Order From Chaos

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?

Family Food Revolution: Eating Vegetables at Every Meal

***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.

On Kiddlets

***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

Wild Child

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

A Stick, a Bucket, and a Piece of Rope

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.

Unschooling Possibilities

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.

DIY Play Fountain

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!

DIY Glass Sippy Cup

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

Stretch Marks

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

What to Feed Kids When You Really Need Them to Eat

Yes, Halloween yesterday. Giant candy binge, pre-bedtime. Brilliant. Whoever thought of including the under 5 set in this scheme should be spanked.

What was I doing yesterday afternoon to prepare for a fun holiday? Putting the last touches on cute hand-sewn costumes? Nope, I had intelligently finished our giant rolling ice cream truck and two matching kiddie-aprons (4yo’s idea) in the morning, and spent that last hour preparing a fortifying feast of macaroni and cheeseandfishandpeas. Because if my angels are going to gorge on sugar, pure and unadulterated, by god they are at least going to start with a belly full of protein and whole grains.

What do you cook at your house when you really need a sure bet? Here at Camp Apronstringz, I am lucky damn dog. Both my kids love fish, and the aforementioned mouthful macaroni is the only kind they’ve ever known. I make it with whole wheat noodles (read this old post if you think they’re no good), high quality canned salmon, about half as many peas as noodles, and very little cheese sauce. It’s not so healthy as to warm my heart when I see them eating it, but it’s hardly crap food and it’s my 4yo’s self-proclaimed favorite, so I always score points when I make it. We were at a friend’s house the other day and she offered some macaroni and cheese. “Andfishandpeas?” my girl asked. I had to convince her that plain mac and cheese was in fact very good.

I’ve mentioned this macaroni and cheesesandfishandpeas business before, I make it probably once a week. But I recently found a revelation in cheese sauce making and thought maybe it was time for a real recipe. Here’s the trick– with enough fat, grated cheese will melt into a beautiful, velvety sauce without having to make a roux! The recipe I saw called for heavy cream, but I never have that around, and this meal needs to be made from stock components. I am a half and half addict (almost as essential as the coffee itself) so I tried it with that and butter. It’s worth a try with plain ole milk and butter, if that’s what you keep in the fridge.

CJ’s Easy Win Mac n’ Cheesenfishnpeas

  • 1/2 lb macaroni noodles
  • 2-3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/3+ cup highest fat dairy you got
  • a few ounces grated cheddar
  • 1-2 cups frozen peas
  • 1– 6 oz can high quality canned salmon (not that nasty stuff with the skin and bones) or tuna

Boil the noodles as per usual. When they are about half cooked carefully set a shallow mixing bowl on top of the pot of boiling pasta and put all the dairy into the bowl. Give a stir every few minutes, it will melt into a beautiful sauce. Don’t leave it too long or it will separate. Pour frozen peas into another bowl in the sink, with the colander set over the top. Drain pasta into colander, allowing peas’ bowl to fill with water, defrosting your peas. Return pasta to pot and pour cheese over, or stir noodles directly into the mixing bowl of sauce if it’s big enough. Open your can of fish and dump, juice and all, into the noodles. Break up with a fork. Drain peas and add. Stir the lot together and serve hot! If you rinse the peas bowl and pasta pot right away (they’re hardly dirty, right?) you’ll only have the one dirty dish.

Happy Halloween!

Who’s Addicted?

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the abhorrent sloth of our latest kid movie-watching binge. It was bad around here for a couple of weeks. The 2yo would wake from sleep crying for Dora. I swear there is some kind of actual crack in that show. Remember how light is supposed to be both particle and wave? I’m convinced that somehow the makers of Dora got the particle part to be crack particles. They radiate out with the vibrating spectrum of colors, straight into your child’s bloodstream. Highly disturbing. Highly effective. Especially, it turns out, on 2 year olds.

But more disturbing is what happens to a harried mama when she is given whole hours, relatively uninterrupted, day after day. I sat on the couch and read. I drank tea. I stared into space when I felt like it, peace marred only by the faint bounce of cartoon voices in the background. I hung laundry. I weeded my garden, not in the heat of naptime mid-day, but in the pleasant morning, after a leisurely cup of coffee.

I had forgotten.

Do you remember? Do you remember the distinct luxury of doing what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? That my friends, is some addictive shit.

As the days wore on, and the initial Dora-bender began to ebb, I found myself crashing hardest. ‘Fuck. I have to get up, yank my wastedly tired body out of bed, and right off the bat start mothering? Are you kidding me? How can this work?’ After two weeks of part-time digital childcare, I had lost the ability to mother for more than an hour or two at a time. Or rather, the ability was probably still there, but the expectation of that as normal was gone.

Then the inevitable set in. Movie-watching as crack can only last so long for healthy children in even moderately interesting environments. After a couple of weeks, the 2yo began to get bored of Dora. And subsequently Diego. (The 4yo, for what it’s worth, had been watching more than her share of movies too, but had not gotten the junkie eyes. Different stages of development, I guess.) After two or three depraved weeks, the little atrophied muscles finally rebelled. Earnest sibling fights began. Movie watching became as hard to referee as anything else.

When one day I actually yelled (yelled!) at the 2yo to go watch his movie, I finally woke from the reverie. Time for an intervention.

Here’s the good news, for any of you who may find yourself in a similar situation. So long as you let them run their course, kid movie-watching binges are not as hard to break as they might seem.

CJ’s Six Step Program for Digital Addiction in Children

Step 1: Accept that you as the parent are about to lose any and all ‘you-time.’ Don’t worry, you’ll get some back, later.

Step 2: Watch for the right moment. I have a friend who managed to pull her kids off the movies mid-bender, but with my two little firecrackers, forceful parenting almost never works. Instead, I wait for a natural wane in the fervor. In my experience, it will come after a couple of weeks.

Step 3: Offer alternatives. Not half-hearted bullshit like “Wouldn’t you rather color?” but something that actually excites them. This is a good time to become manically social, if your kids are into it that is (mine are). Unearth any hidden toy boxes, or pick up some new junk from the local thrift. Also, although this could backfire, certain food bribes can work so long as they are out of the house. For example, walking to the ice cream shop.

Step 4: Be patient. It takes a couple of weeks to get back into regular life. At first they will be excited to go visit friends but as soon as they get home, they’ll want to turn on the tube. They’ve forgotten how to play in a room with a screen. Like any addict, they have to re-learn, and disassociate certain activities. Yes, you can drink a cup of coffee without a cigarette, but it takes awhile to get used to. Thank fuck kids are so much more flexible than grown-ups.

Step 5: If your kids are as feisty as mine, nix any commentary about the process. At the beginning of this particular movie weaning, I made the mistake of mentioning the upcoming effort to my 4yo. I thought maybe she was old enough to participate. We’d sunk so low, I thought maybe even she would have noticed how it affected us all negatively, and we could tackle it together. She was in a good mood. I figured I’d give it a whirl.  She was horrified and threw a fit on the spot. “I don’t want to watch less movies!” she wailed, while I kicked myself repeatedly in the shins. I never mentioned it again, and thank god she seemed to forget the conversation. But we have had plenty of other experiences where my attempts to include her in my parenting agenda backfired in a big way.

Step 6: Determine your comfort level. I’ve talked this through before, but just so we’re clear, I’m not proposing no movies at all. I have a few friends who manage that, and I adore and admire them. But for most kids, an hour or two a day seems to be pretty innocuous. I feel like as long as the rest of their day is full of goodness, and mama gets the break she needs to maintain sanity, it’s a positive equation.

I’ll be straight with you, we’re still occasionally doing three hours a day here at Camp Apron Stringz. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true, so there it is.

Lastly, don’t underestimate your own addiction to their movie-watching. Modern, full-time parenting is some crazy hard shit. No grandparents next door to offer relief. The ingrown expectation that we are supposed to continue our adult lives at the same rate of productivity. It’s no wonder we are blinded by the mere possibility of a few hours of kid-less time. The idea is addictive enough, but the reality, oh dear. If you accidentally get a few days of it like I did, wow. That’s a hard habit to break.

But you can. You will. I did.

Washing Dishes

Whoever said that washing dishes is zen did not have screaming kids hanging off their legs.

One of the benchmarks of motherhood for me is the concept of being downright thankful for the opportunity to wash the dishes, all by my lonesome at the end of the day, while My Man is playing with kids in the other room. Ahhh. I’ll concede that that there might bring me closer to enlightenment.

Lately though my almost 2yo has been thoroughly enjoying dish duty. I remember when the now 4yo went through this phase– washing dishes would actually fix a bad mood for her. Those are the good days, happy toddler by your side, discovering the properties of water and gravity. Another kind of enlightenment.

Little Guy stands up there on his stool by my side, pouring water from one cup to another, with occasional success, on the very edge of the sink. I am so thankful that I let go into the Mess long ago. I was thinking of you new mamas today, as the puddle at our feet grew into a small lake. I just want to make sure you have some good mama friend who’s given you the key. Have you? The key to open the Mess Lock in your mind. I guarantee you will not regret it.

So what if a literal gallon of water hits your floor, half cup at a time. It’s water. Just a good start to a floor mopping is what I always say. Helps combat the other more righteous messes. I guess if you live in a desert and water is truly precious, it would be wrong to waste it. But anywhere else, just give it up baby. Give it up now. Water is boss.

A friend pointed out recently, as we watched our kids play with the hose for half an hour, how much water goes into making toys? Kids toys and adult toys alike? Should we begrudge our kids a little via direct line? Screw the toys, my little man can play happily with water for at least an hour a day.

Combine that with standing up next to mama while she does some real live grown-up chore? Involving brushes and bubbles and clattering? Awesome. He can splash, pour, fill, dip dirty dishes in the rinse water, try to nab the scrubbie, it’s a haven of trouble to get into. If he can break a dish while he’s at it, why that’s pure nirvana.

Breath deep sister. Another day, another load. More neurons fired. All’s well.

Surprising Kid Snacks

When the heat of summer hit, lunch as a daily ritual kind of fell through the cracks at our house. All I want to eat in the middle of the day is iced coffee. All my kids want to eat is popsicles.

I make homemade popsicles out of all fruit and milk, so there’s no shame in eating them for lunch, or even breakfast. If you live in a hot place and haven’t gotten a popsicle mold yet, go order one right now. Lifesavers, I’m telling you.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. There’s no surprise to popsicles as a kid snack. It’s a no-brainer. No, today I want to tell you about seaweed.

I like to make a nice sushi dinner every now and then, and my girl would always try to steal the nori sheets while I was rolling. It didn’t occur to me to just buy her seaweed as a staple snack, that stuff is so expensive, and she can eat a LOT of it. Like, is it okay to let your three year old eat 4…5…6 sheets of nori? But it became a ritual indulgence for long trips, among the fancy snacks of distraction, I would always pack some seaweed.

Then when summer hit this year, a friend gave us a big bag of individually packaged seaweed snacks she’d gotten from the Asian market. They were a smash hit with the kids, as usual, and so handy to throw into the diaper bag. You know how a special snack can diffuse all kinds of otherwise unpleasant situations with kids? Seaweed is that snack for mine.

So I finally got it through my thick head that jesus christ, if they like the stuff that much, and it’s so ridiculously healthy, why was I not buying it on a regular basis? I gave in and bought the monster pack of nori wrappers, fully expecting that after a few weeks the thrill would wear off.

It was about the same time that I gave into cheese-sticks. For some reason even though my kids won’t eat cut up pieces of cheese, if anyone waved a cheese-stick in their face they went crazy. And as their appetites declined with the heat, I felt like they needed those little protein shots.

I’ll tell you what wore off. It was not the seaweed. The cheese-sticks quickly became old hat, but the seaweed kept it’s magic spell. They think it’s candy. It packs beautifully as long as you keep it in a good zip-lock, and it does not turn into a puddle of disgusting mold if you forget it in your purse. I consider it a “recreational snack,” it occupies kids for a good chunk of time without filling them up. Which is very handy sometimes, like when it’s almost dinner time and they want something to eat. A perfect snack to take to restaurants, in case you ever brave those things.

The only downside is the skunky seaside after-breath.

This little ode to seaweed is not to gloat (well, maybe a little) but rather to encourage everyone to give it a try. Plenty of kids don’t want anything to do with seaweed. I myself tried for years to like it, and could just never come around. My kids aren’t the only ones though, I’ve seen it before. Some kids really love the stuff. So even if you don’t, buy a little pack and just give them the opportunity. You might be surprised.

I also had a brief liaison with sardines. The responsibly fished kind are too expensive for regular snack status, and that whole big disposable can for five bites of food makes me sad. But the kids loved them. Baby fish in a cute can? What could be better. My kids both love fish, in general, and basically any kind of seafood. Which is another thing that’s surprised me. I grew up with a fish hater mom, and didn’t like it myself until I was an adult. But as it turns out, kids loving fish is actually pretty common.

The other unexpected thing I have found that kids sometimes really love is sprouts. I used to have some little friends who would eat handfuls of sprouts, straight out of the container. Mine aren’t interested, yet. I’ll try them again in a few months. But if you’re lucky enough to have one of those kids, wouldn’t you want to know?

Other snacks we depend on are apples, frozen blueberries, and hard-boiled eggs. All other fruits are hit or miss with my kids. Sometimes they love peaches or bananas, then they won’t touch them for weeks. Such unreliable behavior does not float with perishable fruits, so I mostly stick with apples. Plus, I can save the uneaten halves in the fridge for cooking with. Frozen blueberries, by the way, are the bomb if you have a toddler with tooth troubles. Cut big blueberries in half or even quarters for little ones.

What are y’alls favorite kid snacks? Any surprises?

To the Power of Two

My first born turned two on July 9th, 2009. She turned three, not surprisingly, exactly one year later. For the duration of that year she was absolutely, without a doubt, every inch of ‘two.’

I’ve heard many different stories since. As she approached her third birthday, people started to say, “Oh, you thought two was rough, just wait till you see three!” But for our girl, it was like clockwork. From birthday to birthday, she fulfilled her 2yo duties. She raged at life. She could scream, like a banshee, like her life was ending, for forty-five motherfucking minutes, throwing her little body around with surprising strength. As with every other part of mothering, I had had no idea what a fit could be like.

They don’t call it a ‘fit’ for nothing. Like in an epileptic fit, she seemed to all but disappear. She became almost possessed, I don’t mean demonically, but in the sense that once she got going, all you could do was stand back, protect her from harm and let the thing take it’s course. They always lasted for at least 20 minutes, 30 was average. During her peak phases, of which there were a few over the course of that year, she had one to two fits per day. During the ‘lulls’ she would average probably 3/week.

I thought I would maybe die.

I want to write this post because I want to expose the possibilities of the two year old. Like everything else, I went into it completely unprepared. I suspect most of us do, removed as we are in this country from small children. I had heard about the ‘terrible twos,’ of course, but I thought screaming fits were a sign of bad parenting. A discipline problem that just required firm, consistent parenting.

I want to write this post, not to scare anyone with an approaching-2yo, every kid is different and what we went through was not necessarily normal, but to reassure anyone entering this difficult phase with a particularly stormy child that these intense fits are also not abnormal.

I don’t have any tips, don’t bother scrolling down for an acronymed ‘fit response system.’ After all that whole year I still have no idea if I could or should have done anything different. Instead of advice, as is my way, I want to offer solace, solidarity. Voicing of what typically goes unsaid.

You are not alone.

Your kid is not a demonic freak.

You are not failing as a parent.

Here’s one thing I did figure out. Parents with dramatic 2yos don’t go out in public. They are too afraid of the public shaming. The people you see, out and about, are the people with the naturally ‘well-behaved’ kids (there are a few in the world). The moms who can actually manage to pull it together to say, brush their hair. Who are relatively confident that their kid will not pitch a fit on them. And when kids do pitch a fit, they are taken kicking and screaming to the car. Out of sight, out of mind.

Because I don’t usually drive, we did have a handful of fits on street corners, and I am talking sitting on the side of the road, trying to contain a screaming, flailing kid for 20-40 minutes (don’t forget newborn in Ergo carrier!) One such occasion was extremely insightful.

We were having the classic, ‘I don’t want to walk home, carry me!’ fight, where I have 20 pounds of newborn strapped on, no stroller because it was such a short walk I wouldn’t need one, right? and I refuse to carry her two and a half blocks, on the principle of the matter. Because she’s throwing a fit about it, and I think I shouldn’t give in to her fits. So, we sit there on the side of the road for 25 minutes. She is screaming like I’m stabbing her heart out, picking up rocks from someone’s driveway and throwing them into the road. A car pulls up.

Fuck me, it’s the person who lives here. Shit. Son-of-a-bitch.

A well put together woman in her 50s gets out of the car. I am trying to physically pull my girl away from the driveway when the inevitable question comes.

“Is everything okay?”

I let out an enormous breath and force a smile. “We’re alright,” I say, “She doesn’t want to walk.” I give that knowing adult look that condescends the child.

The woman kneels down next to my wailing banshee and starts to talk to her. About the walk, the day, what it’s like to have a new baby in the house. At one point she looks up at me and says kindly, “I’m a child psychologist.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Great. Just what I need right now.

But she is just so gentle and understanding, reiterating several times about how hard it is to accept a new sibling, and how hard it is to be two. Eventually the tears dry up and we manage to walk the 2 1/2 blocks back to our own house. Me feeling humbled. My girl completely exhausted.

I want to tell you how you are not alone, but I also want to do what a good friend did for me– I want to give you license to feel empathy for your little person. I had judged so harshly before I had kids. Thinking that fits were to get something. That parents were being manipulated. I have no doubt that this happens, and no doubt it happened to us many times. But it is only one part of the story.

When her fits first started I remember thinking with surprise that they didn’t seem like an attempt to manipulate. Instead it seemed like just so much unbelievably intense emotion had built up that her little body couldn’t contain it and it exploded in one engulfing physical storm. Nevertheless, I thought I was supposed to not give an inch. That this was some kind of trial by fire, I needed to show her that those explosions didn’t get her anything. Not whatever it was she had been refused that had sparked the fit, but also not any kind of special attention that might make her think fits=attention.

Amazingly I would always become calm when these emotional storms hit. Maybe it’s the luck of personality. To me it felt like she just sucked all the air out of the room, like there wasn’t any left for me. I get plenty rageful as a mom, you know that by now, but somehow not when she was raging. One at a time I guess.

For the first few months, my tactic was to remain in the room with her, but withdraw myself emotionally. I felt that I shouldn’t ‘reward’ her ‘bad behavior’ with my attentions. This was extremely awkward, and several times felt downright wrong as she hung from my legs screaming my name in mortal agony while I did my best to ignore her. But as parents often do, I persevered because I thought it was the right thing to do. After about a month, the fits subsided a bit, and I tentatively patted myself on the back for showing her what was not an ‘appropriate’ way to behave.

Of course, that first wave was just one of many. The whole scene resurfacing several times over that year. As I watched her suffer these tremendous hurricanes of emotion, again and again, my feelings that she was trying to get something diminished. I don’t think I even once rewarded her with the original object of her fit. I can be strong that way. Whether I had in fact given her the attention I feared she might equate with acting out is harder to answer. But in the end it became a moot point for me, because I started to feel for her. I started to think how horrible if, during your moment of greatest distress, confusion, terror, your mama stopped being emotionally available to you. I had reassured myself that I had always stayed physically near to her, but have you ever had a lover who lay next to you, skin to skin, yet closed their heart? There are few things in life more isolating, few lonelinesses greater.

Then again, what can you do? Is it right to just sit there and focus on them for 40 minutes? There was nothing particularly I could do for her, she would never let me touch her once she got going. No alternatives were accepted, no derrailing or distracting ever worked. She would have turned down ice cream in the middle of a fit. Literally, all you could do was wait it out.

And what about, quite practically, siblings who need attention as well? Pots on the stove boiling over? Floors needing swept? When your kid is screaming for 20-60 minutes a day, you can’t really afford to just hang out with them throughout their many moments of need. Would it even be right for them emotionally to be the focus in that situation?

Like I said, no answers here. By the end of our year, although my routine was outwardly identical– I would stay in the same room and attempt to do something else– I had made a possibly critical change. I would try to keep my heart open to her. I would check in every few minutes with offers of a glass of water, a snack, or to snuggle on the couch and read a book. The offers were never taken until the storm was on it’s way out anyway. But I felt that offering showed I was still paying attention to the fact that she was having a hard time. I kept the line open between us.

Otherwise I would just let her rage. Which is not so easy as it sounds. She would often be hanging from my leg, screaming at the top of her lungs. I would try to pretend I was still cutting up carrots for dinner or whatever. I felt this conveyed the message that life goes on, that no matter how she felt the world was ending, I was confident that it would continue to exist. I felt like if I made too big of a deal out of her crying that it would reinforce her feeling that in fact something was horribly wrong. I wanted to keep a steady, calm anchor of regular life to her wheeling passion storm. But as I said, for me, the difference was all in my heart. I allowed myself to feel empathy. ‘I see that you are really suffering. I am confident that you will be okay. I am here for you if you need something, I’ll be be cutting these carrots up.’

I am telling you this, not because I think I have it all figured out. Maybe I ruined my kid by not sending her to her own room for these screaming sessions. Or maybe I ruined her by not sitting down to share in her rage. Hell if I know. But, in the end I did what felt right to my heart. And if I have any advice at all, it’s to do what feels right to your heart. I don’t believe as some do that our hearts always lead us the right way, sometimes hard things must be done, things that hurt. But as far as a guiding principle, I think it’s a good one.

Mostly I want you to know that things will change. Children change. Constantly. Fits at two does not mean fits forever. ‘It’s a phase’ always seemed so patronizing to me. Almost derogetory. But damn is it true! And when I take away my own baggage from that phrase, it’s so technically accurate. It’s a phase of development. Like the pupa phase. A fact of life.

I often look at my girl and find myself expecting a miniature adult. She is not an adult, she is four years old. She is a bit more than half her mature physical height and less than a quarter of what could possibly be considered a mature age. Why do I have such a hard time accepting her ‘immature’ behavior?

Your screaming banshee is going through a phase of growth. There are many things to learn, and many of them are very hard. She is becoming aware of herself as separate from you, finding out that she is master of her own self. She is struggling to learn how to wield this power. Imagine the exhilaration and absolute terror at such power!

Do not doubt that she is learning, just as fast as she possibly can. Do not doubt that she is growing and will become a 3yo, a 4yo, a 10yo, an adult. This distance perspective, so often lost to us when we are in the midst of a hurricane year, is perhaps the most important thing of all. Breathe. Open your heart. Stand up once in a while and look out over the horizon– somewhere beyond those black clouds the sky is blue.

Never Cry Wolf: A Rare Movie Review

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You won’t find many movie reviews on this blog. As much as I do enjoy vegging out at the end of a day, and my girl watches something almost every afternoon, it’s just not a subject I feel merits much time or attention.

But, there are some exceptions. And one of them is Never Cry Wolf. It’s based on the book by Farley Mowat. In Alaska, everyone knows who he is, and everyone saw the movie when it came out, back in the 80s. Here, no one knows who he is, nor have they ever heard of the movie. And maybe the appeal is all Alaskan too, I’m not sure.

All I know is that we got it from Netfl*x three weeks ago, and my little girl still won’t let me send it back. We watched it the first time together, and she’s watched it by herself at least half a dozen times since. It’s a simple story about a man who goes out into the Canadian arctic to study wolves, completely unprepared for the vast wilderness he is suddenly dropped into. It is at turns humblingly profound and bust-a-gut hilarious. I think it’s about as wholesome a family movie as has ever been made (though there is a long scene of him naked, running with a herd of caribou, in case anyone cares). It’s a very slow movie, lots of long scenes of mountain tundra and, not surprisingly, wolves. But there is some death defying adventure as well, and as I said, some uproarious humor.

I feel there are very few movies really suited for families. Disney “family movies” generally make me sick. If I am not outright offended, I am just plain bored. The movie industry plays down to kids like they’re stupid. They’re not. They are attracted to black vs. white stories and loud, obnoxious voices, that much I can’t deny. But it doesn’t mean they are not capable of enjoying much greater depth.

Never Cry Wolf is, to me, an epic family movie. Absolutely good enough to watch as plain old adults, and yet apparently compelling enough to hold my 4yo’s attention and adoration. Though I will say, she is obsessed with camping and Eskimos, both of which the movie provides in full measure. But even the little guy was interested for a while, a bush plane and animals did it for him.

After a few times round with the movie, my girl said one night, “Oooo, I know. Let’s make a tent! Like in Never Cry Wolf!” And so we did. Then she instructed me to crawl under with her so we could “watch the wolves and take notes.”

Two of my other top favorite movies are the Gods’ Must Be Crazy I and II. Also old, also both serious and hilarious, though the humor is incredibly slapstick. Right up my alley, but too silly for some. They are simple stories with lots of animals and kids seem to enjoy them. Probably best for older kids though, they are set in the Kalahari Desert on the edge of a war zone. They portray the ridiculousness of war, a very anti-war message I think, but nevertheless…

That’s it. Probably the only movie review I’ll ever do. Anyone want to share their family faves?

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By Surprise

Some time back, after shaking the last bit out of a salt canister, I had a brainstorm. I looked at that big cardboard tube and thought, planetarium! We got right to it, poking star holes with the pointy end of a candy thermometer, removing the metal spout to make a peep hole and lastly painting the whole thing night sky blue.

I finally stood back with pride while my girl squinted up one eye and gazed into her private galaxy. And then it hit me.

Holy fuck. I am a mom.

I looked at a salt can and saw a galaxy tube. My brain thinks in scissors and paint, my house is littered with toys in every room, the walls are plastered with children’s drawings, I stroller my kids to library story-time every Tuesday morning, and I almost always remember to pack a variety of wholesome snacks.

I wasn’t exactly terrified. It just…. caught me by surprise. It always does.

Back when I was a mere three months pregnant with the first and our kind-hearted neighbors started bringing by boxes of second hand kid stuff, I freaked out. I was not going to be one of Those Parents. Whose house is overrun by kids’ toys, whose lives are overrun by kids’ activities. Babies don’t need stuff, I told myself. This pre-stockpiling is completely absurd.

There was one moment in particular– A woman I vaguely knew had called to see if I wanted a baby bassinet. “What’s a bassinet?” I asked. She explained and said she’s bring it by for me to look at. I must have missed her knock at the door, because two hours later when I opened it to go out for a walk, there was an enormous monstrosity of white lace blocking my exit. I gasped. I felt dizzy. I considered taking it straight to the trash, but I am too pragmatic for that. As quickly as I could I stripped off the white lace, hauled the bassinet upstairs and exiled it to a dark closet. Similarly the four huge boxes of cloth diapers. I think I might have even made the woman who brought them by feel bad for dumping them on me.

Lo and behold, a few months later that bassinet became critical to my every day. I would lay the babe in it in the kitchen while I did the few necessaries (a really few).  And the diapers, jesus what an ingrate. I didn’t realize I was being gifted hundreds of dollars worth of extremely nice cloth diapers.

But, they just…. caught me by surprise. I hadn’t thought about diapers and bassinets yet. I was still coming to grips with the fact that I could hardly breathe enough to walk up the mountain trail by our house.

Things have continued at such a pace. I am perpetually several steps behind in the ‘gracious acceptance’ department, always suffering from the arrogant expectation that I would be ‘different.’ Having a second helped drive the point in. I had been adamantly against strollers, but come 6 months pregnant, carrying an almost 2yo up the hill in the Ergo with 20 pounds of groceries strapped on back, my resolve began to melt.

These days I look more or less like any mom. Like a real mom. Kids in the stroller, diaper bag bulging, unwashed hair flying everywhere. Life more or less completely folded around my littles.

I do sometimes long for those footloose days when I imagined what kind of mama I would be, imagined how I would be ‘different.’ Everything is possible in one’s imagination.

But I am becoming more and more comfortable with my place down here amongst the human people. Being a mom with a diaper bag. Thinking in scissors and paint. Finding delight in an old salt can. Being overrun by kids.

In fact on the days that I manage to surrender to my role, I sometimes find myself blissfully happy about the entirety of my mom-ness. Like some earthy Madonna, I feel full with motherhood. Peace descends from above. And it’s good.

Which above all is what catches me by surprise. I am mom. I am okay.

Fighting the System vs. Embracing What Is

Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. A whole big FOUR. And she had a perfect 4yo’s birthday, everything she might have thought to want– balloons, streamers, bear cake with chocolate coconut ‘fur,’ all her best friends, and her favorite party dress.

Oh yeah, and lots and lots of presents. And lots. On and on, all day long. More and more presents.

Are holidays just cursed for me now? I used to love Christmas and birthdays before I had kids. They meant special rituals, glittery lights, people I loved, decadent food. Now they both mean stuff, loads if it. Mostly cheap plastic stuff from China.

I have old fashioned values about stuff. Like, maybe depression-era values. I think a kid should get one or two, maybe three presents. That sounds like plenty to me. Anything else turns their eyes into jelly doughnuts. Kids need fresh air, space to play, raw materials and household objects to imagine into games. Toys get played with surprisingly little, in the full scheme of things. In the meantime, the many pieces and parts get scattered helter-skelter and quickly become just something that needs picked up.

Not to mention the global oppression necessary to supply first-world toy stores with all that bargain priced junk.

I’ve written about this before, and although ranting is good, that’s not what I had in mind today. The thing is, when there is heaps of presents, at any holiday, I get extremely uncomfortable. I have to keep swallowing and swallowing. I mean really, it just about ruins the day for me.

Which seems like a big waste of my time, at best, and the beginnings of a complex in my kids, at worst.

I have lately been pecking away at the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. I find her arrogance almost insufferable, but there is some very good stuff in amongst the bullshit, so I’m trying to keep at it. One of the things that struck me recently was a passage about community. She was refuting the apparently commonly (?) held belief that a close community, like a tribe, is better for kids. She basically said things are just different now. No point romanticizing the past. Let’s embrace the present as it is. Instead of mourning what we lost, let’s appreciate what the present has to offer, the unique benefits of a nuclear family.

This hit on something I’ve been stewing over lately, so I was intrigued. I don’t know if she’s right particularly about the community issue, but what struck me was the overall concept of embracing and appreciating what is, rather than fighting for what isn’t.

I have a renegade nature, I like to fight against what is. The world needs renegades for certain. But I’m a lazy renegade, or at the very least, extremely distracted. I’m not really going to put the effort into serious revolution. Instead I just spend a lot of time obsessively railing against the Way Things Are.

I know it’s good and important to fight for what you believe to be true, but at what point had you better knock it off and just relax into what actually is?

Am I just going to keep hating computers, and using them, and hating them, and using them and hating myself for using them forever? I mean, looks like these suckers are gonna be around for awhile. And more importantly, what about my kids? Looks like computers will be the foundation for their world. Should I raise them for that world, or the one I really, really wish would exist?

Should I just keep hating presents, alienatating myself from the people I love and slowly poisoning my holidays? Or should I accept graciously the reality of the situation and share their joy and excitement at all the fun new toys?

I want to share their joy. I want to show them how to live up to your values. I want them to be unencumbered by guilt and shame. I want it all. But it seems to come down to an either/or. Fight vs. Embrace.

I guess this brings me right back to that old dog, submission, and the perennial Alcoholics Anonymous prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

But even then, there’s only two admitted possibilities. Either you can or cannot change something. I think what plagues me most are the myriad gray tones. If my angsty holidays could change working conditions in China, I’m pretty sure I could live with the fight. Instead, for all my internal turmoil, all of my stern emails to grandparents and moralistically shaming My Man, I might save one or two toys. Keep them on the shelves for someone else to ply their child with…. Stupidly, more than actually effectively helping the world, I am just making the people I love feel bad.

I don’t have any answers. Just a big, fat, crucially important question. Which I suppose must be asked by each individual person, in each individual family and each individual situation.

How do you ask it?

 

Parenting Advice and Where to Stick It

Our almost 4yo started her first day of camp today at the local Waldorf school. She has never been to any kind of camp/school/day-care before, and has only been left with a babysitter a handful of times. This is a big deal for our family.

Not because I’m worried about her– she is incredibly gregarious and was so excited that at 7:45 this morning she was laying on the kitchen floor, dressed for camp, with her backpack on, just waiting until I said it was late enough to get her lunchbox out of the fridge. She explained carefully to the 1.5yo that Papa would drop her off on his way to work and not pick her up until after lunch. Her eyes are wide open with excitement, and my only fear is that she will be heartbroken when the two weeks are over.

No, it’s a big deal because she’s growing up and this is the beginning of her very own solo adventures in the world. Because it means a shift for our family, a whole new era. Of course, it’s only two weeks, but this is the first tiny budding.

This whole school situation is such a perfect example of what I have come to think of as partnership parenting. I didn’t want to send her to school. I advocate being home with your kiddos, if you can and want to. I can, and want to. But she is so hungry for other kids, and in fact the whole school experience– the teacher figure, the cohesive group activities.

She wants it, and so I am doing my best to reconsider my ideas. In my fantasy parenting model, we are both partners, she leads her own life with great consideration for our family, and I lead my own, with great consideration for her. Freedom, not license.

In practice it looks like this: I am trying to find a way for her to freely pursue her desire for a school-like experience, while considering the fact that our family doesn’t have much money to spare.

This is not the way I imagined it. I thought I would be the Great Decider, and she would raft in my wake. Then again, I assumed she would be happy rafting in my wake. I had no idea how early and how extremely they become themselves. Full grown-up persons, in little pudgy bodies.

We always think so black and white. I try to see gray, but it’s hard, it truly is. You have to work at it. I have always thought whether a parent stayed home with their kid was a flexible notion, but before I had thought flexible to the parent. Did the parent want to be home? Did they have a job they were passionate about and didn’t want to give up? Was there childcare available that they felt good about and could afford?

As is continually happening since I had kids, I am realizing the enormous hole in my thinking where the kid’s very own disposition and desires should be.

Before I had kids, I knew there was a range of what was healthy and good. But I had no idea how vast that range was. The epic eye-opening started with pregnancy and kept emphasizing itself throughout the birth, and then every day since. I thought a woman might gain 20-50 pounds with her pregnancy, when in fact I know women who gained as little as 12 pounds and as much as 80, both perfectly healthy pregnancies. I thought labor lasted 6-24 hours. I didn’t know it could take three motherfucking days, as mine did (apparently quite normal for a first). I thought some babies cried more than others. But in truth some babies don’t cry at all, and I heard of one that cried 18 hours a day for the first three months and turned out to be, again, perfectly healthy.

Just as there is this fantastically huge range of pregnancies and babies, there is an exponential range to families considered as a whole. My mind boggles at the possibly infinite variations. That’s why I think parenting advice just isn’t that useful, and judgment is downright blaspheme. I always figure, the best we can do for each other is to pool ideas, to share our own experience in as much detail as possible. Then the other mama can compare notes and see what jives, what feels right for her own family, without fear or shame.

I like to think that’s my patent expression here at Apron Stringz. A resounding, ‘To each their own!’ It’s the honest way I feel, though I am as pulled as anyone by the inherent judgment of our human culture. In writing, I find it especially hard to keep the high-horse voice out. It’s the standard way to write, the formula. Conflict, resolution. Here’s a problem, here’s what to do about it. And consequently we are so convinced by what we read, as if the fact of print means someone didn’t just pull it out of their ass.

Please understand that no matter what I say, no matter what I commit to text, I am just pulling it out of my ass. Sometimes I might really hit the nail on the head for you. And that’s great, my words are true, for you. On the other side of the world some mama stares at her computer screen and shakes her head, ‘what a load of shit.’ And that’s the truth, for her.

To each their own.

So, my girl is off to camp. She has impressed upon the world and our family her very own vision for life, her very own agenda. I can only stand back in awe. What will she do with that beautiful, headstrong will? Where will her adventures lead her? She is at the beginning of her journey. I feel so grateful to be here, to pack her lunch and send her off with a kiss.

 

To School or Not to School

I’ve been obsessing lately. It’s not unusual. I always seem to have some kind of bees in my bonnet. Lately the sujet du obsession is school.

Or should I say “school.”

Maybe this is just the way it is now, but here they call it “school,” no matter the age. “Day care” is practically blasphemy. And everybody puts their kids in “school” by the age of 2. Some real radicals wait until age 3. As my eldest approaches the age of 4, we are entering into an entirely new category of weird.

Which is fine by me, you all know. The prevalence of nursery school is enough to make me dig my heels. But even besides rebellion for rebellion’s sake, and despite all the bitching I do here, I love having my kids home. They’re little, they won’t be for long, it’s a distinct privleged to be able to watch them bloom on such an intimate level.

But my little girl has always been a gregarious creature. When we first moved here 2 years ago she was clearly suffering some clinical deprival (so was I to be honest). She would practically attack anyone her size on the street, holding their hand, stroking their face and gleefully announcing her new friend. I had to work hard to provide her with the socializing she needed. It took awhile, but I got it under control. Among other things I happened to meet a soul-mate mama at the park who had two kids of very similar ages. We started hanging out every afternoon. We were both going crazy and doing two outings a day anyway, so it worked.

But as time went on our kids grew out of their crazy rough patches, nobody was quite so desperate and our afternoon meetings dwindled. She lives a 15-20 minute drive from us, and it just seemed hard to coordinate. Lately we only hang out once every week or two.

And that was okay for awhile. But recently, my little girl’s been having a rebirth of social desperation. We have a few great friends now, even right in our own neighborhood, but they all have younger kids. She very obviously needs peers or older. In one sad scene last week she followed a random 5yo girl around like a puppy, drooling on her shoes and gazing at her with rapt attention. The older girl was less than amused by the attention. It was excruciating.

At least it beat it into my head that it’s time to take action. I realized that all the other 4yos (and most of the 3yos) were in school, and therefore casual exposure to kid places like the park and the Parenting Center wasn’t going to cut it anymore. If I wanted my girl to get peer interactions I would have to get back to work actively and specifically socializing with kids her age, or join the crowd and put her in school.

I am not opposed to school, even when it’s just day-care in disguise. I had looked into it once, back when I was going crazy. I would have considered it very seriously if there were any openings, but child care is tight around here, and mid-year was hopeless. I stuck it out because I had to and in the end, once things mellowed out a bit, I was glad I hadn’t found a spot for her. Glad she had stayed home with us.

Not that I think one mama cloistered at home with one or two kids, all day every day represents a perfect situation. It’s too much, for everyone involved. Too intense, too hard, too inbred. This work is meant to be shared. I think the ideal for most families would be that antiquated model of the feral kid pack, running around doing who knows what, entertaining each other and moderately supervised by the community at large. The parents would be generally around, and kids would drift in and out of their parent’s day. Parallel, nearby.

More modern possibilities are splitting the parenting, with both parents working part-time outside the home. Or childcare help from grandparents and families. Any kind of spreading out is good. But these ideals are hard to achieve or simply not available to most of us nowadays.

So we make do with whatever we can manage, basing our decisions on our kiddos’ and our own needs. I have perhaps higher than normal needs for time to myself. My girl has perhaps higher than normal needs for social interactions with kids her age. Some sort of group care makes a lot of sense at first glance.

But the more I think it through, the more confused I get. The options are so limited. The 3 hours a day/3 days a week option that was available when she was 2 has apparently expired. Now, at 4 years old, if she wants to go to “school” it’s pre-K, and it’s 5 hours a day, five days a week.

Just a little rant here. When I was a kid, kindergarden was 3 hours a day. For 5 year olds. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but 5 hours a day seems like a long time to be entirely absent from my 4yo’s world, and vise-versa. I mean, I know lots of people do 8 hours a day, from 6 months old. And their kids grow up perfectly fine. But, for myself and our family, that just feels too long.

Then there is, quite critically, the issue of the 1.5 year old. He has every bit as much social need as his big sis, so I would still have to do a morning outing or playdate. Not to mention that the schools run from 8-1 and let out in the middle of his naptime. I’d have to leave sis in the “aftercare” for another hour I guess, which brings it to 6 hours away.

In my perfect world I could take the 4yo to school from 12-3. Then I would have the Babe’s naptime to myself, free and clear. But even if I could find a school with those hours (which I can’t) she kind of needs that quiet time in the middle of the day. She watches a movie or plays by herself, and it looks to be quite restorative. I don’t think replacing that down time with a manic kid environment would be helpful in the long run.

Lastly, it always comes back to money. Regardless of what would or wouldn’t work, we can’t afford it. The reputable places add up to at least $6,000/school year. That’s a lot of dough. I’d still have the little guy, so it’s not like I can go to work in the free time.

So after thinking everything through 6 or 7 times, I arrived at the expected conclusion of no, I don’t want to send her to school yet. I did enroll her in a short summer “camp” at the Waldorf school. Four hours a day, five days a week for two weeks. $200, which is on the low end around here. I think she’ll love it.

We have been doing a music class for a year now, which both kids adore. She graduates into the older kids’ session in the fall, which will be even better. I think I will sign her up for a dance class too, since there’s a ballet studio nearby. I don’t give a rat’s ass about ballet, but it’s 6 blocks away, and the prices are reasonable.

Apart from that, I’m just going to work harder to socialize. Make regular dates with my soul-mate mama friend and her eligibly aged, un-schooled son. And see if I can’t find a few more un-schooled 4 year olds in this damned city.

That’s when I had my epiphany. I remembered a friend telling me she’d heard rumors of an unschooling group in New Orleans. I had always thought school started at 5, but if everyone else’s 4yo is in school, then 4 (or even 3) is the new 5. So, if my 4yo daughter stays home with me while all her peers are in school, that means I am homeschooling her. There’s a name for it! And implicitly, possibly, other families like ours!

I searched online. It took some looking, but eventually I found them. 2 homeschool groups and an unschooling group. Oh joy! I signed up for all three and almost immediately got a sympathetic email from one of the coordinators, hooking me up with a woman who also had younger kids and lived in my part of town. I emailed her, and she emailed me and the long and short of it is that she lives–

One.

Block.

Away.

She has two boys, a 3yo and a 6yo, and she’s pregnant. I had her over this morning and we talked almost non-stop for two hours. Not a soul-mate perhaps, but darn good company. The kids took a little while to warm up, but eventually my girl had a wonderful time following the 6yo around.

What if I hadn’t joined that group? How long would we have kept passing like ships in the night, never knowing the other was there?

I’m telling you this story because you may know someone in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if you’re in a situation like this there’s only one thing you can do (bonus points to anyone who gets this random refferrence)–

Never give up!

Some freak a lot like you might live just around the corner.