Flowing Around Obstacles Like a River

kelly henderson

“My children have sucked out all my intellect.”

Kelly Henderson is only half-joking as she describes life with one-year-old Edith and three-year-old Beatrice: stretches of sleeplessness punctuated by teething, rounds of the flu, and the constant — if often sweet — demands that tiny people place on their parents. “We had a really rough month a little while ago, where everyone kept getting sick,” says Kelly, 40, “and I remember saying to my partner, Dave, that I was so tired I couldn’t make the decisions I needed to make in order to stay healthy.”

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Before kids, when Kelly’s intellect was still (mostly) intact, she racked up an impressive four university degrees: an honours BA in outdoor recreation, a BSc, an education degree, and an MA in applied health sciences. Her master’s thesis examined resilience in environmental educators. “I wanted to address the question, ‘How do you keep working in a field when it feels that things aren’t getting any better?’”

Through that work, Kelly came to a couple of conclusions. First, environmental educators thrive when surrounded by supportive communities. Second, the most resilient educators remain flexible: they were able to move around obstacles just as a river keeps flowing by finding the easiest path. “They worked with successes rather than trying to combat failures.”

And that is precisely Kelly’s approach to parenting.

She and Dave — both born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they still live — are lucky enough to have the enthusiastic help of both sets of grandparents; Kelly’s parents live a few houses down the street, while her in-laws are five minutes away. Their proximity means that somebody is always dropping in to say hi, or able to babysit a napping Edith while Kelly fetches Beatrice from daycare.

That approach also means “relinquishing any sense of control” — over, for example, whether the girls’ grandparents feed them ice cream, buy them plastic toys, or let them watch TV. “We learned very early on that you can’t raise children in a vacuum, and the effort that it would have taken to fight every little battle simply wasn’t worth it.” Instead, Kelly chooses to focus on the positives of having family close by, which far outweigh the negatives.

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Similarly, she works with, rather than against, her daughters’ needs and schedules. “I decided to honour where my kids were at. That’s meant scaling way back and sticking close to home, to prioritize their naps and meals and bedtimes, rather than, say, my desire to socialize or get to the gym. When Beatrice was born, I decided I would do one thing a day, and only if that thing was fun. And if it didn’t sound fun, I didn’t go.”

As a result, Kelly spends a lot of time at home. She’s currently on parental leave; in September, she’ll return to her job as lead instructor at the Kingfisher Lake Outdoor Education Centre, helping kids in Thunder Bay develop positive relationships with nature. In the meantime, she’s developing a positive relationship to homelife.

A couple of years ago, for example, she took advantage of a program (and a $500 rebate) offered by local organization Eco-Superior and installed a rain garden in her front yard. A rain garden is a landscaped depression that soaks up rainwater runoff from the roofs of houses, garages, or other hard surfaces; the rainwater is absorbed into the soil instead of flowing into storm drains that empty into local streams. Rain gardens are often planted with wildflowers or other plants that provide homes and food for birds and insects.

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“It took a ton of time and energy, but it worked with being really tied to home,” says Kelly. “What was really cool was the way [the rain garden] got people talking. We had just moved into the neighbourhood, and people always stopped to ask what I was doing. Neighbours came by, including a master gardener who answered lots of my questions. People dropped off plants. I’ve started giving plants to people.”

The rain garden — like Kelly’s backyard vegetable garden and her shared garden plot with another local organization, Roots to Harvest — is thriving, more or less, on benign neglect. “The vegetables are half-planted, with whatever seeds we have lying around, with whatever’s easy,” says Kelly. “We have a vegetable CSA [community supported agriculture] share to cover the shortfall. My philosophy at this point is, ‘They’re all a bit terrible, but we’re doing them.’ And that’s good enough for now.”

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