Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 6): Day 99: Activities Outside Our Home?

Obviously, as homeschoolers, the primary structure of our lives was already set up pretty well for staying home before the pandemic hit. However, my kids did lose all of their activities outside of our home – in addition to play dates with friends, we used to be part of a homeschool enrichment group, all four kids swam 2-3 times per week, the big kids and I usually rode horses a few times per month, and we attended other activities (art shows, concerts, museum shows, etc) as we could. We stopped all of that abruptly mid-March. That seemed like the wisest course of action – particularly for our family, with multiple vulnerable members.

It has been a long few months, though, without that social interaction, without the ability to swim (especially now that the summer weather has arrived!), without the ability to move our bodies in ways other than walking, running, and biking. Matt and I have been talking about whether there are ways we could give ourselves and our kids some opportunities to leave the house and have fun without seriously compromising our safety. We’ve been reading articles about how the coronavirus spreads and looking at rankings of activities in terms of their risk levels.

Where we’ve landed is that we need to maintain our separation from most of the activities in which we had previously engaged. It just isn’t safe to go hang around indoors with large numbers of people. It isn’t even safe to have sustained close proximity with others outdoors.

But the one activity that seemed much less risky than others was horseback riding. It’s basically an activity that requires social distancing – if you get closer than one horse-length away from another horse and rider, you’re putting your horse (and yourself!) in danger of getting kicked!

I talked to our trainer, who has put into place guidelines limiting numbers of people at the barn at any one time, which made us feel safer returning. She also has rules about social distancing – essentially, if you can’t tack up your own horse, you can’t come right now, because that would require having someone outside of your household super close to you as they helped you prepare to ride and take care of your horse after riding.

I returned to lessons a couple weeks ago – obviously taking care of my own horse and riding outdoors and staying distant from everyone else. I love having an activity that challenges me in a different way than my everyday life and that is purely fun.

And this week, I took the girls to ride, and we made sure to schedule their ride for a time when no one else would be in the barn. They aren’t self-sufficient, but having a mom who participates in the same activity as you and can help you catch and care for your horse has its advantages.

It was so nice to give them this opportunity to leave the house and get back to riding! This was only the third time since March that Miranda had even been in a car at all. And this was the only actual activity they have done in months (other drives included exciting missions such as “going to the hospital parking lot to change a flat tire” and “going to throw rocks in the river” and “taking recycling to the drop off sites” and “just going for a drive”). This was significantly more interesting 😉

They didn’t do a lesson or focus on building skills – this was all just about having a chance to ride and have fun.

Miranda was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help a pony who has a pretty low weight limit (and thus can’t be ridden by most of the adult and teenage riders who have been at the barn recently) get back into work.

MeiMei wasn’t sure she remembered horses being this large!

It took a bit of time for them to get used to being back in the saddle, but once they got going, they were back to trotting, weaving, and riding all around!

I’ve certainly enjoyed getting back into riding, and I’m glad the girls were able to go this week, too. In this world in which we almost entirely stay home, it’s nice to have one very low-risk activity we can do!

Homeschool Year 2019-2020 is Complete!

Last week we wrapped up our 2019-2020 homeschool school year!

We don’t care much at all about “grade levels,” but based on their ages, this was Atticus’s pre-kindergarten year and FangFang’s kindergarten year. Here they are with their books for the year (their Sonlight stacks, for those in the homeschool community), holding some of their favorites!

We primarily used Sonlight’s Pre-K or 4/5 package (centered around Exploring God’s World), along with Handwriting Without Tears and Singapore Math K. Both are learning to read, which is such a nerve-wracking stage for me as a mom – it feels like the most important academic skill to impart. Fortunately both of them did great with their readers for the year – phew!

FangFang reports that her favorite thing to study this year was Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and when she grows up she wants to be a doctor, and she wants to help animals with her sisters. She also says she would like to be an artist, a scientist, a police, a fire fighter, an ambulance, and a cooker.

Atticus says that his favorite thing to study was Uncle Wiggily and the Fox, and when he grows up he wants to be a fire fighter, a police, a boat rider, a diver, and a doctor.

Miranda and MeiMei insisted upon sitting on the couch for their photo, which actually hides some of the substantial amount of work they completed this year! Based on their ages, this was Miranda’s 4th grade year and MeiMei’s 3rd grade year.

Obvious from their choice of books to hold in their photo, both loved some of our Science studies this year! Miranda also really enjoyed History. This year we used Sonlight’s Core E package focused around US History 1865-Present, and our Science studies was the Science E program, Electricity, Magnetism, and Astronomy. Both continued their math learning using Singapore, with Miranda finishing the 4B book and starting 5A and MeiMei about to finish the 2B book. They have also started learning to type this year, clocking about 10 wpm at this point. This year they also really took ownership of their lapbook projects, completing most independently and then coming to tell me about them afterwards.

MeiMei’s favorite thing to study this year was human anatomy (which she learned about in our homeschool group and independently – so, basically, nothing that I taught her!). When she grows up, she wants to work at an animal shelter with Miranda. When she’s not working, she’ll stay at her house with Miranda (they plan to live together) and read and play and do grown up stuff.

Miranda’s favorite subject this year was…Science, especially the microscope book! (“Mom,” she tells me, “put in the ‘dot, dot, dot’ and then an exclamation point, so it looks exciting!”). When she grows up, she wants to work at an animal shelter and help animals and study animals. She’s talked about getting a PhD in either Biology or Zoology. She’d also like to be a famous author.

It was absolutely a strange year, but honestly, staying home so much enabled us to finish our school year much earlier than we sometimes do, which feels so nice and freeing. We celebrated by making homemade pizza, a favorite meal of the entire family!

It was a good year. I love seeing the growth in each one of my kiddos!

Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 5): Day 76: Staying Home in the Midst of Re-Opening

It is now day 76 of our staying home whenever possible. America is strange right now.

There is no vaccine for the coronavirus. While there are a few treatments that may offer glimmers of hope, nothing has proven to be dramatically efficacious.

And yet Americans are tired of staying home. Some believe the coronavirus is not as serious as people are making it out to be. Others are annoyed that they can no longer be served as usual – there were protests in my rich, white hometown (just miles from Milwaukee, in which the Black community is suffering and dying at alarming rates). Some are convinced that they personally are young and healthy and are likely to survive, so they would prefer to risk exposure in order to return to business as usual. Whatever the reasons, many people want to be out and about and would like to return to their lives as they existed pre-pandemic.

I really resonate with this tweet –

Wishing for something doesn’t make it so – but we seem to be pretending that it can.

For our governmental leaders, the move to re-open the country seems to be primarily politically motivated. People are filing for unemployment at unprecedented rates. Many do not have savings to sustain them for long periods without a paycheck. People and businesses need relief. The solution presented by our politicians is that the country should begin to open again. However, as businesses re-open their doors and call employees back to work, even those who do not feel safe returning are rendered ineligible for unemployment benefits. It is a terrible situation to face. I wish that, in America, we were willing to look for economic solutions to economic problems – instead of forcing people back to work in situations that may cost them their lives in the name of preserving the economy (and/or politicians’ political futures).

Our family is incredibly fortunate that, at least for now, Matt and I are both able to work from home. We don’t have to go anywhere on a daily basis.

Even we, though, have not been able to maintain our policy of zero tolerance for contact with the outside world.

Matt, who suffers from interstitial lung disease, was having lower oxygen levels than his pulmonologist wanted to see, so he needed to go in for additional testing and an appointment. He actually had to be tested for the coronavirus (video here) before he could do any of that because of the high risk nature of all of the patients in the pulmonology clinic and the risk of spreading the virus during the types of testing they do. I’m thankful he was able to go, though, as he is now feeling better, and he now has access to supplemental oxygen when he needs it.

Additionally, FangFang receives quarterly Pamidronate infusions to strengthen her bones, and she was due for another one this month. These aren’t absolutely life sustaining, but they greatly improve her quality of life. They also reduce the risk of serious fractures, any of which could necessitate an emergency trip to Omaha for surgery, which would be a much higher risk situation than a day at the hospital for an infusion. I consulted with her endocrinologist and decided to go ahead with the infusion but moved it up to May 7 (as soon as possible after Missouri’s re-opening date of May 4, to minimize the likelihood of widespread community transmission), and she and I spent the day at the hospital. The hospital has policies in place to minimize risk (only one parent and no siblings allowed to come with her, no waiting in the waiting room, no playrooms, no wagon rides, placing us in a private room with a private bathroom, and everyone was asked about symptoms and had temperatures taken upon arrival, and we were required to wear masks). We also brought all of our own food, so we would not need to interact with any food service personnel.

And then, in an unwelcome development, when we came out to the parking lot, we saw that one of our tires was completely flat. Matt had to come put on our spare tire so we could drive home, and the next day he took the tire to get patched. As low as we would like our exposure to be, we need our van to be drive-able.

I’ve been missing the ability to interact with friends and family, and while it is 100% worth it to me to keep our family safe, I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go see Courtney while her risk of exposure was minimal. For a couple weeks, her workplace was closed to the public, and she wasn’t doing appointments or lessons at all, employees were wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another, and she stayed out of stores and public places and didn’t do any of her supplemental jobs. After two weeks of that had passed, I got to go visit her for a weekend, which was a nice time of relaxing and fun.

We continue to order our groceries to be delivered (and try to tip well for those who do that work and assume the risk that we are avoiding). We order everything we can online, whether books, household supplies, or clothing. This past weekend I made my best guess at shoe sizes for the older girls – we’ll see whether they fit when they arrive! Matt had to go to Menards one day to get some supplies that we couldn’t easily order online to fix our leaking freezer, and we took advantage of that opportunity to have him pick up some paint and supplies so we could paint our hallway – ready to tackle some quarantine home improvement projects!

We’re still trying to stay home as much as we can, and overall, life feels pretty peaceful. In addition to our regular school work, there is time for board games, playing outside, and reading books for fun.

We have acknowledged that, two months in, we need to use wisdom, not absolute zero, as our guide for interactions outside of our home. Life is not black and white. We have very high risk family members. We will not be taking any significant risks. But we do have weigh the different risks involved in the various shades of gray and make the best decisions we can for our family. We can’t allow our health to deteriorate or our van to become un-usable or our freezer to leak perpetually, so we take those risks. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw caution to the wind and engage in ridiculous behavior. Some of the most dramatic examples of people flouting expert recommendations are coming out of Missouri this past weekend. It’s hard to have standards that we know others aren’t following.

I am mourning. Our neighborhood pool is opening for the summer, and while others enjoy that lovely activity, we’ll be at home, trying to find other ways to cope with the humid, 90-degree weather of Missouri summers. Our two almost-swimmers will not be mastering that skill this season. As Miranda’s swim team resumes practices again, she’ll be staying home.

We see pictures of friends out at parks or gathering together. We miss our people, too. We miss feeling like we belong to a community (an experience obviously exacerbated by having resigned our membership in our long-time church just months prior to a pandemic). We see others returning to life, more or less as normal.

Psychologically, it’s a strange experience. It feels almost like collective gaslighting. So many others are acting like there is no problem at all – like everything is normal. I’ve had moments of beginning to wonder whether I’m the one who has the truly skewed perspective. Am I over-reacting? Are the lengths to which I am going to keep my family safe (and protect anyone with whom we would need to come into contact) absolutely ridiculous?

And then I look at the statistics. And I read the stories. And I remember – the risk is DEATH. And for several members of my family, that risk is high. And we have no way of knowing the risk factors of anyone with whom we may need to come into contact. I’ll trade my summer at the pool to give us the best chance to preserve their lives. Everyone has to make their own choices. But as for me and my house, we will be staying home.

Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 4): Day 43 At Home: How the Kiddos are Handling It All

As a mom of four children, obviously one of my major concerns and questions heading into this time of social distancing was about how my kids would handle it.

This is definitely not the case for everyone, but honestly, most of our kids are generally really enjoying it!

When I asked them their thoughts one recent evening, Miranda told me that she LOVED it – she had so much more time to do fun things like reading. She and MeiMei are really into the Wings of Fire series right now and have read the books multiple times. She said that she feels so free at home. In addition to doing school (here she is working on one of her History lapbook projects), she’s been using her time to read, to bake, to make art, and to play creatively.

MeiMei says that there are things she doesn’t like, but mostly she likes it. She says that she definitely likes getting more time to read, and she likes going on walks (she did ride for part of our walk here but also walked for a significant portion!).

Poor FangFang is our sole true extroverted child, and I think she is the least happy with this period of social isolation. She tells me that she doesn’t like staying at home and likes going to HEaT (our homeschool enrichment group) and going places in general. We are doing our best to give her some fun at-home experiences, though!

Atticus tells me that he loves being home – that there is much more time to build with Legos and read and do fun stuff! He really has been spending a ton of time playing with Legos. I’m also treasuring the little conversations we’ve been able to have. The other night, I was brushing the tangles out of his curls after his bath, and he told me, “Mom, I love my hair. I want to keep it long. I don’t want to look just like everyone else. My hair makes me look cool.”

Honestly, this has been a very interesting experience for me. It makes me wonder whether maybe we’re doing too much. We always talked about how, as we homeschooled, we wanted to be very intentional about giving our kids opportunities to interact with other kids and to learn from other adults. We have worked very hard to find awesome opportunities for them to do that – we love our homeschool enrichment group, our swim club, and our horseback riding lessons! But also…I do love that my kids are getting opportunities just to relax – to read, to have creative fun play on their own, and to be outside more.

I made a rare exception to my general prohibition of high fructose corn syrup and bought my kids a box of these popsicles, which they (mostly MeiMei) request multiple times a day! Ah, the joys of childhood…

I also feel like there’s more time to say yes to things like just playing a family games together.

Some families are able to do all of that AND get through their school curriculum and do all of their extra activities. Maybe someday we will. The fact that I need to get in some work hours each day, too, is definitely a limiting factor on our time. I don’t really know how we’ll structure our lives once we get back to “normal.”

Honestly, I think “normal” is pretty far off for us. Even once our state re-opens (currently our governor is saying that will happen on Monday, May 4; as of today, our state has 6,321 confirmed cases and 218 total deaths), we will stay home. I have seen no data to suggest that we are better able to limit spread or offer effective life-saving treatment or are anywhere close to having a vaccine, and with multiple members of our family being high-risk for complications from the virus, it is safest for us to stay home. But someday…I hope we can make those choices again. And I wonder what that will look like for us!

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.