Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fall Days

It's been raining here since yesterday, and the weather has finally turned chilly!  I have to admit that it's a welcome change after the long Texas summer - but my boys are sad to see swimming weather fade.

Maybe it's the changing of the seasons, but I've been inspired to change many things around our home, hopefully for the better!  I have a newly awakened sense of curiosity and am avidly reading and contemplating many things, something I haven't felt the urge to do in years.  It's a nice feeling!  I have to smile as I consider, however, that what I am researching and reading and contemplating has nothing to do with the detached and academic pursuits of my earlier years and everything to do with family, education, religion, and wellness.  The seasons of my own life are changing, it seems!

When I realized that I wanted to learn more about homeschooling and the philosophy of education, frugal living and family finances, and herbalism and natural wellness, I realized that the papers flying from my printer would quickly overwhelm the little corner of our home known as Mommy's "office".  With the end of the calendar year in view, I set about creating a binder organization system or household journal.  It allows me to keep track of all our different "irons in the fire" -- all in one place.  I love it!!!  The best part about it is that it is totally customizable and infinitely expandable, exactly what I wanted.

Here's to organization and the start of a new season!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflections: The Beginning of a New Year

September is such a wonderful month!  I start pining for fall and the start of a new school year in, oh, probably July.  And I so enjoy shopping for pens and pencils and notebooks that it is almost ridiculous!  Some mothers drink tea or get a massage when they are stressed.  I shop for pens.  I suppose that's the writer in me coming through.

Anyway, we almost threw in the towel on homeschooling last year.  I was convinced that the kids weren't learning anything and that it would be better for them all to be in school.  So we started looking into private schools, but the promise of astronomical, budget-busting tuition was enough to make me return to take a hard look at why I was so unhappy with homeschooling.

After some scrutiny and self-examination, I realized that I wanted a program that was more enjoyable to teach, that was flexible and not overwhelming for the boys, and that had a minimal workbook component.  After a discussion with some friends of ours, they recommended that I look into The Latin-Centered Curriculum by Andrew Campbell.  I borrowed their copy, read it cover to cover, and fell immediately in love.  Here at last was a curriculum designed with me in mind!  The promise of "much, not many" appealed to me, as did the classical philosophy behind the design.  And so, after explaining its many advantages to my husband, I charged ahead.

Not that I was without qualms.  Being without a prepackaged curriculum for the first time made me nervous.  Would I be able to plan my own lessons?  Could I set my own pace?  And the fearful delight of choosing a math program set my motherly heart a-flutter.  I gathered myself together and chose and planned...carefully.

We are now into our second week of the new school year, and I am glowing from the harvest I am beginning to reap!  The boys are actually excited about school for the first time in years!  It is delirium scarcely to be imagined.  More than just their enthusiasm, they are actually learning and retaining what they are learning!  My husband is beside himself with relief and joy.  And I am content. 

There is one thing that I have realized in the last several months, as I have weaned myself from prepared curricula.  Homeschooling requires mother's full attention.  At least, it requires mine.  When I tried to teach my children while my attention was fragmented between this and that side pursuit, I was frustrated and impatient ~ which meant that my children were frustrated and impatient.  Sacrificing six hours of my day (at least) to teach my sweet boys is indeed a sacrifice, but I find such joy in the time I spend with them, watching them learn and grow!  And I find that I have quiet time to myself in the afternoons after all, when I can recharge my own batteries.  It is wonderful in strange and unexpected ways.  An everyday miracle.

God willing, it will be a fabulous year!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Contraception and American Birth Culture

I recently had the privilege to read an amazing article by Penny Simkin called "The Experience of Maternity in a Woman's Life" (Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, March/April 1996: 247-252). In this article, Simkin looks at the history of women's roles in the United States in order to discover the reasons for our 20th (and now 21st) century American birth culture of highly managed, medical childbirth.

The entire article is fascinating, but her observation that the introduction of birth control and the subsequent divorcing of sex from babies in the 1920s was partly the cause of the change in our birth culture is particularly so. After the introduction of contraception, women felt free to flaunt their sexuality becuase they were "protected" from the sex = babies equation, but, ironically, even as they gained this perceived control over their sexuality, they began handing over their control of the birth process:
Several other trends combined to lead women to relinquish the control they had in childbearing and to foster the medical perception of the human body as a complex machine that is devoid of feeling. The practice of birth control, leading to a steady decline in the birth rate, meant a reduction in women's personal experience, knowledge, and self-confidence in giving birth. Grand multiparas had been important teachers.... But now there were fewer grand multiparas. (249)
The sexual liberation provided by birth control not only affected birth, but also breastfeeding -- artificial formula meant "freedom from child care" (249). Women wanted freedom -- freedom to be out in public when pregnant, freedom from nursing their babies, and freedom from pain in childbirth. When twilight sleep was introduced (a combination of scopolamine and meperdine) and touted as the way to achieve best outcomes for mother and baby, women demanded to be put under to be delivered of their babies.

In the 1960s, the introduction of the Pill and the desire of many women to return to the workforce heightened the problem. Enter the Women's Liberation movement and the birth of feminism. Enter also the degradation of the position of mother and housewife. As Simkin puts it, "No longer could women find fulfillment, respect, and pride in housework and motherhood. Such work was no longer valued in society" (248). To stay at home and raise one's own children was perceived as low class and ignorant. What was the result of this matrix of attitudes about children and work? Simkin argues that
[t]he belief that anyone can raise a healthy, happy, competent child lowered the value of child rearing and produced a careless attitude toward day care. People who could not do anything else could raise children, so only minimal standards of safety and cleanliness were set, and day care centers...proliferated to meet the needs of mothers who entered the work force. (248)
Today, the combination of overworked parents who have little time for or interest in preparing for childbirth, the uptick in medical malpractice litigation, and the perception that it doesn't really matter how you birth your baby (250) has led to a birth culture where more than 1/3 of women will give birth by cesarean section and almost 3/4 of women will opt for epidural anesthesia (see the Listening to Mothers Survey II at Most companies allow new mothers six weeks to give their full attention to their babies, and then mothers find childcare arrangements and go back to the office. We need only look around or listen to the news to see that quantity, not quality, still dominates child care in this country.

I find Simkin's article so illuminating because it demonstrates that the sexual relationship between man and woman -- and one that is open to the creation of a child -- is absolutely integral to society as a whole. The violation of that order through artificial contraception has had devastating ramifications across the board.

We need to do some hard thinking as a culture regarding our attitude toward children. If they are perceived as a burden, an inconvenience, or something that needs to be scheduled around career or something else, can we really expect women to desire normal, natural childbirth, with all its unpredictability and emotional and psychological intensity? And when we as a culture have rejected babies and motherhood, why should we expect it to welcome and celebrate birth?


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Making bread

We're completely out of bread...which means that I need to get motivated to make some and finally give my new NutriMill grain mill a whirl.  I'm hoping that I will finally win over my children to the taste of fresh whole wheat's got such a lovely rich, deep flavor, but when you're used to the fluff they sell at the grocery store, it can be an adjustment for the palate!

One of my favorite homeschool "mentors" -- and I put this in quotes because I've never met her in person, only read her books -- is Rita Munn.  She once wrote a beautiful reflection on the making of bread, and I think of it every time I bake.  Our Lord fed thousands through the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and He feeds all of us with the Holy Eucharist.  In our own humble way, we mothers participate in this life-giving nourishment of souls when we bake our lowly loaves and feed our families.  What an amazing blessing!  It's a true privilege that God has given us, this responsibility for feeding those we love!

We visited San Antonio this past weekend, just my husband and I, in celebration of our 10th wedding anniversary.  We visited many of the old Spanish missions, and as we walked around the wall of Mission San Jose, we came upon a park guide giving a demonstration of grinding corn with a stone grinder.  As I watched the kids take turns rolling the stone pin over the kernels, crushing them into powder, I reflected again, as I sometimes do, on the life of the pioneer woman.  Reading the Little House on the Prairie books, one gets the sense that a mother's life then was simple, well-ordered, and occupied her from sunup to sundown.  Making the family's clothing, cleaning, cooking and baking, churning the butter, teaching the many of the things we take for granted, she did herself.  And yet, for all our modern conveniences, we are a more hectic and frantic culture, not less.  And to my modern, frantic mind, there is something refreshing in the idea of letting go of this crazed world just a bit, focusing just on what needs to be done without distractions.

What a blessing, then, that we can bake our bread, and breathe a little!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Out with the Old, In with the New

As we bring this school year to a close, I'm full of mixed emotions.  This last year has been, by and large, a success, full of its inevitable downs and ups.  As only my second full year of homeschooling, I feel I am finally getting my "sea legs" -- I have found that the most valuable skill a homeschooling mother possesses is flexibility, and her most necessary virtue patience.  In light of those two things, a myriad of other considerations follow:
  1. In order to be flexible, the curriculum must give a little.  I have discovered this year that the curriculum I am currently using is no longer what suits our family best, so I am excited to make some adjustments for next year!
  2. Flexibility must be balanced with a sense of order.  I can't be so flexible that nothing ever gets done, nor so "orderly" that we become a cyborg family.  I think that not cramming our schedule will help us to move things around if need be.  Like those Cracker Jack games where you have to reorder the numbers in the square, you can't budge if you don't have any empty space!
  3. In order for Mommy to be patient, Mommy requires time for enough sleep, daily prayer (and Mass if possible), daily exercise, and a little bit of quiet time in the afternoon.  Looking forward, these will become permanent entries in the schedule.  Mommy can't give what she doesn't have, after all!
  4. Both patience and flexibility require that everyone carries their share of the household duties.  If I am overwhelmed with minutiae, it's so easy for the most important things to get lost in the shuffle!
I guess all of this goes back to my earlier post about order in the home.  Every family is so unique!  One of the real blessings of homeschooling is the ability to design a custom lifestyle that fits the gifts, charisms, and individual needs of everyone in the home, allowing each to grow and thrive in his or her own way.

So, even though I am looking forward to summer vacation, I am also already eagerly anticipating the joy and challenges of the next school year!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Order...Order in the Home!!!

It's a funny thing.  Order without kids is not the same as order with kids.  I know this sounds ridiculously simple and obvious, but it's something I have to keep reminding myself.  And I've realized something else, too: the idealized vision of a "home" that I have in my head -- which isn't really a vision so much as a collage of images and feelings that combine to form a whole impression -- is merely a snapshot.  It's like the glimpse you get when you walk past a window and glance out: nothing stirs, and nothing changes.  If someone asked you after that glance to tell him what it was like outside, you'd have to go back and take a longer look before you could answer accurately.  If you tried to describe what was outside from just a passing glance, you'd end up with a static and idealized landscape with no more life than a Grecian urn.

Would it have order?  Absolutely.  Would it be true to life? Not in the least.

When we talk about a piece of writing -- a poem, a novel, even an essay -- and discuss its order, the best works of literature always have an order to them which is organic to the work, not imposed from outside.  A Shakespearean sonnet could not be any other kind of poem than a sonnet -- the ordering principle, the structure, is integral and essential to the work and its meaning.  But, even farther than this, a Shakespearean sonnet could not be other than a Shakespearean sonnet: it has a totally different quality than a Donne sonnet, or a Petrarchan sonnet, or a Milton sonnet.

It is the same with life, I think.  Each family has an order that is all its own -- one that is totally unique, growing out of the intertwined personalities, loves, and beliefs of the individuals within the family.  And as it grows, it becomes something by which you can identify a family, a charism, if you will.  So why do I so often measure my family's "order" by some snapshot impression?  I should instead seek out our unique family charism and fortify the principles which form its foundation.  Our family's order will not be like anyone else's. now I need to discover just what that order is.... :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Of hens and otherwise!

One of our nine lovely ladies has decided she wants babies.  She sits and sits and sits on her little pile of eggs (until one of my rowdy crew moves her aside to whisk them away).  We have no rooster, so there isn't a chance that one of these eggs will actually hatch, but that doesn't stop her from trying!  When my seven-year-old went this evening to check for eggs and she took a swipe at him with her beak, I decided I'd better do it myself.

Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small SpacesOnce I moved her fluffed-out, protesting self off the eggs, I was amazed at how warm they were!  Warm may be an would be more accurate.  She really does a fabulous job brooding over these eggs.  It's too bad it's futile!  After reading up a bit on broodiness, it seems we'll have to coax her gently back into the flock, distracting her from her "nest" a bit each day until she gets over this.

This all led me to reflect on brooding...for we humans do it too!  And I'm not talking about the normal "nesting" behavior that happens in late pregnancy, either.  I'm talking about the brooding that happens when our minds latch onto something and we worry it and worry it, nourish it, spend time on it -- perhaps even though we realize that this something is useless and that our efforts to make it grow are futile.  When we brood over something, we behave just like my little hen -- we lash out at those who take care of us and love us, we lose interest in things that used to delight us, and we avoid social situations.  We prefer to isolate ourselves with our thoughts.

And sometimes we may not realize that we are withdrawing ourselves from others.  It's possible to just go through the motions: pray, eat, talk, bathe the kids, cook dinner, wash dishes, fold laundry.  Outwardly, we seem engaged.  But those who know us well can tell that our hearts and minds aren't in our work.  We are distracted and not at peace.

So don't become a broody hen!  It's easy to do when there are things happening in our world or in our lives that preoccupy us.  But dwelling on the same issue or mulling over the same event does nothing to change anything.  It's futile, just like trying to hatch an unfertilized egg.  Instead of wasting energy and time on such thoughts, commit all things to the Lord and then let them go.

Trust me. You won't regret your new-found freedom!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spring is Here!

Spring truly is one of my favorite times of the year!  And I am particularly excited this year about spring because we are transforming our dirt plot (aka "back yard") into a true outdoor oasis!  We tilled the earth -- a backbreaking and shoulder-wrecking job, by the way -- and planted grass seeds, set up four new square foot gardens, and have been adding perennials and rose bushes to my modest flower garden.  And, wonder of wonders, it's all growing!!!  There is much excitement here, as I have been known before only for my black thumb!

Watching all these fresh green things spring up all over our yard seems to me to be nature's quiet but dramatic meditation on the mystery of the Resurrection.  Particularly striking to me is the gorgeous wisteria, which seems to produce scent-laden clusters of blossoms out of dry sticks.  One day, it is a gnarled, seemingly dead bunch of twigs -- the next, it flaunts its cascade of purple flowers!

Whenever I think of spring and growing things, I love to meditate on the lilies of the field parable from the Bible.  While the message of trust in the Lord is one that is dear to my heart, it isn't this that particularly delights me.  Let me just quote the passage here:
"And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.  But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these." (Matt. 6:28-29)
What I love to consider is Our Blessed Lord delighting in little grass flowers.  The God Who made Heaven and Earth rejoices in the simple beauty of nature -- not even Solomon, whose apparel was probably crusted with jewels and gold threads, can rival them.  It's just so striking to me!

But should it really be so surprising that Our Lord delights in humble things?  After all, His own mother was the handmaid of the Lord -- no queen of earth, but a simple woman, betrothed to a poor carpenter.  And yet her beauty and glory are beyond compare!  The world paid her no notice, just as it is blind to the beauty of the lilies of the field, but God favored her above all His creatures.  Let us strive to imitate the humility of Mary by cultivating a simple and trusting heart!

Thursday, April 8, 2010


It's a glorious spring day here in Texas, and perhaps that's why the writer's bug has bitten me so hard!  This has been a year full of great trials and unexpected blessings, hard lessons learned and new windows opened. 

I know there are so many other moms out there like me, who have traveled a long, hard road to the discovery that home, kids, and, yes, even big hairy dogs that shed everywhere at the slightest provocation are the keys to happiness!  It was not until I started seeking spiritual direction from a humble, joyful, and holy priest that I began to realize just how far away from the heart of my vocation I had truly wandered.  After many tears and some very difficult self-examination, I have finally begun to disentangle myself from those things that have distracted me for so long.  It isn't easy, but shouldering the cross never is!  What has amazed me, though, is the joy that my new-found zeal for my vocation as wife and mother has brought!  I was truly searching high and low for something that I had in my possession all along!

I now understand why, during all that fruitless wandering, I would feel so frustrated that I was not doing the best I could as a mother.  Instead of abandoning projects and schemes that distracted me from my vocation, I delved even deeper into them and grew more and more miserable.  Like St. Augustine, I too had to learn to bow my neck under the yoke of Christ:
But where had my power of free decision been throughout those long, weary years, and from what depth, what hidden profundity, was it called forth in a moment, enabling me to bow my neck to your benign yoke and my shoulders to your light burden, O Christ Jesus, my helper and redeemer?  How sweet did it suddenly seem to me to shrug off those sweet frivolities, and how glad I now was to get rid of them - I who had been loath to let them go! (The Confessions, Revised, p.209)
Unhappiness, it seems to me, is the surest sign that our road is not the one paved for us by Christ, but rather some rough path of our own fashioning.  And while we might eventually find our way, through much undergrowth and tedious progress, to the Eternal Jerusalem, how much better is it to heed the Lord's call and follow in His footsteps?

If one considers the awesome responsibility that mothers (and fathers) bear before God for the raising of their children, it is a miracle to me that God entrusts them to us at all!  These immortal souls in tiny bodies are in our charge, but they are not ours.  They belong to our Heavenly Father, and a reckoning will be made of the care we took during our stewardship.  Teaching small ones to know, love, and serve God in this world so as to be happy with Him in the next demands so much of us -- because how can we teach what we do not practice ourselves?  So, having our own spiritual homes in order and fostering our marriage -- which gives us the sacramental graces we need to fulfill our God-given duties -- is so important.

So what do I mean to say by all of this?  Simply that being a mother is the greatest honor one could hope for... and that living in the world's shadows lets us bask in God's sunshine!