Parenting

On The Road Again

on the road again - pic by dfirecop on flickr

“Going on a long car journey with kids is a bit like childbirth; you know that one day you might look back on it and think it was a beautiful thing, but at the time you just gotta knuckle down and get through it.”

– Autocratrix, after an unforgettable trip between here and nowhere (and back), Summer 2013

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In short, it was a family holiday.

Yes, that’s right – I missed a few days of posting because we were away on holiday, not because of death, dismemberment or illness (although I may have wished for all of the above at one time or another during our journey).  Last Friday, we bundled four kids into their various carseats, crowded the boot with assorted baggages, stashed a few towels into handy corners of the vehicle for mop-ups, and headed out on the road (only an hour behind schedule).

The first hitch came about fifteen minutes into the journey, when we realized that we’d forgotten the camera.

We set off from home again after retrieving the camera almost two hours after when we’d originally planned on leaving, and by now it was getting dangerously close to lunchtime.  Just before the border we decided it would be foolhardy to attempt a crossing with a vanload of hungry kids, so we stopped for the first lot of french fries (and other rubbish food) of the holiday.  This was the last time West’s credit card would work for the duration of our trip.

If I could distill the driving portion of our journey down south into a single phrase, it would be, “Surplus to requirements.”

The length of the drive?  Definitely surplus to requirements.  We went from saying, “Isn’t it cool how you get to go right through the middle of downtown Seattle on the highway?” to complaining, “WHY does this highway go right through downtown Seattle??!”

The amount of noise coming from the kids in the back?  Surplus (to the power of ten).

The number of stops?  Surplus to requirements, but partly my fault because I felt my mood could be improved through the ingestion of caffeine.  It was – kind of.

The length of time on those stops?  Surplus, again – most notably for the stop to fill up the tank, because it was at this point that West realized that his credit card wasn’t working – so after an interminable wait at the pump (so.slow.) there was yet another interminable wait at the till; and then I had to line up and pay for the gas after West’s card had failed several times…

I’d venture to say that the car ride itself was ‘surplus to requirements’.  Our kids are generally pretty good travellers, although B. has a tendency to arrive at conclusions about his physical discomfort rather abruptly (and with great drama), so it’s fine fine fine fine fine and then STOP THE CAR I FEEL SICK! or I’M TIRED BUT I CAN’T SLEEP! AAAAAARGH! or I REALLY HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM. NOW!

The middle two, seated at the far back, are also going through a phase of having endless, inane arguments.  The constant bickering and fighting takes place even with a full seat’s space between them – heaven knows what they’ve have been like in a 60’s style station wagon, with all four of them squished into a back bench seat…  We are thankful for the greater capacity of minivans, and modern child restraints. Amen.

We finally got to the hotel shortly before dinner time.  Seeing as our waking hours in a hotel mainly consist of fraught reminders to our boys about not jumping or thumping or yelling or running or making phone calls to the front desk or pressing all the elevator buttons or opening the windows so the baby can fall out, we prefer to minimize our hotel time, anyway.

It was when all the kids started to pile out of the car that we realized that one of the sliding doors of our minivan was not.  Sliding, that is.  West tried all sorts of manly fixes on it (banging, shoving, knocking, locking-and-unlocking vigorously), but to no avail.  I even clambered into the back seat to give it my best shot, and of course A. and B. wanted a go at it, but no luck for any of us.  I recall a similar malfunction on a minivan we had in New Zealand – and it also happened when we were on holiday – but that time it was an easier fix.

Up in the hotel room, the boys sat on a bed and I supervised them watching the Cartoon Network (generally verboten to them) while Westley worked on the other problem.  He made a call to the bank about his credit card and discovered that the issue was simple but irreparable: the magnetic strip had been demagnetised.

Dinner out (I paid) – more fries for some of us – and a visit to a nearby ‘Family Fun Centre’ to wear the kids out properly, and we managed a late enough bedtime that everyone crashed shortly after being put to bed.

B. crashed again in the middle of the night.  Ever the acrobat sleeper, he managed to vault himself over the side of the pull-out couch and he banged his face on the sharp edge as he went. The next day, spent at the Museum of Flight (alongside every other all-boy family in the state, I think), he was all full of swagger with his face-bruise – like he’d won it by way of courage and daring – and he wore it around the museum like a badge of honour.

More meals out.  More crayons and colouring books and juice for the kids.  More of the same menus.  What is it with kids’ meal choices, anyway?  Hamburgers, chicken strips, mac & cheese – is this the best we can come up with?  Even in these American chain restaurants with about a hundred options for grown-ups, they still toss out the same old standards for the kids.  And yet, when they don’t offer those options, we feel oddly resentful about having to make decisions on menu items we’re not sure the kids will eat.  Can’t win.

The second night in the hotel we thought we’d ride the wave of exhaustion from the trip down and the previous late night and get the kids down at a more normal time.  Oh, the folly!  An hour and a half later the last die-hard finally drifted into slumber.  At least we got a chance to air some thoroughly idle threats when trying to get them to stay in bed.  That’s always good for the soul.

After getting the despots down, West and I could only just summon the energy to brush our teeth and hop into bed.  We were determined to have some proper time to ourselves, so we started a movie on Netflix – but when we found ourselves drifting and drooling through a scene and had no recollection of what had hitherto taken place in the film, we abandoned the attempt to be grown-ups and just gave in to our craving for sleep.

We spent the next day at the zoo, and a good time was had by all.  This was mostly owing to the fact that we’d brought the jogging stroller with kiddy-board attachment AND the baby sling – so for most of our time roaming around the three younger ones were having a ride.  And A. was uncommonly good about using his own two feet – almost no complaints at all.  We finished the day with a meal at the Rainforest Café.  Our kids haven’t been to Disneyland, so this was a pretty big deal.  The highlight of the day, according to the kids?  A swim in the hotel pool just before bed.  Go figure – the one free thing we did.

The next day, it was time to head back to Canada.  As with most journeys, by the time we departed for home, our minivan resembled a newlyweds’ going-away car – except that instead of good wishes scrawled across the windows we had greasy finger-smears; and instead of tin cans jangling in our wake there were (probably) assorted toys and linens trailing behind us as we drove.

Trips like this don’t come cheap, even when you work harder at being frugal than we did.  But the real value of travelling together is in the concentrated family time, and in sharing special experiences outside our everyday lives. That, and the moments of learning – like the benefits of keeping our kids up WAY past their bedtime to guarantee a painless end to each day.  And the opportunity to perfect our responses to the kids’ endless nagging, honing them into simple but memorable phrases that we hope we will one day hear them using on their own kids. Responses like this one:

“Did you hear my answer?”

Yes

“Did you understand it?”

Yes

“Well then don’t ask again.”

 

 

Family vacation Gold.

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Motherhood, Parenting

Goodies or Goons?

Goodies or Goons - flickr photo by Philip Howard

It seems to me that there tends to be a uniformity in how the sons of larger all-boys families turn out.  Either all of them become entirely decent, productive members of society – or they all become involved in activities that fall outside the dictates of the law.  In other words, they become ‘goodies’ or goons.

At this point in my parenting journey with my boys, it could really go either way.

Stories abound in which sets of brothers join (or form) criminal gangs and use their fraternal connections and familial might for ignoble ends.

Why would this be?

Well, I’ve always said that groups of boys are much more than the sum of their parts.  Even if your boys can be calm and focused and gentle, most likely they will exhibit none of these characteristics when in the company of other boys.  Boys have a natural inclination to energetic physicality and hyper-competitiveness, and this is accentuated when they are in a group.  Consequently, when all of the siblings in a family are male – and they are therefore without the mitigating influence of sisters – their rowdiness/noisiness tends to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Aggression is another natural part of boys’ makeup. This innate aggression has very real and necessary applications (so I’m not trying to vilify boys at all*), but within the confines of modern life – most particularly within the educational process – it can be a challenge for boys to find an appropriate outlet for this energy.  In this technological age, boys’ natural physicality is often frustrated, and if parents aren’t really intentional about channelling that energy and teaching their boys how to be gentle and nurturing as well, this negligence can have many negative results. We also need to be deliberate and diligent in showing our boys how to contain those aggressive instincts when necessary, if we are interested in avoiding the necessity of making regular prison visits in our retirement years.

When I had my first two sons, I was determined that they weren’t going to be stereotypical ‘caveman’ males – my boys wouldn’t be rough and loud and rude.  I decided that we weren’t going to buy them any weapons and we would discourage the wrestling and aggressive romping in which we often saw brothers participating. But, like puppies, they began tousling together from an early age; and in spite of a dearth of ‘real’ weapons and an absence of violent media, they found ways of roughing one another up.  This physicality in their play has only increased as we’ve added to their numbers.  I have come to the conclusion that even if we lived on a desert island they’d still end up bashing each other with palm fronds and throwing coconuts at one another.  They’re not generally rude, but rough and loud just seem to go with the territory.

As I touched on above, something that can either mitigate or accentuate boys’ predisposition towards more aggressive behaviour is how they are brought up. When confronted with a gang (gaggle? mess?  murder? I’m never sure what the appropriate plural term for boys should be) of sons, most mothers’ first concern is naturally to ‘manage’ them – so sometimes the whole ‘nurturing’ part of parenting ends up getting tossed out like the proverbial baby in the bathwater as Mamma goes into survival mode.

A friend (herself the mother of four boys) told me about an acquaintance of hers who grew up in an all-boys family (I think there were more than four of them – maybe six?): his mother used to feed them their breakfast cereal in what amounted to a trough – just one huge bowl with a spoon for each boy.  I’m not sure whether my friend expected me to be impressed or horrified by the story.  I was a little of both.  These kinds of tales are lore within the all-boys club, to which I and a number of my friends belong, and there is a sense of kinship in the telling and sharing of them.  Before there were all these ‘life hacks’ going around on the internet, there were mothers of boys passing on the wisdom of their experiences to other mothers walking this path.

Not all boys are the same, of course.  A’s music teacher has two young sons whom she just leaves to play upstairs while the class is going on in a ground-floor room.  Either she’s turning a blind eye to their potential criminality or they are actually obedient, self-controlled kids.  Of course, there are only two of them.  It’s hard for the dynamics of a ringleader and a single follower to culminate in the realisation of devilish schemes.

Speaking of which, I think it is partly this phenomena of ringleaders and followers that crops up when groups of boys are together that causes the uniformity of the results when they’re grown.  Maybe the likelihood of boys in a large all-boys family ending up as positively productive or negatively notorious depends on the inclination of the boy who takes on the largest ‘ringleader’ role in their midst.  Because it seems to me that there does tend to be an instigator for most shenanigans, even if the co-conspirators are equally to blame by the end of the whole thing – and in those families where the boys are all model citizens and are uniformly pleasant to be around, dependable, and all the rest of it, there tends to be a strong leader towards that end as well.

When I think about that and I remember the early-morning candy raids, the flooding of the bathroom, the putty-in-the-bed-linens episode, and other noteworthy events in my boys’ history, it’s easy to imagine that we are doomed.  I might as well start saving up for bail money.

In addition to my sons’ noteworthy departures from upstanding behaviour, there is the fact that all the families I know with four boys around the ages of mine are raising them admirably; this leads me to believe, statistically-speaking, that we are most likely to end up with a gang of goons.

But then I see my boys sprawled together on the couch watching TV; I witness the hand-holding as they walk down the hallway at school; I feel a squeeze on my heart as I watch them give each other a bear-hug; I remember all the kindnesses they show to us and to each other – and I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to end up with some ‘goodies’ after all.

Either that or one day you’ll be reading all about my gang of goons in the paper.

*Check out Matt Walsh’s blog for an excellent article on how our society has demonised the natural behaviour of boys.

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Family Harmony, Parenting

Juggling

juggling by gabriel rojas hruska on flickr

I’ve often heard Mums complaining about ‘the juggle’ – trying to stay on top of a thousand weekly activities for their kids, meeting the demands of work and/or household, and being there physically and emotionally for everyone in the family.

Juggling, it seems, is a ‘must do’ activity for mothers everywhere.  There even seems to be a sense of competition between parents when it comes to how many activities we can squeeze into each week; some mothers seem to derive great satisfaction from being up with the crows to get their sons to hockey and being on the go, with multiple demands and diverse directions for all of their activities, until Girl Guides/soccer/baseball finishes last thing at night.  But here’s the thing:  Juggling is a circus act.  And I’m not in the circus (the zoo, maybe, but definitely not the circus).  I can admire juggling and those who are capable of managing it, as I would any spectator sport – but I’m not jumping into the ring to try my hand at it.  I’m out.

My reasons for not being willing to engage in this most stressful of feats are many.  For starters, my grip on sanity is tenuous at best – add a whole lot of ‘where/when/how’ factors and a rowdy bunch of little boys to ferry hither and thither, and I’m likely to end up in a padded room with one way doors (tempting, at times, if they’d offer room service and some good reads…).  I get crazy – and I mean certifiably, jabberingly, jitteringly loonie – when I have to rush and dash from place to place.  Yeah, it’s going to be a smooth transition to senility for me; but I’m not about to engage in something that’ll accelerate the whole process.

Here’s one of the great benefits of having ‘too many kids’:  it’s just impossible, financially and practically, to give them ‘every opportunity’ that comes along.  This means that, each term, we figure out what’s most important to the boys and we try to do those things.  Sometimes we have to miss out on stuff – if it’s a parent-participation thing and I’ve got the baby and the other boys and it clashes with my Mum’s schedule (as she’s my gracious and willing helper many weekdays), then we just can’t make it happen.  If we can’t fit at least a couple of the boys into any particular activity, in general, we don’t do it.

Of course, where possible, we do create opportunities for our guys to have experiences that they are especially keen on: B. is really interested in art, so he got to go to a studio for some drawing sessions one term; C. loves swimming, so we found him an evening class one semester when the others were desperate for a break from their lessons (swimming’s a life skill in my book, so that’s one thing that is usually on the agenda – not that it does much good, because A. has been doing lessons since he was in nappies and he is still only about one level above drowning).

I do enjoy the break from being in the house when we have things on in the afternoons, though, particularly if the weather is cold or wet – and I’ll admit that it lends a certain rhythm to the week to have some things on the agenda.  So I’m not trying to set myself up as some sort of poster child for Activity-Free Parenting or something.  It’s just that I really value our home-time, as masochistic as that may sound for any of you who have actually seen me at home with my kids.

As you’ll have deduced from my last post, it’s not as if I’m anxious for time at home in order to accomplish all my housework.  But there are benefits to being at home, even for us.  When we’re at home, I have the chance to observe the interactions between my boys and thus to offer helpful pointers towards better socialization, such as ‘Hug more, bite less,’ ‘Ask, don’t grab,’ and my personal favourite, ‘Keep your tongue to yourself.’  It’s only by being at home that we really get to work on the interpersonal stuff between family members.  And if we find ourselves with a yawning void between 3 pm and 5:30 (when Westley makes the long commute upstairs from work), I am forced to come up with some boredom-busters or encourage the boys to get creative – which, although I am reluctant to admit it, is another plus to not being a juggler.

By having some time at home, we can just manage to stay on top of A.’s meagre homework requirements and the recommended reading time for B. (and C.).  And the baby gets to nap when he needs to nap – a miracle considering the cacophony of background noises that is the usual soundtrack to his day-sleeps!  I get to have the odd cup of tea (nuked once or twice in the microwave between gulps, because it’s only a treat if it’s hot), the boys get to play with their toys and each other – in short, all is right with the world.

Life is a balance – and parenting young kids involves a constant balancing act.  I’m not saying I’ve got it right yet – I do admire people who find the energy to get out and ferry their kids to all sorts of fun activities (especially if those activities bring them joy and balance in their own family lives). I’d love to be better at just getting the boys outside more and being more willing to organize on-the-fly playdates (I have a rule that they can’t ask on the day they want the playdate – but realistically it usually takes me a good week to sort myself out to acquiesce, even if I’m not hosting)…  But balance can be achieved, and of course I believe it to be more likely that I’ll periodically find and maintain balance if I’m not also trying to keep a whole lot of balls in the air.  Juggling, you see, is a circus act.

And I’m just not interested in joining the circus.

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The irony, of course, is that in order to find some time and create some headspace to finish this post, I had to grab West by the collar and order him to Just. Take. Them. Out. this afternoon.  Consider this full-disclosure.

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