Sometimes when the light is really pretty outside I gather everyone up and take photos just so I can look at everyone's pretty eyes and skin. I do SO love my children's eyes (even though I'm disappointed that not ONE of them has inherited my favorite eye color of all, Sam's beautiful brown). They're all sort of in the same greenish range, but they're all different, too.

And I'm glad the aforementioned children are patient with me, even though they sometimes make expressions like this:

or this:

Daisy fell on the sidewalk at my mom's house. For awhile her scrape looked remarkably like a Hitler-moustache. And yet she still managed to be completely sweet-looking.



I'm always happy when we have the carwash out. It's one of those things that ties the summers together: at the same time it feels like we just did this, it also makes me think about how tall people are getting or who was wearing that swimming suit last year. And if you have a vague feeling there is someone extra in this picture, you're right. For a couple weeks we've had my cousin's boy Michael with us, which makes all the kids SO happy. It's cute to watch everyone vying for the favored position of playing with Michael or sitting by Michael.
The picture above, though unposed, looks like one of those awkwardly contrived scenes you see in cast pictures for plays. Like this:
And now I will show you several pictures of wet, delicious baby-Goldie skin, and also of that same Goldie gasping when the water hits her. I love babies gasping. 

Rainbow Cloud

The other night I was inside feeding Theo when suddenly the room turned totally bright and glowy and golden. It was so strange because it had been getting darker and I wasn't even sure the sun was still up and then—suddenly. That glow. So of course I ran outside to see, first setting Theo carefully down on my bed (which he somehow contrived to fall off of right as I came back in. Wiggle worm! But don't worry, these gotten-at-the-expense-of-an-innocent-baby pictures are totally worth it.)

When I got outside, I saw a huge looming cloud draped across the whole sky, and the setting sun was lighting the whole thing up yellow and orange and pink. Then the secondary light from the cloud was bouncing down and turning the whole world golden. The picture above is from my phone camera, and while the yellows on one side are kind of blown-out, it gives the best sense of that warm golden light being given off from the sky.

It was so beautiful and striking, and it was changing every minute. It seemed like one of the most dramatic cloud formations since Sam and I saw this group (which he drew here). Of course I got out the camera and took a million pictures (while Theo inched closer, ever closer, to the edge of the bed…) trying to capture all the colors and textures. And of course none of the pictures quite do it justice.
This gives you some idea of how massive the cloud was, though.
Or, even better, this.

Random Thoughts about my Dad

Sometimes I worry that when I write about my dad, I'm going to cement in a view of him, in my memory, that's…not right. Like when you tell a story from your childhood over and over, and the details feel so real, and then someone tells you it actually happened before you were born. Or when you remember a vacation by looking at pictures of it, until basically that's all there is, and those pictures ARE the memory, and everything else that happened just… disappears.

I'm afraid I'm going to reduce my dad to the little snippets that are most repeatable. The stories I most like to tell. His PhD at Harvard, the calculator that was his "Nobel Prize."* Getting polio at age 15. The way he stood in front of the fireplace with his hands clasped behind him, always wearing a sweater or his plaid flannel jacket. Seeing him working physics problems at the kitchen table—neat lines of numbers written in mechanical pencil, covering the pale green pads of graph paper he always used. Reciting "Brown's Descent" at our family parties, eyes twinkling. 

I like those stories and I like my dad in them, but it seems so presumptuous, sometimes, for me to try and say who he was. I knew him for less than half of his life, as it turned out. And my brothers' memories of him may be completely different than mine. I'm afraid I'll make an image in my head, out of my immaturity and my forgetfulness and my selective blindnesses— of some other man, someone less than he was. 

Dad didn't care for the confessional, self-absorbed type of writing, the literary "personal essay" style that mines the past for small personal miseries and piles them up into rocky hills from which to proclaim one's superiority over…whatever. ("Provincialism," usually, I guess.) I don't like it either, and I vowed a long time ago to choose relationships over self-expression. To choose to see memories, if I could, through a lens of generosity and inquiry rather than hyper-focus and complacency; to seek stillness instead of sensationalism. I don't want to make my dad's story about ME. And yet…ME is the only place I have to start from.

And so I try to sort through the memories like you would sort through stones and beach glass after a day by the ocean: holding each one up; turning it to the light; seeing if, with the glitter of the water gone, it still shines like you thought it did. And if, in bringing these stones away from the sea and into my home, I am leaving behind some of their beauty—well, at least they are close, where I can see them and keep from forgetting them altogether. And maybe that's the best I can do.

Random Thoughts about my Dad:

Before every holiday, my dad would say he had everything he needed, "if only my children will get along with each other"—he would chide, to a chorus of sighs from said children. It was hard to think of something really exciting to give him, rather than the old stand-bys: slippers, tools, ties. But he always seemed so happy with whatever the gift was. He liked orange sticks and those little powdery fruit candies called "Applets and Cotlets." One of us kids always got him orange sticks for Christmas or Father's Day, and he would light up when he opened them as if you'd given him the Hope Diamond. "Orange sticks! Oh, orange sticks!" he'd say, sometimes literally rubbing his hands together with anticipation. "Thank you, sweetie"—or maybe "Thank you, tykie" (an appellation I particularly disliked, as it seemed so…undignified). And then he'd hand them around, two for everyone, and maybe another round later that night after dinner. Other gifts would elicit the exclamation "Neat!" from him: a sort of multipurpose word expressing interest and delight, no matter how mundane the actual object was. ("A new pillow! Neat!")

What Dad really liked was getting presents for my mom—always the latest kitchen gadgets or household tools: vacuum cleaners, breadmakers, mixers. He never spent money on himself, but he'd go all-out for some new thing he thought she would like. My mom would thank him and then almost invariably return it a few days later, preferring something cheaper or simpler or more familiar. He got her a digital camera back when I'd never heard of anyone who had a digital camera—it used floppy discs for photo storage—and I think he felt like that was his greatest accomplishment: getting my mom something she actually kept and used. Every time she got it out he just beamed with satisfaction.

It wasn't only that he bought things for my mom. He was always making things for her, too. Intricately carved knots of ebony. Wooden rings that held pieces of uncut emerald or sapphire (salvaged from various uses in his physics lab). Double-refractive minerals. Origami dodecahedrons, or little sets of nesting boxes, or heart-shaped rocks, or bud vases made from hollowed-out stones.

Once some boys came to pick me up for a group date in a pickup truck. The boys chivalrously allowed the girls to ride in the cab, while they themselves sat in the truck bed. My dad was appalled that anyone would ride without a seatbelt. He told the boys they were irresponsible, and he told me I couldn't go with them. I went anyway, fuming at being embarrassed in front of my date (who never did ask me out again…but maybe that wasn't my dad's fault).

That was far from the only time Dad worried. He worried over us so deeply and heavily. I could see it in the set of his shoulders, when something was weighing on him particularly. He worried even when someone was late or when someone didn't call. I was impatient with it, often. I wanted to (and did) tell him to just relax, to let things happen the way they would. That seems arrogant to me now—assuming I could dismiss or diagnose his concerns. And yet I still do think he took too much on himself, trying to hold the world right for those he loved.

He was almost always cold. He loved stews and soups; he loved fireplaces. He wore "Mr. Rogers" sweaters in the house, and a black fur hat when he walked to work in the mornings. He liked cookies crisp and well-done, though he never got them that way, since everyone else in the house preferred them chewier. He would drink warm water in the mornings, and even warm his bowl of ice cream in the microwave for a few seconds before he ate it, a habit which provoked much teasing and eye-rolling from the kids. At night, he sometimes had a snack of bread-and-milk (pieces of bread torn up and dropped in a bowl of milk and eaten with a spoon)—a remnant of his farm-boy past, I guess. It seemed truly disgusting to me. But what did I know? I wish I hadn't been so dismissive of all his little quirks.

He seems, in my memory anyway, to have spent a lot of time just standing by the window and looking out, or sitting at the table gazing into space. I don't know if I ever wondered what he was thinking about then, but now I do. Dad told my brother once that he (my dad) was never bored, because he could always work math problems in his head to entertain himself. So maybe that's what he was doing.

And yet my dad did have a sentimental streak, the type of thing that made him tear up when he recited Emily Dickinson or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or when he called me "tykie."

He took naps in his office, lying flat on the floor. One year my brother made him a pillow with an extra flap of fabric out to one side, which could be flipped across and used as an eyeshade. My dad loved that pillow and used it from then on.

Dad liked to be home. I don't know if it was different when he was younger, but for most of my life, I felt like wherever we were, he was mostly just looking forward to getting home. When he and my mom would come to dinner at Sam's and my house, Dad would sit politely on the couch and listen to us chat for a bit—and then, as some internal timer went off, he'd get up and stand by the door. And there he'd stay until we took the hint and wrapped up the visit.

I wish he were coming for dinner tomorrow. Even if he only stayed the minimum amount of time socially acceptable. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

*Oh, okay, I'll tell it. Dad did his graduate research in physics under Norman Ramsey at Harvard. When Ramsay later got the Nobel Prize in Physics, he used his prize money to get top-of-the-line scientific calculators for his former research assistants, since he said they deserved to share credit for the work. A humble and kind gesture, I've always thought. So that's why I feel justified in saying my dad "shared in" a Nobel prize. :)

Things I totally can't figure out

As I thought about what makes life easier, I couldn't help but also think of some of the things that still…well, they completely baffle me. I don't know if I just haven't been bothered enough by them to put in the work of finding a solution, or if they really are that thorny of problems. But here are a few:
  • Putting away suitcases. Maybe it's just because we use them so infrequently, there is no designated time or way they would naturally be dealt with? Or because they go on a higher closet shelf that I have to stand on a stool to reach? But our suitcases sit out for months. Taunting me with their reminder that the brief shining moment when I needed them…is gone forever.
  • Minor repairs. The microwave light has been burned out for about 6 years. I bought a replacement bulb, but even with the help of the internet, can't figure out how to put it in. It seems ridiculous to call a repairman. (But not at all ridiculous to just put off doing anything for 6 six years…?) Same with various dripping sinks, slow drains, broken dishwasher settings, broken sprinklers. If it's not major and pressing, I don't know quite how to make it ever appear (or stay…long enough for me to…shoot at it? this metaphor is getting messy) on my radar.
  • Getting places on time. I can tell you how to make it to church on time: get called to be the organist or the chorister. We are (nearly) always there 15 minutes early when I have those callings. But it's because I KNOW I must be there. And telling myself I "must" be other places right on time—when I know that a few minutes here or there don't actually matter—requires fooling my brain in a way that my brain (that smartie!) can see right through. Same with setting clocks fast, or other "tricks." I've read the articles about "Why it's rude and inexcuseable to be late" etc.—and I DO excuse myself with the fact that we aren't "chronically" late. I'd say we're right on time about 50% of the time. But the other 50% just seems totally out of my control (not true, I'm sure).
  • Dusting fans. Cleaning blinds. Other people do these things, apparently.
  • Lunch. Let me get this straight. We wake up, figure out what to have for breakfast, make breakfast, eat breakfast, clean the table, wash the dishes, put away the food…and then, 4 hours later, I'm supposed to head up this same Herculean effort again??! When we have leftovers to heat up, I can cope. (Finding things to put in school lunches, when I did that, was worse, if anything.) But in an ideal world I would much prefer to eat a bigger and later breakfast, skip lunch altogether, and concentrate my energies on the impending dinner. Think about it. This idea is like the time I got hit by a bird while I was out running: surprisingly appealing, once you get past how unusual it is.
  • Keeping my own room clean. This is a tricky one because it's the one place in the house I can't completely blame on my children. (At my insistence, they and I do a pretty good job of keeping the rest of the house passably tidy.) I know my mom would say it's simple: just never leave the room before you've made your bed, never let your clothes touch the floor (hamper or hanger only), have a place for everything, and deal with clutter before it ever covers a surface. This is very sound advice. However, I use my bed throughout the day for nursing, so it seems a waste to make it. And since the baby sleeps in the closet, he's always in there when I need to hang something up. Also, I was looking for the sort of advice that wouldn't require me to exert any physical effort or get up out of my chair after I've collapsed into it after barely making it to the "finish line" of cleaning up dinner…
  • Weeding and yard care. This seems like something my kids could do. But that would require me to teach them (the blind leading the blind). Also, it's often hot or cold or otherwise unpleasant out there. On the upside, Abe does mow the lawn very nicely!
  • Getting kids off to school. Took care of this. And my life is so much richer for it. :)
  • Dry cleaning. Oh, I've managed it once or twice, when it was urgent. But it's not on my regular things-to-do radar, and it always seems like a waste to take one thing…so I wait for months…and then forget which other thing needed it…and pretty soon, in our minds, it's like Sam doesn't even OWN a Sunday suit.
  • Clothes rotation and storage. Yes, I have large Rubbermaid boxes in the storage room, labeled with sex and age. But I never feel on top of it. One of the kids is always wearing something too short, or they're too small for the clothes that go with their age so they wear a jumble of sizes, and then the clothes are all out of order in the boxes for the next child, and I intend to fix or patch things but don't do it, and then things wear out to the point where I'm pretty sure D.I. won't want them, but they contain…some usable cloth, so I don't feel I should throw them out, though heaven knows I'm not going to make a patchwork quilt from clothing scraps anytime soon.
  • Pack Meeting. I have read various people opining that the girls of the church are neglected because the Activity Days program doesn't have an equivalent of Cub Scout Pack Meeting. To which I say: are you kidding me?! You would like, with your girls, to go sit on folding chairs in the church gym and try to keep your children quiet while they fall through the backs of the chairs and bonk their heads and cry (or, alternatively, climb on the folding chair racks, trip on them, bonk their heads, and cry), while doing "The engineer cheer" and "The roller coaster cheer" and your girls get various things pinned and handed to them? Hmm (I say, to this hypothetical person I'm still talking to). Well, I AM COUNTING DOWN THE YEARS till I have girls in pack-meetingless Activity Days! I mean, I'm not interesting in debating the Scout program right now; I think we can all agree it can potentially be great for boys, and my particular boys' Scout Leaders have been wonderful, but when it comes to getting us all to Pack Meeting monthly, I do NOT have it figured out.
  • Enrichment night, (or Relief Society Weekday Meeting, as nobody calls it). Oh hey, while we're on the subject of things that happen monthly on the precise night I feel least able to drag myself out of the house! I love the idea of getting together with women I love and admire, and I was Enrichment Leader myself for awhile, so I know how much you want people to attend and appreciate the things you've worked so hard to plan! But while I'm really good at marking my calendar and sitting in church nodding and making polite "oh-that-sounds-lovely" noises while the announcement is made: when the night comes, it's inevitably the very night the baby starts throwing up…or we got caught in traffic coming home from piano lesson…or I actually DID have dinner planned and it looks like it's going to be a tasty one…and I don't end up going. Even though I know I would have been glad I went, had I gone.
  • My hair. Seriously. Is it straight and flat, as I thought it was for 30 years, or sort of semi-wavy-but-not-in-a-nice-way as it has been for the past five? Also, no matter how often I get it cut/shaped and become more satisfied with it, it just keeps re-growing and needing attention again! Come on! I don't have time for this.
  • Oh, and Lipstick. Like wine-drinking, it's a world that all seems so mysterious, from the outside. Finding the right color! Making your teeth look whiter! But I usually just feel like my lips are two unmoistened slabs of fish, tinted pink and drying in the sun. I just…don't get how it's supposed to work? And look natural?
  • Dealing with drawing/scribbling/wiping bodily fluids on the walls. Not my own, but the children's, of course. I never know who has done it or when; but these "decorations" just keep appearing on the walls, as the dew from heaven distilling. I think maybe, like with graffiti, the best thing to do would be to immediately paint over any offending area, but this is logistically difficult…not to mention a Sisyphean task that would require an unending supply of paint and/or Magic Eraser. And for what? To do it all again in a week? Sigh.
  • Decorating for holidays besides Christmas. (Although we did have an Easter crèche this year!) It seems like it would be so fun. And I do have a few decorations I've collected over the years, but first of all you have to get them out…and then after a few short days/weeks you have to put them away again…so, that sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it?
Well, that concludes this episode of "Things I Just Can't Figure Out." (Next time: Meat! Can someone teach me to cook it?)

Picnic and clouds

I know I keep posting pictures of clouds, but wow. There are just so many good ones lately. (I like it when the light comes through the back edge and makes the shadows turn blue, as above.) On Memorial Day we had a picnic at the Thanksgiving Point Gardens, and the sky was so dynamic. There were huge fluffy clouds on one side of the sky, and dark leaning clouds on the other side. It was so nice to walk through the garden under alternating sun and shadow!
Threatening sky to the south (note Theo lying on the picnic blanket all alone. Poor baby.)
Yum, potstickers.

Pineapple Muffins

I guess it's no secret that we quite like muffins around here. But there is a distinct hierarchy in the recipes I use. For dinner, usually to go with soup or salad, I range freely among all types of muffins. But for breakfast, only the quickest and easiest of recipes will do. I do love a baked good for breakfast, but I don't want to dirty a bunch of dishes or take all day about it. That means I prefer recipes that use oil (rather than melted/softened butter) and that can be mixed in one bowl (unlike these). 

Those criteria eliminate most of the muffins that are more cake-like (the ones with sugar and butter that have to be creamed together), but there are plenty of good options left. In fact, for breakfast I prefer a muffin that's more…muffin-y. The fat in muffiny muffins (usually canola oil) is used for delicacy and moistness and tenderness, rather than for an assertive flavor. I think it's just right to go with a fruit-and-yogurt smoothie or a cup of hot chocolate.

The special mixing method for muffins (combine dry and wet ingredients separately, then stir together as little as possible) is quite different than for cake-masquerading-as-muffins (combine fats and sugars and incorporate air, then add wet and dry ingredients alternately). Since I only like to use one bowl, for most true muffins I whisk the dry ingredients together in a big bowl first. Then I measure the milk into a big measuring cup, drop the eggs into the measuring cup too, and beat the mixture up with a fork. Next I make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the eggs/milk, along with the oil and vanilla or other flavorings, into that well. Then I stir it up with a spoon until it's just barely combined, and still lumpy. This makes for very tender muffins, and all I have to wash afterwards is a bowl, a spoon, a couple measuring cups. (And the muffin pans.) I can have these mixed in 10 minutes, into the oven in 5, and on the table in another 15—easily within my acceptable weekday breakfast parameters. :)

Because we have muffins for breakfast a couple times a week, I'm always looking for recipes that meet the above criteria. I adapted these pineapple muffins from a couple different fruit muffin recipes, and now they are one of our favorites! They're yummy with coarse sugar sprinkled on top, but they don't need the sugar to be good. And the pineapple adds a moistness we really like.

Pineapple Muffins

4 1/2 C. flour
1 3/4 C. sugar
1 1/2 T. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt
1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple (Drained; reserve juice)
3/4 c. canola oil
3 eggs
1 1/2 C. pineapple juice + milk (use juice from can of pineapple and then add milk to make 1 1/2 C. total)
1 t. vanilla
Coarse sugar for sprinkling, optional

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk until well-mixed. With a large mixing spoon, make a well in the dry ingredients.
3. Drain can of pineapple over a large measuring cup. Pour drained pineapple into the well in the dry ingredients. Do not stir yet.
4. Add milk to the measuring cup to make 1 1/2 c. of liquid. Drop three eggs into measuring cup as well, and mix with a fork until well-combined.
5. Pour egg-milk-juice mixture over the pineapple in the well in the dry ingredients. Pour canola oil and vanilla on top.
6. Mix dry and wet ingredients together with a spoon until just-combined, making sure to mix in all flour from the bottom of the bowl. Do not overmix. Batter may be lumpy.
7. Fill greased muffin cups to three-fourths of the way full.
8. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes or until top of muffin springs back when lightly touched (about 10 minutes for mini-muffins).

Making Life Easier, Part II

I've been trying to think of things we do that make life easier for us. I got really long-winded about it (and probably more opinionated than I usually admit to being) so this is Part II. Go here for Part I.

Some more things that have made life easier:

• Here's one I know lots of people won't agree with for their families, but we don't have TV (we have a TV, but not TV, if that makes sense) or game systems. For me, it's what I grew up with, so it doesn't seem weird. And since we've never had any of that, our kids don't miss it, and it doesn't occur to me as a way to entertain them, either. I know putting on a movie to keep the kids quiet for awhile is a lifesaver for some people. I don't think it's a bad thing to do. But it's just not in my arsenal. They do other things to keep themselves busy. They like reading (even the non-readers like to page through books) and pretending and making things, and while they may be somewhat culturally illiterate—well, so was I, growing up.

• We do have movie night as a family, once a month. And that's A Great Occasion which our kids love. And we watch movies or video clips for school, fairly often. And they play games at their friends' houses. I have no problem with any of that. It's just, I don't want to have to deal with regulating all the "stuff" that goes along with TV and Video Games right now (how much time, when, whose turn, what's appropriate) so we've just chosen not to. For us, the drawbacks of the kids having access to TV/Movies/Games outweigh the benefits right now. (And we do have computer use which has to be regulated, so it's not like we get to avoid the issue altogether.)  I do think this has contributed to my kids' ability to entertain themselves and not be bored.

• Along with that, I think Required Reading Time is the root of all evil. Too strong? Okay, let's just say it's, at best, unhelpful. And I say that as someone who won every reading prize my elementary school offered. I just think reading is sometimes set forth as this thing that is an inherent good in itself, when it should be seen as a tool. Sure, you have to be able to read to get anywhere in life, and I think being a good reader is key to being a good writer and even a good thinker. It's essential. But reading out of duty, just reading anything so you can say you read this many minutes or this many books, means nothing. Reading books that pull you away from light and truth is just as much of a waste of time as any other worthless entertainment. And teaching kids that reading is something so full of drudgery that you need rewards to make it worth it, is almost guaranteed to make them dislike it, or at least, not grow to LOVE it and USE it to help them learn about the things they care about. I'm sure the read-a-thons and minutes and prizes motivate some kids, but I'm equally sure that they drive other kids into the "learning is a chore" camp, and that seems to me like a far more dangerous outcome. If my child has some basic skills for reading and now only needs more practice, than I just quit bugging him about it! I assume all kids are going to like reading something, and so I treat it as a given in their lives. We have tons of books around the house, and once they see that we read because we love it and because it's a way of finding out so many of those things in life we're interested in, they will come to love it on their own. Sure, I recommend books to them, tell them about things they might like, discuss things I have liked. But I don't make them read for a set time, or tell them they get a "prize" for reading, and I certainly don't act anxious about whether or not they're doing "enough" of it. Reading IS its own reward. And any of my initially "reluctant readers," so far, have responded beautifully.

• Two words: Laundry Day. For me, there's nothing more depressing and futile-seeming than a constant flow of laundry. So we do it only once a week. It usually takes most of the day to get all the loads washed and dried or hung, but it's not constant work, so as long as we're not going anywhere in particular, it's not that much effort to fit it in around other stuff. The key is that once laundry day is over, we don't have to worry about laundry again for another week! I guess it's not technically just one day, because we fold and put everything away the next day, but the kids are trained to do this all on their own, or if I do it myself (I find folding laundry kind of soothing) they at least each take their own things out of the living room and put them away.

• Another thing that makes life with kids easier for us is a concept I call "lower the bar." Ha! Unless we're talking about preparing young people for missions, we embrace this idea fully. So for birthdays and Christmas, we do very few presents. (1-2 for birthdays, 2-3 for Christmas.) We don't do big birthday parties because for me, that's not fun or even really possible with so many of us. We'd be planning parties all year long! Of course I want the kids to feel appreciated and have fun. But we have fun "our way." Which means it all is kept very, very simple. Sam and I can get excited about the silliest little things and we encourage our kids (through our example, I guess, and a little bit of lecturing) to do the same. After we've done something as a family, we talk it up for the next several weeks—how fun it was, all the things we remember. We gloss over the bad (like if someone was complaining and whining that she was tired, we just pretend that never happened), by design, so the memories turn sweeter in the telling. After we do something I try not to say negative things, even to Sam, like, "Well, THAT swimming pool was a stupid one" (even if I'm thinking it) because I want my kids to appreciate the things we do even if they aren't The Biggest, Best, Most Exciting Thing. So "having a picnic in the backyard" or "hiking" or "playing at a playground together" or "getting a couple of milkshakes at JCW's and we will all share them!" are all treated as A Fun and Lucky Thing To Do, for birthdays or other special occasions. I know we won't be able to do the waterpark or Lagoon or whatever every time, so we might as well just train the kids to expect and enjoy the smaller things. It seems to be working so far.

I could go on and on (and I have), but I guess that's all I'm going to list for now. I don't know, maybe it doesn't sound very fun to be a child at our house. I think we're stricter parents than some people we know. But being strict on these things Makes Life Easier, and when life is easier, I think I'm also (paradoxically) more fun, more relaxed, more ready to enjoy my children. And when they obey the things we do enforce, we can also give them a lot of space to play around, be kids, and learn to be self-reliant. Best of all, they can sense how much we genuinely like them, and I think it makes them feel less stress about life, too.

I'm always curious about how other families function, and eager to learn new things that will help our lives go more smoothly, so feel free to chime in with any other tips for making life easier!

Making Life Easier, Part I

So, maybe you noticed that we have seven children now. And honestly, a lot of the time, I'm thinking to myself, "You'd think after seven I'd be more of a pro at this." There are so many parenting things I just don't know how to do right. Or things know I should do, but I can't actually muster up the energy/perseverance/skill/patience to do them. Or things I do out of habit or desperation, but I'm pretty sure there's a better way out there somewhere.

And then there are other things that work really well for our family, but I'm afraid if I talk about them, they will seem like criticisms of other families who do things differently. It's understandable. If you spend weeks pouring your heart and soul into amazing birthday parties because you feel like those memories are one of the most precious and personal gifts you can give to your kids—and then I'm like, "eh, birthday parties are overrated"—you might feel kind of hurt.

The other reason I hold back is because what I do as a parent is constantly changing. I'll be totally convinced about something being "the best way," and then a few years later I realize I've found a better way. I assume this will keep happening, and that makes me reluctant to give advice at all if I'm just going to to go back later and contradict it. 

So: when someone asks me for parenting advice, I usually just say, "Haha, your guess is as good as mine!"

But then again, I also think that's sort of unfair, because as parents how are we supposed to improve if no one ever gives us the benefit of their experience? I'm not the MOST experienced parent—(and what makes The Most Experienced Parent anyway? Years? Kids? Hardships? I don't have "the most" of any of those, really)—but with so many chances for experimentation I'm sure to have figured out SOME things that make life easier for us. Sometimes I talk to people who seem so…just overwhelmed by family life. I feel that way too, sometimes, but I feel sad when people think that has to be the permanent condition of a parent, because I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

And I decided, that just because I don't know everything, doesn't mean I don't know anything! I really, really like my kids, and I like being a mother, and while some of that is maybe a personality thing, I think it's mostly a function of how we've set up our family culture. We don't stress out about the stuff we don't really care about and we're pretty vigilant about following up on the stuff we do. And for young kids, I think that's basically all you need to keep things running fairly smoothly. That and a large helping of laid-back-ness. (Who knows about how this will change when we've got a bunch of young adults running around. I hope some of the same principles will apply, but maybe it will be a whole new ballgame!)

Anyway, I read this excellent post about "Always Mean What You Say" (Go read it! It's awesome!), and it resonated so completely with me. I thought, that's it. That's our parenting philosophy in a nutshell. We start it early, before our kids are even one (I agree with the essentials in this post—same blogger as above—about disciplining kids even when they are very young)—and they really do, mostly, figure it out and become genuinely enjoyable little people to have around quite early.

And that's key for me: I know parenthood requires sacrifice, and it's not always going to be fun, but I think people underestimate how fun it can be. You have so much control over the family culture when your kids are young! You don't have to just resign yourself to chaos and despair and helplessness. I've always been good at working hard at something if I know it's going to pay off, and that's what's happening every time I take control of something that will improve our family environment: every time I remind my kids to speak in a polite voice, or make them stay and sweep the floor after dinner, or pick them up and take them away from playing in the bathroom, or whatever it is. It may take 1000 repetitions, but they WILL get it and my life WILL improve. There are times Sam and I get sloppy about following through with what we say, because it seems like too much work. But mostly we've learned that we'd rather do the work of following through than the much more exhausting (to us, anyway) work of dealing with undisciplined children. (Trade-offs! They're everywhere!)

It doesn't even really matter what the things are that you decide to make your stand on. What matters is that you pick those things that seem to make life best for your family, and then pursue those goals relentlessly. And always mean what you say. I'm going to list a few of the things that make life easier for us. Some of them may seem kind of silly to you. Hey, they may seem kind of silly to ME in ten years! But I would like to remind you, Me-From-Ten-Years-in-the-Future, that what I'm talking about is pursuing what makes life feel liveable to me NOW. I'm fully aware that not all of these behaviors are moral issues that will Matter in the Eternities. But right now, they make the difference between "Self-Sacrificing-Life-Full-of-Drudgery" and "Fulfilling-Life-Full-of-Little-Joys."

I'm sure you're going to read some of these and think, "But that would never work for my son…" or "But my kids need more than that for…" Of course that's true! That's why it's so great to set your parenting "rules" based on what you can handle in your own home. There are lots of things that seem nice in theory, but you just aren't willing to enforce them, or they're too much work, or you'd rather live with it than fight about it. That's fine. We have plenty of things that fall into that category: daily baths (once or twice a week works for us, sorry if that seems disgusting to you), making beds (I'd love it, but it just…doesn't happen), having a spotless…well, a spotless anything. We don't really keep track of what our kids are eating (pretty sure Goldie has eaten stuff out of the garbage more than any decent kid ought to), we don't really do "playdates," we respond to a lot of sibling fighting with an all-purpose, "well…just go in different rooms then…." You might be horrified at what sorts of things seem okay to us, and I guess large family life in general sounds to some people like one of the nine levels of hell. But if there are things that drive you crazy about your OWN family life, what you DON'T have to do is decide that everything is futile and give up in despair. I hate the sort of popular assumption that kids always mean chaos and a decrease in quality-of-life. Sometimes, maybe, but definitely not always! I'm sure I've mentioned that when I was young one of my favorite books was The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (short summary: bunny mama trains her 21 children to take care of things at home for her so she can be the Easter Bunny)—and I still believe life with children can be like that. With a little investment in the things that matter to you, and a willingness to let the rest of the things go (no matter what other families are doing), life can be really good. Even when it's sort of crazy too.

So, just to give you an idea of what I mean, here's a list of stuff we think is worth taking a stand about:

• Our kids have to ask for everything with "May I please . . . ." I remind them every. single. time. Even the babies can learn to say "Milk please" instead of just "MORE!" or worse, shrieking for it. If they are too young to talk, I say it for them (Baby: "AAAAAA!" Me: "Oh, you want more, please? More, please! Here you go!"). The next 20 years or so are going to be a constant chorus of children asking me for things. Might as well have it be polite, at least.

• And speaking of shrieking: our kids talk in "inside voices" in the house. I don't care how cute it is that the 3-year-old is yelling "JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUN-BEAM!" during Family Night—after I laugh at her, I say, "Inside voice, please." I don't function well if there's a lot of chaos, and there are just too many of us in an enclosed area to allow any room for loud exuberance. (Quiet exuberance is fine.) Kids laughing and playing together is great. It makes me happy. But when it gets loud, even if it's not antagonistic, I always stop them, and follow through with a consequence.

• Running in the house or jumping on furniture—same thing. I have a low tolerance for "wildness" in any form. They can wrestle and climb on things and twirl and yodel and leap over each other. Just—quietly. Or go outside or in the basement where I can't hear them.

• We don't really have snacks between meals. I'm not against the idea in principle, and I know some parents insist that their kids' behavior is tied to blood sugar or whatever, but for us, it's just one more thing for me to worry about, so I don't. Getting out, preparing, and putting away food three times a day is quite enough, thanks! (My ideal day, incidentally, contains just two meals: Brunch and Dinner. Maybe I'll write more about that sometime.) The older kids can ask for a snack, and if they get it out and put it away themselves I'm fine with that, but they generally don't even think of it because it's not part of our daily rhythm. This means I'm not constantly having to deal with whining kids asking to eat, when they are actually just bored. (Although I have no problem saying no, it does get tiresome being asked all the time.) It also means we are all nicely hungry when mealtime comes around, and that makes everything taste better! :)

• Speaking of mealtime, I like it and it's important to me that it's pleasant ("inside voices" help. See above). We eat together at the table. I like to cook and I like for people to appreciate what I make, so no one is allowed to complain about the food. They don't have to eat it, but they must be polite (try it, and then refrain from negative comments if they don't like it. They can just say, "No thank you, I don't want any more.")—and they don't get to eat something different. I just don't think it's a big deal if you have to eat something you don't like, or if you miss a meal. Those are Life Skills. So many people in the world have it so much worse. If someone says "I don't like this" or "Awww, we have to eat THIS again?" they are excused from the table and they don't get to eat until the next meal. Sometimes they feel hungry in the interim. Oh well. I just don't really stress about "hunger" in general. I had a nutrition teacher at BYU who used to tell her kids, "It takes over 30 days without food for the average human to starve," and I've lived by that mantra ever since. They learn pretty fast. And now everyone says "Thank you for this good dinner, Mommy!" and if it's not always 100% sincere—well, I don't care, it makes me a happier cook anyway. :) The kids take turns helping me cook dinner, and that helps with general appreciativeness too.

• Everyone stays afterward after a meal and helps with cleanup until it's done. Usually it's crazy and crowded and we have to give multiple reminders for everyone to stay on task. But they all know it's expected, and I'm trading "it's quiet, but I feel like a scullery maid" for "it's loud, but at least I can pretend I'm a CEO directing a team of semi-intelligent midgets."

• We don't consider discipline and consequences "being mean," so we enforce them all the time. No lowered expectations for being in public or on vacation or for special days. If we are at Disneyland and the kids complain, they sit out the next ride or two. If it's Christmas Dinner at grandma's and they fight, they sit in the car. If the Birthday Boy won't help clean up dinner, he gets extra jobs. I'm just…over being embarrassed about it. I don't care if people see me disciplining the kids, or what they think. It means that our kids don't suddenly become fearsome little hooligans every time we're trying to have a special day and make memories together. (They just keep being regular everyday little hooligans.)

• We don't do really do reward/chore charts (though we have, in the past). In fact we've sort of been scaling back the "special reward for good behavior!" thing in general. Not that we don't appreciate and praise them when they do good things, but I realized awhile ago that I really want my kids to feel the intrinsic satisfaction that comes when they work together to accomplish a needed task, and sometimes external rewards were getting in the way of that. We work together because families do that. We help each other because we love each other. Sometimes someone will do something that seems extra special and nice (like Abe will decide to clean the stove for me, or Daisy will quietly sneak down and set the table for breakfast) and my first impulse is to give them some reward to show how happy I am—but I don't. Because it seems like in a way, that's taking those wonderful spiritual promptings they feel toward serving others, and making them lesser. I always praise and thank them, and I tell other people (when the kids are in earshot) how helpful and good the kids are, and I might even reward them—but not every time, and I don't usually tie those rewards to specific tasks. I'll say something more like, "Things went so smoothly today! We should have a picnic!" or "I love seeing you two getting along so well! Maybe you can help me make cookies this afternoon!" or "I'm so happy that I can always count on you to help get the little ones into nap. That frees up time for us to go to the library this afternoon!" If no one is breaking a specific rule, but people are just being…difficult, sometimes it's the opposite: "I'm exhausted from all the fighting during Cleanup Time. Let's have early bedtimes tonight." I figure they might as well see the natural good that comes from working together (happier parents! more free time! etc.) instead of me trying to make up some artificial reward that will stop happening once they get to college or the Real World.

• Naptime is strictly enforced until age 6 or so. I can't function well without it. I am willing to pay the price of sitting outside someone's door and telling them one hundred times to be quiet, or letting them cry for two hours every day for weeks on end, in exchange for the blissful, blissful quiet afternoons that result once they figure out that I am more determined to make them nap than they are determined not to. Of course four and five year olds don't want to nap! Fine, they can lie and "rest" for a couple hours (but in my experience they benefit from even that). When they realize it's non-negotiable (and I WILL sit outside their bedroom and enforce it if necessary) they usually end up sleeping after all, and when they want to get up, they have to come and ask me first. Yes, they wake each other and play sometimes (there are three in the same room) and even though I make them stay in their room, I often get SO frustrated and feel like I will NEVER get anything done, but still, the Expectation of Nap produces more naps than the Expectation of No Nap. The older kids read or play quietly inside, go outside, or feel my wrath.

• Bedtime, on the other hand? As long as they stay in their beds (for the little ones) or in their rooms and quiet (the bigger ones), I don't really care. Sometimes I hear the boys talking and giggling till 11:30 p.m., and I kind of feel like I ought to do something about it, but I just can't get myself to feel like it matters. In fact I sort of secretly love it, because they are getting along so well. They tell each other stories and make up all sorts of elaborate games and who even knows what. They aren't interfering with Sam's and my time to be together and get things done, which is what matters to me most in the evenings. We yell out a kind of half-hearted "Kids! Quiet down!" every so often, but our hearts aren't very strongly in it, and the kids can tell. If we noticed they were having a hard time waking up, I guess we'd do something different, but so far it's been fine.

This is getting long. Who knew I would have so much to say? We will continue in Part II.
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