Can’t Handle It

 

I’ve always had this idea that I can’t handle life as well as everyone else.  I am wary of putting too much on my plate.  In college, when friends were taking 5 classes a semester, I took only 3.  As a florist, I took 1 wedding per week and never worked on Sundays, when colleagues were taking multiple weddings a day.  I have decided that my hands are full with 2 children, while I watch others have 3, 4, or more.

Maybe I can’t handle as much stress or busyness as my peers.   I’ve always considered this a bad thing. I have some very ambitious friends and it’s easy to compare myself to them and conclude that I must be defective.  Or weak, or scared.  Or just an underachiever?

Perhaps that’s part of the story. As an HSP and a recovering perfectionist,  I am afraid of taking on too much for fear of slacking in any one area.  Sometimes I feel like I’m holding everything together by a thread. I also take everything so dang seriously.  Any small task, especially if it affects others, is done with much planning, intention, and preparation.  I wish I were more relaxed and spontaneous.  Wish I could just laugh at my failures and roll with the punches.

But there is a positive side to all this!  I actually respect myself for not overextending myself.  I know what I value in life, and that is my family, alone time to reflect and recharge, nature,  generosity and community.  On some level, I have always known that those values must be protected from the busyness and  chaos of the world.  Why would I take 5 classes?  Cram my kids’ schedules with activities?  Work to make more and more money when we already have enough?   I rarely burn out because I am so good about conserving and replenishing my energy.

So I’d like to thank my intuition for knowing what I can handle, weeding out what is not needed, and pursing with full-force the few things that mean everything to me.  And when life heaps more onto my plate than I would choose (trials and tribulations aplenty), I always surprise myself by being stronger, wiser and more capable than I ever imagined.

So I guess I can handle life.  I just handle it differently.

An affirmation I wrote in my journal is this: “I am strong enough and wise enough to handle the present and the future.”

Another one is:  “I face failure and success with courage.  I become more successful with each failure.”

Life is Awkward

I think for most people, awkward is mostly a neutral term.  Awkwardness is an inevitable part of daily life; nothing to lose sleep over.  It passes and everyone moves on.  My husband is not really phased by awkwardness.  He sometimes chuckles and gets a little kick out of it.

Not for me.  Somewhere along the way, awkwardness became something a little more dreadful.  Awkwardness can often feel pretty intense, anxiety provoking, even painful at times. I consider myself HIGHLY awkward.  I tend to avoid awkward situations whenever possible.

But life is awkward.

  • Small talk
  • Talking on the phone
  • Lulls in conversation
  • Failed punch lines
  • Confrontations
  • Introductions
  • Reunions
  • Misunderstandings
  • Asking for help

These are all part of life.  I can’t spend my life in my comfort zone. My big dreams include living abroad part time, relocating our family to the countryside, forming a closer community or “tribe”.  There will be awkwardness for sure as cultures clash and we start everything anew. I want to embrace all that instead of fear it. I know a big part of me wants this, awkwardness and all.

So lately when I feel awkwardness is just around the corner (say, I see a stranger approaching me on the sidewalk), I breathe, adjust my stance (usually this means uncrossing my arms and relaxing my butt muscles!) tell myself to lean into the discomfort, and let it play itself out.  It’s really nothing to dread.  The more I lean into it, the less awkward I feel and the less awkward it is.

Awkward first dates can lead to true love.  Awkward introductions can lead to soul mates.  Awkward parties can lead to awesome memories.  Awkward incidents often become the funniest stories we tell.  Awkwardness is the spice of life 🙂

Why Does Empathy Scare Us?

I grew up in a family where our “bad” emotions (jealousy, anger, rage) were not validated.  My parents weren’t unkind people, but true empathy was not their forte.  We were a highly emotional bunch of kids, and we were told, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently, to brush it off, stop crying, don’t be so dramatic, smile and be nice.  I think they truly believed that was the best way to handle negative emotions. As a highly sensitive child who struggled with a lot of fears, bouts of melancholy, and anxious feelings, I never felt fully understood or free to express myself.

I became a parent and stumbled upon Janet Lansbury’s writings about respecting babies and children.  She suggests staying unruffled during the craziest of tantrums, and acknowledging and validating the ugliest of emotions.  This seemed radical to me, but I tried it. Instead of my go-to strategies of distraction or just shooing away the feelings (“You’re ok! No more tears!”), I really leaned into them.  I said the feelings aloud and made them even more real. “You are sad that I had another baby.  It makes you angry and makes you want to head butt your brother.  I understand you are sad and mad, but I will not let you hurt him.”

Empathy and validation absolutely works with my kids.  They simmer down quickly and seem to have good emotional intelligence for being so young. There are few grudges, little anger bubbling underneath the surface.  Best of all, we’re on the same team.  But it took a lot of getting used to for me.  In fact, such radical empathy felt scary.  To not contradict, correct or ignore negative emotions seems indulgent, too loose.  Shouldn’t we stand our ground as parents?  Shouldn’t we re-train a child’s emotions?  Isn’t that our job?  As a Christian, old testament verses are sometimes thrown around as proof that we need to spank, punish, and control.  Yikes.

When Sisi needed surgery for her broken elbow, she and I were both frustrated by the way the doctors are nurses distracted and redirected Sisi instead of listening to her fears and questions and answering them straight, even if she didn’t like the answers. It was then that I realized my radical empathy and straight talk was truly counter-cultural.

 

Here’s the thing. I think about how I like to be comforted.  Does it really help for someone to tell you your feelings are wrong, immature, and you just need to get over it?  To give you lectures or advice that you’re just not ready to hear? Do you like being ignored or banished when you are having your adult tantrums (and we all have them, right?) No.  We just need someone to say, “You sound really upset.  I’m so sorry you are having such a hard time.  I’m here for you.”  How healing are those words?  The older I get, the more tragedies I’ve experienced and the more I realize that’s ALL you can say most of the time.  There are just no other words. Assuming I am not abusing, lashing out  or manipulating you, please don’t try to rationalize or punish me in my sadness, grief and moments of near-insanity, because you will get nowhere.

I have a loved one who suffers from a severe mental illness.  During flare-ups, this person’s thoughts and emotions are in another galaxy.  In the past, I have tried to convince, contradict, correct, distract.  All the things we try with tantruming kids.  But like tantruming kids, my loved on is not in a frame of mind to hear my great reasons and arguments.  Rather than convince this person to get help and get back on meds, I pushed the person away even more.  I became someone not to be trusted.  How very sad.

The book I am not sick, I don’t need help! by Xavier Amador reminded me so much of Janet Lansbury’s strategy, but applied toward those struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The book argues that poor insight into their own symptoms is a symptom of the mental illness itself.  This means that a schizophrenic or bipolar person is not just being irrational or stubborn when they say they are not sick, don’t need meds, or suggest something crazy like aliens are speaking to them through a blink 182 song on the radio (I’ve heard it.)  They truly believe this, and there’s no way to convince them otherwise.  It’s wasted breath.

Next time I get to talk to my loved one, I will stop saying “You need help.  You are just paranoid. Your plan is not going to work.”  Instead I will say, “Tell me if I’m hearing you right.  You don’t want to take meds because they make you feel terrible and you don’t think  you need them.  You don’t want to stay put because  you think someone is following you.  It must be scary to be in your position right now.  Nobody likes to feel followed.  I’m here for you.  I love you.”  And then I’ll wait- weeks, months maybe, until my loved one is ready to hear me and my wise suggestions for his/her life.   (Of course, if someone is a harm to himself or others, it’s important to step in and force help. But this should be the last resort.)

So radical empathy isn’t just for tantruming kids.  Or grieving adults.  Or mentally ill loved ones.  It’s for every single person.  Let’s not be afraid of radical empathy.  It will make the world a kinder and more emotionally intelligent place.

5 Frugal Moves in the last Year

We didn’t even budget until last summer when we started saving up for our land.  We were so mindless about our spending because we didn’t really have a goal.  Now we have a HUGE goal- to build our own home and to give Joe a few years sabbatical to do so.  After analyzing our spending that first month, our eyeballs popped out and I may have cursed.  We needed to shave off thousands annually in order to invest for the future.  While we’ve cut down on the little things (no more coffee shops, acai bowls, eating out all the time, expensive musicals and concerts, etc.)  it’s the big changes that make the most difference.

Here are 5 frugal steps we took this past year, in order of impact on our bottom line.

  1. Fired my housecleaners.  This saved us almost 1800.00 this year.  Having maids come every three weeks was a lovely post-partum gift to myself, but it had to end.  I worked up the courage to fire them last summer by a) relaxing my standards of cleanliness, and b) finding better cleaning products that make cleaning an easier habit.  Now the house isn’t ever sparkling clean, but it doesn’t get filthy the way it did 2 or 3 weeks post-maid.  As an HSP, I am my own filth-o-meter and tackle messes when they bug me. But I only clean about 15-20 minutes a day, which is totally doable.  I’ve embraced the idea of “clean enough”.  As for products, I’m loving Norwex envirocloths and glass polishing clothes. They deep clean using just water. Water is free!!!  I also purchased the e-cloth microfiber mop.  Mopping my kitchen, bathrooms, and main traffic areas takes less than 10 minutes now, so I have no excuse but to do it once in a while.   Piggybacking on this one, we also fired the gardeners to save 600.00 this year.
  2. Played the miles card game.  We’re finally in a place financially to play the miles game without racking up debt at insane interest rates.  This means paying our balances in full each month via automatic payments.  After just 3 months, we’ve scored 700.00 in travel credit, and will add 1000.00 more credit in a month or two.  That’s enough to cover our 4 flights to Oregon this summer, plus rental car.  I wish I’d started racking up miles long ago.  We used the advice in this post to get started.

    Our Oregon trip last year should have been free!
  3. Joined a homeschool charter school.  In exchange for work samples, activity logs, and meetings with a teacher each month, we are given funds to pay for books, school supplies, lessons, classes, memberships to museums, zoos,  our local mission, and more.  I pretty much don’t buy Sisi anything out of pocket anymore.  It all comes from the charter school.

    Our charter school purchased our family membership to Mission San Juan Capistrano. We bring picnics and chill in the gardens regularly.
  4. Shop used clothes.  I started this for ethical reasons, but we save a bundle on clothing shopping used (almost exclusively, barring undergarments and my husband’s clothes.)  Here’s my shopping strategy: My favorite is thredup.com for myself and the kids.  I put anything that catches my eye into my cart.  Narrow it down to my favorite 10-15 items.  Have it all sent to me (free shipping!).  Try it on, mull over it for a few days and see if it fits in with my (fairly minimal) wardrobe.  Send back what I don’t want (usually 80% of the items!) for a refund.  I’m left with a few items in great condition that have already proven they stand up to washing and normal wear.   I haven’t set foot in a mall in a long time, which is crazy because that used to be one of my favorite places to take the kids!
  5. Took up hobbies like embroidery and map-making.  These hobbies provide me with cheap entertainment, are very therapeutic, and make cute handmade gifts for friends.  I’ve also vowed never to buy cards again.  Instead I’ve stocked up on blank white cards and envelopes so I can quickly watercolor a pretty design.

    My second project ever! A very colorful H for my friend Helen on her birthday. There are lots of little symbols tucked into the design (can you spy a surfboard, sun, lavender sprigs, boat, anchor, and horseshoe?) I love embroidering for friends because I can’t help but think about them and pray for them while I stitch. So it’s truly a labor of love, although a little wonky and imperfect for sure.

I have more frugal moves in the works- switching our cell plan to twigby, getting rid of the tv and netflix (!!!) and meal planning to cut the grocery bill down even further.  Food is by far our biggest expense.

Strawbale House Workshop in Arizona

Deciding to build your own strawbale home is a calling.  The first strawbale building I walked into really did call out to me.  Those absurdly thick walls covered in mud plaster, the delightfully lumpy edges and curvy planes said to me stay awhile, touch my surfaces; this space is for living, breathing, daydreaming.  I walked into that gift shop and knew I could never settle for dry wall, plywood and 2x4s again. I took Joe to see it and he also fell in love instantly. When he realized that plaster coated walls are termite resistant, fire resistant, do great in earthquakes, and do a darn good job of blocking out EMFs and wifi, he was completely sold and we began making a plan.

This Canelo Project workshop was our first step toward making our 5 year plan come true.  Bill and Athena Steen are experts in natural building.  Over many years of trial and error, they have developed a system that is so simple, elegant and doable. No fancy machines or expensive materials to build our “mock house” (a house we built and then tore down for learning purposes.)  Just straw, mud, sand, bamboo, wood, and cement blocks for the foundation. Many of the materials can come straight from your own land and last a surprisingly long time.

Housebuilding always seemed impossible to me- this big intimidating project just for men.  But this workshop stripped away the mystique and showed me that it’s possible for any man, women or child with determination to build a strawbale home.

So yay! Anyone can do this! The materials are quite forgiving and any mistake can usually be undone.  But you have to to be a special kind of human to commit yourself to such a project.  You’ve got to be a little crazy.  Putting up the bale walls was the easy  part- took a few hours tops. The hard part? Mixing up the trays and trays of mud plaster to the perfect tuna salad consistency. Applying the many coats with trowels in just the right way. Sculpting the walls, niches, windows and shelves.  These steps cannot be rushed.  They can take months and months.

Beautiful cob shelves.  The artsy finishing touches like these are what I’m looking forward to.
We destroyed a wall and used the bales and plaster to build a new wall. Next year’s class will tear this one down and create something new.

I mostly took this workshop as a trial run, having never built anything before. I had so many questions, mostly about myself.  Can I handle manual labor?  Do I enjoy the process of building something?  Can I live in a construction zone for a year or two?  Will this be worth it?

This workshop encouraged me and freaked me out at the same time.  I doubt I’ll enjoy living in the midst of half-done projects and construction mess for years. It might be a hard and frustrating season in our family’s life. Truth be told, I’m not really excited about the actual building process.  I prefer small handicrafts (like embroidery) that fit in my hands and can be completed in a few sittings.  Building something big scares me.  And I can only guess how many annoying mistakes we will probably make. This is scary for a perfectionistic HSP who likes stability and calm.

But I also know how much I will celebrate this home that our hands have sculpted, made from the clay of our very own land.  The prize will be well worth the struggle.  We will look back and laugh at our struggles and mistakes. Our kids will always remember building their own home.  They will know that they can do something so big.  Who knows what dreams it will inspire in them.

Joe and I posing in front of my favorite structure on the property- the strawbale playhouse! A kids’ dream and a doable project for anyone.

I want to thank Bill and Athena Steen for opening up their brains, home and hearts to us.  They have built a welcoming oasis out in the middle of the desert. I was expecting a strawbale bootcamp of sorts, and ended up having the most relaxing and fulfilling vacation.  Bill and Athena have added new layers of inspiration to this dream of ours. One day we hope to open up our brains, home and hearts to otheres in much the same way.

 

 

 

The Ikea Story that Kept Me Up All Night

The Ikea “Sex Trafficking” story made me so upset. At first, I felt upset at myself for not being more careful with my kids when I shop (especially at that very same Ikea!) How could I be so careless? But by the time I got to the end of the story, I was upset for a different reason.

As a mom prone to worry and anxiety… As a highly sensitive person who is already very cautious and who is good at imagining worst case scenarios, I believe articles like these are an affront to my sanity and sense of well-being.

You guys, I’m not a helicopter mom on the OUTSIDE. I give my kids as much space and freedom as I can possibly muster. But I’m a helicopter parent on the INSIDE. My rational side knows that my kids are safe here in the U.S. Of A (not 100% safe, but safe enough.) My rational side has read the statistics which say the chances of my kids being abducted in a public place are infinitessimal. But that rational side is at constant war with my primal, mama-bear within. This primal, protective side has it’s place, for sure. But it’s also easily stoked by articles such as these. Some might say, GOOD! A little more worry, a little more caution; it’s all good. I strongly disagree.

Any ounce of worry and energy put toward completely unlikely dangers has trade-offs.

  • A parent’s sanity.
  • Takes our attention from true threats (car accidents, drowning, depression and suicide to name a few in the top 5 causes of child mortality.)
  • Causes us to deprive our children of space and independence (and the street smarts that develop as a result) that will serve them very well in the future.
  • Passes on a fear of strangers that could negatively affect them in the future.

I’m not directing my anger toward this mother. A friend of mine who actually knows this mom pointed out that this mom can’t help her gut feeling. I agree. We all get weirded out in public from time to time. There is this bagger at Sprouts who really creeps me out. The way he looks at my kids makes me choose a different line and leave in a hurry. But the fact that the mom’s hunch or 6th sense was turned into a dire warning to all parents complete with totally misleading titles such as “Mom of 3 Posts Warning to Other Parents: We Were Targets” makes me upset.  Perhaps not the mom’s fault that her story became so viral, but the fact that it did really peeves me.

I also don’t mean to be flippant about child trafficking. It’s horrific and every parent’s worst nightmare. But I think it’s important to note that the odds of it happening to a) young children b) in a public place c) by a stranger are extremely low. 97% of child abductions are by caregivers/family/friends, not strangers.  I’m not sure what percentage of that 3% is sex trafficking, but I’ll get it’s pretty small.

I grieve the “good old days” when I was growing up. I was allowed to walk a mile to the local grocery store at age 8 to buy jolly ranchers. I didn’t fear every stranger I passed along the way. I miss those days of safety. BUT WAIT, those days are still here. The crimes rates are actually lower now. So why are we all so worried? In part, social media and articles like these. That’s why I’m upset.

I found these statistics to be eye-opening (and definitely counter-intuitive!)

My Amish Nights

One of the best lifestyle hacks I’ve implemented over the past two years is to slow things wayyy down after sunset.  Friends joke that I’m an old granny, or even Amish, because we abstain from anything super stimulating at night- no netflix, no music, no bright lights or phones. We even avoid “date nights” or staying out late with friends, choosing instead to socialize during daylight hours. My husband is the one who encouraged these changes.  I fought him on it at first because I didn’t believe him.  My 80 year old mother in law has more of a night life than I do, and I wonder sometimes if that makes me a loser?  But my “boring” evenings have become soothing to my soul.  I’m able to give my body and mind a break from noise, light, technology, and social interactions.  As someone who struggles with burnout and anxiety, these quiet nights are my medicine.

Picture this: On a typical evening after the kids have been lullabied and tucked in, you’ll find us:

  • In our living room with the lights off (Joe actually turns off most of the electricity after dark.).
  • Our phones are on airplane mode or tucked into their radiation blocking wire mesh cages.
  • We have several salt lamps on, because they give off a soothing amber glow, as opposed to standard lights which give off blue light.  Blue light is highly stimulating and can mess with circadian rhythms, hormones, sleep and health in general (If, unlike me, you crave details and want to know the physics behind this idea of blue light, check out this blog post).
  • We’re wearing red head lamps because red light does not interrupt melatonin production.  Joe is probably wearing orange glasses to block any traces of blue lights from his eyes, which makes him look like a Bono wannabe. I haven’t embraced the glasses yet because I’m way too vain.
  • I’m sipping herbal tea.  The fireplace is crackling. Joe is giving our dog Basil a much-needed massage.  She’s a highly sensitive dog.
  • We’re reading, or maybe I’m doing some light yoga, or embroidering a little gift for a friend.

  • While I’m embroidering, we might turn on a podcast to listen to together, and then chat about it afterward.  Our favorite podcasts to listen to together are Radical Personal Finance and a theology podcast called the Glory Cloud Podcast.   I’m planning on listening to Missing Richard Simmons next.   Even podcasts can be a little too stimulating for me at night, so we often choose to read instead.
  • I’m a non-fiction lover, but I read fiction at night to calm my brain down. My typical bedtime books are chick lit (Jojo Moyes, Liane Moriarty, Barbara Kingsolver, and Mona Simpson are some of my go-tos).

I usually tuck myself in before 10pm, and sleep for a good 9 hours.  I’ve mentioned before that HSPs need more sleep!  I wake up refreshed and ready to run my little household. Ready to face the noise, the lights, and the demands of modern life because I know I’ll get a respite from it all when the sun goes down.

I know this seems extreme, but for most of human history before electricity, people used to be forced to relax at night and get tons of sleep.  We’re not weird, we’re just retro.

How do you mellow out after a long day?

 

 

Introversion, HSP, or Social Anxiety? The blurry line.

 

Introvert? Check. HSP? Check. Social Anxiety? Dunno.

I refill my cup of energy with alone time (introversion.)  I am highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds (HSP.)  But do I often fear being judged or negatively evaluated by other people (social anxiety)?  If so, does that fear permeate most or all of my social interactions?  Dunno.

I will admit:

  • I often worry about what people think of me.
  • I fear saying too much or too little.
  • My nervous, frantic energy around people often causes me to say weird things, stumble over my words, ask strange questions, talk too much or completely clam up.
  • I have trouble sustaining eye contact.
  • I am flustered when introduced.
  • I dread being the center of attention (although a part of me thrives off it, too!)
  • I spend a lot of time during and after social interactions identifying flaws in my social performance.
  • (More symptoms can be found here. )

So often, I feel frazzled inside.  I feel a buzzing sensation in my body which makes it hard to even hold a conversation.  I feel short of breath and my muscles tense. I dread that feeling.  I also dread the criticism I give myself during and after the social interaction. I find myself wondering often, is this normal? Does everyone feel this way?  And if not, can I just chalk it up to HSP or introversion?

Social anxiety wasn’t really on my radar until recently when I read the novel The Husband’s Secret.  One of the characters, Tess, suffers from social anxiety, but covers it with humor, sarcasm, and faked confidence.  Of course, the constant covering up begins to take it’s toll.  I related to Tess’s quirks so profoundly that I started to wonder if I suffer from social anxiety.

Since social anxiety is a continuum, do I have enough of it to be considered a full-blown mental disorder?

I don’t feel socially anxious all the time. Certain people and situations bring the anxiety out of me more than others.  I click with certain people right away. Others intimidate me immediately, and I don’t understand why.  Most people would call me  friendly, warm, enthusiastic, even social. I don’t usually avoid parties or people- I push through the anxiety and try to be present (See this post about party anxiety for proof!) I force myself because that’s the person I want to be. It’s inside me somewhere.

My therapist believes it’s impossible to completely separate HSP from introversion from social anxiety . They are overlapping circles- separate but related, influencing one another.  A Venn diagram with me in the middle. Part of me wants to rule social anxiety out.  After all, while introversion and HSP are neutral traits- good in some situations, unhelpful in others, social anxiety is always a bad thing: something to be cured.  But then again, at least it can be “cured”.  

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, also believes it’s difficult to tease apart social anxiety from HSP.  One of the FAQs on her website is “Do I have an anxiety disorder or am I just highly sensitive?”  Dr. Aron answered that anxiety is only a disorder if the anxiety doesn’t make sense or is excessive for the particular situation.  For an HSP, the anxiety often makes sense!  We are programmed to be cautious, notice everything, try to predict the future, deeply process our mistakes, etc.  This way of thinking often causes anxiety!  To tell an HSP to stop worrying is like telling an HSP to stop being an HSP.

In social situations, we are very attuned to others’ facial expressions, sighs, yawns, subtle eye rolls, and tone of voice.  If someone is indeed judging us, or offended, or bored by us, we are apt to pick up on it.  We probably won’t forget it, either!  The social “traumas” that everyone experiences during childhood and adolescence- awkward first dates, feeling left out, having fallouts, might make a deeper impression on an HSP, and might make us cautious of any situation resembling those past traumas.

Something else that blurs the line is that overstimulation feels a lot like anxiety.  Overstimulation produces the same physical symptoms as anxiety- quick pulse, sweating, dry throat, headaches, muscle tension. Sometimes I can coach myself out of my feelings of social panic by telling myself, “It’s just overstimulation.  There’s a lot going on right now.  You are doing great.  You’re fine.”  I instantly feel better and find the strength to press on.

So I’m still not sure if I have social anxiety.  My therapist told me the label is less important than the goal: RESILIENCY.  What pep talks do I need to give myself to work myself out of these frazzled states?  Sometimes I can blame it on overstimulation, and I feel better.  Sometimes I can blame it on introversion and make sure I get more alone time, and that works.  But sometimes I have to admit that I’m feeling anxious becauase I feel I’m not good enough, or not worthy enough.  It’s humbling to admit.  I’m trying to figure this stuff out pronto because I want to teach my kids what it means to be confident, authentic people.

Do you feel the need to label yourself?  Do you find labels helpful or harmful?

 

Teaching the ABCs to my Highly Sensitive Child

Aha moment: I noticed that  Sisi (my sensitive 6 yo) and Matteo (my less sensitive 2 yo)  each responded to their favorite ABC book, ABC T-Rex,  differently.  Matteo noticed and repeated the letters, memorizing all the alliterations.  Sisi studied the pictures, especially the facial expressions, intently.  She had many queries. “Is the T-Rex so excited about all that ice cream? Is he worried about burning his food on the grill?”  To Sisi, this was a book about a character that she wanted to know deeply- his joys, his fears, all of it.  These weird symbols on the page called ABCs?  Barely noticed them. That’s not how her brain works. She is incredibly empathic, and characters are primarily what grab her attention in ALL books.  HSPs tend to be super emotionally aware.  They are also creative and look for subtleties in pictures.  Matteo seems to be more interested in the actual letters and numbers than in faces at this point, which is why he’s learning them so quickly on his own.

I’m glad that we kept homeschooling so non-academic for the first 6 years of Sisi’s life, despite peer and cultural pressure to introduce academics at a young age.  She had time and space to develop her creativity and emotional intelligence.  I definitely see the fruits! I hoped that the ABCs, and even writing her own name, would come to her naturally, as spoken language, colors, and social skills did.  But the ABCs didn’t. They haven’t.  Six years of ABC songs, puzzles and books, and she still wasn’t grasping them.

The unschooling philosophy says that Sisi she’ll learn her ABCs when she wants to learn them.  Once the intrinsic motivation is there, she’ll learn them in a snap. The Waldorf method doesn’t introduce any academics until 7 years old, when the child leaves the “dream state” and enters reality.  I respect and incorporate ideas from both unschooling and the Waldorf method, but I’m finding it really hard to be a “purist”.   I guess I couldn’t wait until 7 or 8 or 9 to see if she’d grasp the ABCs on her own.   I do respect the parents who do! It takes so much faith and confidence to just wait (and wait and wait).

There are still many things I choose not to teach. As Jean Piaget said, Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.” However, I’m not opposed to bringing in a few programs, workbooks, and classes that I think would fill in a gap or spur my  kids on.   Why not tap into some of the great resources out there, even if my kid is not asking for them specifically?

So here’s what we chose: Handwriting Without Tears was recommended  by an Occupational Therapist friend who used it in her job as well as her own homeschooling. We’re taking it slowly, about 3 letters per week, just 10 minutes a day.  She’s now learned to neatly write and recognize all her capital letters, and is starting on her numbers.   Everything about HWT makes sense to me- the order of the letters they teach (not in ABC order!), the learning manipulatives, the workbooks, even the teeny tiny pencils to encourage correct positioning of the fingers.  She enjoys it.  Maybe not as much as she enjoys costumes and play dough, but she enjoys it nonetheless. She also knows that after she learns her lower case letters, we can move on to reading, which she’s pretty stoked about!  I was humbled and relieved when I decided that I CAN utilize an expert’s method to teach something I have no idea how to teach.  In fact, it was freeing to decide that I’m allowed to teach at all.

How did your kids learn their ABCs?  On their own?  With a program?  Would love to hear what worked for you!

Not a Bored Homemaker

I’m very rarely bored.  If anything, I’m too stimulated.  So I purposely keep my schedule mellow and make sure there are many blank squares on the calendar.  Blank days where my my only real duties are to keep the family fed, clothed, and tidy up a bit. Anything beyond that is extra credit. Many would be super bored and understimulated if they lived my life, I know this for a fact.  But I am not.  There is almost always something to captivate my attention: the birds outside, my kids playing, a cup of tea, even this blog.  When there is not, I can easily zone out into space for much longer than is “normal”, thinking deeply or not thinking at all. Yes, zoning out is not even boring to me! Since HSPs notice more details in the environment, and then deeply process those details, we are perhaps more easily entertained than the average person.

I have dear friends who have confided that being home with the kids all the time is somewhat torturous.  That they are bored to tears, and  jealous of their husbands and friends who get to work.  My friend told me that a stressful day at work is a vacation compared to being at home with the kids.  I can sympathize with this, but I can’t fully understand it.    I didn’t like working all that much, even in a job I was passionate about (see this post).  I can’t say I really thrive out there in the career world, and have wanted to be a stay at home mom for a very long time.    If I HAD to work, I would try to hustle and save like 75% of my income and then retire early so I can do exactly what I’m doing today, staying at home.

A coworker in college was shocked and somewhat horrified when I told him I aspired to be a stay at home mom.  He kept saying, “I feel so sorry for you.   Why are you even getting a college education?”  First of all, how condescending, right?  Berkeley, a place for open-mindedness and tolerance, and yet he so easily judged my dream, mostly because I wouldn’t be paid, and my efforts wouldn’t benefit the community and the world (I beg to differ, but whatevs.)  

This conversation from 13 years ago came to mind as I underlined and starred this passage from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, PhD.

Twice as many HSPs as non-HSPs in my study called themselves homemaker, housewife, or full-time parent. (Not all were women.)… HSP ‘homemakers’ find a good niche for themselves, provided they can ignore the culture’s undervaluing of their work.  Research on parenting, for example, continually finds the elusive quality of ‘sensitivity’ to be the key in raising children well.

Thank you Dr. Aron for the validation.  I really needed to hear that.  Being a stay at home parent may not be the best fit for everyone.  Many wish they could get out of the predictable, sometimes mundane home, and out into the exciting wider world.  But to an HSP, exciting might be a good book, new recipe, chopping apples, pulling weeds, chatting with a neighbor… and that’s ok!