Friday Inspiration

August 26, 2016

Chair by the sea

“People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains,

at the huge waves of the seas,

at the long course of the rivers,

at the vast compass of the ocean,

at the circular motion of the stars,

and yet they pass by themselves

without wondering.

— St. Augustine of Hippo


Image: Zoe Saint-Paul



I must say, my kids are good travelers. Of course, one of the first things we ever did together as a family was take a very long flight across the globe. These days we find ourselves flying once or twice a year and each time I get a little better about how best to help them pack for plane travel. Here’s what was in their backpacks this time:

  • Two activity books of their choice
  • Small sketch pad
  • Tiny note pad
  • Small bag of crayons and two pencils
  • Small stuffed animal of their choice
  • Small toy (S chose a rubber lizard and H chose a turtle — they wanted them to be waterproof for ocean play)
  • Water bottle
  • 2 gallon ziplock bag with: bathing suit, flip flops, and full change of clothes. (This was incase our bags didn’t make it and we were stuck in a hotel somewhere. A change of clothes also comes in handy if your little one gets motion sick because the flight is so turbulent, ahem)
  • In their small front pocket: lip balm, package of tissues, and snack bar (In my own backpack, I had a larger bag of snacks to hand out, too, since my girls get hungry a lot.)

This was exactly the right mix for my 8 year-olds. If we had longer flights, we would have added a few more things for them to occupy themselves with, but as it was, they enjoyed watching kids’ movies on the longer leg (our shorter flight had no screens).

Any tips for carry-on essentials for kids when flying? I’d love to hear!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul




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Dad and son

Most parenting advice is worthless. So here’s some parenting advice.

I laughed when I read that headline. And I like the article, too. Well, not the f-word and cussing. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like when writers use curse words, unless it’s in a novel or they’re blowing off steam on their social media accounts. I’ve noticed that many people under 35 don’t hesitate to use the f-word in their published writing these days. I guess I’m just old.

Anyway, I think the gist of the piece is right on. You know when things start coming your way so often that you know you’re supposed to pay attention? This is part of that for me. I’ve been coming across articles and having conversations lately about how out-of-control the parenting industry has become and how we need to focus more on just being parents, rather than treating our children like projects to manage in order to make them into successful adults.

The author says research shows that genes, friends, and socio-economic status are the greatest determinants of successful adulthood, but I don’t buy that entirely. First, it depends how you define “successful adulthood.” He doesn’t say. Second, if I think about my own childhood, the environment my parents created for me, as well as what they taught and modeled, has made an enormous difference to who I’ve become. (Not that I’d be considered a successful adult by some peoples’ standards — probably not!)

But the author’s point dovetails with a recent conversation I had with my mother, a woman who’s gleaned a thing or two from raising 10 kids to adulthood and was never particularly good at going along with the status quo or following cultural trends that struck her as irrational, unnatural, or just plain ridiculous. She was complaining about how the “cult of the expert” reigns supreme today, and how it has eroded parents’ confidence and undervalued the wisdom of older generations.

This is true, and I think there are many reasons for it. I think one reason we don’t glean much from parents, grandparents, relatives, and more experienced friends these days is that they’re not around much. So many of us live far away from these relationships; it’s a very transient culture. Additionally, many of today’s parents grew up in small families and didn’t help with childcare. When you don’t have your own experiences to draw from, or that of your elders, you turn to other resources to help you figure it out. I had all of the above myself, but then I became an adoptive parent and that added an entirely foreign dimension to my parenting. I’ve not only leaned on others’ advice and experience, I’ve turned to authors, writers, and therapists — all of which are certainly considered “experts” — and I’m grateful for them.

So I don’t think it has to be an either/or, but I totally agree we’ve lost something important in our culture and it’s resulted in a lack of confidence to march to the beat of our own drum as parents. Like the author of the Vox article, I think we’ve become obsessed with getting parenting “right” and agree with his point that “childhood is life, not preparation for life,” which I take to mean that everything we do now shouldn’t simply be to ensure a certain future for our kids, but that childhood should be a wonderful thing in its own right. Our children are not just adults-in-waiting; they are people, living their lives in the here and now.

As parents, we’re often anxious and fearful, calculating so many decisions we make. We all want what’s best for our kids, of course, but what if half the things we do and worry about aren’t going to matter much to their future success one way or another? I suppose we don’t want to take the chance, right? But we’d probably do well to realize that too often what we’re doing is more about us, and that we’re approaching parenting as project managers rather than as loving parents who enjoy our kids’ childhoods and who trust that it’s a whole host of factors — many of which are out of our control — that will determine our kids’ futures.

What do you think?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul



H and S

The photo above pretty much sums up how S and H felt on our 8 day trip to Nova Scotia last week. They are generally happy girls, but I don’t know that I’ver ever seen them having more fun — endless playing with cousins, swimming and beach time, and running around outside without supervision. They didn’t want to come back and proposed we stay so that “all the cousins can live together.”

While I always like to come home to my own life, I can’t say I was entirely opposed to the idea. If you want to get away from a hot and humid city, work deadlines, stressful news stories, American politics, and anything that makes you weary, the north shore of Nova Scotia is a pretty great place for that. We happened to choose a week of perfect weather — high 70s and 80s with little humidity and lots of sun. One small thunder storm came through which filled the sky with amazing clouds and light and produced a fantastic fully-arched rainbow over the woods.

We also had more sugar, dairy, and refined flour in one week than we did all year. But it was vacation time and we were in the land of delicious homemade baked goods so how could we resist? Not only that, many of my siblings are great cooks so we were the happy recipients of many delicious meals, including an authentic outdoor-made Spanish paella and the best smoked fish chowder I’ve ever tasted. And then there’s just all those crazy Canadian potato chip flavors like ketchup, smokey bacon, “all-dressed,” etc. — and cookouts with smores. I’m more motivated than ever to start a new exercise routine, I tell you.

Mostly, it was just so good to be with family, by the ocean, away from everything for a little while. Towards the end of the trip I found myself thinking up new projects and feeling inspired to do things I’d lost motivation for — all because I had a break from my daily deadlines and commitments. Each of us needs such breaks — they’re so important to our well-being.

Re-entry is proving hard, but while I make attempts, here are a few photos from our trip. (Check out more on Instagram: @slowzoe):

Baked goods My mother’s cinnamon rolls and my sisters chocolate-filled croissants.

See, you wouldn’t have been able to resist either!


Paella Spanish paella in the making

Honestly, I think my brother’s paella was better than the one I had in Spain! He had all the authentic ingredients thanks to my Spanish sister-in-law and did it right.

On the sandbar Sandbar races

These cousins like to run and they’re fast!

Roasting marshmallows Roasting marshmallows

A few smores may have been had right before bedtime…

Sunset One of many gorgeous evening skies

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul


It’s August!

August 1, 2016

Photo by Olivier Miche

When August arrives I begin to feel that familiar pressure to cram all the summertime stuff into my schedule that hasn’t happened yet, before it’s too late. But I also find myself eager to be done with the sauna-like weather that greets me every time I step outside the door these days, and there are so many things I love about fall, I don’t mind that it’s around the corner.

On my agenda this month is: vacation! And a couple special gatherings with friends, a lot of preparation for a new school year, and getting our house ready for some renovations this fall.

How’s your summer going, friends? (Or winter, for that matter, if you’re Down Under, which I know some of you are!) Any plans for August? Any items on your to-do list you are determined to check off before Labor Day arrives?

Image: Olivier Miche at unsplash


Finding the Light

July 27, 2016

Brian Erickson photo

I’m finding it hard to write about lighter subjects this week. It’s getting to the point where one of the first thoughts I  have in the morning is: “What terrorist attack happened while I was asleep? Who died?”

The fact is, a lot of people over the years have died tragically while I was sleeping — I just didn’t know or hear about it. Some people get annoyed when they see others throw up a European flag whenever there’s a terrorist attack there, but not when it happens in Sudan, or Pakistan, or Burma, or Iraq. Certainly, no one is more or less human than anyone else — every unjust, violent death matters. Every life matters.

But it’s also true that it’s very human to be more affected by what feels closer to home. There are many reasons we don’t easily identify with certain places in the world — cultural and religious differences, geography, lack of familiarity, cognitive biases, what the media shows us, etc. (Did I feel as affected by what happens in Ethiopia before our adoption? No. Now what happens there is much more personal to me and I pay attention.) We need to work on being in more heart-felt solidarity with everyone, but as with so much in life, what moves us, scares us, motivates us, is the stuff we feel emotionally connected to.

I think there’s also something to be said for ingrained expectations. Westerners grow up assuming that, for the most part, we can count on being safe in our own homes, in our own cities and towns. We believe in our political systems (well, that might be a little debatable right now!); we live in societies that are based on the rule of law and freedom. So when churches and schools and restaurants and malls and holiday celebrations in the countries we live in and visit no longer seem safe, our personal world no longer feels the same.

There’s also something different about terrorism, about mass shootings in public places, and radical ideologies and prejudices that compel violence. The causes of, and the solutions for, what we see in the news today are complicated and not easy to comprehend or fix by simply saying, “Enough already!” There is real darkness out there. There is hate and ignorance that only wants to destroy and dominate.

But we are always left with the questions: How do I respond? What can I do ? And the one simple thing all of us can do in our busyness right now, today, is to be the light where we are. In our homes, on our streets, in our offices, at our churches. We have light we can bring. And we can look for it around us, because it’s there — in abundance, really. We can celebrate what is true and good and beautiful where ever we find it, and we can share it with others, point it out, keep it before us. It makes me think of a quote from the New Testament, John 1:5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

It’s true; the darkness will never overcome the light.

Image: Brian Erickson at unsplash



Fire by Roya Ann Miller

Not long ago I was talking to my daughters about what to do if we ever get separated in a public place, or they get lost. I opened my mouth to say “look for a policeman” and then stopped myself. How would they know the difference between a uniformed cop and someone like a security guard or member of the military? Besides that, older strange men often intimate them. So I asked myself Who’s the safest person in a group of strangers for a child? And suddenly it dawned on me: a mom with young children. So, now I tell my daughters to look for a woman with little kids and ask her for help if they ever need it.

How are children supposed to know which strangers to be weary of? It’s confusing for kids to be told not to talk to strangers, and to be wary of strangers, while at the same time expect them to be friendly and make small talk with the strangers they meet in daily life — like shopkeepers or neighbors down the street. Why didn’t you say hello? I’ve sometimes asked my daughters when getting out of an elevator after someone has spoken to them. At times I’ve felt badly about what must seem like rudeness to others. But they were strangers, mom! they say to me. And they’re right — they are strangers — so how do we teach the difference?

A woman named Pattie Fitzgerald, who’s been teaching child predator safety awareness for many years, has a program called Safely Ever After and she says we should stop telling our kids not to talk to strangers. “They might need to talk to a stranger one day. Instead, teach them which sorts of strangers are safe.”

She says we should instead help children know how to detect what she calls “tricky” people — the kind of strangers they should be weary of. One of her guidelines for knowing who is unsafe is that tricky people ask kids for help, whereas “safe” adults ask other adults for help — not kids. Her web site has a lot of other tips and helpful info. (I was happy to see that she also says if kids are lost, one of their best options is to look for a mom with kids for help.)

How do you teach your kids about stranger danger?

Image: Roya Ann Miller at unsplash


In the bamboo

Here’s a perspective shift:

Professor Alison Gopnik who recently wrote “A Manifesto Against “Parenting” in the Wall Street Journal says “parenting” should not be a verb. She says the term didn’t appear until the late 50s and wasn’t commonly used until the 70s. It’s rise as a verb tracks with societal changes in family life and work:

For most of human history, we lived in these extended family groups. This meant that we learned how to take care of children by practicing with our own little sisters and baby cousins and by watching many other people take care of children.

But toward the end of the 20th century, families got much smaller and more scattered, people had children later, and middle-class parents spent more time working and going to school. The traditional sources of wisdom and competence weren’t available any more.

Today, most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before they have children. It’s not surprising, then, that going to school and working are modern parents’ models for taking care of children: You go to school and work with a goal in mind, and you can be taught to do better at school and work.

Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.

This is true. We tend to think if we parent this way or that, at the other end of childhood will spring forth a child who is everything (or close) to what we believe is “good” in terms of a successful human being.

The author’s point is that we ought to shift our focus from parenting as a goal-oriented enterprise to being a parent, which has love as its aim:

Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own.

I agree with that. And when I think about it, I do value being a parent more than parenting. I bet we all do. I view “parenting” as the doing part, the part I’m often trying to figure out, along with every other parent out there. Not only are most of us raising kids without the benefits of a “village,” the world out there our children are inheriting can feel scary and uncertain. Love drives us to want to make sure we’re not just caring for our children but preparing them for the future.

I like the author’s analogy of tending a garden. It’s a great metaphor for raising children, and for understanding the role of a parent:

A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient. Consider what it takes to create a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness: The different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest or most long-blooming. The good gardener works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties, too.

Yes. At the same time, a child isn’t quite a plant. As a parent, I still believe in forming my children, instilling the values, beliefs, traditions, and wisdom that I believe helps to make for a good person who can become her best self. I don’t expect all of that will take root in the way I hope or envision, but the point is that love means more than just pulling up weeds and building protective fences to stave off pests.

I don’t think I’ll stop using the term “parenting” any time soon… For me, it’s a synonym for “raising children” and it’s part of the modern lexicon. But this article definitely made me pause and consider how goal-oriented parenting has become, rather than focused on the subjective, personal dimension of the relationship itself and the kind of love that ultimately lets a child blossom.

What are your thoughts about the piece?



Being creative

You’ve surely heard me call myself “the world’s worst homeschooler.” Almost three years into it and I still stand by that. Okay, I’m probably not literally the worst, but I seriously think I could start a Facebook group called “pathetic homeschoolers” and not feel the least bit like a phony.

Like most homeschoolers I know, I struggle at times… I wonder if I’m doing enough, or missing the best strategies, or using the right curricula. I’m inconsistent, I get tired, I compare myself to others, and my kids to other kids. I question if this is the best path, and sometimes entertain the idea of throwing in the towel. Not all the time, but there are days.

The truth is, however, I do it because when push comes to shove, I love homeschooling. And I’m convinced that, at least right now, it’s the best option for our daughters and for our family. But since homeschooling is not the typical path and I support school choice and recognize that different options work better for different families, I’m conscious about how I come across when I talk to non-homeschoolers.

When friends and strangers alike hear that we homeschool, they often say things like, “Oh, I could never do that!” or “I love my kids, but I really like when they’re in school!” I understand those comments. There are days when I dream of my kids being in school all day so I have no interruptions and can get all my work done. But when I get such comments, I’m tempted to minimize my love for homeschooling, not wanting to make someone else feel bad or judged in any way. (I often say: Believe me, if I can do it, anybody can! And I really mean that.)

But at the same time, when I’m out and about — like say at the grocery store with my 8 year-olds at 1:00pm on a Monday — I’m aware that people may wonder if I take my kids’ education seriously, or if my kids are missing out, and I don’t want to sound insecure about our decision or reticent to talk about it. So I’m often trying to find that balance of being a happy homeschooler while making sure no one feels like I’m rubbing it in their face.

Recently someone posted this HuffPost article on Facebook called “3 Things Your Homeschooling Friend Isn’t Telling You” and I found myself nodding along with the whole thing. It reminded me once again why a woman like me, who doesn’t think she homeschools very well, continues on. I love the flexibility it allows, the creativity, the ability to tailor learning to my individual children. I love the wholesome environment we can provide our daughters to learn and to discover who they are in this big world. As much as my kids can drive me crazy at times, I treasure all the time I have with them because time passes quickly and the relationships we’re building now are a foundation for the future. I’m grateful to have all the supports we have around us, which make it easier to do this — coops, activities, other homeschoolers, lots of resources.

I suppose this post is mostly meant for me, to remind myself that I really do enjoy being a homeschooler, despite my struggles and chaotic days and my down-playing it to others. Of course, I’m writing this while we’re on our summer schedule, which is an easier time to sit back and feel good about things. But when November rolls around, I think it may help to re-read this post.

If you’re a homeschooler, does that article resonate? If you’re not, do you find it helpful to remind yourself why you do what you do?


Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Pull Up A Chair

July 8, 2016

Cornfield by Joao Silas

It was a short week and I’m not complaining about that, but there’s still a whole lot on my to-do list as I head into the weekend. I have no coherent commentary on anything in particular today, so here’s a handful of random things that are on my mind and heart. Before I start, though, how about joining me in a tall glass of Smashed Blackberry Sage Sprtiz? Seems like a refreshing way to start a summer weekend. Okay, so let’s see…

  • My social media feeds are once again full of news of white cops shooting black men  –and protests erupting in police deaths. Terrible, terrible. Each situation has its own particulars I know, but what they have in common can’t be denied. Hashtags and forwarding prayers aren’t going to fix this problem — each of us needs to play a role. There are lots of words that get written, and spoken, and words are important, but what particular actions can we take? I read about how one young white woman starting picking up trash in a section of her inner city neighborhood where many African Americans live. She ended up spending an hour cleaning and sweeping with an elderly neighbor and the two plan to continue the effort and encourage others to join them. Everyday, “ordinary” things can make a difference.
  • I had my first experience with deer ticks and it was a bit nerve-wracking. We came up with the bright idea of hiking last Saturday because it was so beautiful outside, and off we went to one of our favorite local spots. Even though we didn’t walk in tall grass and we wore long pants and had socks on, B still ended up with 3 ticks crawling on him, I had two, and H had one that had crawled in her shoe. We inspected ourselves thoroughly before getting into the car and I still found one on my arm when we were half way home (that probably came from my hair). We took our clothes off at the front door and got showers, and the next day the girls spotted a tick on our kitchen floor. Ugh! Luckily, no one was bitten, but I think that about did it for hiking in Maryland’s countryside until fall, especially after I read about the 92 pathogens ticks can carry around here, including the sometimes Rocky Mountain Fever. Sigh.
  • Currently on my nightstand is my 2016 “summertime novel.” It’s not something I need to read for work, it’s not related to parenting, or something I need to learn — it’s for pure reading pleasure. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has been recommended by many people so I’m looking forward to seeing what I think. I’ll let you know.
  • After one of my daughters told me she couldn’t sleep because she was bored of her room and even the walls were “making her sick,” I decided we should take an afternoon and change things up. Not easy to do in such a tiny room with two doors, two windows, and a closet to contend with, but we managed it. It was a group effort and honestly, she’s been sleeping a little better ever since. Parenting lesson #9654: Kids sometimes need something new and different, too.
  • It’s July, friends; we’re halfway through 2016! How’s your year going so far? What do you need to do or plan for now to make sure you’re happy with the way this year has turned out when the end of December rolls around? I’m asking myself this very question.
  • Got any recommendations for carry-on luggage — for both kids and adults — for a week-long summer vacation trip? I’m in the market.

Happy weekend! Rest, relax, stay safe.

Image: Joao Silas at unsplash


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