family life

Finding Work-Life Balance

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Last year, Husband reached a crossroads in his career path. It was time for some big decisions, and – as our family has often done – we chose the road less travelled. We came up with a plan that excited us, but it would require some serious belt-tightening for a while. At around the same time, I had an opportunity to take on more work at my editing job, and I gratefully accepted.

I work from home, and I set my own hours. But I do have deadlines and sometimes that means dropping everything, including sleep. Taking on more work turned out to be far more challenging than I’d anticipated. By summer I was feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy with the way work had taken over my life. My house was a constant mess, I stopped cooking and baking and embraced convenience foods, and I found myself saying “no” to my kids far too often for my liking. My life felt a little bit like this picture below!

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Miss Em turned 12 this summer, and I’ve noticed that she needs me just as much as she did when she was little, but unlike when she was younger, she doesn’t always let me know it. Whereas little kids will actively seek you out to “fill their attachment cup”, a tween doesn’t always do that. I realized that I needed to be proactive about making time for her. And Mr. Boo seemed ready to start getting more focused and involved in his interests, but without someone to facilitate that, it wasn’t going to happen on its own. And I really wanted to be that person.

Although I have always appreciated being able to stay home with my children, I didn’t realize just how much I loved that job until I found myself unable to do it properly. Working only served to reinforce in my mind and heart that my priorities were being with my children, sharing in their learning, and being a homemaker.

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I missed my old life, but I liked my editing job and was glad I could bring in some extra money for our family. I was also very happy to be working from home – at least I was there when someone got hurt, or a crisis came up, or someone just needed a hug – but I was missing the deeper nurturing that comes with spending time together just hanging out, when kids spontaneously ask questions, share their fears, and brainstorm new ideas. These are the types of interactions that you cannot schedule, they have to unfold when the time is right, and you do that by making sure there is lots of time for it to happen.

So over the summer I decided that, come September, things were going to change. I was going to find that elusive “work life balance”. With support from Husband, I was going to reduce my workload, commit to Project-Based Homeschooling, make an effort to spend quality time hanging out with each child one-on-one, and get a handle on my housework (I had to clean the entire place when my mother-in-law came for a visit and it made me realize how much the clutter and mess had been contributing to my stress level). Toward the end of summer I began to slowly develop a daily routine, shifting my work to later hours rather than mornings, when I have more energy for housework and hanging with the kids. I don’t have what one might call a schedule, but there’s a definite flow to the day.

Three mornings a week, I go for a run first thing in the morning. When I get back, or after I wake up on non-running days, I check my email and my news feed on Facebook while I eat breakfast. After that, I do some housework – a load or two of laundry, dishes, put some clothes away, etc. – or maybe knock a couple quick items off my to-do list. By that time the kids are awake and either myself or Husband has made them breakfast. Mr. Boo and I started a routine of brushing our teeth together so that he gets it done (otherwise he forgets, and I forget to remind him). Then he and I sit down for some PBH, or we work on his Youth Digital course. Next I hang out with Miss Em. We do PBH or we go run errands together (she likes doing that with me, I like having her along, and it’s the perfect opportunity for her to spontaneously share whatever is on her mind). If I have a work assignment, I try to get that started by mid-to-late afternoon, and Husband takes over dinner so I can work into the evening. In between all of this there is the countless putting out of fires that is the life of a stay-home mum. The kids get into fights, they need help with a transition, Mr. Boo needs support with situations that are liable to set him off, my parents deserve at least one long phone call a week, I coordinate appointments, pay bills and track finances, keep track of deliveries and garbage days, and so forth.

It’s a pretty loose schedule. But even though every day is different, I feel a rhythm and a flow to our days now and I’m much happier. True, I’m not making as much as I was before, but what I’ve gained back is priceless. I’m finally feeling like I’ve found that elusive work-life balance, and it feels good!

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Vacation Woes: it’s all about the transition

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We’ve recently come back from a four-day holiday at a remote cabin site with no electricity. The weekend can best be described as stress and chaos interspersed with all too few moments of calm. In the midst of the tantrums, the screaming, the throwing of objects, and the tears (mine and theirs) I felt tossed and turned on a sea of insecurity and doubt. Where had I gone wrong? Had I failed my children? Were they so disabled and dysfunctional that the basic dream of a family getaway with friends was, for our family, just a pipe dream? Had my parenting somehow robbed my children of the ability to cope with anything outside of their home environment?

Now that we are back and I’ve had a chance to think over what happened, I’m feeling less panicked about where to go from here. That last night before we all packed up to go home, my children miraculously emerged from the cabin and actually interacted with the rest of us, sitting by the campfire for cuddles and playing with the other kids on the rocks along the river that lay a few feet from our cabin, while Husband and I enjoyed some snacks and good (uninterrupted!) conversation around the campfire on the river’s edge. My friend noted that it was a shame we all had to go home the next morning, as my kids seemed to be finally coming out of their shells. Back at home, someone else reminded me that, for autistic kids, it’s all about the transitions. You’d think after all these years I would recognize this…but I really didn’t see it until after we came home.

My friend, whose grown-up son has Aspergers, told me that she never took him on a holiday that lasted less than a week, because it would take him 2 to 3 days to adjust to the new environment and routines, after which time he would be fine. They went on holiday expecting the first couple of days to be chaotic. I did not. I did not anticipate that this was a transition and that my kids would need time to adjust. All I saw were kids who couldn’t handle the environment and I despaired. I didn’t stop to think that they would eventually adjust, if given some time to get through the transition.

It’s not that we haven’t travelled before, but almost always the kids have been on board with the plans. In this case, their friends had to cancel and, with no electricity at the cabins, they felt there was really nothing in it for them. In other cases we have gone on holidays and have not experienced such a difficult transition, so I really wasn’t prepared for this one. In the future, we will make sure that if the kids are not really on board with the plans, we stay long enough for them to get through the transition phase. Also, we will go into it with the expectation that the kids will need a lot of support, and that the grownups will have to wait a couple days to enjoy their down time. We feel that it’s important to expose them to this situation once in a while (i.e., a holiday or trip that isn’t on their agenda) in order to give them practice at adjusting to such situations. Hopefully, with the right expectations, the next time won’t be so hard on all of us.

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Building upon Success

I love the outdoors. Walking through a forest is my version of attending Church; it is the closest I feel to a spiritual experience. From the time my kids were babies I’d take them on regular hikes through the beautiful North Shore mountains. But as they grew past carrying age (and I backpacked my boy until he was over 30 lbs) we started having problems. Son (and sometimes Daughter) would inevitably end up whining, having meltdowns, and my frustration with that lead us to where we are now – with kids who claim to “hate” walking through the outdoors (and we have acres of forest literally right next door to us!).

I eventually gave up on getting them out for regular hikes because it wasn’t worth the battle to get them into the car, the battle around why I can’t carry them back to the car when they decide they’ve had enough, and listening to them talk about how rotten the experience was all the way home. I would shake my head in shame: how did I, someone who loves the outdoors so much, end up with two kids who would rather spend all day inside then be dragged on a walk through the woods? Every once in a while I could convince them to go geocaching – the lure of the prizes in the cache helped – and they would start out enthusiastically…

Trying to keep up with them.

…but it would always end in tears and thus resistance the next time I suggested it.

Daughter is 9 now and is able to understand that for me, hiking is amazing and wonderful and I want to share it with her. So even though she claims to not like it she has actually offered to come with me simply because she knows I like it. I think for her it was more her brother’s meltdowns and my obvious frustration and disappointment that made it unpleasant. So there is hope for her yet. But Son is still very resistant.

Well, I recently had an epiphany on this when I realized that my son tires VERY easily. Low muscle tone combined with an overall lack of interest in physical fitness meant he could not go very far. He’d be done when I was just warming up and so I couldn’t comprehend that he was truly tired, plus in my desire to stay out longer I’d try to plead for more time. He’d give in for a while…

A game of hide-and-seek keeps things going for a while...

…but then have a sudden meltdown. I finally realized that perhaps this was why he claimed to hate hiking – it always ended in misery for him. I thought that if perhaps I honoured his signs of being tired right from the start, rather than trying to wring every last drop of conciliation from him, maybe it would be the world’s shortest hike but at least it would be a positive experience for him.

Recently I managed to convince them to give it a try again. We were going geocaching and they do enjoy getting the little prizes from the cache. I threw in a trip to the coffee shop for hot chocolate afterwards, and I let the dog ride in the back seat with them (instead of in the very back). The final incentive was suggesting that DS bring his video camera – he likes to shoot films. I picked a cache site that was close to the parking spot so we found the cache quickly, then as soon as DS gave a hint that he was done I asked him point blank “Are you ready to go now?”. He said yes, and I said “okay, well that is what we will do then”. It was the first time in ages we’ve ended a hike on a positive note. I’m planning to repeat this and my hope is that when DS can trust that we will go when he is ready, he’ll be less resistant.

Being in charge of the handheld GPS is an incentive.

Taking a break to play Rock, Paper, Scissors.

This is an example of a principle I’ve been trying to keep in the forefront of my mind – creating small successes and building upon them. While it applies to any child, I think it can be particularly helpful for kids on the spectrum who tend to build up anxiety easily when situations don’t go well, and can bring the art of resistance to whole new levels! I could try using coercion – bribery, or using some “currency” of say, computer time, to make them do things. But there are two reasons why I don’t. First, I’ve found that my kids – like, I believe, all kids – can smell an agenda being imposed upon them a mile away. When I’ve tried bribery the kids will do what I’ve asked, but they won’t be into it. They’ll grumble and do the minimum required and maintain their opinion that whatever I made them do must be unpleasant or I wouldn’t have had to bribe them into doing it. Second, it can flat-out backfire if they decide that the bribe isn’t worth it. I’m left having to either give up or up the ante, which leaves me feeling rather used and manipulated myself. Instead, by finding ways to make it more fun for them, by distracting them from their anxieties about the newness of it, or past their preconceived notions about how it will turn out, I free them up to make their own minds up about it all. A child who isn’t feeling bribed into something is more free to form their own opinions, in my experience.

My hope is that these small hikes – the last one was less than 30 minutes – are creating positive associations with the experience. In time I’m hoping that they will be able to go for longer periods and will be more willing to come out with me when I ask because they know they won’t be pushed beyond their limits.

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Winter Crafting

With winter fast approaching the days are much shorter and there is less opportunity (or desire!) to be outside. It’s the time of year when life slows down a bit, and that leaves more time for crafting. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, but about 7 years ago I learned to knit and liked it so much that I’ve continued dabbling in fibre crafts ever since. There’s something really satisfying about making useful items and knitting while watching a movie means less temptation to snack instead!

I have been knitting and crocheting for a few years now but this past month I added a new crafting technique to my repertoire: needle felting. I’d been interested in it for some time after seeing some of the beautiful creations people can make, but never really got around to trying it until our Learning Centre held a felting class. Now the class was for wet felting (hand-felting wool using soap and water) but one of the families brought their needle felting materials as a few people had suggested that they would prefer that over wet-felting. And so the kids and I learned to needle felt.

Son is too young to do it himself, though he took a few stabs with the felting needle just to try it out. But he is a fan because of the ability to sculpt wool – particularly after he saw another boy’s Minecraft characters that his mother had made for him by needle felting. So for my first project Son helped me make him a Creeper (of course I can’t find it now to take a photo, but will update this post when I do). Now he’s requesting I make a Shadow the Hedgehog doll (he already has Sonic and Tails so I can use them as models). I love the idea of making something special to him, and also of him playing with natural fibres rather than plasticky junk.

Daughter and I both enjoyed needle felting very much. I went out and bought a whole bunch of roving, needles, and a multi-tool and I’ve been practising every now and then. It’s especially nice to do it with Daughter. The Learning Centre has rented a table at a local Christmas Craft Fair and the kids are making crafts to sell, so Daughter and I have been working on some items for that. Here are some of the items I’ve made so far:

While Daughter and I were felting yesterday I explained what roving is (fleece that has been washed and combed out) and how it can be spun into yarn. She suggested that we should get our own sheep so we could make our own roving and yarn. I think it’s a lovely idea and I’m going to look into it further. We could also raise angora rabbits or goats for the same purpose. I would just have one or two of these animals as it would just be for our own use and as a hobby, but it sure would be fun to see the process going from animal to yarn (with roving for felting). Sheep are also great lawnmowers, apparently, and since one of my pet peeves is using lawnmowers (seems ridiculous to burn fossil fuels for aesthetic purposes, but I can’t deny how much better the place looks when the grass is mowed) it would be a doubly-useful animal to have around. And how marvellous to be able to make items from yarn we’ve “raised” ourselves! I’ve always wanted to learn how to spin and dye my own yarn so this would be a good excuse to do so.

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Back to Unschooling…

I’m taking a break from my autism-related posts to talk about daily life here at the Freelearners’ Homestead. We’ve been back at it since September (our homeschool program started up) and I wanted to share some of the things we’ve been up to. I find so many people who inquire about homeschooling, particularly unschooling, want to see what it looks like in terms of daily life, which is why I do such posts every now and then. Plus it’s nice for me to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re headed. 🙂

Daughter is up to her usual creative pursuits. She is still intensely into drawing, getting out books from the library that show various drawing techniques. She loves the Ed Emberley books, and I confess so do I. Using simple, step by step techniques that use simple shapes, the books teach you how to draw an immense variety of things. DD always gets great ideas from these books. She recently used her learning funds to purchase a book on drawing dragons. Dragons are her passion these days. A while back it was Orcas and she spent much time over many weeks learning to draw the perfect Orca. I love how she gets really into a subject, explores it in depth, and then moves on to another. She produces reams of paper each week as she practices her drawing. She has created a dragon character called Arcada. She is constantly working to improve his look, and here is an example of the latest incarnation. Here she was working on the hind feet (she made a slip of the pen at one point, which is why there’s an arrow pointing to it with the word “accident” going off the photo edge).

She also spent some time practising how to draw characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. I love these, you can totally see how she experiments with sketching and then fills in the colours. She was really proud of these, especially because she could draw them in different poses and aspects.

She also picked up her clay work again after a long absence. Her brother is really into Sonic the Hedgehog and they both spent some time recently watching the Sonic X series on YouTube. So when she picked up her clay she decided to make small models of Sonic and Tails the Fox. I wish my iPhone camera took better closeups because the pictures really don’t do justice to the level of fine detail in her work. She is known for her ability to craft miniatures and make very fine details with her hands.

This year I began putting aside some time each week to work one-on-one with the kids facilitating various projects with them. We call it “Project Time”. Daughter and I are working on a big movie project. She’s been making movies for years now but usually they are spontaneous affairs. This time we’ve developed a storyline, started on the script, picked out characters (she is a big fan of Littlest Pet Shop movies, as I wrote about previously) and she has started crafting some props. We hope to start shooting later this week. This is her project and she leads the way, with me simply assisting and facilitating in whatever way I can. We’re both pretty excited about it and to me it represents the very best of Natural Learning.

Meanwhile Son is…well, he is who he is! Still loves video games and computers, though he can often be found engaging in much imaginative play. He also enjoys crafting, though there is a distinct common theme running throughout – anything game related, lol. Here is some Lego Minecraft Objects he made one day using a YouTube video as a guide.

He also loves printing out game characters, having me cut them out, and then playing with them. He has lots…

But lately he’s been wanting to have Sukapon characters. He just discovered the old school game Sukapon, but the issue is that the characters are made of little bits that float, so this was tricky. We came up with the idea of using tape. Here are two characters (with their energy bars) that he has been carrying around and playing with for two days now.

A really neat learning moment occurred recently that taught my kids about an important event in modern history. My complaints about the ridiculous process that is airport security screening, after returning from a recent trip to Ohio, led to a discussion of 9/11. Before I knew it both kids were watching Zero Hour with me and asking tons of fascinating questions. They simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the notion of “bad guys” choosing to kill themselves to attain some goal. Seemed pointless to them. Which brought up the subject of religion and belief in the afterlife and how that can be a real game-changer when it comes to predicting what “bad guys” will do. It was one of those spontaneous moments where the kids’ were really caught up, genuinely curious, and eagerly engaged in exploring the topic further.

Finally, Son continues to produce spontaneous displays of some deep grasp of number relationships that seems to come out of nowhere. We’ve never done any “math” with him, just what comes up in day to day life, yet the kid can add simple numbers in his head and now he seems to have somehow figured out multiplication. On more than one occasion he has spontaneously divided some number into equal parts in his head, though he cannot explain how he does it. I did sit down with him one day at Project Time to explain the concept on paper. He grasped it immediately and after solving a couple equations declared it to be immensely boring and pointless, lol. Needless to say I’m not all that worried. 🙂

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The dreaded “R” word: Routine!

As long as I can remember, while I was growing up and living under my parents’ roof, I bristled at restrictions on my personal freedom. I hated being told what to do, when to do it, what to wear, where to go…some things I understood were reasonable (brush your teeth), others not so much (go to Church). The older I got the more I felt it (and my parents weren’t even that strict). I longed for freedom, dreamt of it constantly.

It is perhaps no wonder then that, as an adult with a lot of freedom (in the sense that I don’t have schedules to adhere to), I eschew any notion of scheduling my time. If I don’t have to get up early for some appointment, then I’ll sleep until I feel I’ve had enough sleep. If I don’t have to go shopping within a certain window I’ll just go when I feel like it or when there is a break in my day. Unfortunately, this concept extends to “I’ll get to that when I have time” which then often doesn’t happen. My business stuff, my La Leche League stuff, little projects I know I should get to, etc. are often done in haste at the last moment, and I always feel like there is so much to do that doesn’t get done.

The truth is I think I could benefit from a routine to better manage my own time. But I also believe that my kids, especially my daughter, might also benefit from it too. And this is particularly true when it comes to homeschooling activities. Oh sure, she’s learning a lot on her own. She plays independently at a variety of activities. But deep down I suspected that she would be happy to be doing even more, to be engaging more fully in certain things if only someone could lead her to them, and especially if she could do them with me. Up until now I’ve felt okay about largely letting the kids do their own thing, but she is getting to the age now where I think she is ready for more. Ready and, importantly, quite willing.

So I was talking to a friend who is a poster-child homeschooling mum. She gets cool projects that she does with her kids (recently they were studying ancient civilizations and had a week of meals from different ancient cultures), and makes sure that she gets sit-down time with each of her three boys regularly throughout the week. She actively seeks out fun stuff for them to learn and do, and while she tends to focus a bit more on the “three R’s” than I would, there is no doubt that her kids have an enriching homeschool experience, thanks to her efforts and energy. She confided to me recently that the key to her success is having a routine. It can be flexible, blocks of time can be moved around, but basically there is a flow to her days and the kids know what to expect. She says it makes her much more efficient with her time.

I pondered this for a while and realized that I could really use a system like that. In her family they get up, have breakfast, then from 10 until noon is project time. She’ll alternate sitting down with each of them and getting them started, or answering questions, etc. They are all focussed and she is engaged with them on whatever they are choosing to work on that day. Afternoons are either for classes they take outside the home (sports, music lessons, etc.) or time for free play and for her to get her housework and other jobs done. This really appealed to me, and I’ve been going through the last few days watching how my day flows and seeing how I could fit it into something like what she has. Mornings are usually my most productive times, but if there is housework that has to be done it usually gets eaten up by that. By afternoon I’m getting tired and thinking about dinner, etc. or how I need to go grocery shopping. By evening I am pooped and wanting time to myself. So a system like my friend has would be good for me.

It is going to require a bit of discipline and this is where I need to remind myself that this is not a restriction imposed on me, this is something I am choosing to make my life better! I’m going to have to be good about going to bed on time, so that I can wake up early. I’d like to be up around 7:30 so I have time for a walk with the dog and a quiet cup of tea before the kids wake up. Then I’ll make breakfast, clean up from that, and hopefully by 10 I’ll be ready to sit down with one of them to work on a project. Other mornings will be devoted to my own work, and there will possibly be a day or two when we have to be somewhere in the morning. Then I’ll make lunch (for everybody at the same time, what a concept!) and afternoons will be reserved for running errands, shopping, and whatever activities or get-togethers we plan.

All this means that my house is going to have to be clean and ready to go when I go to bed the night before – no more leaving dishes for the morning, or leaving messes lying around that I’ll be driven to tidy up before I can focus on anything else.

To let you know how determined I am to give this my best shot, I bought an alarm clock for my bedroom – I have not had a clock in my bedroom since I had children!! I don’t plan on setting the alarm, but knowing what time it is will be helpful in making sure I don’t stay up too late reading. As I go through the next few days I’m consciously preparing for this routine, which I plan to start in full around the second week of September, when homeschool programs start up and after Son’s assessments are done. Meanwhile I’m going to start looking into projects for the kids. People say that kids do better with a routine. Our home life has been good regardless, but I often feel that opportunities get lost because we don’t make specific time for such things. Wish me luck!

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Things are looking up

It’s been a difficult summer in many ways. With Son’s behaviours undergoing a serious regression we basically hunkered down at home a lot of the time. The GFCF diet occupied a huge amount of my energy for a while, though now it has become pretty much second nature. I also had some difficult stuff going on in my personal life. To top it off, money was tight, which put a damper on a few things.

But things are starting to look up. The personal stuff seems to have been resolved, Husband has some new projects starting up next month so money will be flowing again soon, and I’m hoping to put aside enough savings to tackle some of the bigger farm projects either before winter sets in or maybe in early spring, like more fencing and perhaps another outbuilding (a woodshed or a small storage shed). And things are looking up for Son as well.

We’ve been on the GFCF diet for several weeks now, and it seems apparent that Son’s issues have greatly diminished over that time. It has been quite a while since he broke into a major rage. Both Husband and I feel quite certain that he has calmed down a lot (he still has his moments, but they are far less intense and more like his old self again). Of course, the scientist in me still wants more data. I did offer a challenge about 4 weeks into things: I took him to McDonalds followed by Dairy Queen – a gluten and dairy pigout. The next day he had a huge meltdown, but I’m unsure whether to count it because it was a big challenge for him (he’d been promised a visit to a certain place he had his heart set on, then plans had to change at the last minute – difficult for any child, but especially him). He went back on the diet again and a few weeks later we went on a camping trip with friends.

These are the same friends we visited 2 weeks into the diet (I mentioned it at the end of this post). Son definitely seemed to take more interest in joining his friends this time and the other mums agreed that this had changed noticeably since the last visit. One mum also told me that she noticed a difference just in the way she was able to interact with him, that he seemed more present and engaged when she spoke to him. It was good to hear that. Looking back now I can see that the major rages seem to be behind us. But they started up unexpectedly and it’s entirely possible that they have faded away just as they came, with no relation to diet. But there will always be another opportunity to experiment with a food challenge of gluten and dairy, so we can run that test over and over again until we are sure. Meanwhile, I’m sticking with the diet for him as it has become a lot easier and just part of my routine now.

Also, things have been moving ahead swiftly on the assessment front. Our homeschool program is going to pay for a private assessment, and so instead of a one-year wait list he’s going next week! There are three separate appointments, two for him and one with just the parents, and these will take place over a week and a half. We’ll get a detailed report from that before October, then in November when we go see the pediatrician he just needs to sign off on it and Son will be official (officially what, we have yet to see, but I’m betting on high functioning autistic rather than Aspie at this point). Then we’ll learn about all the resources that are available. We’re hoping to get him into the social skills group I mentioned before, as well as find some programs for him (a camp, sports, something like that with adults who can manage these kids) or perhaps an aid for when we are at the Learning Centre (more on that in a subsequent post), and some child care would be great too!

And, importantly, we’ll have all sorts of insights into Son’s abilities and challenges. We’ll hopefully learn how better to support him, and where to focus our efforts. I’m really excited about that part, because I think as parents we all want to know our children as intimately as possible – sometimes even though they are our offspring they can act in mysterious ways! I want to see more into how his mind works, how he views the world, so I can share that with him more fully.

In my next post I’m going to talk about my big plans for this upcoming homeschooling year. Well, big for me anyway!

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How’s That Diet Going?

We’ve just finished Week 3 of our gluten-free, dairy-free diet and I thought I’d give an update on how things are going. There’s a “good news, bad news” slant to it, and  I’ll start with the “bad” news.

It’s not working for Daughter. At first she was willing to try some of the foods and new recipes that I made, and I appreciated her giving this a try, but after several attempts that got soundly rejected as YUCKY she’s gotten to the point where I think she’s just rejecting the foods on principle now and counting the days until the end of Week 4 (our agreement was to try it for four weeks). For the last three weeks she has been living on Gorilla Munch cereal, rice crackers, rice cakes, and popcorn. For dinner she has been alternating between one of two meals: tofu stir-fried with gluten-free tamari and teriyaki sauces, and plain baked skinless chicken breast. That’s it. I did get her to ingest some pureed vegetables in the form of cupcakes and brownies, but obviously that’s not something I want her to be eating every day.  She even rejected the candy and gummy bear Kids’ Vitamins, and has gone off chocolate soy milk, so her diet is seriously limited nutritionally-speaking, even more so than before. In terms of behaviour, ever since we figured out what was going on for her things have been very good. So no incentive to continue the diet on that account either. However, she understands that certain foods are still not going to be available to her at home because of her brother.

And that leads me to the good news. Doing this diet with Son has proved to be really easy. Mostly because he has no real idea he’s even on a diet. Yes, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on food this month as I worked my way through various options, found what worked, and what didn’t. But now I feel we are in a good groove. I’ve recently hit upon GFCF recipes for pancakes and waffles, his previous breakfast staples, that he is eating happily. For lunch he often has hot dogs and rice crackers, not my ideal but…for dinner I’ve hit upon a few great finds.

A recent visit to a friend whose family has many food restrictions got me a recipe for buns that Son liked, so hamburgers are back on the menu. He also enjoys homemade sausage patties and chicken nuggets. What’s so great about all three of these foods is that I can mix vegetable purees into the ground meat before cooking. Right now I’m buying organic baby food in jars, and that has proved to be inordinately convenient. I will start making my own purees soon, but may continue with the baby food for green veggies (like green beans) because I don’t have the kitchen equipment necessary to process them to the point where little flecks of green stuff can’t be seen or felt. I’m up to about 5 oz of puree per pound of ground meat, and will continue to slowly increase that amount. Last night Son enjoyed hamburgers that were loaded with pureed green beans and carrots – probably the first truly complete meal he’s had in ages. He continues to enjoy fruit, so overall a pretty balanced diet. My only concern is calcium but he will actually eat the Kids’ Vitamins so we’re okay on that count, too.

My friend also told me about a local sausage maker whose products are GFCF, he even does custom orders for soy- and corn-free diets. I chatted with him at the farmer’s market yesterday and liked him and his wife, who do it all themselves and mix by hand. He gets his pork from local farmers and will happily process our home-grown pork meat into whatever we want. Not only does he have the usual breakfast sausages, but also salami (Son’s favourite) and pepperoni, and lots of other stuff. So I’m excited about that.

As for results, I don’t see any changes in what Son will eat (soups, potatoes, and other weird dislikes are still off the menu) but with the above eating plan I can stick enough veggies into his food (pureed sweet potatoes are great in pancakes and waffles) that I really don’t care. And, as he starts to (hopefully) “forget” what some things used to taste like I may be able to make other things for him, like GFCF pizza (going to try some Daiya cheese this week).

In terms of behaviour it is hard to tell if there have been any changes yet. Mostly we’ve been hunkering down at home. We’ve had one neighbour friend over for a few playdates and they went well, but Son has always gotten along with him. We had our vacation with two favourite families we’ve known for ages – there were some challenging situations for him and he did have a few meltdowns; he also wasn’t as talkative with his friends nor did he choose to engage in play with them as often. But it was also around week 2 of our diet and it’s possible it could have been worse, or better even (they say that with some kids their behaviour gets worse before it gets better). This past week has been pretty easy and two days ago we had a playdate at a friend’s house. They are fairly new friends for us but everything went great – unbelievably so, really. We were there for almost 4 hours and both my kids did really well. Things at home have been relatively peaceful, too. I’m not ready to jump for joy and proclaim that things have changed – there haven’t been too many challenges of late, but I am feeling hopeful and positive. Now that I’ve gotten into a diet groove with him, I’m happy to continue him on this diet for the foreseeable future.

Categories: family life | 1 Comment

Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet

I’ve been reading about the gluten-free, casein-free diet for kids on the spectrum and with ADHD. I’ve spoken to mothers I know who have done this and swear by the results. The scientific evidence is promising, though not anywhere near solid. But in this case I’m willing to overlook that. First, because there is no harm to trying such a diet for a while, and second because it appears the results really depend on the individual. Population studies make sense if you are trying to market a treatment but, with respect to one child and their family, if the results work for them the statistics really are moot.

I pondered over whether to do this for some time. To be honest, the thought filled me with fear and anxiety. My kids are already such picky eaters and they definitely have a penchant for gluten and dairy products. I worried how they would handle this, and how much my daughter would rebel and/or take it as a personal betrayal of my promise not to force her to eat foods she didn’t like. It turns out that I needn’t have worried so much.

After a few talks, and some tears, Daughter accepted what we were doing, even though she doesn’t like it. She also asked if she could not be dairy-free, mostly so she could have butter on her popcorn, and I agreed though she understands she can’t have cheese b/c it wouldn’t be fair to her brother. It helped to focus on all the favourite foods she does like that fit within the limits of the diet, and to promise to indulge her in more treats than usual to help her get through this. For Son, he really doesn’t pay that much attention to aspects of his environment that aren’t important to him. As far as he’s concerned, if he says he’s hungry and I present him with something he’ll eat, he’s happy. So far…and we’re on our third day now… I’m feeling much more confident that we will be able to stick it out long enough to see if there are any positive results.

I’m looking for two things in particular: a reduction in Son’s disruptive behaviours, which includes lack of flexibility (resulting in tantrums) and physically violent rages. I’m also hoping that, for both of them, weaning them off these possibly addictive foods – which may be enhancing their sensory issues around food – will allow them to try new foods and expand their culinary repertoire.

Deciding to implement this diet meant having to relax some of our standards, though we consider this a temporary sacrifice for the hopes of long-term good. The cost of buying GFCF foods is more than our usual staples, and will be significantly impacting our food budget until we can either expand on the foods we prepare or the kids expand on what they will eat. I’ve also broken down and bought some grocery-store brand chicken breasts for Daughter. Normally we buy our chicken right off the farm and limit that to one whole chicken a month, but without the usual dinner selection of pizza, cheese quesadillas, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches she’ll need to eat chicken at least two or three times a week until she can (hopefully) find some new foods to like. Also, I’m planning on experimenting with some pureed chicken for Son (hidden in muffins) and a GFCF chicken nugget recipe. It would kill me to prepare $10 worth of chicken breast only to have to feed it to the pigs! Thankfully in 4 more weeks we’ll have a freezer full of our own farm-raised chicken and I won’t have to buy the store stuff anymore.

I’ve also had to accept that my kids will be eating more treats and processed foods. For example, we’ve found a brand of hot dogs that is GFCF – Schneiders Country Naturals (I’ve confirmed this with the company, too). Daughter doesn’t like them but Son does and right now he’s eating a lot of them. He also eats slices of salami (Freybe’s is gluten-free and, as far as I can tell, casein-free too). To replace the wheat products that usually accompany their lunches and snacks, I’ve stocked up on GFCF rice crackers. Daughter likes those and rice cakes. I’ve also bought some GFCF cookies to make the ordeal of GFCF seem more positive to them, and I’m buying one container of chocolate almond milk each week (despite being full of sugar, it is at least fortified with vitamins). When we go to visit friends in two weeks I’ll be bringing lots of GFCF candies, Rice Dream, and GFCF cookies so my kids don’t feel left out when they can’t eat the goodies their friends are eating. I’m also going to find some candy-type multivitamins for them, at least until they can eat a more balanced diet.

We are on day 3 of the diet, and Daughter has been living mostly off rice crackers, rice cakes, and Rice Chex cereal. She does have 1 or 2 bananas each day. For protein she’s limited right now to cashews, roast chicken breast (totally plain), and tofu. For the latter, I had to buy gluten-free soy sauce (tamari) and I replaced her usual oyster sauce with GF teriyaki sauce. It’s testament to how poorly Daughter accepts even the slightest change in her food that her thumbs up on the tofu last night made me dance around the house with joy. I’m trying to find a GF sausage she will eat: she’s rejected three different kinds already but I found a recipe for a homemade one and I’ll try that some time soon. If she likes it I’ve learned I can slowly sneak veggie purees into the sausages, starting one tablespoon at a time and increasing as tolerance builds. I’m also going to experiment with gluten-free baking, namely pancakes and waffles which used to be a staple for breakfast and into which I would often sneak pureed sweet potatoes or carrots. The coconut/almond flour Paleo pancakes that Husband and I eat aren’t cutting it with the kids.

As for son, he’s not quite as tough a problem. He likes meatballs and I can continue to make those GFCF, with the added bonus that I now realize I can sneak veggie purees into the meatballs themselves (as well as adding pureed carrots to the sauce). I’ve found a muffin recipe that I can sneak some pureed chicken into, as well as pureed veggies. And I’m hoping I can perfect the chicken nuggets I mentioned earlier. Meanwhile he’s eating meat and crackers and a piece of fruit for pretty much every meal. I wish his diet didn’t rely so much on processed meats but for now I’m not complaining.

If anybody is interested in learning more about this diet, I highly recommend  The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook. It talks about the theory behind the diet, shares real-life experiences from other families, includes lots of recipes, and – what I particularly appreciated – is they specifically address the issue of extremely picky kids and strategies to deal with that. I honestly don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep this up: I said we’d do a one-month trial but others suggest it may take longer to see results, so now I’m just trying to take this one day at a time.

Categories: family life, lifestyle, parenting | 3 Comments

Unschooling Bedtime

I’ve been trying to step more towards Radical Unschooling, which is really just taking the principles of unschooling and applying them to family and other life issues. We’re not entirely there, and I don’t know that we ever will be, but I’m experimenting with using it in various aspects of our lives. I’d like to tell you about our experiences with bedtime.

Because we coslept for so many years, bedtime wasn’t really an issue until the kids were sleeping in their own beds. For many years after that transition (which they requested), bedtime consisted of a routine where I’d read and then snuggle with them until they fell asleep. Son proved to be more independent in that respect, and it wasn’t long before I could leave him awake and he’d fall asleep on his own. Daughter was also able to do it, though it took her a bit longer, but then, due to a story too long to go into here, she became dependent on me being there again. Sometimes it took a long time, and it was usually a very frustrating experience for me.

Finally last year she and I worked together to solve the problem. We made suggestions and chose from some of them until we found what worked. The winning combo was going to sleep listening to an audio CD and cuddling the cat (it became part of his job requirement to be held hostage in her arms until she fell asleep each night). Some evenings the kids would want to watch a movie, but I noticed they’d stay awake longer that way (they share a room, by the way, and have a DVD player in there). Movie nights became special events.

Somehow, over the last few months as Husband has been away from home so frequently with work, I fell into the habit of having them watch movies every night. And Daughter, perhaps in some attempt to gain a feeling of control and/or independence, began to stay up later and later. It got to the point where she’d tell me she was up all night; judging from how late she slept in I’d guess she was sometimes awake until 3 or 4 am. It seemed to become a goal for her to stay awake all night.

Because we rarely ever have to be anywhere in the first half of the day, her nocturnal habits weren’t affecting us much. However, I wasn’t too happy for a number of reasons: it meant that she’d sleep through breakfast and then want dinner at 10 pm, if we did have to get up for something she was really crabby and prone to outbursts of anger, Son was staying up later because of the movies she’d watch at night (and the fact that she then developed some “fear of the dark” such that she wants her bedside light on, as well as a night light, and the glare from the screen made it too bright for him) and that was a problem when Husband was home for the week because Son usually sleeps with me when his Dad is away and I go to bed somewhat early, so that left Husband with a needy kid late at night. I could also see this becoming a problem when guests came to visit, or when we go camping this summer (and want tired kids asleep in their tents early so we can have grownup time around the campfire).

My first inclination was to simply ban movies at night and go back to the old ways. But I decided since we weren’t in a rush that I would experiment with bringing Daughter into the discussion as an equal participant. I had a few small chats with her at first about how the lack of sleep was affecting her body, what she was missing out on, etc. Then we had some family meetings where we talked about how her habits were affecting all of us. She admitted she didn’t really like sleeping until noon, but felt she couldn’t fall asleep any other way. We talked about different options to try. She said she would but didn’t really appear to be doing anything differently.

Last night we had another family meeting and reminded the kids that their best friends were coming to visit in 3 weeks. It seemed to be the incentive that Daughter needed to really get going. We came up with some ideas last night – me reading stories to her for example, but ultimately it wasn’t working and I was getting tired and cranky. She told me that if I would let her watch movies she would make an effort to close her eyes and “just listen” when she got “blurry-eyed”. I didn’t hold out any hopes, but was too tired to argue so I said we’d try that and if it didn’t work we’d have to come up with a new plan the next day.

I went to bed just before midnight (late for me) and both kids were awake but quietly watching. I awoke at 1:45 and went to check on them. Both were sound asleep. I know from Son’s waking times that he likely was asleep not long after I was. But for Daughter this was actually early based on the last few weeks, so it was actually a good step forwards. When I woke her up this morning I congratulated her on getting to bed earlier than previously, and she said she’d done just as she’d said she would. So we’re going to continue this way, with the added step that she’s agreed to have me wake her up a bit earlier each day to promote earlier “blurry-eyed”-ness.

I could have probably settled this much faster if I’d just laid down the law. I would have had to go through one or two nights of screaming matches, tantrums, and fighting. In the end, Daughter wouldn’t have learned much. She would have clung desperately to the idea that staying up late = freedom. Now that she has had a chance to fully embrace the idea that yes, if she so desires, she can stay up almost all night long she’s realizing that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We’ve been able to discuss how her body feels, how it affects her life and her family’s life without her getting all defensive because nobody was going to take that freedom away from her. If I had fought with her, she would not have had the chance to engage in problem-solving exercises, coming up with potential solutions and weighing them to see what would be possible, then trying them out to see what works and doesn’t work. She would not have been able to internalize the message that we trust her to make the right decisions without being forced. We would have become a force to fight against, to direct her energies against, rather than people who are on her team and there to help and advise.

I do think that were Daughter a bit younger I probably wouldn’t have done this. I just felt that she was mature enough, perhaps, to do this without parental intervention and wanted to give it a try. It has only been one night so far, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m not averse to stepping in and setting some boundaries if it turns out she simply isn’t ready to practice some self-discipline, for the sake of the family. But I’m really hoping I don’t have to, because I feel the learning opportunities here are big – it’s not about sleep so much as feeling capable, responsible, and trusted to make good decisions even when they go against the present desires. If we come through this and she does reset her clock, how proud she will be! What a sense of confidence it will give her to know she did it herself, without being forced. And it further cements our relationship as one of mentor/advisor and “less-experienced person” rather than rule-maker and rule-follower.

Categories: family life, parenting | 1 Comment

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