Sunday, January 21, 2018

How We Do It: Survival Mode

“I don’t know how you do it.”  I hear this frequently from people in my life.  I think they’re probably just commenting in a “shaking my head at the lunacy of your life” kind of way, but because I put a lot of thought into how I do things, I tend to interpret it as a question: “How do you do it?”  And so, for the curious, here is the first installment in the How Do You Do It? series.

First, we don’t.  Not really.  Not in the way that I think people imagine.  Life is messy- far messier than it appears on Instagram or Facebook.  Our family is not perfect, and all of the problems that people can imagine in a home with 7 kids (6 boys!) and one mom probably do exist. 

I’ve had to adjust my expectations.  Those who knew me 6 or 7 years ago may remember that I was a pretty decent housekeeper.  I delighted in sharing organization tips and putting my logistics skills to work on things like laundry and Legos.  These days, my logistics skills are needed elsewhere.  We still live just a hair's breadth away from survival mode.  In fact, we find ourselves in survival mode quite frequently. 

What, you may ask, is survival mode?  It’s a season when something- a sick kid, a busy school schedule, a teenage crisis- deposits us in “just survive the day” land. 

When I started working full time, I realized two things pretty quickly.  One, we couldn’t live in survival mode forever, even though it kind of felt like we couldn’t get out of it.  Two, even if I managed to get us out of survival land, we were going to land back there with some frequency.  It’s just the reality of our life situation.

Once I embraced those realities, I first worked to get us out of survival mode, but then, something occurred to me: If I planned ahead for survival mode, it would automatically feel less like survival and more like real living and we could probably get out of it faster.

So, “How Do You Do It?” for a single mom must first address the all important Survival Mode.  Every single mom should have a Survival Mode Plan in her back pocket.

Decide on the essentials.  What things do you do that are essential to your family’s well-being?

If you’re in survival mode, at this point, you think something like: IT’S ALL ESSENTIAL!  EVERYTHING I DO IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TO THE WELL-BEING OF MY PRECIOUS LITTLE BABIES!!!

Take a breath.  You are stressed.  You are THINKING IN ALL CAPS, for heaven’s sake.  This very reaction illustrates why it’s better to plan for Survival Mode when you’re calm and rational, and, well, not actually in Survival Mode.

You do many wonderful things for your children.  You have devoted your life to keeping your family healthy and thriving.  But, for a period of time, some of those “wonderful things” can be sacrificed for the sake of lowering the stress level in the home.  It won’t last forever- it should in fact be as brief as possible- and if you don’t drop something, you’re going to lose your mental health, and that’s not good for anybody.

Okay, now that you’ve been talked down from your ALL CAPS freak out, a few practical tips.

  • Quick, easy food options. Health takes a back seat and we switch to paper plates and anything else that can make things easier.  My kids eat fruit without complaint or urging, so I keep that on hand to make up for the lack of whole grains and veggies the quick meals might be creating.
  • Keep that laundry going!  We need clean clothes.  Whether or not they’re folded or on hangers is far less important.  They just need to be washed and sorted by wearer.
  • Get to school on time.  This is non-negotiable and usually requires me to push past the point of exhaustion to set out shoes and backpacks the night before.
  • The kids need to feel safe and loved.  This is the hardest part.  Survival mode means everyone is stressed.  Stressed kids don’t behave well, and stressed moms aren’t patient.  I have to spend a lot of time praying that I’ll have the strength to keep my mouth shut and the endurance to give hugs or read stories when I’d rather be sleeping.  And when I don’t succeed, I apologize.  Immediately.  
  • Non-essentials can wait.  They’ll still be there (unfortunately) when things calm down.

When we’re in Survival Mode, I fall back on Elisabeth Elliott’s timeless principle: Do the next thing.  Get up.  Start the first thing.  Do the next thing.  Don’t spend too much time thinking about what that next thing is.  When there are a lot of little people with a lot of needs, the next thing will usually be clearly defined. 

Survival Mode isn’t a place where families thrive.  It isn’t a healthy place to exist for a long period of time, but planning for it, recognizing it, and dealing with it is essential.  Everyone ends up in Survival Mode; it’s a reality of life.  The key is to SURVIVE it, and then move on. 

Monday, January 1, 2018


Well, we've been sick.  Lots of sitting around with fuzzy blankets and tea and BOOKS.  (And streaming, of course. We've watched all three Hobbits, all three Lord of the Rings- you get the idea.)  But the books are my favorite.  Here's my list for the past week:

  • Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely
  • Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
  • How the Right Lost Its Mind by Charlie Sykes
  • Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton 
  • World without Mind by Franklin Foer (in progress)
  • End Game by David Baldacci (in progress)
I've read several end of the year book wrap-up lists this week, so I thought I'd contribute a little list of my own.  I couldn't decide on my top ten or five or three, so I'm compromising by grouping a few notables by type.  (I came up with the categories on my own based on how I related to the book, so, as the kids would say, "Don't @ me.")

The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse
This book is not, of course, primarily a parenting book, but I read it as a parent.  Society has extended adolescence and thereby made maturation in many ways more difficult.  As a parent, I want my children to be ready to face the adult world.  Sasse has many thoughts on how parents, teachers, and society as a whole can foster adulthood in the next generation.  It is my wish that my children grow up to be strong and independent thinkers.  Based on how vigorously and regularly they argue with me, I think I'm on the right track.  Excellent book for anyone who comes into contact with young people.

Use of Force by Brad Thor
House of Spies by Daniel Silva
What can I say?  I like spy novels.  Thor's are consistently fun and fast-paced; Silva's are beautifully written and deeply thoughtful.  I anxiously await their new installments each summer.  I also read
The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker.
It was my first by this author, and he has a distinct writing style (so many fragments!) that took a little getting used to.  The style plays into his portrayal of the main character in a way that made me feel like I knew him at the end.  All three are worth a read if you like books with heavy artillery.

Brain Books
Let's call this a broad category.  I am outnumbered by kids at home, and I teach middle school.  I need brain books.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks
This is a fascinating comparative biography and you should read it.  You really should.  The way Ricks ties these two thinkers together while painting a full picture of each independently really is brilliant.  And once you've read it, read The Atlantic article about how the book was edited.  The English teacher in me loved that look behind the scenes.
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple
I listened to this on Audible while I repainted our house this summer.  It made the entire chore seem more...epic, somehow.  White House intrigue, a few brave men trying to wrestle political and foreign forces, determined attempts to bring order and discipline to the frenzied pace of the presidency.  It was all very enlightening.  Godspeed, General Kelly.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Path to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Sometimes, when we're living through a historical event, it's difficult to make sense of the larger issues.  I've intended to read this book for awhile, but I finally cued it on Audible, and I'm glad I did.  I can't claim to have absorbed all of the information- that would take careful study and notation- but I did come away with a deeper understanding of the events that led up to that fateful day.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
This book was written by a young widow, and I approached it skeptically.  I am acutely aware of how unique each person's grief process and experience is, and I expected the book to have little impact on my thinking at this point in my journey.  I was wrong.  Sandberg did an admirable job acknowledging that very fact: Everyone has a different experience.  She focused on the big picture issues like building resiliency.  I've spent so much time contemplating the importance of "suffering well," and her perspective was refreshing.  If you're facing obstacles or grieving a loss, consider reading this book.  You'll find hope and solace and a determination to face the future boldly.

Trumpet of the Swan by EB White
I don't know what I'm going to do when I no longer have children young enough to be read to before bed.  I will be sad.  I will have to get a reading companion dog.  Anyway...
Most people are familiar with Charlotte's Web, but Trumpet of the Swan is my personal EB White favorite.  The characters, both human and avian, are compelling and touching and real.  

Here's to another year of reading! Happy 2018.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, and I really do miss it. I figured that, at the very least, I could do one of those yearly update letters that we used to get in the mail from friends and family. (Do you remember those letters? They came in that mailbox thing that is now a repository for paper junk items.)

2017 was eventful and challenging for the Bain family. We’ve been without Bryan for five years now, and our family has changed in ways that I could never have anticipated all those years ago. I have so many children at so many different ages and stages that I often feel I’m being swept along by events. In my mind, I am the general leading my troops, but, practically speaking, I’m just herding cats and hoping everyone makes it to the first day of college.

I’m proud of how the “little people” are growing. Most of them don’t qualify as little anymore! A good yearly update letter should include a bit about each child, and since I have more than the average number of children, I’ll beg your indulgence as I write a longer than average letter.

Nathan is a sophomore at Boerne High School. Yes, that happened. He is thinking about graduation and college and driving and all of those adult things. He runs varsity cross country and his team, thanks to a truly excellent coach, made it to State this year. He is, of course, a technology whiz, and one of his personal triumphs this year involved posting a fix for a problem plaguing a popular phone. The post was popular enough to garner donations from grateful nerds. This sort of undertaking consumes his non-homework time. I’m really not sure what he’s doing, but it seems productive.

Megan, a freshman, is a delight in our boy-heavy home. She is strong and beautiful and has a passion for theater and debate. She is definitely mastering the power of words! She transferred her gymnastics skills to cheer this year. Megan is an excellent and conscientious student, but she’s learning to balance perfection and sanity. I’m proud of the woman she's becoming.

Evan is in seventh grade at Boerne Middle School North. He is a bright young man who alternately delights and exasperates his teachers. He has bold views (I think he’ll follow in Megan’s debate footsteps) and he’s developed an intense interest in running. He ran cross country for the first year this year, and he’s committed to improving in the off-season. Evan’s ability to notice what others miss is exhibiting itself in some pretty impressive photography skills. He’s bain.the_insane on Instagram if you’d like to follow him.

Justin is our high-energy sixth grader who makes sure that ESPN is always running in our house. He watches every sport, and after deciding that playing football involves far too much standing around waiting for the play, he’s continuing to pursue his passion for soccer. He’s an excellent student, and he reads quite a bit. I’m not entirely sure that he sleeps.

Carsten is an old soul and could probably pass for 30, but in reality, he’s in fourth grade at Fabra Elementary. He is my right-hand man, and his sense of responsibility and order is a real asset to our home. Like his siblings, he excels in school, and he enjoys Science Club and serving as Student Council Vice President. He is a skilled soccer player, and I think, maybe, another speedy runner in the making.

Stefan is that second grader who is obsessed with Alexander Hamilton and insists on checking out voluminous books from the library and wading through them. He is a proud nerd, and he’s been blessed by an amazing teacher who doesn’t just tolerate his active brain, she encourages and challenges him. He talks like a professor, and, it must be said, his wardrobe is a tribute to absent-minded, fashion-challenged professors everywhere.

Austin started kindergarten this year, and his imagination delights and entertains all of us. He has struggled some with being patient in school- he’s too far ahead of the kinder curriculum- but I’m not getting calls from the principal, so I think he’s saving his complaints for us at home. At home, he’s reading and doing math problems and impressing all of us with his reasoning abilities. He’s an athletic little guy who plays soccer like a small beast.

And Mom. What about Mom? I’m still teaching seventh grade English at Boerne Middle School South. I’m in my kids’ school district, but not in the same school. I think that has some advantages for all of us. I enjoy teaching English, hours of grading notwithstanding. I have to admit that I don’t really have time for much other than teaching and parenting. I run very, very early in the mornings, and I’ve read some good books lately, but that’s pretty much it. This is the season of long days and short years, and I’m doing my best to persevere through the days and not miss the years.

Happy New Year to all of you! Email or text when you get a chance. We’d love to hear from you.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Summer Snapshots, Part 2

One of biggest things to happen this summer was Mom's first ever trip away from the kiddos.  I wanted to see my Mutti (maternal grandmother) who was in Tennessee visiting from Germany.  I had hoped that somehow we could all go, but after the three hour car trip to the beach, I was ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that a two day road trip was a seriously bad idea.  (Not to put all the blame on Austin, but that little pistol is just too young to be in the car with other humans for long periods of time.)

My sister Sara (see above) volunteered to babysit, and I flew up to visit and had a great time reconnecting, not just with Mutti, but with my aunt Marina and uncle Ken and the cousins.  It was a very refreshing time and those two nights away did me a world of good.  I think it was the first time I had just "chilled out" in four years.  ("Chilling out" is not one of my strengths, and my present circumstances would make it difficult even if it were something I did well.

There was soooo much good food and fellowship, and especially food.  Good thing I managed a run in beautiful Tennessee to burn off some of the delicious calories.

While I was there, we reminisced about some of the trips we had taken in the past, including one to Yugoslavia.  
When we were all much younger.
Left to right: Angie, Marina's friend; Aimee; Marina; Mutti, Anna
And I guess it was cold.
 This, of course, led us to discuss FOOD, and when I got back home, I ordered some Ajvar sauce and made Cevapcici.  Not quite as good as on the Yugoslavia trip, but still pretty tasty.  And I ate the Ajvar on eggs for the rest of the week.

(This, by the way, led to a general flurry of ethnically-inspired meals, much to the kids' delight.  They're pretty adventurous eaters and full-time working Mom's meals tend to be pretty basic.  "What's for dinner?"  "Food.  Let's eat.")

There were also a few injuries and illnesses...

...which were cured by stitches, medicine, and post-doctor Frosty consumption.

Austin also tangled a comb in my hair while I was playing a card game with the older kids.  Letting him play with my hair SEEMED like a good way to keep him occupied.  Never again.  It took me 15 minutes to untangle it.

In July, we did the Texas Too Hot race at the Boerne Lake.  Nathan won the 5K, but I decided to do the 15K which was, much like the "letting Austin near my hair with a comb" incident, a very stupid decision.  It should have been called the Texas Too Hot, Humid, Hilly, and Horrible.  It was crazy.  The 15K course was sadistic and I'll never do it again, although now I at least have a great story about the race that I'll never do again.

Finally, we finished off the summer with OLYMPICS.  And that led to many nights of this...

Hope your summer was wonderful and that everyone is starting off the school year strong!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Summer Snapshots, Part 1

Well, it's the official "last weekend of summer."  Of course, school started here two weeks ago, so that seems a bit of a misnomer at the moment, but it's still a great excuse to post a few random notes about our summer adventures.

We kept it low-key, with as much outdoor time as possible.  I struggled with some light-sensitive headaches which sometimes kept us all inside, but we still managed quite a bit of active fun in the sun.

I finished off the last school year by running a 10K with my sister (her first!) and watching lots of soccer.

Aimee and Sara

Carsten and Random Opponent

There were school awards.

Megan and BFF Kinslee

And...we bought a new car!  I was a little nervous about the downsize, but I have not once regretted the decision.  I love being able to park wherever and I am so thrilled to be back in a Honda.

There were chess games over breakfast.

And swimming.  Lots of swimming.  Austin learned to jump off the diving board and he spent many happy hours doing just that.

Austin demonstrating proper goggle wear.  "They need to push down my ears, Mom."

We explored nature.

Boys looking at something very interesting.

 And we went to the beach!

Which child did NOT understand the point of the picture?

The three sand castle building kiddos.

Sunrise walk.  Note absence of teenagers.

Have a great week!  More summer adventure recaps to come.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Stefan (and Every Runner)

Stefan is six.  And if you've been following this blog for awhile, you know that endurance activities aren't necessarily his natural forte.  Because he has to wear shoes.  He hates shoes.  And pain and suffering and discomfort.

But, at the San Antonio Road Runners Fun Run (free!!) at McAllister Park recently, he ran a total of FOUR miles.  That's a long way for a person with little legs.

The event is basically three runs- an 800 m., a 1 mile, and a 2.5 mile (sometimes 3- it depends).  Anyone who completes all three gets a little trophy.  Stefan wanted that trophy.

I took all of the kids, and I had figured that I'd be spectating with Stefan and Austin after they ran the 100 m. kids' run.  But being around a bunch of runners is motivating even to tiny tots!  I ended up running the 800 with Austin and then, Stefan was convinced that he was going to run the 2.5 mile race for the trophy.

So I ran with him.  In jeans.  Not my smartest clothing choice ever, but it won't be a mistake that I repeat.  The sacrifices we make for our children!

The race was very hard for him.  He'd already run over 1.5 miles that morning in the other races, and he started out tired (but motivated).  He kept a running commentary (Stefan is a talker!) throughout the race, and everything he said has been said (or thought) by every runner in every race.

At the start: This is great!  I'm going to get a trophy.  I'm chasing the [lead] guy on that bike.  Is that a deer?  It's pretty out here.

A little farther:  This is hard.  I think I should walk.  

I CAN'T do this.  That little girl just passed me.  I am last.  Well, second to last because you're behind me, Mom.

Is that lady behind me?  I'm not last!  I'm going to run.  

She passed me!  I'm not doing this anymore.  Carry me.  [I told him runners don't get carried.]  Then just leave me here.

Did your watch buzz?  How fast am I going?  That's so slow!  I'm terrible and I'm slow!  I am NOT good at running.


Do they have a trophy for second to last?

Is that the end?   No, it's not the end.  Why did I sign up for this one?

It's the finish line.  I can't make it.  It's too far.

I am never doing this again.

Where's my trophy?

This trophy is cool.  I did it!  When I do this next time, will they give me another trophy?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Year Reflection

The start of a new year always puts me in a reflective mood.  I like to look back on the past year and think about the changes and evaluate what went well and what didn't.  I like to look forward and set goals for the next year.  And I didn't want to let the year slip away without sharing at least a few of those reflections here.

2015 was a year of change for our family.  Change has, of course, defined our family for many years, and the 3 1/2 years since Bryan died have brought massive transformation.  I think, though, that the change of 2015 was unique in that it represents our family getting settled into what will be our new normal.

The Lord has been gracious in allowing us to make our changes somewhat slowly: first a move, then mom working part-time, then the kids going to public school, and, now, mom working full-time.  Each step has been challenging at first and then more manageable as time went on.  (The only step, ironically, that ended up being extremely easy was the kids transitioning from homeschooling to public school.  They did great from day one.  They love it and they're thriving.  This was the step that I was most concerned about, but I suppose I had forgotten that children are far more resilient and open to change than we adults are.)

Now that I'm working full-time, my children are growing in independence and maturity in some beautiful ways.  It's not always easy- in fact, it's extraordinarily difficult.  Raising seven children alone is a full-time job all by itself.  I really do have two full-time jobs at this season in my life.  But now, I don't just tell my kids that they're an indispensable part of our family team- they really are.  If anyone fails to pull his weight, everything crashes.  They are beginning to see that life takes work and that leisure is a welcome reward for that work.

We still have a long way to go.  There are a lot of areas in which we can, and indeed, must, improve in the coming years.  But life has taken on a new dimension, a new direction.  The Bain family isn't living in  a state of transition anymore.  We are, believe it or not, settled into our new life.  The years to come will bring many more changes, I know, and I look forward to seeing what the Lord has in store for us in the future.  But for now, we're where we ought to be, and although life is exhausting, it's good.

As we feel more established as a family, I hope to share more here about grief, loss, suffering, and moving on; about single parenting; about family identity; about approaching life as a mission and a calling.

Thank you for your faithfulness in reading my scribblings, however sporadic they might be.  May your lives see many blessings and much growth in the coming year.