We’re crossing F street and Phoenix asks me for the difference between empathy and sympathy. And this leads to a discussion on two tangential experiences: commiseration and understanding. Watching my children grasp new concepts so swiftly, it’s still breathtaking all these years in. I don’t know what brought these emotional-relations topics on but I can think of some salient, personal examples in our lives, and I share them with my oldest as I feel the steering wheel hot under my hand. I glance across the street at a carved wooden structure; the sun is hitting the swollen river and I’d planned to let my oldest drive us down to class today but we were feeling rushed. Phoenix has his new learner’s permit folded up in his wallet, which he’s learning to take everywhere with him.
I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.
If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.
There is a perfectly lovely woman at a local shop who always greets me warmly, and makes genuine, caring conversation with my husband and I when she sees us. She is a homeschooler and so that, I feel, is why she reaches out to connect. But she is a very different type of homeschooler than we: she uses a strict curriculum (for her several children), and the family is an evangelical Christian. Today I got to have that conversation I’ve had so many times in the last few years:
Her: “‘Boys’? I thought you had a boy and a girl?”
Me, smiling: “We thought so too! But we were wrong.”
I wait a beat. It takes most people a second to process what I might be saying.
Ralph and I are home late but we are putting together a dinner with several parts: chick’n strips, steamed cauliflower and broccoli, roasted carrots, gravy from scratch, homemade fluffy biscuits. The preparations take a while and the dining room table waits, the children having set each plate with a folded napkin. Four small juice glasses.
Sometimes I think of preparing an elaborate dinner and setting it in the warmer to wait until the kids come upstairs from their gaming. They work work work (gaming or drawing) until they are famished. They come upstairs crying out for food. Besides little bouts of inspiration here and there, they are uninterested in learning how to cook for themselves, let alone the family. I don’t worry at all because I know they are growing. They are being raised in a home with a love of food and with good homemade fare on the table several times a day; they will very likely grow into this aptitude themselves when they are ready. (And if they don’t – what of it?)
My youngest child’s locks are long; tonight he asks me to dye the blond tips a cool blue. I put on gloves and mix up a concoction and paint his hair, his beautiful honey-colored length. I knot his hair up on top of his head and instruct him on how to cowash it to keep the color. He tells me, “I have hair under my arms now!” and shows me – proud. His shoulders are getting broad and yesterday after he asked me to snuggle him, as I slid behind him on the bed to put my arms around him saw stretch marks on the smooth skin of his back; he is growing so fast. He tells me he stayed up all night and waited until Ralph got up to get ready for work, so he could crawl into bed with me: “The way things should be,” he says, his eyebrows beetling and his lips set firm.
Both kids want me to work less. When I took the day off yesterday and had us do housework they were happy and they sang and played and enjoyed our time together as much as if I’d taken them to the beach. There is absolutely no mistaking the fact that as long as we prioritize parenting, one of us adults won’t get to develop their career as far as it might have gone – that’s looking to be me, set back about twenty years. I have searched every brain crevice and I know it’s what I want (and it’s what Ralph wants), but sometimes I get salty as fuck about how little we want to spend on our kids, how few resources we throw them. My kids get to be raised differently and I wouldn’t have thought it would be one of my legacies but it is. Today in any case I did get to stitch some darts in a burnout velvet, and I got to do a few more this and that, but to be honest much of the day was spent caring for children, and the home, and putting time into a few other people besides.
Tonight my oldest child is finishing up their art final and submitting it. This is one of three classes for the quarter finished; they have two more winding up here over the next couple weeks and then – summer break.
It’s incredible to me this time next year my child will have an Associate of Arts degree from a community college – at age 16. I’d love to tell you all that we meant it to go this way or, even more importantly, that we have some great master plan for what we’ll do when they graduate. Well, I could say either of those things but they would be false.
Last week we hit the induction ceremony to Phi Theta Kappa; Phoenix is now the youngest-ever member of this chapter. I was working all day and changed out of workwear to something suitable for the event; I rounded up the kids and met Ralph on campus (he was onstage helping, as staff), walking in late and taking a back-row seat. Phee remained close to me and tried not to give into nerves; they weren’t sure if they were going to have to speak in front of everyone, or what. My other child sat next to me and at one point was jokingly harassed by a neighbor sitting a few chairs over; tender as Nels is, he took the teasing to heart. I sat there with my two teenage children who both needed my reassurance and softness just as they’ve needed it their whole lives.
The ceremony, although short and to the point, was nevertheless a bit soothing, a bit special. I am still salty AF over how hard it’s been to get Phee the support they need, being academically-advanced and relatively introverted. I keep thinking I could help so many other parents if I got my act together and wrote about our experiences, or especially if I educated myself more as to resources. But the truth is this year so far work has been exhausting me. I’m in this goofy race at the moment, trying to get my work done so I can have a breather and put some time in elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” meaning, probably, seeking out more money or scholarships or fellowships, really. I want to get this kid the tablet they would find so helpful and, in terms of drive and focus and hard work, they so clearly deserve. I’ve been trying to save up money – a huge wad of cash in a special place – but family ish keeps coming up. The car is in the shop and the bill for that drops in a couple days. Just tonight while Ralph did the dishes an ominous gurgling emanated from the bathroom – diced up salad and sink water began spurting from the tub drain. So tomorrow: a plumber. My pile of cash is not safe, not ever. I’m not angry or worried, it’s just how it is.
I’m thankful that with my relatively punishing schedule lately, I haven’t fallen ill. My son woke up with a headache and sore throat last week; I ran him a bath, got him something to drink and a couple Tylenol. We fall ill so rarely and it is a great opportunity to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.
Tonight my body aches; Ralph is asleep and the children awake. I journal, yoga, meditate. Then time for bed, after watching of course a punishingly-horrid supernatural documentary. I’ve logged many hours on the laptop while I doze in and out, my mind perhaps being populated by cryptids and lake monsters I have no conscious awareness of, or belief in.
I believe I hurt someone’s feelings a little while back, when they were asking me for parenting advice. I said,
“Stop thinking of your baby as being ‘good’. Stop showing off the baby. She’s a person, not a pet. The sooner you abandon these practices the better it will be for you – and your kid.”
I’ve said this before. And if I was a bit direct – well first, I was being asked to be direct. Second: it’s nothing I didn’t learn the hard way.
I did every one of these things and lived to repent, and change my attitude. And I’ve left my own early parenting writings online – you can go back and see I made these mistakes.
Parents do these things, because we’re told to. It’s modeled to us. It’s conflated with “good” parenting.
At seven-ish in the morning I get up. The house is quiet. I use the bathroom, wash my hands. I notice the oven is on and when I peer in, I behold three perfectly oiled up potatoes. I realize Nels has stayed up all night – and this occurs to me right at the point he cheerfully pops his head in the door, pleased to see me awake. He asks me something, but I’m headed to bed. I can’t remember how I respond. I am back next to Ralph, and I fall asleep quickly.
A couple hours later and my husband wakes me, rising up from the bed. I look over and there’s my son: his belly full of hot potatoes, presumably, sleeping like he’d fallen a great height into the bedclothes.
Twelve hours later, at the end of the long day, he’s still asleep. I am working in the office and I hear him say, “Hello?” – his voice sounding much younger than his thirteen years. I go to cuddle him close; he is dismayed he’s slept through the daylight. “Nels,” I ask: “How many potatoes did you eat, out of curiosity?” “Two and a half,” he whispers. Still waking up. A few moments later he is in the kitchen, crouching on the tile in his t-shirt and underwear. His hair is wild and his eyes wide.
“You can play your game tonight. And when dad gets up, you can hang out with him. Allison is coming over for dinner tomorrow. And tomorrow night you can sleep with Mama,” I tell them. I watch his mind work, as he determines this is a sensible course of action. He cheers immediately.
When I was his age I was letting the disrespectful boys around the way teach about French kissing and stealthy groping. Ugh. If nothing else, I am providing my children with a hundred percent more wholesome upbringing.
Yesterday: we called upon a new acquaintance, to see a litter of kittens. I thought I’d feel good after holding them but I just wanted to hold them a lot longer. They are two days old and their eyes aren’t open. I found myself feeling anxious after we left. It’s only been a little over a year since Trout’s litter died in our hands. It seems I can’t get my mind around what my responsibility to it all is.
“You got me out of bed so we could pick up Thai food – so you wouldn’t have to leave the car!”
This is true. I mean – I’m in my PJs and knock-off Uggs and my hair is covered but I don’t think I have makeup on? See, I am okay with walking from the car to my house, but not so much standing outside, in public, waiting for food.
“Yes, Nels. You told me to be honest, I’m being honest.” It’s the last day I can get takeout here, before the restaurant takes a month’s hiatus.
“You made me get up and get going early!”
“Nels… it’s TWO-THIRTY PM.“
My eldest is on their spring break after a full quarter. They sleep all kinds of hours, on a lopsided schedule. So my job mostly consists of trying to feed them, cuddling them, taking them on little road trips, reminding them to do a few chores, and maybe buying them little treats now and then.
My son though, that’s another story. He is up late with me, then sleeps in. He is my little shadow, as he’s been his whole life; if I’m still up and working he’s next to me, pressed up against my side and playing on his Wii U. If I’m in bed watching something he’s snuggled on my right, trying not to wake his father, whispering in his gorgeously harsh voice – sometimes on topic with what we’re watching, sometimes telling me of the worlds he and his friends have created, whether online or in the backyard. Then up to bed into his bed tent where he listens to music and puts on a cheerful set of lights.
He turns thirteen in a few days. His father and I are working hard to find him the video console he wants. I’ve got a few other gifts secured. I’m taking him and his buddies swimming, and then for pizza, and a movie.
Maybe there’s nothing more I like than those special things for my kids.
The basement studio is finally warming up; I am sewing, making clothes for babies, and children, and clients. Today, out the door: a pair of custom pajamas and a stripey hat.
Stripes cheer me up. Ready for spring.
I’ve recently had the good fortune of receiving a moderate volume of calls, emails, and texts from parents who are curious about homeschooling and unschooling for their children. Part of the increased activity may be the small community ripple our thirteen-year old daughter made this fall when she tested into, and enrolled at, our local community college. Regardless of the factors behind this increased interest, I love the subjects of homeschooling, unschooling, parenting, and living with children. I am honored when adults and children alike trust me enough to share their concerns.
Today I’ve fielded texts from a mother to six who is trying to navigate her family’s first year of home- and unschooling. She tells me her family spent a year deschooling – living without books and curriculum – and now she’s worried, because they’re “behind”. She was feeling upset because in an online unschooling community she brought up these concerns and was told by members of the group that she “hadn’t deschooled yet”. This kind of thing can be unschooling-speak for: “you’re still part of The System! Bad unschooler, bad!” (Meanwhile those unfamiliar with unschooling are probably scratching their heads thinking – “What in the WORLD is ‘deschooling’?”)
Let’s think about my friend’s position for a moment.
Today our thirteen year old daughter enrolled at our local community college. We had a very pleasant orientation with her advisor, and then the family – the four of us – toured some new facilities, some really incredible facilities, that will be her home this quarter. Phee stayed at the school with her dad for the rest of the day, while Nels and I came home to our own undertakings: some football and tailoring work, resp.
College matriculation for my daughter came up rather abruptly, as it happened. So my mind is still trying to put pieces together. Unhelpfully, I am breaking new ground and at a loss for mentors. I am also once again in a tiny bit of a spotlight: the moment I publicly announced our daughter’s acceptance to college, I was flooded with parents publicly and privately demanding I tell them how we accomplished this. I’ve also had a handful of well-intentioned (?) people ask me if she was ready – if we’d thought about This, or thought about That.
Well, sheesh. Yeah, we’ve thought about This, and we’ve thought about That. Ralph and I stay up nights talking about our children, our parenting, our family, our community. We talk about it when the kids are in earshot, and when they are not. Our children are the most important pieces of our lives. We’ve built our entire family structure on prioritizing them (and I’ve been writing about this, passionately, for over a decade) – parenting against the cultural standard every step of the way, I might add.
And now – it’s paying off. I mean, it’s paying off yet again, because it has been paying off since get-go. It’s just paying off today in a way that other parents tend to notice. Parents ask me “how [I] did it”? I say – we prioritize our kids’ health and authenticity over Every. Damn. Thing. Non-punitive parenting, and de-institutionalization (a fake word but a real Thing) is often too scary for many parents.
Adults – not just parents! – want kids to perform. To score academically! To read early! To be good at (culturally-recognized forms of) math! To win the tournament! To somehow be OK, because that will prove we are good parents and by inference, good people. To prove the cultural and familial hazing we endured was somehow necessary and should be continued.
So: yeah. When my kids suddenly stand out in some way, I get the queries. You know… the queries where people really want to know “how [I] did it”, but don’t seem to listen when I respond.
If I sound too irritable, well first: you are reading my personal blog which means you’re looking at my thoughts in their underpants, as it were.
Secondly: I will get past it. I’ve had a lot of changes in our lives recently and I’m a bit overwhelmed.
But here’s the thing. I am a human being. I need mentors, just like you. I need support, just like you. And I really need those things when I’m doing something new not only to me, but new in my community.
I’m coming to see that being a groundbreaking family in this way or that way means there are times I might not get the support I’d wish for. I can’t hold that against anyone. I get it.
But my priority will always be my family.
I’ll be working – especially with these recent changes in our lives – on supporting myself, my partner, and our children in this next leg of the journey. And when I figure things out – well I’ll be sure to share, –
as I always have!
And as always – readers? I’ve written thousands and thousands of words on parenting. I’m no expert on anything except perhaps my own life story (and there’s doubt about that!), but I do pass on what I’ve learned.
If you are new to parenting, or if you’re not new but willing to learn new things: come join us. I welcome your emails, your constructive comments.
Let’s do this together!