I discovered Sarah somewhere in the blog world this past year and quickly became addicted. Soon after our first correspondence, I realized I had read her work over the years on many sites, such as the Huffington Post and Design Mom. You can find her work online, in magazines, and in anthologies. It has been a gift to find that the writer herself is as generous a human being as the works she crafts.
I’m secretly wishing she’s my long lost sister.
On her blog Standing in the Shadows , Sarah often writes about mothering her four children (toddler to teen) ages 3,9,13 & 16 from all angles and emotions. Her strength lies in the day ins and outs of family life. Her writing captures the multi-polar feelings attached to any honest reflection of motherhood, as she doesn’t glamorize, hide or shell out advice or how to’s—something I appreciate.
Her resolve to be always learning is an inspiration to me and one I’d love to share here with you.
First, give a little background on yourself:
I’m an activist turned writer and mother to four, not by design exactly, although we did adopt the last child! I have too many interests to write or blog about one thing, and this is probably my biggest strength and challenge all at once.
Who cooks in your house?
Our household’s most ambitious cook is thirteen year-old Lucien. He’s really terrific. From refried beans to a meal of roasted potatoes, salad and grilled lamb (local, it has to be local meat or he won’t touch it) he is the “wow” in the house. He stuffed roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella and pesto for a school dance last night. He predicted the rest would be brownies and chips (and it was). The every night dinners are made by him, me, my husband and sometimes by a housemate. We have a flat on our top floor and barter for childcare.
What’s a typical weeknight?
With so many kids often going in different directions there’s not one kind of typical night. Two nights, the 13 year-old goes to karate at the same time (and fortunately nearby) that the 9 year-old goes to capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), so there’s some shuttling at what would/should/could be suppertime. So, homework and eating and getting those middle two relaxed is the task. The three year-old goes to preschool three full days a week—and naps at school. She has a hard time falling asleep on school nights post-nap. The tenth grader does a lot of high school theater tech.
Do you have a go-to dinner that appears weekly? What’s in the breakfast rotation?
The kids especially eat a lot of pasta. We revere our rice cooker. But there’s not a go-to meal, more like staples that often appear in a collage-like fashion. Pretty much everyone adores roasted cauliflower, for example. Oatmeal for dinner or eggs both bring better breakfast items to a more leisurely hour. Breakfast favorites are fruit, toast, and yogurt. The three year-old lobbies for cookies in the morning—and she often succeeds in getting one. Or two.
Regarding screen time, would you say you’re very conservative, easy breezy, or completely confused as to what is appropriate…
For the first five years or so of their lives, my first two, now 16 and 13 probably saw things on screens when they visited the grandparents. The mighty have fallen, let’s just say. The iPhone and Abby Cadabby let hair brushing for the little gal’s very long hair become a peaceful task. We stopped worrying. Maybe we were worn down. Some of our watching is together—and that seems pretty bonding, especially with the teens, since they don’t always want to be in the same room with us. The big two and I are addicted to The Good Wife. The third grader loves White Collar.
Tell us about how you celebrate birthdays in your house.
Like many things, I was much more organized and focused upon things like goody bags when my first two kids were small. If we do them now, most items if not all are recycled from the store that doubles as our house! The piece of birthday party prep I really love is making an invitation: no Evites, something unique but simple. Perhaps my favorite was a photo strip with quotes, “I’m a teenager.” “Actually, I’m a giant,” when the second guy was turning four. Our parties tend to be homespun. For a bunch of years, that second guy invited friends to our big weekly pick-up soccer game and we served ice cream cones at the end, tailgate-style. Often, there’s a family dinner with a close family friend or two.
What’s a typical weekend?
Highlights: walks to town with kids, hanging around with friends and their kids at our house, and not having to wake the tenth grader for his high school’s 7:30 AM way too early for teenagers’ bodies’ start. Then, there’s a juggle of activities or events as determining factor over how much of the hanging part we get to do. If the weather’s not wintry or wet, our family organizes a pick-up soccer game each week. This fall it got big—about 20 or more players most weeks.
Any family rituals you carry on, or that you have created?
The pickup soccer game has become a ritual of sorts; it’s so unplugged and so simple. People show up if they’d like, no RSVP required. My favorite holiday ritual is that we share apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year and go around, each person saying what she or he hopes for in their own lives in the year ahead and for the world.
Although it’s not an actual ritual, we are engaged in community organizations and interested in politics—we don’t shield the kids from what’s happening in the world. This fall, I ended up taking my 13 year-old to a vigil protesting the death penalty, at his request. I did hesitate for a moment when the younger brother wanted to tag along. I was surprised to discover that I was glad he went. His first letter to the editor went in the newspaper at age seven!
How has your upbringing informed your life as a mother?
Most importantly, I come from a family—not just parents but extended family—that cared and cares deeply about the community and the greater good. Being a responsible, contributing participant to the larger community never seemed like a conscious choice; rather, it was a given.
Can you tell us about your children- toddler to teen and what your days with them are like?
My youngest gal is a preschooler now and she goes to school for three days each week. One other morning I take her to gym and swim class. Often, we have play times with our nearest and dearest friends. She accompanies me to the co-op and to do some of the shuttling of bigger sibs. She’s more independent by the week it seems, but she likes to touch base often—and she likes to be carried sometimes, possibly just to connect. The third grader is usually the first one up after me so we enjoy early mornings together. He will knit or draw or read while I’m working. He’s easy to be quiet beside. The younger teen is in eighth grade and some of our best daily times are walking to the school bus with the third grader in the morning, something about the consistency of that routine always works. It’s a public bus and when we see it, we channel Cosby: “Here comes the bus,” every morning. I find that picking up a later day carpool, much as I don’t like driving, is good with him; I get a feel for his friends from school. They are quite endearing, these middle-schoolers. The tenth grader is either chatty or asleep or grumpy. It’s like three speeds on a blender or something. Trying to wake him up and trying to get him to go to sleep are the main reasons I think there isn’t all the much difference between teens and toddlers!
You had three kids; what made you want to adopt?
I always want to be a little flip and say it wasn’t planned. But having a caboose baby via adoption isn’t an “oops,” right? Although it’s impossible to answer in a sentence: I did always want to adopt and we did want a girl; we just happened to have three boys first. Ours is an open adoption. We have an ongoing relationship with Saskia’s mom and her extended family (altogether, Saskia has nine grandparents!). I was in the room when she was born and she knows about the adoption—we’re even in a picture book called I’m Adopted! What should be my second sentence should be is that adoption is a complicated, inherently bittersweet and flawed construct and that those truths don’t take away one bit how much I love her and how strongly I feel I was waiting for her, exactly her.
We did not specify a desire for a specific race. Our daughter is Caucasian and Jamaican—and probably resembles me more than my other kids, the ones I gave birth to. It’s been a new way to think about “passing,” something I was familiar with having had three little longhaired boys (only one boy has long hair now, the nine year-old).
Favorite activities for when you’re stuck indoors, or do you not let the elements get in the way?
There are many games played in our house, most of which I find way too complicated! The best, really, is when our house fills up, which it very often does and the visiting vibe is cheery and chill. We tend to spend time outdoors even when it’s cold, though, walking, or being in the snow.
What music are you and your family into?
I’m completely addicted to my James Taylor and Carly Simon Troubadours CD these days. Mister G, an indie kids’ musician has two CD’s in heavy rotation at our house—Pizza for Breakfast and Bugs. I love his music, too (fortunately). Other music that gets played in our house includes Michael Jackson, Sondheim, Jonathan Coulton and Nanci Griffith in the past few weeks.
What’s the thing that always stays on your to-do list and never gets crossed off and nags at you?
Photo albums are a pipe dream I’ve put off until I’m sad all the kids are launched. I have photos neatly organized though, in preparation for that time, to help me get over my loneliness. The major thing I wish for is throwing out a lot of “stuff” from our house, but this is hard to do with so many people underfoot.
What websites inspire you and for which parts of your life?
I love going to Found While Walking and The Daily B, for the light touch combination of images and a soothing voice. I’d put Aesthetic Outburst in that category, too. If she’s writing at the time, Whoopee always makes me laugh and I get to be knocked out by funny, smart writing. I read A Cup of Jo for a lead on something interesting. I just showed it to my 16 year-old—and he loved it. I often wish I could blog like someone else does, but I am coming to realize that your blog only succeeds in telling your very own story your very own way.
Top 3 favorite books—for your kids, top 3 for yourself? Last book you read?
My favorite book of all time has to be Charlotte’s Web, so that’s a shared kids/me favorite. Also for the kids, I have the softest spots for too many picture books to list. Of older books my favorite might be Ezra Jack Keats’ Whistle for Willie and of contemporary picture books, I think I’d have to say illustrator and author Bob Graham tops my list; if you don’t know the book Max or Let’s Get a Pup Said Kate for example, prepare for new favorites.
My other two favorite books must be Ann Hood’s memoir Comfort for how beautiful and poignant the writing is, and Katherine Mansfield’s short story Prelude, for teaching me you can tell a big story in which nothing actually “happens.” I thought I loved it for what it demonstrated about writing; years later, I realize it’s a pretty important lesson about life. I am in the midst of reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers and would already give it two big thumbs up.
Do you have a fail-safe beauty product or routine?
I have been trying to put oil—I like Weleda’s rose oil—on feet, legs, arms, stomach every night. Beyond that, sunblock makes me feel safer when I remember to put it on. It might be stretching it to call either part of a beauty routine! Sleep is really the best beauty product and I need more of it.
Your favorite family trip ever?
Spending time during spring break in Florida with my two littlest kids and my mom the last couple of years has been the nicest—getting to focus on just two kids, getting time with my mama without our (lovely, wonderful) spouses are both gifts. I love that the biggest events during that week at the beach are going to beach, pool, and maybe the grocery store.
Any personal a-ha tip that you want to tell us about?
My best a-ha tip is that messing up is part of actually growing. This helps me when I feel as if I’m failing and it helps me when I feel frustrated with people around me.
You feel your best when…?
I’m happiest when I have time for myself, to work, to work out or go to yoga, to take a walk somewhere. I’m probably level best on a Monday or Tuesday, when kids are at school and I’m diving into work.
Favorite clothing item?
I love soft, worn t-shirts most of all.
Proudest moment in parenting?
There really isn’t one. These days, my proudest moments tend to be just after tussling with teenagers, when I step back and realize they are great people regardless of how difficult it may feel to live with them and that they still like me, despite you know, being horrible five seconds beforehand.
What do you feel you could be better at?
SO MANY THINGS! I’d like to be calmer, neater, more efficient, and that’s just the start of the list.
What makes you feel guilty?
Too many things make me feel guilty to name (or even know). Probably the thing I feel most guilty about is when my worries about my kids somehow become their worries about themselves. I don’t want to lay anything on them, but I know that’s impossible.
Jaime Rugh is an artist and author of the blog Found While Walking.