, a house furnished in books, and car rides punctuated by quotes from ancient philosophers. I wonder, sometimes, just how much my own idea of family life was shaped by my multiple readings of that series during adolescence. I reread them all last winter and found myself grinning at the depiction of an atmosphere I’ve been striving toward in my own home for some ten years. Well looky there, I thought. Here I’ve been trying to Meet the Austins in my own living room, and I didn’t even realize it.

I gave a talk once about atmosphere in the Little House books, for after encountering Charlotte Mason’s writings, it struck me that a large part of what appeals to me about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books is the atmosphere that suffuses the Ingalls home—no matter which little house they lived in. Here’s an excerpt from the talk:

The atmosphere of love and family bonding is so strong, so pervasive, that when you read about this family, you want to be a part of it. And while I’m sure Ma and Pa Ingalls had plenty of off days that didn’t make it into the books, the warm, loving atmosphere of the home they created was consistent enough enough to inspire their daughter to put her childhood memories down on paper so that they would never be lost. Look at the things that stick in Laura’s mind all the way to her 60s:

—Pa ruffling up his hair, playing mad dog;
—Pa telling stories as he greased his traps or made bullets—stories Laura never forgot;
—Ma making vanity cakes for Laura & Mary’s party;
—Ma letting the girls share the grated carrot used to color the butter on churning day;
—Pa’s music, right down to the words of the songs he sang;
—Ma putting aside her work to play games with the girls during the terrible three days when Pa was lost in a blizzard.

That last one is one I think about a lot. Imagine how hard it was for Caroline to keep calm and cheerful under those circumstances. I think she must have seen it as her duty to maintain that atmosphere of serenity and cheer for her children, lest they be consumed by fear for Pa’s safety. How would I measure up in the same circumstances? Would I allow my worry to let me grow sharp with the children? Or would I throw myself wholeheartedly into the task—because it is work—of maintaining an atmosphere of love no matter what?

We all know how hard it can be to maintain that atmosphere. A mother’s mood is the air her family breathes. When I become cross, impatient, distracted, so does everyone else. My mood can poison the atmosphere or sweeten it: it is up to me.

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I’m No Superman

May 4, 2006 @ 3:03 am | Filed under:

(Part 1 of The Not Supermom Series.)

I’ve been hearing a certain sentiment a lot lately, in email and other places, and I feel compelled to set the record straight. Do not be dazzled by my apparent achievements. I have no superpowers. If you hung out with me in person, you would know the truth.

One particularly kind reader writes:

I am ever amazed at your ability to get everthing you do done! I am a homeschooling mom of 5, and I really wonder how you do it! My 5th is the same age as yours, so about 3 weeks. I have not been able to start school up again, ( of course they are always doing something educational….) I have been blessed with healthy children, so we have no unusual circumstances, and yet I look at your web site and I am flabbergasted! My oldest is 7, I have a 5YO, 3YO and a 2YO. Are you just really organized??? I love the learning style you have, I am a literary mind as well, and we have immersed ourselves and the kids in books. I often get on your site just to get ideas for books for my kids to read. Honestly, how do you maintain the amazingly intelligent thoughts while dealing with a newborn? After 5 kids I know that ” this too will pass”, and probabally all too soon, but you don’t seem to have missed a step. You are an amazing woman!

I’m not being falsely modest when I say: really I’m not! I’m not amazing. It’s just that this blog doesn’t give you a view of my kitchen floor. (Which, come to think of it, actually might qualify as amazing, if we’re discussing quantity-of-crumbs-by-the-end-of-the-day.)

Since I’m getting so many notes like this these days, I thought I’d better discuss it. The last thing I want to do is to cause anyone to feel discouraged by comparison. It’s true that this blog has kept rolling right along during our babymoon, and if you’ve checked in with our family learning notes site, you’ve glimpsed that we got back into the swing of our “high tide” studies fairly quickly after the bairn’s arrival. How are these things possible, so soon after a birth? There are several factors at play here, and also some false impressions I must correct.

First of all (and this is a biggie. It’s so big that I think I’ll put it in bold): I don’t do the laundry.

Think about that one a minute, let it really sink in. All you moms out there, think about how much extra time you would have if you didn’t have to do any laundry. Ever.

See, Scott’s a work-at-home dad. When he quit his cushy office job almost eight years ago to stay home and write as a freelancer, and I took on the Charlotte series in addition to the Martha books I had already agreed to write, we divvied up some of the housework. I haven’t done laundry in eight years.

Every blog post I write is a load of socks I haven’t had to fold.

Aha! you’re saying. It’s all becoming clear. Scott works (does work that brings in income, I mean, written work) from nine to three, more or less. When I’m working on a book, I write from three to six, during which time he is taking care of the children, buying groceries, and, yes, folding laundry.

(Lest this all sound too good to be true, lest it zoom you right past admiration to envy, honesty requires me to add that the vast benefits of the freelance lifestyle are counterbalanced by some weighty disadvantages: most notably, job (in)security and lack of benefits. Sometimes we have work, and sometimes we don’t. And our health care costs are through the roof.)

Freedom from laundry is an ongoing, long-term element of my unique situation. Now we come to factors pertaining specifically to our current post-partum phase:

This month, I’m not working on a book. Call it maternity leave. I’ve written many a novel with a baby tucked in my sling, and in a few weeks those days will come round again. But right now, this month, I’m not writing in the afternoons. Which means I’ve had lots more free time than usual, because the older kids are outside playing every afternoon, and Scott often grabs Wonderboy and heads out to run errands. There have actually been times I’ve found myself at loose ends, with a sleeping infant beside me and no one needing mommy at the moment!

Also, the neighbors are bringing us meals. My parents were here for the first week after the baby was born (so my mom did all the cooking), and since then there has been a steady stream of meals arriving on my doorstep. Dessert and everything—my children are in heaven!

See, no superpowers: just a lot of help. Time was, I found it difficult to accept offers of help. Jane’s long illness cured me of that, though. Now I just grin gratefully and say yes to everything.

I am far from perfectly organized. My current filing system for important papers is an overflowing basket on my kitchen floor. It’s a pretty basket, or it would be if it were filled with, say, fruit. In its current condition it is somewhat, shall we say, unattractive. Or, as a close friend put it not long ago: “Honey, WHAT is the deal with this basket?”

I manage to keep up with the blog because I get up very early in the morning to write the day’s post. I don’t much like being awake before dawn, but when I was pregnant I couldn’t help it; I was just too uncomfortable to sleep. And now it’s the baby: she sleeps all night, beautifully, snuggled up next to me, waking just enough to nurse now and then, but not enough to fuss; she just chirps a little and then we both go back to sleep. But around five in the morning, she’s ready to be awake for a little while. So I get up with her, change her, nurse her, pop her in the sling, and write for a little while before the rest of the gang staggers in.

In the middle of the day, everyone (except Scott, of course, who is working) has a nap or an hour of quiet time. Lately, I’ve been napping a lot during this daily interlude. Either that, or I fall asleep at night with a book on my face.

As for educational stuff, it’s true that we’re really doing quite a lot these days, and I didn’t expect that, so soon after the baby’s arrival. I figured we’d have a nice long low-tide time. But I don’t know, somehow we just hit a rhythm and our mornings have been quite structured and productive. The thing to remember is that it all happens in a period of two or three hours, no more. An hour or so of good read-alouds, and wham, there’s history, literature, and science (natural history). Each child narrates one or two passages from the reading, which fixes the material in the children’s minds far better than any kind of testing. Add a few minutes for a German lesson (a very few minutes—just a couple of words or phrases a day); perhaps half an hour for math; twenty minutes or so for Latin (more on Latin in a future post); and we fill up the corners with poetry, picture study, music, and sign language. This makes for a rich, busy morning with lots of learning, but it’s mellow learning, if you see what I mean. Just about everything we do by way of structured learning fits into a basket on the floor at my feet. (This one is no eyesore; it’s everything a full basket should be.)

I find that a well-stocked arts-and-crafts shelf and quantities of good books in every room make for an effortlessly (really!) rich and educational day. Then it’s just a matter of my being available to listen to the children’s discoveries, and to discuss the big ideas they are wrestling with. It is also vital to involve them in (even when inconvenient) whatever I am doing, whether it be housework, blog design, menu planning, gardening, or paying bills. If I shift into hyper-efficient no-nonsense work mode, everything begins to unravel. The joyful atmosphere I strive for quickly goes sour if I put more focus on getting things done than on doing things together.

In any case, things are far from perfect around here. I don’t have the tidiest house on the block, certainly not the best decorated, and I won’t ever win awards for my cooking or my flower garden. Nor do I have perfectly behaved children who never complain or quarrel. We have our grumbly and fractious days just like everyone else. Usually this is my fault for being preoccupied and impatient, or for neglecting to include the kids in my activities. I am much more a fumbling Clark Kent kind of mom than a Supermom. I realized a long time ago that I was never going to be the Cookie-Baking Mom or the Sewing Mom or the Better Homes and Gardens Mom or the Ma Ingalls Mom: I figured the best I could do was try to be the Fun Mom. The nice thing about the Fun Mom is that she doesn’t have to get cross or discouraged by the disgraceful state of her kitchen floor: she gets to laugh about it.

And that, I think, really is super.