Negotiating Surrender: Quiet Time

The nap, my friends, is dead. It made it past 4, and still lives on in sick days and after late nights, with much cajoling. But by and large, Pippin seems to be of his father’s school of sleep: less than the average bear. (His mother, on the other hand, was falling asleep on the way home from kindergarten until 6.)

I fought long and bitterly for nap time, which Pip would have liked to discontinue at 2 1/2, when I was pregnant with Scout, and which possibly would have literally killed either me or him. Sleepy introvert mamas need their quiet time, too. And now I’ve put a similarly insane amount of work into rebranding nap time as “quiet time.”

We have this ok to wake up clock, and at the time, in grad school, it felt like a wild indulgence even to ask for it on a Christmas list, but it’s paid for itself in dividends to the point where we contemplate even packing it on trips. Not only do we use it for morning wakeup, but it’s invaluable for making quiet time happen.

What I do is put Pippin in his bedroom by himself, set the clock for an hour and walk away. The rule is simple enough even he can understand: if I can’t tell if he’s taking a nap, he gets a treat. (Usually half an episode of Octonauts and five yogurt raisins, in this hedonist family.) He may come down only if he needs help using the bathroom, and he must be very, very quiet. I am very firm on this point — some might say fanatical.

At first I’d only give him books, but now that he’s got the general concept down, he gets to bring a bag of quiet toys upstairs with him. When he’s a bit more reliable, I’ll let him branch out into art supplies up there — for now, he writes his name all over the room in white chalk of mysterious origins.

I don’t think I need to tell you how essential this is to my sanity. Years ago, Catholic All Year gave me permission to carve out quiet time for myself and my kids, something my mom, a much more extroverted caregiver, always prioritized for herself, too. I use the time for all kinds of frivolous and noble purposes, from dinner prep to naps of my own, from reading to writing to straightening up. It is a small oasis in our day, a little moment of peace that benefits us all.

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Precipice 

Around here, the daffodils are blooming, the irises and the forsythia. And it’s all too early. People talk with trepidation: It’s beautiful, and welcome, but surely winter will be back. It won’t last.

Something similar is going on in our house. We are at a sweet spot in our family’s rhythms. Scout is approaching being weaned. I’ve got a plan for Pippin for next year. The house is tolerably under control. We are out of the trenches on most fronts.

But that means it’s probably just a matter of time until the cycle starts over again, and, God willing, I’m pregnant again.

Because I love my babies, and I’d love more, and I love parts of having a baby: picking a name, feeling the baby move, even labor. And the baby coming: the tiny clothes, the sweet snuggles, nursing. But it’s all really, really hard, right? My two pregnancies have not come close to a hyperemesis gravidarum diagnosis, but the first one in particular was one of the most discouraging, exhausting, bleak experiences of my (admittedly very privileged) life. The second time, both pregnancy and the newborn phase were easier, because I knew with personal evidence they would, in fact, come to an end, and could therefore better savor them. (Also, real talk, I took nausea medicine for the second go round, which obviously helped in the morale department.) Still, pregnancy means ceding control, and ceding it for a pretty long time — much longer than just pregnancy itself. It’s a scary, dreary prospect.

Just as winter is a fruitful time, bulbs fastening on to life underground, unseen, the hibernation and disarray of the pregnant season yields much that is good, too. It’s a season of Lent for me, and this early taste of spring has felt like Easter.

It’s a scary prospect, to go back under, to submit to the privations of Lent, the bleakness of winter, the aches of pregnancy, to wait for the return of blossomtome. But time out of mind, the only way up has been through. And Lent and pregnancy are, in the end, privileges: both are, if embraced, a time to toughen up, to grow closer to God — and followed by rich and lasting reward.

Lenten rose, spotted on a springlike Fat Tuesday walk

This Is Four

Lately, this is my boy when he sees me sneaking a photo. But when he gets my phone to himself during audiobook time while I’m making supper:



He’s been so into reading chapter books aloud since the new year, and when in flusterment* I handed him my phone with a hastily downloaded Mercy Watson library audiobook a couple weeks ago when I couldn’t manage to read aloud and chop onions simultaneously, I had no idea how popular this move would make me.

So while Scout methodically destroys my kitchen or deigns to throw Cheerios from her high chair and I frantically finish supper, Pippin listens to the adventures of the Boxcar Children and takes a million, jillion pictures of the things that make up his life. I love his weird compositions of scenes from our messy house during one of the most difficult times of our day as a family. I delete most of them, because I don’t really need (literally) 93 pictures of his Matchbox firetruck. I end up with pictures of the junky Lego book I let him get from the library; of our unstraightened playroom bookshelf; of shoes strewn with wild abandon (even though they know better!). I delete most of them, but I keep a few, mementos of these imperfect, fleeting evenings.

*not a word, but should be

Homeschooling and the Bookshelf

A recent Goodwill haul

When I was getting ready to travel to East Africa as a newlywed, I re-read Heart of Darkness and The Poisonwood Bible(Optimistic choices, I know.) When we were expecting our firstborn, I pored over Natural Childbirth the Bradley WayI am a reader, first and foremost. It’s how I prepare, living out the future from the safety of the page.

The decision to homeschool Pip’s preschool next year has been different, because these sweet children already take up so much of my day that I can’t dive into a book as I once did. I want to read to prepare, but instead, I find myself reading Good Night, Good Night Construction Site or another Beverley Cleary instead of educational philosophy.

Although Virginia’s winter has been mild this year, it’s run roughshod on our family. One or more of us has been sick since we returned from Christmas weeks and weeks ago. Barred from playdates and parks, stir crazy in the house, overdosed on family movies, I find myself hauling the kids day after day from one thrift shop to another.

Right now, homeschooling feels so big, so nebulous, and as with first birth or expatriation, you can’t really know what it’s like until you’re already in the thick of it. I can be thinking about what I’d like to do, and talking to my many wise friends, and sneaking bits of The Well-Trained Mind on audiobook as I cook dinner, but for now, it’s mostly a matter of waiting.

I realized, though, there might be a method to my compulsion. I can’t read homeschooling manuals when I’m caring for my kids, but I sure as heck can wheel them around a thrift store, diving for literary treasures. With every chapter book I snag, I feel a little more prepared for the mostly unpreparable. I’ve got another book to read aloud to Pippin, another book of background reading I’ll get to one of these days (I’m looking at you, Last Child in the Woods). I can’t yet imagine what our homeschooling life will look like a year from now, but I rest assured I’ll be surrounded by old friends: Stuart Little, the Alden children, Mary Poppins, the Penderwick sisters.

The Case for Photo Books

I’m a big believer in photo books. I make them a couple times a year, and have tried several different services.

The process is a mixed bag. The software or site can be clunky to use, and it’s tedious to sift through the thousands of pictures I take in six months and the hundred more restrained J manages. (A friend says she’s set up Dropbox so the photos from her phone and her husband’s both automatically import there, so I’ve got a new goal.) I usually spend a few evenings sitting beside J on the couch with our matching laptops, something inane on the TV, and crank out another photo book to add to our stash.

But the end result is alchemical: something magical out of a mess of poorly focused shots, duplicates, blurry snaps of children in motion. Looking back at these books reminds me there is good in every season, no matter how morning sick it was. Recently I pulled one volume from the shelf to show Pippin the winter he and J made a snow fort in the backyard, and suddenly I found the kids immersed in photo albums, Scout reverently whispering, “Baby” as she pointed emphatically at photo after photo.

I’ve used Shutterfly, Blurb, MyPublisher, Mixbook and Pinhole Press (this one just for board books). Of these, probably MyPublisher is my favorite for prettiness (cloth covers!) and Shutterfly/Mixbook are cheapest and easiest to use. (I just read MyPublisher is closing up shop, though. Figures.)

Along the way, I’ve assembled a stack of photo books that vary in size and quality but all serve to tell the story of our family. It’s easy to snag one off the shelf to show a neighbor how impressively bald and round-headed Pip was as a baby, or to show Pip what our old house in Granby looked like. Sometimes he’ll ask for one to be read to him as a story book, or Scout will page enthusiastically and violently through one. I remember my own childhood fondness for those static-page photo albums of the ’90s and so I soldier on with clunky software and crashing websites, building up the Grimm Bowers family record one photo book at a time.

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Toddler Pip sharing memories with his uncle

Eliner 

It’s no secret I love names, which is why my children have squillions of them, and why I’ll pester the life out of any pregnant woman I encounter. Before we named each of our children, we spent a long time thinking of every possible permutation, shortening, misspelling.

But I did not think of Eliner.

To me, Eleanor is a regal three syllables, old-fashioned but not stuffy. Elinor, as we almost spelled it, is nearly as good, calling to mind, as it does, Elinor Dashwood. I knew there were two ways to spell it, but I didn’t know until she was named that there were two ways to pronounce it.

To my surprise, I keep coming across Southerners, from here in Virginia, from North Carolina and Tennessee, who pronounce it El-lih-ner. And I hate it!

When I was in high school, there was a boy called Greg whose mother always corrected us his name was Gregory. How did she not see that one coming? Now I sympathize. I knew my Thomas Joseph might someday go by Tommy, or worse, TJ. (Shudder.) But I thought I had worked through all the Eleanor variations and approved of each: Ella and Ellie and Nora, three dear girls.

J reminds me that we love the Southern accents of the people we love — how I longed for the cadence of the South Georgians around me in college — and if this one unlovely pronunciation is the only aberration, so be it. I try to think of that, and it helps, some, but mostly I just remember again the inherent mystery of naming another, unknown human being. Will this scrawny newborn with wide, inscrutable eyes be a fun-loving teenager in furry boots called Ella? Will this wild-haired toddler, chattering about babies and trucks, someday be a compassionate school teacher who goes by her middle name, or the stern legislator Eleanor?

We don’t know, can’t know. So we take our best shot, choose a name solemnly or lightly, and watch the rest unfold.

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Queenly, right?

Enjoy Them

This is a hard post to write, because it’s a hard thing to admit:

Sometimes I forget to even try to enjoy my children.

On the one hand, this is good. I give myself permission not to treasure every moment, and it’s a relief not to feel guilt when I can’t feel joy. Some things just aren’t better with small children. (Stomach bugs, for instance.) Some stages are particularly challenging. That’s ok.

But there have been times when I’ve hardened my hearts to my children, just seen it as my work to shape these little people into likable humans (a task Jennifer Senior explores in the really fascinating All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood). It’s true they are my 9-5 grind, but seeing them that way means that they’re just obtrusive work emails, obnoxious take-home work, standing in the way of my real fun when the weekend rolls around. I end up like Marilla Cuthbert, vowing grimly, “But I’ve put my hand to the plow and I won’t look back.”

So it was kind of a wakeup call to me this winter, reading Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids — a book with a truly embarrassing title. (Peaceful sounds like hippie nonsense and happy doesn’t feel like it’s in my control, or necessarily the point.) Still, it was the only parenting audiobook available from the library at that frustrated moment, and something needed to change.

And the book doesn’t come right out and tell you to enjoy your children, maybe because, duh, everyone else is doing that already. But it reminds you that a kid can tell when he’s delighting you, and reminds you that connection builds a basis on which you can strengthen your relationship and influence in your child’s life. When a child can tell she’s pleasing you, she wants to please you more.

Of course.

This is pretty self-evident stuff, but for me, it was revolutionary. Now when we argue, I try to return us to equilibrium, hugging or offering genuinely kind words or initiating an activity we both enjoy, like the 500th game of Octonauts UNO. I’m trying to remind us we like each other, and you know what? It helps. Good feelings encourage good feelings and soon we are both trying to say “yes” to each other more often.

There were other helpful things in this book — particularly parts where Markham points out that a lot of the anger we feel towards our children is motivated by fear triggering fight and flight responses — but the book, despite its occasional flaws and genre-typical ramblings, is worth it for this small epiphany alone: Enjoy your kids.

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