Keeping It Real

At least once every couple of weeks two things happen: someone will comment about what a wonder woman or inspiration I am and I will fail spectacularly at some aspect of life.  Clearly there is a disparity – sometimes of chasm proportions – between people’s perceptions of me and my reality.

I absolutely do not set out to convince people that I am some sort of incredible individual who has all of her ducks in neat and pretty serried rows.  Each and every time someone compliments me, I am flabbergasted and don’t really know how to respond because it is unexpected.  And also because I have never really learned how to graciously accept a compliment.  Anyway, I am not deliberately presenting a facade to the world or hiding my shortcomings from public view but somehow, nevertheless, people have this perception of me that is far removed from the reality.

When I first started blogging (over four years ago!), I made a promise to myself that I would “keep it real” on this blog.  My original intention had been to maintain the blog as a sort of diary of my early experiences of life in a new country so it would have totally undermined the purpose had I finessed the truth.  Obviously I now maintain my blog(s) for other reasons but I still hold to that aim of presenting the reality of what my experiences are, sometimes red in tooth and claw.  Clearly, I don’t write about the mundane reality of my everyday life.  My readers don’t need to know that my sock orphanage, where all the unaccompanied single socks accumulate, is currently a mountainous stockpile.  Nor do they need to know that I spend every single weekday morning yelling the same script at my children who must surely be bored by now of my voice loudly hectoring them to put on shoes and coats and pick up backpacks and lunch bags.  I yell so loudly that I understood entirely why my new neighbours, when we first moved into our house, knew the name of my youngest son without the need for introductions.

People seem to perceive me as being super-organised, efficient, a fantastic time-keeper, with an ability to juggle multiple and varied draws on my free time while somehow, miraculously, still having time for art and other hobbies.  Many of those things used to be true of me.  Before I had kids, I was anal retentive with my organisation and punctuality.  I was notorious for my To Do spreadsheets and my colour-coded everything.  However, as my life became more complex, I had to choose between maintaining that level of efficiency or my sanity .  These days I am still a massive control freak but one who regularly freaks out amid the chaos I have little to no control over.

The truth is that I am perpetually frazzled, am prone to yelling because I am apparently hard-wired to associate assertiveness with volume, and frequently over-scheduled.  I experience regular spikes of anxiety because of running late or barely making it on time when punctuality is one of my neuroses.  I juggle many balls and fail to keep them all in the air.  Frequently I drop the ones that can safely bounce; regularly I drop the ones that smash and need cleaning up; and ever so often I just drop all the balls everywhere.

And the truth about how I find time for my hobbies, especially art, isn’t that I am massively efficient with my time or am spectacularly whizzy at getting things done – though I do work fast.  The truth is that I make time for those things by sacrificing other things ranging from dusting to TV viewing to sleep.  I confess I sacrifice dusting a lot.  Furthermore, there are times when my scheduling of “me time” goes spectacularly wrong – such as times when we end up having the most random, cobbled together dinners because I forgot to prep a key ingredient in advance.

I am often in the midst of a scheduling mess.  Back in November, I had a day where I had to be in three places at once.  I am used to problem solving being in two places at once but three was just too much.  It was head-imploding crazy.  And then my oldest son asked if he could be dropped off at the cinema as if it was no big deal to add in being in a fourth place at once.  Clearly my kids think I have super powers too.

Then there was the day when I was already up against it at the thought of having to get my two youngest sons to the orthodontist for 3.30 only to receive a phone call asking where we were since the first appointment was actually 1.30.  This necessitated me dropping everything – literally since I was doing laundry at the time –  quickly organising myself while calling the school secretary to ask for the boys to be whipped out of their classrooms and ready and waiting for me at reception, and driving rapidly to the school to pick them up, and then to the orthodontists’ office.

And, in another orthodontist related example, there was the recent day when my youngest son finished getting his braces fitted at 3pm only to have snapped them by 4pm simply by fidgeting with the wires.  Coincidentally, he snapped them at precisely the minute that the orthodontist is supposed to close up shop for the weekend.  We quickly dashed back to the office in the hopes they had not totally packed up and gone home, which luckily they had not.  I cannot tell a lie – yelling was involved.

Yes, as previously stated, I am a yeller.  I yell a lot.  My kids turn it into white noise so I don’t know why I do it.  Cathartic primal screaming maybe.  When Pennsylvania experienced an earthquake on 30 November, for a fraction of a second I thought it may have been caused by my frustrated rage at supervising hideous mathematics homework.

So, yeah, I am not some wonder woman or role model of togetherness.  I will keep accepting praise and compliments when they are given but – for the sake of keeping it real – please know that my successes are absolutely balanced out by my failures.


Parent Fail is out for Summer

Today is the first full day of the summer break from school.  It is the first full day because really the summer break started yesterday except my kids had to be in school for two hours.  A whole two hours.  No sooner had I dropped my three Elementary kids off than my Middle Schooler was arriving home.  Pointless.  Anyway, today is the first proper day of the school break and I am every bit as excited about it as the kids.

Ten long weeks stretch ahead of us.  As a natural born pessimistic-realist, I know that being together 24/7 will lead to squabbles and frustrations, annoyance and irritation.  I know there will be yelling (by me) and I will experience rising stress levels trying to get chores done around the house with four kids under my feet and while said kids trail behind me scuzzing up everything I just tidied and cleaned.  I know that by the end of week five, my four boys will be veering between being best buddies who love each other to pieces to having to suppress the urge to poke each other’s eyes out and rip each other’s limbs off.  I will experience the untold joy of refereeing these special moments to ensure that everyone’s physical being remains intact.  I don’t need the stress of hospital visits or the additional chore of cleaning up blood after all.

But, despite all of this, I am still excited because we will get such a massive chunk of quality time together and the freedom to do the things we want when we want to do them.  No clock watching, no conflicting schedules, no deadlines.  I will be back in control and I am a super control freak so that is a good thing.  My rate of Parent Fails ought to taper off too because I will only be having to meet my own expectations.

I experience Parent Fail a lot these days.  With four kids in two different schools, I have a lot of stuff to juggle.  There’s a lot of homework to oversee, a great deal of demands, and inevitably I drop some of those many balls I am juggling.  Sometimes the balls roll into a dark and dusty corner and get forgotten about altogether.

This is a new experience for me.  Back home in Scotland I somehow managed to keep my head above water, stay organised and ensure everyone had what they needed at the right times.  In part that was because all of my school aged kids were in one school.  They also had much less homework to do and fewer demands were placed on parents as a result.  I am all for more homework and homework that is more diverse but it definitely adds more stress to after school time and supplies me with ample opportunities to fail.  It is, for instance, not unusual for me to write on Math homework that X kid could not complete that question because they asked me for help and I did not understand the question either.  Between different vocabulary, a generation gap way of doing things and ambiguous phrasing, even Third Grade Math can make me feel functionally innumerate.  Sixth Grade Math is an alien language.

Part of my issue is that I am still adjusting to solo parenting.  Just to make it clear, I am not a single parent and would never compare my experience to that of a single parent.  What I am adjusting to is solo parenting because I am having to handle most of the childcare on my own for the first time.  One of the benefits of living in a small, rural community back in Scotland was that my husband’s regular commute was five minutes door to door.  He was home in time to eat dinner with us, could use flexi time to nip out from work and attend a school event and was around to help with homework stuff.  Now his commute is longer (though still not long – especially not compared to what it was when he worked in London) and he works much longer hours and he also does a lot more out-of-state travelling.  I am, therefore, juggling all of the everyday balls solo.  Balls get dropped.  Parent Fails happen.

I used to be famous – maybe notorious – for my punctuality.  Back in my teaching days, I was so neurotic about the possibility I might be late that I once turned up for a conference so early that I helped the hotel set up the conference room.  About five years ago, I was so eager to be on time for a Child Protection training event that I arrived to find the venue locked up and in darkness.  There was one time when my watch stopped and I consequently did not arrive at school in time to collect my children.  The school staff and one of my friends reassured my sons that I would be there soon at the same time as assuming I must have been in some sort of mangling, incapacitating accident because I was never late for anything ever.  My oldest son later confided that he thought I must be dead because I was never late ever.  These days, however, “Apologies for being late” is a regular part of my phrase book.  Every time I have to utter that phrase, I feel less like my old self.

Every packed lunch I have made since April has been identical: peanut butter and jam sandwich with a piece of fruit, a fig bar and a bottle of water.  I ran out of motivation and ideas long before the PBJ rut kicked in but I dug deep until my cup of caring ran dry.  Honestly, the kids have not complained, not once.  That makes me wonder why I previously bothered to offer any variety.  It is so much easier just to do the PBJ production line each morning.  Still makes me feel like a Parent Fail, however.  I have forgotten probably as many as 75% of special dress days at school.  We arrive in the morning and I wonder why everyone is wearing crazy hats and then a vague memory clinks in the musty recesses of my brain that it’s Crazy Hat and Hair day and not one of my kids has anything other than their everyday head on.  Parent Fail.  Recently, I picked up an email reminder from my youngest’s teacher about the next morning’s egg drop.  Reminder?  I had not even the fuzziest recollection of anything involving eggs or dropping.  No distant bells ringing.  Nothing.  Having picked up this email at bedtime, I had to pluck the smallest Pictling back out of bed and ask him to figure out how we could protect his egg and save it from cracking and splattering when dropped from the roof of the school.  His idea involved military engineering and a whole collection of materials we did not possess at all.  Want to know what we came up with?  An odd sock from Mrs Pict’s Home for Orphan Socks stuffed to bursting with cotton wool with the raw egg encased in its centre.  Do you think it survived the drop? Of course not.  Parent Fail.  My finest moment of this school year, however, was when I ran out of bread and improvised by making peanut butter and jam sandwiches with strawberry brioche.  As much as my kids sang my praises and hoped this would be a regular thing, that was definitely a big Parent Fail.

Therefore, the prospect of a whole ten weeks when we can largely do our own thing without having to meet anyone else’s expectations, remember deadlines, fulfil anyone else’s projects, contribute to events, figure out the logistics of schedule clashes, is a joyful one.  One of the things we are going to do is a little homeschool style learning project to keep everyone’s brains ticking over which means I get to impose structure on the kids.  Nobody, however, is imposing structure on me.  Control Freak Parent is back in charge.  Boom!  More crucially, when I inevitably stumble into Parent Fails, nobody outside the Pict family need know about them.  Freedom to fail in private.  Ssssh!

Having reflected on my most mediocre mothering moments, however, I shall conclude this (rambling) post with the successes of this school year: everyone secured really good grades, everyone had fun times, everyone is healthy and everyone is alive.  Despite brioche sandwiches.



Thwarting Summer Break Insurrections

My boys are one week into Summer break.  In Scotland, Summer break was approximately six weeks long; here in Pennsylvania the Summer break is ten weeks long.  That month difference could prove significant.

Today, for instance, I have already had to thwart some insurrections.  My kids get “electronics time” twice a week with bonus time some weekends.  Today is one of those days when they can play the computer or a games console.  The rule is that they can have a couple of hours in the afternoon.  My oldest interpreted that as meaning that at noon precisely he could jump on the computer and lose himself in Minecraft.  Despite informing him, several times, that I would determine when electronics time commenced and that certainly it would be after we had eaten lunch, he was checking the various clocks in the house every few minutes.  He then decided to launch a legal case that “afternoon” literally meant “after noon” and that, therefore, I was being unjust and that he should be able to switch the computer on as soon as the minute hand moved past the 12.  That’s not the type of law we practice around here.  That attempted revolution was put down.  Meanwhile – because my kids launch attacks at me like velociraptors – my other three sons were trying to flout my “outside time” rule.  I told all four that they had to play outside in the fresh air for a while.  I should have been more specific clearly because every few minutes they were asking me when they could go back inside.  Next time I will set an alarm.  And booby trap the doors.  This is because, as I was working in the house upstairs, the three younger ones were sneaking into the house downstairs.  I, therefore, had to defeat that rebellion too.

This is just day seven of the summer break.

The usual pattern of our summer breaks was that we would sludge around, recovering from a busy school year, for the first few days; we would then embark on trips out and about to castles and standing stones and forests and lochs on the sunny days and would play games and watch movies on the rainy days; we would have a break away from our own four walls and for Mr Pict a break from work by going to visit my in-laws in England for a couple of weeks; and throughout it all I would be “homeschooling” the boys by working on a themed project.  In creating such a programme, I not only got to be an anal-retentive, control-freak, colour-coded diagrams and spreadsheets mother to my heart’s content, but my kids were always kept busy, engaged and stimulated.  That was how I prevented anarchy: keep the colonies so busy that they can’t find time or energy to organise a rebellion.  I also organised the learning projects to prevent recidivism in their learning over the Summer break.

But that was for five or six weeks.  This year I have to fill ten weeks with fun and activities, keeping my potential rebels engaged, keep their brain matter charged.  In some respects, it should be easier.  The weather is more consistent and certainly more accurately predicable here which means I can make plans for trips without those plans being thwarted or go for treks wearing appropriate clothing rather than, as we used to have to do, dressing for the beach while also packing wet weather gear.  Now that we live in the suburbs of a major city rather than a small and remote town, we have easier and quicker access to a wider range of activities – such as the cinema and museums – to add to our usual outings for walks and explorations.  However, ten weeks is still a lot of time to fill.

Furthermore, this year I have decided not to organise a homeschooling summer project.  This is a decision I may live to regret.  In previous years we learned about, for example, the continents, about knights and castles and two years ago I put together a massive project on each of the 50 United States plus Washington DC  – which has subsequently proved handy.  Last year – knowing our summer was going to be disrupted by a whole lot of immigration hoo ha and that our possessions were being packed up and shipped – we decided to create animated movies using lego so the kids got to storyboard, direct, build, film and edit stories (they chose recreations of Universal’s monster movies).  This year I was going to teach them History of Art.  However, my parents are visiting for the whole of July and the boys’ other grandparents are visiting in August so we will be busy touring around with them plus hopefully packing up and moving (yet again) so I decided – in my myopic wisdom – to keep things simple.  Instead, we would pick up our curtailed lego animation project and work on it again.

One week in, however, and I am remembering the other reason why I homeschooled my kids so intensely: they need structure and routine and order.  They are not kids who thrive on endless flexibility and freedom.  That way chaos lies.  Essentially they are my children, products of my nurturing.  They now need the lesson plans, lists and spreadsheets as much as I do.  Oh dear.  Oh dear because now it is too late.  I cannot put together an entire learning programme, gather materials and organise resources without a lot of planning time.  This year, therefore, we are going to have to wing it.  Hopefully between all of the trips we will be taking with their various grandparents, including a short vacation, and the fact that the school has provided them with packs of math and literacy work, they will be kept occupied enough to not plot a coup against me.

But I am going to start planning next Summer’s History of Art project as soon as they return to school in September.