When you look at Jen and her brood of girls, the last thing you expect is that she’s a former Air Force linguist and would have classified herself as a ‘helicopter mom’. Brood is an appropriate word in this case, both because Jen has five girls and because of the dozens of chickens that roam through the backyard.
Jen’s raising the girls on her own in North Carolina and they regularly visit their dad in Colorado. They’re home schooled and their world initially seems like a chaos of creative projects, animals, and gardening. But it’s a deliberately cultivated environment, that supports the girls’ self-exploration and creative discovery, things Jen feels she didn’t have growing up in her adopted family.
"I always felt like I had all these thoughts, these artistic feelings. I always said I was a frustrated artist inside because I had all these things that I wanted to express and I knew that a way of artistically expressing them was what I needed, but I had no outlet for it."
"If you had asked me 20 years ago if any of this would have happened, I would have said no way. There are definitely moments when I'm like how the hell did I get here?”
Having five girls under one roof would try anyone’s patience. “Every night is like a rock concert, that you didn't want to go to,” Jen said. She turns to creative expression to relieve stress. "Ukelele, drawing, painting, crochet… Sometimes if they're making me crazy I just go away from them and go outside. I mean, chicken coops or gardening for sure. All the things that focus me on something."
If she had to label her style, Jen would call it ‘eclectic homeschooling’ with some ‘unschooling’ tactics mixed in.
"Unschooling is the idea that you're always learning, and that it's not just learning by sitting in a class room being talked at by a teacher. It's the idea that you're always learning. It's the idea that you're intelligent enough to have interests and lean towards things and that if you're allowed to, if you are learning something that interests you, you learn it one hundred times faster than something that you're being force fed because you have no interest… it doesn't feel relevant to you.”
When asked if she thinks the girls will miss out on anything, not being in public school Jen says she’s sure they will. "I've had people say 'Oh my god, well how are they going to learn to get along in society. You learn how to deal with your peers when you're in school and that includes the bullying and that's what makes people rise above.' Well it really doesn't, people suffer in there and that doesn't make you better, and that's not the way people should be to each other. I mean how many people feel like their workplace is like their middle school? Not that often."
"I hope that they learn not to just believe everything they hear, and to realize that they can teach themselves anything they want, they just have to seek it out. Like Roxy, she's taught herself all of this crochet stuff and she will make something out of anything. And I want them to do that.”
Jen started hula hooping for fun and fitness after having her fourth girl, Scheherazade. It’s become an important part of her life, a way for her to meet like-minded people and de-stress. She tries to get to the gym to hoop at least twice a week.
"I do love hooping, and when I first started I was smiling all the time. But it's meditation. When I'm hooping it's my ADD, introvert way to tune everyone out around me. There's been times when I haven't gone for weeks and, ugh, it's not pretty. It's very meditative, and it's to the point where I've been doing it so long… if I'm there for an hour it's just me and the hoop and the music and..." she sighs deeply.
Jen made the decision to start preschooling when her first daughter, Olivia (aka Livi), was approaching the age where she would go to preschool. “They were like 'Oh do you have her in a preschool yet? You should have her in a program. This place, etc.' I was like, you're kidding me that I have to know by her being 7 months old 'Ok, it's this program or the rest of your life is ruined' Really? We don't do kids any favors. You put kids in the system and there's all of these different studies and nobody really knows yet we treat everything as though this is the right way, even though 10 years ago they're gonna be like 'Oh, eggs are good for you now!' You know?"
Being adopted and not knowing her birth parents, Jen said she completely freaked out when she had her first daughter, Livi, because she was the first person that Jen knew for sure she was related to. “I looked at her and I finally knew what love was. I felt bad but I realized I didn’t feel that way about Chad [her ex-husband] at all. It was so obvious to me from the first second I held Livi that this was a totally different feeling.”
"Yeah we have a box of clay on the floor, and they can cut things up and put it back together, absolutely...it's on purpose. And I feel like I was just this weird alien person in my family and they all look and go 'Wow! Jenny you do all that art stuff’ like it's this weird thing and I think everyone has that but maybe the people that you're more biologically related to, you may lean more towards similar expressions and understandings and brain workings."
The kids travel alone frequently to see their dad and grandparents so at this point packing for a trip is second nature, but navigating the airport is still a stress. “To me it feels like constant judgment. People are like ‘Oh you're going on a trip! Oh, unaccompanied minors…ooh.”
It’s a break when the kids leave but it’s also sad for Jen. “It's beautifully and awfully quiet all at the same time. But the quiet is nice! And I haven't had to make twenty snacks a day either.”