On Eating and Life: I Know You Understand

Mar 16 2018

I’ve been a little radio silent around here for a bit. Mostly because I’ve been eating. Or thinking about eating. Or planning the eating.

To be fair, this is the case for me All the Time. I like food. But in my defense at this particular time, my friend Maggie and I just held our first ever Food and Wine Retreat, so All the Thinking About Food = LEGIT.

I cannot adequately express how very much I needed the time away at the Oregon Coast to just hang out and relax.

It’s been a month, friends. One of those sort of Stunning, Beautiful, Brutal MONTHS. Anyone else?

And these pictures from the retreat have nothing to do with the Month I’m about to share, but, perhaps against the backdrop of the Real Life we’ve been living, you can see how grateful I am for Rest and Good Humans and Amazing Food by the Sea.

A friend approached Greg at church a few Sundays ago. She’s kind, and she knows our family, so she thought we’d want to know about the post in a public group on Facebook, describing a teenager on the path near our house who was threatening a young family, aimed at hurting or robbing them. A teenage boy who, when physically described, sounded too much like our oldest boy to ignore. 

Since the post mentioned his service dog, too, we had no doubt, really. I also knew he wasn’t going to hurt or rob anyone. Ian is very much like his Golden Retriever, Zoey; he’s much more likely to lick you to death than do anything to hurt you, ever.

But his disabilities — intellectual, verbal, and developmental — none of which are visible, mean he’s regularly misunderstood. And, if I can be perfectly frank here, our Guatemalan son is no longer seen as an adorable little boy with big brown doe eyes; now that he’s a 5’10”, 190 lb, brown male, people see a threat. I cannot adequately describe how much, over the last 15 years, our eyes have been opened to systematic and entrenched racism and to our own enormous privilege as white people.

So I did what any mommy would do. I joined the Facebook group, read the message about the lurking boy who followed the family, read the comments encouraging police involvement and warning the public to be wary of him, and attempted to defend my kid and dispel the idea that he’s a danger.

I wrote: “Hi. The boy you mentioned is my son, Ian. Ian is significantly intellectually disabled, and the dog, Zoey, is his service dog. As you noticed, Ian’s disability affects him socially, as well, and he is unable to accurately identify how others feel. His speech is also significantly impacted (he’s unable to understand others well or make himself clearly understood) — not sure whether you talked to him or not, but thought I should let you know that, too. I’m so sorry his behavior caused fear and anxiety for you and your kids. The good news is he wasn’t going to rob or hurt you; he cares deeply for others and isn’t violent or dangerous in any way — he’s just awful at understanding social cues. Ian’s only unsupervised activity each day is walking Zoey for 15 minutes on that path. He’s 18 now, so, alongside his therapists and teachers, we’re trying to give him “more responsibility” to do a few things on his own. Taking Zoey for a walk is his one thing right now. We regularly talk to him about the fact that people respond differently to him now that he’s “man sized” than when he was small. He’s very interested in and likes people, so it’s difficult for him to understand that lurking beside people, their kids, their conversations, etc. makes people feel nervous. Please know this is something we’re continuously working on with him and also that we had a long discussion with him about your experience. He said he “didn’t mean make them feel bad.” We’ve emphasized the importance of giving strangers a lot of space so we don’t appear threatening. Wishing you peaceful walks in the future…” 

I hit send, and then I cried for a really long time. 

There’s a grief inherent in raising children who experience disability. I haven’t met a parent yet who hasn’t felt it. But I’ll tell you… the last two years have been extraordinarily hard. Defeating. Exhausting. Relentless. 

We adopted Ian when he was 3, and, until he was 16 or so, we dealt in possibilities. He could possibly drive some day, we thought. Or maybe one day he’ll have his own apartment. While kids his age were earning trophies for their sports teams, we were happy for them… and grieved that Ian will never experience the camaraderie of going to State with water polo or wearing a letterman’s jacket on campus. But still, we thought; he still has potential for Some of the Usual Things. 

Until we didn’t think that anymore.

Until his childhood was over.

Until we arrived at the barriers he cannot climb. 

And then we grieved again, both for the life he cannot have… which we long suspected… but perhaps even more for the end of the possibilities.

 

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. Ian has a LOT of potential and will learn and change and grow as the years move by. But the goals are different now. The capacity isn’t there to drive and it would be both foolish and dangerous to try. Now the goal is learning public transportation. Similar with independence; he won’t get to go away to college like his sister or live in an apartment unsupervised or handle his own finances. And so we look to what he CAN do… but we grieve, too. There’s a lot of that.

And the grief over the “threatening teenager” was founded in the reality that he will face this sort of thing forever. That he can’t live only inside our family bubble. That he’ll go out into the world for more than 15 minutes at a time, and more people will feel threatened by a man-child who really would love to have a friend. That 15 minutes is all the time it takes for that to happen. 

I mourn that he can’t go into the world like I can and disarm people with words. I mourn that he’s 18 and must still be supervised 23 hrs and 45 minutes a day. I grieve that he will be judged “creepy” or frightening or a danger to women and children. 

It’s impossibly hard to love a child and not be able to give him the world. You know? Impossibly hard.

The community response to my message was beautiful, really. Strangers sending love, letting us know they’re eager to meet and greet Ian on his walks, and telling us about petting Zoey and chatting with Ian. “I’ve met this young man and his beautiful dog, as I walk the trail very often. I also have taken the time to stop and talk to him and Zoey (who he was kind enough to let me pet) I never felt a threat or worry around him, to me he just seemed a little lonely and a friendly hello seemed to really brighten his day. I hope they continue to enjoy the trail.”

I cry again, every time I read that. I needed the reminder that some people are magic and have the power to see past the surface to the precious person within.  

But the whole experience threw me for a loop, especially coming, as it did, on the same day my oldest girl asked us to find her birth mom. I’m a fan of that plan. I’m really excited for her… and also for me, truth be told. I’ve wanted to hug her bio mom for years. To thank her for giving my girl life. To tell her Abby’s been happy and healthy and well loved. To share how proud I am of our girl, hers and Greg’s and mine. But dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Path Situation AND trying to figure out how to hire a private investigator in Vietnam? That was something, friends. Just a teeny, tiny bit overwhelming. 

So it’s been a little radio silent around here. And I think I’ve made the case for Why Food, and Why Retreat, and Why Rest and Respite.

Because life is lifey. Yes?

Yes.

Life is lifey.

But life can also — at least for a little while — be fixed with fresh pasta and pizza and risotto and local wine…

…with outstanding people and human connection…

…with goofballs and laughter and a frickin’ break from the grind…

…and with the reminder that we’re all in this together.

None of us alone if we’re brave enough to reach for each other.

Signing off for now (and headed to get myself some food, because obviously),

 

 

 

P.S. Retreat season is a busy time for me. Lots of thought, planning and energy go into these events, none of which would be possible without my steady staff,  Maggie and Polly Peterson, who have made my dream of rest and respite built on human connection happen. The retreats are how I’ve met and spent time with many of you, dear readers and friends, and I’m grateful for every minute. (Including the naked on the beach ones.)

P.P.S. We do have two more retreats coming in 2018 — the Magic in the Mess Writing Retreat in May (for new and experienced writers alike) and the Mindfulness Retreat in November. There are still some spaces available at each, and I’d love for you to come. Maggie will be cooking. 😉 You can find all the details here

The Pictures You Don’t See on Facebook: PTSD and My Son’s Service Dog Hero

Jul 11 2016

We went on vacation last week, and it’s not lost on me that we’re now part of a narrowing group of American families who can afford ridiculous luxuries like paid time off and time together in the sun and water. Never mind that this holiday was paid for by Nana and Papa, and not us; we won’t pretend generous grandparents involved in their grandkids’ lives and with the means to gift us family time isn’t its own elite past time. We’re beyond lucky. We know it, and we walk a line that’s littered with guilt and gratitude in equal measure.

I posted pics on Facebook to prove we vacationed. Our happy family. Smiles, surf, sun and silliness. And I didn’t feel guilty about that. Not even a little. I still don’t, in spite of the loud voices everywhere telling us we’re Fakebooking when we post the pretty things and are trying to deceive our friends by highlighting only the joyful parts of life and omitting the rest. Facebook is my scrapbook. It’s where I hold happy memories. And the more happy on Facebook the better, in my opinion. POST ALL THE LUNCH PICTURES, I say. I WANT TO SEE YOUR PRETTY SANDWICH, friends. And ALL THE BABY PICS, too. TOO MANY CUTE KID PICS, PLEASE. When did we decide to be the cranky, old lawn neighbors, anyway? “Damn kids! Keep your happy off my Facebook lawn!

I feel guilty, in other words, for having a vacation at all. Guilty and grateful because I want ALL the families to have one, too. But I feel no guilt for having a happy moment out loud, and one I can share in public. Maybe because I long to share your happy moments, too. Or maybe because I know that vacations and families and friendships and children and life are made up of the happy mixed with the unhappy. The joyful mixed with the barely-holding-it-together. The gasps of air at the surface mixed with drowning. The magic and the mess intermingled. Grace and grime all the time.

Maybe, for me, it’s because every moment like this one,

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comes hand in hand with innumerable moments like this one
IMG_0547where our son, who experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from an early life that was deeply unfair to him, falls all the way apart.

Our vacations, therefore, are moments of trauma and triumph strung together haphazardly. Angst and sorrow sprinkled with joy. Frustration, mostly, for this precious man-child, and tiny glimpses of freedom, now and then, and not often enough.

I don’t usually share much with you about Ian’s life or ours with him. I have occasionally here and here and here and here. But mostly we keep what he experiences to ourselves because each of our kids has control over the “publish” button when it comes to their stories, and Ian is the most private of our kids, the one who’s most bewildered about this strange life; the most uncertain that there are good things out there for him; the most sure that he’ll be hurt again like he was in his first life, before we were there were champion him and fail him and champion him again, like all parents who mean well and succeed and fail in equal measure but still hope they’re not screwing it up entirely.

I took the pictures below of Ian with his service dog, Zoey, months ago, because he asked me to. He wanted to “watch Zoey do her job, Mom,” and so I sat with him while she worked as she so often does to ease anxiety and panic that overtakes my son but which he’s helpless to explain, bearing the double burden of PTSD with an expressive language disorder that keeps most of his thoughts and feelings stuck inside with no way out. I’ve kept these pictures private, of course, because they’re really not mine to share.

Except that Ian has asked me now for a week straight to show them to you.

We had a conversation after vacation. A conversation about Miss Zo and her special place in our lives. A conversation about the many who suffer, as Ian does, from PTSD and myriad other disabilities. A conversation about mental illness, with which I am far too familiar myself. And a conversation about what it’s like to feel so terribly alone, wading through the muck and mire and wondering whether there’s a way out.

Ian said, “Show them, Mom.”

I said no. A whim on his part didn’t seem like a good enough reason to show his anguish to the world.

He still said, “Show them.”

I said no again. And again. And again.

But he’s asked me every day for a week after that convo. Until I said, “Why, Ian? You usually want to keep this to yourself. You usually don’t want people to see this. And once we show them, it’s not possible to take it back.”

And Ian said, “So they’re not alone, Mom. So they know they’re not alone.”

And so, to honor my son and his battle, my son the hero, and his dog the hero, too, here are the pictures we don’t show on Facebook. A face of PTSD and the dog who would lead him to the light at the end of each tunnel:

IMG_0543IMG_0544IMG_0545IMG_0546IMG_0547IMG_0548IMG_0549IMG_0550IMG_0551IMG_0552IMG_0553IMG_0554IMG_0555IMG_0556IMG_0557IMG_0559IMG_0560IMG_0561

With love, friends, and the reminder from my kid that we’re not alone,

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Christmas Came Early: Introducing Someone Very Special…

Dec 20 2014

The tentative whispers and the cautious what ifs — the quiet perhapses and the hesitant maybes — can change your life. 

I know they’ve changed mine.

Again and again, the what ifs and maybes changed mine.

Like, maybe I love him. And, what if I marry him? And, perhaps I should follow my heart.

Changed my life. 

They were toes in the water and the slow first steps, those perhapses of wondering which were born out of longing and transformed into hope. 

Hope for a future.

Hope for a family, because the what ifs of marriage turned into the perhapses of having a baby… and then two more perhapses and a couple of maybes after that, and, whew, five kids is a lot of kids, you know? Like any number of kids is a lot of kids. Any number of kids is a LOT of kids because kids are made out of human like the rest of us and, well, any number of humans is a LOT of humans because we’re all wild and weird and wonderful which is a LOT to take all at once.

Over time in our family, we’ve wound up and down that ladder of perhaps and maybe. A whole lifetime of ups and downs, and downs and ups, and a few more downs, and not all of them pretty. 

What if we never should’ve done this?

What if it was all a mistake?

What if I’m lost forever? What if I can never find myself again?

Maybe they’d be better off without me.

Perhaps I can’t fix this.

I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never wondered whether my kids and my partner got the worst end of the deal when they landed me as a mom and a wife. I’ve wondered that a thousand thousand times. And I’ve wondered it most of all for Ian, my kid with special needs who’s strong and kind and suffers all the time because the world is an anxious place and he’s unsure where to find safety and solace. 

Maybe if I was a better mother.

Maybe if I was a better comforter.

Maybe if I wasn’t so totally batshit crazy.

It doesn’t seem to matter that I know my son’s early years, without us there yet, were full of uncertainty and neglect.

Maybe if I’d gotten there sooner…

Maybe if I was more patient…

Maybe if I’d advocated better or got to the specialists faster…

But it turns out that one of the biggest challenges of my life this far is the act of forgiving myself for everything I cannot be and all the things I cannot fix and to embrace myself for being one of those wild, weird, wonderful humans, after all… and then choosing, somehow, to dip my toes into the hopeful side of perhaps again. Choosing, somehow, to believe in the good what ifs  and the magical maybes

We sat in the counseling office a few months ago with our son. We talked again about the panic attacks and the scariness of the night. We talked about the fight or flight of anxiety. We talked about watching our kid hurting. And we talked about hope and help, and the counselor had a what if.

What if… a service dog? What if… a warm companion? What if… affection, no strings attached? What if… she’s trained to help? What if… she can do for him something special? Something extraordinary? 

I said no. It’s too complicated. It’s Another Thing in our Busy Lives. It’s unmanageable and unrealistic. My husband won’t go for another dog – no way, no how. 

But my son’s whole face lit up, and his body relaxed, and my heart whispered maybe.

Zoey5And so I’d like to introduce you to our new Zoey… a maybe born out of longing, transformed into hope, and here in the flesh and the fur.

Christmas came early in our house, no question.

Christmas came early, and Love is made real. 

Again and again, Love is made real. In the form of a Baby. In the whisper of maybe. It’s just, this time, she came with floppy ears and a tail.

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas… or a Happy Hannukah… or a Wonderful Kwanza… or whatever says Love and Light to you this season… and sending Joy and Hope because I have extra right now,

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P.S. Here are some pictures of a Dog and Her Boy.

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Pardon me while I use this entire box of tissues. 

And P.P.S., for those of you wondering who we went through to make this happen, we’re incredibly thrilled and grateful to be working with Aliesha Shepherd at Sit Spot Click Dog Training. Aliesha found Zoey for us and is training her and… the biggest challenge… training US. 

An Open Letter to You From a Mama of Kids With Special Needs

Oct 22 2014

An Open Letter to You
From a Mama of Kids With Special Needs

 

Dear You,

Dear You, my friend,

Dear You, my neighbor,

Dear You who have kids without special needs… kids with just, you know, the usual slew of bottomless needs,

Dear You who are kids,

Dear You who were once kids,

Dear You,

I want to tell you about my son.

Just for a minute.

And about me and what it’s like for us who live full-time here in this world of kids who are different than normal, whatever normal is. 

I want to tell you about my son.

My son who is beautiful.

My son who is sensitive. 

My son who is compassionate, funny, and kind.

My son who loves Doritos the way some people love the sunrise or the rain on the roof or the majesty of the ocean, with a sense of awe and wonder and bliss.

My son who’s a total butt nugget and says GEEZ, MOM and WHATEVER and FINE and who also says I love you, Mom, and means it as fervently as he does the Geezes.

IanMy son who experiences developmental delay, pronounced anxiety, and expressive and receptive language disorders — meaning he can neither speak nor understand speech as easily as others — and who lives, therefore, every minute of every day trapped inside his own brain, unable to communicate well; at once imprisoned and also more free than we’ll ever be because he hasn’t learned to hide himself the way we so often do. 

Sometimes you ask me how my son is doing. You who know us well, and you who know us just a little. You ask because you care and because you’re curious, and I want you to know both are OK. I appreciate your kindness, and I understand your curiosity. It’s OK to want to know. It’s good to ask.

Sometimes I give you an answer. Sometimes I can’t find the words. When I do respond, it’s usually short. 

How’s school going? you say. How’s Ian and how are you? And I don’t know what to tell you, because, even though you’ll listen to my whole answer — even though I believe you actually, really want to know — I don’t know how to access the complexity of my grief and my longing and my hope in order to find a whole answer to give.

My son is a child who will, on some level, always finish last when measured by the standards of success the worlds gives us. He will always be an outsider. Always be different. Never belong. And so we work to create the safe haven. The place of belonging. The soft place to land. The true meaning of family. Which, it turns out, is hard, because families are made out of humans and we’re fallible. Imperfect. Messed up. And we’re the ones he’s stuck with, poor kid.

It’s hard for my son to be different. He knows. He can tell. And it’s hard for me, too, because I grieve that which cannot be. The same life and opportunities the other kids have. The limitless potential to DO. I must wrestle with myself most days to remember my son has the limitless potential to BE. To be loved. To be valued. To bring joy. To be my son. To be enough as he already is.

Grief and hope make for awkward companions. Awkward lovers, never quite sure where to put their hands. Always bumping teeth. And yet, because the grief abides, I work to make room for hope, for without hope we are lost at sea, adrift and alone.

While I’ve learned to live inside this new reality — while I’ve learned to look for hope and to cheer victories of every size and to regroup when we’re forced to fall back — I have neither “gotten over” nor “come to terms with” my son’s disabilities like I expected I would by now. Instead, I’ve learned there are new phases of grief. New sorrows. New things he can’t now and will never do. New realities that are mine with every new age of his.

So you ask how he is. How I am. And I want to answer you. I do. I want to champion my son. I want to spread awareness. I want to hand you my heart. But I don’t know how.

I stick with facts for my longer answers. School’s going well, I say. Or, He got to play a sport this year! First time he’s played a season. I might even tell you, The counselor is AWESOME — she is, it’s true — or say, The medication is really making a difference, and I mean that, too. Even though medication isn’t right for everyone, I wish we’d given him that relief earlier.

But I more often give you a chipper Fine! or a cheerful Good! or, when I’m overwhelmed and can’t muster my optimism, an Ugh! or a Pfftt! or Well, it’s hard right now, but we’ll figure it out.

And there’s a whole world of things I don’t say.

About what it feels like when it’s dark outside and I wonder about his future.

About how hard it is to tell him again, day after day, sometimes hour by hour, that I don’t understand what he just said and I need him to say it again.

I don’t tell you he didn’t sleep through a single night for the first 11 years we had him.

I don’t tell you about the panic attacks that leave him flailing and breathless.

I don’t tell you what it’s like to hear the sounds of my son crying in his sleep and to revisit what his first 3 years must have been like, abandoned and alone. 

I don’t tell you about the guilt I carry for not being with him, even though there’s nothing I could have done to change his early life.

I don’t tell you about the family vacations, for which we try to be grateful, which are raw and agonizing because he is outside his routine and his safety net and therefore bewildered and afraid.

I don’t tell you about the ways my body tenses when he bursts into our room in the middle of the night and the door bounces off the wall while he yells, “DAD? MOM?” because he needs to make sure we’re still there.

I don’t tell you how fragile he is. Or how fragile I am. Or how much I’m afraid we’ll all break.

Instead, I give you an answer, a Fine! or a Good!, and it’s a true one, but it’s also incomplete because my brain is short-circuiting. Stuttering. Blanking. There’s just too much to say, and I don’t know where to jump in.

guatemala 014When Ian was three (and four and five and six and probably seven), he used to throw himself on the ground and play dead whenever he felt overwhelmed by the world around him. I took this picture of him at age three, in the airport in Guatemala City, just after we adopted him, when we were bringing him home for the first time. 

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty good strategy. Very effective. 

It’s also an excellent visual aid for the route my brain travels when you ask us how we are. How are we? We’re… good… we’re… fine… fizzle, fizzle, kerthunk… PLAY DEAD

And so I take this long route to tell you this: I’m a mama of kids with special needs. I’m hopeful and I grieve. And I need you, my friends, rather desperately, even when I don’t know what to say.

I need you to keep me on the side of hope.

I need you to whisper in the dark that it’s going to be OK.

I need you to keep asking how we are, even though my answers are pathetic.

And I need you to know I remember every kind thing you say to me about my kid. Every compliment. Every ounce of compassion. Every time you try to include him in your games and in your parties. Every time you inconvenience yourself to bring us in. 

For every kindness to my child, to my family and to me, I’m nearly unbearably grateful. And I’ll ask you to please, keep being gentle with us. 

Yours Truly,
A Mama of Kids With Special Needs

 

If I Had Time to Write, This Is What I’d Say…

Oct 21 2014

I have things to write, you guys. Stuff to say. Some of it’s drivel, as usual, but some of it’s important.

I want to write about having a kid with special needs and what it means to live with constant, evolving grief while still looking for the joy.

I want to write about how annoying it is when people say, “You think two is hard? TWO? Just wait ’til your kid turns THREE. THAT’S hard,” because three IS worse than two — it TOTALLY IS — except when two is worse than three. And parenting teenagers is WAY, WAY HARDER than parenting littles, unless, you know, parenting littles is harder than parenting teens. 

I want to write about how our experiences and our feelings about parenting and life are valid and important even when they’re different than someone else’s experiences and feelings.

I want to write about the ways close families have to WORK and WORK to be close and to compromise and to champion and choose each other, because family — even really wonderful family — is hard. Life-giving and hard. Joyful and hard. Beautiful and hard. Because the people closest to us are the people most able to hurt us and the most motivated to help us heal, and that’s a strange, awful, awesome mixed up mess to navigate.

I want to write about farting and why 8 year old boys like to sit on their mommy’s lap and snuggle down and then let a giant one rip. Why? WHY? WHY IS IT THIS WAY?

I want to write about ages 8 and 9 so often being the gateway to preadolescence and how we never see that one coming. Just never. And so, no matter how many children we raise, we’re always blindsided by all the feelings and the oh my gosh, FREAK OUTs, and the ups and the downs… and the downs and the downs. And I want to write about how it’s worth it because these children, even with all the FEELINGS, can get themselves and all their stuff in and out of the car by themselves which is a MIRACLE. A MIRACLE! They get themselves IN AND OUT OF THE CAR, you guys. You don’t have to carry them there! You DON’T HAVE TO HELP WITH SEATBELTS. You can say things like, “Jump in the car. I’ll meet you there in a minute.” AND THEY DO IT. Do you understand what I’m saying? DO YOU?! THERE IS HOPE. Even with all the EMOTIONS and ups and downs downs downs, THESE CHILDREN CAN PUT ON THEIR OWN DARN SEATBELTS. 

Home3I want to write about my front door. How it’s dirty and scratched and stained and how the red paint has faded to a dull, fingerprinted orange. I want to tell you about how happy it makes me to write on it with a chalk pen, even though I know it’ll add another stain like the skull and crossbones you can see etched into the paint from Halloween last year. I want to talk about the joy of welcoming people to our mess this way. To the madness. To the chaos. And I want to talk about the small smile I smile when I walk through the door and remember to look for the magic here.

Home4I want to write about Autumn. About the sunset maples outside my house and the way they’ve turned orange and red.

I want to write about the changing of the seasons and how this one feels so much slower than summer and so much faster all at once with Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas barreling down upon us. I want to write about how unprepared I am for the season that’s coming and about how I don’t care and also about how I do.

I want to write about whether I can stop long enough to enjoy this season of life or whether, like I suspect, it’ll move past me in a blur. I want to write about the ways I wonder whether my writing will be a comfort to me in my later years. Will I know I at least wanted to be present? Will it be a reminder that I wasn’t somehow ignoring this life? Will I know I was just very busy trying to love my people well? To feed them literally and figuratively. To comfort them. To heal the hurts I caused. To heal the ones I didn’t. To fully live, even at the speed that is this season. 

I want to write all these things, but I can’t because I’ve run out of time. 

P.S. The kids keep getting sick. Not real sick. Not pukey sick or up-all-night sick or, heaven forbid, wash-all-the-sheets sick. No; they’re they best kind of sick, really. Snuggly sick. I-can-get-my-own-popsicle sick. Go-to-sleep-early sick. But sick nonetheless. So I don’t have time to write the things I want to write. But I will. Soon. Because sick only lasts a season, too. x’s and o’s, fellow warriors. x’s and o’s.

 

Do Your Kids Have Too Much Homework? 5 Tips on How to Tell and What to Do

Oct 3 2013

I hate homework more than my children hate homework, and I hope you understand I’m not maligning my kids’ Homework-Hating Potential by telling you so.

I mean, sure, not all my kids are consistent about hating homework, especially my deliriously enthusiastic, trend-bucking 1st graders who seem for now to actually enjoy it, but I like to think even they carry some sort of latent homework-hating potential, if only from my side of the gene pool.

I tell you all of this to expose my bias before we begin lest you think I’m trying to give homework a fair shake, which I’m, well, not. But perhaps it’s best if I tell you why I hate homework so you don’t think I completely reject all forms of standard education. Because I actually love our local education district, and particularly the fact that my children are subjected to it. I LOVE SCHOOL is what I’m saying, and especially that MY CHILDREN GO THERE to sit at the feet of RAD TEACHERS who – get this – TEACH THEM THINGS. These people and their systems are not perfect, nor do they magically have the answer to every educational dilemma our family faces (damn it), but they still make me unreasonably happy because they work with us and are dedicated to their craft and make a difference in our world; I’m grateful for them every day.

Homework, though?

Well, not to be dramatic, but I support the death penalty for homework and, after it’s executed, I will volunteer to drag its carcass from the building, dig its unmarked grave, and bury it so I can be the first to spit on it.

The reason I hate homework is this: homework seems to benefit only one type of child from one type of family; a type that becomes more and more rare as time goes on. Homework is designed for families with a maximum of 2 children from a 2-parent home wherein one parent is a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver and also has some kind of formal training in education. For example, my high schooler, who I would argue needs some homework so she can learn college study skills and time management, also needs a parent who can teach effective study techniques; something her father and I patently fail at doing, not because we don’t have study techniques, but because we are truly terrible at imparting our knowledge in a way that makes sense to our children. In other words, we just suck at helping with homework.

Also, for homework to be effective, the children shouldn’t have any learning disabilities and should be at least somewhat self-directed and intrinsically motivated to learn.

Also-also, the children shouldn’t have more than one extracurricular activity or siblings with any.

Also-also-also, the children shouldn’t have any medical disabilities or other issues that require after-school care or treatment.

Also-also-also-also… well, you get the idea.

Last week, I lost my homework poo in a great, big homework poo explosion.

We were three weeks into school, and I just completely lost it because Greg came home in the early evening, assessed the volume of homework facing us and casually mentioned that Aden, our 6th grader, had several hours ahead of her.

“Hey, Beth,” Greg said, holding a stack of teacher blog printouts and poor test scores and science worksheets and math problems, “Aden has hours of homework tonight.”

And I said, “No.”

And Greg the Rule Follower said, “What?”

And I felt my eyes go wide and crazy as I said, “No.”

And Greg said, “What?” which meant I don’t think you can just say No here, Beth.

And I said, “No. No. Just NO. I can’t… We’re not… It’s just… NO.”

And Greg looked at me like I’d lost my mind, so I took a deep breath and explained, “She went to school from 7:45-2:20 today. She went to homework club after school from 2:20-3:45. She rode the bus from 3:45-4:30. She just got home 45 minutes ago. She does that every day. That’s 39 hours of school she’s already doing every week. She’s 11, and school is her full time job. She has diagnosed developmental delays and communication disorders. She loves school right now, Greg. She loves reading. She’s progressing and learning in all subjects, even though it’s slower than the charts say she should be. She sneaks books into bed at night. She’s amazing. I just can’t make her do more. No matter what common core dictates about retaking all these tests, I can’t do it in good conscience. I can’t kill her love of learning by giving her more school work after she’s put in a full day. So no. NO. No, no, no. No homework tonight. Homework can’t help her right now.” 

And Greg held the stack out to me and said, “Then what do we do?”

Which is the question, isn’t it?

If homework’s not working, then what do we do?

How do we know? What do we do? What can we do? And how do we do it?

ID-10067330Because, of course, as I was hyperventilating about Aden’s homework, I had other things running through my mind, too. Like 4 other kids’ homework, and dinner to get on the table, and a kid to run to dance class, and allergy shots to schedule, and a kid with a fever, and youth group permission slips to complete, and picture day forms, and 1st grade sharing to find, and a grocery list to create, and dear God, I’ve had to pee for 4 hours now.

Homework doesn’t happen in isolation, after all; it has to work for the whole family.

We’ve had kids in school for 30 cumulative years, though, and we’ve learned a thing or two in that time, mostly from teachers who pulled us aside as we were busy Powering Through and Not Giving Up and BLINDERS ON, KID! FULL SPEED AHEAD! They saw us flailing, tossed a figurative arm around our shoulders and said, “Psst… did you know it doesn’t have to be like this?” or “Psst… did you know there are other options?” or “Psst… why didn’t you tell us you were drowning sooner? We’re here to help you.

So I’ve polled a few of my favorite teachers about this conundrum – what do we do when homework is just too much? – and, just in case you’re at the end of your homework rope, too, here’s what the teachers had to say.

5 Tips on
How to Tell When Your Kid Has Too Much Homework

and What to Do About It

1. Know WHY Your Kid Has Homework: Teachers should be able to identify the purpose (learning target) for everything they assign. Homework should reinforce ideas and allow for the opportunity to finish odds and ends not completed in class. There is a ton of research that supports the fact the amount of homework given has no positive impact on student mastery of skills and could possibly have a detrimental effect. Homework should not be busy work or the time for new learning. If asked (and parents should ask if it’s unclear), a teacher should be able to articulate the purpose behind a homework assignment.

2. Know HOW MUCH Homework is Expected: “I’ve heard a formula of about 10 minutes per grade level per day. However, my early teaching years were in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. You could not count on the kids being able to do homework, and even now I’m not a fan. Some kids and families will obsess about it and others won’t or can’t.” Ask your child’s teachers how much homework is expected and when to call it quits even if they haven’t finished. For middle schoolers, for example, more than 60-90 minutes total is ridiculous, and 90 minutes every night is too much. Any more and it’s either busy work or they don’t get it.

3. Trust Your Gut and Honor Your Kid’s Experience: Homework isn’t always fun, and that’s OK. Some of the skills a child should learn from homework are time management, finishing projects, asking for help, working through frustration, and being responsible. Some learning comes from struggling through a process and triumphing over it, but perpetual struggle can crush your kid’s spirit; it’s your job to recognize when that’s happening and to guard against it. A teacher cannot and should not be responsible for knowing how it’s going at home. If a child is consistently frustrated or discouraged or angry, or if you’ve wondered for some time why homework isn’t working, trust your gut and honor your kid’s experience; ask for help. If the child gets stuck, including emotionally, it’s better to stop and send the teacher a quick note that the child plans to ask the teacher for help the next day.

4. Communicate Kindly and Clearly With Teachers: Teachers are friends, not food. (Name that movie.) No, but really. The vast majority of teachers are there because they want to be effective at helping your kid learn. They’re partners, not enemies, and should be treated as essential members of your team. Your goals are the same – growth and learning. Just like all growth, sometimes it’s painful. That’s OK; just be gentle with each other.

Don’t start a conversation with, ‘I don’t think my kid should have so much homework.’ Instead, ask about learning targets. Tell the teacher your kid is having a hard time. Tell the teacher how you feel. Ask what the teacher has noticed. Ask what the teacher recommends. Ask how the teacher has accommodated other students with challenges.

“As a teacher, I appreciate open honest conversation with parents. If a parent treats me as a partner in the kid’s learning process, I’ll bend over backwards to find what will work best. The best meeting I ever had, the parent scheduled in advance, brought me coffee and then grilled me to explain why their kid didn’t have an A+++. All teachers want to be respected. Good teachers welcome insight into their students. Who better than their parents to provide it?”

And if a teacher can’t help you, ask the administration who can.

5. Ask for Alternatives and Then Keep Communicating: There are often different ways a child can show mastery without epic amounts of homework. Ask the teacher if they have hours available during lunch or before or after school to assist kids who need extra help; schedule your child regularly with the teacher if necessary. If your child needs testing for learning disabilities or to be on an Individualized Education Plan, keep asking; check in weekly with your school to find out where your child is in that process. It takes longer than anyone likes to get kids special accommodations. That’s just part of it. Most importantly, don’t give up! Asking for alternatives and advocating for your child with a teacher are not one-time events or one-time fixes. A partnership with a teacher can and should continue throughout the year. Email. Check in. Ask how it’s going. And let the teacher know you appreciate his time.

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So, parents, how’re you doing with homework these days? Holding your poo together? Or not so much? If you have stories or additional tips, I’m all ears.

And P.S. I’m on the fabulous and funny Dadsaster podcast this week as they tackle parental involvement in schools. I might – *ahem* – confess to be just slightly less involved than the PTA president… and I might list all the things I’m supposed to be doing that I don’t, um, actually do. In other words, I did all my own stunts in the podcast so none of the stars would be harmed in the shoot. I give and I give. Give it a listen here.

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Stressed School Boy photo credit David Castillo Dominici via freedigitalimages.net

How to Have a Successful Family Vacation

Aug 5 2013

When I was pregnant with twins and completely out of my mind with Oh Dear God, I Can’t Do This Five Kids Thing, my friend Christy, a fellow mama of multiples, said, “Don’t worry. Every 3 months, something gets easier.”

Christy was right. Well, except when she was wrong. But mostly she was right. Every 3 months, in general, something did get easier.

Last week, we went on family vacation.

IMAG0664(cousins)

And family vacations can be a mixed bag, right? For us, having a kid with special needs plus 4 other kids who expect unreasonable things like quality time and attention and to eat food, our family vacation bag has been more like a burlap sack full of kittens someone tossed in the river, all noise and mewling and squirming and pushing and THIS IS HORRIBLE, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!

Not to be dramatic or anything.

Honestly, though, this vacation was rad.

photo 4 (2)(Abby and Katee)

Just really, really great.

photo 4 (32)

(my brother and me)

You know, except when it wasn’t.

photo 5 (18)

🙂

But the times it wasn’t were fewer and farther between.

photo 1

(Cael, Aden and Cai rafting the Deschutes River, OR)

photo 2 (72)

(Abby, Katee, Aden, me)

And I will tell you what: it’s taken us a long time to get to this place. A long time full of working hard, giving in to exhaustion, falling apart, losing our crap, pledging to Never Go on Vacation Again, sighing, trying again, and making slow, incremental improvements. Traveling with tiny twins and a kid with special needs who relies on stability, structure and strict routine to maintain any amount of composure… well, it sucked. For lots of years and lots of vacations, until we found what works for all of us, it sucked. Like, it didn’t totally suck, but the percentage of suckage was very, very high, is what I’m saying. 

But every year, something got easier.

photo 3 (2)photo 4(Cai, Cael and Ian on the Deschutes River)

Until the last 2 years, when the rad percentage switched places with the suckage percentage.

photo 5

(Ian and Aden the opposite of attacking each other: a vacation MIRACLE)

The truth is, I love vacations. I love to travel.

photo 1 (2)

(Cael, Cai and Papa, canoe bosses)

I love to spend time with my ridiculous, awesome family.

I love that we’re creating weird, wonky, wonderful family memories.

IMAG0668(Papa, the Photo Bomber)

IMAG0675

(Greg and me, minus the Bomber)

And I guess I just wanted to let you know that if your family vacation isn’t perfect like the commercials or your friends’ Facebook feeds or even your own childhood memories which are sometimes based on the photos that captured only the good moments and none of drowning kittens, that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s exactly right.

We went on vacation.

And yes, we fought in the car both ways.

And yes, a kid vomited on the first day and in my bed.

And yes, my phone screen shattered into a gazillion pieces.

And yes, we were impatient.

But we were also kind, even more than we thought we could stand to be.

And we laughed hard.

And we watched movies while sitting in a hot tub,
floating bowls of popcorn like tiny ships.

And we ate obnoxiously large bags of M&M’s and way too many ice cream bars.

And we gathered for family dinners.

And we swam the pool.

And we freaked out in the river.

And we rode horses that acted like my kids, which is to say they were majestic and stunning and beautiful and stayed on the path and followed directions, but only when they felt like it. The rest of the time, they were bonking us into tree branches and eating off the ground and farting and peeing in public and falling behind and running to catch up and making us laugh and laugh and laugh and love the ride more for it.

photo 4 (31)

photo 5 (17)

(Aden, Abby and Katee, high in the Ponderosas)

So, yes; our vacation wasn’t perfect. And yes, we have improvements to make. And yes, I came home and went straight to bed.

But our vacation was just what we needed it to be. Incrementally better. Easier than last year. And our own brand of completely awesome.

photo 1 (67)

(Cai and Ian, zonked on the way home)

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How do you feel about family vacation? What makes them work for you?
We’re taking more family vacations closer to home these days, and traveling farther with smaller groups of kids. It’s working much better for the man-child who needs a routine, but I did have to mourn the loss of bigger family trips. (Although my bank balance is much happier.)

What about you and yours?

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