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Renegade Sister

That last post was partially just to have written a post, so that I could share with you yet another link. This one is very exciting for me. In fact, I’m a little bit pissed off that none of you ever told me about this. Is it really possible that we do not share any readers?

My new blog crush is titled Renegade Mothering. Yeah. Obviously we are sisters. I stumbled upon Janelle’s blog while doing an internet search for “Waldorf circle time” (more on that later). Which is hilarious, as you will understand after you read her work.

Renegade Mothering is not for the Waldorf set. It is not for those of you who tolerate my swearing and sarcasm for the sake of my generally wholesome content. This woman makes me look like a nun. She doesn’t write about cooking or homesteading or housewifery or fighting The Man, nor does she delve deep into the emotional pysche of motherhood. Nope, instead Renegade Mothering is a ranty bitch. If you enjoy the juxtaposition of foul mouthed mama writing, an extremely heavy dose of sarcasm and laughing like a hyena, check it out.

I simply could not choose a single post to direct you toward. You should probably start with Playdate in My Trailer and 19 Things You Must Know About Me. Are You Ready for Parenthood? A Helpful Checklist is hilarious and Parenting in the Gray Area will make you spit your coffee all over the computer.

But, if the idea of a post entitled I Wonder Which One of My Kids Will Grow up to Be a Crackhead offends you, Renegade Mothering may not be for you.

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***Today’s guest post is from Kristen, who writes at Sustainable Suburbia, as well as her personal blog, Narrating Kayoz. I am so excited to still be featuring these wonderful guest posts. Thank you to everyone who has written! I just love the chance to read your perspectives.***

Hi CJ & Apron Stringz fans!

When CJ first put the guest post idea out there, I immediately thought of a post I’ve been tossing around in the back of my head for a while, partly inspired by CJ’s post on little girls, lip stick and nail polish. It’s a post about boys and girls and their books, and why & how boys can enjoy books about girls, just as much as girls can (and always have) enjoyed books about boys. It’s also about why, “If you want to fix the male literary crisis, here’s your solution: Become a feminist.

But that post will have to wait a bit longer, because I’ve been reading Shannon Hayes and thinking lots about skills loss, and I can’t get my head back to kid’s books just now.

I’m currently reading (and loving) Shannon Hayes’s book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, but the truth is I am not a radical. Whenever I compare myself to CJ (I know, a completely unhelpful thing to do), I am reminded of the line in the Dar Williams song, “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis Of A Co-ed”,

“I’m not a leader, I’m not a left-wing rhetoric mobilizing force of one,
But there was a time way back, many years ago in college, don’t laugh,
But I thought I was a radical…”

Oh, yes, way back in college.

I turned 40 at the end of last year and sometimes I really feel middle aged and conservative and frankly, boring (not bored though – who has the time for boredom?). Settled and, yes, housewifely. (Actually I suck at being a housewife, but that’s another story).

This is where I am:

I am married to a wonderful man, who shares the work with me – paid and unpaid – pretty evenly. I have the three most delightful and dreadful children (okay, the youngest one’s not dreadful yet, but Three is just around the corner, and if you’ve ever had a three-year-old you know what that means). I have a mortgage on a smallish sized suburban block with a three bedroom house. I have visions of being off-grid, energy efficient, having composting toilets, rain water tanks and of growing as much of our own food as we can on a little over an 1/8th of an acre, including raising meat chickens.

What we do have is three chooks who give us eggs and lots of entertainment. We have only a tiny vegetable garden, since the couch grass more or less took over while we weren’t looking, when our two-year-old was a baby. We have a growing collection of herbs in pots in our sheltered front courtyard. We have a bunch of fruit trees, though three of them are yet to go into the ground, but only one mature one, an incredibly prolific lemon tree. We have half a roof full of solar panels – far more than we need for our own power needs, but being grid connected we figure the excess is going some small way towards making us carbon neutral. And we have two small rainwater tanks which generally cover the needs of our food garden.

What we lack, more than anything else, is skills.

Shannon Hayes explains how most mainstream Americans have lost the skills that would “allow them to live an ecologically sensible life with a modest or low income.” Mainstream Australians are in much the same boat. The particular skills she talks about in that paragraph – knowing how to roast a chicken, or using the leftover carcass to make a stock – I happen to have.  And most other kitchen skills I feel I’d be able to learn pretty easily, even if I don’t have the time or energy to get there just yet (homemade bread, I’m lookin’ at you).

But where I really feel lacking – and unfortunately my husband is not far ahead of me – is in ‘handy’ skills, like building and repairing things around the house and garden.

CJ had a post once in which she talked about her advantage in having grown up with hippy parents, so that she had a head start (compared to most people today) with being self-sufficient. [CJ if you know the post I'm talking about, throw in a link - I did I bit of a search, but couldn't find it] I grew up with middle class, private school educated parents who barely knew how to hang a picture on a wall.

To be fair, my father was an only child who was sent to a boys boarding school at the age of five, spent most of his holidays at his grandma’s (probably a blessing), and pretty much survived by keeping his head firmly in books. My mother had a comparatively normal upbringing and probably could actually hang a picture – she certainly could now – but she was working part-time by the time I was six (when my parents separated), and later full-time, and so she really was part of that generation that Hayes talks about where women moved into the work force en masse and the corporate world responded by giving them more things to spend their money on, to reduce their domestic tasks, thus allowing them to work more and buy more things.*

Actually, my mother taught me to knit, though I do it badly, and to cook (more or less), and more importantly, gave me a lifelong (so far) interest in self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship. Although I don’t feel I grew up developing the skills I needed for that life, certainly we always composted, had a vegetable garden, and recycled all our cans, glass and paper, long before it was trendy.

I should also pay some tribute here to my step-father, who was of working-class farming stock and is still my go-to man when I need to figure out how to do something of a handyman nature. We didn’t get along well when I was a child, worse when I was a teenager, and I don’t know that I learned many actual skills from him. But I learned that you could do things yourself, you didn’t always need to call in a professional, and that knowledge was probably more important than any individual skills I could have gained.

When I was about eight, my parents (mother & step-father that is) decided to move to the country and become self-sufficient. They’d been reading Grass Roots magazines, and wanted to make the tree-change so popular today. That’s my memory of things anyway, I’m sure they might have a different story to tell. But – fortunately, I thought at the time – they were unable to sell our house in suburban Canberra, so the tree-change never happened.

But that yearning has always been there for them I think, and they passed it on to me. At 70-odd, and semi-retired, my mother now makes her own soap, laundry liquid, jam and bread. She’s finally convinced my step-father to get chickens, and of course their vegetable garden remains much more flourishing than ours! My sister, who lives in outer Melbourne and has a block maybe half the size of ours, also has chooks and an organic, permaculture style backyard. And my brother was the first in the family to have a worm farm. So although I feel I grew up without gaining many handy skills, I do have the philosophical support of family in my efforts to move to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, which I value highly.

So now I live on my suburban block with my own family and we slowly, slowly move towards a more sustainable, self-sufficient life. We’ll never be truly self-sufficient, nor do I even think that’s something to aim for. We live in a community, and developing community resilience and self-sufficiency is probably at least as important as what we do on our own little block.

But gaining those skills we have lost (as a generation) will, I think, be important for both those endeavours.  Hayes points out that many of the ‘male’ skills were the first lost to domestic households, when men made the move out of the home and into the industrial revolution. “[H]ow to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood” are the skills she mentions. Those were lost long ago, to most families. But how to fix your own car (or even judge what the problem is), patch up the hole in your plasterboard wall, or repair your own fence, are skills that my step-father certainly has, but that few of my own peers have.

Those are the sorts of skills I want to reclaim. Sure, I am making (some of) my own jam, using my mother’s homemade soap, and want to get more into preserving the food we grow (or even food we buy at the farmers’ markets when it’s in season). But I also want to be able to prune my own hedges, fix my own deck, build my own raised garden bed. Especially, I want to be able to use salvaged timber and corrugated iron, instead of feeling like I need to buy a kit, so as to be able to achieve a good outcome.

So that’s where it’s at for me. I am learning to crochet and preserve and cook seasonally, but I have my sights set on learning skills that use hammers and nails and saw horses.  What are your skills shortages, or what are you learning now?

By the way, where you will usually find me is at SustainableSuburbia.net or  my personal blog, narrating kayoz. And that post on boys and books? It will probably show up eventually at my other, other blog, kayoz talks books. Now, what about those skills?

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* I don’t mean to imply that my mother became a major consumer or even that she didn’t cook mostly from scratch – in fact I don’t think pre-packaged & convenience food really made it to Australian in a big way until the 80s and more so the 90s. But she was part of the generation that didn’t pass on many of the homemaking skills their mothers took for granted, like making jam or other preserves, or even mending clothes or knitting beanies, because a  simply lack of time, and probably also a perceived lack of need.

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Untitled

Those of you who know me, or have read here for awhile will not be surprised to hear that after taking this long computer break for the past month, my passion for it has waned to near zero. Once separated from the catalyst of my addiction, I remember how my brain can feel unplugged– slow, quiet sometimes, not always jumping around like a mouse in a cage.

It feels good.

I won’t say I have been having a blissful last few weeks, in fact I am caught up in all kinds of as yet unexplained confusion of the psyche, but the deep breath that a mostly device-less daily life affords is very, very good.

What does this mean for this blog? I am not sure yet. I love to write, and have so enjoyed this space. I want to being able to keep writing. But when you are online, a world of (pseudo) information and connections are at your fingertips, and it is impossible for me not to flit from one thing to another. It is that intrigue of infinite possibility which becomes, for me, the ever gaping maw– opening to consume more and more of my life and time– and eventually altering the very foundation of how my brain functions.

Perhaps I will be able to write just once a week, I think my content here was better when I was just writing once a week anyway. Writing can get watered down by too many words. That’s the very thing about this internet actually, more = less.

Thankfully there are a few guest posts left to bide the time while I consider whether I am capable of being master over this virtual world, or whether it will always be the other way around. Thank you so much to everyone who wrote for me, for us, over this break. I am forever indebted.

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***This week’s post is from an old friend, Jessica, who currently lives in Maine. I know fiddlehead season is long past in most of the country, but do make a note to try them next spring. They are still coming up around here in spots where the snow was banked and has just melted off. I introduced them to the kids as “curlycues” and so far they have gobbled them down. I want to point out that although Middle Eastern chermoula sounds exotic and fancy, it is super easy. We are talking weeknight dinner material if you have a food processor. Thanks for the post Jessica!***

CJ and I are high school friends from Alaska. For my guest blog, I originally planned to delve deep into my psyche and tackle an analysis of how CJ and I have grown up through the years – choosing life paths that are both dramatically different yet remarkably similar.

Then I chickened out.

It’s not really until you sit down to write a blog entry that you realize how scary it is.  CJ really puts herself out there. I have a whole new appreciation for the vulnerability involved, as I write this.  So, yeah, I’m going to take the safe route (this won’t surprise CJ, and probably would have been one of my talking points on that other blog – smile)…

Let’s talk about food! Food is safe! In particular, let’s talk about cooking with local foods in Maine. Last night, I whipped up a bunch of middle eastern food with Maine ingredients.

First off, you probably think of moose and lobsters when you think of Maine. And that’s not that far off from the truth. It is a wonderfully wild state in which to live. Last weekend, my whitewater paddling friends were driving down a logging road during our canoe shuttle, and saw a moose AND a bear crossing the road AT THE SAME TIME (although separated by a few hundred yards). If you can’t live in Alaska, then Maine is clearly next runner up.

Middle Eastern Cooking

I’m basically a novice chef and rely on cookbooks.  I enjoy following recipes, especially the first time through.  If you want to get into middle eastern cooking, I’d recommend Claudia Roden’s book, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. My top three favorite recipes out of this book are the lentil soup (not your college student days lentil soup), chicken in plum sauce, and the sholezard (saffron rice pudding dessert).  The recipes are very straightforward, and the only hurdle to middle eastern cooking in Maine is finding the middle eastern spices for a reasonable price in such a rural area.

 

Side Dish – Fiddleheads

Mainers love their fiddleheads. Technically, these are ostrich ferns. They are found in the early spring (which means late April or  early May here in Maine). Fiddleheaders canvass river banks that were recently flooded and harvest the fronds. Classically, people sell fiddleheads from their vehicles along the side of the road. Picture a guy sitting in a lawnchair with a cooler and a cardboard sign.  People are very protective of their fiddleheading spots; you’d never ask someone where they fiddlehead – just like you’d never ask an angler where their special fishing hole is or a wild blueberry picker where their field is located. Collecting fiddleheads in Maine is a tradition that goes back millennia with the Wabanki Indians, including the nearby Penobscots.

Currently, fiddleheads are running $2.50-3.50/pound. I first had them while visiting Maine, and then looked for them when I returned to Minneapolis where I was living at the time. I could only find them at Whole Foods and they were $17.00/pound! Here’s what they look like:

 

They’re not that hard to cook, but they do need to be cooked thoroughly due to the acid in them. If you don’t cook them enough, you’ll get a wicked stomach ache.

Some of the easy preparations are to boil them and then add butter and salt. They get mushy but I was always afraid of the stomach ache. And, to be honest, I didn’t like them that much but ate them anyway because that’s what Mainers eat. Then I got brave. Now I sometimes half-cook them and put them on pizzas. I love ricotta, sausage, fiddleheads, and garlic pizza. I hear they’re amazing in omelets.

Another local delicacy is Maine shrimp. These are also sold roadside, although also in the grocery stores and fish markets. They are incredibly tiny, like popcorn shrimp. I have a recipe for a sweet and sour shimp fiddlehead soup. Basically, you use chicken broth and white vinegar to taste for the broth, then put the itty bitty Maine shrimp and whatever seasonings you want (hot pepper, garlic, black pepper, cumin, etc.) into a food processor. This makes a stinky shrimp paste. With the broth heated up, drop the shrimp paste in spoonful by spoonful. It cooks nearly on contact into little flavorful shrimp balls. Then add the fiddleheads at the end and boil them for just enough time to cook them. This probably sounds very strange, but it is super tasty, healthy, and full of flavor. If you don’t have fiddleheads, you could substitute in any sort of strong vegetable (e.g, brussel sprouts).

Last night, I just went with a simple olive oil and garlic sauté to the al dente point and then put a lid on it to finish the cooking process. They maintained great texture that way.

 

Main Dish – Haddock in Chermoula Sauce

One thing I really miss about Alaska is the salmon and halibut. Not only do I miss eating these fish, I miss being able to catch them with my own pole or net. Growing up we would eat salmon at least once a week. Now, my local salmon is the Atlantic salmon and the native variety is threatened on the Penobscot River. So, it is not possible to go catch them yourself. Besides, they’re also really small compared to Alaska’s five types of salmon. This creates one of those sustainability crises (first world problem, I know). If I want the local fish, I would have to get farm-raised Atlantic salmon. If I want my usual wild fish, I would have to deal with the carbon footprint of flying it from Alaska to Maine. And, I can’t find halibut at all up here. So what’s a gal to do? People recommended haddock to me, but it is often compared to cod. I’ve never been a cod fan. Cod is oily; cod is translucent. Blah. But, in a desperate moment of wanting white fish, I got some haddock. It turns out that haddock is great! A fish that can be found just offshore of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including offshore of Maine, it appears that populations are currently doing “okay.” Greenpeace has alert out that they could come from unsustainable sources, so it’s important to get them from U.S. regulated fisheries, if that’s of concern to you. They feed on small invertebrate critters, and only occasionally on other fish, so don’t need to fret too much about bioaccumulation or mercury issues. It’s not as thick as halibut, but it is much more like halibut than it is like cod. It’s solid white meat that holds together well. It has a very light flavor (not “fishy). And it goes great with chermoula sauce!

For the chermoula sauce, Claudia Roden recommends:

  • 2/3 cup fresh cilantro (I used the whole friggin’ bunch)
  • 4 cloves of garlic (I used 6 big ones)
  • 1 tsp cumin (I used 1.5 tsp)
  • 1 tsp paprika (I used 1.5 tsp)
  • ¼- ½ tsp ground chili power (optional) (I used ½ tsp of Penzy’s Chili 9000)
  •  6 Tbl olive oil
  • Juice from 1 lemon

Put all this in a food processor and make a paste. Then, use a casserole dish and lay the haddock or other white fish on top of a bed of FINELY sliced onions. I forgot to take a picture of the naked haddock, so my apologies. Bake at 350-400 degrees until it’s done.

 

At this point, you’ve made a VERY green meal, so a little contrasting color is necessary. Carrots are easy.

It was tasty!

I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog!

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***Today’s guest post is from Holli, who blogs at Scratch Treehouse. I requested this subject, since she had referred to her journey a few times in comments. I think most of us could use a little encouragement in the kids-eating-veggies department…. Thanks Holli!***

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I was eight months pregnant with baby number two. Baby number one wasn’t yet two years old and I decided he better start taking a multivitamin. He had become a very picky eater subsisting on grains and dairy and potatoes (if you count French fries as potatoes). He’d eat apples and fruit, but never vegetables. I rationalized that he must be getting some vitamins from all the veggies I ate while he was breastfeeding. But, as baby number two got closer to arriving, I knew I could not keep this up.

One day, I struggled to keep him contained in a big Super Vitamin store, and I felt some defeat. Here I was buying vitamins in a bottle because I couldn’t get my son to eat them from food. And I thought, thankfully, they make vitamins for kids that taste like candy.

Almost one year later, baby number two was starting to eat solids. She still breast-fed, but loved solid food too. She was not content with just soft mashed up carrots and apples. She had to try everything on my plate. Sometimes that meant steamed veggies, sometimes meat and grains. She started to show a preference for meat, dairy and grains. Without much outside influence she started to push away the veggies. And she was barely one-years-old.

During that same time frame, I started to notice her being constipated. At her 9 month check up I had noticed it and mentioned it to the doctor who assured me this was just normal for starting solid foods. By her 12-month check up, I was worried. Pooping had become a long, painful struggle. My daughter would hold it in until she couldn’t any longer and cry while pooping. I was sure something was wrong.

Then came 9 months of specialists, laxatives, natural practitioners and we only got to the point of her pooping once a week. Finally, I consulted a Chinese Herbalist who told me point blank: eat vegetables. And, there were a few extra things like herbs, but I felt like someone had shaken me up. Within 2 weeks she had improved to pooping twice a week.

That first week I struggled: How in the world could I get her or her brother to eat vegetables? I remembered one visit with a Naturopathic team where one intern suggested I increase vegetables in my daughter’s diet. I kept a food journal for her, religiously recording every single thing she ate for 9 months. Everyone praised me on how well she was eating except that one intern. Turns out she was right. So, that is what changed me from believing kids won’t eat veggies to knowing they need them like they need to be potty trained.

I cried my first day on the vegetable crusade in our house. I knew I needed help, so I checked out books from the library on how to sneak vegetables into recipes so kids will eat them. I tried a few recipes, but something was nagging at me. I wondered, if I’m hiding the vegetables, will they every really learn to eat them? It just felt wrong.

I shared my struggle with a girl friend who is a Speech Pathologist (she helps kids under 3 learn to eat who have developmental difficulty speaking or eating). She suggested some things:

1) Introduce one food for a week or more

2) Let them notice it on the table or your plate before making them eat it

3) Present the food in different ways: raw, cooked, etc

4) Don’t give up: try letting the kid feel it and watch you cook it, build curiosity

5) Keep at it

And so, I kept trying. My daughter was just over 2 years old when we started. She noticed the difference with pooping and started to understand that she needed veggies for good poops. Within a month she was eating a veggie serving at every meal. My son was more steadfast in his Picky Eater mindset. I knew he’d be harder to persuade since he’d grown up to that point not having to eat much of them.

I checked out some books from the library on vegetables so the kids would start to be curious about the different types. The ones that perked their interest the most were:

Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert

Strega Nona’s Harvest by Tomie DePaola

The Vegetables We Eat by Gail Gibbons

I also adopted a spot on an elderly friend’s garden. I had heard that if you get kids in the garden where they can see things grow and help harvest, they’ll eat them too. Well, that certainly helped my daughter up her veggie intake, but my son was still a hard core Picky Eater.

Lucky for me I got the chance to try out the methods in a new book, “The No Cry Picky Eater Solution Book” by Elizabeth Pantly. I tried her suggestions before it was printed and slowly but surely, things began to change.

We got him to eat carrots, then broccoli. Just a few months ago, after a year and half of trying, he suddenly asked to try Peas. We all had some on our plate, and he only had his standard carrots. We have him a small portion, and he declared, “I LOVE them!” The funny thing is that I’d tried those as one of the first veggie for him to eat since they are sweet, but he forgot about his dislike. It’s been a long hard road, but I think it’s like anything else in parenting: we have to keep at it until they get it.

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***Today’s guest writer explains herself, but let me just say that although she lives a mere two hours away from our New Orleans home, we met here in cyberspace and have never met otherwise. The internet is a strange and glorious beast.***

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Hello fabulous Apron Stringz readers, I’m Charlotte and I blog at Living Well on the Cheap, a spot dedicated to living the good life (in your home, at least) without throwing a bunch of money at retailers. My husband and I both grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, but we met at LSU in 2006 and never had the heart to leave Baton Rouge. We live in a great little neighborhood a few miles from campus where the streets are lined with oaks and all the houses are vintage.†Decorating, blogging, and thrifting are the creative outlets that help me balance the emotional demands of my career as a social worker. I love trolling thrift stores and estate sales for vintage treasures. There’s something very therapeutic about finding something old and giving it new life!

I haven’t been doing much of it lately in my state of pregnancy-induced exhaustion, but perusing thrift stores is my absolute favorite way to snag awesome stuff for your home. Bear in mind, though, that thrifting is not for the faint of heart. You’ve gotta be patient and creative. Without further ado, here are my six best tips for a successful trip to the thrift store.

Take your time. Move slowly up and down each aisle, being sure to scan every shelf (the shelves of despair, as one of my favorite bloggers calls them). I usually walk down each aisle twice so I can concentrate on one side at a time.

Remove it from the context.†When examining an item for purchase, ignore the thrift store aura and imagine it in your home all cleaned up, hanging out with your stuff.

About half of what you see here is thrifted

Imagine it at its best.†Almost any little knick-knack looks fancy after a coat of high gloss paint. Look past the dated finish of all that 80’s furniture and imagine it painted to match your taste. Clean white? Happy yellow? Sophisticated gray? Classic black? Look for solid wood, quality construction, and a nice shape. If it’s got a cushion, could you reupholster it? (check out my technique for reupholstering a basic cushion†here)

Knack

Ask yourself what you can do with it. †Hang a silver platter as wall art. Use a coffee creamer or small bowl as a teeny tiny planter. Place a small dish as change-catcher near the front door. Repurpose an old dresser as a TV console or dining room buffet. Remove the original art from a frame and use it to display something more your style. Stack books on top of a chair for a unique bedside table. Platters are plentiful and are easily repurposed as trays for corralling everything from remotes to†the contents of your pockets.

Real Simple

Judge a book by its cover.Check out the book section for hardbacks with attractive bindings (take a peek under the dustjacket). Jacket-free hardcovers stacked here and there are oh-so-Pottery Barn.

Pottery Barn

Look at the lamps.Many thrift store lamps have classic shapes. Look for one you can update with a fresh shade or a coat of paint and you can get a Z Gallerie look for a fraction of the price. I’ve also been totally loving patinated brass lately, so all that thrift store lamp may need is an updated shade, no paint necessary.

Z Gallerie

In summary, the key to successful thrifting is to have an open mind. See not what lies before you upon the shelves of despair, but what wondrous whatnots could abound in your home. The proceeds often go to charity, so you’re saving the world by shopping (not to mention saving some of that stuff from ending up in a landfill). What could be better?

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Potty Humor

***This week’s guest post is by Michelle of A Mom Next Door. Just a warning, it’s going to make you snort coffee up your nose. Put the cup down.***

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Calamity, thanks for offering the chance to guest on your blog. It was very inspiring to write for an audience of people enthralled by your courage, competence, inquisitiveness and sass.

I’m writing this week from New York City, where I’ve dragged my children, Two and Five, for our first-time ever family experience of the Big Apple. May is a Terrible Travel month for our family, because my Husband has a week-long trade business trip in NYC, comes home for 3-5 days, then leaves again to Europe for another eight days. We do this every year. Some years, I try to convince him to go to Las Vegas for the intermission between trade shows instead of returning home. I think it would actually be easier to just have him gone the whole month, than for him to return—jet-lagged, exhausted, stressed about the upcoming trip, and otherwise generally unavailable but still physically present—for just a few days before leaving again, throwing his children into an absolute frenzy of separation anxiety. But the poor man does nothing but miss us and the comforts of home the entire time he’s away, so I can’t bear to bar the door, no matter how difficult it makes my life as a single mom during his absence.

So this year I cashed in on the free companion ticket and hotel points we earn during those difficult separations, and told him I’d rather try the solo mom thing in NYC than be left behind at home for another agonizing month of I-want-my-daddy! Look for a post soon on my blog A Mom Next Door about our adventures, including travel tips for taking on big cities with small kids. I may have to write a whole post about the Horrible Homework Packet of busywork thrust upon us by a teacher who ignored my offer to create an independent work contract centered around the experience of being in New York City. No, my kindergartner wouldn’t learn anything from that—better do endless pages of worksheets instead!

But this post is actually inspired by something looming large in our lives at this very moment: traveler’s constipation. I’d better fill you in on some history first. Me and my children and poop go way back. We’ve been through a lot together.

* Warning, this post contains direct and explicit discussion of all matters digestive and excremental. If merely reading the previous sentence made you uncomfortable or woozy, I suggest you stop reading and go make yourself a cup of tea. If your children are young enough that you are still familiar with the texture of poop, read on, since you’re deep in shit already anyway.

When I became a mom, I expected diapers. I’d had enough experience with babies and toddlers to know that many, many diapers were in my future. But I never supposed that parenting would involve such an intimate familiarity and involvement with my children’s process of elimination. I didn’t realize that a long-term commitment to poop was part of the parenting package. Turns out, childrearing is not just about changing diapers, and changing diapers can be a lot harder than it sounds.

Do you ever surreptitiously smell your own fingers? Once, my infant son’s poop was so tacky, so persistent, I had to scoop it from the crevice with my forefinger, carefully wrapped in a thin flannel diaper wipe that seemed an entirely insufficient barrier. I washed my hands five times that day. But over the years I have become less afraid of poop, accustomed as I am now to the necessity of squeezing a diaper full of a squashed-wide disk of poop into a more toilet-friendly log for our finicky commode. Poop is really not much different from clay. And better than a clogged toilet and sewage on the bathroom floor.

My children like to examine their own poop. I encourage this. We animals learn a lot from poop. I inspect theirs carefully—keeping tabs on their developing digestion, making sure all the food I put into them comes out in the proper way. Both children have been at times particularly obsessed with watching the poop come out of their own bodies. This has created some problems in the potty training process. Imagine a child, clutching the handles on the side of the little plastic potty to lift himself, head tucked down to knees as he tries to get a holy glimpse. Worse, when the poop actually begins to emerge, abandoning the potty altogether to spin in fruitless circles, me chasing after him with a prodigious wad of toilet paper.

My daughter never fails to pipe up with “Me see poop now?!” exactly at the moment when I’ve got her ankles suspended with one hand, swiping at her sticky butt with the other, and no hands free to keep her from reaching out to grab the loosely folded diaper that I inadvertently set just inside the radius of risk. And all this while crouched on the restroom floor, because the frozen yogurt establishment we will never frequent again couldn’t be bothered to install a changing table!

But I do wonder how I will take care of my children when they begin to hide their poop. Who will tell them they need to eat more prunes? So I have already begun teaching them poop’s lessons. I invite them to poke around up there when in the bath and teach them words I know they’re just waiting to say in preschool and kindergarten—anus, scrotum, vulva, intestine, and tampon, of course.

In spite of my open approach to poop and associated processes, constipation seems to be a trait my children share. They are great at vegetables, drink plenty of liquids, take their probiotics without complaint, but still both started suffering from constipation at about four months, before I’d even begun giving them solid food. We’ve tried everything, and yet their animal instincts still urge them to hold their poop until they can eliminate safely in a familiar place.

Which New York City does not seem to be, at least not to the large intestines of a five-year old. When Five was still just three, I finally figured out the connection between his erratic behavior and his cycle of elimination. The claw hands clued me in. My sweet, intelligent, helpful, energetic son would periodically get aggressive and completely obstinate—hitting and scratching with tightly curled fingers, especially at transition times. Then, usually within a few hours of such an incident, he would finally crouch on the toilet seat and have a stupendous, miraculous poop.

It was an instant personality makeover, and once I saw the pattern it became very difficult to keep my nose out of Five’s shit. Children everywhere insist on claiming their own bodies, at least until we teach them otherwise. For parents, charged with keeping those bodies safe and nourished, this boundary is almost impossible to respect. “Put on your jacket!” I’m not cold! “Eat your broccoli!” I’m not hungry! “Time to go potty!” I don’t have to go! Sound familiar?

I knew how fruitless and self-defeating and almost unavoidable it is for parents to get trapped in power struggles of this kind. I had managed to avoid many of them. I never asked my children to put on jackets before leaving the house (not a choice I could practically make if we lived in Minnesota, but in the mild clime of the Bay Area it works). Ten minutes out the door, however, when the kids were feeling the cold for themselves, I’d have that extra layer handy.

My Husband and I never force our children to eat anything. We try to put balanced meals on the table, do our best to eat well ourselves, and limit sugar. We keep soda, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and corn syrup out of the house. But we never tell our children that they have to try everything, or clean their plates. Since we allow our children to decide which dishes they wish to eat from the family table, and to serve themselves seconds as they desire, they may end up eating more rice and cheese at one meal than we’d like. But we notice at other times they’re just as happy to down a basket of raspberries or munch on a carrot.

Still, seeing the connection between my son’s constipation and his behavior was an intoxicating discovery. No more screaming, clawing, hitting, kicking, temper tantrums! I thought. I’ll just teach him that when he feels bad, he ought to try going to the bathroom. That was a failure. “It seems like you maybe have to go poop, son.” NO, I DON’T HAVE TO POOP! I JUST CAN’T GET THE LEGOS TO STAY TOGETHER!! For a while, I could get him to try the toilet by responding, “Then you need to make your behavior match your story. Either stop screaming, or go to the bathroom!” But Five is not one to go down easily. Nothing ever works with him for long: engaging his cooperation is a complex and evolving dance. I did finally figure out some foods that were like glue for his intestines (Pirate’s Booty is a big no-no) and cut him off. I continue to push fruits and vegetables. But for this trip, I invested in the chewable fiber pill.

So far, it’s only made him grumpier. I can hear his tummy rumbling, I can see him clenching his whole body, claws included. But he’s still holding it in. And I’m still hovering, suggesting that he try going to the bathroom more often than I should (which is to say, suggesting it at all), waiting for the sweet and inquisitive boy I know and adore to emerge from the restroom and join us on this big city adventure.

I’m sure thirty years from now he will blame me for his constipation: So that’s why I can’t take a dump! He’ll spend hundreds of dollars to complain about his controlling mother to a therapist, who will finally, exasperated after six months of watching him squirm in his chair, say to him, “Why don’t you just go take a dump! Go ahead, use my private bathroom. You’ll feel better and NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU!”

In the meantime, I’ll sit here at the foot of the toilet and offer whatever comfort is needed as he struggles to make peace with his own inner workings. And on my good days, refrain from saying, “I told you so!” when it finally works.

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