After School Chaos and the Homework Cart

I wrote this last September (as a response to another mother's question on the Power of Moms website). Not sure why I didn't post it then, but maybe it will be helpful to someone now.

. . . . .

I once read on a mother's blog that 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm was sacred in their family. They limited their out-of-home activities during those hours and tried to spend most of that time together at home. But we have things like piano, swimming, Activity Days, and PTA meetings that fall within those hours. . . and Steve isn't even home from work. . . So while it was an interesting idea and a worthy goal for some families, it's a bit different for us.

Instead, I look at those hours (and let's be honest, it's more like 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm) as my big game/competition/race. Those are the most crucial hours of the day for me. And for things to run smoothly with my four kids (9, 7, 4, 3), I really do have to gear up and be prepared. And then I have to be vigilant and stay on top of things until they are all in bed.

Things that work for us:

Try putting your younger children either down for a nap or in their room for quiet time while you are dealing with the after school craziness. It makes a big difference in my family and is just about the only way I can give my older kids the attention they need.

Sliced apples and popcorn are the standby for our after school snack. Quick, healthy, and relatively inexpensive.

Once in a while it works out to fit in a spontaneous trip to the park, but in general, there isn't extra time to play with friends, etc. (Even when my daughter and niece are simultaneously begging me, "Pleeeeease?")

Make lists or use an online program (we like myjobchart.com) so the older children know exactly what they need to accomplish for the evening.

Another thing that has made my life easier is our "homework cart". We bought a Sterilite 7-drawer rolling cart. (You can find them at stores for more like thirty-five bucks. . . no idea why they are so expensive on amazon.) The top four drawers are filled with supplies: scissors, tape, the stapler, pencil sharpener, pens, pencils, crayons, etc. and then each child has their own drawer to put things like homework, library books, etc. The cart gets rolled out from the laundry room and put next to the kitchen table for homework, and then everything gets put away and the cart is rolled back when homework is finished. It seems to keep the homework clutter from taking over our entire house and provides "a place for everything".

When I find spelling words, papers, or permission slips throughout the house, I put them away in the homework cart. Then, when my daughter is panicked as she's headed out the door for school in the morning asking, "Where's my reading log?" I know there are only two places to check: her backpack or the homework cart.

. . . . .

I love our homework cart. It's one of those simple things that makes my life so much easier.

A couple weeks ago, I would have added a desperate plea for someone to please write a post for me about putting kids to bed. But it turns out that three kids is a whole lot easier than four, so now I am doing just fine. 


First Day of School 2013

I really should have taken a picture of the night before the first day of school. 

Rachel had three backpacks set out on the floor in the living room. She had three lunch boxes partially packed on the kitchen counter, along with a detailed note of what to get out of the fridge in the morning. And she had three bowls of cereal all ready to go, complete with three spoons and the box of cereal, all ready to pour. 

The kids slept in until 6:25 am. (That's an improvement, last year they were up by 6:00 am.) They were completely ready in less than twenty minutes. That left me a lot of time to take pictures. 

Which, due to the attack of the vine from the hanging flower basket, can no longer take place on our front porch: 

Here is our new fifth-grader, Rachel: 

The tallest fourth-grader ever, Lucy: 

And our very favorite first-grader, Adam: 

They are a cute bunch of kids. And yes, Lucy is taller than Rachel:

This picture on the bench looks a whole lot like their bench picture from last year:

Rachel unknowingly wore the exact same pair of grey All-Stars that she wore on the first day of school last year. . . they still look brand new.

It was good that Rachel didn't need new shoes because I spent about $40 on her binders. She has a total of eight different classes this year. There are five class periods per day and they have an A-Day schedule, a B-Day schedule, and then Music is on Mondays, Computers is on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and Art is on Wednesdays. . . or something  like that. 

Lucy took Adam to his classroom, and Rachel went off to find out about her locker. (She was on the list to switch from a low locker to a high locker because some kids aren't tall enough to reach the high lockers.) She ended up keeping her low locker, and then she went off to her homeroom class. Where she found out that she is not allowed to bring her backpack into her classes. . . so she really does have to use her locker. I think that's a lot for a fifth grader to figure out, but I guess she will just be that much more prepared for high school. 

I enjoyed a couple hours of childless freedom before Kaleigh was dropped off. I was delighted to spend some time with her. . . but had to postpone my first day of school debauchery until tomorrow. We spent most of our day helping Steve at his office. 

When we went to pick up the kids from school, Kaleigh was pretty excited to see her old friend from preschool, Season: 

And I was pretty excited to see smiles on all of these kids' faces: 

Rachel opened her locker just fine on her first try. She doesn't have any classes with Sophia, but she has two classes with Eliza. Lucy gets an "er" this year. (That's a locker without a lock. . . just in case you didn't know.) And even better. . . she gets to share it with her friend. Adam and his friend, Madey, are both in the Spanish immersion program. For two hours per day, they are only allowed to communicate in Spanish. 

I went to check in with his teacher to see how he did. She told me that he was talking when he wasn't supposed to, so she asked him to "clip down" on their behavior chart. He told her that he already had, (which wasn't true) so then he had to clip down twice. He was standing next to me and asked, "Did you tell me in Spanish? Maybe I just didn't understand you?"(Nice try. . . ) 

Lucy helped me make spaghetti for dinner while Rachel followed this Pioneer Woman recipe for Bruschetta. (Thanks to you, Aneesa.)

She had extra tomatoes and basil, so then she whipped up a little Caprese Salad, which is her favorite: 

Steve said that her incredible appetizers made my spaghetti taste "blah". Sad, but true. 

We drove down to Steve's office to unveil the renovation of Steve's office. Rachel helped paint on Friday night and Lucy helped paint on Saturday, so they were very excited to see how it turned out. 

Steve forgot to take a real "before" photo, so this picture is actually of the other side of the room. But it gives you a good idea of what it looked like: 

Desk & Shelves: $250
Office Chair: $70
Rug: $30
3 Cans of Wall Texture Spray: $50
2 Gallons of Paint for the walls and ceilings: $50
1 Gallon of Paint for the floor: $20
Total: $470

We had a Family Home Evening lesson on honesty and told the story of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf". I couldn't believe that they'd never heard that story before and, afterwards, I couldn't believe that we didn't think to dress up in costumes and act it out. . . because that could have been pretty awesome.

Now, let's hope things go as smoothly tomorrow!


The Relief Society Lesson

Last week, my friend, Saren, told me she got on my blog to see some wedding pictures. . . but we are still in Africa. I told her I really need to keep things in sequential order, and I just haven't had time to write about everything. (I might have a problem.) She advised me to skip forward to what's going on right now.  "I just need everything to be in order. And I'm afraid that I'll never go back and record everything."

"Yes, you will," she told me. "You'll finish writing about your South Africa trip because it was a big thing. But you'll never go back and write about all of the little things that are happening now."

I didn't write on my blog all week.

So I decided that I should listen to her advice. She is, after all, the blogging expert.

. . . . .

Last week was difficult. Along with Derrick's marriage has come a lot of changes. In some ways, I feel like I just went from being a mother of six to a mother of three. We anticipated the transition, but we expected it to be more of a slow change. . . and less of a pack-everything-up-we-are-outta-here harsh shift. I certainly didn't foresee the way it would take place (or the way it would make me feel).

After being the "mother" to Kaleigh for the last few years, my role has dramatically changed. Gcobisa is now the mother, and I am grandma. (Kaleigh calls me Emily.) But instead of playing the grandma role where you fill in the gaps and help when needed, we have been dealing with a somewhat defiant son, who is eager and determined to try to prove his independence. This translates into me not seeing Kaleigh last week. Not even once.

After one particularly difficult day (which translates into being up half the night crying), I thought to myself that there was no way I could teach the Relief Society lesson. . . a lesson on marriage and family. I just about called to ask if there was someone else who could teach for me. But then I felt the impression that we aren't all part of cookie-cutter families, we don't always have picture-perfect family situations, and we certainly all have to go through trials and struggles within our families.

And then the lesson took on a whole new meaning to me. And I wondered if it was possible that because of my experiences over the past few weeks, that maybe I was supposed to be the one to teach the Relief Society lesson.

I was talking to my sister-in-law, Angela, yesterday, and she suggested that I go home and read my patriarchal blessing. . . and Derrick's. So I did. That helped put things into perspective for me. And it was such a powerful reminder of my Heavenly Father's love. So I modified my lesson to include my experience with reading patriarchal blessings.

This morning, I received this email with a Mercy River album from Steve (he had already left for a stake meeting):

Here are the lyrics: 

Better Than a Hallelujah

God loves a lullaby
In a mother's tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes
God loves the drunkard's cry
The soldier's plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah
The woman holding on for life
The dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes
The tears of shame for what's been done
The silence when the words won't come
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah
Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out, singing out
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

I have a good husband. 

And then I listened to the rest of the songs on the album

This one might have been written just for me: 


We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You're near?
What if the trials of this life 
Are Your mercies in disguise?
We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
And all the while You hear each desperate plea
And long that we'd have faith to believe
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You're near?
What if the trials of this life 
Are Your mercies in disguise?
When friends betray us, when darkness seems to win
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home
It's not our home
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You're near?
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst
This world can't satisfy?
And what if the trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise?

I modified my lesson to include my experience with listening to good music. 

W. Douglas Shumway's talk is from the April 2004 General Conference and is entitled Marriage and Family: Our Sacred Responsibility. I actually think this talk might be one that my father-in-law taught us a family home evening lesson once. But I must have felt pretty good about our family situation then because it didn't have the same impact as it did this time. 

"Today we are witnessing an unending assault on marriage and the family. They seem to be the adversary's prime targets for belittlement and destruction. In a society where marriage is often shunned, parenthood avoided, and families degraded, we have the responsibility to honor our marriages, nurture our children, and fortify our families."

"Honoring marriage requires that spouses render love, respect, and devotion to one another. We have been given sacred instruction to "love they wife with all thy heart and ... cleave unto her and none else" (D&C 42:22)."

"Marriage is meant to be and must be a loving, binding, harmonious relationship between a man and a woman. When a husband and a wife understand that the family is ordained of God and that marriage can be filled with promises and blessings extending into the eternities, separation and divorce would seldom be a consideration in the Latter-day Saint home. Couples would realize that sacred ordinances made in the house of the Lord provide the means whereby they can return to the presence of God."

Now with that, and to avoid placing everyone into a box, I added the opening paragraph of Elder David S. Baxter's April 2012 General Conference talk, entitled "Faith, Fortitude, Fulfillment: A Message to Single Parents": 

"My message is for the single parents in the Church, the majority of whom are single mothers--you valiant women who, through the varying circumstances of life, find yourselves raising children and running a home on your own. Perhaps you have been widowed or divorced. You may be coping with the challenges of single parenthood as a result of having taken a wrong turn outside of marriage, but you are now living within the framework of the gospel, having turned your life around."

Now is the part that I wanted to emphasize, "Bless you for avoiding the type of companionship that would come at the expense of virtue and discipleship. That would be far too high a price to pay."

That's when I fumbled my lesson up and read a different quote out of order or forgot to read a quote or something. I was a bit distracted by the lady on the back row with the phone. The one that rang at least five or six times. 

I could not figure out what was going on . . . someone was calling her, and then it looked like she was trying to find a number or something up on her phone. My friend, Janelle, said she was just about to go up to the lady and take her phone away. That would have been funny. Almost as funny as when the man sitting on our bench answered his phone during sacrament meeting today. And then Steve leaned over and asked me, "Would it have been equally inappropriate if I would have pulled out my phone and taken a picture of him talking on his phone during sacrament meeting?"

But anyhow, back to my lesson. . . 

"Parents have been given the sacred duty to 'bring up children in the nurture of the Lord' (Ephesians 6:4). Our responsibility, then, not only is for the well-being of our spouse but extends to the watchful care of our children, for 'children are an heritage of the Lord' (Psalms 127:3). We can make the choice to nurture our children accordingly and 'teach them to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord' (D&C 68:28). As parents, we must regard our children as gifts from God and be committed to making our homes a place to love, train, and nurture our sons and daughters. 

And that's when an 80-something year old lady in the front row raised her hand and told me she had five miscarriages and will those babies be waiting for her in heaven?

Yikes. . . I didn't see that one coming. Teaching in this ward keeps you on your toes.

I tried to answer it as best I could, without completely detracting from the spirit. I told her that we wouldn't fully understand that until after this life, but I think that whatever brings us greater peace in this life is what we should believe. When I had my miscarriages, it was better for me to think that the fetus didn't develop properly and the miscarriage was my body's way of terminating a unviable pregnancy. So I don't think of those miscarriages as babies waiting for me in heaven. . . just trials that I had to go through. . . that ultimately strengthened my testimony and brought me closer to God. But since there are lots of women who believe otherwise. . . I tried to answer it the best I could. (Miscarriages are different than stillbirths.) For more reading on this subject, go here

And then it was back to the lesson. . . 

"Loving, protecting, and nurturing our children are among the most sacred and eternally important things we will do. Worldly belongings will vanish, today's number-one movie or song will be irrelevant tomorrow, but a son or a daughter is eternal."

Our Relief Society president added some comments about how nurturing our children changes as they get older. It was perfect. 

"The family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children. ('The Family: A Proclamation to the World'). Therefore parents and children must work together in unity to fortify family relationships, cultivating them day in and day out. 

We added prayer, teach the gospel, scripture study, and family home evening to the last column: 

Another lady raised her hand and told us of the mistakes she made raising her children. And that holding family home evening once a week is not enough. . . I tried to explain that's why we should also have daily prayer and scripture study. . . but she went on for at least five minutes before we could continue. 

I concluded Brother Shumway's talk: 

"Although the adversary seeks to destroy the key elements necessary for a happy marriage and a righteous family, let me assure you that the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the tools and teachings necessary to combat and conquer the assailant in this war. If we will but honor our marriages by imparting more love and selflessness to our spouses; nurture our children through gentle persuasion and the expert teacher we call example; and fortify the spirituality of our families through consistent family home evening, prayer, and scripture study, I testify to you that the living Savior, Jesus Christ, will guide us and grant us victory in our efforts to achieve an eternal family unit."

Then I added a new column. Because that all seems so basic when life is sailing along smoothly. But what happens when it feels like life is falling apart?

You go to the temple. Not the Tetons, not Vernal, not Moab. The temple. Even if you don't have a recommend or can't go inside for a session, just go there. The spirit seeps through those walls. 

Remember the Atonement. Our salvation depends on it. It has the power to cleanse, the power to heal and comfort. 

And remember that "All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ": 

(Thank you to Chloe Garza for making this image for me! I put it in a frame and displayed it on the table during my lesson, along with the family picture from above.)

Read your patriarchal blessing.

And your spouse's.

And your child's.

Listen to good music. And really pay attention to the words. They might have been inspired to write them for you. 

And things will start to feel better. 

I promise. 


South Africa: Day 14 (Addo Elephant National Park)

We ate breakfast at the Protea Marine Hotel, as suggested by Gcobisa's sister. It cost a little over $30 for the six of us, which was more than we generally spent on breakfast. But it was considered the polite thing to do, since we had been given a discounted room rate. 

It was our first breakfast buffet of the trip, and our kids were in heaven. I heard Adam say, "Now I know what it's like to swallow soft bacon." 

He also told us, "This restaurant is so fancy that they should have a guy in the corner playing the banjo."

Everyone else had the full breakfast, but I was plenty happy with the less expensive "cold breakfast":

You better believe I ate my money's worth in macadamia nuts and dried fruit. . . 

Steve and I loaded up the four kids and made the 1.5 hour bumpy drive to Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest national park in South Africa. It is one of the places we regretted skipping on our last trip. 

The park was formed in 1931 as a sanctuary to protect the remaining eleven elephants in the area. Addo Elephant National Park now has over 500 elephants and covers 650,000 acres of land and includes a 300,000-acre marine area. The park contains five of South Africa's seven biomes and is the only park in the world to house Africa's "Big 7" (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, buffalo, leopard, whale, and the great white shark) in their natural habitat. 

We made a quick stop at the gift shop and bought Giscard Collard's Bush Car Chat, which turned out to be an excellent purchase: 

Addo Elephant National Park was like a combination of I Spy and I'm Thinking of an Animal. . . but in real life. We drove around with our heads peered up against (and out of) the van windows, looking for animals to mark off of our charts. We really wished we had more than one pair of binoculars.

Something like Addo Elephant National Park in the United States would be a giant lawsuit waiting to happen. There were warnings about staying inside your vehicle. . . but nobody was actually there to enforce anything. I can't imagine the liability. 

We were especially excited to see a Dung Beetle. . . but we never found one: 

The kids did, however, get really good at distinguishing a kudu from an eland: 

The landscape reminded us a lot of Vernal, Utah

I love this picture. The kids were genuinely so excited to see the animals: 

They were even pleasant when we couldn't find any animals: 

Sometimes we drove quickly by the animals: 

And sometimes we stopped for a long time: 

Rachel took this great picture. . . zebras are clearly white with black stripes: 

After a couple of hours, some of the kids started to lose interest. But not Rachel. She was having all sorts of fun with that flip chart: 

She was being really funny, "Why did we pack jackets today? I'm sweatin' like a sinner at church!" We were actually relieved to be visiting South Africa during their cooler, winter temperatures. 

We were somewhat impressed with what we had seen, but we had really hoped to find an elephant or a lion or a dung beetle, so we kept driving around. But we mostly just saw lots of birds and lots of warthogs:

We were wondering if we should have paid to go on a guided safari, but then we spotted an elephant: 

And then we realized there were two elephants:

Then Steve yelled at us to look out the back window. The next two or three minutes were unreal. A small herd of elephants ran right towards our car:

Rachel took these unbelievable pictures from the back seat of the van: 

It was one of those experiences where Steve and I looked at each other in disbelief. . . this was really happening!

This last elephant made us a little nervous. He stopped, looked right at us like he was bothered, waved his trunk around at us, but then he finally turned back and kept going into the brush with the other elephants:

We could have flown straight home and been completely satisfied with our African experience. It was that thrilling. 

A guy in another car pulled over and told us there was a lion down the road. . . somewhere past the watering hole, around the corner, to the right, down the hill, and under the tree. . . We couldn't find it. 

But we did find more elephants: 

We even had time to pull out the flip chart: 

Rachel immediately asked, "Is that an extra trunk?"

Ummmm. . . yep. 

Steve about died laughing. He caught it on video. . . so I'm sure she will be teased for decades to come.

(It took her a while. . . but she finally figured out what it was.)

Elephants are amazing to watch. The way they move, they way they eat. . . pretty much everything about them.

Interesting elephant facts: 

An elephant spends most of its day (and night) eating. Very little of the food passing through an elephant is digested before it comes out the other end. As a result, an elephant needs to eat 150-200 kg of food a day and produces up to 100 kg of dung. 

Elephants spread seeds and fruit in their dung. 

Their "destructive" way of eating actually makes the brush grow thicker. 

Elephants drink about 100 liters of water every day. 

There are about 60,000 muscles in an elephant's trunk. 

African people have a tradition of respect for elephants and many believe they have magical powers. 

We sat inside our van watching these elephants for probably 15 minutes. By that time, a few other vehicles had congregated, so we decided we ought to move along and let someone else have the good view. 

And with that, we decided it was time to go. . . because it's always best to depart on a high note.

There is lodging available at Addo Elephant National Park, and if we were to go back again someday, I would want to spend at least one night sleeping in the park.

On our drive back to Port Elizabeth, I asked Steve to pull over so I could take this picture. But I should have taken it as a panorama. . . it was the largest cemetery I had ever seen:

Since we had been in the car for most of the day, we stopped at Hobie Beach to let the kids run around and play.

Here's my picture of Shark Rock Pier:

And here's the amazing one I found at portelizabethbuzz.com

Hobie Beach is picturesque and is best known for its surfing: 

But it sure was it windy. Hence the reason we packed our jackets:

There were a lot of comments that came out of Steve's mouth, including things like:

"I don't know why anyone would ever want to live in Port Elizabeth."

(Hmmm. . . maybe it's because they have miles and miles of pristine beaches. . . or maybe it's because of the scuba diving, surfing, kiteboarding, or world famous whale watching.)

"Every single time we come to Port Elizabeth, it's windy."

(That was especially funny to me. . . because you know, we've been to Port Elizabeth all of three times.)

"If we had to move to South Africa, this is the last place I would pick to live."

(Not true. . . but Steve clearly didn't like the wind.)

We went back to our hotel and met up with Derrick and Gcobisa, who had spent the day at the local mall. Derrick bought Gcobisa a pair of red Converse All Stars. Even though Gcobisa has small feet and wears kids' sizes, the shoes still cost $50 USD.

I was starting to get nervous about all of these great pictures we had taken on our trip that had been downloaded onto my computer, but weren't backed up anywhere. Since internet speeds were relatively decent at the hotel, I decided to pay for 24-hours of internet to get as many pictures as I could loaded onto my blog as a backup.

We hadn't ever really eaten a real lunch and the kids were starving. So Steve, Derrick, and the kids went to eat dinner at the hotel's buffet.

The cost was something like $20 per adult, so I decided to stay in our room and work on uploading pictures. Gcobisa stayed behind with me, so I could get her registered for a visa interview. There weren't any appointments available in Durban, where we had planned to have her interview, so we made the appointment for Johannesburg.

Steve texted me: You want to come.
Me: Are you sure? I just ate a bunch of crackers and half a pound of cheese.
Steve: Salad, fruit, rice, potatoes, lots of desserts.

So I went. The salad was lame. The fruit was picked over. The rice was served with curry. Menudo curry. (Menudo is cow stomach lining and has the most putrid smell ever.) None of the other entrees were the least bit appetizing. The desserts were gross.

I ate a small salad, a dry roll, and pushed the rest of my food around on my plate. . . All I could think about was how good the salads and pizza had been at Charlie's Pizza and Pasta the night before. Lesson learned. Always, always, always, walk around and check out the buffet before you pay twenty bucks to eat.

But you know. . . you win some, you lose some. And the elephant experience was definitely a win.