A valediction forbidding mourning

first day of school 1024x1024 A valediction forbidding mourning

I fell in love with John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” when I was 15. Obviously, I was a super cool teenager. I’d read the poem over and over and at first, the melancholy would wash over me as I imagined myself parting from the imaginary lover I didn’t have (I didn’t have a prom date either) and how leaving this object of my affection would feel a lot like death. But as I continued to read, I’d feel hopeful as I realized that my love would be a higher, more spiritual love that distance could not destroy.

I’ve always been a hopeless romantic and a wee bit melodramatic. But the mood of those teenage years – the acute emotion, the assured sense of wisdom when I knew squat, the social butterfly who really craved quiet alienation from the superficialities of my peers – sometimes seems so far away that I can’t imagine I ever was a teen. There are moments, though, when I find my way back. Poems that I read for pleasure (or pain; do all teens tend toward masochism?), not just because I wanted to ace my AP English exam ticker through my head now and then.

Donne’s poem – or at least the title – came back to me when I suffered the malady of a broken heart in college (there was plenty of mourning then). Sometimes I’d think of Donne even when I had to say good-bye to someone I loved. On Wednesday evening when all the kids were asleep, I prepared bookbags for the first ever day of “real” school at the Wicker household. The soon-to-be valediction weighing heavily on my heart, I started to cry. Just a few tears here and there, but there was definitely more than a drop of mourning.

On Thursday – the very first day of school – I tried to forbid further mourning as my children departed, but it was easier said than done.

All week long I’ve been a wreck, anxious, and feeling like I made the wrong decision. My children have been my constant companions for over eight years now (I’m counting my pregnancy with my first). They have also been the object of so many of my fantasies and fears. Yesterday morning I had visions of my kids shining, but I had darker visions of their hearts breaking, too, or their creativity being crushed or them just being bored. Or some mean kid telling them it was stupid for a girl to like Star Wars or dinosaurs or pirates. Or, what if they loved it all and didn’t miss me a bit? On the eve of the first day and that morning, I wanted nothing more than to hold them close and tell them I’d made an awful mistake and that I’d keep them by my side forever.

I didn’t do this, of course. I did start crying during my early morning run. My friends were such good listeners and did not for one moment poke fun or roll their eyes at my heightened emotions. I did find a bottle of wine at my doorstep when I returned home from a dear friend with a note encouraging me as a mother and giving me permission to be sad. I did suck it up and put on a brave face. And I did even feel a swell of pride for my brave girls and their bright smiles.

Even the child who was most reluctant to start this new chapter appeared eager to see what lies ahead; yet, she hijacked my heart when she was not afraid to look back and give her Mama one last wave and “I love you.”

When I asked my 6-year-old if she wanted me to walk her to her class, she said emphatically, “No! You don’t even need to walk me in.” When I asked my 8-year-old, what she wanted, she said, “I’ll be fine, and I’ll check to make sure Rachel is fine, too.”

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And so I let go. (I had to; my husband gave me a kiss and said it would be okay and took the kids from me, truth be told.) I tried to not feel like a total homeschooling reject. A homeschooling mama’s words helped:

“Changing is not quitting, my friend. Often it takes more vision and courage to change than to continue in the same path.”

The change of watching my big girls walk out of my house (and it felt like out of my heart) provoked fear and uncertainty to swirl around inside of me. (But I always told myself I would never homeschool simply out of fear.) And there was the sadness, too. Oh, the all-over-aching sadness that came with a half-empty house. The two littles and I prepared not-so-healthy after-school snacks (the menu might have included chocolate truffles that melt in your mouth), and I felt like it was too quiet and not chaotic enough to only have two instead of four sous chefs at my side.

But the reunion was sweet. My children returned to me happy.

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That helped to forbid the mourning just a bit. Maybe in the midst of the hair-raising push-pull of rearing four children 8 and under, where my days are spent sifting through senseless disagreements and mounds of clothing and plastic toys, we’ve actually done something right. Maybe the emotional sediment of trying to do my best and apologizing when I fall way, way, way short is settling into place and making for a firm foundation. Maybe my kids are really connected to me and realize how much I love them and will be good, kind, confident people even when they’re off on their own. Maybe, when we part, we aren’t suffering a loss or gaining distance but growing and becoming closer despite the physical divide.

“endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,”

{I remember several years ago reading a weepy blog post from a parent who was sending her daughter off to school for the first time and thinking it was a little overly dramatic. And here I am quoting John Donne poetry after waking up at 4:19 a.m. to cry my eyes out.}

It doesn’t help that my almost 2-year-old is nursing less and less or that one friend recently remarked that he was a little boy now and not a baby, and another friend saw my 8-year-old and couldn’t believe how much she’d changed and was looking more like a young woman than a little girl. There’s a lot of weaning going on around here.

When I held my first tiny treasure close to nine years ago now, I was afraid of the unknown then as well. It was new beginnings that were sometimes daunting – that first labor experience wondering if I could do it (I did! Four times!), learning how to nurse, watching my new walker toddle off and not worry she’d trip and crack her head open, figuring out how to nestle her into an Ergo.

Now all that seems easy. It’s not finding the right latch while nursing that I worry about; it’s that latch breaking and never happening again that makes me wince.

Years ago I wrote about how hard it was when my second abruptly stopped nursing. I thought she’d weaned for good since she didn’t nurse for around two weeks, but it did turn out to be a nursing strike (and also around the time I unexpectedly got pregnant with my third). It felt like the worse kind of rejection to have a little one choose to not nurse rather than the other way around or rather than have a slow, mutual, and gradual weaning process. I always have a hard time weaning – not just from the breast but just from my kids needing me less. There’s joy in knowing your child is becoming her own person, but there’s that fear and sadness again threatening to overshadow everything. This week I had to forget all of that. I had to hold my head high and trust and know that being a mother is just one long process of weaning. Motherhood reveals the inextricable double helix of love and heartache like nothing else.

I wrote this when I was faced with my second “weaning mommy,” and it seems to apply to the changes my family is going through right now as well:

First, newborns are weaned from their mother’s womb. Then, arms open wide, they’re sailing down a hill on their bikes and we’re screaming, “Keep your hands on those handlebars!” Before we know it the very children we thought would never sleep through the night or get out of diapers are heading off to college with an assured (and perhaps inflated) sense of wisdom.

To be a parent is to teach my children to be less dependent on me and more dependent on themselves. This is just one of the ciphers of parenting: to figure out when you need to hold on and when it’s time to let go. I’m only just discovering that the holding on is much, much easier to do.

My two oldest weren’t going off to college this week, but it did feel monumental sending them to a small, safe school just down the road, and the letting go was scary and yes, sad for me, and I could not forbid all mourning. How quickly the time has come to say good-bye to two older children while there’s no longer a baby wedged on my hip, flapping fat fingers at the departing sisters while babbling, “Bye-bye.” There was a 4-year-old with neatly coiffed hair and a toddler hugging my leg, but I felt like my kids were the fastest moving timepieces that were ever created on that first morning of school. Tick, tock, Tick, tock.

So, yes, there were some more tears. (A friend asked me on Facebook if I cried. My response? “Affirmative.”)

But there was hope, too. There was the belief that I’ve raised two happy, confident kids who set goals for this year that included being kind, giving their best, and staying true to themselves. I can’t control everything. They might get teased. They might learn the natural consequences of forgetting something at home. They might be bored sometimes. They might feel left out or find themselves missing home and me. Here’s the thing, though. I wasn’t in control when I was homeschooling either. I’ll never be able to control everything. I can’t guarantee a happy, carefree life for my kids. What I can do is teach that there’s redemption in suffering. I can keep on loving. I can try to always give my best just like my kids are trying to do in that new building today, and I can trust that my kids and I – with God as our guide – have a fixed kind of love that transcends the proximity and frequency of cuddles, that “endures not a breach but an expansion,” and remains constant even in the wake of big, big change.

My sweet children, life is sometimes hard and always, always changing, even when it’s not so obvious like it’s been this week. But one thing won’t ever change and it is this: I love you, you love me, God loves all of us, and this was so before you were born into this world, and it will always be so whether you’re here with me or far away from my reach.

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About that cliff hanger

Okay. So I never should have pulled the old cliff hanger trick in my last post. Honestly, I meant to follow up on that post long before now, but two trips in less than three weeks as well as a broken bone have left me running around more than usual all while toting around an extra 35 pounds in the form of a super-cute but now mostly immobile toddler. While we were in Illinois for a family wedding, Thomas was sliding down a tube slide on Gaba’s (AKA my mom) lap when his leg got stuck. Four hours at the emergency room confirmed what we suspected: Poor, little guy suffered from a toddler fracture. Honestly, he’s hurting a lot less than my sweet mom who simply feels awful. We’ll see her this coming weekend, and she wants to sign the cast, “Gaba’s heart is breaking…” Poor Thomas. Poor Gaba. (Gaba, stopped beating yourself up. Too bad he won’t even remember any of this, but you will forever. Love you more.)

Thomas with cast 1024x1024 About that cliff hanger

But, anyway, that bit I wrote about exciting changes ahead coming in August caused a few friends to worry/wonder if everything was okay. Everything is indeed fine. We are not moving as one friend suspected, and I haven’t been hiding a pregnancy for months. No special deliveries will be arriving this August, although I’m finding it quite odd to not be pregnant because I usually am right about now. Nursing and running/exercising as much as I am these days has left my cycle all wacky. I had my first non-obstetrics related gynecologic appointment recently and had to get an ultrasound for some symptoms that turned out to be nothing (or nothing worth worrying about), and it was sad to only have an empty uterus to look at and no tiny heartbeat throbbing anywhere in sight. But I’m at peace with my family size right now. It feels good. And, yes, it feels good to be regularly getting uninterrupted sleep at night. I still have my wakeful moments like the other night when my 4-year-old kept kicking off the covers and I was freezing. I finally firmly told her she could go sleep in her own bed if she didn’t want any covers but that Mommy was cold. She stayed put. Being next to me overrides perfect sleeping conditions apparently. I’ve said it before, but sometimes I really do feel like a celebrity being that everybody wants to sleep with me.

But here I am keeping people dangling off the cliff.

No new house in the near future. No babies either. But there is a big change. A big, scary change (for me anyway). After months of praying, pondering, creating agonizingly long pros and cons lists, waffling back and forth, consulting a few close friends, and talking over and over with my husband, we have decided to put my oldest two children in the local parochial school for this coming academic year. I thought of all the reasons I could delineate in this post to defend our decision; however, I know I don’t have to defend myself. There will be people who think, “Who cares? What’s the big deal?” There will be others who silently “tsk, tsk” me. There will be friends who support me. There may be those who silently think I’m making a big mistake or that I gave up on homeschooling too quickly. In fact, it was the very idea of naysayers and the fear that this decision would make me seem like an epic failure that were making me cling to the homeschooling mom image and to refuse to consider any other options.

Parenting is never black and white though. Love can be expressed in all sorts of ways. Decisions are not always easy to make because, quite frequently, we live in fear that we could be making a better decision, but sometimes we have to take a deep breath and trust. That’s what I’m trying to do right about now.

I started reading about homeschooling before I was even pregnant. I worked for a parenting publication and had the opportunity to write an article about “alternative educational choices” such as Montessori, charter schools, International Baccalaureate programs, and, yes, homeschooling. Well, the homeschooling family I interviewed was so full of joy and it clearly was a close family, so I remember thinking that I might want to do that with my kids one day. I also had an aunt who had four kids who was homeschooling at the time, and I admired her as well.

When I became pregnant, gunner that I am, I began checking out books from the library on homeschooling as well as reading up about it online. (It was around that time when I discovered my first-ever mom blog – that of the industrious Danielle Bean, who happened to homeschool her kids.) I soaked up all the inspiration and information I could and when our little family ended up in Atlanta, I immediately joined the local Catholic homeschooling co-op – no matter that my oldest was only 2. Immediately, I met women whom I came to admire and love. They had the kind of values I did. They had beautiful, close-knit families. I never seemed to notice their kids’ tantrums or the dust in their homes even though these things were surely present in their lives. I wanted to be them when I grew up.

Still, I always said I would take homeschooling year by year and child by child. That is what I’ve always done. That is what I’m doing now. And I realize, what I wanted more than to replicate the exact lives these moms I met were living, which is impossible since we have different spouses, children, homes, hair color, passions, pursuits, etc., was their happiness and holiness. I have plenty of other friends who have smaller families and have never homeschooled who have these same traits and awesome values. I want to be them when I grow up, too. Ultimately, I just want to be a good wife, mom, and human being. How I go about doing that does not depend on some stringent set of rules that I must follow.

I’ve had seasons of homeschool burnout, but this year I didn’t feel overly frazzled. We were keeping up with our routine. Yes, two sisters in particular seemed to be constantly bickering, but their personalities have always clashed. We were plodding along. Everything was going to be okay, but I didn’t really feel okay. I wasn’t depressed or on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I simply felt deflated. I felt like I could never do enough. I also had a lot of guilt that it was my 3-year-old (who recently turned 4) who I’d decided to schlep off to preschool three days a week, so I could focus on school for the older ones. I’d always said I would keep my little ones close and even though this child did great (and is complaining that she doesn’t get to go to pre-K next year), I don’t want to miss out these precious years with her or her little brother. I want to be lazy with them some days and read storybooks all daylong. I want to nurse my little one without interruption. And, truthfully, I don’t want to be diffusing a sibling squabble every two minutes.  The arguing drives me crazy, and sometimes I’d find myself wondering if some of us could do with a little less togetherness. On top of all that, I just felt like I needed a little less chaos and messes in my day.

Is this selfish? Maybe. My husband says it isn’t. He’s the one who ultimately made the deicion. I told him to. “As the patriarch of the family, I want you just to decide what’s best and then,” I added, half-jokingly, “if anything goes wrong, I can blame you.”

I am still afraid I’ve made the wrong decision, or acquiesced to the wrong decision, but what I’m really afraid of stems from an inflated ego. All my life I’ve tried to be perfect (or at least I’ve hoped to appear perfect to others) while stumbling miserably along. In my pre-mom days, it was my body or my grades or how I “performed” as a daughter that I threw myself into, but since becoming a mom I can get a little obsessive compulsive about being the perfect mom even though I know there’s no such thing here in this broken world. As Fr. Jacques Philippe writes in his bomb-diggity book Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, About that cliff hanger

God loves those who make their way with freedom of spirit and who don’t ‘split hairs’ too much over the details. Perfectionism doesn’t have much to do with sanctity.

That last bit is worth repeating for any recovering perfectionists out there. Perfectionism doesn’t have much to do with sanctity.

My never-ending and futile quest for a “perfect” homeschool experience perhaps drove me to this decision to make a big change, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I decide to pull my kids out after a year and try again with a renewed spirit and perspective. Although at this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if we continue sending our older kids to “real” school either. Child by child, year by year, right?

Given how my children performed during their screening exams, I have realized I shouldn’t have worried so much about how well I was doing as a homechooling mom. We did a lot more than I thought we were doing, but I always felt like we were coming up short. I wasn’t excited to teach anymore. I dreaded planning the new day when it came to school and just wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. I knew I could not completely unschool either though. I have crunchy educational views. I believe kids learn organically and should be playing more rather than pursuing academics or looking at flash cards all daylong, especially during the early years. But it also bothered me that one child in particular had no motivation to do anything but read (and not always books I would have liked her to read) while at the same time, it concerned me that another child was such a crippling perfectionist (hmmmm…I wonder where she gets that from) that she would sometimes end up in tears when were doing something that was supposed to be fun. Meanwhile, a little boy wanted to nurse; a 3-year-old wanted to play pretend; a needy, Prozac-popping dog needed a belly rub; the laundry taunted me; and planning and cooking meals – something I once really enjoyed – became an abhorrent chore. I felt like I was never able to meet all my kids’ needs. I’m sure I’ll still feel that way whether this sending-kids-to-school thing is short-lived or not, but I am looking forward to having a  more time to daydream and dawdle with my littles. (Okay, I need to stop qualifying and justifying everything I write now and just get on with it.)

As much as I’ve loved homeschooling and as much as I am going to cry buckets of tears when I have to let go of my two oldest and watch them walk into school, into new territory outside the safety and coziness of our home, I also know that homeschooling out of pride, out of wanting to be the rockstar parent is not the right reason to hold onto homeschooling, especially when your spouse is gently suggesting you give something new a try. In some ways, homeschooling had become my only goal, my charism, the one and only path to be a good, holy Catholic and raising good, holy children. A fellow homeschool dropout and friend of mine told me recently that she feels like there’s this hierarchy in some circles that if you do A, then you’re a good mom. If you do A and B, then you’re an excellent mom. If you do A and B and homeschool, well, lookout! You might as well be canonized now. I have another friend who does still homeschool who doesn’t feel this way. She feels like people think she’s a freak. That hasn’t been my experience though; I agree more with the idea that homeschooling propels mothers to a higher level in the minds of some people. When others found out I homeschooled, they expressed admiration. And, yup, affirmation junkie that I am, I liked that admiration and if I’m honest, I’ll miss being able to say, “I actually homeschool,” when people ask me where my kids go to school. Ridiculous, yes. I still have plenty of growing up to do.

Several years ago I told a spiritual director about my plans for holiness. Interestingly, they had a lot to do with how many children I planned on having and that I was going to practice attachment parenting and homeschool them. Yes, my path to sanctity had everything to do with what I would do and very little to do with what God might call me to do. I was all about satisfying my own image of what it meant to be a good, holy mom, and it had very little to do with pleasing God or leaving room for providence and grace in my life. I then blabbered on about how hard this would be because of how much I suck, because I yelled at my kids too much, because I wasn’t a very naturally patient person, because I was afraid. Yada, yada, yada. Well, this wise spiritual director very gently told me I might have some issues of false humility to work through (you think?) and that perhaps being open to God’s plan for me didn’t only include doing things that would feed my pride and make me appear to be a super mom.

Yes, as I alluded to above is very, very true: Maybe I wasn’t really afraid that sending my kids to a good, nurturing school was going to ruin them or erode our family closeness or convinced that homeschooling was the only way to raise happy, loving children (because I’ve never claimed to subscribe to that “all or nothing” school of thought), but maybe I was just scared that I can’t do as much as I thought I could and that my own shot at super stardom in the mommy ranks was demolished.

But at the end of the day, I am called to parent my children, to minimize the hurt, and to maximize the joy. Homeschooling or any one decision is not a religion or a even a guaranteed sign of goodness, obedience, or piety. What I desire for my children, above all, is to grow up knowing without a doubt that they were loved, cared for, cherished, and not always rushed or pushed, something I’d been doing a little too much lately as a teaching parent.

I know other homeschooling moms will tell me I shouldn’t have pushed so hard or tried to do so much. I should have trusted that afternoons reading picture books or playing card games were enough. I know all of this intellectually and in my heart, too. But I was having trouble living it. So, for now, I had to let go. I had to accept what I am and what I am not. Similarly, I had to accept my children’s temperaments and the people they are. I had to trust that all will be well, and I had to trust, too, that even if maybe this wasn’t the right decision that we will be okay. We will survive. God isn’t going anywhere. He makes good out of bad – even misguided decisions or fumbling, prideful, perfectionists like myself.

So this is my prayer as we look ahead to new beginnings and big changes, also from Searching For and Maintaining Peace (a recent read for my spiritual book club):

“Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will. I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further. I am not going to spend hours racking my brain. I am deciding such and such a thing because, all things carefully considered, it seems to me the best thing to do. And I leave everything in Your hands. I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions. And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error. It will be for me a source of humility and I will learn something from it!”

This prayer, by the way, is perfect for someone who is NOT gifted at all at discernment. I’m sure I’ll be repeating it over and over as I continue to face big and small decisions in this messy but beautiful life of mine.

*I had quite a bit of anxiety piecing together this post because I was concerned about offending people who homeschool passionately or those who don’t homeschool, so please just be kind (not that I’d expect any differently from remnant) and know that my intention was to explain my own unique situation and I meant no harm.

Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

I’m back to mom blog business as usual where I annoy you with sharing the silly things my kids do or say. Today I’m even featuring samples of my child’s excellent homeschool education.

The Star Wars obsession is not letting up. Not at all as made evident by the doodles around Madeline’s spelling work.

photo120 Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

It’s not easy to make out, but that’s a grinning Jabba the Hutt.

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