If you’ve ever seen a tree of a certain age, a gangly teenage tree, that has been previously supported by stakes but now has a tight ring squeezing ’round the trunk where the gardener forgot to remove the support straps, you’ve seen the difference between a rhythm/rule and a schedule. I never could really parse the difference for many years. Within the homeschool community you might also hear words like block scheduling or looping, too. The Schole women (Sarah Mackenzie, Pam Barnhill, and Mystie Winkler) have done such good work in helping homeschooling mamas find rhythms and routines that ease. Take your pick- there’s probably some time management theory you’ve heard of that you really like but, upon applying it to your own life and family, find it not to be as useful as you expected.
The problem with any of these very lovely and useful ideas is that we so very often try to “whole hog” apply them within our lives instead of picking and choosing the best gems and leaving the rest according to our family’s unique needs. A Rule helps us clarify what will be helpful and what won’t. Does this go inside the fence or outside of it? As I said in my last post, the idea of a rule by the very name sounds very oppressive- something that shackles. What I have discovered, however, is the exact opposite. Far from being a didactic, one-size-must-fit-all-approach, a rule is as unique as the person that follows it. In a monastery, no two rules are alike- for how would all the myriad needs of the monastery be met if the inhabitants only did the same things? (And, let’s be honest- how boring!)
So how do we tell the difference then, between what works and brings life and what does not? How can we tell a good support from something that ties us down and restricts us?
The tree, when young, most definitely needs the strong supports to help it form strong and true growth patterns and not be easily knocked by the wind. At a certain stage of growth, however, those supports must be removed or they will choke the tree, preventing it from further proper growth. Certain plants in the garden must be trellised and trained from the very beginning, like tomatoes. As tomatoes mature, the sheer abundance of fruit and weight of the plant requires that it have a trellised support to assist it in doing the work a tomato does- without it, the plants often collapse and the fruit rots on the vine because the nutrients have been cut off.
I think, as mothers and as women, we are both the tree and the tomato depending on seasons and needs.
As peculiar as this sounds, I believe home care chores like laundry, the kitchen, the bathrooms and the like are a tree situation. Yes, when you first enter a marriage or a new home, there is absolutely a need for a strong support, a schedule that reminds you what should be done and when. It shouldn’t ever be a thoughtless following of a list though-it should fit the home you’re in, the people that are present, the abilities and needs of each. But like the tree, there should come a point where home care becomes so instinctual (and thought-less) that a need to consult a schedule diminishes entirely. Signs that your support have become oppressive and are triggering perfectionist shut down? When you’re doing far more than is realistic in a day. When you’re following an idea or list that doesn’t fit your family or needs and you’re doing ridiculously piddly stuff like scrubbing baseboards with toothbrushes because the book or the list tells you to, every week. (For the record, mine get wiped down maybe twice a year.) Each house is different. Our main bathroom has to get cleaned far more often than most people’s would because of Josiah’s needs. Certain rooms get much more trashed much more quickly than others. When I finally realized that I needed to make a home care schedule work for me and not the other way around, caring for my home stopped overwhelming me. It took a bit of thought and trial and error to find the sweet spot, but I did eventually. Now we carry on easily, and the children can often move through a whole day’s chores without being reminded or nagged, because we all know what comes next.
There are other aspects that lean strongly towards a tomato’s needs. Homeschooling and meal planning are two great examples of where I will always need steady support in order to function in my vocation well; I will quickly collapse under the weight of the needs in both areas if my trellis is not in working order. I am quick to point out here that my trellis and your trellis look different, automatically. You do not have Celiacs children. I do. You may not be homeschooling six. I am. So what I need and what you might need are completely different, but we probably both need a steady support in certain areas. What’s interesting to me here is the uncomfortable truth that when I start to get overwhelmed, downtrodden, and my perfectionist is rearing her ugly head- nine times out of ten, I have been leaning too far from the trellis- I have not been disciplined in following the systems that I know bring life and order. I have skipped one too many planning sessions and now find myself lost as the kids sit down to the table for their lessons. Too many skipped errand days and suddenly I’m crying in front of the pantry at four thirty realizing that there is nothing to make for dinner. (This is far more catastrophic for us than most- there is no cheap quick fix for us with our gluten free needs. No running out for a pizza. While it’s available, the cost is far beyond our pocket.) In order for me to bear good, healthy fruit in these areas, I have to stay supported and trellised.
Before you go, yeah, yeah, that’s all nice and all, but my life is crazy, I work, etc., let me stop you right there. You know what our life looks like right now. With all the hospital visits, the doctor’s appointments, the back and forth- and the sheer irregularity of it all- we never really know from one week to the next what we’ll be facing. It is nutty, to say the least. I get how crazy it can be. Absolutely. I’m telling you- if you’re willing to be faithful in this one area, it will relieve so much of the crazy-making for you. The decision fatigue, the overwhelmed feeling- they will disappear. The rest of your life might still be absolutely crazy and unpredictable, but you’ll have a pocket of peace to slip into within the midst of it all.
I can’t really hold to any predictable pattern in most areas in a way that I could say to you, yes, we loop in our homeschool scheduling. We use this list for our home-care needs. That’s not so much because we don’t, but because it changes so quickly. When things are normal we tend to have a sort of block setup for homeschool lessons. As soon as hospital stuff starts to ratchet up, our lessons take on a looping schedule, picking up wherever we left off the day before. At the worst points when things have grown too crazy or difficult, they drop to a bare bones schedule. The common thread, the trellis, underlying our learning is simply that we value it and we will always make time for it in some way, shape, or form, every day. It requires a lot of forethought on my end over the weekends to assess what is the best fit for our needs that week, but it is something I absolutely commit to because it is important to me and to my family. I’ve found this year that the farthest interval I can go is two weeks of planning, and so I’ve committed to that interval. Originally, I had planned by terms.
The same can be said for any aspect of my home in many ways. According to my rule, I know what things are most important for me given the challenges I face during a particular week. As soon as I get a chance, I will bring the laundry current, clean our main bathroom, and reset our refrigerator and pantry. This is our bare bones. On a semi-normal week, I follow my general rhythm of a deep cleaned kitchen, a swept dining room and living room, both bathrooms cleaned, laundry done every day, and, if I’m lucky, some of our second and third floor spaces swept. On a normal week, each day has an area (mondays-kitchen, tuesdays- dining room/living room, etc) in which each space has a dedicated 30 minutes to an hour of care given it. On these days, the kitchen gets a proper scrub down- the stove eyes and cupboards get wiped down, the windows cleared of smears, the refrigerator and pantry get cleaned and straightened and the meal plan made for the week. I often shop on Mondays, and I often do a lot of cooking and baking ahead on those days when we have a truly quiet and normal week. It doesn’t always happen that way, but that is the rhythm I listen for and work towards as much as I can.
What I’ve found is that the more I can commit to our full, normal rhythm, the more it pays dividends on the really awful, crazy, wacky weeks that are completely beyond our control. If I’ve been following my Rule closely in the weeks leading up to a hospital visit, chances are things do not fall off the rails near as much. Sometimes I know a hospital stay is coming and I can plan ahead on each week- making a bit more to freeze in the kitchen, for example, on the designated day. I hit harder and faster some deeper projects that I might have taken more slowly if I didn’t know whackadoodle was around the corner, accelerating our cleaning schedule so that we basically leave for the hospital with the house in vacation condition and all the meals ready and planned for.
As I’m sure you can see, if I began to hold to just one particular schedule, one particular theory, I’d be absolutely sunk. The chains of all I could not do given our family life right now would slap pinching hard around my wrists and ankles. I’d drown under the weight of my (perceived) failure. Leaning into the freedom of my Rule, I can do what I can when I can, to the best of my abilities, and pay no mind to external pressures that might otherwise enslave me. As I said before, this takes time and discipline, but the dividends paid are priceless.