Thursday, March 19, 2020

It's Been Awhile

“Hello, yeah, it's been a while
Not much, how about you?”

England Dan’s song was stuck in my head as I ran this morning. I imagine there will be a lot of phone calls starting that way in the days ahead as we’re forced to slow down and reach out. (I made TWO personal phone calls this week, a 100% yearly increase in just three days! I’ve been on the social distance bandwagon for years, folks. Welcome to my world, everyone!)

In keeping with that spirit, I thought I’d hop on over to my neglected blog and share a few thoughts.

Online schooling, desks optional

Mary Katherine Ham shared a message on Instagram this week about parenting in crisis. She said we shouldn’t naysay our ability to switch gears as parents. And, let me tell you, we’re all switching gears right now.

I’ve had some experience with crisis parenting, and one odd thing about mothering is that, in some ways, the different stages and different struggles of parenting require different moms. And, yet, all that parenting is done not by different moms, but by the same mom, forced over and over again to adjust. The more extreme the swing in life experience, the more extreme the adjustment in the mom.

I’ve written in the past about the challenge of playing so many different roles, but this time is different. The very things we usually do to help each other through tough times - surround one another, get together, offer hugs - turn out to be AGAINST CDC GUIDELINES. So we’re left to change and adjust as parents without the kind of support we’d usually rely on.

A few thoughts from the trenches:

  • Face reality. Acknowledge what’s going on, and, on behalf of those who, like me, are immune-compromised, please listen to the experts.
  • Let yourself feel anxious, or whatever else you’re feeling. It can actually be helpful for your kids to see you name your emotions and work through them.
  • Don’t try to be the same parent you were yesterday. Let things go, adjust. Do your best for your kids, and worry a lot less about what other people think.
  • While Covid-19 is a big-picture problem, it will be the little things that start to drag you down. So be aware of how those small annoyances are preying on your mind. I’ve found that I sometimes discount the cumulative effect of minor problems, and that leads me to overextend and then, of course, run out of energy for parenting. (My kids, for their part, are oblivious to the fact that I encounter problems of any sort, so there’s no sympathy from that quarter.)
  • Don’t do everything. Whatever you were planning to do, cut it in half. Spend the rest of the time doing something enjoyable or even nothing at all.
  • Stay active and stay in touch with others. Social distance means physical distance, not emotional or conversational distance. We’re far more equipped to do this than at any other point in human history. Something to be grateful for!

If laughing at other people’s misfortunes makes you feel better, SHAME ON YOU, but read this to feel better.

And if you need motivation to stay home instead of taking your kids to the store, read this.

We’ll get through this together. (But not TOGETHER together, just figuratively together.) Stay strong! And drop me an email.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A Memory and a Lesson

I'm a mom.  I think a lot about the lessons I'm passing on to my kids.  Am I doing enough?  Are they prepared for the world they will encounter?  I  find myself thinking back to my teen years.  I know that a parent's words do matter.  Why?  Because my dad's words so often come back to me.  He was (and still is) a master of conveying life lessons.  A flashback:

My dad and I cycled around the corner and there it was: Martinshohe.  Not a mountain, but a hill, a taxing and demanding hill.  It stretched up in front of us, tall trees lining either side, the white median line extending into the distance.  It was only a one-mile climb, but my just-pulled-from-bed legs were complaining.  My muscles burned and my breathing became forced.  All of my happy chattering stopped as I focused on pushing the pedals, first one, then the other, then the first, then repeat.  As I looked off to the right, I could see our village growing smaller, an island of homes and farms and shops surrounded by green and gold fields.  My dad was dispensing cycling wisdom as he rode alongside me.  “Keep an even cadence.  Use the entire rotation of each stroke.” 

We rode together often in those days, my dad and I, but this day was different: we would be riding a full century- 100 miles.  The weather was beautiful, cool and crisp with sunshine.  This was unusual; it rained so often in Germany.  This sort of weather just couldn’t be wasted, so here we were, riding up Martinshohe early Saturday morning.

I made it up the hill at long last and enjoyed the scenery as we began the descent.  Then came more hills, up and down, twisting and turning past fields and through villages with quaint houses and barns.  Those were the rides where my dad and I had the best conversations- deep discussions of life and the future.  We took a few snack breaks.  That was before the days of CLIF Bars; my dad packed bananas and cookies in his jersey pockets.

And then, on that beautiful Saturday morning, Daddy started whistling.  Uh oh.  I knew that meant trouble.  You see, that was also before the days of GPS, and experience had taught me that if Daddy was whistling, we were lost.

Yes, lost.

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” I demanded, suddenly aware of how tired I was.

“What?  No.  We’ll just take that road to the right, just over there.”

The road led uphill.  So did the next road we took.  And the one after that.  My dad’s firm belief was that the answer to being lost, or “a little turned around,” as he would characterize our present situation, was just to climb higher.  And higher.  “If we get up far enough, we’ll be able to see where we are,” he reasoned.

And so we climbed, each pedal propelling us upward.

We turned the corner in a small village and before us was a church, its steeple reaching up to the sunlit sky.  Pausing on the cobblestones just before the church doors, we turned and looked down.  The valley stretched out into the distance.  The view was magnificent.  The dark green of the trees and freshly mown yellow fields created a patchwork that surrounded the feudal villages, one or two even marked by a crumbling castle on a hill.  But the one thing we wanted to see most?  Home. There it was: our village. 

“See,” my dad announced triumphantly, “not lost.  We just hadn’t climbed high enough.”
In the years since that ride, life has taken twists and turns, ups and downs, but I’ll always remember that one thing.  I’m not lost; I just need to climb higher.

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.