Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Finances and kids: how we do it

Another good question today, from a blog reader:

I would love to know what you both do for a living and how you plan to afford all the children God brings to your family.  I would love an insight to your lifestyle, ways you can cut, ways you can afford adoptions, etc.

This is an excellent question! 

It was honestly always a given that once we had children, I would be an at-home mom.  We both felt strongly about this, and it was a philosophical/spiritual/foundational decision for us.  We knew this might one day mean that we wouldn't own a home, or wouldn't go on vacations, or would have to leave California, but we were dedicated to living off of Kevin's income once we had children.

Kevin is an Electrical Engineer currently working in the aerospace industry.  We are so grateful to God for how He provides for us through Kevin's career.  My husband is a hard worker and is extremely financially savvy.  He does our own taxes, plans for our retirement, is frugal beyond compare and makes a mean Excel spreadsheet.  Love this guy!

As for me, I don't earn any sort of income.  I'm home with my children full-time, and I also homeschool the three oldest.

We drove majorly old cars that we already owned the first five years we were married (a 1988 Toyota Corolla and a 1988 Lincoln Towncar)--until our number of children exceeded the number of seats.  Those old cars were certainly nothing to look at, but we had no car payments thankyouverymuch.  When we have needed to buy another car (first our minivan in 2007, and now more recently our passenger van), we have bought them used and shopped around for a good value and good financing.  And, we're still driving the Corolla.

We have never taken fancy vacations and spend very little on entertainment.  I rarely go to Starbucks and we don't eat out much.  We DO buy things, don't get me wrong, but overall we're not huge spenders.

As for our first adoption, we used our home equity line of credit to front the money.  We also received a $4,000 adoption subsidy per child (so $8,000 total) from Kevin's employer at the time, but not until the adoption was finalized a year or so later.  We've been able to take advantage of the Federal Adoption Tax credit each year, until this year when the government made it refundable and, after a brutal audit, we received the rest of it in full (about $9,000).  Thank you US government and IRS!

As for our current adoption, we have received some money in grants and from dear, generous friends who fundraised for us, and are hoping to take advantage of the Federal Adoption Tax Credit in its refundable form again.  In terms of fronting the money, again, we pull it out of our home equity line of credit where we have an extremely low interest rate.

I feel like I want to stop to say that international adoption is expensive.  No doubt about it.  But it's not the only option.  Our country has an orphan crisis of its own, and we desperately need families open to children right here in the United States.  Don't write foster care or foster-adoption off because you think it's more messy or risky than international adoption--adopting from a foreign country can be messy and risky too.  (Have you read my blog lately?)  And when you adopt (or foster) through the state/county, the cost is minimal, if anything.

When we moved to Denver three years ago, we bought a 5-bedroom fixer-upper in a nice Denver neighborhood, that Kevin has done the vast majority of the work on himself.  Ripping out subfloors and tile, installing all sorts of stuff, etc.  We dream of one day adding on to our house by building a second story, and of having a lovely yard with a nice big patio and nice new fence, but that won't be happening anytime soon.  And, we're cool with that.  Living in the city of Denver, we have NO HOA fees and our property taxes are LOW.  Really, really low.

I buy all of our clothes (and most of our other stuff) from the thrift store.  My kids love it.  I love it.  Kevin loves it.  We also joyfully accept hand-me-downs.  I think for the most part we look decent and put-together--no need for things to be new to look nice, in my opinion.

When we need furniture, I usually find it on Craigslist.  Such.great.deals.  Three years ago for example, I scored the Pottery Barn square Montego dining table that seats up to 14 people, with two leaves, in perfect condition, for $300.  Shopping for stuff on Craigslist means you gotta be persistent and patient, but it's rather exciting when it pays off!

I don't clip coupons, but look for good deals at the grocery store and try to limit my trips there, forcing myself to be creative and use up the stuff that we have.  I don't usually buy organic (sorry) and I HATE wasting food.

My kids eat oatmeal for breakfast every.single.day.  Super cheap.  And, it's healthy.  They also usually eat PB&Js on whole wheat bread for lunch, with fresh veggies.  Also pretty affordable.

We don't own any fancy gadgets, and that includes smart phones, ipods(!), flat-screen TVs, cable or satellite TV, and even TiVo.  Yes, we live in the dark ages, and no, we don't really mind!  :) 

But what about college?  If our kids decide to go to college (and most of them probably will), we will certainly do what we can to make that happen.  But will we pay for 100% of each child's housing, tuition and books?  Probably not.  And I think that's okay.  While we will support our kids as best we can (and that includes helping them find a job and allowing them to live at home while going to school), we can't compromise our convictions regarding marriage and children and adoption on account of the college issue. 

Hopefully this gives you a little insight into how the Heldts roll.  I occasionally do spend more money at Target than I really need to, but we try to live simply, cut costs where we can, and work at being content.  I hope that my children can one day look back and see that we loved them dearly, that family came first for us, and that we did the best we could to point them to Jesus.  I hope they can remember the beauty of a carefree, simple childhood spent out in the weed-filled backyard digging up worms, eating otterpops in the summertime, and living life together. 

Perhaps one day we will need to downgrade our standard of living even further, and if that is the case , so be it.

It's not fancy, but it's our life.  And I kind of really love it.

Thanks for asking!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Heldts learn to swim

My kids did swim lessons for the very first time this summer at a nearby pool.

I know, I know, we waited a bit. 

But when you have five kids it can be tricky to coordinate.  Plus, I did try signing them up at our neighborhood rec center a couple of years ago, but they use a lottery system and we didn't get in.  Boo.

So this time I signed them up somewhere else.  Bwahahahaha.  :)

And, they LOVED it.  Loved.it.

I originally intended to just enroll my oldest three: Anna, Yosef and Biniam.

But then I found out that the preschool lesson was at the exact same time as theirs, so I signed Kaitlyn up too.

I honestly had NO CLUE if she would be into it.  The thing about Kaitlyn is, she is extremely self-confident.  I mean really, really sure of herself.  This means that she knows what she wants...and what she doesn't.

Imagine my anxiety when the kids showed up to their first lesson and the teacher said "Okay, everyone jump into the pool."

What is Kaitlyn going to do?

My kids all kinda looked around, a bit unsure.  But, they did it.


Including Kaitlyn!  Yay!

As it turns out we were the ONLY ones who signed up at this particular pool.  SO, my kids essentially got private lessons for a great price.  Woohoo!

As for Mary Lu, she was a cheerleader, as usual.  She loved watching her brothers and sisters, and of course enjoyed the water on the days we stayed afterwards to swim.

She also liked pushing her stroller around, emptying the contents of my purse, and redistributing all of our things.

See?  Here she is in action.

More contents from my purse.  Don't be fooled by her cuteness.  She knows how to make a mess.

I'd say the swim lessons were definitely a success.  Anna is totally swimming, my boys are just about there, and Kaitlyn has some great water skills under her belt!  Plus, they are all safe around the water.  It made for a rather busy two weeks, but it was oh so worth it. 

Summer T-ball and swim lessons down, Fall soccer club (and ceramics--which granted is not an athletic activity, but I'm equally bad at both so I'll throw it in there) just up ahead.  So proud of my kiddos and their willingness to try new things!

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Could Tigist be any happier?  No.  Could she be any cuter?  No. 
Photo courtesy of my dear friend Bekah.

I detest limbo.

Not the game where you try to go under the stick (okay I don't like the game much either--I'm horrible at it!) 

But the state of being.

As in I really, really, really don't like being in transition.

And it feels like multiple areas of my life right now are in exactly that: limbo.  Waiting.  In-between.


Obviously our adoption has been in limbo for over a year.  It is, in many ways, more frustrating and painful by the day.  I feel guilty--yes, guilty--that two of my precious children currently live in an orphanage, even though there's not a darn thing I can do about it.  And then on the other hand, I sometimes feel fearful about them coming home.  What will life look like with seven kids?  How am I going to drive that big, huge van sitting outside my house?  What if one (or both) of our daughters need...gulp...heart surgery?  And then I feel guilty for THAT--for having any less-than-totally-positive thoughts about the girls coming home.  The thing is, I WANT them home.  But I'm a little nervous.  Which is normal, I know.

And things in the religion-y sphere of my life feel limbo-ish too in certain ways.  (Yes "y" and "ish" are appropriate suffixes.  Completely and totally legit.  So is the word "legit.")  I've shared about it off and on here.  More on that to come soon, I'm sure.  But anyway, it's hard being in the in-between.  It's hard sometimes to trust and obey and follow when you can't see the end of the road.  Especially when it doesn't make sense to other people.  But God rarely sends us down the wide path.  Because it's all about the narrow road, right? 

Of course with all of that being said, my goodness, I love my life! 

My kids had orientation today at their homeschool co-op and, while I am utterly exhausted, I'm reminded of how crazy blessed we are to belong to this program. 

Kevin's currently on his way home and that always makes me happy, happy, happy.  Love my husband.  Love.him.

I watched my 22-month-old repeatedly drop and then proceed to eat her very own ice cream cone today.

AND, my dinner prep is all done and it's baking in the oven while my kids clean up the house.

So, yeah. 

Limbo's no fun.

I want my girls home.

I want to feel settled.

But life is amazingly sweet.

And there's something to be said for anticipation.

Even in the in-betweens.

Monday, August 22, 2011

No, I'm not. :)

So I've had three different people (all friends in real life) ask if I am currently "with child" in the last few days.  I've apparently made some confusing and ambiguous statements in my posts, so to clear up ANY confusion:

No, I am not pregnant!  :)

I AM however attempting to bring my two daughters home from Ethiopia.  It's taking too long.  Sigh.

But don't get me wrong.  I do hope we have more babies.  They are always a blessing.  Always, always, always.  We're just not having one at the moment!

(I met someone tonight who was rather surprised to hear that we have five kids.  But then he said, "Wow.  Blessed."  And, I couldn't agree more!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday {#27}

1.)  There's not enough time in the day to do all the reading I want to do.  My nightstand is filled with books, my Google Reader is overflowing with unread blog posts, and that's not to mention all the articles and things online each day that I wish I could read.  Sigh.

2.)  Yesterday I went to an estate sale across the street.  With my kids.  And, wouldn't you know it, there were probably over one hundred Barbies--still in boxes--at the sale.  My kids were ENTHRALLED.  Like seriously thrilled.  (So I bought them one.  One $5 Barbie.  To share.  I'm cheap!)

3.)  Last night Kevin came up the stairs, after tucking our kids in, obviously frustrated with someone.  I totally thought he was talking about one of the kids--but no, he was referring to an author of a book.  Ha!

4.)  Have you ever tried returning something to IKEA?  Better yet, have you ever tried getting your money back, after you accidentally rang up your white pendant lamp twice, during self checkout, a few days before?  While your husband and five kids sit around, anxious to go home?  Well, I don't recommend it.  Picture lots of waiting your turn, having a cashier try to tell you she won't help you, and finally having a manager called who then proceeds to take a half-hour to credit your card.  But, I still love IKEA.  (It's a sickness.)

5.)  I just ordered these.  Goodbye multiple ziploc sandwich bags that I detest so very much!

6.)  We had someone over the other night who happens to be a priest.  As he was leaving and the kids were saying goodbye, Kaitlyn asked, "Do you have to leave because the Mass people need you back?"  She makes my day.  Makes.my.day.

7.)  I have a bunch of projects looming--things to paint, mostly.  Like lamps, frames, mirrors, a table.  Oh, and a piano.  However, what I really NEED to do is organize my homeschool things so we can start our schoolyear.  I'd thought we'd start this next week, but maybe I'll opt to make my house pretty instead!

Thanks Jen, as always, for hosting!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

N to the F to the P

A friend recently asked the following:

So, what method of NFP do you use? Particularly while breastfeeding? (I am 4 months pregnant, and have an 8 month old, so you can do the math to see that BFing doesn't do anything to suppress my fertility, but it does make my cycle difficult to figure out, and not even "trackable" using a fertility monitor...)

Okay, so NFP.  I'm not going to bore you with the details of WHY we don't use artificial contraception, because that's an entirely separate discussion. I'll simply say that we follow historic Catholic Church teaching on the matter. (And the reason we follow Church teaching is a REALLY separate discussion!)

I will also say that we do not personally look to NFP as a SUBSTITUTE for artifical contraception. We desire for our marriage to be open to life, for children to be an organic part of our union together.  Check out Cormac Burke's Covenanted Happiness for an aMAzing perspective on marriage, sexuality and children.  (It is, sadly, out of print, but if you can't find it at your library you can read the book in its entirety online, at that link.)

So. If there IS something we prayerfully and mutually deem to be a "grave reason" for delaying the conception of a child, then we simply abstain during the time of the month when I am most fertile.  We've honestly rarely utilized NFP over the course of our marriage. I will tell you though that a few months ago my cycle returned (I'm still occasionally breastfeeding my youngest), and we decided to use NFP as we wait for our girls to come home. It's something I think and pray about a lot, because on the one hand it seems unwise to conceive a child with two adoptions on the horizon. On the other hand, I've chosen the vocation of marriage and that involves the bearing of children. I take that seriously.  It's all very humbling.

And here's the funny thing. Are you ready for this?

I was literally about to tell you that I don't really use a method. I was about to oh-so-vaguely say that I, um, pay attention to my body's symptoms to predict ovulation. But I just now read something that said I AM apparently using a sytem: the Creighton Model.

Who knew I was actually being all official and following something scientific?

We keep track of my cycle on a spreadsheet that Kevin rigged up (my husband is rather fond of Excel!) and I pay attention to those Creighton-ish physical symptoms. (Just the ovulatory ones though. I don't chart every single day, I just pay attention.)

Now I am honestly not sure what an NFP expert would say to do if you're currently breastfeeding (thus having no cycle to track). Nothing except for across-the-board abstinence (or a hysterectomy) prevents pregnancy 100% of the time, so it's always possible that you'll wind up pregnant when you least expect it. Jennifer Fulwiler talked a little bit about that here.

At the end of the day, NFP is a good alternative to hormonal birth control and surgical procedures. It respects womanhood and manhood and does not treat God-given fertility as a disease.

And sometimes you find freedom and beauty in really unexpected or counter-intuitive places. When we made the decision to reject artificial contraception, we discovered the joys of openness to life. Is it always easy?  No.  But, few worthwhile things are.

Good luck, and thanks for asking!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Worth it (another unfortunate update)

A dear friend's prayer list, hanging in her beautiful home.

In case you didn't know, my husband and I are in the process of adopting two precious little girls from Ethiopia.  Both of them were born with Down syndrome.  You can learn more about all of that here.

After months (and months) of delays and setbacks, we finally passed court in July. 

Our case was then submitted to the US Embassy a couple of weeks ago.  And, not surpisingly (because anything that can go wrong with this process does), it is stuck and delayed again due to the embassy wanting more paperwork at the eleventh hour.

Truth be told, I'm discouraged.  Tired of waiting, tired of the unending bureaucracy, and tired of wondering if these girls will ever come home. 

And I'm quite aware of the embassy's motives in all of this.  And I'm just as disgusted as the next person about the unethical side of international adoption.  Really.  So please don't feel the need to enlighten me or explain why this is a good thing.  Because I get it. 

I was actually at a picnic on Sunday where I ran into the judge who processes all of the Ethiopian adoption cases.  The same woman we appeared before in Ethiopia, who approved our adoption of Tigist and Mekdes.  The courts are currently closed and it turns out that she's in the United States for a few weeks.  I would have given anything to pick her brain about the current climate of Ethiopian adoption, but instead I was polite and simply asked for a picture with her. 

I'm honestly not sure why she was at a picnic in Denver that was hosted by a local adoption agency (which we used for our homestudy), but I thought it was...odd.  Like many things when it comes to international adoption.  And while I've been mulling these things over for years now, one thing keeps coming to mind:

There are many, many children who legitimately need a family.  Today.

They are in the US foster care system, they are in Eastern Europe, they are in China, they are in Ethiopia. 

They are typically older, with medical needs, or developmentally delayed.

And while it is so completely maddening to be in the midst of an adoption process that is essentially going nowhere, I want people to know that there are so very many children who need someone to fight for them. 

As for us, we will continue to wait on our daughters' visas, and hope and pray that it won't be too long.  While I'm a huge advocate of adoption, I have to be honest and confess that I probably wouldn't personally begin an Ethiopian adoption right now.  Things are so up-in-the-air and, well, messy. 

But, I also confess that I'm glad I didn't know this was going to happen back when we started the process.

Because Tigist and Mekdes really, really needed a family.

And, now they have one.

So we'll wait as long as we need to.  Because they're my daughters, and because they're worth it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The perfect storm of caffeine and clean

Mary relaxing.  Just because.

I have roughly 20 big trash bags/boxes filled to the brim with items to be donated.

I have cleaned out/organized our garage.

I have cleaned out various closets.

I have organized my kitchen cupboards (!)

Clearly my hormones, combined with my daily (caffeinated--oh yes, I made the switch) iced coffee, the impending school year, and the fact that I could potentially be bringing my daughters home (!) in the next few months, has created the perfect storm where I am actually getting stuff done.

And it feels fabulous!

You can totally hear angels singing when I go to get a drinking glass, or when I step into our garage.  Well, not really, but I bet they are.

Anyway, we may soon reach a point where we are more organized than we ever have been, in nine-plus years of marriage.  Not too shabby for a family with five children.  And with a really old house.  And with major packrat-ish tendencies.

Now a question for you: what is your favorite organizational item?  Something that helps you get/stay organized?  I'm especially dreading organizing my kids' shoes, so any ideas you have about that are much appreciated!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Little Miss Mary (quite contrary)

Mary Lu is my youngest child.

She is 22 months old.

And a girl of few words.  (Six, to be exact.)

She is also a girl full of mischief.

And, she has my heart. 

The truth is, she can do no wrong in this house. 

Seriously.  It's horrible.

I'm trying to be better about setting limits and enforcing rules, but honestly?

She's just too cute.

And opinionated.


What can I say?  I love my little girl...and her spunky, sassy attitude. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Parenting children with special needs (and what miscarriage taught me)

My dear friend Jeannett at Life Rearranged asked today about how we mamas have been touched by raising children with special needs.

And I immediately knew I wanted to write about this.  Both about special needs and about motherhood in general, because the two are deeply connected for so many of us.

As many of you know, my husband and I are working to bring home our two daughters, Tigist and Mekdes, from Ethiopia.  Both girls were born with Down syndrome.

But let me back up a bit, because my journey to parenting children with special needs did not begin with Tigist and Mekdes, but when I miscarried a baby in 2004.  Which was completely devastating.  Then I had another miscarriage in 2008.  Equally painful and tragic, and it's hard to tell your four other children--through your own tears--that their baby sibling has died and gone to be with Jesus. 

Yet through these sad experiences, I did learn to rejoice in every baby, and that a soul knit together in the womb is a soul to love and be grateful for.  I became painfully aware that God is the ultimate author of life, and that each and every life is immeasurably valuable and beautiful no matter how short.  No matter the child's inability to live beyond six weeks in utero.  I was glad for both of my babies I'd lost, grateful I had them for the time I did.  Even if it was too short. 

And looking back, I can see that this perspective has really shaped my view of children with special needs, in general.  Because it touches on the value of life in general.  It touches on the meaning of motherhood, because it changes the definition or focus a little bit.  The truth is, whether the child meets my criteria for "healthy" (or typical or ________), he or she is my child.  My child.  A precious, beautiful soul to delight in and nourish and love.  A part of our family who will contribute in complex and astounding ways. 

So that includes my three biological daughters--the one who taught herself to read, the one who fought horrible infections her entire first year of life, and the one who is inexplicably small for her age and delayed in speech.  And it includes my two adopted sons with learning delays and ADHD tendencies.  It includes my two miscarried babies.  And of course now includes my two daughters in Ethiopia, both with Down syndrome.  All of them.  Priceless treasures not just the way they are, but because of who they are.

The truth is that Tigist and Mekdes are first and foremost our daughters.  Yes, they were born with an extra chromosome.  Yes, they may take longer to meet some of their developmental milestones.  Yes, they may continue to live with us as adults and yes, we may outlive them.  Yes, they could be classified as having "special needs."  But, my goodness, they are children.  Souls created by a perfect God to love and be loved and to experience life.  We receive them as gifts.  Like we have received each and every one of our children.  All of whom have special needs, in a sense--each child is unique in their approach to life and in their abilities and challenges.

Now I'm under no misapprehensions that life is going to be all neat and tidy and easy as pie for our family.  (As if it is now.)  My heart is surely going to break into a million pieces when my daughters are inevitably teased for being different.  (Is it wrong to punch someone else's kid on the playground?  :)  )  When we go to Costco or Target we'll get even more stares and questions, no doubt.  Probably some derision too.  And adopting children with special needs will affect our current children just as much as it affects us.

But when did conformity and anonymity and being the same as the world around us ever become the goal?  The truth is, I want my children to be different.  I want our family to be those people who are open to life in whatever form it comes.  I want my kids to care about one another and not to fear the very act of living.  I want them to be virtuous.  And to see that life is not about hiding safely behind a white picket fence.

And so when I dream about my two beautiful Ethiopian daughters, I know I wouldn't change a thing about them.  I love them just as they are.  Down syndrome and special needs and all.  Their lives are a gift, and I give thanks to God for opening my eyes to the beauty of each and every life perfectly created by Him.  I believe He used my two little babies, both with Jesus now, to show me this.  How blessed and humbled I am.

If you are considering adoption or foster care, won't you take a moment to think about the many children born with special needs?  Had we not been open to adopting children born with Down syndrome, we would not be the proud parents of Tigist and Mekdes.  It's worth thinking about, no?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ode to the Swedish


I love IKEA. 

I mean I really, really love IKEA.

And miracle of all miracles, Colorado finally got their very own IKEA.  Which happens to be just twenty-five minutes from mi casa.

Like my friend said Tuesday night as we happily wandered the aisles, "Just being in here makes me giddy."

A few days after it opened, Kevin surprised me and asked if I wanted to go, even though I already had plans to go with girlfriends the following week.  Um, okay!  (I love my husband!  Willing to brave the insane crowds...with his wife who was surely going to want to buy a bunch of stuff.  I think he likes me.)

And it was so, so fun.  Free kids' meals, Swedish meatballs, and lots of fabulous items to drool over look at.  Mary (and Tigist!) each got a new high chair.  Nice and small and easy to clean (!), and we just push Mary up to eat at the table now.  She feels so important.

I also found some fab (and cheap!) plastic stools and organizational stuff.

And (as if I needed another reason to like IKEA), this mama-to-five loves these signs posted everywhere.  Children always welcome?  Okay!  (I actually took this photo in the family bathroom.  Where my children were having a dance party.  Yes, we have fun everywhere we go.  :) )

The only drawback?  You gotta assemble everything yourself.  And, people, I am just not that great with tools smart  strong patient.  Here's hoping Kevin'll give me some help!  Because right now my living room looks like the IKEA warehouse exploded.  Which, now that I think of it, is maybe not a bad look.

Anyway, yes, I am a very strange, simple person.  I like IKEA.  Here's to many more coffee-drinking, meatball-eating, Scandinavian-furniture-buying trips ahead!

***And yes, this post is completely 100% frivolous and silly.  It's actually kind of ridiculous to have so much fun at a big store filled with inexpensive, put-it-together-yourself furniture and random cafeteria food items.  But hey, I don't always have stories about trips to Rome, or about Catholic books I'm reading, and I certainly don't usually always have pregnancies or adoptions to announce.  So, sometimes we just gotta lighten things up a bit, even here at Just Showing Up.  :)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

He is 31 today

Happy Birthday to my dear husband Kevin!

I'm honestly so glad I get to spend my life with such a great guy.  I know that's such a cliche thing that every wife is supposed to say, but it's true.  Kevin is kind, fun, smart, and he makes me laugh.  A lot.  And he's a great father and a great husband.  He even put in a bunch of extra hours this week just so he could make it to the kids' final swim lesson today...where he videotaped and cheered for them...before spending two hours swimming with them and catching them as they went down the big waterslide. 

And tonight we'll all go out to dinner and celebrate another year of life for this fabulous guy.  It seems that as the years go by, the better things get--my hunch is that it's supposed to work that way, but I'm definitely not taking it for granted.  I never imagined when we first met at Grace Church back in 2000 that we would have such an amazing and beautiful life together.  And I wholeheartedly attribute so much of it to him.

So, Happy Birthday Kevin!  I love you!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Herding cats and fighting children

I need to tell you something.

Something you should know. 

To better understand me and my life.


Sometimes raising my five kids is a lot little like raising a big ol' herd of cats. 

Melanie recently emailed me:

How do you handle sibling squabbles? Are you constantly jumping up from something you are doing to intervene during hitting/name-calling/yelling/pushing/not-sharing, etc, or do you just ignore them and make them work it out themselves?

Good questions, huh?

I will start by saying that, overall, my kids get along quite well.  On an average day, we don't have much fighting.  (This of course goes out the window if they're tired, randomly emotional, or if any combination of grandparents is visiting.  But usually they do well.)

But let me explain the cats thing. 

Our family's dynamic, for some reason, is such that my kids play all together, all day long.  In other words, they want to be together.  All.the.time.  All five of 'em.  Which can lead to a herd mentality, and assorted arguments and fights and mischief.  (God's cure for the Tower of Babel?  Brilliant idea.  Brilliant.)

Ironically, the two children who "fight" the most also adore each other the most.  These two spend every waking moment together.  They are the bestest of pals.  But, they fight.  This is because she is four years old and a force to be reckoned with, while he is nearly seven years old with a maturity level closer to her's in many ways.  She initiates pretty much every spat, and he reciprocates.  Their squabbles aren't really a huge deal, mostly arguments where they're pestering each other.  But it drives me crazy!  So I usually just yell say in a firm voice, "Knock it off!  Apologize and get along, or I won't let you play together!"  (I know, such great parenting.  I'm expecting a book deal any day now.)

And while I don't constantly jump up from what I'm doing to handle sibling issues (I'm not much of a helicopter parent), I do correct the kids if they're hurting each other's feelings or being mean.  Because while I want them to work things out themselves, I also realize that they are seven years old and younger--not terribly capable of properly resolving conflicts on their own.  I don't make a huge deal out of minor disagreements (and I HATE tattling), but I do have some hard-and-fast rules.  Like:

no excluding other kids
no name-calling or yelling
no hitting/kicking
no teasing
everyone shares

Ultimately, I expect my children to be kind to one another and find ways to play peaceably.  Toys are to be shared.  The kids are usually fine with this, and anytime one of them is having a hard time sharing, I gently remind him or her that the other kids share with them all the time.  They all agree it's more fun this way.

I am also big on a child having alone time and space if they desire it, especially since there are seven of us living here and the kids share rooms.  If Anna wants to be alone to read?  She can go in her room, or in my room.  (Rarely though do they choose to separate from the group.)

If a spat is bad enough, I have the two arguing children go sit on their respective beds to cool off a bit until we can all talk calmly about it.  I make my children apologize to one another when there's been a problem--and they have to look at the child and say it in a nice voice when they do.  Who knows how much remorse they actually feel, but at this point, I figure it's an incredibly valuable thing to be able to say the words "I'm sorry.  Will you forgive me?"  The more practice, the better.

It's normal for kids living together to fight and shout and experience tension on a regular basis. I think the home is the most challenging--and amazing--training ground for living a virtuous life. Where better to learn charity towards others, or how to pursue peace?

There is no real age segregation in our home--the four bigger kids include their baby sister in most any game she's willing to play (and some that she's not!)  I feel incredibly blessed to have five kids who are best friends.  They laugh and talk and watch movies and splash in the pool together.  They look out for each other and have such open, accepting hearts.

But sometimes they fight.  And sometimes act like a herd of cats.  Of course I'm a mama, so I love them anyway.  And I'm seeing more and more what amazing gifts they are to each other, that the virtues they build and the lifeskills they learn--living as a family and looking to the common good--are more than worth the arguments and tears.

Thanks for asking!

Monday, August 01, 2011

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month (and the time I nursed my baby in the Sistine Chapel)

Grace, a sweet online friend of mine (and a wonderfully active participant here at Just Showing Up!), recently asked about breastfeeding in public.  She wrote:

I would love to hear more of your thoughts about BFing in public. I do BF in public and have since my first (and have done so more "freely" as I've become more experienced) but I still feel uncomfortable if I am in a more "crowded" place and BF without a cover. What about BFing in church?

Oh, breastfeeding.  One of nature's most natural, yet somehow simultaneously most controversial, activities.

I'm not going to preface this with any sort of disclaimer--hopefully we're all mature enough to realize that not everyone chooses to breastfeed (for any variety of reasons), and I truly am not the least bit concerned with how you feed your baby.  I've got my own kids to worry about, and plenty of them at that!  :)

I have breastfed all three of my biological children until the day they weaned themselves.  Nine months old for the first baby, seventeen months old for my second, and my third is still going strong at twenty-one months of age.  As you can imagine, breastfeeding has occupied a large space in my life these past seven-plus years.

And while I have always loved nursing, I do remember being a little nervous anytime I nursed my oldest in public. 

What would people think?  Would they be uncomfortable?  Are they going to, horror of horrors, stare at me?

But by the time my second baby came along, I found that I cared a whole lot less.  This may have had something to do with the fact that I simultaneously had three toddlers running around.  Who had time to care about what people thought of how/where I fed my baby?  Survival mode, people!

And now with my third, I'm over it.  Totally and 100% done with feeling self-conscious about the fact that God gave me the ability (and privilege!) to nourish and comfort my daughter in this way.  If she needs to nurse, I nurse her.

I do have a nursing cover that I sometimes use.  But you can be discreet (sometimes moreso) without a cover, just using your shirt if it's long enough.  (It's a good way to keep from getting over-heated, too--gotta love when your baby emerges from the nursing cover red-faced and soaking in sweat!) 

Truly, I believe our society's discomfort with breastfeeding stems from the over-sexualization of our culture and from the (all-too-related) separation of  procreation from sex.  Something is dreadfully wrong, for example, when we don't bat an eye at the trashy magazines at the grocery store checkout, or think twice about womens' immodest clothing choices, yet are repulsed by a mother quietly feeding her baby. 

Now I assure you that modesty is something important to me, because I believe it is important to God.  I try not to wear low-cut tops or super-short shorts or skirts.  I even wear a one-piece swimsuit.  (How old-fashioned, I know.)  I want to present myself respectably and reflect well on my husband. 

But is this inconsistent with public breastfeeding?  Is breastfeeding inherently immodest? 

In a word, no.

Because there is nothing inherently sexual about feeding a baby, nothing inherently inciting about a child receiving milk and comfort from his or her mother.  If I am covered, with nothing meant-to-be-private showing, why should it matter whether my baby is eating or not? 

And natural law would ask, isn't that what breasts are for, anyway?

But wait a minute, you say.  Stop right there.  Our society has told us otherwise!  They've said that sex need not include the bearing of children.  That our bodies are (if not primarily or even exclusively, then at the very least equally) intended for recreational use, for aesthetics and pleasure and all of that.  So children?  Who needs 'em?!  They get in the way.  And breastfeeding?  What an inconvenience.  We want our bodies back!  (Because apparently those little bundles of joy and their need to, um, eat, are the enemy.)

What God designed as a beautiful, natural function that:

promotes bonding,
greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer (if you breastfeed for a minimum of two years during your lifetime),
often acts as a natural child-spacer,
reduces the risk of various reproductive system cancers (thought to be due to fewer menstrual cycles over the course of her life),
and nourishes a baby ever so completely,

has been scandalized and sexualized and demoralized by a broken world.  

And no, breastfeeding is not always easy.  With all three of my daughters, I had horrible pain when I began.  Like really, really awful.  Thankfully, in my case, it subsided over the course of a few weeks each time.  I've also had mastitis once--not fun either.  Be glad if it hasn't happened to you!

And yes, some people are really uncomfortable with women breastfeeding their babies in public and feel the need to say something.  Ironically, sometimes these are the same people who are down with the grocery store mags and scantily dressed women.  To them I say, whatevs.  Get over it.  (Not really, but that's what I'm thinking.)

As for nursing in church, I have belonged to churches where I didn't feel comfortable doing so, and churches where lots of people nurse from their seats (thus, so did I).  I don't personally think there's anything inherently wrong with it, though if it would be a huge issue in a particular church, my conflict-avoidant, people-pleasing self would kick in and go sit in the back or the lobby.
Now for my craziest-place-I've-ever-breastfed story.
You ready?
Kevin, Mary and I were in Rome in April.  We spent a good portion of one of our days there at the Vatican--it was two days after Easter, and one week before Blessed John Paull II's beatification.  SO, kind of a busy time to be in Rome.
Needless to say, the Vatican was more than a bit crowded.  Winding through the museum, we were packed in wall-to-wall with weary pilgrims from all over the world, come to see Michelangelo's most greatest creation. 
And right before we reached the Sistine Chapel, Mary lost it.
Understand that we were hot, sweaty, tired, and not unlike sardines in a can.  Thus she was upset.  Frustrated.  Crying.  Lots of people were staring and teenagers were telling each other they were NEVER going to take their kid on vacation.  Oh, to be young.
Anyway, as the guards let us into the breathtaking chapel, shushing everyone as they entered, I darted towards a dark corner where I could sit and pacify Mary the only foolproof way I know: nursing.  Uncomfortable, because it was such a sacred place, but I had my handy dandy cover and if I faced away no one would know what I was doing.  (Everyone was staring at the ceiling anyway!)
And the guards saw me.  They began shaking their heads "no" while gesturing.  Oh.my.goodness., I thought.  I'm going to have to leave with Mary because she's fussing, and I will have missed getting to enjoy the Sistine Chapel, and I'm going to get thrown out of the Vatican.  
But that's when I saw them unrope the off-limits area.  By the altar.  And point to a bench.  And tell me, my baby, and my husband to sit there.  So that I didn't have to nurse my little one on the floor.
And so we sat.  I nursed Mary (now quite happy) while we slowly drank in Michelangelo's masterpiece.  Right there where the papal enclaves are held and Church councils too.  While everyone else had to stand and eventually be herded through, we got to sit--and my daughter got to nurse--in a place normally withheld from the public.  It was actually a really beautiful moment.  One of the highlights of our trip for sure.
So there you have it: the ultimate "breastfeeding-in-public" story.  Mary will always be able to say that she nursed in the Sistine Chapel.  I will always be able to say that I sat by the altar while enjoying a beautiful piece of Church history.  Maybe I offended some of the other tourists, but hey, it was Vatican-sanctioned...and they wield a decent amount of authority, I'm told!  :)
Happy National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, friends.  Here's to the miracle of motherhood and the joys, and challenges, of breastfeeding!
Thanks for asking!
***All paintings are of the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing Jesus, by artists like Rembrandt and DaVinci.  Some currently hang in the Vatican.  I love them all, but there is something especially sweet to me about the third one, where the angel is looking intently at Jesus.  And I do love the way Mary is looking at her Son in the final one.


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