I Know How to Get Through Winter with Six Kids

Sometimes you have to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Or at least an embarrassment into something useful. For example:

Why is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" stuck in my head?

I often have piles of laundry this big and am ashamed to let people see them. Why? We all have laundry piles and no time to fold them. I’m not alone. Still, I usually tuck them away in a corner where I think they’re less obvious. But they’re always there.

Anyway as you can see by my groovy sectional couch (circa 1984, I kid you not) there is a perfect way for littles to climb up a seat, go over the table, and down the other side for a lovely roundy round jumping game. That is if they don’t stop in the middle and throw themselves off the table. I like to call it the “Make Amy Insane Game!”

I can stop this activity in a variety of ways:

1. Nagging
2. Physically removing them (which hurts my neck)
3. Pushing the table into the corner every day (which hurts my back)
4. Blocking them with the laundry

Ahh, the laundry blockade. The perfect solution! Sometimes you have to be creative.

And that’s what getting through winter with six kids in the house boils down to. Being VERY creative. I try to come up with projects they can all do, including the toddlers who eat stuff and the three-year-olds who want to use the beads. We sing hour-long renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and man is that a wild and crazy bus (the dogs on the bus go woof woof woof. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the bus go “Cowabunga!!”). I dig through the music collection for favorite songs, games and dances, we do yoga (most of them have a pretty mean downward dog), I get out the giant box of stickers, and then there’s coloring. Lots of coloring.

Sometimes the solutions are simple. The kids love reading a book in my lap, as much of it as there it to go around with four of them vying for it when they see someone else in it. I also have two teething babies who want to eat the books. So I found a giant box of board books and just brought the whole darn thing out of storage. We have been working our way through them, several books a day, and aren’t even close to reaching the end of the pile. It’s a perfect activity – they get my attention. They are learning. And they love being in a puppy pile of kids on the couch (until somebody starts asserting dominance. Much like puppies).

We spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes they make. Because they are literally climbing the walls. We lost our chair privileges last week when Mr. W taught Mr. P how to use them to climb up and get what we want off the high shelves. So when they get bored with the toys that are available, they find their own. Watching piles of construction paper cascade off the art shelf is very entertaining. Or letting babies empty an entire box of kleenex. So fun. Evil geniuses.

But the thing is, I can’t get mad at these activities. I know this is what two-year-old boys do especially when they can’t get outside to run, jump, spin, climb, and get rid of that energy in a positive way. We just keep cleaning up. I try to explain how some things in this room belong to Amy and shouldn’t be touched. But I know logically they don’t get that. They see a challenge, they want something, they problem-solve to get it. Two.

As I process all this information and think of what’s happening in the education community today, it makes me sad. The teachers in my neighboring city of Holyoke are facing a new academic hell, something called “receivership,” which I’ve never even heard of, due to low test scores. This means that the state can make them re-apply for their jobs and force the school to get outside help (paid for by who?) even though it’s been proven not to work time and time again. (Oh and standardized tests have been proven not to work time and time again but we’re basing receivership on that. Follow the money trail, friends. Your kids are a cog in the wheel. Child labor. But that’s another story.)

I think about what would happen if some state educational representative walked into my program on an 8-degree day in January. When toys were strewn all over the floor and kids were cranky, noisy, and hard to please. I would say Yes, it looks crazy. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and I know that this is what two-year-olds do. And I know how to handle it. But my voice would not be heard, because a politician and a businessman sitting in a quiet office somewhere, while other people raised their children (if they had any), decided that that’s not what kids should be doing at their age.

I’ve gone from creative laundry uses to a dark place here. I guess what I’m trying to say is, where kids are involved, some things are predictable, and some things are controllable. The rest is beyond us, and being the creative, supportive, patient, guiding adult is our job. And the voices of the professionals who do this job are the ones we should be listening to, no matter how ridiculous the solution may look to an outsider. Because believe it or not baby, I am a pro.

 

Feeling Contemplative on a Bike Ride

A day for me. As a home child care provider, let me stress to you how rarely this happens. I have worked for 12 years in my home, every day, all day. Think about it – when you’re a child care provider, you can’t leave the house. You don’t run out for a cup of coffee, or take an afternoon off for a dentist appointment. You don’t even get to stop at the market on the way home for a gallon of milk. You just – stay home. It’s a little confining. Don’t have claustrophobia and become a home child care provider.

Lately I’ve found myself taking a few steps back into the world. It’s been wonderful getting re-acquainted, and seeing the town around me for the fun and lively place it is. Of course in true motherly fashion, the day for me became the day I scheduled the recall work on the car. But that’s OK because it forced me to take a bike ride around my town, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I dropped the car off early and relished the quiet morning before the world woke up. I rode to the bridge over the river and took pictures of the rowing crew working out. Smelled the fresh air and flowers (and the garbage truck), and watched all the people dressed up in business clothes heading to work.

As I passed the sights along the way my moods changed wildly: traffic building at the highway entrance. A homeless man sleeping along the bike path. A grandmotherly lady with her bike basket, smiling and ringing her bell. The words “kill you” graffiti’d on the bridge underpass. A nanny with two young boys on bikes. A young guy with headphones actually smiling pleasantly. A serious bike racer all decked out in spandex.

My mind wandered and I couldn’t help but flash back on the days when I used to get up and go, like these folks, to a real professional-like office job. I thought about the plans I’ve made that have come true, and those that didn’t. How I felt about the loss of those things and how I’ve come to be content where I am. The benefits of a corporate job versus being my own boss and working with children. I thought about working at home and how nice it would be to work away from home again. Did I make the right choices, for myself and for my children?

I was probably in this speculative mood because we spent the weekend at a family wedding. My sons got it – the meaningfulness of what was happening. They knew they were part of something big and they took it seriously. They loved every minute of spending time with family and were incredibly sad when it was over. When I asked Older why he didn’t want to leave he said, “I don’t know when we’ll have everyone together like this again.” I promised right then to find an occasion, or throw a party for no reason just to make it happen.

My husband and I have recently had some deep conversations about the meaning of real parenting. Is it sending your kids away to camp to teach them independence? Is it letting them lay around the house all summer and get the desperately-needed downtime their bodies require for summer growth spurts? Is it strict discipline or having fun? Where is the balance and what is right? Does any of it matter that much, if they grow up to be relatively happy and sane people?

In the end that’s really the most you could ask for. I think parenting comes down to this: having fun. Teaching them to be grateful for what they have and to share what they can. Keeping them interested in trying new things, and showing them the joy of exploring new places. Letting them know that things may turn out as planned, or they may not, but you move on and find the next thing. Giving them a sense of hope, and the resiliency to keep moving ahead no matter what comes.

Don’t Make Me Go All Amnesty on Your Ass

Some moments in child care take everything you’ve learned up until that moment. It sometimes feels like the culmination of my whole life as a daughter, sister, mother, master’s degree student, teacher, and therapist. The last of which I’m not, but often find myself having to be with the demands of the job.

This week’s moment was with my brother and sister pair. They are typical siblings with the usual squabbles who band together rabidly if anyone else bothers them (she’s MY sister – only I can beat the crap out of her!). This time it was brother who took the blow. I missed the beginning of the fight but saw and heard the outcome. He hit the deck, hard. Full-on WWE body slam.

I walked into the room and all eyes were on me. I had a lot of choices as to how to handle this situation. I could yell and make a big scene, I could punish her, I could try to set an example for all the kids by showing everybody how wrong this was, and how angry it made me.

Sister was too afraid to even say she was sorry. She was staring at me waiting for the hammer to come down.

I looked at brother. He was laying on the floor, pained not only because he’d whacked his head pretty good, but I could see it in his eyes: How could she do this to me? My heart melted.

I didn’t say a word to anybody. I went to him, knelt down, pulled him into my lap, and just sat and hugged him in silence.

No one knew what to do. They spoke a few words here and there but were at a loss as to what I was thinking. I looked around at the kids and realized they were all playing their roles. Sister knew she was in trouble and was trying to blend into the background while knowing she still had to atone for it.

The other instigator of the fight knew this was big, but was thinking I didn’t know she had anything to do with it and she might get off scot free. My class clown started being funny to try to distract everybody from the tension. But I wasn’t going to move on without addressing the moment.

As I sat and held brother I took a moment to collect my thoughts and decide how I was going to handle this. It was good to let the kids stew for a moment, worrying about how much trouble this was going to be. And it’s good for me not to have to make snap decisions all the time. Sibling fighting is a ploy for attention, and sometimes when you give the right attention the fight is resolved (doesn’t mean there won’t be another one).

I remembered raising my own boys and being so angry at one when he’d hurt the other. It didn’t matter who was the perpetrator or what they did – when one of my babies was hurt, mama bear roared. It was unacceptable to me – you do NOT hurt your brother! This is your FAMILY. That may be the one thing I fought them the hardest on, and I know I got it from my mother.

My sister and I rarely had fights but when they did, they were a doozy. I didn’t necessarily want her to be punished – I just wanted someone to understand how I felt. My mother would spend a while talking with her in her room, then come to me. Usually we’d have to say sorry, but it didn’t feel so hard after we aired our feelings and got the attention we needed.

In the end I just ignored everyone but brother and kept asking him how he felt. We talked about how hurt and scared he was. I asked why she pushed him down. He said he took her toy. I said, “Do you think taking her toy made her angry?” He nodded yes. Then I asked, “Do you think it’s fair to be tackled for taking a toy?” After that, sister approached and genuinely apologized to him.

I don’t know how much it sank in – it certainly didn’t stop them from battling out the rest of the week. But for the moment, she really saw that what she’d done was wrong. Brother felt comforted, not because it came from me but most importantly, because it came from his sister.

And at lunch time, when sister told me, “You always give me the food last,” I resisted the urge to tell her that those who try to destroy their brother will eventually pay the price.

How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.

Yep. Child Care is Expensive.

Ooo, I love it, just love it whenever a new article about the high cost of child care comes out. This one by Alissa Quart covers the usual territory. Parents who use child care are stumped, and rightfully so, as to why they should work full-time and be away from their children, and then hand over most of that pay to someone else to watch said children.

With the biggest complaint being the cost and scarcity of care, the next question is why are we paying this much money for sub-par care? And then comes the litany of horror stories, which this article dutifully serves up.

That’s the part that always makes my skin crawl. Every time you hear “this woman locked the kids in one room for six hours” it makes us all look bad. The vast majority of child care providers (at least all the ones I’ve known in over ten years of doing this job) are dedicated, loving, incredibly hard-working women who would do anything for their kids. They are, in fact, required to go above and beyond by state regulations that have them putting in many unpaid extra hours after their long day with the kids is over. But I digress.

An obvious answer to the question “Why do I keep working?” is that few people can afford to take themselves out of their career path. You step away and you’re out. This is a big decision, especially for someone who now has a home, cars, and a child to provide for. Moms who keep their full-time jobs are doing it for the good of their family, but they often get knocked for leaving their little ones.

Stay-at-home moms give up as much as working moms do by being away from their babies. They are walking away from a good career and all the benefits of it, the experience they’ve been building, and possibly everything they’d been preparing for up until that point. (That’s the power your child has over you, but that’s another story.)

Every family chooses what’s best for them and we all need to stop vilifying each other. But while we’re at it, let’s stop vilifying the child care providers.

The reason child care is scarce is because it’s an incredibly difficult job. Home child care providers are on their own with very little support. We work long hours, have incredibly stressful work environments, and a physically and mentally demanding job. But we are expected to be saintly at all times. We can’t make mistakes. So people burn out, and those who want to make a decent wage often go find another job.

It’s true, parents give us a huge chunk of their income. But we have no benefits, no paid time off, no sick time, and personally I just cover my bills. I can’t even get into the doctor for an appointment for myself or my children. I accrue nothing. There is no safety net. And the job is over-regulated by state agencies who don’t give the support necessary to cover their requirements.

Another thing that people often overlook is that when you work in child care, there is no upward mobility. You may become a director if you work in a center, but the stress of that job isn’t commensurate with the pay (again, very low, and “Director” at a child care center has far less cachet than “Director” at a company).

We often turn to the proposal of federally-funded child care, as Ms. Quart does in her article. But this idea usually makes people go ballistic. My taxes are not going to pay for your child!

Why doesn’t anybody get this enraged about their taxes paying for endless war, destruction, and general misuse around the world? It confounds me when people get angrier about taking care of babies and toddlers at home than they do about killing children in other countries.

But I digress.

Ms. Quart actually does a good job of hitting all the major points in the debate over child care, and I often found myself agreeing with her. But her conclusion touches on my single biggest problem with the way we view child care: that parents have “a discomfort with center-based day care and even the term ‘day care,’ preferring terms like ‘educational enrichment’ and, yes, preschool.”

This is the trend that makes all child care providers crazy. We know children. We know what they need. They don’t need early educational enrichment. We see what the school systems do to kids once they get there. They are over-tested, over-stressed, have no recess or down time, and then are blamed for bad behavior, which is a normal human child’s response to extreme pressure.

Providers know that we are the last bastion of protecting babies and toddlers’ freedom. What babies need is love, consistency, sleep, and fun. They do not need curriculum, and early enrichment will not help their future success. In fact, studies show that over-stimulation at early ages causes children to withdraw and perceive themselves negatively, while those in child-centered classrooms thrive.

Child care providers give kids what they need in so many more ways than “enrichment.” Nurturing and building a strong foundation of self-esteem leads to enrichment. We teach them ABCs and 123s, and that is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a toddler. The rest of what they need will come later.

Articles like this will always pop up every few months because of our country’s anti-woman, anti-family policies. The sweeping reforms often suggested by their authors aren’t backed up with enough political capital to ever happen. Child care is expensive, but not always as bad as they make out in the articles. It will continue to be hard to find as long as high quality is demanded but no support systems for providers exist. And the discussion is incomplete until you include and respect the voices of providers who actually do the job and have the wisdom needed to change the system.

Parents who have had to pay for child care are immensely relieved when their kids are old enough to attend public schools for free – which, egad – are supported by taxpayer dollars. So when the push gets big enough, when enough people demand subsidized child care, perhaps we’ll see a change. But a system that doesn’t value families, that pushes individual success above all else, that fights against health care and elder care and any kind of perceived “handout,” will never willingly embrace this idea on its own.

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Just One of Those Days

It was Wednesday. It started out with me melting down at my own kids, then one of them melting down, a melting down baby all morning, and a different one melting down all afternoon. It was not a pretty day.

I slogged through it the best I could, repeating the mantra: This is not my fault. Just get through it. (Then I realized how awesome that mantra is for much of parenting.)

I have always said childrens’ behavior is affected by the barometer, and meltdown-day was a perfect example of that. The weekend was crazy beautiful spring warm. Then we had two below-30-degree nights. On Wednesday rain clouds were coming, it got humid, and you could actually feel that air pressure growing.

Kids are like horses, forest animals, and Spiderman. They have these weird extra senses that make them act crazy for no apparent reason. Loud airplanes make them cry. A drop in air pressure makes them unbearable. A full moon – fuggedaboudit.

But the best part about a day like meltdown-day is, I know that really, it’s not my fault. I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, I’m doing a lot of things right. I know which cries to let go, which to challenge, which to hug. I know who wins the toy in the tug-of-war (the boy who was being ganged up on by two girls) but I know to call said boy on his bad behavior a few minutes later when he hits someone.

What’s the best remedy for a day like this? Early nap. (But even then one sleeps for an hour, wakes up, and starts melting down.) Other remedies: patience. Distractions. New toys. Singing, music, and dancing. Sitting quietly and letting them each come to you in turn for attention and hugs. Chocolate.

A few years ago I would have beaten myself up relentlessly for a day like this. I would have felt like I was letting it happen, that somehow I had set the stage for everyone’s miserable mood. Or that all the hard work I’ve put in with these kids was just washed away. That I was failing to entertain them enough, to control their behavior, or just even do the basic job of child care.

Now I’m smarter. I know that when it gets bad, there’s pretty much nothing I can do except keep everybody safe. I know that every bad day ends, and on the next one everything will feel easier and better. You just have to get through the hard ones with the least amount of damage possible.

Thursday came, a new day, and it was beautiful. A perfect sunny spring day. We were outside all morning, everyone having a grand old time. In fact at one point I literally thought: “I am really good at this job.” Then had to laugh at myself, remembering the day before when I had the sneaking suspicion that I was unfit to care for children.