Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 2): COVID-19 Extreme Social Distancing: The First Couple Weeks

As I shared in my last post, our family started staying home whenever possible on Thursday, March 12. For us, the transition is nowhere near as significant as for others. We already homeschool our children. Matt already had some flexibility to his schedule and was home some during the days.

But it is still a very different situation. We are intentional in providing opportunities for our children to learn from the world around us and interact with other people. In our normal life, all four kids swim multiple times a week. The older girls and I usually ride horses about once a week. All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3-4 mornings a month. FangFang has weekly physical therapy. We have outings to the library and the park. We attend art shows and go to the zoo. This homeschooling world in which we’re all now living is very different than actual, normal homeschooling. That said, again, I acknowledge that the transition is much less jarring for us than it is for those being thrust into homeschooling with just a few days’ notice.

Really, compared to what many families are facing right now, we have virtually the ideal scenario. The primary structure of our lives is staying mostly the same. Both Matt’s and my jobs are pretty secure, at least in the short term. Many people are far less fortunate than we are.

We spent our first couple days at home doing our regular school days and trying to better prepare ourselves for going out less. I emptied out our deep freeze entirely and re-organized it and cataloged its contents. Our oven had died, so we researched ranges and ordered a new one. I planned meals for the next two weeks, and Saturday morning I made what I planned to be my last in-store grocery shopping trip for quite a while. By this point, though, other people had also realized that this was going to be a thing. The run on toilet paper had begun. I arrived at Aldi before it opened to find a line forming outside the door! There were a few items I was not able to get at Aldi (almond milk, butter), but between Aldi and Hyvee, I was able to get everything I needed, plus add a bit to our supply of stored food downstairs.

It’s hard to know how much to buy. On the one hand, we are a fairly large family – I spend over $200 a week on groceries on an average week, so to shop for two weeks at a time is a significant undertaking. In an average week, we probably make one mid-week stop at the store for something, and obviously we’d want to limit that, too. And in this time of uncertainty and increased risk of illness, it seems wise to have some additional items on hand – cough medicine, for one thing, Gatorade, Sprite, etc. I’ve settled on trying not to go completely crazy with stocking up but also trying to be well prepared.

Mizzou was continuing to monitor the situation and update their plans for the semester. As of Thursday, March 12, they had said that all teaching was to be done remotely, but faculty and staff were still to report to campus as needed but start planning in case it became unwise to do so. On Friday, March 13, they announced that the switch to remote teaching, as opposed to holding in-person classes, would be extended through the entirety of the spring semester.

Courtney was supposed to come visit that weekend, and we canceled that. Her job is still requiring her to come in daily, and she would still be giving riding lessons for another week, and even now (with multiple cities in Missouri under stay at home orders), she is continuing to have to do appointments for potential adoptions. She is attempting to minimize her exposure – she certainly is not interested in getting the coronavirus – but there is not much she can do if her job is requiring her to interact with the public. With multiple high risk people in our house, she and I talked about it and decided it just wasn’t a good idea to risk having her come. That was one of the first big changes for our family life, in this period of staying home – not just not going to big events, but not having anyone at all come over.

Although Columbia Public Schools were still in session, most people acknowledged that we were slowly marching toward closure – not a question of “if” but “when,” and I started receiving inquiries about homeschooling advice, which prompted these two posts, as well as some e-mails and private messages.

We continued our usual school activities.

Finding ourselves with a bit more time on our hands than usual, the big kids and I have been catching up on some of their lapbook projects.

On Monday, March 16, Columbia Public Schools announced that they would close effective Wednesday. On Tuesday, March 17, Boone County recorded its first positive test result for COVID-19 (there were 16 positive cases in the state at that time), thereby confirming that it was truly here, and Mizzou announced that same day that all buildings were going to be locked, and everyone possible would need to begin working from home. Matt went into campus to get everything he thought he might need in the coming weeks and months from both the art building and his studio. On Thursday, March 19 (still just 1 positive case in Boone County – with 1 death; 28 cases statewide), Mizzou reiterated that no one was to work on campus unless specifically directed to do so by their supervisor.

With some of the big changes in our lives and schedules relating so heavily to physical activity, I’ve known that we would need to be finding time to get outside and move around as much as possible. We’ve been taking a lot of walks, though as this Snap suggests, it has been something of a strange experience.

It’s strange how quickly the intensity of the current guidance to stay distant from other people begins to feel almost normal. I find myself watching tv shows and alternately marveling at how close the characters are standing to one another and wanting to jump up and warn them that they are putting themselves at risk!

One of my current irritations is with parents who allow their children outside without supervision when those children clearly do not understand the idea of not getting within 6 feet of any other people. Obviously each parent must determine for themselves whether their children are mature enough to be outside without supervision, but that standard changes a bit during a global pandemic. In my normal life, I would love to hang out with all the children – but not right now. And if I have to tell your child to back off, then your child is clearly not mature enough to handle being outside without supervision during this time.

Other than that, though, we have been enjoying our walks and our time outside!

Yesterday we even had a picnic and did some of our school reading outside!

Of course, there are days when the weather is not so nice, and those are harder. I’ve been doing some workouts on our elliptical, and the kids and I have all been doing some body-weight exercises and exercises with some small dumbbells.

Being without an oven for several weeks – especially during this time – has been challenging for me in planning meals, but also for Miranda, our resident baker. One day she and I looked up recipes and she tried making a cake in our bread machine! The bottom got a bit burnt, but otherwise it was good, and it was a fun experience for her.

We did finally get our new range this week, for which I was very thankful. After a delivery scheduled during a generally unhelpful 12 hour window – during which the store actually failed to deliver the range – and many phone calls and much follow-up from me, it arrived on Wednesday, a day after it was supposed to come. It’s nothing special but nice to be back to having a fully functional kitchen!

Having more time at home, I’ve been trying to tackle some projects around the house.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed has been having more time to read. I have been making my way through a few different books, and the older girls are also really into reading right now. We’ve been trying to have a quiet reading time at least a few afternoons a week.

And as for the statistics, after having 16 positive test results on Tuesday, March 17, a week later, on Tuesday, March 24, Missouri had recorded 255 cases (with Boone County having 20 positive cases). Effective Wednesday morning, we are under stay at home orders from both the City of Columbia and Boone County. As of yesterday, Thursday, March 26, Missouri was reporting 502 cases (with 25 in Boone County) and 8 deaths. As of yesterday, the United States, for the first time, reports more cases than any other country in the world (with 81,321 cases and over 1,000 deaths), and also as of yesterday, the worldwide count of cases surpassed 500,000. Watching the numbers, I suspect we will pass 600,000 worldwide today.

My mom was supposed to visit us this weekend, but as the Director of Emergency Management for her county (so far 56 cases out of Wisconsin’s 755 total), she is working 14-16 hour days and will not be able to come see us.

In terms of our own personal experience during this time of the coronavirus and social distancing, I am missing the ability to see people outside of my own little family unit. I’m sad to be missing out on plans I’d made to see both Courtney and my mom, as well as other friends. My dad’s visit for next month will likely also need to be canceled.

Beyond that, it honestly feels somewhat relaxing. It’s a strange juxtaposition, being faced daily with the gravity of the situation, knowing that people are dying every day, that medical providers in our very own country are being forced to work without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and knowing that what I do may have grave consequences, both for my family and my community – but that what I am supposed to do, stay at home as much as possible, feels not like acting the part of a valiant warrior but more like having a stay-cation.

The first thing I do each morning and the last thing I do each night is check my phone for coronavirus news updates. It feels of supreme importance – and yet, actually, no matter what the websites and articles say, today will be another day of staying home. I spent the early days of our time at home posting articles on Facebook encouraging social distancing – but now, I know that those who are going to understand the gravity of the situation probably already do, and there is likely nothing I can say to those who choose to to continue to listen to President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, despite its dissonance from the opinion of every respected medical professional.

I wonder what is ahead for us all. While I obviously do not want to see the economy continue to crash, I think it is inevitable. Sending people back to work – to get sick and die – will not help. I wonder how helpful the relief bill Congress is working on will be. We can definitely use the money but are generally okay financially for now. While we are home, I’m also trying to work some extra hours to help us rebuild our emergency fund.

I hope and pray that others in my city, in my state, and in my country will stay home if they can. I hope that the PPE and ventilators our medical professionals and our hospitals – and ultimately, we – need will arrive in time. I hope we can flatten the curve. I hope we can see our friends and family again soon. I hope they’re all okay. I hope this isn’t as bad as I suspect it will be.

Temporary Homeschooling Tips, Part Two: Schedules

Yesterday I published a post with some general advice for those who may be temporarily homeschooling children due to the coronavirus outbreak. The most frequent question I have gotten since then is about our schedule – how do we organize our day?

First, a disclaimer – we are homeschoolers, but by no means does that mean that we usually spend the entirety of our days at home. All four of our kids usually swim two to three times a week. The big kids and I usually ride horses at least a few times a month. We take “field trips” – we go to the zoo, we go to art shows, we go to the pumpkin farm, we go to parks. FangFang usually has weekly PT, and it feels like we always have a pediatrician or dentist or eye doctor or specialist appointment coming up for someone for some reason! All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3 mornings a month. Spending more time at home is a change for us, too.

That said, we do have a general routine to our days. Note that a routine is different than a schedule. To me, a schedule is based on specific times, and one of the things I appreciate about homeschooling is that it allows for flexibility and freedom to spend more time than planned on an area that is particularly difficult or especially interesting. Plus, I’m a control freak, and I get stressed out about schedules. Routines work well for us, though!

We divide our academic work into two different categories, loosely called “table school” and “couch school.” Table school is for subjects the kids do at the dining room table but also includes, for the older kids, any subjects on which they do their work independently. Couch school is for subjects we do together on the couch. For the older kids (4th grade and 3rd grade), table school is math, independent reading, and sometimes Language Arts. For the younger kids (kindergarten and pre-k), table school is math and Language Arts.

Each night before I go to bed, I write out assignments for table school for the older two kids for the next morning.

If I’m on top of things, I might get out school books for everyone the night before, as well, but that’s not super frequent 😉 The older kids are quite capable of getting their own materials.

The older kids’ job is to come downstairs when they wake up, get themselves breakfast (or ask for help getting breakfast), and get started on their table school work. I’ve found that they find table school more challenging than couch school – perhaps because they are expected to do more independently – and so it goes better if we start with that. There is no specific wake-up or start time – my kids all usually wake up once they’ve gotten enough sleep, and they just start once they are awake (usually by 8:00 or 8:30, sometimes earlier or later).

After I have breakfast, I start table school with the younger kids.

Everyone gets a break after table school. I would say, on average, we’re all finishing up table school between 10:00 and 10:30, but it can vary pretty widely. What that break looks like depends on the day and whether everyone is ready for a break at the same time or whether the big kids and little kids are finishing up their work at very different times. Regardless, each kiddo definitely gets a break, though I may stay busy working with one group and then the next. Sometimes that break is just free play time. Sometimes we all go for a walk. Now that we’ll no longer have swimming as part of our regular weekly activities, we will need to be sure we’re getting enough physical activity, so I’m hoping we can go for walks more frequently. Otherwise, we might play outside or do some Cosmic Kids Yoga, or I may put together some more active work-out type activities to do with everyone.

What we do next depends on the time. Often times we can move on to couch school, but sometimes we need to break for lunch at that point.

Couch school subjects are always History, Science, and Bible. For the little kids, we also do Literature and Reading as couch school subjects; for the older kids, Language Arts is sometimes a couch school subject, depending on what we need to do that day. Whether the big kids or little kids do their couch school subjects first depends on who finished table school first that day. Usually I sit together with each group on the couch, and we read each of our books and discuss them. Often times the big kids will join us for the little kids’ books – I’m reading the same books with the little kids that I read with the big kids 5 years ago, so those stories feel like old friends to them!

After we’ve finished lunch and our couch school subjects, we do some clean-up. In particular, the common areas of the house (the living room and dining room) need to be picked up. Sometimes I’ll also have kids work on cleaning their own rooms or doing their family teamwork jobs (things like sweeping, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, etc).

Then we have our afternoon downtime. Sometimes we’ll all have independent quiet time in separate rooms. Sometimes we’ll all sit in the living room for half an hour and read our own books. After that, almost every day, the kids are allowed to watch 1-2 hours of tv while I work. I have a very flexible part-time job, and I try to get in at least an hour of work each afternoon.

What happens after that really depends on the timing. Sometimes we’ll transition straight from that downtime into dinner prep. Sometimes there will be time for a fun activity together. This is another window into which I’m hoping to fit some free play and time outdoors and exercise.

We all have dinner together as a family, during which we go around the table, and each person shares their high of the day, their low of the day, their buffalo (something strange or interesting), something kind they did that day, and something they’re looking forward to.

After dinner we might do a family activity, or the kids might all play independently. Every child also needs to finish any family teamwork jobs that they did not do earlier in the day. Atticus really likes to play Wii or Xbox, and this is the only window of the day in which we allow that, and sometimes MeiMei or FangFang will play with him.

Around 8:00 Matt puts the little kids to bed, and between 8:30 and 8:45, the big kids and I head upstairs for their bedtime routine. After they’re ready for bed, they snuggle with me in my bed, and that’s when I do Literature with them, reading to them as bedtime stories.

The routine is subject to adjustment, as needed, but it’s the general structure we follow for each of our days! As always, feel free to ask questions and let us know if I can help in any way 🙂

In Which Miranda Becomes a Vegetarian

One of my greatest joys in parenthood is watching my children develop interests and passions of their own. All four of our children have what our pediatrician refers to as “big personalities,” so there is no shortage of passion here. Even if we tried to direct it, I’m not sure we could, and each time it bursts forth from one child or another, I feel like I’ve just gotten to unwrap another Christmas gift. I get a real glimpse at where my child’s heart is, and the wonder and awe that this child whom I have the privilege of shepherding through life has his or her own unique convictions and excitements and passions – and that I have a front row seat to witnessing them – is glorious.

One of Miranda’s latest passions is vegetarianism. As a family, we have been almost entirely pescetarian since shortly after Matt’s heart attack. For several months now, though, Miranda has been entirely vegetarian. She was never really a huge fan of fish, anyway, and while the rest of us have always made occasional brief forays into the carnivorous culture in which we exist (primarily related to social gatherings), Miranda abstains from meat entirely.

I remember very clearly sitting on the couch one morning, doing our history reading, and looking at pictures of Vikings carrying in animal carcasses in preparation for a feast. The meat-to-be looked so very…animal-like. I believe that was the moment that solidified it all in her mind with finality. She would not be consuming meat.

Since then, our conversations about vegetarianism generally go something like this:

  • Miranda: I will not eat meat! It is mean to kill animals for food and eat them!
  • Me: I respect that conviction, and we’ll honor that. You don’t have to eat meat.
  • Miranda: No one should eat meat! If anyone eats meat, they should be killed!
  • Me: So…you think it’s evil to kill animals?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: So evil that anyone who eats an animal should be killed?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic to you?
  • Miranda: No. Why would that be ironic?
  • Me: Well, you’re advocating for killing people, because you’re protesting that they are killing animals. If you value the lives of animals, do you think maybe we should also value the lives of people?
  • Miranda, looking at me as if that proposal is the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard: No.

There you have it, my friends. Miranda Grace, the ultimate intensifier, has spoken. She is a vegetarian, and the rest of us are supposed to follow her lead – or else.

Either that, or I need to keep working with her on developing some sense of moderation and respect for others’ convictions and the ethical gray areas of life 😉

On Priorities, Family Teamwork, and Chores

Matt and I have talked a fair amount about our priorities for ourselves and our family, and, as will come as no surprise to anyone who has entered our house ever, having a perfectly organized, always-clean home is just not at the top of the list. I think that at this point in our lives, having 4 children ages 3-7 and homeschooling them all, the choice is really between having a clean house or ever doing anything else at all – and because I’d like to have time to enjoy my husband, enjoy my children, have relationships with other people, occasionally read a book or write a blog post, or really do anything else ever, having a clean house is not a make or break thing.

That said, I do crave order, and it stresses me out when our house is a mess. We’ve always existed in that space of realizing that our house will not be perfectly clean – and being okay with that – but never quite being happy with how it does look on a daily basis. I read an article earlier this year that confirmed for me that this is a real thing – there is a link between stress and clutter. Since then, Matt and I have been slowly but steadily working to de-clutter our house and keep it more organized and clean, and that has been so good. I’ve found a rhythm for more of our household tasks that helps me to stay on top of them without it adding too much strain to my day, and having those routines has been so helpful.

Until a few weeks ago, our children’s contributions to our household tasks had primarily been on an as-requested basis, with the understanding that everyone was to help when asked to do so – and they’d sometimes even volunteer themselves or ask to help with various tasks. The big kids’ only real, routine chores were to (1) help clean up the living room every day after lunch and (2) put away their own laundry. However, we started to get increasing amounts of resistance when we’d ask our big kids to help with various tasks. As I shared recently, one of them whined, when asked to help set the table, that she felt like a slave when I asked her to do things around the house. The increasing resistance was pretty close to crossing my line of necessitating drastic measures, but the comparison of themselves to slaves was a leap far past that line.

Matt and I announced a family meeting, wherein we made a list of all of the household tasks that need to be done in order to keep our home running smoothly, how often those tasks need to be done, and who usually performs them.

Surprise, surprise, the performer of the majority of these tasks was me! We discussed the fact that our family is a team, and as such, it shouldn’t be one person’s job to handle all of the household work, and we asked the big girls to volunteer for jobs they’d like to do. Novelty is a strong motivator, and they each actually chose a number of tasks for which they’d like to be responsible!

I put together a couple laminated sheets, listing out each child’s Family Teamwork Jobs (aka chores) and the days on which they are responsible for those jobs, and we’ve been using that system for almost a month now.

It has made a huge difference. The novelty has worn off, and the complaints have begun, but we have persisted in spite of that. There are very few jobs that even the big kids perform entirely on their own – but they’re still learning how to do each one and getting better at each as we get more experience, and I work with each of them to accomplish what needs to be done, so it’s an opportunity for us to build connection by working together. Additionally, I now have a schedule (and some accountability, in the form of 7-year-olds and their lists) for completing each task, so each one is more likely to be done than when I just waited and hoped for time to tackle it.

We’re seeing increased personal responsibility from our kids, and this is another vehicle to reinforce for all of us that our family is a team, and we work together to accomplish what needs to be done. I do give them some grace (most often when it is helpful for me to do so – i.e. when I just need the dishes to be done without spending 30 minutes doing them), but we largely stick to our schedules, and I think we’re growing as people, growing as a family…and our house is cleaner and more organized! We’re counting it as a win 🙂

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!