The trials and tribulations of Kate, mother

Golden Hour Swing

Don’t let those innocent faces fool you. I’m on to them.

In the past week, a couple things have happened in my world.

First, we learned that our 5 1/2-year-old needs a nap after school. Luckily, it only took us two days to realize what was going on. Unluckily, we haven’t figured out how to make it really work yet, so sometimes it happens, and sometimes…it doesn’t.

Second, I’d had it up to HERE (envision the hand at the hairline) with being ignored. For example: that blasted black sock was STILL sitting on the living room floor THREE DAYS and FIVE REMINDERS after first being pointed out/instructed to put it away.

I was not happy. Not happy at all.

Saturday morning, I cornered the kids in the van, where they were all seatbelted in and couldn’t get away, and I announced (calmly) (mostly) a change in procedures in our house. From now on, I will give an instruction one time. If I have to give it again, the consequence will be an extra chore. Two reminders = two extra chores. Three strikes and you’ve lost your screen time for the day.

That was 9:30 a.m. By lunchtime, Michael had lost his screen time.

On Sunday, Nicholas made it to two strikes. Even though we had a conversation about it while he was doing the job I’d given him.

(What kind of conversation, you say? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s a strong-willed child insight: “So,” he says, as he’s sllllooooowwwwwwllly doing what I told him and getting his a) loose change, b) wallet, c) ear buds, d) book off the table so I can set for dinner. “So…do we get three strikes every day? Or do they just add up till we hit three?” Would you like to know where I found all that stuff? On the stairs. Still not put away. Envision me pounding my head against the nearest hard surface.)

But wait! There’s more! Sign up today and for absolutely free (oh wait, this isn’t an infomercial? my bad) you’ll get Miss Julianna on Sunday afternoon, trying to sneak extra iPad time by closing the door to the boys’ room so I wouldn’t hear it talking to her.

And that night, in what is becoming almost a nightly pattern, we came upstairs to go to bed and found Nicholas and Michael having a sleepover on their floor.

As my husband is known to say, when told of his children’s latest and greatest exploits:


In Which A Recovering Social Loser Processes Her Kids’ Social Status (or lack thereof)


Photo by  Laura Barberis, via Flickr

Elementary school and junior high were no picnic.

I had my first breakup in the fifth grade, and it wasn’t even a romantic relationship. My best friend…okay, let’s be honest, my only friend…came over while I was sharpening my pencil by the coat rack and said, “I think we should be friends with other people.”

She used those exact words. I was too young and dumb to realize that actually meant I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.

For a year, I didn’t have any friends at all.

I was always picked last.

I never got the jokes. (Full disclosure? Sometimes I still don’t.)

I was only invited to birthday sleepovers because it was a Catholic school rule that everyone had to be invited. And people made fun of me when I was out of the room. I heard them.

High school was a fresh start for me, and three of the four years were basically good. Sophomore year was terrible, start to finish. But even during the good years, when people said, “These are the best years of your life,” I shook my head inside and chose to believe they were just being idiotic adults.

Most of the time, adults knew what they were talking about, but in this case, I’m happy to say, the teenager knew more than they did. Thank God. In college I finally found my people—the classical music crowd—but it took full-on adulthood to reach a point where I feel like I am happy with who I am and I exist in a community of people who understand me.

Frankly, I think it has a lot to do with being happily married. A child’s emotional stability, that sense of belonging, gets rocked by the onset of adolescence, and you spend the next ten to twenty years trying to find a new place where “home” means the safety you knew as a young child. Just sitting here thinking about it, I grieve for the children who never know that sense at all, and for the adults who never found it again. And, frankly, for the list of people for whom high school was the best time in their lives. Shudder. Imagine if life never got any better than that.

Why this traipse through the ghosts of angsts long past? Because now I get to experience it in a whole new way. More than one of my children is currently experiencing some variation of the not-good-enough that defined my later childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Probably it defines those parts of everybody’s lives, but in adolescence, those of us who inhabit the bottom of the social totem pole—not good at sports, not cool, viewing primping as a waste of good superhero-drawing/reading/writing/music practice time—feel that our faces are rubbed in our inadequacies quite frequently. Who knows? Maybe it’s harder to navigate those insecurities at the stratospheric end of the totem pole, because you are trying to keep up appearances when you feel like a fraud. Maybe I should be grateful for the spiritual/emotional/intellectual honesty of having had nothing to prove—both for myself and my children.

But it’s hard to see your kids suffer. As much as I value being outside the mainstream on, well, let’s face it, just about everything, I know how it hurts to be looked at like you’re somehow less valuable for it.

What I am grateful for is the fact that so far my kids want to talk to me about it. Because I’ve thought long and hard on these questions over the years, and for that reason I don’t fall back on the useless and maddening platitudes that adults used when I was a kid. Because we can use the experience as an ongoing opportunity for lessons in mercy, in recognizing how every situation is more complex than it feels, and in keeping the focus on Jesus.

And mostly, because it lets me love my kids really hard.

Parenthood: A Series of Un-Winnable Battles


Photo by quinn.anya, via Flickr

It’s happening more and more often these days. I find myself frustrated with something my kids are doing (or not doing), saying (or not saying), and I think: Did we act like this when I was a kid? How did my parents deal with this?

There are long stretches of life when you sort of glide through life and you feel like you’re basically doing okay. There are bumps in the road, but they’re just that. Not crises. Just little bumps.

And then there are times when you see what your kids are doing and you think, Did I cause this? Is this my fault? Am I somehow teaching them this appalling behavior without realizing it?

Those days, it’s really easy to feel like a failure as a parent, and not even really know why.

My kids fight a lot in general, but it seems much worse lately. They’re all in each other’s business. The mantra of my early-childhood-parenting years– “You take care of you” –seems to have lost its effectiveness. My entire life seems to consist of statements like, “It is NOT your business to tell your brother to eat his vegetables!” and “Did I ask you, or did I ask your sister?”

It goes without saying that they are calling out their siblings’ misdeeds while blissfully (or willfully) ignoring their own transgressions.

Worst of all is yelling at one of them for being a bossy busybody, and then having to turn to the victim of the bossing and tell them the bossy busybody was right. I mean, that’s a no-win situation! I have to choose between affirming Busybody’s busybody-ness or letting Lazy child get away with Laziness!

And it all escalates, and parental tempers short out, sometimes in public, and it’s embarrassing and potentially relationship-damaging, and I circle back to this question:

How did we get here? What did I do to make it happen? Because it surely has to be something I did!

My middle- and high-school journals are filled with the word “lecture.” As in, complaints about parental lectures. Remembering this, I’ve tried really hard to keep my own parental lectures compact. I don’t want them to tune me out; if all I’m doing is flinging verbiage at a reflective surface, I’ll only increase my own frustration.

But it’s hard, because I’m so sick of giving the same instructions over and over and over and over. How many times have I told children to flush the toilet and wash their hands? Why do they still need to be told this every time they exit the bathroom?

How many times have I said, “Put your shoes IN THE CUBBIES”? or “Put the toy/book AWAY,” and the first response is crickets, the second is to pick up said item and lay it on the stairs, the third is to carry it up or down the stairs and drop it on the floor?

I often feel like my parenting consists of a) instructions followed by b) the need for consequences. This is not okay. I mean, how many times a day can you take away screen time, which is the only thing they actually care about?

In the toilet training years, people are always saying, “Oh, don’t stress about it, no kid goes to kindergarten in diapers. It’ll happen.” I’ve always wanted to shake people for saying that, because kids don’t just magically do it on their own. They have to be taught—even Michael, who did sort of magically train himself, needed several months’ worth of parent-led practice first. If the parent has to lead, it’s the parent’s JOB to stress out about it.

That’s the way this feels, too. Part of me whispers, Chill, Kate. They’ll grow out of it. And then I think of families I know in which the adults really still don’t get along all that well, and I think, Um, I’m not so sure I can count on them“growing out of it.”

So Sunday morning, I did the only thing I could think of. I stopped everyone at breakfast before church—before anyone had a chance to get in someone else’s business, before there was time for an escalation, before there was time for a parental explosion—and I re-instituted the “screen time depends upon getting along with each other” rule.

On Monday, one child lost his privileges.

Tuesday is a no-screen-time day, anyway.

We shall see what happens today.

A Manifesto on Parenting


When I was newly married, I spent one year substitute teaching in the local schools. That was a very educational experience. There was the elementary school that was universally viewed as the worst in the district (it has since been closed and reopened as a Title One/gifted/Early Childhood location), which started requesting me after I worked there once, and I couldn’t figure out why. There was the first grader in a different school who dropped the f-bomb and I was so appalled, I said, “No. Not ever” in a tone of voice I’d never felt within or heard from myself before, as if some other, more authoritative, human being had momentarily possessed me. (I use that voice regularly now.)

Most importantly, there was the day I was assigned to be the second teacher supervising last-period suspension at a middle school. After the kids left, I got into a conversation with the other teacher about these troubled kids. She was telling me about research showing the damage that had been done to many kids in young childhood. It wasn’t that they were abused—it was that they were ignored, stuck in front of a TV or whatever so the parents didn’t have to be bothered. These kids had problems forming attachments and trusting authority, and for that reason they struggle with behavior and human interaction for the rest of their lives.

Her takeaway has stayed with me word for word: “By the time these kids get to kindergarten, it’s 100% unfixable, and it was 100% percent preventable.”

I did not realize it then, but these experiences were shaping me as a parent as much as anything I learned growing up. And having to wait three years to become a parent gave me an excruciatingly long time to think and process what I saw unfolding around me. I often struggled not to judge, but that’s a different topic. From then until now, I have always taken a very intentional approach to parenthood. It goes like this:

My children will know they’re loved. They’ll know it in their bodies, in their minds, in their souls, so completely at such a deep, visceral level that they won’t ever have to question it.

They will know there is right and wrong. It won’t always be simple to identify; it will usually involve shades of gray and require mercy as well as sound judgment; and more often it will be harder to do than to identify. But they will know it exists.

They will know being part of a family involves responsibility. They are valued and important, but they are not the center of the universe. This means chores and looking out for each other, even when they don’t particularly like each other. The boys, especially, are being formed in the knowledge that they have to be responsible for their sister.

I will honor their unique interests and gifts. It’s not about having them reproduce my formative experiences—or, for that matter, fulfilling my unfulfilled childhood dreams. It’s about finding who they are called to be.

Luxuries and privileges are just that—luxuries and privileges. Privileges are earned and luxuries can be enjoyed more if they’re not experienced all the time.

They will know you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to choose between good things, and just because “everybody else” does two sports and, and, and, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy lifestyle. Because…

Family and faith are #1. Being involved with church is non-negotiable, and family dinner is the rule, not the exception. Family game nights, family outings, building a community centered around the real-world practice of the faith—these are the things that keep us grounded and give us the emotional and moral strength to be good—and no less important, happy—people.

My job is to raise holy, happy adults who have the mental and physical discipline to do good things in the world. And everything I do as a parent is done with that central principle in mind.

How We Taught Our Kids To Be Good Eaters


Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr

My kids are really good eaters. I’m kind of surprised at this, frankly, because I am and always have been a pretty picky eater.

And the thing is, we approach food all “wrong,” according to all the parenting advice I ever read. We’ve almost always forced our children to finish what they’re given—unless it’s starch, because starch is filler and nobody needs to fill up on that. We’ve been very clear that you don’t get dessert until you finish all the healthy stuff. We’re “no garlic bread until you finish your vegetables” parents. Or, in Michael’s case (he’s still a work in progress, actually), the meat before the garlic bread, because he eats his vegetables like a pro.

Given my own history of pickiness, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out why my kids eat vegetables so well. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I used the book Super Baby Foods to introduce foods, and I was always very cognizant of alternating sweet foods and not-sweet foods. (Sweet potato, avocado, banana were always the first three, in order. Notice I didn’t start with the super-sweet one. And notice I didn’t start with cereals, either.)


We don’t eat a lot of this, for one thing. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

2. I made virtually all our baby food from real food, chopped up fine but not cooked beyond recognition and made into a paste. Which meant they got accustomed to the coarser texture of vegetables and meats from the beginning.

3. Kids have to eat everything they’re given, with a few exceptions. When Alex was three and gagged on mashed potatoes, for instance, I decided mashed potatoes are wasted calories anyway, I’m not going to force that. Another key is starting them on very doable portion sizes. (Vegetable portion sizes increase over time, but starting them with a couple of bites got them in the habit.)

4. For a couple of years, we served the vegetables first and everyone had to eat those before we moved on to the pasta or the steak. Christian told me he was “not fond” of this, but it worked. We haven’t had to do it in a while now.

5. I’ve also gotten into the habit of putting vegetables in almost everything. But I don’t call it “sneaking” because I’m very up front about it. “Does that have onions in it?” they ask, and I answer, “Yes. Eat them.” And they do. Likewise, “what is that red stuff?” I’ll say, “Red pepper. Eat it.”


Trying to be cognizant of this. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

6. What do I mean by vegetables in everything? Processed kale and spinach and Brussels sprouts and occasionally avocado in chili, in soups, in zucchini muffins. Spinach in smoothies. If I can figure out how to add super veggies to it without significantly changing the taste or texture, I do. And I’m very up front about it, and always have been, which means the kids take it in stride.

7. We eat a huge variety of foods, because I like to cook. We’re always trying new recipes. One of our favorite stories is that Alex once asked a friend’s mom to make him quiche. (Did I ever mention that kembalay—creme brulee—was one of his first words?) (Hmm. I haven’t made creme brulee in quite a while…)

8. We make them try almost everything, even the funky salads and stuffed mushrooms I make primarily for myself and for Christian. But these trials don’t fit into the category of “must finish.” That’s a balance of trust: they will try new things because they know if they don’t like it, they only have to eat one bite.

9. Between the ages of 3-5, we “picked” the food battles. It was unpleasant and again, we’re still fighting it with Michael, whose most common words at dinner are “I don’t like _____!” But it’s definitely paid off—even for him, because although he resists protein, he’s a terrific vegetable eater.

10. We talk about food groups a lot, so even the youngest kids are learning what constitutes a protein and knows protein and fruit/vegetables are most important, and everything else is filler. We talk about portion sizes and moderation, and when they want seconds or—especially—thirds, we ask them to think about whether they’re really hungry or not.

So far, they seem to be learning the lessons I most want them to learn.

So that’s my best guess at why my kids eat well. What’s worked for you?

The Gift I Have To Give Is Me


We just came through parent-teacher conference season again, and what we learned in Julianna’s home visit was that although she can read a page that looks like this:


her comprehension is stuck on pages that look like this:


For anything more complicated than Corduroy, I have to sit with her, read with her, and stop her at the end of every page to ask comprehension questions. Which is soul-killing work, I’m telling you. If I harbored any lingering guilt for never feeling the slightest attraction to home schooling (which I don’t), this would have done away with it. This is not my charism.

And yet…after only doing it 3 times—over the course of a week, mind you—her assessment score went up, ummmm, 100 points.


Yesterday I decided to take advantage of the hour we sit at piano lessons to catch Julianna up on her “church school” homework, which has been sitting in a growing pile on the table for weeks. Here’s a small slice:

“Telling our sins to the priest is called…what?”

Julianna: “I don’t know.”

Me: “God is willing to forgive us when we are truly sorry…never, sometimes, or always?”

Julianna: “Never.”

Me: “Um…Does God forgive us?”

Julianna: “No.”

Me: “Um…yes, sweetie, he does.” Pause to regroup.

Me: “When we pray an act of WHAT, we tell God we are sorry for our sins?”

Julianna, pointing triumphantly at the second of three options: “CONFESSION!”

Me: “No, honey. Contrition.”

Clear throat to regroup. Let’s try a different page. Oh, that one has pictures! There’s a lady at the ambo in one picture and a priest with a paten and a chalice in the other. This will be successful.

Me: “What do we call this part of the Mass? The liturgy of the…?”

Julianna: “Hours!”

Me: (befuddled that she even knows that term.)

All this has made me realize two things:

1. I have to sacrifice my time to work more with Julianna. But not just Julianna–the other kids, too. Most of my recent negativity was due to the stress of being overcommitted, but some of it was also because the kids are just ignoring the most basic lessons, spacing them out. Like “take your shoes off and put them int he cubbies when you walk inside.” Or “rinse your breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher.” I shouldn’t have to tell every person to do this at every single meal and every single house entrance—but apparently they’ve learned bad habits, and if I expect them to change, I’m going to have to grit my teeth and put some self-sacrifice into it.

2. I have to accept that Julianna’s understanding of the faith is probably going to be even farther behind her age than her reading and math skills…and it’s not the end of the world. Because she participates in the liturgy with gusto, and mystery can do its work even if she never in her life gets the finer points.

I’ve been puzzling for several weeks about what to “do” for Lent. I know I need to take time every day to “be still,” but I’ve also toyed with a Facebook fast and even a writing fast (fleetingly). In writing this post, I realize at last what my “alms” are to be this year: a gift of myself, to my children.

The Minor Frustrations Involved In Raising My Chromosomally-Gifted Girl


julianna-120When the phone rang during my oh-so-precious work time the other day, I almost decided to ignore it without even checking the caller ID. But there’s always the chance it’s somebody’s school. Which in this case, it was–Julianna’s.

It turned out there had been a minor altercation on the bus. Julianna kept touching a boy’s backpack, even after he told her to stop, and eventually some ugly things were said…involving the word “ugly,” for one…and Julianna’s feelings were hurt.

Listening to this story, I found myself torn between rolling my eyes–because this sounded exactly like a conversation that would go down in my own house–being irritated with Julianna for persisting in annoying behavior despite being told appropriately to cease and desist…and wanting to laugh.

I told the school counselor, “See, here’s the thing. It doesn’t sound like it was entirely unprovoked. I mean, I’m Julianna’s mom and I can’t tell when she really doesn’t get it, as opposed to when she’s pretending not to get it.”

She truly is a darling child, but it’s far too easy to let things slide, because with four of them, it’s hard to do it all. It seems more efficient to focus on the ones you know “get it.” We have a weekly rotation of chores, and whenever it’s Julianna’s turn to do…well, anything, but particularly sweep or mop the kitchen, I just groan, because it’s such a chore for me to make sure she does it even remotely right. And usually I’m trying to make dinner or clean or fold laundry or, rarely, write (I have to be pretty desperate, like riding a deadline, to try to write while supervising chores), and I think, Oh, we’ll get it done later, after… and it doesn’t happen at all.

bubblesIt’s the same thing when I say, “Julianna, put away these two books.” Or “Julianna, put THAT bag on the bathroom counter and THAT strap on my bed.” Or just “Julianna, go get your pajamas on.” I’m running around trying to get household things done, and she simply ignores me.

She’s learned this about me: I’m frequently juggling multiple jobs, and she can slide by without complying because I’m distracted.

Whether she knows she’s being dishonest or not is an entirely different question, and one that gives me fits. Is it a discipline issue, or not?

Then there are the orthotics. Those who follow me on Facebook know she has recently broken yet another uber-expensive brace. Fortunately, they’re covered, but I’m starting to feel very bad for the orthotist and her staff. The orthotist’s best theory is that Julianna’s heel cord is super-tight and, because the braces prevent that tightness from expressing itself, she’s putting exceptional pressure on them. So now we have two to three more orthotist appointments and regular PT to work into the schedule again.

And finally, there are the academics. Her reading assessment score went down for the first time recently. Given that reading has always been her academic strength, this was a tough thing to see. Her teachers said it was because of difficulty in comprehension–the ability to answer questions about what she had read. And the solution is for us to just practice with her more. But this means her homework, which has been independent all year, is no longer. Now I have to read with her and stop her to ask questions every page.

I’ll spare you talking about math.

Life cycles through times when things seem very smooth and times when it seems harder. And of course, usually some things are clicking along nicely while others seem very high-maintenance. I find myself second-guessing our family planning choices lately, now that the kids are all older and I really see how much more I “should” be giving to Julianna. Perhaps we should have left more space before the third child. Or cut it at three. Of course, I can’t imagine my family any way other than it is–raucous, superhero-filled, overwhelmed by togetherness and richness–but I can’t help wondering if Julianna, at least, would be better served if we were a smaller family in which her parents spent more time with intervention.

And then I shake my head and remember that having three brothers will only be good for her in adulthood, and that no matter how much intervention we did she’d still never make valedictorian and start designing rocket ships or doing brain surgery, so why am I stressing the levels of delay? Let her be who she is and let us be who we are and let us together be who we were called to be.