In the midst of my final disillusionment with academia which includes feeling skeptical about schools, formal education and the real point of learning, my husband and I are obligated to make a decision about where to send our four year old next year for school…  by the end of this week.  We are at a complete deadlock.

Option 1 is to keep her where she is—a play based daycare with not enough outdoor time and no real curriculum but dedicated and loving staff and great kids to play with—and move her to part time.  If she went part time she and I would get to go to museums, do art projects, read books, and play.  We’d get to spend more time together but I know I’m not going to teach her to read or do math or to sit quietly.  It would not be pre-K.

Option 2 would be to send her to the exceptional pre-K at the same school that Big Girl attends.  The teachers there are amazing.  The resources are mindblowing.  The outdoor space is a dream.  The follow a Reggio-Emilia philosophy that would allow Little Girl to spend days and weeks diving deeply into topics I’d never think to cover, alongside lots of curious kids who would be at school with her for the next 6 years.  She wants to go, desperately.

Cost is not irrelevant: Option 1 is the cheaper choice and Option 2 is just about doable.  Option 1 is flexible with schedules and timing.  Option 2 is a school; five days a week, starting right at 8:15 for morning meeting.  The timing and flexibility issues are hugely important to me.

Do we pick the school that allows Little Girl and I more time to have fun, the flexibility for her to go back up to full time if the part time option doesn’t work, and is less expensive but no real academic content or the school that costs more, does more but is a year-long commitment?

We have four days left to decide…

There are lots of other pros and cons we can throw into these lists (including: one place for drop-off, Big Girls opinion, existing friendships) but the above captures the central dilemma.  Part of what makes this such a dilemma is the fact that we are trying to predict the future during a time of profound changes in our family life— it’s virtually impossible to make a prediction with so many unknowns (anyone have a crystal ball to lend?).

But, also central to our dilemma is a question about what we think kids need most: structure and stimulation or freedom and openness.  As with any other legitimate dilemma, I can find data to support both perspectives.

Scholars have shown through several studies that kids who attend a structured pre-K program do much better in all academic pursuits both short-term and long-term (for example, see http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten/Pre-kindergarten-What-the-research-shows.html.)  But, scholars have also shown that pre-K is particularly important for kids with low-to-average IQs, those who grow up in poverty and those whose parents are not able to provide enrichment for them.

I am abundantly able to provide enrichment myself.  I do it automatically and naturally.  (What was you’re your favorite animal we saw at the zoo today?  Cool!  Why don’t we go draw a picture/sew a stuffed animal/make a sculpture of that animal?  I bet we can find books on it at the library too!)  That said, although I am an educator, I’m not a pre-K one.  A fabulous pre-K teacher will surely be able to give her all that and more.  And, I’d still give her that on the side, just like I always have.

The second big reason I read about why kids need pre-K is for the socializing aspect.  Well, part-time care at her current daycare will handle that easily.

For that matter, all the research I can find (including this compelling article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2013/01/how_important_is_preschool_if_you_are_researching_early_education_philosophies.2.html) shows pretty clearly that for most kids, and kids with highly educated parents especially, which school we pick makes very little difference in my daughter’s future.

For us, this is not a decision about the long-term future but the short-term.  What is best for her, for me, and for our family next year?  It’s hard though to know how much to weigh my preferences or to know how durable my preferences will prove to be.  I keep finding myself thinking that my little four year old would really benefit from more time at home, more time for big projects that she can immerse herself in, and especially more one-on-one time with me.  But, I also think that I can benefit from more time to play with her.  It’s hard to make a decision on so selfish a reason.

But, so far, it’s that assessment of my own wants that pushes the lever just a bit on the side of less school next year (keeping her at her current school and reducing to part-time).  This lever is finicky, we’re at 55-45 right now, but we seem to keep swinging back and forth… and we only have four more days to decide!

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Cookies and Cream (our chickens) eating oatmeal on a cold winter morning.

Life is funny.  Somehow I have gone from someone who was worried about salmonella (no licking the cake batter covered beaters in my house!), often grossed out by eggs (no runny yolks; eggs well done please), and unable to imagine EVER cleaning up after a pet (kids were enough, thank you!) to a devoted chicken keeper.

It started when Big Girl’s school decided to rent chickens through rentthechicken.com last Spring.  Since we live within walking distance of Big Girl’s school we decided to sign up as “chicken checkers” for a weekend.  We were charmed by the way those chickens gobbled up grass and the kale grown at the school and smitten with the delicious eggs we got to take home as a thank you for checking on them all weekend.

The girls and I ganged up on my husband and started our persuasion campaign that very weekend.  Please can we get chickens, please?!?!?!  My mother-in-law supported our case by pointing out (a couple of times) how she always wished that she had chickens.

After weeks of thinking through logistics, we decided to do it.  We initially rented our two chickens and quickly decided that we wanted to adopt.

We are all more than fond of our feathered friends now.  Big Girl delights in feeding them from her hand.  Little Girl joins my husband in the morning to feed them.  While doing so she croons to them about her birthday, their birthdays and other things on her mind.  She is especially appreciative of them as she would eat 4 eggs a day if we let her…  she even like her fried eggs with runny yolks!  The girls and I delight in giving them afternoon treats.   And, I contentedly clean up all of their poop, refill their water, refresh their bedding, bring in their eggs (and cook their eggs) and generally hang out with them.   And, it feels a bit like magic every time we collect another egg.

We’ve had our chickens for 6 months and it’s become (pretty) normal.  Our chickens have become our pets, beloved ones.  For me, this has been a real growth experience.  For the very first time in my life I understand why people have pets.  I love them.  They make me happy.  I buy them treats (they love the cackleberry ones from Happy Hens and devour corn too.  I even found myself delivering hot oatmeal to them this morning (with sunflower seeds and rehydrated raisins.  I took a bite first to taste it!)

It is more than that too.

It’s something we do together.  Yesterday, Big Girl spent 25 minutes outside on a cold winter afternoon feeding them treats from her hand and trying to get them to follow her instructions.  I cleaned out their coop and watched my kid play with her pets.

I know that for animal lovers this seems normal… kid loves pet.  But, to me this is amazing.   My kids are both afraid of almost all animals.  A year ago, neither one of them would pet any creature.  Now, they pet our chickens, and our neighbors cat, and the sheep at the farm where we go fruit picking.  Someday they might even pet a dog!

Having chickens has helped my kids not be afraid of animals.  And, not being afraid of animals helps my kids in two important ways: it makes the world less scary and unpredictable in general (no need to fear the off-leash dogs nor the creature on a hiking trail) and it helps to make them more comfortable in the natural world more generally. Caring about their pets and by extension other animals helps kids remember that humans are not the only creatures who inhabit this world.  And, that is good for both kids and the world!

Yet, we don’t have regular pets.  We have chickens.  Creatures who lay eggs that we eat for our breakfasts and dinners too.  I value the idea that by working together we are providing our own food.  Doing so helps my kids think more seriously about the ethics of food: for themselves, the environment and the animals too.

And, I have to point out that those chickens are so cute too!

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Scarf that Big Girl is fingerknitting and purse.

Winter can make any house seem small… and messy too.  The cold weather has been keeping us indoors and hanging around in the living room.  This can be cozy but it can also be a recipe for frustration and claustrophobia.

About two weeks ago I decided I couldn’t stand another elaborate art project taking over the first floor or another fight with the kids about whether or not we can save the lego building they made.   So, I decided it was time for us to rethink how we are using our space… and find a way to create some more!  Luckily, we have a pretty easy solution: a mostly unused third story.

Our third story is not as comfortable or nice as the rest of the house.  We have done very little to refinish it, it’s not insulated and we rarely turn on the heat up there, the space is oddly broken up with eaves and closets, and the original lathe and plaster ceiling is starting to crumble under its own weight.   Although we ostensibly have offices up there, we have not really made much use of them and instead have generally just been using it for storage or as the occasional guest room. On the plus side, we have two more rooms up there AND a full bathroom.

I’ve wanted to reclaim and refinish this space for a while.  I’ve had grand visions of breaking out the internal walls and creating an amazing master suite up there.  We’ve also discussed letting Big Girl move up there and having the girls no longer share a room.   Both of these plans are long term and involve major renovation: installing insulation, removing and replacing walls, replacing windows, refinishing the bathroom, adding a bump out and re-roofing the house, etc…  You know just your average $10,000-$100,000 project.  Not happening any time soon.

Instead, I decided to create a plan for refinishing and reusing this space now! I began by having the girls help me turn the larger office/guest room into a sewing room…  with a budget of $0.

First we cleaned out the space, throwing away or recycling tons of old journals and books, gathering old pictures into one space and generally getting rid of the old to make room for the new.  I must admit that this felt bittersweet; in recycling 10 years of journals and donating Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members, I felt the pain of failure more acutely than I had in the past bunch of months.  I even put my Ph.d. diploma and bound copy of my dissertation in the closet… not out of spite but because in making space for new things it is necessary to cast out some of the old things.  This is true for a room as much as for my soul.

The result was a room with a pull out couch, a large desk/work space, a large coffee table, an empty book shelf, lots of wall space and a corner filled with a 5’ x 5’ stack of books to be relocated across the hall to our future library! (more on that soon)

Next, the kids and I pulled out all the fabric from the closet.  This too was bittersweet.  Lots of the fabric scraps were gifts from friends and family from a baby quilt I had made for Big Girl before she was born.  Other pieces of fabric were baby clothes I wanted to reuse in some way and a few maternity clothes that remind me of the good parts of being pregnant (the sheer wonder and magic of growing a baby!).  Having Little Girl and Big Girl help with this took away the sting, we weren’t casting aside their babyhood, we were building on it!

So we did: Little Girl sorted the pieces into general size of little scraps, small pieces and big lengths.  Big Girl sorted them into color and texture and put them on the shelf.  I did some ironing and lots of folding.

folded fabricspools of ribbon

Then we went on a ribbon scavenger hunt to dig up all the bits of ribbon and notions that we had around the house.  We had a “ribbon drawer” in the dining room so you know this was a substantial project.  We strung the ribbons on dowel rods that I had laying around and hung them on the wall.

We finished all this about 10 days ago.  And, we have been hanging out in our sewing room a ton (which means much less mess in the living room too!).

Little Girl’s first sewing project back in December made her fall in love.  Since then, she has sewn herself a stuffed animal (Pancake the Turtle), a stuffed heart for a friend, and she is working on another project for my sister’s birthday present.  She is working with embroidery floss and felt so far and it is a really good match for her 4 year old fine motor skills.  I am amazed at her determination.

heart pillow

Big Girl has sewn a few small projects, mostly from the kit she began back in December and she’s been finger knitting too.  She’s making a very cool scarf as a birthday present for my sister and promised to make one for me next!

And, I have been learning to quilt.  I have pieced together a bunch of squares from scraps and am planning a blanket.  I also just created a small purse (the final part of said sister’s birthday present) that I practiced hand quilting on.  Boy is that hard!

quilt squares

It has been wonderful to reclaim this part of our house.  Doing so has increased our living space and created an place where we can lay out big projects that we want to come back to later.

But, it’s not only physical space we’ve gained.  We’ve also gained emotional space by saying that sewing and crafting is something important that deserves a space of its own.  Lots of people have playrooms—a space for kids to go and play with their toys.  Playrooms say that the toys are legitimate and playing with them is an important part of childhood.  Having a shared craft space does the same thing!

I feel like we’ve also created some mental space.  By cleaning out the old work related stuff, I made more mental room for whatever comes next.   Also, I think we made some mental space for thinking about crafting and making differently.  By creating a space where we can make things for ourselves and others we are saying that gifts need not only be bought in a store.  They can also be made by hands, big and small.

It is easy to make me feel guilty, always has been.  A plaintive look, a well-argued appeal to my sense of justice, or a suggestion that I’m not living up to expectations or responsibilities, and I fold, quickly.

I’ve always been this way, but it’s become more acute since I’ve become a parent.  No surprise, right?  In case you haven’t heard, motherhood is the province of guilt.  Moms dish it out.  But, we feel it too… urgently.   For we, mothers and fathers, are responsible for the bearing, nurturing, feeding, growing, and teaching of our children.

For moms though, it’s amplified in the abundant and aggressive messages we get about how we are supposed to bear and care for our kids.  Starting in the preconception stage, we hear about how we need to start taking prenatal vitamins and have genetic screenings.  During pregnancy, these messages and rules intensify.  Most make sense:  exercise and eat well, take daily prenatal vitamins, get enough sleep, get sufficient prenatal medical care, have the appropriate medical screenings.  In short, be healthy.  A tough ask but not a crazy one.  But, then there is the ever growing list of other things pregnant women should avoid, and this list can make a person feel crazy.  Don’t take any medications besides Tylenol (what to do if you need anti-depressants?  See this recent comment in the Motherlode blog http://nyti.ms/1m1HLZY), avoid nail polish, hair dye, pesticides, sunscreen, fish with mercury, cruise ships, runny cheese, farm fresh food, and on and on and on…  The more we start thinking about the potential risk the more we can come to feel like the only way to grow a healthy babe is by living in a bubble, a bubble without BPAs and that doesn’t off-gas, of course.

For the type of mom who plans and reads, who finds it slightly unreal that a human can grow in her body, and who likes to do things right, (in short, me) all these instructions and suggestions can create a fast track to crazy-land.  When I was pregnant with Big Girl, I started buying only organic produce and dairy, stopped using any cosmetics including chapsticks with petroleum, switched out our commercial cleaners for vinegar and baking soda, banned wearing shoes in the house (because of the pesticides and toxins we track in on our shoes) and followed dozens of the other rules as well.  Lots of these changes were healthy ones, and most of them have become permanent lifestyle changes.  But, far from making me feel confident in my impending parenthood, these changes made me more worried and sensitive to all the other things that could go wrong.  By the time Big Girl was born, I was a nervous wreck.

Modern pregnancy has become an indoctrination into a culture of fearful parenting (more on that in some future posts).

This is why the news is making me crazy this week.  First, while the news about the Zika virus going global should be concerning to everyone; Microcephaly is associated with cognitive delays and decreased brain functioning.  The news that El Salvador has advised women not to get pregnant until 2018, and Brazil has also advised women not to get pregnant is downright alarming!  Not only because it seems so unrealistic… half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, I don’t have the stats but I suspect that in these largely Catholic countries (57% Roman Catholic in El Salvador, 65% in Brazil), the rates are similar if not higher, but, also because of the way that this recommendation makes an international health concern the responsibility of individual women.  I can easily imagine how guilty I would feel if my child was born with Microcephaly because I was exposed to a virus… even though it clearly wouldn’t have been my fault that I was exposed.  And, for the many women around the world without access to reliable birth control, it wouldn’t even have been their fault that they got pregnant to begin with if their birth control failed.

The second piece of news this week that is making me crazy is that the CDC has announced that sexually active women of childbearing age should abstain from alcohol unless they are using reliable methods of birth control.  This new and more stringent recommendation can be read about in a press release issued yesterday (http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0202-alcohol-exposed-pregnancy.html).  Although it is clear that fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious and heartbreaking syndrome, this recommendation seems extreme and unrealistic as well.  The idea that drinking before getting pregnant is dangerous to the fetus is patently false and the idea that drinking very lightly and very occasionally later in pregnancy is dangerous has been repeatedly challenged.  The justification the CDC gives is that half of pregnancies are unplanned; how about reducing that number?  Again, how about making birth control accessible and affordable for all?  And, if women are really drinking at dangerous amounts and if Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is really widespread?   Then we need to do something societally about alcohol consumption overall, not just for women.

I am in no way saying that Microcephaly or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are not serious conditions nor am I suggesting that having a special needs child is not a tremendous life altering, and often tragic experience.  But, I am saying that being a woman, a prospective mother, or an actual mother, is more than being a womb.  Cultural problems, environmental toxins, and diseases are societal level problems; it can’t be just pregnant women who have to bear the responsibility.

via How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off – The New York Times.

This super interesting article from the New York Times provides some further fuel for thought on what it takes to foster creativity.

I hate though the underlying idea in here that creativity is fundamentally about higher productivity…

No surprise but I’ve been thinking a lot about my priorities lately.   As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, one that I keep coming back to is a longing to be more creative in my daily life, to feel freer to explore ideas and to have fun.

I think creativity and fun are not just enjoyable but essential.  And often revolutionary as well, engaging in play upends our expectations, challenges the status quo and helps us to see the world in new ways.

I am writing about this in other venues and will share some of it here, but in the meantime, can I recommend some fabulous TED talks?  This playlist has so many hilarious and inspiring ideas.   I especially like the first two videos.  I totally want to figure out how to make a fruit instrument and I’m tempted to not wear any pants to my next faculty meeting too…

https://www.ted.com/playlists/88/that_s_absurd