Friday, August 29, 2014

Homeschooling: What to do with babies and toddlers

One of the most frequent questions I am asked about the nuts and bolts of homeschooling is “What do I do with my baby and toddler while I’m trying to teach the older children?” Let’s face it, homeschooling mamas are the ultimate multi-taskers. Did you know that I can teach Latin, correct a spelling test, supervise a sewing project, cook dinner, write an article, chase a new crawler and help a toddler go to the bathroom all at the same time? Actually, I can’t do anything of the sort. And that, my friends, seems to be the problem; we are under the illusion that such management brilliance is actually possible.

I thought about detailing here some of the many and varied methods for scheduling infants and distracting toddlers so that the home educating mother can proceed with focused, quiet and well-planned teaching perfection. I thought about it… for about two minutes. I know all the suggestions and I’ve even used some of them. The reality, however, is that I have been only periodically successful because life is messy and unpredictable. 

My solution? It’s a good one but can be hard to swallow, particularly for the “type A” personalities among us (you know who you are); but perhaps it can bring someone out there a little bit of peace.

Mothering our children or managing them

As homeschooling mothers, we are charged with the challenging task of managing our homes. This requires a good measure of discipline and planning as well as a tremendous amount of flexibility. Our vocation is a complicated thing and along with being a spiritual reality is also, practically speaking, our job.  Those of us with multiple children find that the day-to-day operations require all of our time and talents. We have an image in our minds of the perfect day and apply ourselves to making it a reality.

Enter the small, developing human beings in our lives. Messy. Testing. Unpredictable. Noisy. Needy. So needy.

This is where we each need to take a step back and examine the way we approach these little needy people. If we are finding ourselves frequently referring to our youngest children as “problems” in our homeschool, then perhaps we are spending too much time trying to manage our children instead of mothering them. There is a certain amount of management necessary within a family but caution is in order when we begin to manage relationships instead of engaging in them.

*Do you find yourself frequently brushing aside your little ones in order to tend to more “important” things or projects?

*Do you often become irritated when a little one approaches you with a need?

*Do  you use television, videos or video games to babysit the littles more than you would like to but feel that you have to in order to “get stuff done”?

*Have you allowed a spirit of resentment toward your children to creep into your heart because their needs are interfering with your plans?

These are questions that we must frequently address and honestly answer for the sake of our children. I find that these attitudes and actions sneak up on me over time when I am not paying attention. Almost anyone can set up a schedule and check off tasks. As homeschooling mothers, we are charged with a much, much greater responsibility.

How can I teach in all this chaos?

If there is actual chaos in your home, then you do need a basic plan and a hearty helping of discipline. But is it really chaos that you are experiencing or just the colorful, messy, noisy beauty of healthy family life? Are you upset because there is actual damage to the learning going on in your home or are you unhappy with the loss of the image of your “dream” school?

If you are homeschooling, then you do have an obligation to educate your children. It is my experience that this learning will happen whether or not there are babies crying, dishes in the sink or toddlers throwing tantrums. Life is not neat and tidy and it is certainly never easy. They will learn in spite of that… and they may learn more of the important things in life because of it.

If you send your children to a local institutional school, your children will be faced with many distractions such as disruptive classmates, fire drills, bells, difficult teachers, hot weather, bullies, assemblies, announcements, etc. Your homeschooled student would not necessarily be less distracted from learning in a school environment… it is really our preferences as home educating moms that are the issue here.

Our preferences are often irrelevant

When my firstborn was ready to read I was ready to teach him. In fact, I had been planning for this moment for a year and it was going to go perfectly. I would put his baby sister down for a nap, sit with him on the big tan chair, and we would dive into delightful and focused learning together! The reality was that baby sister took five-minute naps and cried fifty percent of the day. Our lessons were almost always interrupted and instead of the peaceful scene I had envisioned, he sat and I stood and bounced with a squirming, crying little girl in my arms. Every lesson was stressful for me and felt like a huge failure. On the other hand, my son learned to read so well that he was able to read and comprehend high school level literature before he hit double digits. I wish I could take the credit for planning that success but truth be told, my plans usually don’t amount to much.

Sometimes the baby cries and crawls and falls and fills diapers. Sometimes toddlers pee on the carpet. Sometimes a fire truck goes by and my students race from their work to see it and lose all focus. Sometimes my 12-year old doesn’t get his math done because he’s watching the baby for me while I wash ketchup off the ceiling or read to a sibling. I do not prefer these situations. But the fact remains that nothing is really lost during such times… and I can recognize it when I step out of manager mode.

It’s about relationships

When your children are grown would you rather hear them say My mother was very tidy and organized or My mother really loved us and gave her best for us? Ideally, we’d love to hear both! Can we maintain a tidy homeschool and love our children well? Of course. But life does tend to get a little messy and sometimes we do have to choose.

When my youngest child was four months old, my teenager noticed that I had been holding and cuddling the baby for a very long time. He suggested that I should put him down for a while. This time goes quickly, Son, and I want to be present to this child just like I was present to you when you were an infant. These are the times when the dishes must wait and siblings learn to make sacrifices for each other.

The baby is now eight months old and I often allow the other children to interrupt their studies or duties in order to spend time with him. This is no loss. Babies grow quickly and I don’t want the kids to miss it just because they have spelling pages to do. In the grand scheme of things, a few pages of spelling are of little consequence.

When I’m feeling anxious about academic goals, I just call these moments “Early Childhood Development class”… and try to thank God for the beauty of family.

Homeschooling is difficult

We know what we want at the end of the homeschooling journey. We want to raise good, intelligent children who will become saints. We know that it takes a long period of hard work and constant struggles and prayer… and yet we still fall for the promises of easy solutions and magical programs. Can someone please give me the solution to the challenge of little ones during the school day? Do they have a pill for that? Ultimately, it all comes down to the blood, sweat, tears and prayers that are necessary for anything worth doing.

You can schedule your baby’s naps but he will still wake up when you don’t want him to. At those times, you’ll pick him up and do what you need to do. You can view this as a problem or as an act of love. Toddlers can be occupied with educational activities and playdough… but ultimately, what toddlers need most is you. You’ll spend your days trying to divide your time and multiply love. Don’t panic when it seems more than you can handle. Just say a prayer for help and make sure you look your children in the eyes and give them hugs more often than you want to.

The bottom line

If you need ideas for occupying the little ones during the school day, they are as close as a Google search away. Other than that, the truth is that you don’t have enough time, energy or smarts to meet every need at every moment. That’s a hard fact for us moms to swallow. The good news is that the success of homeschooling is all wrapped up in the family; and the family is all wrapped up in grace. Thanks be to God!

I set aside this evening to write this article. The older kids and my husband are at a ball game so it’s just like old times… just me, myself and the neediest littles in my family. No one to babysit for me. In between these typed lines I have accomplished the following: did the Hokey Pokey twice with my 4-year old while keeping my crawling baby from chewing on cords, baked cookies and ate too many of them, nursed the baby, held the baby while he napped, changed the baby (twice), made a pitcher of lemonade, answered the phone, answered a hundred questions from tiny voices, saved little bodies from big tumbles, read books, dried tears and wiped noses. And still they need more than the limited time I am giving them.

Dear beautiful homeschooling mamas…This is your homeschool. You can adjust deadlines as you see fit. Change goals. Schedule breaks. Play hooky to bake brownies and hug babies and pick flowers. You’re a great mom. Let’s all send up a prayer for each other, eh? Heaven knows we need it. Not because we are failing… but because we forget so often what it means to succeed. 

Resentment has no place here. Love gives all. Be at peace.

This article was first published on this blog on 9-7-2011

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lord of the Rings Party {Lots of pics}

My idea of a really good party is curling up in front of a roaring fire with a good book and an empty house. So when I tell you that I hosted a theme party for my kid, complete with costumes and *gasp* guests, you will have a full appreciation for what it took to get me there mentally. The last theme party I threw was 3 years ago at someone else's house (which is a good deal easier).

Never mind that I postponed it about 6 times and celebrated 6 months after his actually birthday... we got there. And my fellow Lord of the Rings nerds are going to like this one.

I'm going to take you through our cast of characters first. The kids did a great job putting these together on a tight budget. And I got away with very minimal sewing...


I had great plans for making this costume from scratch but rejoiced exceedingly when we came across a $5 costume at a garage sale. It was a medium women's gown but I did some heavy last minute costume editing and we made it work. The head piece came with the dress. We washed, parted, and braided Button's hair the night before to get the waves. 


I picked up a gorgeous silver embroidered formal gown for $7 at a resale shop many months ago with this party in mind. It was perfect for Cookie and the embroidery was remarkably similar to the Evenstar necklace which I found on Amazon. The cape was a cream colored crushed velvet. No sewing involved. We just tied the ends of a large rectangle (in a last minute attempt at a little more modesty) and it perfectly completed the outfit.

Again, I had wonderful plans for a fully handcrafted gown but was saved by a last minute discovery. A few years ago, I picked up a $3 First Communion gown at a going-out-of-business sale and in a desperate closet search for something (anything!) that would prevent me from having to sew all night, I found it. I added a glittery blue sash and a silver cape and topped it off with a handmade crown.


I'm rather pleased with the way the crown turned out. I used a soft and thick florist wire (found at Joann Fabrics) to fashion it since it is so flexible and forgiving. I started by measuring her head and making one loop of the wire to fit. Then I added a second, making the twists and turns I wanted as I went. (Yes, this was hastily done.) We found a beautiful glass bead and affixed it with jewelry wire and then I took a hammer and lightly tapped the front wire to flatten it and secure it. Doing this too hard will break your wire so take care if you try it yourself. The back of the crown is secured by curving and hooking the ends. Nothing fancy.

We fixed her hair by washing, parting and braiding (many little tiny braids) her hair the night before. We simply brushed it out shortly before the party.


Here is the birthday boy (Crash aka Aragorn) and his little brother. I love this picture. Cub actually looks like a little hobbit under Aragorn's protective presence. 


Crash found most of his outfit the morning of the party (we know how to make things exciting) at the local thrift shop...

Pants and shirt: Thrifted.

Boots: Hand-me-downs from a relative. 

Cape: Made by me from a heavy grey knit. 

Sword: Crash purchased this Medieval Broadsword with his own snow shoveling money. He has been very pleased with it.

Elf Stone: Crash crafted this (to be worn either around the neck or on the forehead) from costume jewelry and a decorative glass stone (both found around the house). 

Leaf Brooch: Amazon for a couple bucks. I have looked since and the price has doubled but you know Amazon... up and down. It was pretty cheaply made but perfect for the job.

Staffs: Made by Crash


Full outfit: This Frodo costume was the only costume that we flat out purchased. I had Amazon credits from the blog (thank you to all who purchased through my links!) and it worked out. Not super duper high quality but complete and perfect for the purpose. Adorable, in fact.

Dagger: In addition to the costume, Cub had his dagger (Sting) which was purchased for him as a gift from Alejandro's shop last year.

Pipe: Handcrafted by Crash 


Okay, so this was a bit of a cheat. We just stuck a pretty dress on the baby and called her Baby Elanor. Here she is being given a balloon by Rosie Cotton.

Group shot of all who attended in costume. I've already identified most of mine but see if you can find cousins Goldberry (in a costume made by her own hands... so proud of you, girl!) and Samwise. The guy in the suit jacket is mine but he decided that putting together a Gandalf costume was a bit over his budget so he was our self-appointed sommelier...

On to the party details, the first of which is a major cake fail which worked out in the end...

This is Mount Doom. 
I was running low on time and originally trashed the idea of a theme cake. I'll be glad if I can crank out any cake at all is what I was really thinking. So I picked up three boxes of gluten free brownie mix and planned a layered brownie cake, not recalling that gluten free brownies do not hold together well. So I made three layers in a round spring form and they all fell completely apart. So I transformed the mess into Mount Doom. Add some color, drizzled chocolate, three massive red candles found in a drawer, and some sparklers... and end up with something close to success.

Don't let the small size fool you. That baby was rock solid brownie. (Thank you, Hannah, for lending your carving skills!) And delicious.


It is so fun when we get to smash the bad guy. And really, the only pinata I know how to make is a balloon shaped one... so the Eye of Sauron it was! 
Directions: Blow up a large balloon, apply newspaper and glue mixture according to internet directions, apply paint until it sort of resembles the look you're going for.

The pinata was filled with treats I was very proud of but that were inhaled before I could take a picture. I printed out labels that said: GOLLUM'S GOODIES and stuck them on individual bags filled with gummy worms and swedish fish. They were adorable but the kids were only concerned with the candy, not the crafty awesomeness. Someday, they will have their own Pinterest accounts and they will understand the offense given.


As any LOTR fan knows, Hobbits give gifts on their birthdays. Aragorn is a clear fan of Hobbits and so we went to town putting some special things together for his guests.

Everyone received a handcrafted gift labeled in Elvish. (Instructions for writing and reading HERE) Once they decoded their name, they were able to have their gift...

Handcarved daggers, staffs, and pipes.
These were all made by Crash. It took him many blisters to work through them, but it was worth it. The sheaths were made out of duct tape and cardboard and have a loop to be worn on a belt.

Handmade fairy dolls
I love these little dolls and we whipped up some woodland lovelies for the girls.

Handcrafted flower jewelry
I wish I had some pics but I don't yet. Cookie makes glass pendants using real pressed flowers and these were given to the ladies.

Favor Boxes contained:
Homemade green "glass" candy (supposed to remind people of the Elfstone)
The boxes were from the Martha Stewart wedding collection. Pricey from the store but I found them brand new in the package for a song at a thrift shop.


I had great plans for the lembas. I was going to come up with a great GF recipe and cut leaf shapes out of fabric. But time just flew by and rice krispy treats and green napkins ended up working out just fine.


My original plans included decorating various areas to look like different LOTR locations. I wanted a Lothlorien and Shelob's Lair and a Prancing Pony. We simplified out of necessity. This Prancing Pony sign was a must though and I hung it in the kitchen area.

To make the sign I used foam core poster board as the base. I sketched a pony on a separate piece of regular poster board. I googled images and chose my favorite one and eyeballed it. Then I cut out the pony and glued it to the foam core. (That effort was largely to avoid messing up the more expensive foam core but it ended up "popping" in a cool way.) After that, I got out all my paints and used what I had to make it decent. I had no brown and ended up using gold and black for the wood. You can't really tell from the picture but I thought the shimmery effect was nice. 

We borrowed white lights and hung them in a couple places. And then we created a party room where we set up a "speech table." The picture is so-so because I don't have a flash but it gives the general idea...

The Party Speech game was a Hobbit-ish version of the classic Toastmasters 60-second speech exercise. Rules:

1. Everyone writes down a word on a small piece of paper. Any word at all.
2. All words are folded up and placed in a jar.
3. Participants choose a word randomly from the jar.
4. The speaker must give a 60-second speech. The speech must include the word on the paper plus a reference to the birthday or the birthday boy.

I wish we would have recorded some of them. 

Elvish Name Game
I already mentioned this but we had people translate their names from elvish to identify their gifts. If we had more time, we would have had people try their hand at writing.

I had to stick this in here because Crash really did receive some fun and creative gifts which I highly recommend for 12-year old boys:

Lord of the Rings Pez 
Protective Kevlar Gloves (Yes. Get these. You can avoid a trip to the ER and nauseous mother. I speak from experience)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

When Your Joy Conflicts With Someone Else's Suffering...

During my training to become a bereavement doula, one of my classmates encountered a dilemma. She was called to the hospital to comfort a family that had just lost a baby and to present them with a care package. She longed to go, especially since there wasn't anyone else available to step up and do it. But there was one big problem: She was pregnant and showing.

Would the sight of her growing belly be a fresh source of pain for the mother? Was it better to have someone - even a pregnant mother - rather than no one? Would it be enough to tell them that she had also lost a baby before this pregnancy?

She posed her question to the group and wondered if she could just wear a huge sweatshirt to cover up the evidence of her own baby. Maybe they won't notice. At that point, the moderator stepped in and gave her an important reminder:

You have a right to your joy. There should be no shame or regret for your pregnancy, your baby or your journey and you should not take on those feelings in order to protect others. Being sensitive to other women is important but does not require that you sacrifice your joy and the appropriate and positive bonding that you should have with your own child. If you go, make sure to spend some focused time with your baby afterward, rubbing your belly and singing.

The question still remained and I'm not sure what the woman finally decided to do, but the lesson learned was huge. We do not need to feel guilty about our joy simply because others suffer. Our time will come. Everyone suffers. And our present joy is our refreshment and consolation. A gift from God for the present moment. It is a grace to prepare you to carry your own crosses and grow in courage to support others.

So how do we come together with our sisters, in our various stages of grief and joy, as a community of love, acceptance and gentleness? I wrote about that very thing over at The Guiding Star Project this week, and specifically, about how this affects our internet communities.

Won't you stop on by and share your thoughts and suggestions?
When Suffering and Joy Meet Online

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

UPDATED: There is no Catholic dress code

Reposting this from 2011, because the debate always rages... and I never got an answer...

Attention Marylike Modesty Supporters: Your help is needed

About 15 years ago, I was given a few pamphlets and photocopies that addressed modesty. The information came from a movement called Marylike Modesty which was started in the 1940's by a Catholic priest and still attracts a small but faithful following. The intention of this post is not to explore the entire Marylike mission but to find out one piece of information, which I will get to shortly.

Included in the papers given to me was a quote that read exactly as follows:

"But where do you find the Marylike standards in either of these letters? The Liberals ask with an air of triumph, thus implying, if not claiming outright, that these standards are not authentic. But after many years of research, these standards are now full authenticated as having been issued by the Cardinal-Vicar of Pius XI in Rome, in these words:

“in order that uniformity of understanding prevail in all institutions of religious women ... we recall that a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper ...”

"Rufino J. Cardinal Santos, Archbishop of Manila, quotes these standards as “The Church’s stand concerning modesty in dress” in his Pastoral of December 6, 1959. He attributes them to Pope Pius XI Himself, and gives the exact date of issuance, September 24, 1928. The Marylike Crusade codified these standards, making only a small (ecclesiastically approved) temporary concession because of impossible market conditions in the United States. This modified form has been officially adopted by the entire Philippine Hierarchy."

I had never heard anything like it before and, of course, wanted to know if this was indeed something we are bound to. I assumed not, since even the most faithful and pious females I knew did not adhere strictly to these guidelines. Is it possible that this was in fact Church teaching?

At that point, I began to do research. I dug into everything I could find and even poured over the Acta Apostolicae Sedis from the appropriate year and month and beyond. I eventually found the document somewhere (not in English) and discovered that this was not addressed to laywomen at all. If I had those papers I could tell you whether it was directed at religious sisters or the female students under their care in the context of institutional education. I just don't recall. The first line of the above statement confirms it was at least one of these. I created a file, put my documentation in it, and moved on.

Since then, the discussion has come up many times in my Catholics circles and always somewhere on the internet. In response to recent debates, I attempted to find that old file. It's been over a decade and we've moved to a new home. Somewhere in the middle of all that, the papers went missing. Empty file. I probably took them out to share with someone and lost them forever.

(UPDATED: Thanks to a reader, I have the direct link HERE. See pages 26-28)

I have been periodically contacted by women hoping that I have some of those details. One young mother was being harangued by older Catholic women in her community because she will not conform to the Marylike standards. She didn't know how to respond to their steady pressure and negative personal attacks that she was sinning in her manner of dress. She was hurt and alone in her small community. I am digging up the issue here for people like her; good Catholic women who ought not be lied to.

A lie? Yes. Show me one binding Church document that supports the specific manner of dress presented by the Marylike crusaders down to inches and sleeve length. There isn't one for all laywomen. And yet it is repeated over and over in popular books and magazines and all over the internet. Out of context. Never a source document sited. I am not anti-modesty. I am anti-deception.

So, I want to be clear about this for myself, for you, for every Catholic woman out there who is being harassed into believing that she has fallen into the clutches of satan himself for wearing a short-sleeved shirt...

Please find me the original source document for the guidelines I've quoted above.

If you cannot do this, then stop bothering people with it. I fully support your decision to dress as you wish (within reason) and the Church allows you this freedom. I am not bothered by long shirts and skirts. I am bothered by the idea that individuals (even well-intentioned ones) find it acceptable to use deceitful tactics to promote their preferences -- a Catholic modesty crusade believing that the end justifies the means.

I am willing to be wrong on this. God's will be done. Just find me the source document.

NB... I predict that I will get hit a little hard over this topic. I may be accused of being against modesty. It won't be true. Throw the tomatoes if you will. But don't throw them until you find that document. I'll update this post as soon as it is found.

July 2012. It is has been one year since I posted this and I have received no response from anyone who supports the Marylike modesty crusade. Zero.

August 2014. It has been been three years since I originally posted this challenge and it has been viewed thousands of times. In that time, not one Marylike supporter has come forward with any documentation. Still waiting...

Document found HERE. Anyone know Italian? :)

Photo attribution

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to {Not} Handle Stress in 7 Quick Takes...

I've mastered the art of handling periods of high stress. I practiced diligently this week. And now I will share my wisdom with you so that you can be as awesome as I am...

1) Make sure that you wind yourself up so tightly with anxiety that when it comes time to communicate matters of great importance with various people in highly public places, you can do nothing but cry.

2) Plan to procrastinate. Make sure that you miss every single deadline you have. This will add drama and excitement to the overall stressful experience. Lessons in humility will be increased while you frustrate people and damage professional and personal trust. This is called being refined and it is pretty effective in light of eternal goals.

3) Eat a bunch of food that you know will make you sick. Feeling bloated, achy, flu-ish, and cranky is very consistent with an anxious demeanor and at least helps people in your life know to back off before you throw something in their general direction.

4) Spend less time with your little people as you pace and fret and make adult phone calls. Then when they go nuts from lack of careful direction, you can all cry together on the kitchen floor when you lose your tempter.

5) Make sure to stay up all night worrying about things you can't control. I mean, if you can't be at peace and cast your cares on the Lord, at least do your best to figure out every single possible way you can try to fix it without Him. Then when you fall asleep you'll dream about it, too, and not one hour will be wasted in fruitless rest.

6) Retail therapy. Buying useless stuff always temporarily soothes the soul that is hungering for eternal things. At least long enough to get you to the next period of anxiety without having to deal with your deep-seated lack of trust in God's providence.

7) Spend lots of time on the internet watching people fight about what bloggers did or did not say about suicide and border babies. If you're not already on Facebook, join up so that you can drink in the anxiety. Don't worry about your dishes or laundry... they'll take care of themselves.

*Important Bonus Take*
Neglect prayer. This is a sure way to descend as quickly as possible to the depths of dark anxiety. It's a terrible place to dwell, but at least there's a lot of compassion to be had online. Find a good meme and cling to it, people!

Joining up with Jen at Conversion Diary for 7 Quick Takes. And approaching the weekend with renewed humility and prayerfulness!


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