Creative Cake Baking: Making a Love Cake

Yesterday evening, I took a step out of my comfort zone. I really like to know, understand, and, if possible, control what is going on around me, and it’s frustrating for me when I can’t make that happen. I like logic and order. And as you might expect, being a mother to 4 children ages 7 and under, my life could rarely be described as “orderly!”

My oldest daughter, Miranda, is a lot like me, but she also shares some traits with her father, and one of the most beautiful similarities between her and Matt is their creativity and desire to explore. Miranda loves to come up with new ideas and execute them. She loves telling stories and painting and making plans. And another thing she loves is baking.

A few times in the past, she has come to me, carrying a hand-written-and-illustrated recipe, and announced that she wanted to bake something. “That sounds great!” I’d reply. “I was just thinking about making a cake, too! I have this recipe right here; maybe we could combine ours and make one together?” And then we would – surprise, surprise – follow my recipe as we baked together. She always went along with it good-naturedly, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

That all came to an end about a week ago. Miranda came to me with, this time, an entire hand-written-and-illustrated book with her latest cake recipe.

“Mom,” she said. “You know how sometimes we bake together, and we say that we’re combining your recipe and mine? Really we mostly just follow your recipe. I’d really like to make a cake that follows my recipe.”

Inwardly I cringed. My inner control freak whispered to me through its clenched teeth, “That’s because we know my recipe will be edible! If we’re going to spend all that time and use all those ingredients for which we’ve paid good money, shouldn’t we at least make something that we know won’t taste horrible?!?!”

But instead of speaking those words to my precious, earnest daughter, I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s do that. Can you tell me what the ingredients are? Then we can make sure we have them, so we can make your cake.”

She named off flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, eggs, milk, and butter. I breathed another sigh of relief – at least we were in the right neighborhood for cake ingredients. I asked her whether we needed cow’s milk (which we don’t generally have on hand) or whether almond milk would suffice, and she assured me that almond milk would work great. I told her I was pretty sure that most cakes included at least one of baking powder or baking soda, and I couldn’t remember which or why, but we might want to investigate that to see if one or both were really necessary. She responded that we didn’t need to look it up – we could just include a bit of both.

The one thing we really would need to buy, though, she said, was frosting, unless we were going to make that, too, but she hadn’t come up with a recipe for that yet. She hasn’t had as much experience with making frosting, so I wasn’t sure she’d have a good sense of the ingredients that should be included, and I thought we were probably already pushing our luck with following a 7-year-old’s made up recipe for baking a cake from scratch, so I offered just to buy the frosting.

I picked up a container of frosting in this week’s grocery shopping trip, and so, last night, we set about making our cake. Miranda honestly did almost all of it by herself. I helped her pour some of the ingredients when they were in large or full containers, but she was the one who did most of the work and ensured we were following the recipe. She loved it.

And I tried to hold my tongue and not make a million suggestions 🙂 I reminded myself that this whole thing was about connecting with her and honoring her desire to follow her recipe, to create something she’d designed. I needed to prioritize the connection, not the cake.

I did point out to her that she’d gotten out the bread flour instead of just the regular flour – but she insisted the bread flour was exactly what she wanted to use. And as I was reaching into a high cupboard for some of the baking ingredients for her, I asked if she wanted to add some vanilla (which she did). I really tried to let her take the lead. The only thing I mandated was that we really needed to bake it at a temperature more like 350 or 375 instead of the 151 degrees that she’d written down in her recipe. She assured me that that was really what she’d meant anyway.

We baked the cake during dinner, and after the bigs had taken their baths (and, unfortunately, the littles were already in bed), Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun and I frosted it.

Then the the two big girls and Matt and I tried it.

I was a bit nervous – but honestly, it was good! We all actually enjoyed it, and the girls are excited to share it with the littles and enjoy it as dessert for this week!

Matt asked Miranda what it was called. “A Love Cake,” she responded. How very appropriate <3

I’m so glad that I went along with her desire to create her own recipe and actually follow it and bake her cake, just the way she wanted <3 It was one of the highlights of my weekend. I need to remember, over and over and over again, to prioritize the connection and the relationships with my kids instead of the tasks themselves. These kids of mine make me a better person!

A Day in the Life of a Homeschooling Mom

A blog I follow is doing a series on a “Homeschool Day in the Life.” I loved reading through some of the writers’ entries on that topic and especially reading through their current and some of their older entries and seeing how their lives had changed over time. It’s such a fun record of what life is really like during a given stage and how that evolves over the years in small changes that often pass unnoticed at the time but add up into significant shifts over time. I’d like to keep that record for my family 🙂

This year we have kiddos in 2nd grade (Miranda, age 7), 1st grade (Madeleine CaiQun, age 7), and a very, very, very loose pre-school (FangFang, age 4, and Atticus, age 3). I’m sharing about our day from last Friday.

I have been trying to get up early and spend some time doing my own Bible study before my kids are all up – but I’ve had a cold, and I wasn’t sleeping well, and in the night I re-set my alarm for 8:30 – a last possible wake-up time if a child didn’t wake me up before then 🙂 I got up around then and headed downstairs for our breakfast routine. Matt and I work together to get breakfast on the table for everyone, and while we’re eating, the big kids work on math and handwriting. Miranda is using Singapore for math this year, and she usually doesn’t need much instruction – math just clicks for her. Madeleine CaiQun uses Math-U-See, so she and I watch a DVD of instruction together every 5 or 6 days, but otherwise she just needs to do one workbook lesson each morning. As they finish, I check their work and call them back to the table to fix anything that was not correct the first time.

Once math and handwriting (our table subjects) are out of the way, the kids get some free play time. I’ll usually take this time to do any dinner prep that needs to be taken care of ahead of time, respond to some e-mails, or do some cleaning. On this particular day, I mostly did some cleaning, so our kitchen and dining room would be in better shape when our Chinese teacher arrived to help us make dumplings that afternoon.

Around 11:00 I gave the girls a 5 minute warning that we’d be starting our reading school soon. They know that means it’s time to start wrapping up, but we still had a bit of difficulty transitioning from play time back to school work. It’s easier when we have a concrete activity to do (a Cosmic Yoga show or a walk, for example), but they also love just having free play time.

For reading school, the big kids join me on the couch. More often than not, the littles join us, too, but on this day, they were fascinated by a book they got out on their own and chose to look at that together instead.

The big girls and I read through our books for Bible, History, Geography, and some Literature from our Sonlight curriculum and our readings for Black History Month. Normally we’d do Science, too, but our most recent book about Science had been a Magic School Bus book, and they’d been so excited about it that we’d tackled 5 days’ worth of reading and work all in one day! We also often do a lesson from our Language Arts book and/or Spelling, but Thursdays and Fridays get a bit tight for us with our afternoon commitments, and we were starting a bit late, so I opted not to try to get those in. We still had a pile of books to work through, though 🙂

Miranda was having a bit of a rough day. She is strong-willed, passionate, and intense – all amazing, wonderful personality traits – but sometimes it’s hard for her to settle in to what her mama wants to do at any given moment 😉 Routine helps with that but doesn’t eliminate the struggle entirely, and we continue to work and pray.

Once we finished that portion of school, it was almost lunch time. I agreed that the big girls could have a break from work and take some more time to play if they would promise to help me finish cleaning up after lunch. Lunches at our house these days tend to be leftovers, some thrown together snack type foods (veggies, fruit, yogurt, crackers, nuts, cheese, etc.) or, probably most frequently, some sort of pasta – spaghetti, ravioli, or macaroni and cheese – not the absolute healthiest, but they’re quick and easy and work for everyone! We reviewed our current Bible memory verses and some of our Chinese language learning during lunch – in particular, we were supposed to have a Happy New Year poem ready to recite, so we needed to make sure we were prepared for that!

After lunch, I reminded the girls of their promise to help clean up…and it did not exactly go how I would have desired. I needed to get the dining room table cleared and cleaned, and if the big kids are in a great, agreeable mood, they can do a decent job of picking up toys, but they’re still at an age where they often need me to help break the job down into smaller pieces and participate along with them, and the little kids are definitely still at that age. They disobeyed, I yelled, and we all needed to apologize and seek forgiveness. We managed to get it all done, and then we snuggled on the couch to read a couple Encyclopedia Brown stories before our Chinese teacher arrived.

On a normal non-Friday day, after our living room clean-up time, we’d usually have 15-45 minutes of quiet reading time, and then the kids would watch a couple shows on Netflix while I worked. Then on Mondays, Wednesdays, and most Fridays, we’d get ready to head out for Miranda’s swim practice. On his way home from work, Matt sometimes picks up the younger kids there so they don’t have to stay through the entire practice (and I don’t have to corral them all through the entire practice, because let’s just say that bringing a 3-year-old boy to swim practice is always an adventure 😉 ), but otherwise we all hang out there until we come home for dinner time. Tuesdays we have our small group, and Thursdays FangFang has PT earlier in the afternoon, so the whole reading and tv and work routine gets shifted later so it bumps up right into dinner time.

On Friday afternoons, though, our Chinese teacher comes! Normally we work on language learning, but this week we got to learn how to make dumplings!

Jenny had already made some pork dumplings ahead of time, and she had prepared some vegetarian filling to bring so we could all work together to make vegetarian dumplings to stay closer to our mostly pescetarian diet. We all loved making the dumplings, and she has promised to give me her filling recipes, so we can replicate them in the future! Then, of course, we cooked and ate them – yum!

After Jenny left, I had the big girls do their independent reading and then come discuss it with me as they finished. This is the first year in which I’m not having them read all of their readers out loud to me. Partly that’s a practical matter – as they have grown in reading ability, they’ve also grown in quantities that they read, and it saves us all time if they read quietly on their own 🙂 But also they are good enough readers now that they can read quietly and independently, which is pretty awesome!

Then I let the kiddos watch a couple tv shows. I needed to finish cleaning up from our dumpling making and then get started on dinner, so I wouldn’t be able to get in any work time, but we all need some quiet down time in the afternoon. And I was able to make our baked oatmeal and smoothie “breakfast for dinner” meal and get another dish of baked oatmeal prepared and in the refrigerator to take the next morning to a women’s ministry event at church.

The big girls and I had some conflict again that evening when I asked them to help me set the table for dinner. They didn’t want to, they said. They wouldn’t do it, they said. When I ask them to do things around the house, they feel like slaves, they said. We had a conversation about authority, teamwork, and who actually does most of the household work. One daughter seemed mollified; the other stomped up to her room.

We’d been planning to attend a Chinese New Year showcase, featuring our school district’s students who have been learning Mandarin, but once Matt got home, he and I had to have a conversation about whether that could still happen in light of all the drama of the day. The daughter who had refused to help at dinner time insisted that she would modify her behavior, and she was able to handle it, and she wanted us to go – and I really wanted us all to go. We are pretty busy, and it feels like a lot of our life consists of Matt taking the kids to a fun event while I work or me taking kids to a fun event while he works, or one of us taking some of the kids while the other stays home with another group of kids, not all of us doing things together. I had been looking forward to a fun outing for us all to enjoy together, so I was glad to be able to make it happen. We loaded everyone into the van and headed downtown for the showcase.

Matt put the little kids to bed when we got home, and the big kids stayed up just a bit longer and watched a show while I exercised on our elliptical before I put them to bed. We’ve been reading some Encyclopedia Brown stories, as well as our primary Read-Alouds, as bedtime stories. After I read to them, I prayed for them and tucked them in and came back downstairs – parenting day done – phew.

Matt and I generally try to reconnect and spend some time together after the kids are in bed. I showered, and then we chatted about our days and my women’s ministry event the next morning and just random, fun stuff while we played Upwords. Usually we go to bed at the same time, and I read to him from the book we’re reading together, but on this particular night, he still felt like he had some energy and had a painting he wanted to work on, but I was pretty wiped out. I went upstairs and climbed into bed and journaled and prayed for a little while. I’d been feeling a bit disconnected from God – I’m sure in part due to my not getting up early to spend time in the Word on my own, but also I’ve been very focused on doing things recently, less on being thoughtful and prayerful about what He could be doing and how I could and should be responding to that. I needed to spend some time wrestling with that (and realizing that it had probably played a part in our hard day, as well), and then I read for just a few minutes before I went to sleep.

Honestly, it didn’t feel like a great day. Making dumplings was super cool, and it was neat to see the Chinese New Year showcase. But the kids and I had more conflict than usual. I got a lot of cleaning done but not a lot of fun, relaxing time with the kiddos. It was a stressful day. But some days are like that. I thought about going back and choosing a different day to write about (the next day we had a lot of fun and games and puzzles and happiness!), but that seemed less genuine. The truth is that we have some really fun, encouraging days, but we also have days full of conflict and anger and hurt feelings and apologies and repentance, and they’re both real. Maybe next year my “day in the life” post will hit on a better day 🙂 Until then, this was just one day in our homeschooling life!

Homeschooling Black History Month

In general, we follow our Sonlight curriculum pretty closely for homeschooling. In fact, Sonlight’s curriculum being pretty much “open and go,” requiring very little preparation from me before our school day begins, is one of the reasons we’ve chosen it for much of our curriculum.

But one thing I took away from my reading of Teaching From Rest was that curriculum is so much more than the package I order. The books and plans I order from Sonlight are a great starting point, but I need to make sure I’m giving my kids what I think they need to know.

In the context of the current events of the past year, we’ve been having a number of conversations about race and racism, and I thought it was important to honor Black History Month somehow, taking some time specifically to learn about and grow in respect for Black Americans.

Last month, on the designated day, we took some time to learn about and honor Martin Luther King, Jr., but I wanted us to go beyond that, to know more amazing Black Americans.

One of my kiddos asked me at the beginning of the month why we were specifically studying Black Americans. She wanted to know – was that because Black people were more important than white people?

No, I replied. Absolutely not. But when we read history books, who do we hear about? White people – mostly white men. When we look at the people who have been in power in Europe and America for hundreds of years, who have they been? White men. And can we truly understand history if we really only know what the most famous people from one particular demographic were doing? No. If we want to understand the history of our world, and in particular our country, we need to understand what was and is happening with men and women, with Black people and white people, Native Americans, Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, and other people groups throughout history. Because many books focus most on the same demographic (white men in power), we need to make a concerted effort to learn about what other people have done and are doing.

And so we’ve been diving in this month, learning more about Black people and their current reality and their history. Two books we’ve been using are Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship.

Our big girls have been so enjoying both books – they often choose to start our school time with them, and I’ve found them both reading them on their own, as well.

Both books have been great starting points for conversation and learning more. Matt and I have had great talks with the kiddos – Miranda in particular – about why Black people have been economically disadvantaged in America, why the Civil Rights movement was needed, what the KKK was and is, and how God calls us to live, even in the face of fear and real danger.

Our kids are still so young, but even young kids perceive race and have begun to develop ideas and attitudes about race. Our kids are going to develop their racial understandings somehow, and we can either be a voice for equality, progress, and justice, or we can be silent. Matt and I believe strongly that we want to work toward progress. We don’t know everything. We don’t have it all figured out. I’m sure there’s more we could be doing. But we can either let our inability to be perfect prevent us from doing anything, or we can start somewhere, however small. I’m thankful for this opportunity to teach (and learn with!) my kiddos this month, and my hope is that we can build on this for future months and years, as well, as we seek to raise kiddos who are good citizens of the world.

If you are a home-schooling family – or even if you’re not! – I’d love to hear how you honor Black History Month and seek to incorporate learning about Black Americans into your family’s life during this month!

A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.