The most important work


Stay-at-home mom Jennifer Smith sees the blessings in raising and schooling her eight kids

It’s not always a choice.

But for those moms who can swing staying home full-time, trading a desk for dawn-to-dusk running, wiping, whining, snuggling, singing, yelling, eating, making, creating, debating and loving, there is no other choice.

It’s more than a full-time job if you do it with one child.

It’s more than double a full-time job if you do it with two.

But what about eight?

The Smith family at home in Casco: Isabella, 8, Madeline, 10, Wyatt, 6, Julia, 4, and mom Jennifer holding Lillianna, 2. Back row: Brandon, 22, Jacob, 20, Connor, 15, and dad Michael. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

A chattering of roosters and children circulates in the grassy space around the Smith’s house in Casco. Squeals and giggles are intercepted with squawks and trills from the chicken coop. Seven black chicks, their bodies so fluffy and round it’s impossible not to imagine scooping them up and nestling them, peck about in a tight tribe at the edge of the lawn.

“One more and they would have matched us!” Madeline, stoic at age 10, points out as she watches 4-year-old Julia try to herd the chicks my way.

“We saw them hatch,” Julia says as the chicks retreat to the leaves in search of a late-day bug.

“That is one of the really wonderful aspects of homeschooling,” says Jennifer Smith, mom to eight kids ranging in age from 2-year-old Lillianna, forever “the baby,” to 22-year-old Brandon. “They got to watch the eggs, see them hatch, help build the coop and now feed and play with the chicks. They learn so much about life right in their own yard.”

“I knew I wanted to be able to do that for my kids. To watch them make those connections and feel that magic.”

It is easy to assume that with more children than a hockey team, Smith would be a panicked mess, barking orders to the brood and seeping exasperation. However, as she stands to the side, watching six of the eight romp on the lawn, coddle the chicks and hang upside-down from the swingset trapeze, her energy is akin to a conductor who has faith that her performers have practiced their music and know exactly how to play to complement the other instruments.

I stare in awe.

Smith laughs. “Oh, it isn’t always like this. But I have learned it is better to invite them into your calm instead of rising to your anger.”

And mostly it is best not to take them all grocery shopping.

Oh, the comments,” she says. “People want to know why they aren’t in school, or they ask why I have so many. Shopping alone has become a bit of a treat. Luckily, we grow our own babysitters!”

Her two oldest sons, Brandon, 22, and Jacob, 20, are in college, but they are often around to help and play.

Though the majority of Smith’s time and energy is spent parenting, she is very aware of the importance of “me time.”

“It is vital that moms have something beyond ‘just staying home’,” Jennifer says. “You have to have time to fill your soul and be active.”

As a mother of eight, much of Jennifer Smith’s time and energy is spent parenting, but she also recognizes the importance of filling her own soul and taking time for herself. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Her favorite morning ritual is to rise early, enjoy a quiet coffee and book.

“I am a lifelong learner,” she says. “That input of knowledge fuels and recharges me.”

And in the evening, she and her husband, Mike, enjoy their couple time walking a 1.5-mile loop around their property.

As the children start to wake in the morning, the school day begins. With a background in early-childhood education, Smith was inspired by watching her preschoolers light up when she would tell them stories.

“That’s a powerful impact,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be able to do that for my kids. To watch them make those connections and feel that magic.”

The days starts with reading the Bible and working on grammar then shifts to art, history or science. The older kids, Isabella, 8, Madeline and Connor, 15, take a more “self-directed” learning route, choosing subjects that spark their passions and interacting with an online tutor.

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone and it certainly “takes a village” for many who decide to make education a family affair. Smith has found a group of like-minded moms and two days of the week they teach as part of a co-op.

“One of the amazing things about homeschooling is that wherever we are, that’s school,” Smith says. “In the kitchen there is math, in the garden that’s science. Plus, they do extracurricular activities like dance and music.”

Regardless of the number of kids one has or whether Mom works in or out of the house, most struggle with the concept of “balance.” How do we work and play and stay healthy and cook and clean…all with a smile?

Family play time with Connor and Isabella, dad Michael with Wyatt slung over his shoulder and Jacob throwing Lillianna into the air. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Smith rolls her eyes. “It is easy to feel like there is never an end. But the dishes will still be here in the morning. I need to sleep.” She pauses. “If I didn’t have the kids, I wouldn’t have the messes. I see the blessings in the messes.”

Sparkly 4-year-old Julia bounds into the kitchen. “If you not gonna be a star, what you gonna be?” she booms. Then scampers off.

Smith’s gaze follows Julia back into the yard, as if she was a comet headed back into the little universe of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, with Mike and Jennifer at the center of the sun.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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