The road to greatness begins at home

Of late, several comments and circumstances concerning “The Use or Benefits of Staying at Home” to care for children have provoked me to think about the choice I made to be available 24/7 for our family.

I made that decision almost 10 years ago.

And? 

I wrote a somewhat emotional piece that was published some years ago and which I read again recently, wondering if I felt the same as before or if it turned out to be a whole load of hogwash. (I’m republishing it below for those who missed it.)

You know? Despite “The Day of Small Things” (and there have been many many many), I can’t say after much serious reflection that I made the wrong choice. 

I can’t see the end of the road. Although I sometimes wish I could.

But I have faith.

The gems and developments in the young lives under my care that serve to encourage me on ordinary days – these things help me know deep within it isn’t a blind faith.

I still believe that Every.Single.Thing we are trying to build, here with our kids are bricks laid one by one to form a foundation of relationships that will stand the test of time and the pains of adolescence and the hardships of life.

That at the end of a long day, every person in this family will always look forward to return and find comfort and strength and peace and acceptance in this place we call “HOME”.

Do I doubt sometimes?

Of course. But by golly, I’ll be sticking to my guns.

 

Here’s the piece entitled “The Road to Greatness Begins at Home”, originally published at Loyarburok on 8 December 2011 and The Selangor Times shortly after.

P.S. You stay-home mums will know what I mean about “The Day of Small Things”. Heads up!

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loyarburokpic2011

When I was invited to share some thoughts and personal experiences on stay-home motherhood in conjunction with International Volunteers Week, I was somewhat perplexed because, to many, stay-home motherhood defies logic, let alone ideas of social responsibility or volunteerism.

For good or bad, the culture in which I live is preoccupied with work, education and achievement.  Not infrequently have I met people who ask, “But what do you do all day?” or “When are you going to start working again?” as if much of the time I have is spent watching my toenails grow, or as though the tasks I do cannot be properly considered work precisely because it is unpaid and home-based.  Worst of all, I have “wasted” my learning, not to mention my parents’ hard earned money.

This kind of pressure can be somewhat daunting.  And in my context, void of domestic help, stay-home motherhood to 3 young children aged 5, 3 and 10 months is intense labour 24 hours 7 days a week without a mint of money in it.

Additionally, stay-home motherhood is a multi-faceted and demanding experience.  In the sentiments of Kate Harris, another stay-home mother, I am now a professional hygiene attendant with “an advanced degree in banana-mashing”, plus a poo-cleaning portfolio guaranteed to impress.  Also, I am the family’s CEO with razor sharp management and multi-tasking skills because cooking, cleaning, baby-carrying and training my children in dining etiquette and alternative dispute resolution techniques must happen all at the same time.  All this – if to be performed with grace and a patient, nurturing spirit – commands every ounce of strength, moral character and skill.

The menial nature of some tasks can appear off-putting, not to mention having to live with the constraints of single-income status.  So, while this quiet, nurturing lifestyle is borne predominantly out of an instinctive sense of responsibility to my children, there are moments in which I question: “Why did I sign up for this gig?”

For me, volunteering for this simple life has been worth it because it affords me and the children the thing we treasure most – time to be with each other.

This time has enabled me to breastfeed my children for as long as possible and give them the best nutritional start in life through healthy, home-cooked meals everyday.  I am able to focus on being a hands-on parent without the distractions of a full-time job.

Being home also enables me to be available for my children during their various stages of growth.  I have the time to learn to understand my children and vice versa.  Stimulating conversations can happen any time of the day, not just within a few restricted hours.  I have peace knowing where they are at – not just physically, but emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

As the main caregiver, my children look to me, not to any domestic helper or babysitter, for love, comfort, security and guidance.  And as our relationship grows, I am able to understand better and deal more holistically and consistently with the attitudinal and behavioural challenges of each child. The greatest challenge is in modeling values to the little ones, because they watch every move.

For various reasons, mostly developmentally and financially, I have been home-educating my 5 year old and 3 year old and so am a kindergarten teacher of sorts.  The beauty of home-education is that learning happens naturally throughout the day and there are plenty of opportunities for field trips.  There are sit-down times for the 3R’s but we also focus on other subjects our family feels as important: music, history, art, social responsibility.

Here is where being home, teaching my children, affords me unique ways to apply my education, interests and previous work experience in creative and intentional ways.  As far as the children are concerned, this has yielded interesting results.

About 5 months ago, my daughter and I finished a riveting book as part of our school curriculum. Set in the context of World War II, Claire Huchet Bishop’s Twenty and Ten is based on a true story that occurred during the German occupation of France.  Twenty French children are sent to a refuge in the mountains.  They take in, and hide, 10 Jewish refugee children.  It’s a book you can’t put down, especially from the part when Nazi soldiers arrive.

There is a touching scene at the beginning, when a Jewish boy gives his one-and-only treasured piece of chocolate to a French boy in gratitude to the latter for having given to him the remainder of his meal.

My daughter and I poured over our world map and looked for all the locations mentioned in the book.  We had an interesting time discussing the story.  I learned that 5 year olds are capable of understanding a great deal of things.

On the very same day we read that chapter, our family had lunch with several young friends. One of them, a refugee girl, was reluctant to join in as she didn’t have money to pay for her meal.  We wanted her company, so we told her not to think of money.  As we left the restaurant, she slipped something into my daughter’s hand.

Guess what it was?  A piece of chocolate.

I looked at my daughter and said, “Remember that story?”  Her face was shining.

Some time later, my mother came visiting.  As I washed the breakfast dishes, I overheard my girl said to her, “Do you know the Nazis?”

There was a short silence.  Then my mother said, “What?”

“The Nazis,” my daughter said. “They killed Jews. And they wanted to kill the Jewish children.”

It was then I thought about the things my daughter and I had talked about – human rights, racism, equality and courage.  I thought about our refugee friend and about how I, as a parent, am privileged to invest in the life of my children throughout the day.

Thus, although I receive no financial remuneration for my job and find it exhausting, I have found stay-home motherhood to be a meaningful part of society as a whole.  It offers real value for families and the world at large.  I do my work with the conviction that I am fulfilling a social responsibility, that I am promoting and improving a particular quality of life, that I am teaching the importance of Truth lived out in human relationship.

So, while I hesitate to define stay-home motherhood in terms of its market value, it is important to place stay-home mothers on the same playing field as other nation builders and culture-shapers.  Lest anyone persists in thinking that stay-home motherhood is not as important as the work of lawyers, doctors or accountants, I echo with Kate Harris, in her observation of G. K. Chesterton who, in his book What is Wrong With The World, asks, “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the rule of three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”

Volunteerism carries with it the notion of rendering aid or performing a service beyond one’s basic obligations.  Many of the aspects of stay-home mothering are really, I think, fundamentally elementary and lie within the reasonable expectations of being a normal family member and responsible citizen. And so, stay-home motherhood for me is not quite the same as volunteerism although it encompasses many aspects of the definition.  At its heart, stay-home motherhood is a vocation.

When I am faced with the Day of Small Things, wherein I am smeared with spit-up for the 10th time and inundated with requests for tooth-picking services and butt-wipes simultaneously, I remember that throughout human history, millions of women have given themselves to – or volunteered for, if you will – this timeless vocation that is stay-home motherhood. They have done so willingly, without financial reward, and their nobility lies precisely in acting out of a sense of duty towards the little people entrusted to their care, not because they have the extra time, energy or money on their hands.

The simple, yet multi-faceted and busy life that is stay-home motherhood is a challenging one, and there are many valid factors for which some mothers desire to, or are compelled to, work outside the home.  For all of the above, however, my passion is to see women – who want to stay home with their little ones – empowered to embark on this journey with their children, and find intentional and creative ways to apply their education, work experience and skills alongside and within their role as mothers.

The road to greatness begins at home ~ Chinese proverb.

 

For more updates on homeschooling, natural living, motherhood, faith, our garden-to-table project and more, follow along via Facebook.

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10 themes from our Edible Garden, Season #2

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Our new edible garden exudes the glory of life and the hot excitement of new possibilities.

This is not mere sentimentalism. 

Let me be clear. I am planting this garden not as a hobby or just so we can enjoy organic vegetables.

I am planting it primarily for 2 reasons – so we can feed ourselves and have a meaningful place for the children to explore and play.

As Roo turned 14 months it just didn’t seem right to allow the green space behind our house to be overgrown by lalang when it could be used to feed our family of six, all of whom (one child excepted) have a voracious appetite.

Also, our edible garden is not merely a place for play. I hope that as the children explore and as they watch me, they will inherit a love of biological diversity and develop an interest in agroecology and grow in their love for environmental care.

Great expectations?

Before I started the garden, I had almost zero knowledge about growing anything. I didn’t know what kind of soil was necessary or even how to plant a seed.

Since putting my hand to the plough (pun intended) I have become more aware of growing things and plant life around me. I am growing in knowledge of so many new things that I never did before such as soil fertility and food and nutritional security. By allowing our kids to help me in the garden, I hope they will grow along with me in these areas and build an inheritance to share with future generations.

Let me share another 10 themes in the second phase of planting our edible garden. Season #2 can only be described as a flurry of activity, with lots of back-breaking, rewarding work.

 

1. Every vegetable that we harvest is a reason to thank God who makes all things possible.

Our bumper crop of okra continued this season. 

Every other day I harvested at least 8 lady fingers and we saw no end to garlic okra stir fries, okra fried with ground cumin, mustard seeds and curry leaves, and the occasional fish curry.

31 July 2015
31 July 2015

I did begin to wonder when we might stop eating okra, but a brief recollection of escalating prices everywhere made me ever so thankful we could simply step out into our garden and pluck pesticide-free vegetables to cook for lunch and dinner!

Life with 4 kids (2 of whom still homeschooling) did also mean that I couldn’t keep up quickly enough with the green bounty, but we harvested both young and old spinach nevertheless and made pots of delicious soup with them.

10 August 2015
10 August 2015

Delightfully, I also discovered a bitter gourd plant growing wild on the slope where I had chucked some compost. Across Season #2 and #3, it provided us with so much bitter gourd that I lost track and didn’t feel too badly when we failed to rescue some from pests.

 

2. Garden play ranges from mildly benign to downright delightful … and sometimes hair-raising.

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

I can’t help but wonder what goes on in their minds as they wander about. There’s obviously a lot of observation and reflection happening.

Look at the passion fruit wall trellis with copious vines but no fruit! 

On days I’m busy working in the garden and the older kids are busy with homework, our younger two are sometimes garden playmates and get up to all kinds of things.

Like sand play.

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

Oh, but what’s that in my baby’s hair?

25 August 2015
25 August 2015

What’s that musical triangle doing there? 

2 September 2015
2 September 2015

Thank you Piglet, for homemade pot pourri “Just for Mama”. (I did point out certain plants, to make sure they wouldn’t get slashed!) These painstaking cuttings were dried in the sun and stored fondly in a mason jar in our kitchen as a keepsake.

2 September 2015
2 September 2015

 

3. An edible garden is a lovely place to relax and unwind.

One afternoon after morning school I decided to go outside for a breather. We set out our DIY garden table and the kids had fun with sand play while I sat and sipped hot tea. It was so nice, we did that almost every day for a couple of weeks.

On one of those days I lingered outside for longer and enjoyed the scene instead of rushing on to the usual dinner prep. 

And discovered this. 

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

Lamb had captured it in the Family Bug Jar and left it on the table next to my mug. I gazed at it for a long time and thought of all the leaves it had been feasting on, but it was a wonderful and beautiful creature nonetheless!

Somehow, appreciating nature energises me to deal with anything thereafter – poop on the floor, crying children, nap busters, you name it.

 

4. Discovering vegetables that grow wild out of nowhere makes me think of our loving Creator God who can make all things new.

In August I discovered these veggie plants growing wild near the top of the slope beyond the flat garden adjacent to the patio.

19 August 2015. (L-R) Pumpkin, round brinjal, bitter gourd
19 August 2015. (L-R) Pumpkin, round brinjal, bitter gourd

Before these had sprung up, nothing seemed capable of growing on the slope except some grass. There were mostly weeds. Banana trees had failed.

The plants had probably sprung up from seeds in the compost that had fallen there but I do believe it was God who made them grow considering the infertile condition of the land. 

 

5. Remarkable things can happen if we’re determined enough to change.

After finding our wild veggies, our edible garden development took a completely new turn.

The discovery made me realise, finally, that I could and should do something to the long slope to make it suitable for planting. My parents had mentioned this way back but with pregnancy and more babies and homeschooling and no domestic help, the idea had rolled off like water on a duck’s back. I had other things to keep up with.

Now, Roo was only 20 months old but I knew that if I waited any longer nothing would happen. I was taking a break from freelance jobs after 3 months of ill health to recover and focus on the demands of family and community projects so this was the perfect time to invest a few weeks on developing the slope, before I got tied up with future work projects again.

I also knew, after listening to advice from my mother and doing some research, that in order to grow anything successfully on a gradient I had to terrace the slope and make raised beds to prevent soil nutrients from being washed downwards.

It seemed like a whole lot of work I didn’t feel prepared for, but I decided to take the plunge and go straight for it.

 

6. A passionate vision to be able feed one’s family within a narrow budget can make a Mama do, well … crazy things.

The idea that this green space could make us self-sufficient to a certain extent got me. It really got me. Cutting down our grocery bill was an attractive possibility that I intended to turn into reality.

So one hot Wednesday afternoon while Roo napped, I left the three older kids to their own work and indoor play, grabbed an old cangkul (hoe) and hammer, and built my first wooden terraced garden bed.

2 September 2015
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden bed #1

As mentioned in this earlier post, my parents had lots of unused hard wood to spare. A few days before, Sweet Man had helped me cut as many pieces as I needed according to the length I’d measured, and they were just right. 

It took a lot of huffing and puffing, lugging heavy pieces of wood down the slope and raising them into place. I had to get the positioning right and it wasn’t so simple driving the 3-ft length rebar into the ground. Using a hefty hammer made the job a lot easier but the bars kept going in at the wrong angle!

I started building a second bed the same day. 

2 September 2015
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden bed #2

The slope is rather steep as you can see from this side view. And see how quickly the pumpkin vines grew, sprawling over the edge of Bed #1.

Sweet Man had plans to build some steps leading to the bottom but he had his plate full right then so it was a lot of climbing, careful treading and some inadvertent sliding downhill!

2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1 and #2
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1 and #2

Trying to dig into the hard ground to terrace the slope was another story. Lessons learned – make sure there’s a bottle of drinking water nearby and straighten up often to avoid backache! But really, there was no avoiding backache especially with this kind of work.

The sweat flowed and the muscles ached and the reality of the Bible verse, “Break up your fallow ground” (Hosea 10:12; Jeremiah 4:3), came constantly to mind.

It isn’t easy to break up all our wrong habits and clear our heart of weeds in order for our hearts to grow and bear abundant fruit. If we want to truly live, and live meaningfully, we need to take the time – and energy – to dig deep and work at the less tangible things of Life, the secret inner matters of the heart.

All too soon, Roo awoke from her nap and my mother helped me get her. Together, we all sowed a new spinach bed at the top of the garden. It was a nice and easy way to end a hard afternoon’s work.

On Friday that same week (4 September), I completed the second bed and 3 days later was amply rewarded by our first round brinjal. What a brilliant colour!

7 September 2015
7 September 2015

 

7. Taking the easy way out and ignoring issues that can hinder plant growth isn’t a great idea.

The same day I completed the second bed, I loosened the soil in it. I saw a lot of clay and numerous rocks and old rusty nails that the house builder had dumped onto the slope instead of disposing of them in a proper manner. Ugh!

I had hoped to complete the job quickly but when unexpected things like this arise, you can either deal with them immediately to ensure a good return of investment or take short cuts and pay the price later.

The older two kids wore gloves and helped me collect as many nails as we could find. We also collected small rocks of all shapes and sizes and put them at the side of the fence for Sweet Man to use in building the garden steps later. Waste not!

The kids wanted to play a game with the old nails but I put my foot down. Rusty nails aren’t suitable playthings!

 

8. Making occasional trips to a good supplier of gardening material and buying in bulk is the best use of time and energy.

I had to amend the soil with suitable nutrients and matter before planting so the next day I went to Sungai Buloh with my mother to buy sacks of chicken dung, cocopeat and rice hulls while Sweet Man babysat the kids.

These items are so much cheaper compared to buying in limited amounts and I was glad I had prepared some storage space for them when we reorganised the garden patio a few months earlier.

You may have wondered why Sweet Man wasn’t putting any “work” into all the aforementioned, but actually I hadn’t wanted him to get too involved. I had gotten tired of being the “Finger Gardener” for all the years I was either pregnant or having a wee nursing babe latched on, meaning he was doing almost all of the garden work and I had only to point a finger and say what I hoped would get done!

 

9. Building a trellis is a lot of fun!

9 September. It was the day my mother had come over to help and give the kids Chinese lessons, so I didn’t have to worry about Roo waking up from her afternoon nap and having to attend to her personally.

I transplanted pandan, lemon and lemon grass plants on the edge of the slope. 

9 September 2015. (T-B) Pandan, lemon, lemongrass
9 September 2015. (T-B) Pandan, lemon, lemongrass

I then started constructing a bamboo trellis in the second bed intending to plant french beans. With his homework all done, Lamb was determined to help and it was a fantastic opportunity for some really special mama-son bonding.

My 7 year old farmer in the making!

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

We drove the bamboo pieces in about 1.5-ft deep using a hammer.

And were rewarded that very day with a delicious bitter gourd!

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

That same evening, I also made my first batch of bokashi bran to prepare to start bokashi composting, which I’ll share about in a future post.

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

 

10. Things do get easier when you get the hang of things.

A week after the second bed was completed, I started making a third bed intending to plant sweet potatoes and more okra. 

I had a good rhythm going by now and terracing the slope didn’t seem as difficult as when I’d first started.

Our third bed!

10 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1, #2 and #3
10 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1, #2 and #3

I stood at the bottom of the slope and looked up at all the work that had been done and reflected on all of God’s blessings that we had experienced in this short season that enabled this to happen.

And I thought to myself, “This is just the beginning.” 

It was the beginning of even better things to come. 

 

 

Upcoming post: Edible Garden, Season #3 (Sept–Dec 2015) – soil amendment, transplanting seedlings, making natural pesticide, homemade fertiliser (fish amino acid and bokashi tea), cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, a fourth bed and more trellises.

For more updates on our garden-to-table project, homeschooling, natural living, motherhood, faith, and more, follow along via Facebook.

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