Our family gathered to wait with us. It was snowing, and all the local buses were on calls. Our drivers came from Elkorn City to Prestonsburg to pick us up. We waited over two hours after getting the news. I had time to explain to Ivy about surgery. How most of the people she is close with have had surgery. How she was born and alive because of surgery. How she's strong, and I won't leave her side. I would never leave her side.
She slept on the ambulance ride. I texted with some of my mama friends and family a little, but I mostly watched her sleep. It was hard to reach her where I was belted in, but we had the kindest EMTs with us, and the man in the back also had three daughters. He'd reach over and run his fingers through her hair every now and again. He won't know how much I appreciated that he wasn't afraid to touch her for me.
Like I said, I planned. What would this look like? I had only been with my job since October 2015. I guess they'd just have to let me go. I had been a stay at home mom for 10 years and nothing like this had every happened to us then. Now, I had made the decision to change our entire lifestyle so I could find fulfillment and a purpose beyond parenting, and this happens. As my mind is always analyzing, I asked - What is Universe trying to tell me? Have I become a neglectful parent in my pursuit of engaging work? Am I a selfish mother in even considering how this all will affect me?
Thank God, it wasn't cancer! Ivy is on the mend. University of Kentucky Children's Hospital and her surgical team were amazing. She had a 6cm vascular abonormality that was a total bizarre fluke. They removed it all, and now, almost two weeks later, you can only tell that she was operated on because she has four little incisions covered with surgical tape.
We got home on a Monday evening late. I went directly back to work the next morning. I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay, but now, we are dependent upon my income. My income pays for all the new things in our life. A house that meets our spacial and privacy needs, tuition for cottage school, babysitting, food, insurance and my medical bills, my supplements and medicine, and gas money. I can't not work.
Again,because we can't do without this income, I thought, what have I done? I had to think on it awhile. I came to a conclusion that I had come to months ago as I was making the decision to go back into the workforce. It doesn't matter if I am a stay at home mom or a working mom, I'm going to have guilt placed upon my shoulders by myself and by society for all the things I'm expected to be and cannot. We cannot be everything - even to our children. Becoming a parent shouldn't mean we are expected to. Then, I realized, being at work was a kind of relief. I wanted to be both places, actually. At work, I could breathe. I could focus on something a little less heavy for awhile. I could see something through from beginning to end.
I remembered an essay in _Brain Child Magazine, online that I had read back in September before I knew I had gotten my current public affairs position. Aubrey Hirsch writes:
I’m learning a lot, too. The big revelation for me came the first time he woke up on a Saturday morning and, as we were lazily playing in our pajamas, said, “I want to go to Melissa’s!” Movies and mom blogs had prepared me for this moment to be heartbreaking, but it wasn’t. It was totally fine.
Before she ends the essay this way, she wrote, "Watching another woman cuddle and comfort my son didn’t feel bad; it felt great. I knew he would be fine and that Melissa would take good care of him." With those lines, I was reminded how I'm not a natural nurturer. When my own mother was caring for my dying grandmother, she broke down in her stress and grief and said, "I'm not good at this stuff. If I had wanted to be a nurse, I would have went to school and become one!" I realized so much watching my mother caring for my grandmother, and when she spoke those words so much acknowledgement poured through my soul. Hugging, rubbing, touching, holding... it all wore her out too. She too had to make an effort to do it in an extended way. I realized it wasn't that she didn't want to hug me growing up, but she got tapped out quickly. It didn't mean anything was lacking in her care of me or her love for me. It just meant she would show it in different ways that aren't typically associated with the act of mothering, and she did.
I hadn't thought I would be a mother up until a few months before I began trying to become pregnant with my first child. My plan was to be a writer. For various reasons, plans change. In this season of my life, I'm revisiting the dreams of my early twenties. Some would call that a mid-life crisis. Others might say I'm finally accepting myself. The biggest point is that I don't have to feel guilty for it. In fact, I have come to understand the huge contribution working mothers make, and how it actually is more difficult in many ways than being a stay at home mom. Mentally and emotionally, being a stay at home mom almost devastated me. It brought me to a very dark place after years of denying to myself that I really felt the way I did about not pursuing my interests.
You DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a mother. I wish for the life of me that society would help us convey to our daughters that you DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a woman. For if you find yourself a mother with a career or job, you may also find yourself holding the brunt of household chores, cooking, bill paying, errands, and outside family commitments. Going out and finding yourself is just another thing to add to the plate that is already spilling over the edge. Yet, it might be the most important piece in being not simply a caregiver, but a role model for your children. Being a role model can be achieved in the home and outside of it and will be particular to any given woman.
I'm still trying to find the balance of being both in the home and out of it. The truth is, I'm going to give up most of the yoga classes I teach so I can be home a few more hours in the evening. Mothers need rest and cuddles too. Even mothers who get tapped out quickly. We all need self care, but from what I see, especially women. Pursuing the interests and hobbies that help us nurture ourselves so that we can nurture our children and loved ones.
Hillary Clinton, back when I was younger was known for saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." She is right. Back in the day, the whole holler watched after your kids while they ran from house to house and hill to hill. Only since we have become nuclear families and neighbors with closed doors have we lost the village mentality. That doesn't mean that it still doesn't take a village.
Things happen, and I will be the mother who deals with them as they come. I will be the mother who seeks and finds herself. I will be the mother who shows her daughters that a woman can be whatever she wants without the permission of anyone. I will be the mother who knows and understands that we are each unique and being a good mother simply means providing an environment where your child is nurtured, safe, fed, warm, and loved however that may appear.
As neat as that scenario sounded, it never really happened as I pictured it. It wasn't long before my husband was deeply involved in making a more cemented career in art and music, while also spending his free time doing both. Those were his dreams. I found myself gardening and tending animals mostly alone. We never got to the point where grocery and department store trips were only a few times monthly. Then, it became difficult to travel with small children. Sleeping in a truck bed for days at a time makes for irritable babies and mothers. John started travelling alone. After awhile, he opened his tattoo shop in effort to create a more steady income, and we all know that having a business requires an incredible amount of time. Homesteading alone while mothering three little girls and homeschooling them as well was just too much. It wasn't at all what I had dreamed.
There isn't a place beautiful enough to trump the necessity to create a day to day life that works for you and brings you joy. When I chose to live in this lonely holler, I didn't think I'd actually be alone most of the time, meaning away from other adults. I didn't know that often I'd be literally trapped behind a swollen or frozen creek, unable to get out with my children without much difficulty. I expected a shared experience. A dream built by two. Through no fault of either of us, it just didn't come to be. The idea was great, but the application wasn't for us to do together. I realized this year, in part due to the severity with which the Hashimoto's had changed my ability to cope with the emotions and stress I was experiencing, that it was time to make adjustments. For my well being and vicariously for that of my daughters, we had to change what this dream had actually become. I've written quite a bit about my inner process on this path here.
This summer was spent drawing up a plan for the girls and I. How could I give them a kind mommy who felt joy, a rich and stable childhood experience, prepare them for independent womanhood, and also give myself a fulfilled life? I knew it was going to be tricky and look nothing like I had planned our life to be for so long. This past week, the oldest two of my girls began going to school away from home for the first time. They are attending a small cottage school on a family farm. This idea had only been a few months old, but it fell together with ease, and they both enjoyed their first week immensely. They are very happy about going to school. Over the last few weeks I have completed freelance writing work, began teaching yoga at Evolation Yoga in Pikeville, and applied for a couple of other interesting work opportunities. My plan is coming together. It is intimidating and freeing all at the same time, but it seems to be affirmed by the Universe, and that is all I need to move forward.
Someone who advises me spiritually told me this spring that my spirit is like a penned up wild horse. I had a hard time believing that at first. I felt so dull and uninspired. Once I picked back up the dreams that were personal to me, just as my husband had always pursued his own independent of our marriage, I realized how much I had become stifled by limitations I had put on myself regarding what I thought I had to be as a wife and mother. I didn't want to fail at homesteading and homeschooling. I had thought it would be such a joyful life for all of us. I still think it would have been. This isn't a grass is greener thing. As nothing happens in a vaccum, I had to adjust what I allowed for myself to be in order to see my spirit freed. It has been imperative that I change my definition of what it means for me to be a good mother and drop any guilt associated with what I had always thought it should look like for me.
Honestly, this whole time, even as I was making these changes, I had felt as if I was failing as a mother. Not failing or neglecting my daughters, but failing to find everything I needed to be fulfilled by being a mother. It was as if I was somehow defunct in comparison to women around me who seemed so satisfied in the role. I've learned motherhood is so very different for all of us. There isn't one of us doing it - right. In loving and providing for our children, putting their needs first, and considering our own well being and fulfillment as an essential part of giving them the childhood they deserve, we are each doing it very well. I read an article on the Brain Child Magazine website that helped me put what I am trying to do for my daughters in perspective, the way I am choosing to do it now.
After all, isn’t this movement away from us and toward independence the central goal of parenting? Isn’t this what sets parenting apart from gardening and cat ownership? That we want our children to leave us? That we don’t want to be number one in their lives forever?
I'm still okay. I'm still a loving mother. I am also working very hard at making myself a more emotionally available and present mother. A mother that is alive and not simply going through the motions. A mother that has dreams and acknowledges their validity. I'm a mother who doesn't need permission or approval to seek a varied and colorful life for myself or my daughters. If we believe we have one go around in this world, then right now is the time to be alive. I can't wait any longer to grow if I am going to raise bold women capable of growing as individuals and nurturing a planet of sacred situations and souls. That takes a goddess in the flesh. That is what we are. I am a warrior mama. I'm fighting for my free and wild spirit. I'm fighting this disease for my health. I'm fighting the fight for the full expression of all women for the sake of my daughters. And... I got a faux hawk today in order to mark my realization that I'm a warrior and a rebel at heart... always.
All things good are wild, and free. - Henry David Thoreau
On Friday, I will be going to interview and tour a cottage school that I am hoping will be a fit for my daughters come August. I'm relieved. I'm nervous. I'm hopeful. This is a big move for me. It means I am also looking for good full or part time employment outside of the home. A few weeks ago, I wrote of my plan to expand my horizons in juggling motherhood, work, and homeschooling, but I soon realized that I was still stuffing myself inside a box of expectations. I was continuing to hang on to these notions of what I should be doing as a person who chose motherhood and chose it completely. I still feared letting people down.
I don't fit inside any boxes. They cannot contain me. I will not allow them to contain me.
I visited my grandparents in South Carolina this weekend. My Papaw is very ill and so is my aunt. My Mamaw is holding her own and trying to not lose her cool. I can't imagine what she's feeling right now with a sick husband and daughter. We just lost my uncle, her son, three years ago. In the midst of all the emotion my family is processing, she sat me down to talk. She always sits me down to talk, without fail. I think this talk was the most powerful I have ever had with her. She told me it was time to step out, take care of me, and show my daughters what I'm capable of. In her nurturing sternness, she instructed me to not wait around another minute. That I must do what it takes to be fulfilled, independent, and in the world. She assured me that I am a good mother. I have done an amazing job with my daughters, and will continue to do so in whatever construct my family takes.
My grandmother spoke to me like a pioneer of feminine empowerment. She was a pioneer of feminine empowerment. Once she completed her education, she worked as a paralegal. Financial independence was always important to her. She gave to those in need. She fed and raised four children. She gave in expansive ways to her community through managing an outdoor theater, writing and telling our stories, genealogy, community service, and diligent, honest work within our justice system. If there is anyone to listen to at a time like this, it is her. As she spoke to me, she revealed that she saw and concerned herself with my lonesomeness and needless self sacrifice.
It's time I allow myself to be wild, and FREE.
Adventure. Excitement. A jedi craves not these things. - Master Yoda
This quote from the wise and infinitely old Yoda has always befuddled me. It felt like a let down. A jedi's life is anything but lacking adventure and excitement. Why should not one seeking these things become a jedi? It's only been the last couple of years that I really meditated on the meaning of these words. (As if Star Wars is the undistinguished instruction manual for life compared to sacred scripture.) I understand now. They don't crave it because in their acceptance of who they are the adventure and excitement find them. They don't have to seek it out, or make it for themselves. They just have to be. I am that I am. There are no exceptions. Acceptance is destiny.
I haven't failed because I'd like to send my children to school. It doesn't mean that I am weak because at this point in time I seek outside employment and independence. Changing plans and feelings is a healthy thing not to be feared, but embraced. The ability to change our minds is an outgrowth of freedom.
One of my new goals in all this self searching I have been doing is to move toward financial independence. I currently depend upon my husband to provide all of our family's financial needs while I remain at home house-wiving, homeschooling, doing all I can do alone on our homestead, and working on side projects. It is hard for me at times to have to think about the fact that I am spending another person's hard earned money when I want to buy a gift for my girls, or something I don't particularly need, but want. We also have to make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to make sure bills are paid and we are all fed well and kept healthy. For example, I currently have two pairs of pants that fit me the way they should and don't completely fall from my body if I take my belt off. I'm rarely out of the house, so I make do.
In looking at my options for work alongside my hopes and dreams, then factoring in what I'm actually capable of doing with little to no childcare, I can't help but think of how things have changed since my childhood. My parents had readily available free childcare from my grandparents, great grandparents, and aunts and uncles. We really were raised in a village it seems and if I am honest, I don't know what would have came of us if we hadn't been. I have very little time that is not consumed by raising my children. I'm their primary caregiver, as it should be, but there is little time to be with friends, adult conversations with a real person, or to hold a job outside of the home because my daughters' grandparents aren't able to provide daily childcare (as most of them are still working full time jobs passed retirement age) and we cannot afford a paid sitter.
Another thing I noticed as a child was how completely absorbed the adults around me were in financial concerns. Did we have enough money? While I'm concerned with our family's finances and I have a clear picture of what I'd like for us in terms of lifestyle and how effectively our money is spent, I let go of most of the worry around the amount we have available. Yet, recently, I began to see the need for me to have earnings of my own more than I ever have. While it should not be the case that money brings power to a voice, I have come to realize that it does, even within many family structures. Traditional roles of womanhood and motherhood are truly outdated if we desire to be seen as peers with our male counterparts. Tradition is not always a good thing as many are informed by outdated ways of thinking and viewing the world. I feel a movement away from these traditions and to a more balanced way of being is in order.
Southeastern Kentucky, where I reside, is once again in the midst of an outward migration of people. I see quite a bit on Facebook that friends and family are planning moves outside of the region to Tennessee and Ohio most often. Our family's choice to remain in the mountains is a big one. It is in many ways a sacrifice of opportunities for ourselves and our children. However, as we currently see things, there is much to be gained by staying and trying to create our own way of life in the region. This will always be home to us who were born and raised here. It is as integral to who we are as our heart or mind. The truth is, those who stay here will have to depend on themselves and their community to develop a sustainable life post coal in the mountains.
I don't know if my current plan will result in financial independence for me, but I will have a little pocket change I hope. My plan is to make myself available as an editor to anyone requiring those services. I'm working with one client in California at the moment. I'm teaching yoga one evening a week, and I am offering my services as a writer/blogger to interested parties. It blends my passions with what I am capable of doing while still very much within a traditional role in my family as a full time mother. My success will depend a lot on my ability to market myself within the region, but also outside of it.
My dilemma is not unlike the one that residents of southeastern Kentucky are facing now and for the future. As more coal jobs are lost and our populations decline, we are searching for ways to make life here a possibility. The most common suggestions I've seen touted are tourism, farming, and manufacturing. A recent article from The Daily Yonder written by Tim Marema reported that populations of rural counties in all states who relied on these economic replacements have all lost population since the Great Recession. The only counties seeing growth were recreation counties and those only grew by 1.4%. For counties like the one I live in and those directly around us, any of these replacements would be difficult because of a lack of infrastructure and our location away from most major interstates.
As I have diversified my possibilities of earning for myself and my daughters without a typical hired position, I believe the region will only survive from a diversified approach that utilizes the internet and technology to reach populations outside of the region. We will have to put our unique stamp on what we do to attract people in and make a visit worth the effort to get here. We will also have to accept that our lifestyles may look very different from the ones we see away from here because it has to and living here is a choice.
I may have bitten off more than I can chew with my hopes of financial independence while still choosing full time mothering and homeschooling. I have no way of knowing without trying. Trying is the only thing to do. I want to show my daughters a world of possibilities in a reality of limited options. I can't help but see that it parallels the consciousness we are striving to get to in our region. Moving past the realization that what is currently taking place is unacceptable and in spite of our realities there is a world of possibilities. We have to do the work and imagine them. We have to really try.
No, I'm talking my basic personhood. I've taken detours and received certifications, a Master's Degree, and pursued side interests in hopes of making money that would allow my husband to not have to work so hard and free him to be with us more, but nothing that I felt spoke to the real me or allowed me to be fully myself in this world. When the girls were born, I took their education upon my shoulders because I felt there was no other good option here at home. To provide them with what I felt they deserved and to fulfill my responsibility to them in bringing them into the world, I gladly took on the traditional role of wife, mother, and homeschooler. While my husband took on the pressure of providing for us solely on his income, he was still free to pursue his goals in art and music.
Is being an adult claiming responsibility? As a kid, I had always been told this. Adulthood is about sacrifice and responsibility. I don't know though. It may just be my family's makeup, but I can't remember many adults around me that would have said they were leading a life that made them happy or that made them feel fulfilled. I saw sorrow, depression, heartache, and anger written on the faces of many of the adults who loved me so very much. It covered my world. Am I selfish in thinking it doesn't have to be that way?
My main goal is to show my daughters that the world is wide open for us. There is no role we can't accept or value we have to feel pressured to espouse. It is about following our heart and going forward from a place of love and respect for others. All else is a coin toss, and the odds of us winning are perfect as we are infinitely supported by the very stardust we were created from.
An independent, strong minded woman makes people nervous. A woman that seeks her own fulfillment so that her light can shine as brightly as possible in this world, can expect to be seen as scandalous. She may not fit in any box set out by society. She may take risks others see as unnecessary. It may be hard for those who feel the need to fit her into a category to be with her as she steps into this empowered place. The fact is, she isn't going to care. What she knows is that if you love her and want her, you will walk by her through all of it. If you cannot, it is okay. Both you and she will be okay.
It isn't about living in the shadows of another. In this mountain culture I've grown up in, the matriarchy is a hidden power. There isn't a person on this planet any stronger than an Appalachian woman. They've held families together for generations of rises and falls. Through all of this, she quietly worried that her best wasn't enough and it would all fall through her fingers. While all of her family knew it was really her that bound them all together, her effort wasn't pronounced except maybe at her funeral.
I pray that my daughters don't take a lifetime to learn that they can speak up about what they need and not feel guilty for needing it. I want them to know that if their current situation is not making their heart sing that patience, a fearless heart, hard work, and their empowered voice will change that. They aren't obligated to anyone but those who they choose to be obligated to and those who call them mother. I want them to be brave. I want them to know they are worthy of the type of love that wants the essence of them so hard, their every breath is like a song, and that when they give that kind of love, they should expect it returned to them.
Our lives matter right now. I've decided for the sake of myself and my daughters not to wait for mine to begin anymore. I'm surrounding myself with the people who feed my spirit and want to know me for me. I'm talking consistently with those who already have shown me that they do. I've went out on a limb and decided to return to the game plan of my youth modified for what I know now. I'm excited. One day, I will be able to type here that I am healthy, happy, and fulfilled most every day. It's coming.
There, at the top of the world, as I took deep breaths crouched over that ageless rock, the coin was tossed. The butterflies in my stomach set free for a time and I felt whole again in the silence. One day, my Ivy will know what she's capable of because her mother did her best to show her. It might not come easy to either of us, but she will know.
I'm depressed. I think that is the first time I have ever admitted publicly that I am truly depressed at the time that I am depressed. I've been prone to depression since I was a child. I can pinpoint the years of my life when depression ruled the day. Yet, as I have gotten older I have found myself dealing with it on a day to day basis far less. I thought for a good long while that I had beaten it. I thought that the most I'd feel were moments of sadness, frustration, or let down. I didn't think that depression would come again.
Admitting that one is depressed can have so many negative repercussions to how one is perceived by their peers. While there are many difficult aspects to living with depression, people who are depressed should not be ruled out as productive, interesting, and lovable people. Assuming that someone who is depressed is ungrateful, lazy, selfish, dramatic, or emotionally stunted or overstimulated is like saying someone who has diabetes is also all of these things. There may be a personal component to having an illness like depression or diabetes that is often chronic, but science tells us that genetics also play a strong factor in our predisposition to developing it. There is no one to blame for depression. People who are depressed should not be counted out.
Currently, I'm struggling with the compulsion I feel to do things "properly." It has taken over so many aspects of my life that I wake up every morning with an intense pressure to do things as prescribed by the text I'm reading, the mentor I have chosen, the philosophy of whatever group label I have dove into for support. I'm overwhelmed by all of these things I've told myself that I have to do to be successful that when there just isn't enough time in the day to research educational philosophy, I think about the laundry list of things to do in the day while I'm supposed to be focusing on God during meditation, or I fight the urge to let my toddler watch some TV so we can peacefully complete our school lessons, I feel incredibly guilty and as if all the effort I've put forth to do this mother and homemaker thing well has just been washed down the drain. The day is a loss. I've failed my children. I've failed my husband. I've ceased to matter in the larger scheme of things. I'm just a failing housewife.
I know. It's irrational. I completely understand that and recognize it. Does that make a difference in battling these feelings? Mostly not. However, it is a starting point.
The task before me is learning to let go of these labels, rules, and prescriptions and adopt what is truly a fit for me and my family. I have to learn that the effort is as important if not more so than the result. I have to stop the thoughts of failure. I have to accept that the me that God created, the joy I feel when allowing myself to just be who I am without apology, is enough for me and my family.
It's so easy to feel the burden and guilt for not being content and happy. We are bombarded by the positive thinking movement (which I believe has much merit) saying that happiness is a choice. It makes it seem so simple to choose to be happy and content. They say begin by being grateful for what you have, as if someone who isn't happy is an ungrateful person not recognizing the many things they are blessed with every day. We can't simply make a list of what we are grateful for and suddenly expect to be happy or not depressed. Gratitude can be fully lived and recognized while in deep depression.
Every day is a new day even when depressed. Often, while depressed, facing the day at all is something that makes you feel dread. When you measure yourself against your peers and their accomplishments, it is easy to feel like you aren't doing enough. Motherhood is a lonely place many times. I've written that before. I long to have a voice in things that matter to adults. Many of my feminist friends (and no I'm not saying that I'm not a feminist) would say that what I'm doing as a stay at home, homeschooling, wife and mother is a choice that I can un-choose. Probably, a lot of those who would say that aren't mothers yet or have chosen not to be. When another person's life and opportunities in that life become your responsibility, choices become infinitely more complicated. I could ask for the greater world to become more interested in mothers and all that we accomplish in a day, but in our culture of leisure,consumer values, and immense access to information about our world, domestic life is pretty boring. Raising children becomes something that isn't our "work", but the thing we do as we do our real work, or depending on arrangements, when we have completed our real work for the day. I know to some, I'm wasting my mind by not taking on some "meaningful" work. Does it sound like I resent that? Perhaps I do. Perhaps there's a hint of jealousy. Perhaps I just want to eat my cake.
So, from this place in my life, I have a lot of hard work to do. I'm someone who believes I was born with all I need to be happy, content, and prosperous. I believe we are all important. We are born children of the Most High. We are wanted by God. Planned by God. That is no small thing. What that tells me is there is the possibility of Light. I first want to accept where I am, speak/write my experience, and then begin to adopt the practice of letting go and feeling my way rather than using unbalanced intellect and sacrificial willing to obtain the Ideal.
The winter holidays have been my least favorite time of the year for as long as I can remember. As a child from a divorced home, the pressure of deciding where I'd spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was crushing. Either my mother and her family or my dad and his family would be disappointed, or so I felt. Even the seemingly easy task of telling the adults what I wanted for Christmas was enough to make me feel burdened with responsibility beyond my years. It was no one's fault. It was the nature of the way we have chosen to celebrate these holidays coupled with the way the cards fell for my parents. I guess it really couldn't be helped.
There was one Christmas though that I have a small but poignant memory that has kept me believing that Christmas can be more than intense stress, dealing with massive overspending and how it comes into my home, and sadness. I was maybe five years old. My parents were still married, but as all memories of this time when they were both occupying our little trailer, it was more as if they were shadows than real people and I was nearly alone to be as I would be. Our Christmas tree was up and lit. I still believed in Santa Claus and, this Christmas, I'd see him. I grabbed my pillow and a quilt off of my bed, my dad tucked me in, and I resolved to stay awake, camped under our tree all night. I remember how the tree smelled of warm plastic and how the colored lights shot tiny beams like stars when I got sleepy. I laid there thinking of how Santa must love me, and to meet him would be magic. Just magic. I didn't care what I got for Christmas. I've never been someone who wanted much in the way of stuff. My wishlist is pretty simple. I just cared that I saw this man, this grandpa, and felt his magic.
I woke up the next morning with the gray of a winter's light seeping in through the little window in our trailer's back door. I hadn't met Santa. Sleep was too precious a thing. There all around where I had slept were our Santa presents. He had been there working all around me as I slept, being careful that I didn't hear and stir.
It's that achingly sentimental memory that motivated what I wanted Christmas to be for my children when I became a mother. The focus on the material that made me so nervous that my stomach would be sick, the rush to be everywhere and buy the best present would be secondary to acknowledging the magic of the time and what variety of beauty that can be celebrated as Christmas. Traditions are hard to amend though. American Christmas has become barely more than a frenzy of excess and disappointment as it never quite plays out the way you had it pictured and resembles little of the Christian and Yuletide traditions that inspired the holiday at all.
As much as I wanted something different for my girls, it has too often been much of the same. Phone calls and endless conversations about what my girls want for Christmas. Me feeling like that little overwhelmed child who just wants people to smile and not feel slighted or out done. The girls get so much from family that my husband and I can't even begin to compete with quantity nor do we want to try, so I focus on quality and substance. Our little family trying to fit in visits over a period of a few days. Returning home with a car load of gifts and no place to put many of them. Experiences and conversations a blur. Exhaustion. Irritability, and weeks of recovery.
Christmases prior I tried to make change. I asked that certain toys not be bought. We've worked out a schedule of visits and stuck to it every year. We don't celebrate our own Christmas until we can be relaxed at home, even if that means that Santa visits us and the grandparents. At our home celebration we rest in the spiritual reasons for Christmas and Yule and read the stories. I've learned that I still would love to be home and have grandparents come and see us sometimes, but I know that isn't the season of our lives. I now know that it doesn't matter if you have preferences for gifts, children will get what the giver wants them to have. And, Christmas often equals hard feelings and stress as much as we try to stave it off.
This year, while I know I can't take it all away, I can make a conscious effort at affecting what I can. There are several things I'm doing this year to make the season one that brings a little more rest for me than discomfort.
1. I'm giving up scrolling my newsfeed in Facebook or making posts about my day for the entire length of Advent. I know giving up something is associated with Lent, but I'm striving to live an authentic life these days. I'm not making myself unseen and unheard in my Truth any longer. I'm living boldly in order to fully express the me that God made. What does that have to do with a Facebook newsfeed? In my feed on any given day, I am faced with racism, ugly politics, hate, bigotry, violence, and horror stories about suffering inflicted upon women and families by institutions and scared people. I'm triggered emotionally by what I see and it affects my well being and my ability to process the news on my own terms. It creates for me the sensation of fight or flight without anything to direct it toward. I see these posts from those I know or have known, and to be honest, it is heartbreaking. Being in that space can make it so easy to be paranoid and lose hope. I can refrain, clear my head, and return when ready. This season is for celebrating and acknowledging Truth, and I will accept nothing short of it.
2. I'm being honest about what happens to toys and excess material goods in our home. We donate them. All of us do it. We just took two boxes of toys to Goodwill in order to clear out what isn't used. Our cabin is teeny and I want it to be as beautiful and comfortable as possible. Lots of things clog up the energy. It is a work in progress. My girls have very honed interests. While something might be appealing to them for awhile in newness, they fully recognize what they truly hold as valuable. "For you may palm upon us new for old: All, as they say, that glitters, is not gold." -John Dryden
3. I'm volunteering to take on some cooking. I've always wanted to, and I love to cook. I love to watch people eat my food. So, my mother in law has asked that I help and I am so happy to!
4. I'm taking time for mindfulness and being right here - right now. My spiritual walk takes precedence over all extraneous things during this season of kindling the light within. It's not just a metaphor. It's action to take. I have goals.
5. I'm continuing the traditions that we've made as a nuclear family that bring home the purpose of this holiday for me and my family. For us, it is a time to celebrate a man who came to light the path and share with us the tools of salvation. Jesus was a spiritual hero - The Redeemer. All the pieces of Christmas are supporting roles to this beautiful piece of the spiritual puzzle... this includes Ole St. Nick.
As an adult, we can control what we do with our experiences in order to adjust the impact we feel from them. The question is always, how can we use what we know to express Truth, experience Truth tangibly, share Truth, and light the path of Truth for others? This question if taken on in a meaningful way can make massive difference in even the most difficult of times or challenges. There is always something there for us to claim or reclaim in Truth. Christmas is a season of warmth, love, reflection and togetherness. Any appearance that does not reflect that does not have to remain.
It is inevitable that by writing this piece I'll tick someone off, or insight them to explain their position as to why they don't believe homeschooling is a responsible choice. It is also very probable in just mentioning that I homeschool and have done so since my oldest began her educational journey, that someone will say to me that they wish they could do that or could've done that, or that they commend me for doing it because there is no way on earth they would want to manage that. Thank God for public school - right!? We should all be thankful for that option.
I'm working on an article about making the choice to homeschool in southeastern Kentucky where the public schools are losing enrollments by the thousands. It has made me once again deeply look at my choice to go that route. It has the potential to be controversial. Simply going to the grocery store with a few school aged kids during school hours can be enough to get some stares. I'm writing this anyway. In my experience, what I'm about to reveal about our day to day is the truth of choosing to homeschool. It's important that we aren't kept in the dark about our individual experiences with choosing the education that is right for our families.
I'm a former public school teacher. I taught in a rural farming community in north central Kentucky for four years before having a child of my own. It was an amazing experience. I earned a Master's Degree in Teaching during that time period. I also made some friends who I still communicate with today mostly through social media. Despite the hard work and about $30,000 in loans to go toward graduate education, I could not make the choice to remain in public education after having children of my own. One of the hardest things I have ever done is to reveal to my principal, whom I liked very much, that I wouldn't be returning the following year after my daughter's birth.
The decision to not put my children in public education was one I had made long before becoming a mother. My husband was always in full agreement. That decision is one in which I was extremely confident, maybe more so than any other decision in my life. Having my oldest now in 3rd grade/4th grade, I'm still very solidly there. Though, from time to time, my husband may hear me whisper, "I should just send them to school." In return, he looks at me cross-ways.
While living in the city of Louisville, we had the excellent opportunity to attend the Parent/Child classes at the Waldorf School. We would often talk of how to afford the tuition for one child, let alone if there were more. I had been the breadwinner up to that point while my husband finished graduate school. He was then completing a tattoo apprenticeship and we were living off of fumes. The next choice was to home educate, and when we moved back to the coalfields, away from the option of Waldorf schooling, that was the only choice for us.
If you aren't familiar with the Waldorf educational philosophy, I will sum it up in two words - soulfully beautiful. I cried real tears when we toured the campus of the Waldorf School of Louisville for the first time. Hoping to recreate this in my home, I dove head first into the ideal. My daughter (then, the only one) would not eat many sweets. She would not have plastic, meaningless toys. She would be surrounded in clean, simple beauty. She would not be exposed to media through television or video games. And, I'd be a Waldorf purist. We did OK for the first few years of her life.
Having a second child and moving close to family, where there wasn't a Waldorf community and more influences outside our nuclear family were upon us, things changed a little. I grew as a mother. I opened more to the possibility of my own family culture. One still very based in Waldorf philosophy, but one that worked for our lifestyle. We had a lovely preschool experience.
Then, it became time to introduce "real" schoolwork. I also got a longing to add some outside work to my schedule and earn a little extra green. I wanted to maintain my daughters' sense of wonder. I wanted them to be excited by learning and to enjoy "school time". There was so much that I knew we'd be safe from. Yet, when I became intimidated by actually carrying out a Waldorf grades method and switched to the Charlotte Mason method, the first step in my realization of what homeschooling meant was revealed. This was going to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. Could I maintain this choice, and still be a person? I was so glad to be fully responsible for their education. I believe it is my right and duty as their mother to hold no one else responsible for it but my husband and I. But, this meant I had to give it my all and do it well all the time. The overarching theme of my life was going to be mother, teacher, and wife. The dreams I had of exploring careers would be on hold. My time to have a hobby - reduced. I'd need to learn to be consistent, less spontaneous, and well planned.
It is incredibly hard to maintain a household, tend younger children, and make sure that the school aged children (who are in two different grades) complete their lessons. We are still in elementary grades, so home educating them is very hands on. I still experience frustrated students. They still cry when they get confused during math. I still lose my cool and have to regroup, or just chalk my day up to a loss and vow to try my best come morning. Sometimes, I feel like a failure for weeks on end because there isn't time to clean the cabin the way I'd like. I'm too tired to call my grandmother whom I haven't seen in a year. I can't figure out why my wee one begins to tantrum right when I sit down for the lesson story with my middle daughter. I long for meaningful, adult conversations and to be able to spend whole days writing again.
People say that they wish they had the money to be able to stay home and homeschool. It isn't about having the money to do it. There are ways to make it work. Most homeschooling families I know work with a very limited budget. Mothers or fathers work long hours to try to make up for income lost by one or the other being at home. Or, the stay at home parent will work late shifts, or find work from home jobs that they tend to at night. We learn to live frugally. Many of us live in a way unfamiliar, but respectful of time and energy. We go without things like cable TV, data plans, vacations, multiple vehicles, new clothes, tons of presents at Christmas, and the newest electronics. Not saying this is better or awesome, but it is what we are willing to do in order to provide this education to our children. At the time we made the choice to homeschool, we gave up 75% of our income in order for me to stay home with our daughter. We made it work. If you believe in something and want it bad enough, you will make it work.
There are those moments when I know that what I'm doing is working. When I hear my toddler singing the Circle Time songs loud and clear. How she giggles at the motions. When my older two daughters run to greet their daddy and grab their main lesson books to show him what they did, proudly. The days when I see their deep thinking reflected in their play or their questions to me. How when they complete something difficult, all the whining becomes meaningless, and they say, "I think I really like doing..." And, sometimes, one of them will say, "I love homeschool." That's how I know it is working.
Last year, I jumped back in to committing to a Waldorf education for my daughters. It takes tons of commitment, planning, and willingness to let go. I found a homeschool Walorf curriculum that works really well for us (Waldorf Essentials), and the authors offer a support service and program called Thinking, Feeling, Willing that has helped me stay on track through all the ups and downs of the school year. I'm incredibly blessed by this program. We have joined a wonderful homeschool co-op that keeps me in tune with other local homeschool families, offers field trips, special classes, and time with peers. Even when I wake up feeling like I don't want to do lessons that day, I know I have support. I know that I can manage.
Our Waldorf inspired homeschool doesn't look like private Waldorf education, and every other Waldorf inspired homeschool will be different from ours. My girls watch some TV (commercial free), they have some commercial toys like My Little Pony, and they love to overindulge in sweets at their grandparents' houses. Shoot, mommy will even let them have a Sprite with their fries and burger from time to time. Sometimes (no, honestly, quite a bit), I wake up in a panic thinking that all of our little issues would be solved if I became purist once again. Then, I realize that if I let go just a little more, the issues wouldn't seem so huge.
The truth about homeschooling is that it is a choice that requires immense time, dedication, willingness to always be a learner yourself, to research and find the answers on your own, presence, and a strong will to see your family through the times that are tough. All sorts of families make the decision to homeschool for many different reasons. You can easily get the impression that we are all religious zealots, super strict, or our homeschools are picturesque. Even in my rural area, if you polled our homeschool co-op, you'd find that there is as much variety there as anywhere and we all get along. There is so much more I could say about homeschooling, making the decision, getting support, and the reasons why I made the choice. I've written this for those considering, in the midst and wondering if they are "doing it right", those who feel they cannot do it but want to, and those who feel we are doing a disservice to our communities. Don't underestimate us. There's a lot of fantasies around homeschooling. The truth is far richer.
When I became a mother for the first time, I was initiated very quickly into how difficult parenting can be. I had no idea prior to experiencing it firsthand. Now, having three children and working with mothers regularly, I can definitely say that it hasn't gotten easier. I believe that most parents would say the work of parenting is exhausting and emotionally draining. Yes, I said it. Parenting is not all laughter and sunshine. Admitting this seems to be very taboo in our culture, and parents who do admit it or ask for help can be made to feel guilty for feeling the heaviness of the calling of parenthood even by the most well meaning of people.
As a new mother and multiple times since, I have been given the phrase "this too shall pass" or some form thereof when reaching out for advice or solutions to real parenting issues. I have come to notice as a birth professional that many parents are also being given this phrase when reaching out on parenting forums, Facebook, or even in person. I have to confess. I, too, have said this to many mothers and fathers. However, as of today, I vow to not use this phrase any longer. I also will not remind parents that this stage is but a moment in their life and one day they may wish they had it back.
Why? I no longer believe it is appropriate. As well meaning as we might be when we offer this "consolation", in reality I think it is a cop-out for offering real commiseration, advice, or tangible help to parents who have braved the possibility of ridicule and embarrassment to publicly ask their community for assistance in this sacred calling. It is in a very real way another way of saying that right now - the feelings, the worry, the tiredness, the confusion - is not important, but trivial. That the immediacy and the ache of right now doesn't matter as much as the fact that it will pass. If they can just hang on, this stage will be over. Add to that the caveat that this parent may wish themselves back to this place as an older person, and you are inadvertently placing guilt upon the shoulders of a mother or father who is asking for support, help, or solutions. This guilt can grow into the fear of seeking out the experience or time of others in their parenting journey because somehow it means that they couldn't "let go" or "hang in there". Somehow, they have failed at that which others have come through as a rite of passage. I have come to believe that this response is actually a failure to those who are in the throes of parenthood, who have done exactly what they should have done in seeking our awareness of the state they are experiencing.
Parenting in our culture has become increasingly isolating. With nuclear families and very insular ways of being, we have lost the communities of loving related or close adults that were once involved in the raising of children. Here in Appalachia many of us grew up running the "hollers" all day long with siblings, cousins, and close family friends as each household of adults watched out for our well being. In a time, not so very long ago, we resided in multi-generational households where those retired and more experienced folks could lend a hand in child rearing. Now, parents are largely expected to go it alone as we have spread out and lost touch.
Mothers and fathers hold down jobs, keep their home repaired and cleaned, and raise children with not enough hours in the day. So many of them are giving from empty wells without the opportunity for the self care necessary to offer their very best at parenting or their work. This is failing our children. It is failing our society.
So, what can we do instead of offering the "hang in there" we have all offered to parents in all forms of distress.
I challenge everyone of us to no longer use the phrase "this too shall pass" in the context of sharing it with a parent who is hoping for tangible help. Instead, reach out with something that you can do to show them that you appreciate their effort in parenting the next generation. Acknowledge their effort, and congratulate their accomplishments.
For more information on what modern parenting can be like for many see - The Trauma of Parenthood by Eli J. Finkel in the NYTimes.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide