Monday, September 12, 2011

welcome, rules

It's not surprising that the thoughtful list of rules that Frances' first grade classroom came up with, and that the two of us printed out to read together, is nestled in among scissors, homemade fly swatters, broken colored pencils and scrap paper on the kitchen table right now. I've been feeling a new rage for order lately, but my habitual disorder (which in optimistic times past I have called coziness) often gets the better of me.

The school year is underway, our varied schedules have become more rigid, and I had a tiny epiphany last week about structure, or rather, our insistence on living with a low level of it. When we don't know the rules--the expectations, the script, the what-will-come-next--we get majorly stressed out. And yet! I persist in my attachment to flexibility, spontaneity, and the ability to break rules when the situation calls for it. As in: you're right, who needs underwear anyway? Or: that cookie isn't the crumbly kind, I guess you could eat it on the couch just this once. Or: I know I said Saturdays were allowance day, but you're behaving so poorly right now I'm not sure. And I don't have any cash anyway. Maybe tomorrow?

Doesn't this inconsistency sound like a nightmare for a kid? To drive home the point: the only part of parenting that Mike and I totally kick butt at is bedtime. There have been modifications and adjustments over time but generally, the routine is always the same. There is no discussion or argument at the end of the day. I don't cave when it comes to requests to stay up later; those requests are infrequent anyway, because all parties know there is just no messing with bedtime.

The rest of the day, however, is up for grabs.
Until now! At least, I'm working on it. Area #1 of increased organization (and hopefully, peacefulness) is school lunches. I photocopied this chart from a favorite cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family. Frances and I brainstormed "growing foods," fruits, and vegetables that she would like to eat at school. We added those items to the Shopping List (another fine new innovation in our lives!), filled in the chart together, and hung it on a kitchen wall for easy reference.

Eating in general has been stressful these days. I knew when the children cheered at their last "Kid Dinner," explaining that they preferred eating separately because we don't give them a hard time about trying different foods, that we were in trouble. What could be more central, more hallowed and honored, than gathering around the family table to share a meal? How could my kids have negative feelings about dinner, one of life's most pleasurable and beautiful institutions? But they're picky, and unlike bedtime, we do not have hard and fast rules and routines around dinner. After I read this, I felt a new wave of inspiration.

I sat down with the kids two weeks ago and made a menu for the week. I know, many of you do this at home and have long understood how helpful it is. But I had never thought out the week's meals before. Like I said, spontaneity! Fun! I cook however the wind blows me, recipes be damned. This often means that by Thursday or Friday the picking are pathetically slim. I also get stressed out if the wind dies down to a gentle breeze and it's 5 o'clock and I have no idea what to make. So we're presently on week 2 of menu planning, and by far the best thing about it is that the kids partake in the decision making process. Before we even sit down, dinner has become less of a top down, my-parents-are-oppressing-me kind of affair.

We also came up with some rules for our family at dinner time the other night. It's all the usual stuff (you have to try one bite, only use kind words with each other, stay on our seats during dinner, etc) but articulating these guidelines together, and agreeing upon them, left me with a feeling of fresh optimism.
And finally, one more bit of order and intention in our lives. I bought Gabriel a bulletin board, just like the one his sister has in her room, and helped him choose pictures of the special people in his life. Mike and Gabriel hung it on the wall together, and we carefully placed the pictures and affixed them in place with push pins. Like all this rule talk and sign-hanging, I wanted to formalize and make visible the constellation of people who adore Gabriel. It is very sweet to see him stand motionless before his new bulletin board, gazing at the pictures.

Throughout all this ordering of family life, I had a nasty cold that developed into a sinus infection. We were also steadily walking towards September 11th, and I felt the day's approach palpably. Returning to the stories of loss and sacrifice, to the memories of that time - walking through the quiet streets of Philadelphia feeling lost, sitting on the steps of our church, watching people cry and pray - brought on bouts of a vulnerable, empty kind of sadness. In some strange way I must be trying to ward off not only tantrums and stress, but illness, accident, even widespread tragedy by wielding these freshly-made lists and charts. To you, sinus infection, I say we will always wash hands before dinner. And to you, terrorists hiding in the shadows? You'll have to cancel your plans for later in the week, because look what it says right here: we will have tofu and green beans with peanut sauce on Thursday night!

All a mother can do is try, right?

1 comment:

Heather said...

It may not come as a surprise to you that I LOVE this blog entry. Tom never fails to note that every time I bring up the topic of kids, my next comment pertains to RULES. I love rules! Just last night I was protesting that family rules are great because they are an indication of a family ethos, a "we," a shared agreement about what we do and don't do. Aren't family traditions basically a set of rules? Tom: Post WWII, Germans are taught to be suspicious of the collective "we," of over-emphasis on uniformity and of insistence on adherence to dictates. Me: Yeah, well, we're in U.S. of A. baby, and our society desperately needs to reaffirm shared values.

I, too, made a list of a week's worth of dinners that we not only used to shop (first set of brownie points), but also then executed (2nd set of brownie points). I must say it made dinners far less stressful! We don't have to use our brains at 7 p.m. to decide what to make. The list tells us!

Will we remain this organized? I doubt it. But SHOULD we remain this organized? Yes, my friend, yes. So I say layer on those rules, Meagan. Dole them out right and left. Yeah, it's all about the follow through. But think about the potential for organized bliss!