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Archive for the ‘Kiddos’ Category

Several weeks ago a friend said,

“My kids are probably excited about winter coming. It means I’ll start doing craft projects and reading to them again, instead of just yelling at them to go back to their movie so mama can work outside some more.”

The words could as easily have come out of my mouth. Although there are plenty of good wholesome times when the kids join me outside, helping with my projects or playing blessedly independent games alongside, there are as many times when I am out working in the yard alone, occasionally checking for their glazed faces through the dining room window.

Although we don’t get typically get snow until November, in many ways winter here in Cordova begins in September (if not August) with monsoon style rains and hurricane force wind. Not easy weather to work in the yard.

As you may remember from my last post, this was the first summer in a long time that I had tried to take on any significant projects, and I definitely bit off more than I could chew. When the weather called a halt to my projects, and the total sum of my summer’s accomplishments became evident, I was forced to accept that I hadn’t gotten even half of what I’d planned to do done.

After the disappointment wore off, I have to admit to a feeling of relief. True I hadn’t fulfilled my great expectations, but I had gotten something done, I had moved forward. And now, with winter setting in, I could finally let go those expectations. After a summer of feeling perpetually, almost frantically behind, I could finally relax.

For the last month I have been stretching with pleasure into the simple routine of playing with kids, cleaning the house, and cooking dinner. The luxurious feeling that nothing of import needs to happen, I can allow my days to be filled by the basic maintenance of family life.

I’ll get bored soon enough. But for now, my kids are reaping the benefits.

With the extra time of early winter, and in the anticipation of it’s long totality, I have been making some good stuff for indoor play. It started with turning the cubby hole under our stairs into The Bat Cave.

bat cave

We all have electronics sitting around unused in a box upstairs, right? We think we need to keep them for later, but really, they are already obsolete. The kids love clomping on this old chattery keyboard, the “monitor” behind it is a framed printout. And the old phone on the right was an instant hit after I spray painted it gold!

With the bat cave under my belt, I was motivated to finally make the indoor “playground” I’ve wanted for years. And it was so easy, I am kicking myself. All I did was nail a good 2×4 up across our wide hall (make sure you nail into studs though!) and hang some ropes down from it. There are two long ropes to hold a swing, and two shorter ropes to hold a hanging bar (which is pulled out of the way in this photo).

indoor playground
The climbing rope, on the right, had been there for awhile, and is no more than rope through an eye bolt. Although the rest of this playground needs an open hallway to make set-up easy, the climbing rope just needs a wall with a findable stud. Check out this youtube for how to make a simple harness.

I cut two sizes of 2×4 for the swing seats, so that there can be someone swinging and someone using the hanging bar, or move the ropes about a bit and fit in the two-kid swing for extra fun.

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After the thrill of an indoor playground leveled out, I made this play kitchen out of a big cardboard box. I was surprised at how excited the kids were, my 4YO boy couldn’t stop gushing and he played on it for hours that first day.

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And yes, my boy likes to wear pink and purple striped tights. A lot. Gotta problem with that? He also turns everything which can be held in his hands into a gun, including his penis, so I’m sure he’s quite healthy.

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Turns out, I miss this place. I went on for many months quite happily without the computer. Working on my farm projects. Summer was banner this year, and my plate was manically full. But somewhere around July, I started to itch for writing. A place and a way to express my thoughts, to communicate all the stuff that crowds my head. Ears who care to listen.

Now, don’t go creaming yer panties, I’m not coming back here on a regular basis. But, maybe just a quickie now and then, in the laundry room.

Besides, I have some important addendums to the inherent subject matter of Apron Stringz. My life as a ‘mama who likes to get shit done’ continues to evolve, and it seems wrong to leave off when new discoveries are being made.

Not that I have come to any conclusions. As usual the farther I get into it, the more confusled I become. Certainly nothing has become clear to me, in my absence from blogging. I have not come back to share brilliant epiphanies. But that’s why you love me right? For laying bare the absolute bewilderment of life and loving?

I do have one particular thing to say, the thing that has made me come back, an admission.

For the record– it didn’t work.

This whole ‘yielding to motherhood and the inglorious work of housewifery’ thing, it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it worked for a while, gave me some peace when I needed it most. Allowed me to survive a period of intensity that otherwise might have destroyed me. I still recommend it, wholeheartedly. If you can manage it, submitting to the humble task of motherhood is a strangely liberating experience.

I just want to make sure you understand the further evolution of that story. Although I cultivated it successfully for a few years, as soon as the life-or-death necessity for submission had worn off, I abandoned it like a leaky rubber boot. I went straight back to my old ways– taking on way too much for someone with small children, trying to do it all, wanting it all with an almost debilitating lust, then beating myself up for failing on all accounts.

Part of that is just summer in Alaska. It all happens so fast. It’s winter and winter and winter, and then all of a sudden– BAM. It’s summer and it’s going to be over before you can finish even half the projects on your list, so hurry the fuck up!

But I can’t just blame summer. There’s more to the story.

Six years ago now, we had our first baby. I slowly and painfully began to set aside my own projects and passions for the all-encompassing work of motherhood. Two years into it, we moved to New Orleans, My Man went to law school, and we had our second baby. Enter the Submission Phase, blah, blah, blah. I gave up on accomplishing anything of consequence, outside of raising up two beautiful new souls. I didn’t submit easily, in fact it was emotionally akin to amputating both legs. But I did it– I put my own, separate, non-mama path on hold for a few years. I relegated my passions and what I consider my real work to ‘charming hobby’ status.

Then My Man finished school. Moving back to Alaska was something of an anti-climax because even though I was back in my own home turf, surrounded by my previous years’ work on our little property, My Man was studying harder than ever for the Bar. Time and energy were still too tight for me to take back up those passions in any meaningful capacity. So, I squelched them back down and screwed the lid on once again.

Our little backyard homestead lay in a state of dormancy, fertile soil covered in a dense blanket of weeds. It would have to wait.

My mind lay similarly neglected. After years of fighting for each little scrap, I had acquired a resident apathy. I could hardly remember what I might care to do with myself, should I ever have time to do anything in. As someone who had been vehemently motivated to do cool stuff, before I had kids, the apathy was perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.

But, here we were– back home in my chosen context, with all the things I claimed to care about around me. And that is when my greatest fear of all surfaced. What if I had just changed? What if I didn’t care about homesteading and wilderness and harvesting anymore? What then? What would I care about if not that?

This is the identity crisis which I alluded to in my few posts last summer, but never had the guts to write about. I was terrified. I had built my entire life around this homesteader dream, the possibility of it’s loss was haunting.

Our girl started kindergarten that fall. Suddenly I had just one kid again, for half of every day. The desperation of mothering two littles began to ease. I had finally settled back into Alaska. My Man passed the Bar, and started working. At long last, the 3YO began to sleep through the night and into the morning, allowing me a good night’s sleep and an hour or two of quiet solitude at the beginning of each day. I took a deep, wonderful breath.

My mind opened tentatively into that extra space, like a hermit crab poking out of it’s shell. Is it safe? Is there really room for me again?

It was at that moment in time, serendipitously, that I discovered permaculture. I was ripe and ready, it was exactly what I needed. Knowledge! Learning! Permaculture was the next step to everything I had done before I had kids– an advanced course in gardening and homesteading. I was consumed, like a hot, teenage crush. It was so exciting to be excited again. Even now, when I hear the intro song to Thomas the Train (which allowed me many an hour to sit around learning) I feel a wave of giddy joy.

And that is when I realized that I had not changed at all. I had not lost my love for all things which grow from the soil, and a life which relates to wild nature. Rather, my lust for learning had just been squashed by too many loads of laundry, I had had too many attempts to try something new crushed into the ground by a screaming toddler. I had given up.

I had tried for graceful submission, but in the end had settled into apathetic resignation. Not towards my life as a whole, but certainly towards my personal passions and ambitions.

I still believe that graceful submission would be a beautiful thing. I did hit it for small moments, and they were good and sweet. I don’t begrudge the resignation either, it is acceptable to me on a short term basis. It served me well when I needed it.

I was so thrilled to find my own spark still alive, so relieved that it was (conveniently) still flaring in the same general direction, that I hardly cared whether it had been submission or resignation or what. I flung my painstakingly acquired good mom habits out the window and set right into ignoring my kids in the name of backyard homesteading.

I weeded out three years’ worth of creeping buttercups and planted all my old garden beds. I started teaching classes, something I had always wanted to, in bread making, gardening and wild plants. I butchered, packaged and froze two black bears given me by a local guide. I started making herbal medicine. I picked gallons of wild blueberries. But, most significantly, before summer had even begun, I ordered fifty chicks and ducklings thereby turning my nice little gardens into a full fledged small farm.

I ordered the birds while there was still snow on the ground. I had spent the winter drawing up a totally awesome permaculture design for our property, and had convinced myself on paper that I could build an addition to my coop which would quadruple it’s size, before the chicks grew out of their brooder.

I had forgotten that I was in fact still a mama! You can throw the ole’ submission idea out the window, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Well, I’m sure they noticed something. Like the fact that I had stopped taking them to kid activities around town, stopped doing crafts with them, stopped reading stories in the middle of the day, and started a hell of a lot more yelling.

It wasn’t all bad. There were some absolutely amazing days, the kind of days I imagined motherhood would be– working outside building the coop, or digging in the garden; a little pack of kids ranging around between our yard and our neighbors, happily playing in the sunshine with sticks. Brilliant days, which I did have the good sense to stop and appreciate, recognizing these moments as the best of the best, what I had always hoped my life would be like.

I don’t regret my regression back into project-land. Mamas busy with projects are a good thing. But there’s busy and then there’s too busy. I do regret ordering fifty birds. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have simply doubled my flock, like a normal person, just dabbled in raising meat birds; but no, I needed to quintuple my flock so that I could put a year’s worth of birds in the freezer, and still have several different laying breeds left to trial.

The stress of all those animals under my care, inadequately housed (barely better off than factory farmed birds for a while there) gave me actual belly cramps during the month of June. I just couldn’t build fast enough. It seemed like I managed to nail up about two boards/day.

At any rate, here I am now, at the end of it. A nice big pack of roasters in my freezer, and a beautiful flock of laying hens and ducks. I am learning new things, evolving my homesteading skills, moving forward on my path again.

Occasionally I miss those days when I just let taking the kids on an outing, doing laundry and making dinner be enough. I am still often jealous of the mamas who can sustain that kind of devotion. But I am not that mama. For me, submission was a temporary helpmate.

And for you other mamas out there who used to like to get shit done, who now feel your own passions numbed by motherhood, understand that you can submit for a few years and still resurface intact at the end of it. It might take some time to wake your mind and passions back up, but don’t be frightened by a little apathy. When the time comes, your spark will reignite.

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Despite my absence here for the last month and a half, I have not been master goddess of my domestic realm. I am always surprised when I take a break from blogging, I mean you’d think that the extra 1-2 hours per day would get me something. And of course it does, it gets me a slower pace of life, a calm that I do appreciate when I can manage to acknowledge it. But it does not get me a cleaner house or happier children. At this very moment (and most others) the kitchen is a mess, the table is stacked with four loads of clean laundry waiting to be put away, the floors are disgusting, and I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner. I feel that depthless falling feeling lately. The list, by which I mean The List, is miles long and filled with projects like “replace linoleum in the kitchen,” “put up the year’s worth of salmon,” “rebuild collapsed woodshed roof,” and subsequently “cut and stack five cords of firewood for the winter.”

And I can’t even get the fucking laundry put away.

The disappointment of times like this always starts me to grasping for a cure, and lately my obsession has been the Waldorf concept of Rhythm. The idea is that a flexible but regular schedule is essential for children; that knowing, generally, how their days will unfold gives them a sense of peace and stability.

Duh.

One of the things I hate about parenting dogmas is how impervious they are to differences in personality. Although I think a predictable schedule is generally agreed to be good for kids, I suspect there are kids who will never adapt to a schedule and furthermore don’t need to, as well as kids who’s lives could be turned around by a strong rhythm. Those are the kids who thrive on Waldorf, and “prove” the success of the ideology.

What I am realizing lately is that I was one of those kids, who’s need for a predictable, peaceful and quiet daily routine was never satisfied as a child. And as happens in a developing brain when a need is unmet, I am consequently malformed.

I have always had a near obsession with routine and yet an inability to actually execute it to any satisfying degree. I need it because I didn’t get it as a child, but I don’t know how to do it, because I didn’t get it as a child. My journals are always studded with multiple attempts to corral the chaos of my days. Literally,

“Summer Schedule
6:00 wake up, coffee
7:00 breakfast
7:30 walk
9:00 outside chores”
etc, etc.

I write it all out, earnestly believing every time that the mere act of writing will create the calm rhythm and self disciplined schedule I crave. Later I am convinced that it hasn’t worked because I just haven’t gotten it right, haven’t divined the Perfect Schedule. Inviting yet another attempt.

That’s me– forever believing that there is a formula for perfection. Not universal, but personal to me. If only I could figure it out.

Having kids of my own I have only stepped up this madness. Desperate for a handle on life, I feel sure that I am just missing something. If I could just get the kids to eat right, they wouldn’t have these stubborn screaming fits. If I could just get the house clean and stay on top of it, we would all feel so much more calm and relaxed. If the 2yo would just consistently sleep enough at night. If I got the kids enough exercise and peer play every day. If… If….

And then the kingpin– If only I could get us on a schedule, then I would (magically) have time to fit all this in to every single day.

Then, then! Life would be all soft watercolors and silk scarves. Hallelujah.

Looking around online for Waldorf rhythm is excessively discouraging. The blogshine that I always rail against is rampant in the Waldorf crowd. One that I read this morning went on for an entire post about their morning ritual of waking softly, lighting candles and singing morning songs and how sweet and perfect it all was. Well, perfect pink wool felting mothers of the world, damn you if you’re lying, and damn you more if you’re not.

I started this post weeks ago, in the midst of an obsession. Now as I come back to finish what seems worth finishing, I am trying to divine the lesson. Did I learn something? I do in fact feel like in the last few weeks I created some kind of order in my universe– the house is clean, the laundry is caught up, the kids are happy. But as usual, in retrospect, I find myself wondering if I created that order and peace, or if it created itself.

Do I follow a pattern of sinking to the bottom and then pulling myself up by the bootstraps? Or does life follow a pattern of chaos and hard times, which lead inevitably to a relative peace and better times? Or is it (more likely) both? Do we feed off of each other, me and life, and oh– don’t forget the kids, in their own two separate cycles.

Waldorf appeals to my depressed self because it is based on the premise that if you do everything “right” (and they’ll tell you how) your life and your children will be sweet and quiet. It taps directly into my innate compulsion to believe that there is a Perfect Way, I just have to figure out what it is. It feeds heavily on my propensity for mama-guilt, because if my life is not so perfectly sweet and quiet, it is my own fault. I have failed myself and my family.

Like any religion, it takes a human being in their weakened state of sad, disappointed confusion, and props them up on the idea that there is a prescribed way out. Just follow the master plan, and it will all be taken care of. The idea that there is in fact an underlying order, a secret to life, is so incredibly seductive to us. We want so desperately to believe, to be Believers.

For whatever cosmic reason, me and the kids were at a real low. I was desperate, I was vulnerable. I delved into the ‘rhythm as panacea’ concept, even started doing a Waldorf circle time with the kids every afternoon. I summoned my will and attempted to implement a stronger routine than what we already had. I checked out Over the Rainbow Bridge from the library. I berated myself appropriately over their movie watching, the overflow of plastic toys and my own yelling mad self. (This last one works wonders– beat yourself up about being a mean mom. Just see how sweet it makes you. Wow. It was from this place of yelling at myself for yelling at the kids that I told them I wanted to chain them up so I could just please fucking carry the fucking groceries the two blocks up the fucking hill to our house.)

The problem, for me at least, is that feeding the belief in achievable order interferes with the work I really need to be doing. Accepting the chaos.

Submitting.

Shit, there it is again. Not submitting to motherhood this time. But submitting to life. The universe. Everything. The greater-than-me. The things I can never know, and never understand. The mystery. Submitting to the fact that I am not ruler of this world, or even my world. There is no plan so perfect that it will tame my wild children. Thank god! My life is not reducible to a calm, clean, quiet procession of handcrafts. It is an uproarious mess of bewilderment and kitchen projects. My kids are LOUD because they are full of piss and vinegar, they run around the house breaking shit because they are full of nearly explosive curiosity for how the world works.

We are movers and shakers, a whole fam damily of them. Our life together is bound to be complex.

I’m not altogether done with the rhythm concept, or Waldorf in general. Of course, just because they have not created The Master Plan doesn’t mean there isn’t some valuable takeaway. Just because a solid rhythm would not singlehandedly create peace on earth, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help create a bit more peace in our own household. Or at the very least, in my own brain.

As usual, I walk a weird line between wholesome organic crafty mama and ranting punk bitch, and it’s sometimes hard to know quite where to set my bags down. I guess my real work in this life is to just be without need to label, to search without need to find, to try without need to master, to take what comes as it comes. Chaos, order, chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, right?

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***While I am packing up our house like a woman possessed, getting our family ready to move across the continent, several generous readers have volunteered to keep you musing. This first guest post is written by Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy. Jasmine in an Alaskan off-grid homesteader (ironically, I do not know her from Alaska but solely from this virtual space). She also writes at her own blog, Bunchberry Farms.***

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You may think I’m crazy when I say this, but its true.  I have been actively talking myself out of having children for a decade.  How old am I, you ask?  I’m twenty six.

Why have I been dissuading myself from ushering new souls into the world for so long?  Because I want them SO DAMN BAD.

I actually give my younger self a lot of kudos for being so responsible.  As a highschooler, while I personally wasn’t sexually active until late in highschool, I had pro-condom bumperstickers on the back of my truck and in my bedroom.  I talked my friends through the process of getting on birth control.  I was decided that if I should ever need to, I would get an abortion rather than become a teenage mom.  And all the while I desperately desired kids.  I would fight the undertow of the longing.  I would find myself insanely jealous of the young single struggling under-advantaged moms that I worked with at my minimum wage part time waitressing gigs.  And periodically I would have to sit down with myself and have a good long chat about what the reality of kids would mean, about how having an underage mom wouldn’t be doing them any favors, and about how I wanted to be able to choose them at a time their nurturance would be my primary endeavor.

I played gypsy for a year, and then I went to college.  And for five years I indulged in academia and theatre.  I knew I didn’t have the time or energy for kids.  I knew that the time would come for being a mom, that that time was not the (then) present.  But I longed.  Oh, how I longed.  And I dreamed.  Oh, how I dreamed.  The dream of the homestead and the dream of the motherhood came to rival each other in depth and intensity.  They became entwined to the point of identity.  My mantra-goal became “Get the land” because once I had the land, the homestead and the kids could and would come.  I plotted and planned and despaired and hoped and leveraged will power and luck and fate and love to get the homestead.  Meanwhile I would read the parenting magazines at the Laundromat, hide “Fit Pregnancy” (the prenatal yoga issues) and “Natural Parenting” magazines in the wait-station at the restaurant, read the latest “Mothering Magazine” and “Midwifery Today” every time I visited my mom.  I would hide in the magazine section at the grocery store and read “Good Housekeeping” and “Real Simple,” skimming past article with potential relevance to where I was at, and instead focusing on the ones that talked about homework and kids organizational strategies, about family dinner plans and how to pack a school lunch.  I rarely babysat because I was always in rehearsal or on stage or waitressing.  I was engaging in the act of living the life-stage I was in while desperately and nearly obsessively longing for and planning the future.  I have always been the queen of ten year plans.  I am not entirely sure it is the healthiest way to live, expending so much energy and thought and time on a future that you are at the same time ensuring is distant from where you are.

Sometime in college I met my Darlin’ Man.  And as soon as we met, certainly as soon as we became serious, I realized that there was no way I could or would ever get the abortion I had always planned on if we accidentally conceived.  This realization scared the shit out me.  I mean, I thrive on planning the future.  The reality of children was always, always something that I knew I would invite into my life when the time was right.  I wished for them NOW, but I knew this.  When I was maybe 3, maybe 4 years old my little sister was a baby.  I have this vivid memory of sitting in my kid-sized rocking chair (the one that is in the attic space at my mother’s house waiting for the next generation along with boxes and boxes of kids books and toys that I’ve been saving all of my life), in the middle of the afternoon, and singing lullabies to my doll.  For hours.  We had this tape of lullabies, English on one side, French on the other – Lullaby Bersuese – and I distinctly remember one specific afternoon repeating and re-listening to the French side at least two if not three times.  Singing along and rocking my doll straight through from afternoon to dusk.  I wanted to memorize it so that when I was a mom I could sing it to my kids without the tape.  Ever since then, I have known, bone deep, that motherhood was something that belonged in my life, that it was something I would choose for myself.  Accordingly, it became the end-goal of every 10 year plan I ever made.  It was there and real and desperately wanted, but was always placed a decade or so away.  Placed out there in the future with a plan in place to ensure it stayed there.  So when I met my Darlin’ Man and realized that if we conceived I would keep the baby, it scared the shit out of me.  It took the concept of motherhood out this plane of planned activity at the perfect time – a place I had put it, and kept it, so that I would not be prematurely tempted – and (re)created it as a  thing that could happen by chance, something that could happen to me and I would do nothing to stop it.  I mean, no kind of birth control is fail-proof right?  And if the idea is that you manifest in your life that which you focus on, kids are an immanent accidental possibility, right?  And that’s scary stuff.  But even while recognizing the absolute havoc that untimed and unplanned kids would have on my life, on our lives, even while rebelling against the mere concept of the active choice being taken away from me – in my deepest self of selves I rejoiced.  I rejoiced because suddenly, miraculously, my most deeply held desire was a possibility.  Because even a 1 in 10,000 chance is a possibility, right?  And if I hit that one in ten thousand jackpot, well,  I could hardly blame myself for accidentally becoming pregnant with my beloved’s child, right?   It wouldn’t be an ill-considered decision, but fate.

And I rejoiced because I knew that the choice of pregnancy and motherhood was really and truly finally within my grasp.  And that scared the shit out of me.  Because if it was something that I finally could choose for myself, why was I not?   If facing the reality of eminence of the mere possibility of kids brought me such joy and relief, why was I avoiding it?  What was I doing with myself?  If I was defining fulfillment as motherhood, and I was denying myself motherhood, then what sort of messed up mind game was I playing with myself?

So I did two things, I sat down with myself and gave myself the permission to savor this pre-kid life for what it is.  There are many things I love about it that I know I will nostalgically savour when my proverbial style is cramped by the minute to minute reality of littles. This life I’m living now is a step along the way but not merely a means to an end.  (Or so I tell myself when I’m not assuring myself that AS SOON as we get enough student loans paid off, I can then get pregnant.  If that’s not a means to an end, I don’t know what is.)    And I asked myself what motherhood really meant to me.  I found that while the essence of motherhood in my soul stands alone and can be applied to or fit within any life scenario I can imagine, my VISION of my future motherhood was pretty specific.  Once, in the early and turbulent portion of our relationship, my Darlin’Man asked me if I knew what my purpose in life was.  I don’t remember the words I chose – I think nurture was one.  But I remember being very careful of what words I used because I knew the answer as clear as day, and I knew that English lacked a single word for the amalgam of creation and nurturing and tending and supporting and healing and reverence that gardening and mothering and animal husbandry and making art and feeding people and giving them medicine and tending their wounds all have in common.  There is a common element, and it is profound and resides in my soul, but I don’t know that there is a word for it.  I thought about all of this and I realized that my vision of my own experience of motherhood was all entwined in my vision of homesteading.  Raising kids and goats and gardens was all one life action for me.  Which meant I better get the set up in place if I wanted to realize that vision.

So I shifted my future focus onto the homestead (and by this I mean I took all of that near-obsessive planning and applied it to small scale agriculture).  I got married.  My mom moved up here in anticipation of being grandma in the not too distant future.  Last summer we bought the homestead.  It needs a lot of work in creating it as a productive home scale agricultural venture.  It craves digging and building and fencing and lots of compost.  But every time I think about a fence line, or the placement of a coop, I think in terms of little hands on latches, little feet in the grass, buoyant laughter echoing, trees for solace of little hearts.  As I think about where the fruit trees and the barn ought to go in relation to a future barn, and maintaining the direct sun on the solar panels, I’m also thinking of swings and climbing trees.

I’m now on the two year plan for getting pregnant and every time I sit with myself and examine my prospective reality of motherhood, it still scares the shit out of me.  In a deep and challenging way, a way that has within it the distillation of the visions of bliss and golden glowing mama-ness.  A way that encapsulates the dreams and the bone deep blood deep voice that knows about children belonging in my life.  A way that is also aware (as aware as one can be without the experience) of the work and the drudgery and the self abnegation and the frustration.  The responsibility and the giving.

And if the prospective reality scares the shit out of me and I still want it with the intensity of a decade’s longing melting into tender humbleness; that must mean I’m getting closer and closer to actually being ready, right?  Are you ever ready?  Probably not.

And the closer my own motherhood draws, the more I find myself open to following the lead of this land, our (future) kids, this life we’re choosing.  The ten year plan has opened to allow me to glimpse possible vistas of twenty and fifty years down the road – it is less rigid and encompasses much more possibility for change.  Which means I might just make it though, right?

                              –Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy, Bunchberry Farms

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My Girl has always been fairly balanced, gender-wise. If I hadn’t had a second baby– a very boy boy whose first words were, respectively, ‘ball’ and ‘truck’– I would have smugly thought that kids just respond to the gender influences around them. My Girl liked fancy dresses and dolls, but no more than anything else. Her pretend play usually centered around some kind of animal family– walruses on an ice flow, baby birds hatching out of their egg. From the comfort of my own situation, I advised my dear friend with a princess-obsessed daughter to just roll with it, allow her daughter to experiment. So long as her real life was filled with strong female role models, she’d be fine in the end. I myself was a very girly little girl. I adored dresses with frills, lace, puffy sleeves and played with B*rbies for years, and look how I turned out. I laughed at my friend for hiding certain dolls and cutting the princess insignia off of gifted play dresses. Her daughter would be fine, she just needed to relax! I felt surprisingly at ease about the whole thing.

Until recently.

There was no pivotal moment, just a steady influx of pink, a steady movement toward all things ‘pretty.’ Now I am suffering the torture of feminists all over our angsty modern world. My daughter wants to be a princess.

There was a scene at the drugstore recently. I don’t often go there, but I needed to get cockroach poison (as the New Orleans summer has heated up, our kitchen has gotten entirely out of hand.) I decided to pre-promise the kids doughnuts, hoping it would make the experience smoother. When we walked in, and all the product hit our eyes at once, My Girl looked up at me and said, “Mama? Can I get something pretty?”

I explained that we only had so much money, but if she wanted to she could get a small something instead of a doughnut. Assuming there would be no contest, assuming doughnuts rule. “Okay!” She said brightly, and started browsing the pretty things. There followed a torturously long episode of me chasing the boy through the aisles and My Girl picking first one thing then another that were too expensive. My eyes seized on a big display of $1 finger nail polish. For some reason I have never had a problem with her using the stuff, it seems so entirely childish to me that I can’t believe grown women wear it without irony. I pointed to the display and suggested that she could get a bottle of sparkly pink fingernail polish.

I hadn’t thought to notice the other item on display.

“Mama! Can I get that stuff that makes your lips a color?” She asked breathlessly.

Oh my god. Lipstick? How did she even know what it was?

She had already had fingernail polish and a little box of eyeshadow that I got out of a give-away box which she applied like face paint. Why did I balk at lipstick? She’s just a little kid playing Fancy Lady, what’s the big deal?

I realized later that even though she probably has only ever seen her grandma apply the stuff, I associate lipstick with looking like a prostitute. I cannot separate lipstick from sex appeal in my mind, and I was suddenly downright terrified that already, at age four, my daughter felt the desire/expectation to look sexy.

So, I told her no. What else could I do? I felt like I had to fight for her life, for the preservation of her childhood.

But My Girl recognizes a fight from ten yards off, and she set in with her own army. She started to cry and wail in almost 2yo fit fashion, except much sadder. In fact, she was tragic. All attempts to distract her towards any other kind of ‘pretty’ item were useless. She said she wanted something she didn’t have already. It sounds silly now, just a little girl trying to get what she wanted. But my heart hurt for her. My head hurt too, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, but regardless any lipstick morality I don’t give in to crying fits. I was trapped.

I ended up telling her that because you put lipstick on your lips, you end up eating a little of it and that the kind at that store wasn’t safe for kids. This was in fact a small part of my hesitation. I could see no entrance point for a conversation about my real fear. As we left the store, finally, some silly unwanted barrets in hand, I had the sinking feeling that I had just made the desire for lipstick an indelible part of her emotional psyche.

Talking this through later with My Man, I came to terms with my over active fear of lipstick. Although I do believe it is undeniable that men find lipstick attractive because it makes the lips look wet and ready, the fact is that it is so normal to wear lipstick in our culture that it has become almost completely dissociated from the underlying sex appeal. In fact, when My Man and I tried to think of who even wears lipstick, the main image was of old ladies with absurdly pink lips and perpetually surprised eyebrows.

The next week, during a trip to Whole Foods, I detoured down the rarely attended cosmetics aisle and picked up a tube of all-natural mineral pigment lipstick. “Look!” I said, handing it to My Girl, “They have lipstick here that’s okay for kids!” I hoped that remembering this all on my own, to her surprise, would somehow redeem me.

Two days later, she lost that $6 tube of all natural red lipstick at a restaurant. She was only vaguely disappointed.

This lipstick event has certainly defined a shift for me, and doubtlessly for her as well. But the overall situation is much bigger. She talks about princesses more and more often, plays princess, picks out insufferable princess books at the library (Disn*y Princess Ballerina? Are you fucking kidding me? That was when I stooped to hiding things under the couch).

Although she has definitely begun to pick up on the subtle cultural determinations of what is and is not ‘pretty,’ and once told me she thought her voice wasn’t pretty enough (be strong, my heart), I have to remember that her definitions are still relatively open. As far as she understands it, ‘princess’ means dressed in a fancy dress. It is purely aesthetic, it is in not otherwise limiting in any way. There is no reason in her mind that a pretty princess cannot slay a dragon with her bare hands, and so far I can still get away with little tricks like suggesting that one princess save the other princess before both attending a celebratory party. There is no subversion like assimilation, right?

I know this issue is just opening for us, and honestly I feel completely terrified. On one hand, I believe all the standard feminist lines about girls being taught to be weak, about the devastations of impossible body image and over-sexualization. On the other hand, I feel like much too much is made of it. As my friend’s husband said once after we’d had a good long bitch session about it, “Why wouldn’t she like princesses? You talk about them all the time. They must be the most interesting things around.” I know that restricting something is the best way to increase it’s appeal. As the mama of a red-headed firecracker, I know that starting a fight, on any level, is always a bad idea. Even more importantly, I know we need to step back and let our girls discover the world, on their own terms, and respect who they choose to be in it. Kids are constantly experimenting. The world outside exerts plenty of influence on them, but I believe nothing will ever strike as deep as the home and family they come from.

Obviously I’m going to have to get over my fear that she can’t handle it. How better to communicate to My Girl that I have faith in her as a strong and powerful growing woman than to believe that she will find her way through the princess maze?

Now that I think about it, she is one hell of a force of nature. I wonder where she gets that from?

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A good friend lamented recently about her kids’ lack of contact with any kind of real wilderness. This city has some beautiful parks and gorgeous landscaping, but untouched nature? Not so much. Louisiana at large has a decent share of relatively raw wilderness, but it’s swamp, accessible only by boat or chest waders and a burly fearlessness of alligators. Not exactly the kind of place you can bring the kids to of a Saturday afternoon.

Her kids are little, as are mine, and I surprised myself by launching into a diatribe about how little kids don’t need wilderness. Me– Alaska Woods Woman– defending the lack of wilderness?

The conversation stuck in my brain for the rest of the week as I tried to tease out the details of such an unexpected opinion.

in Alaska the kids played with dirt and rocks

here they play with dirt and rocks

I believe that part of our patriarchal heritage is an over-obsession with Big Important things, and a tendency to disregard or even disgrace things which are small and humble. That’s the premise of this whole blog really– recognizing the value in the small-scale, the influence of each individual home.

Likewise, I think our Big Important Brains tend to overlook the everyday small wildernesses around us. We don’t think it qualifies unless there are black bears or ancient redwoods or unscalable mountains. But consider an ant hill at the park– what wild nature unleashed! Consider the wind shushing in the rows of planted trees, a thunderstorm heedless of a whole city’s urgent traffic needs. Consider the explosive cockroach population in my very own kitchen. No matter where you are, there is the natural world. She is so yielding, so subtle, so humble that she completely conquers everything.

And I will tell you a secret. Kids know. Especially little kids. They don’t need big tracts of protected wilderness because they are still wild themselves. Until we beat it out of them, kids still recognize wilderness on an intimate scale everywhere. Have you been for a walk with a one year old recently? If not, go now. Borrow a toddler if you have to. They are a lesson we need to take, over and over again. Kids are incredibly receptive to nature, until quite old really, but especially when they have just learned to walk and before we drill the ethics of speed and efficiency into their wild little brains. They stop to consider each new thing, experiencing the world in rich, unhurried detail. A stick is utterly captivating. An insect climbing the rough bark of a tree? Breathtaking!

The hard part for us is allowing them to interact with that intimate wilderness. How often do you let your kids set the pace on a walk? I can hardly manage to circumnavigate our block at their pace, which can take more than an hour. Have you ever tried to take your kids for a walk and had them get stuck just outside the gate? Come on already! How interesting can it be, it’s still our own goddamned yard!

Even if you recognize the essential and enduring value of their natural discoveries, it is nearly impossible for us to slow down to their sauntering wild animal speed. But that speed, or the lack of speed actually, is key to reverencing wilderness on an appropriate, sustainable level. We need to slow ourselves down, open our souls to whatever wild world happens to be in front of us, believe in the importance of the miniscule.

And I guess this is why I bristled at the idea that kids need wilderness. Not because I don’t fully understand the visceral satisfaction of watching my kids interact with an untouched natural landscape. I won’t lie– I am really looking forward to bringing them back to Alaska. But because I think the whole concept negates their particular power, which we instead need to exalt! Kids are our emissaries to the wild world. We just have to open the gate and let them out.

It is very hard when you live in a city, I can attest to that. Especially at that most receptive age of just-learned-to-walk. They seem magnetically drawn to a.) the street or b.) someone else’s porch. There is such a narrow strip of land we are allowed to frolic in, in cities. Parks are great of course, lots of open space for uninhibited exploration. But there is something I think particularly valuable about just opening your door and walking straight on into adventure, even if that adventure is only 5 feet wide.

You don’t need to read books or get professional advice on this matter (unless you have an older kid who’s been reared on chips and tv…) The expert is your own child. I would venture to guess that no matter where you live, the most remote wilderness homestead or inner city block, if you allow your kids access to the outside world they will find all on their own:

  • dirt
  • rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • flowers
  • water
  • bugs
  • squirrels
  • birds

Does the backdrop matter? Do they internalize the angular structure of houses and power lines vs the organic pattern of mountains and forests? Maybe. I do think exposure to pure, untouched wilderness becomes more and more important as they get older and their vision opens out. But unless you are going to live in that untouched place (making it therefore “touched”) these experiences will always be anecdotes to their otherwise life. Short my personal fantasy of post-industrial return to aboriginal life, we are going to have to work this shit out in the cities and suburbs of our modern world. We are going to have to open our minds and hearts, and work to see nature wherever we are.

Better yet, let’s just stand back and let our kids show us the way.

Related Post: Kid-Walks

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Speaking of removing external suggestion to allow your child’s authentic self to blossom, let’s talk toys.

I’ve been thinking about toys ever since the first ones started arriving in the mail, 3 months before the due date of my first child. When I was despairing the already accumulating stores of kid stuff, my mother-in-law said something to the effect of, “Oh, someday your whole house will be strewn with Fisher Price. And you know what? You’ll love it.”

Actually, almost five years in, I don’t love it. I love having my kids home with me, I love watching them explore the world and I adore watching the development of their independent play. Certainly, I have come to appreciate the relief and redirection of a well-timed gaudy plastic noisemaker, but overall I consider toys an entirely overdone pain in my ass.

a basket of questionably necessary toys, waiting to get dumped on the floor

Do kids need toys? I honestly don’t believe they do. Well, let me re-phase that. I don’t believe they need purchased items which were designed solely to be toys. In the dynamic environment of the DIY household, kids will make toys out of anything and everything. Often, even when there are myriad designated toys littering the floor, my kids will be running around playing with a piece of cardboard and a tin can.

That said, we have tons of toys. My Man is a sucker for making the kids squeal with glee, and that’s the bang you get for your new toy buck. Even I sometimes fall prey to thrifted plastic junk just to see those first 10 minutes of toylove. Doting grandparents have contributed a mighty pile as well. In our culture you have to be a hard-edged grinch not to accumulate toys.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone takes in more toys than their kids’ need. The question is what you do with them after that 10 minute honeymoon has worn off?

I used to keep all the toys, and right down at kid level. I hated that passive-aggressive mom trick of giving stuff to the Goodwill when no one was looking, and I figured what’s the point of having it if I keep it hidden away in a closet?

I still hate the covert Goodwill trick, but I have absolutely had to stoop to it. You can only pick up so many toys off of the floor, over and over and over and over again. I started by filling up boxes and keeping them in the closet. They weren’t permanently exiled, just saved for a rainy day. When I would take one down, the kids would have a guaranteed 15-20 minutes of blissful toy reunion. When the thrill wore off again, I would put the box back up. I highly recommend this.

Lots of good creative toys like Leggos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, etc drive me completely insane if left accessible to the kids, though that’s the way I did it for ages. It appears that my kids’ favorite game to play with anything in the ‘many small pieces all contained in a box’ category is dumping out the box. A top favorite with Leggos in particular (they make such a great big noise!) is to then swish your hands in the pile really fast so that the pieces fly out into a completely distributed 12 foot radius. I was beginning to really hate those cheerfully colored plastic blocks. Then I finally realized that if the pieces are scattered helter-skelter across the house, they can never play with it anyway and really what’s the point?

That’s when I started keeping the Leggos, and all those ‘many small pieces’ toys, up on a high shelf. The shelf is in our girl’s room, and open to view but too high for little people to reach. We take the box down once every few weeks and, miraculously, our relationship with Leggos has been remade. Not being a part of their daily landscape, the kids see them in a new light. They appreciate them more for what they were actually made for—building stuff. And I happily learned that cleaning up Leggos as soon as their play session had dissolved (don’t wait too long, a stitch in time saves nine!) is easily done with a dustpan.

Puzzles are my pet peeve. For some reason puzzles are considered unanimously desirable. People were giving us puzzles before our first was even born. They’re made out of wood and educational, right? Surely us greenie NPR hippies would like them. Every kid play space that’s worth anything has a whole stack of puzzles. And what do kids under the age of 3 do with a stack of puzzles? Systematically dump each one out on the floor and then immediately lose interest so that you, the adult, has to put them all back together.

I’m 34 years old, I don’t want to spend my time putting together motherfucking farm animal puzzles.

There’s nothing inherently evil about puzzles, but they need adult supervision. If given one puzzle at a time, some 2yos will maintain the focus and desire it takes to put it together. By 3 they are starting to have a real interest, but I still don’t see the point of owning puzzles because once a kid has done the same puzzle 5 or 6 times, they are done. Understandably, they have mastered it and want to move on. Many good libraries have puzzles to lend, if your kid likes them.

My other pet peeve is single use toys. Things which have only one way to play with. In a great decluttering post recently Kyce mentioned having given ‘play food’ the boot, and I’m with her all the way. My girl was always very good at disregarding whatever the intended use was and just using any toy as a prop for her self-created play, but then why bother with those specific toys in the first place? Our kid kitchen has been through several reincarnations over time, but lately it’s come down to just a small stainless steel mixing bowl, a small skillet—both thrifted—a kid sized rolling pin, a collection of animal shaped cutters, and a big tub of homemade playdough.

So, I hate puzzles and play food, and can barely tolerate Leggos. What toys do I like?

I like the toys that I see the kids actually play with (not just dump on the floor) the most often, and the ones that require no parental assistance or supervision. Here’s a list of my favorites:

Figurines— both animals and people, they use these every day. Our boy will also use trains and trucks like figurines, carrying them around and treating them like animate objects.

Building sets—as much as they can get on my nerves, I do like the way they work kids’ brains. Like a puzzle that you design yourself. My Man got a wonderful set of magnetic building pieces, flat squares and triangles with magnetic edges, that have become one of my favorite purchased toys of all time. Babies love them because of the satisfying way that they click together and will just hold two of them clicking together and apart for quite some time. As they get older they can use them in ever-more complex ways, starting with flat, floor based patterns and building up to awesome 3D structures. They are also easy to clean up because they click right together.

Collecting and carrying devices—I’ve recently realized that not all kids are like this, but our girl adores anything she can put other things into. Bags, boxes, basket, buckets. As long as it has a handle. She puts together a seemingly random assortment of items and then carries it around. This was one of the first ways that I remember her playing, and she still does it all the time. I don’t really understand what she’s doing, but I understand that she likes it.

Playdough—we make our own so we never have to get our panties in a bunch about mixing the colors or leaving the lid off. When it’s all brown or dried out we just make up a new batch.

want to kick it up a notch? i have one word for you: glitter. glitter and playdough were made for each other, i just can't believe that it took me two years of playdough making to figure that out.

Art supplies—I keep the bulk of our art supplies in a closet. We break out the paints maybe once every couple of weeks. I buy big bottles of blue, red, yellow and white and then use a Styrofoam egg carton to mix up more colors. Crayons have never taken off at our house, colored pencils are tolerated, but pens and markers are the clear favorites. Since the 4yo learned how to control a pen, she has become quite prolific and so I leave the basic drawing stuff out for constant access. The house is scattered with little notebooks and random scraps of paper. It’s really awesome to see what she draws with her budding skills. I also have to put in a little plug for scissors. We got our girl a pair before she was even two. If you get the kid-safe kind, with the chunky rounded ends, there’s not too much damage they can do, and they just love cutting things up! I think it must give them a real sense of power to make a big piece of paper into lots of little pieces.

Kids’ Table—this is perhaps a given, but not to be underestimated. We have built up over time to one in each room!

Hidey Hole—some kind of tent, playhouse or kid sized space is almost always a win. We used to have a plain sheet stapled at the top to the wall and held out at the bottom by the edge of a bookshelf. They loved it. Then last Christmas I got them an Invent a Tent and although I’m not that happy about how well it’s held up, it has gotten lots of use and love. I guess a few broken pieces are to be expected.

the invent a tent configured as a bow picker (fishing boat)

Rocking Horse—our girl adored her big plush rocking horse when she was 2, it was one of those expensive items I would never have bought, but My Man splurged on it and time proved it’s worth. I got a cheaper one down here for the boy’s second birthday, but he hasn’t given it the time of day…

Now what about toys that aren’t toys? In some ways, there’s no point listing them, if you give your kids access to the (safe parts of) the household, they will pick out their own favorites. But I do find it’s good to remind myself just how much fun kids have with these most simple household items:

  • string, buy several rolls at once so you won’t have to be stingy
  • rope
  • tape, I have a friend who bought a case of cheap tape for her daughter’s birthday
  • kitchenware (our bottom cabinets get unloaded all the time)
  • laundry baskets
  • recycling (plastic bottles, etc)
  • cardboard boxes
  • coins

she played with this cooling rack on a string for at least 20 minutes

And what about the outside world? Oh my, that is another topic altogether! But I simply cannot leave the humble ‘stick’ out of this post. I heard it was finally given a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. Not to mention leaves for stomping and piling! Trees for climbing! Rocks, sand and water! All absolutely irresistible to kids of all ages, and not to be underestimated.

So, you’re convinced. Kids don’t need toys, certainly not near so many as we give them. But what to do about it? Can you actually get rid of them? Won’t someone call child protective services?

The first time I went on a major decluttering spree, I felt guilty. I worried. I kept all the toys I gleaned in a box in the closet in case anyone asked after them. Each time I’ve grown bolder, taking more and more toys away with each sweep. I keep watching to see if I’ll hit up against a wall where the kids don’t have enough left and get restless.

Nope.

The 4yo does occasionally ask for a toy that’s been boxed, and I happily drag it out for her. Once in a while she wants something that I’ve given away. But, for the most part, out of sight = out of mind.

Even with all of my decluttering binges, I still feel like we have way too many toys. I still think kids should (and would) be happy with just a stick, a bucket and piece of rope. But we aren’t living squirreled away in a log cabin in the Alaskan bush, we are quite firmly seated in the modern world. Toys are everywhere, and I only have so much say over the running of our household (25% of the vote if we are being fair) so I try to let it go.

Let it go, clean up the mess, and hide whatever I can get away with.

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Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

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I started this two part series last month with a post about different types and brands of diapers. I asked for y’all to opinionate about the subject, and wow did I ever get schooled! In retrospect, I realize that I am completely unqualified to instruct on the matter. I have been a very haphazard cloth diaperer, as you are about to see. Fortunately I have y’all to back me up and I invite a repeat here: please leave your seasoned advice in the comments.

So, prospective cloth diaperer, here you are. You researched and deliberated and considered and then spent a small fortune on diapers (or you got lucky and were given hand me downs, like me). Your new babe has emerged, the midwives have gone home and you are wondering how this whole thing works.

Someone left a comment on the other post saying that you should allow yourself disposables for the first month. Give yourself time to adjust to everything. I think this is good advice. For one thing, it’s hard to get a cloth diaper not to rub on that stub of cord, plus a newborn’s narrow little butt just doesn’t fill out a diaper very well. My only reservation with this advice would be that routine sets in fast, and if you are at all worried about your staying power with cloth, it might be better to just start out right– like learning to drive on a stick shift.

But no, not like learning to drive a stick, because learning to drive a stick is hard! Cloth diapering is easy. I want to start out by telling you how I started out. Because I was gifted all my diapers, no one ever told me how to clean them. Consequently (and combined with my generally lassez faire washing style) I just threw those suckers in on whatever temperature the washer happened to be set at, with a regular quantity of detergent. Including the poopies for the first few baby-milk months. Yes, that’s right, poop and all, straight into the washer. They came out fine.

Over the course of 4 1/2 years of cloth diapering, my methods have changed very little. I got a sprayer (more on that in a minute) and started using less detergent. Otherwise, I am still extremely… err, shall we say, loose in my methods. I am telling you this because if washing cloth diapers seems intimidating, I want you to know that it can be done with very little effort, knowledge or terminology.

Having said that, I am about to pontificate on the subject something heavy. But before I get into it I want to tell you a funny story.

Coincidentally since writing that first post, our extremely generous neighbors who gave us our last best diapers gave us another enormous bag of new model Bum Genius. They used these diapers for two years and they look fucking brand new. I mean literally, the only evidence of use was that the velcro was wearing a bit. Otherwise pristinely white. I’m convinced this is partly due to their perfect kid, one of those infuriating babies who never cries, sleeps 12 hours a night without waking plus a two hour nap, and would sit on the potty during her (predictably early and effective) potty training months for up to one solid hour. Just sit there looking at books! While her mom was in the other room! We are talking about a barely 2yo! Unbelievable, almost freakish. And apparently her poop does not stain diapers at all, ever.

However, I do have to grudgingly admit that the pristine quality of those diapers might also be due to the fact that her parents followed the cleaning instructions faithfully. One wash on cold with a bare smidge of detergent, followed by a wash on hot, plus occasional mild bleaching. And they always sprayed the poopies immediately and very thoroughly, because their house is not a chaotic shambles with feral children swirling at their feet, wherein one might not get the opportunity to use such a fun looking device to spray poop into the toilet at any given moment.

Ahem. I am getting ahead of myself. I am rambling. About diapering! This is the true sign of my fall, friends.

Let’s start over.

Setting Up Your Diaper Area

When I was a new mama and so horrified by the idea of being Taken Over, I resisted the diaper changing table like it was Beelzebub. My wise mother-in-law kept trying to convince me and I was certain she was trying to crush my spirit. We changed on the floor for ages. And really, it worked fine when I was young and perky and my back still felt invincible.

Here’s the real deal with your changing area. It doesn’t need to be a changing table, it doesn’t even need to be a table, the floor is fine if your back is still good. What it does need is to be set up.

A good set up is not complicated at all. You just need dedicated space for everything– your clean diapers, wipes at very easy access, a bucket with a lid for dirties, and a very small trash bin (it’s really worth it to get the kind that you can open with your foot). The gear is simple, but having a good dose of organization in this area will keep the poop emergencies at bay. Believe me, there will be some times when you would give your right foot to have what you need, when you need it.

One of my best tricks is to sprinkle my diaper bucket liberally with baking soda to help keep the odor down. After emptying the load of dirties into the washer I rinse the last batch of soda out (it helps wash the bucket too) and sprinkle on fresh stuff pretty thickly. It’s no miracle, but it does help.

Now, the question on every new mamas mind:

What about the shit?

Baby’s first few months of pooping are surprisingly inoffensive. Like I said, I would just throw the whole thing in the washing machine and walk away. Those were some of my gladdest moments in life regarding machines. Sadly, once the baby-milk phase wears off and little tiger starts to beg real food off of your plate (or, as a good friend says, “they’re old enough to eat solid food when they’re old enough to crawl around under the table and forage for it for themselves”) you will find your babe’s poop starts to get much less…. umm… innocuous. And much more… umm… chunky. You’ll know for sure the ‘drop it in the washer and walk away’ method has come to an end when you start pulling out ‘clean’ diapers with rehydrated raisins clinging to them.

When that happened to me, I set up a seperate bucket for poopy diapers and then on wash day I would soak them for an hour or so to loosen the poop, swish them around to get the chunks off, then pull them out dripping and throw them into the washer with the others. Then I’d dump the shit water down the toilet. After several months of just steeling my stomach against the job, I finally realized that no one was going to dock my hard-core points if I used a goddamned pair of rubber gloves. Things went a bit easier after that.

But still, as a bi-weekly chore, it was a drag. I guess some folks have toddlers who shit nice little logs that just “shake off” into the toilet. But my kids vascilated between loose chunks and sticky tar, neither of which “shakes off.”

By baby number two, I’d made a wonderful discovery. Toilet sprayers. It’s a simple little device that hooks right into your toilet’s intake hose. I blogged about it when I first got it, waaaay back in the early days of Apron Stringz. It cost me $50 and was very easy to install, if you have the extra money, I would highly recommend one.

It takes a little while to get used to using the sprayer, and chances are high you might take a hit in the face while you’re still learning. But it gets drastically easier over time, and now I find it very easy to spray each diaper down, right there in the toilet bowl where city poop is supposed to go, before dumping the diaper into the dirties bucket.

I do wish our changing area was at least adjacent to the bathroom though, because transport is a catching point. I usually squeeze the diapers out good over the toilet and then pretend that they don’t ever drip on the way to the changing room.

One last plug for the toilet sprayer: This is a multi-purpose tool. If your bathroom is set up right, you can use it to spray out the tub! It is awesome! Even better, if you like me, never knew what to do with the toilet brush after scrubbing the toilet (shouldn’t it be rinsed? Where? In the bathtub? That seems disgusting. In the fresh water that refills into the toilet bowl? That seems inadequate.) you can just spray the shit out of that sucker right over the toilet bowl with your high pressure sprayer. It feels good.

And when potty training comes along, the sprayer makes quick work of cleaning the little kid potty. I don’t even know how people do it without.

Wipes

All the cool people use cloth wipes. I tried it too, in the beginning. I cut up all those extra receiving blankets, and sewed the edges like a good girl. I used them for a few weeks and then gave it up, I just couldn’t get the logistics. I’ve read some people keep a spray bottle next to the wipes bin, others take a few wipes to the sink to wet them first. The first I found ineffective, unless the wipe was completely wet, it didn’t wipe to my standards. The second was just awkward, our bathroom being on the other side of the house from the changing area. Even when perfectly wetted, the cloth wipes just never did the job near so good as the disposables. Probably, like everything else, it has to do with the kind of poop your baby makes. Did you read the part about the tar?

I do think you should give cloth wipes a try if you can. They might work for you, many people love them. For a ‘free trial,’ just rip up a receiving blanket, don’t worry about sewing the edges until you know you like it.

Washing Diapers

Get ready. You are going to be doing a lot of it. Even if you had enough diapers, you can’t just let them sit around dirty for more than 3 days, 4 tops if the weather is very cool. That means diaper loads at least 2x/week.

I wash diapers solo, I don’t put anything else in, even though there’s plenty of room. Despite everything you’ve just read about my slovenly habits, combining diapers with clothes seems gross. And even though a 3 day batch of diapers is really a ‘small’ load, I run it on ‘medium’ anyway, I figure the extra water helps get the vortex going and flush out the nasties. I use a small amount of detergent, though I have used regular quantities in the past. It’s very hard to hold back on the soap when you’ve just dumped all that stink in there. But apparently detergent is part of what wears diapers out over time, as well leaving a residue that gums up the soaking ability of the fabric. So, go light. Very, very light I am told. When the reek of ammonia just about knocks you flat, and your hand quivers to fill the measuring cup all the way to the top, have faith! It will all work out in the wash, even with a 1/8th quantity of soap. (As an eye opener, I urge you to try washing a load with no soap at all, just once. I did, and I was shocked at how almost completely clean they were.)

Now, those fancy pants Bum Geniuses that I just got instruct you to wash once on cold, no soap, then once on hot with a spare smidge of soap, then run an extra rinse cycle, and then once a month, follow by a wash cycle on cold with a weak bleach solution. Jesus H Christ, what do they think we are doing with our lives, sitting on the washing machine all day getting our rocks off?

But, like I said, fucking pristine. So maybe I should take heed.

I can’t. I’ve been running them once, on cold just like I did before. But! I did learn a key thing in the comments on that last post, and I will pass it on to any of you who are similarly ignorant. Several folks mentioned that when their diapers weren’t absorbing properly, they just needed to be “stripped” and then all was right again. On further investigation I found out that when you usually wash on just cold like me, you must occasionally “strip” meaning– wash on very hot to remove those soap residues I mentioned earlier. I’ll be darned. Now doesn’t that make sense?

So, you’ve got a load of clean, wet diapers. Throw them in the dryer? You can, depending on the type though it can take for ever. At least two full cycles for my thick fitteds, which seems patently absurd and wasteful. I use the outdoor line here, almost all the time. It takes about two days, three if the weather is cooler. I’m sure they would dry in a day of sun if we lived anywhere else but a tropical swamp. (Well, I take that back– it took almost four days to dry diapers in the house on a rack back in Cordova’s temperate rainforest. Why did I move from one steam room to another?) Pre-folds dry much faster than the thick fitted kind, and I hear ‘flats’ dry in the blink of an eye.

The beauty of line drying is that the shit stains bleach out shockingly well in the sun. The downside is that that same bleaching effect will wear your diapers out over the long run. Definitely don’t leave them on the line any longer than necessary.

Getting the Smell Out

With both kids, we went through a phase of time when the diapers just would not get completely clean. I couldn’t figure it out. They would seem clean, but then the instant the kid peed in them they reeked like holy hell, like a diaper reeks after it’s been on for 12 hours– except that sometimes it had only been on for 30 minutes. I think something, some kind of beasty/bacteria, was living in there and as soon as the pee activated it, the diaper went straight from “clean” to egregiously offensive. I tried washing on hot, I tried adding vinegar, baking soda, bleach, everything I could think of. It seemed like maybe all those things helped, but nothing knocked it out. I wonder now, as I think about it, if those were times that because of weather or whatever reason, the diapers were not getting 100% dry in between uses. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and in fact here in New Orleans “dry,” which is generally used to mean the same relative humidity as the air, is simply not dry. So what can you do? Maybe I should have dried them on the line and then put them into the dryer for 30 minutes. Who can know. But for whatever reason, the phase died out and all was well again. A little stinky, as anyone would expect, but manageable.

Night Diapering

I am not remotely hard core about cloth, we use disposables at night as well as for vacations or even long day outings sometimes. We tried cloth at night a few times to great disaster, and like the cloth wipes, out the window it went. Nothing, nothing was going to get between me and my sleep.

By disaster I mean that the cloth was completely inadequate to hold either of our babies’ copious night pee, and we woke in a puddle at 3am. With big red baby butt rashes the next day. This is yet another entirely individual factor. I have realized that both of our babies peed a lot at night, on the high end of normal. Our 4yo is still in night diapers in fact, because she so frequently has accidents, sometimes overflowing even the disposable! I hear that late-age night peeing is hereditary, and so it seems possible that my kids are a bit… different. I have known many mamas who use cloth at night and have a fine time of it, so you should definitely give it a go. I have also heard stories about mamas who had my same problem, but then found the diaper that made it all work. The miracle diaper.

In fact, these new Bum Geniuses might be that miracle. They do rock some serious piss absorption! I just started trying them out on my 2.5yo and they seem pretty good. I had recently noticed a drastic decrease in his night peeing though, so things might be conspiring for the good here.

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Crap. Have I really just rambled on for 2,846 words about diapers? Wow.

And now it’s your turn to get all uppity. Seasoned mamas, tell us your tricks and tips. And please, new mamas, you speak up too! Questions, concerns, revelations? Were these posts helpful?

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There’s no point mincing my words. If you are going to use cloth diapers (or actually have a baby at all) you are going to have to flush any remaining primness and decency down the toilet right now. There will be shit. It will be disgusting. You will have to deal with it.

I am a pretty stalwart lady. I have gutted and butchered many an animal, trimmed the poop encrusted hairs from around a sheep’s ass, reached up into a hen’s vulva to release a stuck egg, and scraped the maggots from home smoked fish so I could eat it. I have a strong stomach for grossness. But I will admit to you that if I had to wash my toddler’s shitty diapers by hand in a bucket of water, I’d go to Costco and buy Huggies.

Thank god for washing machines! With a machine’s help, I find cloth diapering surprisingly easy. But before you go out and spend a heap of money on cloth diapers I want you to consider that the shit has to be mostly cleaned off before the diaper goes into the machine, and from my personal experience it does not “shake off into the toilet” as they like to say on the label. Fortunately, as parenting often goes, you aren’t handed a toddler with their more or less adult stools, but rather a cute little baby with surprisingly inoffensive breastmilk poop. You get a good 6 months to practice up on your stomach clenching.

Of course, you have to deal with poop no matter what kind of diapers you use. Cloth just ups the anty. And it’s worth it right? Take charge of your baby’s waste stream, etc, etc. In case you need any fact bolstering, here’s a few goodies from the Real Diaper Association:

  • Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste.  In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste.
  • No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years.
  • Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.

So, think you’re ready? You want to take the leap and commit to shit?

(I ought to clarify right about now that we have always used disposables at night and if we are going out for a daylong outing or on vacation, etc. In other words, we are far from hard core on the cloth issue.)

When I was 3 months pregnant with my first, still coming around to the idea and freaking out about how much baby crap we were already accumulating from well meaning friends and relatives, a woman I knew called on the phone to ask if I wanted some cloth diapers. I took a big gulp and said yes, knowing I would need them and it would be stupid to turn her down. She came by an hour later with three huge boxes of cloth diapers. As she unloaded one after another from her minivan I had a panic attack. It took everything I had not to tell her to pack that shit back up and leave me alone, my baby would pee into a pile of sphagnum moss thank you very much.

When I look back on that moment, and the general disgust I had for the boxes of hand-me-down clothes and toys that poured into our household almost weekly, I am so embarrassed! Of course I ended up using all of those diapers (babies grow fast, don’t you know) which were in pristine condition and would have cost $12-18 a piece if I had had to buy them. I had been given several hundred of dollars worth of high class goods, and I don’t remember if I even thanked her!

Down here in New Orleans I was given two more small sets of diapers. The only thing I ever had to buy was a few extra covers. I am one lucky lady.

If you are not so lucky, and you are in the market for cloth diapers, I have a few things to tell you. One is that there is a dizzying array of choices! And everybody seems to have very different opinions on which ones are good. Two is that, for whatever strange reason, cloth diapers have become something of a boutique (ie: overpriced) item. Be careful if you go shopping on Etsy– you should not be paying $28 for a fucking diaper, no matter how cute.

Because I was given so many different diapers, I have a decent scope of experience. There are three basic types: the so-called ‘pre-folds’ are the flat rectangular ones that our mothers used, bless their heart. (I can’t for the life of me figure out why they call them pre-folds when they come out of the wash flat.) Then there are ‘fitted’ diapers which need a cover put on over the top. ‘Pocket’ diapers have a built-in cover which you insert a wide pad into. And lastly ‘all-in-ones’ have it all, in one.

***Before you experienced mamas click away from this post, will you just scroll down to the comments and add your own experience? I’ll talk about use and care in the next post, right now we are just looking at types of diapers, and the more voices the better.***

I started out with all-in-one Kushies like these:

They are easy, there’s no doubt about it. But they take forever to dry, because they can only dry from one side. And I can tell you they do not last through two kids. The first thing that gives out is the elastic around the leg, meaning more and more leaking problems. Then the plasticy material that they make the cover out of starts to fray around the seams and you lose the whole diaper.

I was also given some Fuzzi Bunz which are a pocket diaper.

They were already well used and maybe they would have worked if they were new, but as far as I can tell they are crap. I keep using them because that’s what I have right now, but they leak like sieves. They are made from some kind of polyester, and from my experience I would say, why the hell would you make a diaper out of a material who’s best property is not getting wet? I understand the concept of keeping baby’s skin dry, and I can see a single layer of polyester maybe, backed my cotton, but that pee has to go somewhere! Anyone with a different Fuzzi Bunz experience please speak up.

My favorite diapers so far are an old version of Bum Genius, that it looks like they don’t make anymore. They’re fitted terry-cloth type material with velcro tabs, so pretty easy. They have lasted well. They do need a cover, but I feel like the extra step is well worth it. (The only Bum Genius I can find online now are all-in-ones, anyone familiar with these?They look good.). This Mother-ease Sandy’s diaper looks vaguely similar:

I did have a bad experience with some Thirsty covers that used velcro closures. The velcro was just a straight-up strip (no backing) and over time it started to curl back on itself, exposing the scratchy stuff to my little pudgy boy’s fat thighs. I had to trash them eventually, he was getting welts. I would in general recommend snap closures because of this problem, plus the velcro gets gunked up and has to be cleaned out periodically and just generally wears out faster than snaps. (Although those first all-in-ones I got had velcro, sewed onto a thicker strap, and they have lasted just fine, I still use some of those.) Here’s what my current covers look like, these are Best Bottoms:

Many people have rave reviews of wool diaper covers, called ‘soakers.’ I never had the opportunity to try them, but the idea is that they allow baby’s little butt to breathe and keep the skin healthier. Makes good sense. Wool can be surprisingly water-proof, and supposedly soakers are very soft and not at all abrasive. Ask me about my experience with $24 lambs’ wool nursing pads sometime though. Grrr…

I tried pre-folds for awhile with both babies, and I just didn’t have any luck with them. They never fit right and so leaked or bunched up and were uncomfortable. I have talked to many other mamas who loved pre-folds though, so I would definitely recommend trying them, if you can. They are a fraction of the cost of all these fancy diapers, and last much longer because they have no elastic, snaps, velcro, bells or whistles to wear out. Also they dry way faster, which is not to be underestimated. (If you are going with pre-folds, or some of the fitted diapers that come without fasteners, you will probably want some Snappies. These are a brilliant replacement for safety pins, danger-free.)

I think the reason that everyone has such different diaper opinions is that every baby is different. Mine both had unbelievably fat thighs and needed big ole’ leg holes. If your baby has skinny thighs you will specifically need small leg holes or you’ll have leaks. Then there are differences in quantities of pee, types of poop, etc. Both mine peed a LOT. And a lot at one time, too, which I think is partly why the Fuzzi Bunz didn’t work. Maybe they can hold a cup of pee if it comes in a few tablespoons at a time, but when yer kid dumps the whole load at once, they can’t absorb fast enough. The frustrating thing about buying diapers before you have your baby is how do you know?

If you have a cloth diaper store in your town, check to see if they have any kind of trial program. We have a great shop here that gives a one month free trial with all the brands she sells, so that you can figure out which ones you like. Online, Diaper Junction has a test drive program, but you do have to buy the diapers and then you can return the ones you don’t like. Better than nothing…

There’s one more important decision to make. You can either buy one-size-fits-all, which are supposed to be adjustable for newborn-toddler, or you can buy ‘perfect fit’ diapers for each size. I hate to tell you this, but I haven’t seen the one-size diapers work for newborns. I think they might work fine for age 1-potty training, because their butts don’t actually grow much after 1yo, but on a newborn or even 6 month old, those one-size diapers look pretty ridiculously enormous.

Having said that though I ought to mention that the actual ‘newborn’ size is almost worthlessly small for most babies I’ve known. Mine fit that size for all of two weeks. Then the breastcream started to kick in and the thighs started to bulk up.

Lastly, how many will you need? This would depend on your baby and your wash cycle. You will go through at least 5/day in the beginning. If you do laundry every 3rd day, and they take 2 days to dry on the line, you need 5 days worth of diapers, 5 x 5 = 25, though you will want a few extra as a buffer. If you are going to use the dryer or commit to washing every other day you can get away with fewer diapers. Bear in mind that if you use fitted diapers with separate covers, you will only need 4 or 5 covers. They can be used for several rounds, until the get a shit smear. They also dry super fast.

So, if you are doing some quick math with the prices I have quoted, you are just about freaking out right now. True, even buying two sizes of brand new diapers plus covers will cost you less, in the end, than disposables. But man, that would be an intimidating entry price tag if you had to set yourself up completely.

I would recommend not jumping into that right off. Do a trial of size smalls to see which kind you like and how your baby shapes up. Keep a vigilant ear open when you’re out in the world– once you start looking, you might be surprised to find more cloth diapering mamas than you thought. And they might have a stack of old diapers to share or sell.

Watch Craigslist like a hawk. I doubt they come up very often, but it can’t hurt. Or check out this independent consignment site. I would be careful not to pay too much for used diapers though, unless the people who are selling didn’t really use them (a very common scenario actually, many folks start out with good intentions and then just get overwhelmed). Diapers definitely wear out and if they’ve been used continuously for one kid, they’re probably at about half-life, which means you shouldn’t pay more than 1/3 of the new price.

I’ll go over use and care in the next post, but so far– any questions?

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I set out today to write that cloth diapering post I promised. But before I knew what was happening I was writing about potty training. Wow, is that ever a subject.

It all started because someone mentioned  Infant Potty Training, also known as Elimination Communication, in a comment and I thought it deserved a plug in the diapering post. The idea behind EC is that by putting babies into diapers we train them to pee and poop in diapers. Can’t really argue with that. Then we try to re-train them to pee in the potty typically around the age of two, a notoriously stubborn and rebellious time. Also, no arguments, it’s a ridiculous method when you stop to think. Furthermore traditional peoples all over the world without access to Fuzzi Bunz or Huggies have managed not to live in a squalor of baby feces– how do they do it?

The answer is really more mama training than infant training. Supposedly when you pay very, very close attention to your baby you start to learn her cues for ‘about to pee.’ The best way to pay such close attention is to up the stakes and leave your baby diaperless, though they say it does not have to be an either/or. You also initiate by holding your babe over the toilet in a squat often (like every 30 minutes) while making a ‘pssss’ sound. If you put the time in for a few months, supposedly they can be mostly potty trained by 8-12 months.

I loved the idea, it makes perfect sense to me, and I really wanted to try it out. Or, more accurately, I wanted to want to. But I found mothering so crazy hard that I couldn’t fathom adding one more thing. On the site I linked to above I noticed a quote at the top on the page, apparently one of 101 Reasons to Practice EC, “”A diaperless baby turns the dullest shopping trip into an adventure in new territory.” I don’t know if they meant that the way it sounds to me, but what else could that mean? I personally don’t need any more adventure at the grocery store, particularly of the ‘wet clean up on aisle 3′ variety. I’m quite certain it would have been less work in the end, and I have talked to a few people who did it and loved it, so I know it works. But I just couldn’t get my head around the initial outlay of energy.

When my first born was 8 months old I did put a kiddie potty in the bathroom, thinking I would set her on that whenever I peed and that way she could learn without any particular extra work, just the way kids learn everything– by modelling. The first day she peed several times and I hastily patted myself on the back thinking I was so brilliant and had got my timing just right and was about ready to pack up the diapers. The next day, and forever afterwards until she was three years old, she could not or did not put anything else into that potty. Literally. As she got older I tried just leaving her diaper off whenever we were home, and she would ask for a diaper when she was ready to pee. I’m afraid that, even though I knew better given her incredibly defiant personality, I turned it into an issue by trying to coerce her to sit on the potty instead.  I never used force or punishment (though my MIL did, unsuccessfully, try bribery) but my girl is one smart cookie and I’m sure she gathered that I was very actively trying to get her to do something.

Here’s some advice– you cannot win a war with a defiant two year old about peeing. What you can and will do instead is drive home to her the point that yes, in fact, no matter what you do, she is in control.

As she grew past that 2yo defiance for the sake of defiance, she apparently lost track of that control though. She would sit on the potty diligently and say with dismay, “It’s not working.” When it finally did work she was jubilant, but I have to warn you new mamas who might think as I did that kids ‘potty train at 2′ (like it’s a 6 week event) that this process can be unbelievably long. My girl, at 4.5, still has accidents. Now her thing is that she doesn’t want to stop playing to go use the potty. She will sit there jiggling and dancing for literally an hour and then streak to the bathroom, pee dribbling out everywhere as she goes.

Our interactions go like this, daily:

Me: Hey, sweetie, it looks to me like you’re doing your I-need-to-pee dance. Why don’t you just go sit on the potty and see if anything comes out?

Her: No, mama. That’s not my I-need-to-pee dance, this is my I-need-to-pee dance. See? Back and forth instead of side to side.

At any rate, I guess my point is– try that infant pottying gig if you think you can! Maybe you can avoid all this nonsense. But for the rest of us, I am off to work up the cloth diapering post right now. I swear! No more tangents!

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I don’t want anyone to panic after that DIY vs BUY post. It’s still me– same old, same old. I still believe in and love the ethic of DIY. Especially when it’s something that you couldn’t buy even if you wanted to. I didn’t make my daughter’s Christmas dollhouse because I found one used, and I never got to that train table either. But I did manage to slap together this brilliant little water saving device.

Kids love water, there’s nothing to be done about it. My 2yo son’s favorite thing in the entire world is a hose. Turned on full. And he knows how to turn it up himself when I attempt to lessen the flow. This summer we were going through a truly shocking amount of water. Here at the mouth of America’s largest river, it’s not such a big deal to waste water, but what a lot of energy is wasted to pump it and purify it just so my 2yo can spray it back into the gutter.

We had a plain old kids’ waterplay table, as well as a small plastic swimming pool. Not to mention sinks and tubs. But nothing could compare to running water, and the 2yo would have a fit whenever I turned the hose off. And what’s more wholesome than playing in water? How could I want very hard to stop him? So, I thought, couldn’t I make some kind of perpetual system? Like a fountain, but not remotely fancy. Just a faucet of sorts that would run into a container and get pumped back up, closed loop.

Lots of kinds of containers could work, but we had the water table so I decided to go with that. I went to the store for a small pond pump, not knowing anything about ponds or pumps. It was rather intimidating and confusing, and I almost gave up when I saw the price range was $30-$260!!! But I ended up settling on the $40 size and so far it works just fine and is well worth the money.

Components:

waterplay table or any kind of bucket or tub that can hold at least 3 gallons

small pond pump– 80 gal/hour or greater (A pond pump is a small, submersible electric pump. There is an inlet and an outlet, make sure to get one with a sponge filter guarding the inlet.)

2 feet flexible vinyl tubing, whatever diameter fits snugly onto your pump outlet

1 hose clamp to fit tubing

2 feet rigid pipe, pvc or similar, whatever diameter the tubing can fit into comfortably

2 elbows

some piece of wood for mounting

plumber’s tape (the stuff that’s not like tape at all, but a thin strip of metal with holes)

1 small shelf bracket

associated screws

Directions:

Heat one end of the flexible tubing in hot water to relax. Remove cover and filter to get at pump outlet, then jam tubing onto outlet. Slide the hose clamp down over and tighten. My pump barely had room for the hose clamp under the filter cover. If yours just doesn’t fit, I think it would probably would work fine without a clamp, as long as the tubing is very snug on the outlet.

Cut your pvc into three lengths to form a “faucet” high enough above the water container that the kids can fill buckets and things under it. I cut mine approximately 11 in, 5 in and 2 in. Slide the long piece onto the flexible tubing, right up to flush with the pump. Now slide on an elbow (not as easy as it sounds) and seat it firmly onto the end of the pipe. Be careful as you do this that the other end of the pipe stays flush with the pump. Continue with the medium length pipe, another elbow, and lastly the little piece of pipe. When you are sure you’ve got it right, cut the end of the tubing flush with the end of the pipe.

Sorry I didn’t take more pictures of the process, but like many DIY projects, it’s much more straightforward when you’re actually doing it than it sounds in description. Fear not.

Now attach the wood to the tub however you can figure. It should be pretty well secured. Set the pump in with the “faucet” sticking up where and how you want it. Use a section of plumber’s tape to secure the pipe against the edge of the wood.

Then mount the corner bracket onto the wood so that the sticking up side is flush with the pipe. Use wire to secure. You want this whole apparatus to be as tight and strong as possible if your kids, like mine, are likely to yarf on the faucet.

Fill the tub with water and plug in the pump. Does it work? Hoorah! Allow kids to play to their heart’s content. They will still waste water, filling buckets and watering cans and dumping it everywhere, but you’re looking at one or two gallons per play session instead of 50 or 60. Do keep an eye on the water level, as the pump shouldn’t be let to run dry while it’s on.

I didn’t add any chlorine or anything, so I have to dump and refill every few days. But it’s worth it not to have to worry that the kids might drink the water (they do) or pour it on my garden plants (they do). I consider it just watering the grass anyway.

If anyone gives this a go, please come back and tell me how it went, what changes you made, problems, etc. Good luck!

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On Cussing

I got a comment the other day on that Out the Other End post saying, “You know, sometimes I don’t care for your blog because I try not to curse, and reading salty language makes me start using it. But posts like this remind me why I keep reading. I am farther along the motherhood path than you are, and can relate to every word of what you have written– curse words especially.”

I am not at all offended by this, I feel it’s a tactful statement of a personal preference. In fact, I am flattered that my writing has overshadowed the gap in style and that the commenter has persevered with this blog.

But, it did remind me that we are due for an explanation in the cussing department.

I love swearing. I have always cursed like a shore-bound sailor, and I don’t see any good reason that mothering should stop me. In fact I see every reason to keep at it– mothering is definitely the most frustrating, challenging, infuriating job I have ever done; creating daily, dire occasions for the work fuck. Swearing is a way for me to blow off dangerous steam, with minimal damage. Like beating up a pillow. It’s a safety valve.

I have tried to ease up on swearing in front of my kids, and have only twice slipped up and sworn at them (a line I am not proud to cross). It has been mirrored back at me, but surprisingly little. Our 4yo occasionally says damn, as in “Where is that damn crayon?” and one time she said, when I suggested she roll up a tangled rope, that it was “all fucked up.” Otherwise, although I have never explained it to her, she seems to miraculously understand that those second level cuss words are for grownups.

On this blog, I swear for punctuation and for fun, as well as for release. I have always been well aware that by using those second level words, I am cutting out a large swath of my potential audience. Some folks, like the commenter above, could probably excuse or even appreciate a few well placed curse words, but take offense at my extremely liberal usage, wondering (I imagine) if it’s really necessary to use the F word in a biscuit recipe for example.

On one hand you could say, don’t I want my “message” to reach the largest possible number? Why cut anyone out? Is it worth losing readers over a few words I could mostly do without? I would argue that the internet is a big ole place and there is no shortage of squeaky clean mom blogs out there, with very good content, that appeal to wider audiences. I myself want to carve out a small space where freaks like me, who do not see the irony in wholesome loving mothers cussing up a blue streak, can gather and feel less freakish.

Isn’t that what the internet is for? Gathering disparate folk together in cyber space, an infinite number of venues for an infinite number of freaks, proving to ourselves in a backwards way that we are not so motherfucking alone?

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The 95%

Hey there friends,

I didn’t mean to alarm anyone. I’m doing fine, really. My thing on this blog has been to really bust out the shit that everyone feels and no one says. I give it to you straight. But since we are not together in real life, you don’t get to see the whole picture, just whatever extreme words I offer up on a given day.

Those words were all true, but only one piece of a big whole. You know how the acute emotionality of pms can make true things unbearable, wash away the good stuff and leave you just wallowing? The pain is real– the depression, disappointment, disillusionment is every bit true– but the enormity of it is false. That’s how it goes in the low times for me, be they hormonal or not. My heart takes out the little slivers that have been rubbing wrong in my otherwise very satisfactory life, and climbs into that raw hole, surrounded complete. The 95% goodness of life falls away and the 5% misery engulfs.

When I wrote that last post, I was actually already moving up, out of my hole. I can’t write from down in there in fact. I’ve tried a few times, it’s shit. But I needed to process it before it receeded, and also… I want to give you all the pieces of this weird gig, including the times I hate the job and doubt myself. I feel like that is an essential part of championing motherhood and housewifery– being honest about the whole goddamn thing. Ugly bits and all. If only we all knew how much we all struggle with life! Then maybe we wouldn’t have this ridiculous expectation for bliss and perfection that is really in fact the root of my particular turmoil. Nobody needs help to get through the happy times.

So, yes. I struggle. I get through. I keep on. As one commenter said about her own experience of motherhood, many years past, “I fell down got up fell down got up fell down got up and they were raised.” Amen to that sister.

I do feel like this last fall is a big, important one. A turning point maybe. The fact that my life is only 5% misery, the fact that bliss and perfection are mirages, doesn’t mean we should disregard that intensified emotion of hard times. I think of those times as lenses into an otherwise hidden world within myself. Not very fun to look at, but too important not to look at. Those emotional lows are my truthing points, and I’d better buck up and take heed.

Although life is complicated, and I can’t expect to fulfill my wildly high expectations, I do need to stop shelving myself and my goals. It’s not helpful to anyone. It’s the same old martyr bullshit that I am always fighting.

But. Let’s get on to that 95%, eh? That last post was written, not coincidentally, at the beginning of my true break. Christmas done, mother gone, flu averted and My Man still has another week before school starts. It’s just the sort of miracle I needed. I have had a few afternoons to myself already, and this morning begins a pre-arranged two whole days of bonafide vacation from mothering. Morning till night, two days in a row. All me.

It feels almost sinfully decadent. No, in fact it feels fully sinfully decadent. I had to force myself to take it since after my few afternoons I was already feeling so much better. Good thing I asked ahead for this weeks ago, locking myself in.

This morning, in the wee hours of dawn I crept out of bed. Alone! I quietly pulled on my clothes, packed a bag with entirely grownup things like books and computer, and stole outside. Sunday morning, no one out except the paper man. I rode my bike, no trailer attached, to the bakery and sat quietly ruminating over coffee and croissant. I have a sushi date with two dear friends for lunch, and the rest of the day deliciously empty.

And tomorrow too? My lord, what will I do with all this time?

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I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a fraud.

Lately, for months now, I just don’t feel like being a mama. My kids, my darling beautiful firecrackers, just seem like so much trouble. I have no patience for them whatsoever, everything short of perfect angels pisses me off.

At first I thought it was just because of our big scare, then because we were emotionally recovering, then because My Man’s finals were upon us, then again because we were recovering from those finals. But now he’s been out of school for two weeks, we’ve lazed around and taken it plenty easy, and I am not bouncing back. Some days even their angelic-ness pisses me off. There was one afternoon, frosting Christmas cookies with my girl, the 2yo napping so that she and I could delve deep into our creative task. It should have been a triumphal moment. Hallmark material. But she kept making these little happy noises and I couldn’t concentrate for want of some goddamned quiet.

That’s when I knew something was deeply wrong.

When one has a regular job, there are days, sometimes weeks at a time when you hate your job, when you just don’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. So you call in “sick” or take a vacation, sometimes you go to work anyway with a bad attitude. Eventually there is the big flat wall of burnout, when you’re heart goes out of it and the job becomes a drudge. It occurred to me that I have never kept a full time job for more than 6 months consecutively. I don’t like doing the same thing every day, day after day. I never have, and pre-kids I had structured my life so that I didn’t have to.

Now here I am, 4.5 years into the same job, no vacations to date, going to work anyway with my bad attitude. And let me tell you in case you haven’t been here yourself, it feels like shit to hate your job when your job is taking care of your babies. It feels like shit.

You know I have struggled all along to embrace this mothering gig. I go in and out of good times and bad, as do we all I’m sure. But lately… lately…

It’s not that I don’t believe everything I’ve said here, I do. Mothering is heady, important, pivotal work, we should feel proud, hold our heads high, regardless the lack of any other product for our days. We are raising the next generation, giving them the values and skills that we believe matter. It’s not just okay to stay home with our kids, it’s goddamned beautiful!

As chronicled here on this blog, I submitted myself to my work, I let go all my grandiose ideas for how my life was going to be. It was hard, breaking even, but I think I actually did manage for awhile. Submission served me well during that hardest year in my life, when surrender equalled survival. I survived.

But as much as I have tried to release myself from the cultural expectation of productivity, of ‘greatness,’ I have not at all succeeded. I am beginning to admit to myself that yes in fact, selfish or not, I do want to do something big in the world. I do want to make my little mark and be recognized for my accomplishments. I am beginning to suspect that maybe, for me at least, trying to jam that desire back down and down and down again is simply not going to work. Compression can be explosive.

The explosion came last week. My Man mentioned the possibility of working for his dad in August. It sounds harmless enough, right? If I weren’t such a spoiled twat I would be thankful that we have this incredible safety net, cushioning our re-entry into a world of doubtful income. But instead, I completely lost it.

To understand you’ll need some background, and I’m sorry to say I have to go way, way back. Before Children.

Before we had kids, the idea was that we would split the parenting. As much as I champion staying home with your kids, I never in fact wanted or intended to be the full-time parent. Splitting it down the middle seems so brilliantly perfect to me, each parent getting what seems like just the right amount of time with their kids, and just the right amount of time to invest in grownup endeavors. We are both very driven people. My Man wanted to stop industrial progress via legal monkey-wrenching, and I wanted to figure out how to live as much as possible independent of that industrial system– a perfect team.

But dear god, we thought we could do all that and have kids? Of course we had no idea how much time and energy kids would take. The split parenting would work if we were both just righteously kicking ass in those kid-less hours, but then who’s gonna pay the bills? Someone has to get an at least moderately real job, and splitting the job force just doesn’t often work in the real world. Jobs are not generally constructed to be done part time. So we fell, like most couples, right along the gender lines. Man bringing home the bacon, Woman cooking it, feeding it to the little mouths and cleaning up afterwards. It was not how I’d imagined it, but life never is.

Then it became apparent that My Man needed to go to law school in order to continue fighting his Good Fight. I saw that he was restless and dissatisfied with his limitations, I knew that becoming a lawyer would allow him to kick a lot more ass, and ideally put a bit more bacon on our table than the non-profit he had been working for. I knew that as far as kids and families go, the sooner we got the job done the better, so I said yes. Let’s leave for three years.

Our first 4 or 5 months here in New Orleans were rough for me. I was hugely pregnant and toting a two year old through heat like I had never even conceived of, My Man gone all day learning exciting new things. I had not a friend to speak of, no mountains, no forests, no gill nets, rifles, berry buckets, no chest freezers or stacks of firewood. Everything I had worked toward with my life in Alaska completely irrelevant to this one.

We had been planning to go back home in the summers, so that I could work and get a break from the parenting and My Man could be with the kids more. First hitch was the oil spill here in the Gulf, providing an opportunity for My Man to put everything he had worked for, both in school and before, to good use. But, in retrospect I see that going home for the summers was an unrealistic plan in the first place. Three plane tickets per summer, averaging almost $1,000 each. The logistics of subletting our house here and finding a place to stay up there. Just a big fat money-sucking endeavor, all for the sake of some mountains?

So. We stayed. And I had my next big crisis, seeing the realities of life and money and kids collide, the slow receding of my lofty dreams.

But I met a friend, a kindred; and then over time even a small handful of them. I began to feel at home. I rerouted my towering ambitions to the smaller scape of the household, made a little garden, got cozy with the farmers market, discovered a latent passion for writing.

I faced myself, squared my shoulders, and kept at it. The kids grew up a bit and I gained a little of that blessed distance perspective, remembering that this too shall pass.

I looked forward to the time when we would return to Alaska, my familiar things all laying in wait for my return. My pressure canner, my fertile garden beds, my hunting rifles, my chest freezer and 14 dozen canning jars– all my dormant skills tingling with anticipation. We would go back in May, but My Man would need to study for the Bar, and wouldn’t really be free until late July. Then– then! He would be ready for a break, we could split the parenting for a month or two while I played with myself.

I am very good, disturbingly good, at accepting just about anything so long as I am given time to prepare my mind for it, and an end date to hold out for. Outwardly I might seem perfectly adjusted, but inside myself I hold on to that end date with a frightening tenacity. If it’s taken away, or some relief that I had counted on falls through, I go ballistic.

And so it was that when My Man mentioned casually that maybe we could all go to Spokane in August and he could work for his dad for a month, I had a breakdown of epic proportions. All four years of putting myself on the shelf for later roared to life and I became quite an unrecognizable blur of enraged weeping.

He was blindsided. We need the money and almost more importantly, he needs the health insurance. Our other option is a patchwork of self-employment and part-times, paying out seperately whatever ridiculous insurance premium they charge for a cancer survivor. His dad (also a lawyer) truly needs the help, and after a month in Spokane he could work long-distance from Cordova and continue to get the insurance coverage until he muddled out his own work situation. It made perfect sense. He suspected I might not like it, but thought he’d just test the waters and see how I felt.

I felt like the rug had been ripped out from under me and the world was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been chewed up by this growling, frothing motherhood beast which had, at long last, spit me out the other end. Stunned, confused, bloody.

Which brings me finally to my point, dear patient reader. If I am that conflicted inside, if I am holding myself so violently hostage that just the mention of an idea like that throws me into utter oblivion, isn’t something wrong?

As it always goes, this was just the pus rupture of a big fat long-infected wound. I have been feeling a growing concern that I’m actually not suited to being this awesome rock-the-home mother that I write so radiantly about. I want to be that mother, I really do, and for a long time I tried. But maybe I am just not cut out for it. Maybe I would be a better mother if I put the little guy in day care.

I hope you know that I am not opposed to day care. I have always felt that every family must work these issues out for itself. I do believe that, all else being equal, having mom or dad nearby for the majority of the early years is probably better, but I have never been so shortsighted to think that all else is ever equal. Life is nothing if not uproariously complicated. All financial factors aside, mom and dad are no good to anyone if they’re not happy and healthy, more or less. If day care and the real live grown up job it allows preserve some sanity and joy in the home, then I say hell yeah!

But here’s my particular quandry– I don’t want to leave the home to go work at a job. My thing, what I want to do with my hours, doesn’t make money. It might keep a bit of money in our pockets at the supermarket, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that the direct savings are nothing to write home about. It increases our quality of life, which of course cannot be valued and I never cared to try before. But now that we have a family and all the bills inherent in our (modest!) lifestyle, our days have come down to a tally of hours. For every hour that I wish to be able to weed the garden or can strawberries without the constant interruption of spill wiping, leg hanging and fight breaking up that whittles 60 minutes down to six, My Man must give up an hour of work. Or, alternatively, I put my kid in day care and essentially pay $10/hour to weed my garden?!?!?! What the fuck?

I know that in two more years, the little guy will start kindergarten and I will have 2 or 3 hours a day to do my thing, even more the following year. I know that my kids are growing up, and fast, and before I know it they won’t even want to be around me. I’ll have buckets of time on my hands.

And maybe that’s what this is all about after all. Some wiser, if a bit premature, part of myself preparing for the time when my babies will need me to step back and give them space. Maybe this is some kind of protective measure– me chomping at the bit so that when they open their doors to boot me out, I’ll already know where I’m going.

Or maybe I really am just tired, still recovering from one hell of a few months. Our two week “break” so far has included Christmas, a 12 day mother visit, and now the flu. Last night before bed, as I surveyed the wreckage of our unusually filthy house with dismay, My Man said hopefully that maybe tomorrow we’d both feel better and we could really get on with our supposed break. I gave an exhausted sigh, “Yeah. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll take over the world.”

“No,” he said brightly. “You will take over the world. I’ll watch the kids.”

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Do you remember how I said I was building my daughter a dollhouse for Christmas? Back at the beginning of the month I carefully planned it out on graph paper, borrowed a friend’s power saw, cut the pieces and stacked them in the garage.

Then on my last Saturday afternoon off before My Man’s crazy test weeks, instead of diligently working on the dollhouse, I met a friend downtown to check out the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In between shows, we were wandering around the ridiculously charming art/punk part of town and got swallowed into the looming maw of an enormous junk shop. There were a few pieces of furniture for the 4yo’s dollhouse I wasn’t sure how I was going to make, so I asked at the front if they had any. Another wanderer overheard and practically accosted me, “Are you looking for a dollhouse? We still have my daughter’s up in the attic, it’s got a ton of furniture. I’d love to get rid of it.” He pressed his card at me.

I was still convinced I had enough time to make my own– hell, I’d already started! So I gave him an incredibly non-comittal answer and went about my day. A few days later, beginning to accept my oncoming fate of two weeks of 24/7 parenting, and listing in my mind all the things I would still need to do to make this dollhouse (let alone any other Christmas presents) I dug out the card. Maybe I’d just see how much he wanted for it.

The end of this story is evident, right? $75 dollars and a trip across town later, I had the 4yo’s present all taken care of and stashed in the back of the closet. No impending work, no need to borrow a jig saw, no tiny furniture to figure out. All done.

I was so sad I almost cried.

Perhaps you need some background for this story. You already know about my die-hard desire (unfulfilled) to make everything at home and by hand. You can probably guess at my dislike for the relatively low quality construction of the house I bought, and the two boxes of furniture and tiny accessories that came with it which will be strewn across the floor of our entire house by this time next week.

But what you are not likely to understand is that I adore dollhouses, and miniatures in general. I loved them far beyond girlhood, as evidenced by Dumpster Diver Barbie (yes, those are tiny bagels in that tiny plastic bag). In fact I have been waiting until my daughter was old enough, fantasizing about this moment when I would make her the perfect, sweet, old fashioned dollhouse. I’ve been cutting and sanding little chunks of 2×4 in my mind, and adding batting and squares of fabric to make tiny beds. No joke!

But in a heavy duty consumer world, where people buy more new crap all the time and consequently clean out their closets regularly to “pare down and simplify,” buying what you need second-hand is always easier, and usually cheaper than making it yourself.

Consider my dollhouse. I was going to use scavenged wood, beautiful 3/4 inch oak faced plywood that I found on the side of the road for free. That’s well and good, saved me at least $40, and I could borrow the tools I needed. But, I wanted to make this dollhouse a little bit fancy, since my girl is getting old enough to care now. I was going to buy scrapbook paper to “wallpaper” the walls and paint for the outside– an easy $10, probably more. And there were a few pieces of furniture I wanted to buy, mainly a toilet and bathtub– $20 right there. Then if I fell for the cast iron wood cookstove I ran across when I was looking online for the bathroom stuff, another $15. I could easily see myself spending $75 by the time it was said and done. And purchasing and consuming new materials, as far as that goes.

This lesson has been driven through my mind at least 94 times since I became an adult, and it’s still only half lodged. It’s why knitting never took for me. Spending $30 for yarn when I could buy a perfectly serviceable hat at the thrift store for $3? Why on earth would I do that? But apart from knitting, I am still hopelessly stuck in my youthful fantasies of almost anthropolgic handcrafting. Particularly once I started mothering, those fantasies blossomed with a whole new meaning. I would be that mother, the one who’s well mannered children are always wearing hand sewn clothing and playing with hand carved wooden toys.

Wow. Motherhood. If nothing else, parenting will lay bare your ardent (and often completely unrealistic) expectations for How the World Ought to Be. And then rip them to shreds.

Every project is different, don’t think I’m knocking DIY unilaterally. But of course it makes no sense whatsoever to spend 3 hours sewing my kid pants from $5 of purchased new material when I can buy good quality pants second-hand for $4. No sense at all to spend hours on handmade wooden toys that will just get shoved under the couch to make room for the plethora of brightly colored plastic toys that seem to breed on their own.

No sense at all. Unless I enjoy the making.

Because, all else being equal, it comes down to how we want to spend our time. When you are a mama, with the implicit drastic limitations on your time, it often distills quite clearly. Do I enjoy my DIY projects more than I enjoy say, an afternoon at the coffee shop to write? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are other important reasons that I believe we should keep doing this stuff. All kinds of handcrafting traditions are being lost, and anyone who can keep hold of one is a kind of living time capsule, an asset to humankind. And certainly all those handcrafted items offer a superior sensory experience. Even though a hat from the thrift store costs a tenth as much, it is vastly inferior to one hand knitted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But moralizing aside, it’s still a matter of doing what makes sense for the time and place we’re really in. Letting go of my wholesome handmade mama image has been painful, but I find more and more often it just makes more sense to B.U.Y.

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Hallelujah. We made it through. My Man finished his last test Thursday– beginning almost 30 days of semi-freedom and familial bliss!

I have so many (many) posts in my head, gathering to a complex hurricane of thoughts. But I’m really trying to relax just a bit, instead of charging into my free time with the panic of starvation. Instead of diving straight off the deep end, I thought I’d start with this simple, season-appropriate DIY project.

Up until recently my kiddos largely drank out of plastic. It always bothered me, bothered the shit out of me in fact. I hate to drink out of plastic, so why was I allowing my tiny budding babies to pollute their otherwise pure systems with leaching chemical compounds? I’d give them jam jars when I could, but so often I just couldn’t face up to the possibility of yet another wipe-up of spilled fluids, number 57 of the day. So I’d defer to plastic, oh beneficent god of the spill-proof sippy cup.

But a few moths ago I was grazing Simple, Frugal, Green and I found these kids’ cups made out of jam jars (half pint mason jars) with a hole punched in the lid to put a straw through. Brilliant! How had I never thought of that?

My mind worked at it a bit more though, and I thought, why jars? Why not these cute apple shaped bottles I’d gotten at the store to use as small sized glass water bottles? And instead of just a plastic straw, like Abby used, why not invest in a set of stainless steel straws?

Thus, my (half mine anyway) brainchild was born.

Don’t you want one? Don’t you want half a dozen, since 5 are always lost under the couch anyway?

As you might imagine, this cute apple shaped bottle was sold with apple juice in it. For $1.75. How’s that for a cheap sippy cup? With free drink no less!

The stainless steel straws get you though. $10.99 for 4. I strongly recommend you get ones that come with a special straw cleaning brush. (You know I hate to link to Amaz*n, but here they are if you don’t want to mess around looking for them.)

So, how to punch that sweet little hole that brings it all together. Of course drilling a hole just the size of the straw would be the logical way to do it, these lids are pretty soft metal and would be easy to drill. But my drill bit chuck is stuck tight, I can’t get the phillip’s head out to put in a drill bit. (Any advice?) So short of that I used the phillips head bit and a screw to make a hole, which wasn’t big enough, so then I used a phillips head screwdriver by hand, just yarfing it back and forth, to open the hole up enough to get the straw through. Don’t overdo it though, the tighter the hole around the straw, the less leaking action you’ll see.

And no, these aren’t spill-proof. But then, no sippy is. Even the best ones we found (Playtex) would start leaking after the kids chewed the plastic mouthpiece enough. These apple bottles are a good shape for the sippy, partly because they’re squat– low center of gravity– but also because if they’re less than half full when they get tipped over, the level of the liquid doesn’t reach the hole, and they don’t leak at all! But even when mostly full, if you’ve been careful to make the hole perfectly fit the straw, the leaking isn’t too bad.

4 apple juice bottles $7

4 straws + cleaning brush — $11

no more worrying about poison laced orange juice — priceless

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Kyce from Old Recipe for a New World (she doesn’t write often, but always wonderful) wrote a great post a few weeks back called Letting Go: The Christmas Edition. Oh honey, don’t I know it!

I (love)(hate) Christmas. I really do. I’ve written about it every year since I began blogging [here, here and here], and lord knows I don’t want to repeat myself. Suffice it to say, I seem to be finally catching on that this infernal holiday of compromised values begins in November. It’s taken me a full 34 years to get my head around that. I am determined to be prepared this year, thinking ahead for quality gifts in order to avoid getting caught by the last minute Icky Gifting.

I want to share my few ideas, and get your ideas. If we pool mental resources here, maybe we can pull this off without too much heartbreak. Well, it gives us something to hope for. I’m putting it on my list anyway,

Dear Santa,

This Christmas, please just let me relax and enjoy the generosity of loved ones without too much ethical compromise, personal angst, or familial alienation.

Yours,

CJ

We are spending our Christmas at home this year, with my mom coming. That will help right off the bat. My in-laws, godbless’em, have too much money to restrain at the holidays. My mom would probably go as crazy as them if old-hippie poverty didn’t keep her in check.

For whatever reason, Christmases with my mom are always much smaller than with the in-laws. In fact, it’s one of the best times of year for our otherwise very strained relationship, at least we can bond about Christmas and how it ought to be.

Which is sparkly lights, the smell of evergreen and cinnamon, whispered secrets and The Animals’ Merry Christmas.

My list of secrets so far looks like this:

For the 4yo– a dollhouse. She wrote her first ever letter to Santa asking for one. I am making it myself of course, more on this soon as I realize how in over my head I am.

For the 2yo– a train table. He already has a nice wooden train set, just needs a table and a way to semi-permanently attach the track to it.

For My Man– Oops, tut-tut, he might be reading….

For my mom, sister, MIL and sister-in-law– freshly ground and personally mixed organic spice set. I’m pretty excited about this idea. If you’ve never smelled or used freshly ground spices, it’s an epiphanal moment. It makes you want to sweep your arm through your (inevitably stale) spice cabinet, straight into the trash. All these ladies like to cook, but don’t get to do that much complicated cooking, and I think will appreciate really kick-ass, unique spice blends. I’m going to do a Mexican mole, Moroccan ras al hanout (unbelievable! the smell makes me swoon!) and a not-your-average-Italian blend with juniper berries and fennel. All these are fantastic with meat, but can also rock a pot of beans. I even ordered a pound of fancy Hawaiian finishing salt. Part of reason I’m excited about this idea is because I’ll get a share too! I never order fresh spices for myself because replacing a whole collection is expensive, and I don’t use that much over the course of the year. Fresh spices make much more sense for a group of people than for just me in my lonesome kitchen. I spent almost $80 on organic, fair trade spices, which sounds like a lot (feels like a lot!!!) but then I have four of my important gifts covered, plus plenty leftover for my own pantry.**

The father and brother-in-law I think My Man will cover. Hopefully at the local artisan market, lots of awesome stuff there.

Grandparents get the standard (they love it) calendar of cute kid photos.

I made a batch of homemade soap (it’s gotta cure for 3 weeks, so do it now!) and some lip balm for those last minute little gift moments. It’s good to have tricks up your sleeve. The lip balm takes all of 3 minutes once you secure the beeswax.

That leaves a 4yo cousin and a 12yo half-sister. Any ideas?

I will be filling you in more about all the above gifts over the course of the month. I have lots of Riot-y ‘stuff’ subjects to cover, as well as lots of good Christmas ideas, like the adorable songbird tree ornaments me and the kids made this morning out of tag-board and poster paint! In fact I’ve been feeling inspired to do a series, “Christmas– It Doesn’t Have to Suck Ass.”

Please leave your favorite homemade gift ideas in the comments, especially for children. If you have posted anything on your own blog, leave a link. We can all use some extra inspiration this time of year!

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**If anyone else thinks this spice mix idea is brilliant and wants to tag along, I ordered from Mountain Rose Herbs. you would think organic spice would be more expensive, but the Mountain Rose prices averaged around $3.50/4oz, which is quite good. I ordered the spices whole in 4oz bags (the smallest size available), I’ll grind them in our coffee grinder and package them in 1/2 cup (the really tiny size) canning jars. This wouldn’t be worth it for less than 4 or 5 gift recipients, and I think could cover more like 6 or 7. I will give y’all the recipes when I get to that point, but if you want to follow along, here’s what you’ll need to order:

  • allspice berries 4oz
  • black peppercorns 8oz
  • whole chile peppers, or red pepper flakes 4oz
  • cinnamon sticks 8oz
  • whole cloves 4oz
  • cumin seed 8oz
  • ginger, ground 4oz
  • juniper berries 4oz
  • whole nutmeg 4oz
  • fennel seed 4oz
  • thyme 4oz
  • rosemary 4oz
  • sage 4oz

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Screentime Again, Again

A friend sent the link to this excellent post, Why I Don’t Worry About my Kids’ Screen Time, on my own personal new favorite screentimesink, Camp Creek Blog.

I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase. Except here’s a brilliant little quote,

“Childhood: You’re doing it wrong.”

(Whosoever gets the reference in the title of this post winds my undying affection)

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It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee, quiet in a sleeping house, writing.

A few short month ago, I would have killed to get my little guy to sleep past 6:45 on a regular basis. Now he sleeps until 7 or 7:30 reliably, occasionally even later. Am I busy praising the stars and relishing my newfound extra sleep and more frequent mornings alone? No. This morning I didn’t get myself up till 7:30 and didn’t get myself coffeed till almost 8, so I’m busy wishing he’d sleep till goddamn 8:45.

And take a nap at 1, thank you very much.

When this mothering job gets really rough, kindly friends remind me that it gets easier as time goes on. But when things are looking up, and I gaze hopefully into the future for a time when things will be even better, those same friends soberly lead me back and say, ‘It doesn’t get easier, really. It just gets… different.’

What the hell? What does it get? Easier or not easier? Get your story straight.

I know kids (and parents) are all quite individual. Not all babies are as high maintenance as mine were. Some apparently sleep. Not all two year olds have daily 30 minute screaming sessions. Not all mothers need time and space for themselves as strangulously as I. Perhaps we, as a family, stir right up into an explosive younger-years cocktail.

Nevertheless I’m pretty sure that, apart from that long span of teenage years too far in my future to contemplate, when people say parenting doesn’t get easier, they are on crack. Parents of the 4-12 set have just plain forgotten what babies and toddlers are like. They have forgotten sleeping a total of 6 hours/night in no more than 90 minute segments and then waking up to a fussy baby and two shitty diapers before coffee. They have forgotten trying to control one child’s screaming fit in public with the other child strapped onto their body. They are under the spell of biological amnesia that allows our species to keep reproducing. I for one am writing this all down, so that I can never blithely tell a mother of a 2yo and newborn that what she is going through is not the very depths of what humans are capable of.

Fear not sweet mama, wherever you are, it does get easier. If you feel completely insane right now, at the very bottom of your barrel, it’s because you are. Things can only look up. Kids grow. It’s really true.

But.

I’m sorry to say, there is a catch. I have come just far enough now to see what it is.

Consider how you have stretched slowly over the years since your very first morning sickness. Things you never thought yourself capable of doing are now old hat. Motherhood is a million times harder than you ever could have conceived of. And yet, simultaneously, you are a million times stronger. You keep thinking ‘fuck me, it can’t get any harder’ and then it does! You keep thinking ‘I can’t hold out any longer’ and then you do! You keep thinking you are at the absolute bitter end of your frayed rope, but your rope keeps stretching.

Which is brave and wonderful and human. I remember one night, washing the dishes at 9:30 pm, after one of those insane days, thinking– I am a demigod. I will never be conquered again. I am now accustomed to working 15 hour days, on 6 hours of disjointed sleep, doing the hardest work of my life. When the impossible-ness of this job subsides, I’ll have the energy and the self-discipline to accomplish anything. The world will be at my feet.

The catch is– that stretchy rope? It shrinks too. It’s a goddamned bungee cord.

It gets easier, yes, but it doesn’t feel easier. When things ease up, I notice the change and appreciate it intellectually, but I still feel like I’m at the end of my rope, every day. I have to hang out with friends in the real crazy year (newborn + 2yo) to remind myself. Oh yeah, my life is hard right now. Plenty hard. But it’s possible. And immediately after that humbling thought, I go back to being mad that my now 2yo didn’t sleep till 8:45.

Maybe I’m just an ungrateful bitch. Maybe, as every little bit of new space opens up, I try to add in too many things. Keeping the house cleaner. Cooking extra for My Man. Writing more. Rioting in my spare time. Maybe it’s just that old ad-borne cultural expectation that we deserve to have it all.

Whatever it is, the outcome is that although it does get easier, it also doesn’t. You won’t have to wake up 6 times a night and then for good at 5:45 to a poopy diaper, you won’t have to strap on a 19 pound weight so that you can finally get the dishes done, you won’t have to listen to hours a day of full-bore screaming. You will be able to calm everyone down by reading a book sometimes, you will be able to leave the room for more than 10 minutes without catastrophe or injury ensuing, the kids will (not always, but often) begin to earnestly and happily play together.

But you will forget the harder times almost immediately, as your body prepares you to continue propogating the species. You will (if you are anything like me) suck down your newfound freedoms and instead of being sated, just want moremoremore. You will wake up one morning in your own bed at 7:30 and wonder honestly if it was all a bizarre dream. You still feel like you are operating at maximum. With a full 8 hours of sleep and 30 minutes of quiet morning, you still feel sparely armored for a day of what still feels like crazy hard work.

All you will have to remind yourself of those farther distances reached are the stretch marks.

You are a demigod.

Related post: The Glory Days

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