Beauty, Between Three and a Million Years

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When she hears music, my daughter starts to dance.
No matter what the music is,
something inside her tells her to move.

Yesterday, she heard a song humming
from the phone in the palm of my hand
and came closer to hear,
closer so she could
match her moving to the music.

Then she stopped.
Suddenly.
And looked at me.

“Mommy,” she asked,
“Does God think I’m pretty?”

She is my third child.
Three of four.
And three years old.

In eight years of parenting,
I’ve heard a lot of questions from my kids.

“Why is our house red?”
“Where is Atlanta?”
“How do clouds make rain?”

Now, instead, she asks,
“Mommy,
“does God think I’m pretty?”

It’s such a big, important question
for such a small girl
and it deserves
the best and truest answer
I can muster in the
little time she’ll give me
before this big, important moment
has passed.

In the few seconds it takes me to
quiet the music and
look into her
clear blue, questioning eyes,
her question becomes my question
and my grey-blue-green eyes go misty
and my mind starts to wander.

I see ahead into her future and
I want to warn her that,
eventually,
these silly, simple questions of her
three year-old self will not offer
the answer her 10 year old
or 16 year old
or 30 year old self
wants to hear.

Eventually the question will become,
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Does he think I’m pretty?
“Am I pretty enough?”
“Am I prettier than her?”
“Am I as pretty as I used to be?”

And,
more often than not,
the answer she speaks back to herself,
whether it’s true or not,
will be a quick,
painful
“No.”

Because,
in that moment,
whether it’s true or not,
no simple truth will seem
big enough to satisfy her big need.

But, right now,
with three years behind her
and a million years ahead
and those big, clear blue eyes
looking to me for answers,

I tell her the truth
as simply as I can.

I tell her,
“Of course, sweetheart.”

But I don’t stop there.

I tell her,
“The God of the universe–
the God who made the trees
and the rivers
and the flowers
and the mountains–
He made you
exactly the way he wanted you to be.
And when He looks down
at the world he made,
He sees you
and calls you
‘the crown of creation’
and says you are
the most beautiful of all.”

So my daughter smiles
and is satisfied with the answer
and floats away
to tell her big brother and big sister

“God thinks I’m pretty,”

and leaves me to repeat my answer again
but this time to me
because I think it’s been years–
a million years, maybe–
since I was satisfied
with such a silly, simple, honest answer.

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I’m Not A Feminist (and other things you can’t say in public)

Feminism. It’s so hot right now.

Saying “I’m not a feminist” in 2017 is an invitation to making enemies out of friends and strangers alike. And, contrary to what some believe, I do actually care quite a bit what people think of me so I’m sometimes reticent to say it out loud in mixed company.

But, alas, I am not a feminist.
Well, not really.
(Okay, it’s actually kind of complicated.)

I had a different blog once upon a time where I wrote a series about my complicated relationship with womanhood and my struggle with Biblical, cultural, and worldly definitions of femininity. If you know me in real life, I’m happy to tell you all about it, but I’d rather not get into it all here.

The short story is that, somewhere around early high school, I got really uncomfortable with “girl stuff.” It was a mixed reaction to both my insecurities as an awkward young woman, desperate for attention and affection, and my beliefs about modesty and Biblical womanhood. Rather than learn to reconcile the two, I embraced a third option: the anti-girl.

Feminism is a fun thing to flirt with when you’re a kid, especially when you don’t easily fit into whatever “girl” mold your world is currently selling. It’s liberating to be told that you don’t have to shop at a certain store or choose a certain career or kiss a certain number of boys in order to ascend to womanhood. Find your own path; chart your own course.

For me, anti-girl feminism was particularly attractive because I had never been as gentle, graceful, quiet, or pretty as my more “feminine” peers.

I could tell that Seventeen magazine was a load of garbage.
Bitch Magazine was so much cooler.

So, I bought it. Literally.

There is real power in the feminist narrative, especially when women are often misunderstood, objectified, underrepresented, abused, or flat-out ignored. But there was a point at which, for me, the narrative lost its charm.

Like any social or political movement, feminism has changed a lot since its inception. The first-wave suffragettes of yesterday gave birth to the bra burning hippie feminists of the sexual revolution who then gave birth to the third-wave, pussy-hat wearing women of 2017. For some, the third-wave is not yet enough; there is still more ground to cover.

Feminists and I may share the same anatomy (well, some of us), but I have a hard time seeing us as kin. Even when many of my dearest friends proudly wear the “feminist” label.

To a certain degree, my critique of contemporary feminism is unfair because I know that every self-proclaimed “feminist” defines her feminism differently. But at some point, it became obvious to me that the movement–loosely defined as it may be–represents a few particular values or beliefs that I can’t get behind.

To broadly generalize:

Contemporary feminism divorces sex from procreation and procreation from marriage*. It promotes perpetually baby-free sex (through birth control and abortion) as an essential “freedom” and sex, in general, as a basic human right.

Contemporary feminism confuses sexual autonomy with sexual insensitivity. It flaunts sexual freedoms and tells women they owe not an ounce of modesty, decency, or deference to anyone. It gives them warrant to use their sexuality for control, manipulation, pay-back, and attention.

Contemporary feminism divorces womanhood from motherhood. It takes extra measure to establish a woman’s identity apart from the very thing that defines her as a “woman” rather than a “man”: the capacity for bearing children**. It devalues the work inherent in mothering, promoting the pursuit of a career in its place, relegating the nurturing work of mothering to everyone but the mother herself.

Contemporary feminism is predicated on the lie of a great, global anti-woman conspiracy. It sees the bogey-man of The Patriarchy*** as the world’s great evil and perceives even the common courtesies of good men as aggression. It is insecure and plagued by one-upmanship, often seeking to position itself in places of power above–not equal to–men.

These, in short, are the things I simply cannot get behind.

But, you may say, “Feminism is so much more than that!”

Yes! I agree!

Contemporary feminism is also fighting for:
– comprehensive sex ed
– better maternity and postpartum care
– an end to sex and domestic-worker trafficking
– stronger support systems for low-income mothers
– educational opportunities around the world
– help for victims of domestic and sexual abuse
– equal pay for equal work
and so much more.

And, trust me, I do get angsty about women’s issues like these. I am a woman, after all. And a mother. And I want to help build a just and equitable world for myself and my daughters. But I likely disagree with many of my feminist peers about how a just and equitable world is accomplished. Insofar as the feminist agenda revolves around dismantling the nuclear family, redefining womanhood, and dodging motherhood, I will always be an outsider. Mostly by choice.

 

The expectations and limitations of womanhood are complicated and, apparently, extra difficult for people like me. My thoughts on womanhood have evolved significantly since I was a kid, but there is still a lot of my younger Anti-Girl self left inside. Maybe that will always be my most honest expression of womanhood. Maybe not.

My hope is that I move closer and closer to reconciling those two parts of me–the awkward young woman, desperate for attention and affection, and my beliefs about modesty and Biblical womanhood. Because, though I may not raise my daughters as “feminists,” I am raising them to be women. And I am preparing them to embody more than the modern narrative of womanhood that is reduced to power struggles, sex, fashion, and gossip.

Hopefully, they will have it a little easier than I did.
Hopefully, we will have a better world awaiting them when they get there.

 

 

 

 

 

*Footnote: I do not believe that all people must marry and have children, nor that every sexual encounter much be procreative. But I do believe that monogamous sex and fruitful marriages are the paradigm for family structure and a foundation of society.

**Footnote: I do not believe infertility makes a woman less of a “woman,” by definition.

***Footnote: I do believe that there absolutely exist evil men who hate women. But I do not believe that these men are mounting a conspiracy against women. Nor do I believe that Patriarchy is an evil in and of itself.

 

The Season of Perpetual Motherhood

My oldest child will turn 8 next month (!!). I had a daughter 2.5 years later. Another daughter 2 years after that. And I’m due to have another son any day (any moment) now.

In all, I’ve spent about 8.5 years pregnant and breastfeeding, physically connected in one way or another to children who are dependent on me as their primary caregiver. Yes, I’ve worked part-time during most of those years and I have spent a few hours away from them a few days a week. But, practically speaking, motherhood and its demands and responsibilities have been my primary vocation for 8.5 years. With my new baby’s arrival imminent, I can count on at least 2 more years of the same.

I am 34 years old and this is my season of (what sometimes seems like) perpetual motherhood.

Definition time: By “perpetual motherhood,” I mean the willingness to continue in a constant state of pregnancy and child-rearing as one’s primary role and responsibility, in contrast with women who “take a few years off” from their lives and careers to have one or two kids before returning to other responsibilities.

Life update: A few months ago, I quit my “day job.”

As a matter of principal, I’ve never worked full-time since my first child was born. But, the economics of our family situation being what they were, I was blessed (100x blessed) to already be in a job with an organization that valued me enough to allow me the flexibility to transition into a super part-time role. Once I got pregnant with Baby #4, I knew that the logistics of my job were going to be impossible to juggle and I finally took the leap into official unemployment. (Which isn’t even honestly true since I work as a freelance writer from home.)

Specifics aside, the past few months since my transition out of work have forced a lot of difficult soul-searching about this season of life and about how it has grown and challenged me. It’s still new to me and I haven’t finished processing it all, but I’m 40+ weeks pregnant and feeling bold enough to share.

The truth about perpetual motherhood is that

It’s isolating.

In the 21st Century, I don’t have all that many peers. I don’t blame other women for not wanting to choose this road with me, but I sometimes feel like I’m an island in a sea of moms who paid their full-time mothering dues for a few years, but have moved past this season into more interesting and exciting things–even if that’s just more time alone or with others, without their kids. I, conversely, spend almost 100% of my time in the company of young children. And it’s surprisingly lonely.

It’s hard to make and keep friends.

I may talk up being an introvert an awful lot, but being an introvert means less about “liking people” and more about desiring close, meaningful relationships rather than casual ones. Being an introverted mother means sometimes feeling physically smothered by children who you truly enjoy and love desperately but who simply cannot (and should not) meet your mental and emotional needs. But it means not having the social energy to pursue the relationships you desire with other women, especially those in a different season of life than you.

And it’s hard to connect with your husband.

Parenting together is the most amazing and frustrating task a couple can undertake. Watching the man you love become a father is like watching a new part of him come to life. And it’s fantastic. But it’s not enough. My husband and I have spent nearly all of our married life with children. And those first few years were rough in ways we never acknowledged until recently. Learning to connect as “us” before “us with kids” is really, really important and, if you never really have enough time to make it happen before you’re “with kids,” then it’s even harder to make it happen after the fact. Especially when you keep adding kids to the picture and you have to start all over again with each new baby.

Choosing motherhood requires much more personal sacrifice than I anticipated.

The world of business executive husbands and nannies aside, most of the perpetual mothers I know have given up an awful lot for their decisions. They sacrifice careers (along with their income potential and financial independence). They give up their bodily autonomy and self-care for the sake of carrying and caring for babies. They lay aside creative aspirations, life goals, and dreams of worldly success. They give up time with their husbands who often work longer and harder and more so their wives won’t need to. They give up yearly vacations and extravagant gifts and $75 steaks because they’ve re-negotiated wants vs. needs. And, whether these children come by birth or by fostering or adopting, these parents have already reconciled one fact: this is not a temporary situation. This is the life we’ve chosen.

And it’s impossible to ask for, or expect, sympathy.

No one forced me to do this. It was our decision to have kids right away. To have four of them. My decision to breastfeed them for what seems like forever. To homeschool. To quit my job. To live an urban lifestyle we can’t really afford. To support my husband’s decision to work for a non-profit rather than make big bucks elsewhere. (Etc.)

I chose this life because I believe it is good for my kids and valuable work for me and the best for our family. I never expected it to be easy. (Geez, can you imagine the disappointment that would have caused!?)

I am not a victim and I don’t need sympathy.

But I also wish I didn’t feel so alone in my decision. Invalidated by a culture that sees motherhood as a job you take on the side. Left behind by my peers. Isolated from other moms who are living similar lives, like islands, alone with their gaggles of children.

 

 

I know a lot of awesome moms who have made very different decisions than me for very good reasons. And, here in the thick of things, I can understand why they would. I may not agree with a woman’s decision to be a “career mom,” but I know for a fact that it is a hard decision and carries a lot of difficult implications, as well.

All good moms see themselves as “full-time moms” even when they have other roles and responsibilities. Child-rearing is hard work, whether it’s with two or twelve kids, whether it’s your full-time “job” or something you share with a babysitter or their father or their elementary school. So, there’s just simply no way to compare our lives equitably. At least not in a way that truly validates the role of motherhood in the way it deserves to be validated for all moms.

(Career moms are not victims, either, and they don’t need my sympathy.)

 

 

Some days of constant mothering leave me wondering when I’ll get back a little bit of what I gave up for this life and hoping there are some “golden years” awaiting me once my kids are grown that will help make up for the years I’ve given. But, at the end of the day, and at the end of my life, I don’t believe I could ever regret this decision.

These children in my home are more than projects to take up a few years’ of my time until I move on to bigger things. They are little people, after all. Little people with all the hopes and dreams and potential in the world. If training them up is not the most important job in the world, I can’t imagine what would be. (Thankless, exhausting, and isolating as that job may sometimes be.)

Cheer up, perpetual moms.
Even if this season is lonely, you are not alone.

Saying Yes, Saying No, and Dealing With What Comes Next

What if I told you that one of the most difficult parts of adulthood is not the big life decisions you make but the daily decision to stick it out and deal faithfully with what comes on the other side?

 

My generation is plagued by two major lifestyle errors:

The fear of commitment.
Serial monogamy.

One is floundering in impermanence, afraid to make a promise or commitment. They live with the presumption that only the most perfect decision is one worth making and are constantly in fear of missing the big opportunity just around the corner. They are tentative. They are dispassionate. They are impotent and indifferent.

The other is always in love. They believe perfection has already arrived and jump in 110% before testing the water. But, then, when a glimmer of “better” or “brighter” appears around the bend, they move on as quickly as they moved in. They are passionate. They are present. But then they are gone in an instant.

No, this isn’t just about sex and relationships.
This is about all of life–love, friendship, careers, community life.

I see it and I understand it because I’ve felt it every time I’ve been faced with a big life decision: where to attend college, what degree to pursue, what job to take, what guy to date, where to live, who to marry, etc.

But let me share some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned here on the flip side of those big, scary life decisions:

Even good decisions carry difficult consequences.
All great pursuits in life require sacrifice.
Every “yes” requires a “no.”
Something better and brighter is always around the bend.
You can never go back, but you can always move forward.

 

 

About 6 months ago, my husband and I finally had the conversation I’d been not-so-secretly avoiding:

“Are we ready for another baby?”

In short, the decision was “No, absolutely not. But we want this more than we don’t want this. And we believe this is a ‘good’ thing and that we will never regret it. And we aren’t getting any younger.”

The longer version of the story would look something like a storm–equal parts hurricane and tornado–swirling through my head, weighing pros and cons and calculating dates and family budgets, alternately avoiding and then pursing my husband, anxieties and fears and subtle jolts of excitement. (Notice: I obviously tend toward “fear of commitment.”)

Even good decisions carry difficult consequences.

Deciding to have a fourth child felt like staring ahead into my future, weighing the value of the path I was on, and turning right around and taking two big year-long steps back. It meant another round of pregnancy, another round of sleepless nights with an infant, another two years of lending my body to a nursing baby, another couple years of putting myself and my dreams and my work and my friendships on standby for the sake of a child, and it meant another couple years of distance between me and my husband.

Is it worth the sacrifice?
All great pursuits in life require sacrifice.

Ask anyone who has ever trained for a marathon or aced an important exam whether the sacrifice was worth the early mornings or the late nights or the aches and pains and headaches.

Yes, it was worth it.

And since I believe that children are worth far more than finished races and completed degrees, my late nights and aches and pains and headaches are going to be spent on them for now. For this season. For as long as it takes. Until it’s time to move on.

Because every “yes” requires a “no.”

And, so, there are seasons of life in which we really can’t have it all. We must choose. And choosing something important often means saying “no” to something else. Marriage is the perfect example of this truth. We stand publicly, before God and witnesses, and promise our commitment, our future, to one person. “Forsaking all others,” we say. And if we don’t mean it, then we have no business participating in such a sacred act.

But there is a secret truth that you’d better understand before you make such an outrageous promise:

Something better and brighter is always around the bend.

Truth is: I am not the most beautiful or virtuous woman my husband has ever known. And he is not the most handsome or charming man I’ve ever known. And, truth is, there will always be someone “better,” someone brighter, or someone more exciting around the bend. (Just like there is always a better job, a better house, a better friend, and so on and so on.)

Making a solid commitment to something or someone means saying “I choose you now. And I choose you tomorrow. And I will choose you the next day…” and it requires a daily decision to be faithful to the promise made.

You can either pretend this isn’t true and that you’ve already found the “one perfect thing” you were searching for (like a serial monogamist) or this can scare the crap out of you and leave you immobile and afraid to ever choose anything (like a commitment-phobe).

Or you can just accept it as truth, lean on wisdom, and then walk confidently into big decisions with eyes open, willing to be faithful to your decision and deal with what comes next.

But what comes next? Because certainly not everyone who makes “a good decision” comes out feeling good about it on the other end. Some people struggle through parenthood. Some couples have miserable marriages. Some people despise their careers or regret the path they chose.

Thankfully, not all of our life decisions are permanent the way marriage and parenthood are. But even temporary decisions can weigh heavily on us and, when they don’t pay off the way we’d hoped, can make us question the sacrifices we’ve made along the way. This is why part of walking through disappointments in life means knowing when a step forward requires moving on.

You can never go back, but you can always move forward.

And part of dealing with what comes after big decisions in life is keeping your eyes focused in the right direction.

When I take stock of my life and the decisions I’ve made, the worst of my past fears come to life when my eyes are focused backwards (on the things I’ve given up) or sideways in comparison with my peers (on the things I could have instead). But when I am focused here–on my life, my family, my calling, my worthy pursuits–I see that each decision and each step is building a life in which the sum is much greater than the parts.

Basically, what I’m building here–with this man in this home with these kids–is bigger than the pieces that I had to give up along the way. And someday, when I am old enough and wise enough to look back on my life without being afraid of regret or comparison, I’ll see the fruit of the sacrifices we’ve made.

And, even now, when some days are harder than others and I feel like I’m surrounded by reminders of all I’m missing out on by choosing this and not that, God extends an extra measure of grace and gives me a taste of the fruit I’m cultivating with my life.

Maybe it’s a kind word from a friend or a smile from a stranger.
Or it could be a reassuring moment with my husband or a moment of breakthrough with my child.

Even if it’s just enough of a taste for one more day’s worth of faithfulness to my “yes” and “no,” then it’s enough.

Hiking With Kids: Our Trail Map


Hiking with Kids Pro Tip: Keep a List; Make a Map

Because we’ve been hiking together as a family for so long, and because we go so frequently, it was getting really hard for me to keep track of our hiking spots and to remember the names of the places we’ve heard of but never been. So, I created a Google map of all of the hiking spots I’m aware of in the region (roughly within I-275 but with a handful beyond) and notated at which spots we’ve been hiking and those we have yet to visit.

This map has been really helpful for me at times when we’re ready to go on a hike but I can’t wrap my head around “the perfect spot” for that day or for that group of friends who are coming along. So much of it depends on how far we’re willing to travel and what we’re hoping for (sun, shade, water, etc.).

Hiking Cincinnati- The McEwans

Eventually, I’ll be adding information about the locations–favorite trails, things to see, amenities, etc., as well as hiking places elsewhere in the country. For now, it’s just plots on a map and links to online information. I can access it on the go and can forward it to friends when we’re trying to decide what to hit up next.

 

I won’t share the actual interactive map with you (unless you ask nicely), but I do want to share the list of spots so my friends and readers can help me add to it!

Our List:

There are 38 spots we’ve been to; 24 we haven’t. We’ve hit almost everything within Cincinnati and Hamilton County, though some of them (Caesar Creek State park, for example) were a long time ago and we’re due for another visit.

I only included parks and greenspace areas I know of that have some sort of “trails,” though some of the spots (Sawyer Point, for example) have only paved sidewalks. I didn’t include general scenic areas and playgrounds with no marked trails (Washington Park, for example), though those may be added later.

(Before you say it: I know, I know, how have we never been to the Cincinnati Nature Center? Well, first of all, I have been there, but not with my kids. Second of all, it’s really far from our home and we usually do half-day trips on weekday mornings rather than taking an entire day. Also, I’m not-so-secretly harboring resentment that it’s called the “Cincinnati” Nature Center but it’s so far outside of the city. Call it city love. Call it suburban hate. Whatever. I make no apologies. We’ll get there eventually and I’m sure we’ll love it.)

Places We’ve Been:

Alms Park
Ault Park
Bicentennial Park
Big Bone Lick State Park
Brookville Lake Dam
Burnet Woods
Buttercup Valley Preserve/Parker Woods
Caesar Creek State Park
Caldwell Preserve
California Woods Nature Center
Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati
Devou Park
East Fork State Park
Eden Park
Embshoff Woods
Fernbank Park
Florence Nature Park
French Park
Glenwood Gardens
Gunpowder Creek Nature Park
Imago Nature Center
Laboiteaux Woods
Lindner Park (McCullough Nature Preserve)
Miami Whitewater Forest  
Mt. Airy Forest
Mt. Echo Park
Mount Storm Park
Sawyer Point Park
Sharon Woods
Shawnee Lookout
Smale Riverfront Park
Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum
Rapid Run Park
Red River Gorge  
Stanbury Park
Theodore M Berry International Friendship Park  
Tower Park
Winton Woods

Places We’d Like to Go:

Boone County Cliffs
Boone County Arboretum
Cincinnati Nature Center
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve
Clifty Falls State Park
Dinsmore Homestead
Doe Run Lake Park
Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve
Giles Conrad Park
Highland Hills Park
Hueston Woods State Park
Kroger Hills State Reserve
Lincoln Ridge Park
Magrish Recreation Center
Middle Creek Park 
Middleton-Mills Park
Mitchell Memorial Forest
Newberry Wildlife Sanctuary
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum
Shawnee State Forest
Waller Stephenson Mill Park
Withrow Nature Preserve
Woodland Mound 

Now tell me, my hiking friends, what have I missed!?
What’s on your list?

How We Homeschool

Hang out with homeschooling families long enough and you’ll realize that “homeschool” is not a one-size-fits-all education. There are about a million different homeschool methods and just as many competing curriculum. The world of homeschooling makes space for conservatives, cultural progressives, religious folk, atheists, strict academics, and unschoolers. So I guess it makes sense why so many people have questions about what our method of homeschooling actually looks like. Let me see if I can explain our method of homeschooling in a way that makes sense.

First of all, every family has an underlying philosophy of parenting, childhood, and education. It’s what guides their decisions about educating their children.

To grossly oversimplify, I believe that:

  • Children thrive as adolescents and adults after forming strong attachments with their parents at a young age.
  • Parents should be the primary influence in their children’s lives at the age when they are most easily influenced.
  • Children thrive with multi-generational, real world socialization, rather than the peer-to-peer socialization characterized by a manufactured school environment. (A child cannot teach another child how to grow to be a healthy, mature adult.)
  • Children are neither machines nor animals, yet most standardized educational institutions educate children on an assembly line toward homogeneous mediocrity with no respect to their diversity of skills, gifts, challenges, and passions.
  • Children are naturally curious and thrive in an environment that leaves space for deeper curiosity about subjects that matter, not in an environment dictated by academic standards, measures, and guidelines.
  • The quality of a child’s mind cannot be quantified by standardized tests and time-wasting busy work.
  • A child’s mind is best cultivated with high-quality “nutrition” (or content), not educational fads or popular media.
  • Children need to be outdoors on a regular basis, in wild places rather than in paved playgrounds. It is good for their bodies, minds, and souls.

Like I said, that is a gross oversimplification (and leaves a lot out). But it at least tells you where I’m coming from and why I decided to homeschool my kids. You might disagree. You probably do. And that’s okay. I’m teaching my kids, not yours.

Moving on.
Once you’ve decided what you believe about parenting, childhood, and education, a homeschooling family must decide what that means for their method of homeschooling. Will they buy a pre-packaged curriculum or write their own? Will they join an alternative school or go solo? Will they teach at home, outdoors, or at the library? Will they keep a strict schedule or allow more flexibility? There’s a lot to decide.

I’ll offer an over-simplified explanation of our method.

– We follow the Charlotte Mason method of schooling. You can find a good explanation of Mason’s philosophy here. But, as with most things in my life, I’m not a purist. But I find her philosophy of education most closely aligns with my own, so I’m using her writings (and the writings of other CM educators) to help direct our schooling. One morning a week, my son attends a non-traditional school of sorts with a bunch of other kids from Charlotte Mason-influenced homes. It will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, our homeschool gets closer or further from her method.

– I do not use a pre-packaged curriculum like many of my peers, but I am not an un-schooler. I toss together various materials to create a complete course of study. For a subject such as history or geography, I choose a general historical era or geographic region for our term (this term we are continuing with pre-Colonial and Colonial America, as well as the American Revolution) and then I use all first-source materials and “living books.” For a subject such as math, I teach through oral lessons and related activities. In a lesson about telling time, for example, we spend more time discussing the relationship between the clock, percentages, and fractions than we do taking quizzes about telling time. I began teaching my son to read using this book but then began using sight word lists and practicing on nursery rhymes instead. We are now using BOB books for reading. This sort of hodge-podge curriculum may get more difficult to manage as my kids age out of elementary school, but it works well for us for now.

– We are on a three-term school year (plus some schoolwork during the summer) and I have a loose lesson plan for each term, including a list of materials and resources. I schedule our daily lessons on a bulletin board. On the board, I have a couple dozen library cards filed in envelopes (the kind you used to find inside a library book cover when you were a kid) by subject categories. You’d find the usual subjects of reading, math, handwriting, history, geography, and science on our lesson board. I teach my son beginner piano. My husband handles fine art with the kids. We are intermittently learning beginner German. You would also find life skills (like making breakfast or preparing our snack), health and safety, hymn study, and Bible study/memorization on the board. At the beginning of the week, if I have my act together, I pull out the cards of the lessons I’d like to accomplish during the week and then choose from the week’s lessons each day. But it’s more likely that I choose each day as I see how our schedule goes. Then, after we complete a lesson, I note the date and content of the lesson on the card (the chapter read, for example) and file it back in its envelope until next time. This is how I keep track of our progress through the year. Lessons are short and we take many breaks during the day.

– We read a lot of books. Good books. Old books. Books without kid-friendly cartoons or funny characters, but full of adventure. Many of our books come recommended from other Charlotte Mason educators and websites like Ambleside Online that provide entire book lists by grade. These are many of the same books that were considered “classics” when I was young, but these books are for more than entertainment. They are teaching my children advanced vocabulary, grammar, and storytelling skills. They are teaching complex ethics and morality. They are teaching patience and mindfulness when being read to and then teaching communication skills when my kids narrate the story back to me.

– We spend time outdoors. We take a lengthy hike at least once a week and do our best to leave the house for a bit every other day, as well. If possible, our lessons are done outdoors. In addition to the physical and emotional benefits of being outdoors, the real world is where our kids see the complex relationships present in the created order. It’s where their minds can most clearly seen connections. They can tie together their experience of the seasons with Earth’s orbit and the lifecycles of plants. They witness the changing behavior of animals throughout the day, the relationship between the sun and the time on their watch, the sounds of the city compared to the sounds of the woods. They learn to be comfortable in and adaptable to heat, cold, rain, and snow. They becomes masters of their environment, learning to navigate by map, by compass, and by memory.

– We have Tea Time. Our Tea Time is most often around 4pm, when my daughter wakes from her nap. We heat the water, we set the table, we prepare a small snack, and then choose our book while the tea is steeping. This is the time of day when we collect ourselves after naptime/quiet time is finished, before I prepare dinner. It is usually our last focused “school time” of the day, when we practice narration (when my children report back to me what I’ve just read) and sometimes recite poetry. This is also the part of the day when we could choose to do an art study or song study.

– We take trips to the library, to the zoo, to the museum, to local historic sites, or to other places where we can learn in an immersion atmosphere. In a city like ours, there are countless opportunities for this. It’s also a great way to teach multiple ages side by side with the exact same source material.

– Our homeschooling is not anti-technology, but it is technology-lite. We were gifted an iPad to use for school and have a couple dozen apps we use here and there. The ones we use most frequently are for math or science. (Khan Academy is probably our favorite.) We also use the iPad for listening to audio books (on LibriVox) and the occasional YouTube video for a history or art lesson (such as “How the States Got Their Shape”). We also use computers at the public library every week or two. My son is learning to use a computer and will eventually learn how to type. So, in general, our media use is for school and not for entertainment. But we’re not anti-media or anti-technology.

This, in short, is how we homeschool. It’s a bit unrefined at this point and it will likely change as we incorporate our other children more and as we advance through the subjects. For now, I am an imperfect educator and am, in many ways, learning as I go.

IMG_0838“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” — Charlotte Mason.

How Strong is This Marriage?

10 years ago, I sold a guitar so I could pay my way to Cincinnati. I had no job and no savings; I had found an apartment only a few days prior. I was moving for a relationship, not for a city. In fact, Cincinnati was barely a blip on my radar and, as far as I could tell, the move was temporary.

10 years ago.

When I knew my ten year anniversary was around the bend, I considered doing something to celebrate. Throw a party. Release a new cd. Write a Top Ten list of my best Cincinnati memories. But as the days inched closer and closer, my heart grew more and more conflicted and I let the day pass last month without making much of a racket at all. Not publicly, at least. Privately, my mind and heart were wide awake and wild.

What the hell am I even doing here?

Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m living a pretty wonderful, charmed life. I am wife to a wonderful husband; I am mother to three beautiful, spirited children. I sometimes play music and sometimes plan community events and sometimes host parties and concerts and sometimes write articles and blogs and other assorted read-ables. Heck, I “do” a lot.

But how many of us really measure the wealth of our life by what we “do?”

I don’t.

I want to know “why” and “for what” and “to what end” am I here?
And, in that way, the “do” is rather inconsequential.
The “do” can come later.

When did I fall in love with Cincinnati?

From the moment I arrived, there have been wonderful people who have embraced me as their own and shared the best parts of Cincinnati with me. Many of those parts are hidden away in their favorite corners of the city, tucked into houses and storefronts and laughter and singing songs that no one other than those they call their own would care enough to notice. This city has become familiar to me in a way that I never expected. It welcomed me as its child and I fell in love with it, hidden piece by hidden piece.

But what does it mean to truly love a city? And how much of my love for Cincinnati is more about what it has given to me than about what I can give for it?

And, what does loving a city truly require?

Cities change.
Living in a growing, changing neighborhood has been a huge challenge for me because this neighborhood was a huge part of that first affection I felt for Cincinnati. And, with every small change, I’m losing a little bit more of what made this city feel like it was “mine” in the first place. And if I, being here only ten years, can feel such torn affections, imagine the heart and mind of someone whose entire history centers here.

There have been many times in the past few years when I was ready to cut and run.

The truth is: I. Want. Out.

But I’ve thought a lot about love and commitment and the concept of marriage recently. Not related, specifically, to my marital relationship but more related to my marriage to mission and work and my love of place. Wendell Berry talks about the idea a lot when he talks about farmers and their relationship to their land. It’s the idea of husbandry and it’s, sadly, a concept that has lost its gravity in its modern usage.

What would it mean to marry myself to this place?
What would it look like to make a covenant with this city?
How can I love this city and these people with the kind of love required in marriage?

Look, I’m not suggesting that a person’s relationship to their place holds nearly as much weight as an actual marriage. But I am suggesting that maybe we don’t really understand what we claim when we claim to “love our city” if we’re willing to just walk away when the affections wane or when the greener grass next door peeks our interest. Most people don’t think twice if a better opportunity, a bigger house, or a higher-paying job shows up.

But maybe, like a good marriage, loving our city means much more than the tickle in our belly or the ebb and flow of our affections.

I like the word “efficacious.” It’s a word I don’t use in conversation because it would make me sound obnoxious. But it’s a good word. And it’s one of the words I remind myself of most often when I consider whether or not I am acting in love toward another person. In the context of loving, efficacious love would be a love that is productive, effective, constructive, or beneficial. It is a love that is fruitful. One of the best ways I’ve heard it expressed is by St. Augustine when, in relationship to God, he wrote: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)

In loving me, you made me lovable. How awesome is that?

What would it look like to love this city in that way, in a way that made it better? Made it truly lovely?

Then, after committing to see that love through, what does it look like to love a city that doesn’t always love you back, at least not in the way you wish it would? What about when it no longer feels as welcoming or accepting? And what would it look like to truly love a city that grows up to be something other than the thing you always wished it would be?

How do you love a city that no longer resembles the city you first loved?

I’m sure most people don’t care too much about this stuff. They just move on when their affections shift. Find a more comfortable place to call “home.” But I can’t get the questions out of my head.

Wendell Berry writes about the responsibility to one’s place:

When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.

What is my responsibility to this city– to this place that adopted me as its own, who gave me back my faith, gave me another chance at love, brought me my babies, and cradled me into adulthood?

The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give back. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already given too much and that I’d like to take some time for myself. I want to find a wooded, wild, quiet place to raise my children without the fuss of loving a place and a people in return. (Because, in the city, it’s impossible to ignore the heart beating next door. You can hear it through the walls. And I’ve got enough damage to repair in my own heart and my own home, thankyouverymuch.) Why not find someplace more comfortable? A place that doesn’t require so much work?

So, I’ll ask it again: why am I here?

How deep is my love for this city?
How strong is this marriage?

I can’t honestly say whether or not Cincinnati will be my home in ten years’ time. This city doesn’t really need me. Not in the same way my family needs me. There may be another vision or mission around the bend.

For now, I’m thankful for this city. And reminiscent. A little melancholy. And pretty hopeful for its future.

This city has given me a lot in ten years’ time. I am praying I have something to offer in return, even if it’s not for forever.

Why We Don’t “Do” Disney

Before you had kids, did you have any idea that taking a position on how to best parent would be so divisive? It starts with disagreements with friends over birth control and pregnancy and then childbirth and sleep training and continues well into your child’s adolescence.

Trust me. I have a lot of strong opinions. And I’m not afraid to share them. But I try not to be one of those “holier than thou” elitists about stuff like this because it’s not my job to parent your children. It’s my job to parent mine.

For example, we get questions a lot about why my almost-four year-old daughter still has not seen the movie Frozen. As if it’s a crime. As if she’s missing out on a life-defining childhood experience. So, in a brief diversion from current affairs, let me offer a quick peek into our family life and why we, generally, don’t consume a lot of popular kids’ media.

First of all, my kids are not sheltered. And no, don’t worry, we don’t throw away gifts given by friends and family. My daughter has a Disney princess book (which she loves) and an Elsa doll. My kids play with lightsabers and make references to Batman. They know that the worlds of Disney and superheros and Star Wars exist. They know the stories and characters and have read many of the books.

Kids like “kid stuff.”
No big deal.

But, because exposure to popular media is almost a given these days, we are intentional about exposing our kids to more of what we think is “good” media and entertainment. It’s similar (in my mind) to a family that says to their children, “No juice before bed,” or “No dessert before dinner” regardless of what their friends’ parents allow.

And although I’m speaking most specifically here about Disney princess movies, this post could have just as easily been titled “Why I Don’t Buy My Son Star Wars Action Figures” or “Why We Watch 10+ Year-old Movies On Family Movie Night” or “Why I Hate That My Kids Love Paw Patrol.

Let me quickly clarify that, yes, I know that not all kids’ media is equal and that I’m probably being too hard on Disney. There are many, many intelligent, funny, enlightening kids’ movies, television shows, and books in existence, produced by Disney and others. We’ve seen some of them. We have really liked some of them.

Also, I’m sure you can argue a “Yeah, but, have you seen….. ?” for everyone one of my arguments. Feel free to make recommendations, but I still consider them the exception to the rule. And we shouldn’t set standards based on exceptions.

And, no, you don’t have to worry that I’m going to be weird about my kids coming to your house and seeing your kid’s Superman bedroom or that we’ll balk at your big-screen tv. That’s not the point of this. Please don’t take this personally. I’m just trying to explain the decision we’ve made with our kids because it does seem so strange to some people–especially to other people’s kids. And I understand that there are probably things we do allow our children to consume that confuse other people just as much as what we don’t allow. (I’ll keep an eye out for someone to write a post about “Why We Don’t Let Our Kids Listen to David Bowie Like The McEwans Do.”)

I know some of my ideas are unpopular or might make people uncomfortable. I think it’s worth sharing this kind of stuff anyway because, in the world of parenting, there are a lot of things that we take for granted about what is “good” or “best” for our kids just because it’s popular or recommended or it seems to work for everyone else. I’m simply suggesting some reasons why we should question these assumptions and consider that maybe, just maybe, popular kids’ media is feeding us all too much “dessert” and not enough “dinner.”

So, here you have it.
Seven reasons why we don’t “do” Disney.

Every new popular movie is just another fad. Fads are created by multi-million (billion?) dollar marketing schemes that specifically target impressionable young children and parents who are willing to give into their child’s desires. I don’t want my kids to get into the habit of latching onto what’s new just because it’s new. The best of the best of the new shows and movies will have staying power and will be just as good when they are 10 years old as they were when they were brand new. That’s why our kids will eventually see all these popular movies–but it will probably be in a few years, once the fad has passed.

The ubiquitous marketing by companies like Disney is overwhelming and confusing for a child. (For more on the manipulative nature of marking to youth, read this book.) What a child wants is not always what a child needs and what a child needs is not always desirable at first glance. When a young child walks through a store and everything in their sight, from snacks to water bottles to t-shirts and pull-ups is branded with a Disney character, the difference between want/need is blurred. They are manipulated into believing that the items branded with Frozen‘s Elsa are the better ones. They don’t learn a thing about quality, only desirability. This is a dangerous lesson to teach children. It will not prepare them to be wise consumers as they age. Yes, sometimes “want” and “need” can be found in the same item, but not always. We need to teach our kids to put first things first.

The meta-narrative of most popular media is weak and confusing. What exactly is your average Disney princess movie about? Ask three people and they’ll tell you something different. Is it about “true love?” Is it about “finding yourself?” Is it about “breaking free from restraints?” Who the heck knows. Case in point: I recently heard two different people discuss the story from the movie Frozen in two different church sermons. One thought it was a positive and liberating story; one thought it was completely godless and worldly. Does it really matter if it’s not super obvious what these stories are about? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, we are the ones who help our children interpret these stories. I’d simply rather choose better stories.

(As an aside: I’ve never understood how many Christian families boycotted Harry Potter but take their preschool children to see Disney movies. Although Harry Potter is admittedly “dark,” the series has so much more depth and rich truths to the story than any Disney princess movie ever did. And no, my kids have not seen/read Harry Potter, either.)

– Disney stories cannot stand apart from their visual presentation. In other words, without the screen, a Disney princess story is crap. Have you ever tried to read a storybook adaptation of a Disney movie? They are horrendous. That doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t a good movie, only that its value is completely dependent on visual stimulation. There are some exceptions to this rule–movies like The Lion King and Frozen that have a good soundtrack, for example. But in general, I’d say it’s true. Why is this a bad thing? Well, because children don’t belong couched in front of a screen for hours upon end. Every once and a while? Sure. As “dessert” after a healthy “dinner” of profitable consumption? Sure. At Grandma’s house or on vacation or while passing time during a 10-hour car ride? Sure, pull out that DVD player. But on a regular, daily, or multiple times daily basis? No way. And since there are no decent, non-movie versions of Disney stories, we’d rather skip the stories entirely and find something better.

– I’m a Conservative. And I know that this doesn’t make me super popular, but I believe in inherent differences between men and women. And, often times, the gender distinctives in popular media are one-dimensional and the characters are inaccessible to the opposite sex. I don’t want my kids consuming media that only presents their differences in one-dimensional characters whose entire identity is predicated on their being “girly” or “manly.” And when I say these characters are inaccessible, I mean that they are so shallowly presented that the characters themselves have no lessons to teach children of the opposite sex. The heroine is beautiful and naive; the villain is masculine and conniving. This obviously exists on a continuum (Anyone remember Mulan? I loved her.), but if I read one more princess story that starts with the phrase, “the princess was the most beautiful baby in the world,” I might puke. They write it because it sells. But it only sells because we’re buying. How this manifests itself: Merida, the female protagonist in Disney’s Brave, was physically altered in post-production to look prettier. Apparently, the strong, brave, spunky young woman of the popular movie was not good enough to be sold as a doll.

– The love stories are full of lies. “He fell in love with her the moment he saw her” is garbage. Do I want my daughter to place a high value on love and commitment and sacrifice? Absolutely. Is a fairy tale the best way to communicate the nature of “true love” to my young, impressionable daughter? Probably not. At least not the grossly exaggerated, manufactured, feel-good Disney-ification of a fairy tale. You may believe the lady-in-waiting, “Prince Charming is just around the corner” messages are harmless and all in good fun and that “all little girls dream of being a princess.” But I would argue that lies about love and devotion and Prince Charming have gotten my generation into a big mess of broken relationships, fear of commitment, confused sexuality, and disappointment in marriage. Children will listen, as another fairy-tale tells us. Be careful what you tell them when they are young and listen to you most.

Many animated movies are simply immature. You see, it’s not necessarily the stories that I find objectionable, but the dumbing-down of decent, edifying stories. Many Disney movies are based on wonderful, historically significant folk tales and fairy tales. In their original form and their cultural adaptations, they are complex and subtle and engaging for both adults and children. But in trying to make them “kid-friendly” and easy to swallow, we strip these grand stories of their strength and meaning. We reduce them to two hours of poop jokes for the kids and innuendos for the parents who are forced to watch. Children don’t need their stories dumbed-down; let’s give our children more credit than that.

The world is full of beautiful stories for children, stories of princes and princesses, heroes and adventure, love and loss, goblins and witches and giants and pirates. We should be offering the best of what is available, not what is easiest and most accessible at any given time on our nearest electronic device. It may take a little bit more work at times for parents, but the payoff is worth the effort.

In closing, let me leave you with a quote by author Madeline L’Engle:

“‘Why do you write for children?’ My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’ … If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.

“Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it’s perfectly true. Children still haven’t closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the inborn vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it”

– Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

*Ironically, Disney is set to make an adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, one of my favorite books. This is both a little heartbreaking and a little exciting. Disney did a pretty good job with CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and several other live-action films based on children’s literature, so I’m hoping for the best.