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Imagine this: a pot of homemade vegetable soup sits on the stovetop. Freshly made, the vegetables are still crisp and firm. The meat still has a toughness to it. The spices float upon the surface. All the ingredients and their nourishing potential are there, waiting. You reach for the knob on the stove. Underneath the soup pot, things begin to heat up. The mixture starts to boil restlessly. You turn down the heat, and the mixture calms to a gentle simmer.
Over the next few hours, the flavors meld. The vegetables soften. The meat becomes tender. No longer crisp, firm, individual ingredients. The pot before you holds the oneness steaming, life-giving, flavorful soup.
I had every intention of writing a blog series this year chronicling the to moments and blessings of 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen. (Sorry to disappoint those of you sitting on the edges of your seats waiting for it.) This post was meant to be the final post, the conclusion of that series.
There isn’t a pot of soup on my stove. (Who am I kidding? I’m currently sitting in my bed eating leftover pumpkin pie, as everyone should on Black Friday.) But this soup metaphor came to me well over a year ago as a metaphor for our family.
I remember a moment, several years ago now, where I felt relief wash over me. Our former therapist had just told me, “You know, with the mental health issues we have in our family, I have just accepted that sometimes, we just can’t all be in the same room together because it’s too volatile.” I felt that in my soul that day.
Don’t get me wrong – there are still moments I have that feeling. But that’s not the overarching feeling of my life anymore. How did we go from that feeling to now?
When we made the decision to homeschool, my biggest fear – the thing that had always kept me from taking the plunge – was that I was an extreme introvert who didn’t really like being around my kids. More often, I was always looking for time AWAY from them, an escape. ANY ESCAPE.
I’m still an introvert, but we will get to that.
But when I had my God-hit-me-over-the-head-with-a-2-by-4-and-told-me-to-homeschool-my-kids-moment, a transformation began in me. Two and a half years later, I am – in many ways – a completely different person.
Yesterday I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for our family of four and my in-laws. I ordered all the food ahead of time from our local grocery chain, except for the cranberry sauce. She made the pumpkin pies and my late-grandmother’s lime Jello salad. Everything else came in a box. I transferred food from black microwaveable containers into glass and ceramic dishes. I added marshmallows to the sweet potato soufflé and extra shredded cheese to the macaroni and cheese. The time I would have spent stressing-the-heck-out and cooking I instead used to decorate the table, sweep the floor, and lay in bed for 10 extra minutes.
When they arrived, everything was beautiful and tasty, and I felt the least stressed I had ever felt before hosting company for a meal.
My mother-in-law hugged me and told me she was so proud of the woman I’m becoming. That meant a lot.
Russ still fussed at the boys to eat. I still had to hand-feed my six-year-old because he was so overwhelmed he just couldn’t focus on the act of eating. Aaaaand, at one point we also had to get him out from underneath the table. But, as far as family dinners in our house go, it went pretty darn well. We even sat and listened to Ezra quite dramatically tell us the story of the first Thanksgiving.
So how did we get here? What are the secret ingredients that are making us work?
I won’t beleaguer this point, as it is one thing I have managed to blog about in the last two years. Homeschooling is the best decision we ever made, and I daresay the one thing that has kept our family together throughout the last few years.
As a homeschooling mama, I’m exhausted. But I’m exhausted and happy. Exhausted and satisfied.
I’m always going to worry about my kids and find something to feel guilty about, because that’s the unfortunate reality of being a perfectionistic mother.
But the list of things I worry about and feel guilty about is a LOT smaller.
One of the key ingredients in making our family work is the time we spend reading aloud together.
I don’t know how I accidentally stumbled upon Sarah McKenzie’s book and website. I know I’ve been at least tangentially aware of her ministry since 2017, as I made a few quote graphics / memes for my Facebook pages.
But when I FINALLY began listening to her audiobook, The Read-Aloud Family, at the beginning of 2020, it revolutionized not just the way we homeschool, but the way we…family. Yes, I just used “family” as a verb.
Something clicked for me when I realized that *I* am a “product” of a read-aloud family. In fact, last week I was able to thank my mom for her role in shaping us, because by reading to us, removing the TV from our home, and providing us with so many amazing opportunities along the way – she basically homeschooled us while still sending us to school.
I have voraciously consumed episodes of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast over the last two years. Sarah does a phenomenal job of explaining the benefits of reading aloud. If you are a parent of a child still living at home (a child of ANY age), I IMPLORE you to listen to this podcast episode:
In the Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease suggests that the academic benefits alone of reading aloud are so great, if someone invented a pill to deliver those benefits, there would be line for miles and miles to get it.
The 1985 Commission on Reading, after all, stated that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”
Setting aside the scientific, brainy benefits of reading aloud, my all-time favorite quote of Sarah McKenzie comes from this episode, when she says this:
“…when we read together, we like each other more.”
As a wife and mom who always loves but sometimes struggles to LIKE the people in her family. This. Is. Huge.
It’s truly magic. A book is the great diffuser.
When people ask me what advice I have for homeschooling, especially those with young kids, I tell them this: READ TO YOUR KIDS. Just do that. If I could go back in time and change ONE thing and only one, I would read to my kids more. More books. More frequently. And earlier.
Reading aloud is also one way I’ve been able to subtly and graciously enact change in the other relationships within the home. While I am the primary reader, over time, I believe Russ has gained realization of the benefits of reading aloud somewhat by osmosis. More and more frequently, I hear him say, “LB, go get me a book to read to you.” When I brought a Bible storybook to the dinner table a few weeks ago and read the first two chapters, the next night, HE picked up the book and read the next two chapters. I didn’t prod or nag or even ask him to. He just did it.
I also can’t tell you how many times the house gets quiet. Normally, a bad sign in a house of boys. But when I peek behind doors to see what mischief the boys are into, they are often giggling over a book together.
We are bonding through books. Bonding because of books.
Russ Working from Home: A Consistent Framework
Russ began working from home – like many across the nation – in March of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. I also had an injury that kept me off my feet for 2 1/2 months, which was a factor in helping him petition his work for permanent work-from-home status. We discovered that having Russ home was far better for his mental health.
Russell’s job depends more on the work he does and less on the hours he actually spends behind the desk. This offers him quite a bit of flexibility in the time he actually spends in his “office” (a windowless bedroom in our basement). He’s normally the first one up, working hard while the house is quiet. He’s done for the day by 2:30 PM.
This framework gives the boys and I a consistency in our school schedule as well. While our wake time varies widely, we normally start our school day between 8 and 10 AM and are done for the day by the time Russ gets off of work (2:30 PM). Russ finishing his work day at a consistent time is a landmark in our day that says – regardless of how much we’ve accomplished – “It’s time to put the work down and enjoy being a family.”
Because we school year-round, we have been able to keep this Monday through Friday, 9AM to 2:30PM school day each week for the better part of two years, even through the summers.
When our school day ends, often Russ will “watch a show with the boys” (read: he naps, they watch), or the boys will go outside to play. This is when we use our educational screen time like PBS Kids shows or documentaries on Curiosity Stream (which we get for free using our Scribd subscription). I usually have one show for them on-going that goes along with whatever we are studying.
This is my few hours to do something for me. Often it’s listening to a podcast or audiobook while doing housework or running errands. Thanks to the wonder of online grocery shopping, online library book ordering, and CVS drive-through – running these errands is quick so I’m not gone long. I often go days without leaving the five-mile radius around my house, which is heavenly for a homebody like me.
Between 4PM and 6PM, we spend more time outside (such as taking a family walk or Russ and Ezra mowing the lawn) or work together on housework (Ezra might unload & reload the dishwasher or wash pans with Dad, or I’ll work on dinner).
Around 6PM, we eat dinner with the boys and try to get them showered and ready for bed. 7PM to 8PM is “stickers and reading” time, when I’ll read to them from whatever chapter book is our current read-aloud. Little Brother goes down for bed about 8PM, which is when I give Ezra his night-time medication. We let him read for an hour and put him to bed at 9PM. Once the boys are in their rooms for the night, either we turn on our grown-up show to watch, or Russ will head downstairs to play games and I’ll watch a show or figure skating.
There’s not an hourly schedule hanging on our wall, and these times are not hard and fast. This schedule really evolved out of our everyday life, and is what a typical day might look like. Sometimes there’s a playdate or some beautiful weather that keeps the boys outside much later. Some days it’s cold and yucky and they get more screen time. In the summer, we would go to the pool. A few times a month, we drive 30 minutes away for counseling. Some nights they lose “stickers and reading” and go to bed early. So it definitely varies. But there’s a consistent rhythm…an ebb and flow to the way we move through the day that feels natural and expected.
While this consistent framework is a solid foundation, it’s not without its challenges. When Russ first began working from home, it took us several months to settle into this “new normal.” I often resented his interruptions throughout the day, his insistence on handling discipline issues because he was home, or his not-always-welcome input into how we were doing our schoolwork. There was a lot of fighting, discussion, and ironing out some huge wrinkles.
Let me not paint too idyllic a picture here: it’s hard for all of us to be together. all. the. time. And yet, it’s what we needed.
How we handle parenting and discipline our children is still our biggest area of conflict within our marriage. I don’t see that changing, as we approach parenting from vastly differing perspectives that we simply can’t agree on. That said, having Russ home has pushed me to let. him. be. the. dad. I’ve had to yield and let go, to take my hands off and let him intervene. Over time, this has developed into us working better in tandem. I hesitate to use the term “united front,” as we tend to lean more into our differences. We utilize our different parenting, flanking our children on either side with a healthy mix of authoritarianism and grace, firmness and gentleness, instruction and discipleship, structure and flexibility. Rather than compete with our approaches, or debate the merit of each approach, we act as two vastly-different tools used in shaping and sharpening the same rough arrows.
Church and Our Faith
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention God in this. If I’m writing transparently, what I’ve shared here is us on our best days.
The mental health challenges that Russ and Ezra face are day-in, day-out struggles that still leave our home a very tumultuous place. That hasn’t changed. I think what has changed is our ability to reconnect after conflict, our ability to rebound after a meltdown, and our growth in recognizing our limits and take a time-out when we need to.
At the beginning of 2021, I stepped into a new role as head church pianist. This is a weekly commitment (with usually one week off per month) and also involves a monthly practice. This means our entire family has to get to church by 8:30 AM most Sunday mornings. Russ keeps the kids occupied during our early-morning-before-service practice.
This is not a role I could have accepted even two years ago. My family simply could not have handled it. But now we can.
Our church has continued to rally around us in supporting our family as best as they know how, both in this recent ministry opportunity and in our everyday life. We’ve had people from church come to read to the boys for an hour so I can have a break. Other ladies have sat with my children during the song service when Russ couldn’t make it to church, had me over for a 2-hour-chat over a cup of tea, or sent us gifts of school supplies. These are the small things that are really HUGE things that keep me going on the days when I feel like I’m going to lose my mind.
As always, our faith in the God who one day will make all things new and whole is often what keeps us from completely unraveling.
I recently repainted my kitchen and updated some of its décor. Above my sink now stands this beautiful quote from Brooke McGlothlin and Stacey Thacker in their book, Hope for the Weary Mom. They call it The Weary Mom Mantra:
The Heat and Time
There’s two last ingredients that make the soup what it’s meant to be: the heat and time.
The heat is the constant struggle against these mental health battles. It keeps us at a simmer. And gosh, yes, we often boil over. But it has also helped us meld together and move from being individuals at odds to a family at rest.
I’ve quit my marketing job, and for 25 days in November, I took all social media apps and games off of my phone. I have found that our days are full enough with just being a family. That’s it. No extras. Just being us.
Being a family – creating these rhythms and developing our own family culture, the million tiny things that make us…us – is not something that has come easily for us. It’s taken 2 deployments, 13 years, close to 20 mental health professionals, 5 churches, 5 schools (for the boys), and a whole lot of tears and dark days to get us here.
Our home is loud, noisy, chaotic, messy, and loud and loud and loud. Each day feels like an emotional roller coaster. But like soup tastes better the second day, I feel like we are getting better with time.