Monday, June 22, 2015

Mr. Mommy Guest Writes

Over the last year, I've been lucky enough to have the time to work on this blog and other personal writing projects because of my awesome and fulfilling job as an English professor at FRCC and because my amazing and supportive husband has sacrificed his own career to take over as our daughter's primary caregiver. I thought it would only be appropriate to invite him to share his experiences as a full-time stay-at-home dad. This is what he said.

Recently when people ask me what I do and I explain that I stay home with my baby girl I often get rather extreme reactions.  As a stay-at-home dad, it seems as though I am either The Greatest Guy Ever or kind of a deadbeat.  I do not believe I am either and hope I do not portray either role to my daughter.  But sometimes I can't help but feel that I have involved myself in a position that everyone seems to have a strong opinion on and sometimes I can't help but feel a little self-conscious. 
Take for instance this morning, my baby girl and I were running around the lake (well, I had been running, she was still sleeping in the stroller, her preferred exercise technique).  Sometimes on beautiful mornings like this one, when I get to participate in the leisurely activities that I enjoy without hardly any displeasing responsibilities looming over the rest of my day, I cannot help but feel a little spoiled.

As we approached the home stretch of our run just south of the lake along 34, I began noticing the cars on the road and wondered what those people must have thought when they saw us.  I naively assumed that there were only two possible opinions behind those eyes watching me jogging on a Tuesday morning while heading to work, or to school, or to jury duty, or to the dentist, or to the hospital to visit a sick loved one: either a good-natured envious perspective, thinking that it must be so nice for that guy and his baby to be able to enjoy a beautiful morning together, or a more critical perspective thinking that this loser needs to be working like the rest of us and stop rubbing his laziness in our faces. I knew I was simultaneously reminding some people that their day would not be quite as enjoyable as mine and others that their ideas of social structure and family values were being challenged. 

By the end of our run I felt an awkward sense of guilt, even though I knew I shouldn't have.   I crossed at the crosswalk and stopped to change my music to distract myself from this bad mood.  As I scrolled through my playlists I felt that someone was watching me, that someone must be judging me again.  Then I looked up to see an older gentleman smoking a cigar in a two-toned Ford pickup truck; he looked directly at me, smiled, and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.

As a stay-at-home dad in Loveland, I understand that some people may have a negative opinion of this choice my family and I have made.  I mean, women are supposed to raise the kids and take care of the house and do the dishes and the laundry and cook dinner and wake up at night to quiet the babies and wipe the butts and change the diapers, right? And men are supposed to be part of the workforce and be responsible for paying the bills and supporting their families with paychecks and health care and coming home to hang up their hat  to say, "Honey, I'm home!" and shower their families with love and attention, right?  Shouldn't children see their dad as a strong bread-winner who sacrifices for his family to keep a roof over their head, because, after all, fathers are better at that than mothers are? Shouldn't daughters and sons see their mothers as a source of unconditional love and devotion and as a comforting caretaker and custodian of the home, because, after all, mothers are more suited for these roles anyway?  After all, isn't it true that most male mammals in the wild are more concerned with providing security and protection than they are raising the children and occupying the home? 

Look, I realize there are societal norms in our country that suggest women are more fit for the raising of children and the caretaking of the house and that men are more valuable for labor and money-making, and for most cultures, these norms have historical and sociological significance. 
But, I also realize we live in the 21st century and every family is different and we are not wild animals.

The truth is, I just feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to do what is best for my family. I get to spend quality time with an adorable 9 month old baby girl every day.  The worst things in my day consist of not getting as much sleep or eating a respectable meal as much as I would like or experiencing a diaper fiasco that leads to getting all that poop on my hands.  I once was so tired that I feel asleep at the breakfast table waiting for my daughter to finish her banana and woke up sometime later to her looking at me judgingly while a half-eaten banana peel lay slack in her jaw;  my daily sustenance usually consists of whatever leftover  foul mixture of fruits and veggies and meats she won't eat. But I can't really complain; I obviously get enough sleep and food, and all that poop washes off easily.  And trust me, the highlights of my day will always be more powerful than the low points that can be boring or stressful.   

Even though some people may think I'm a deadbeat and others might think I'm The Greatest Guy Ever, I have to believe that most people understand that I am simply doing what is best for my family and they probably don't react as much as I would like to think.  For all I know, that guy in the Ford pickup could have given me a thumbs up not because of anything to do with me pushing a stroller on a Tuesday morning, but because he liked my beard, or maybe he noticed my new Nikes, or maybe someone he knows was behind me and I didn't know it.  Regardless, his gesture reminded me that I am very lucky to be able to spend so much time with my daughter every day and have a wife that loves her job and supports me. I can't remember a happier time in my life.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Fourth Street Chronicle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

the blob you’ve been waiting for, and mega-blob too

This is a project that I had been waiting for since I found the post in a blog I frequent back in March, when I was having a serious case of spring fever and the surprisingly mild temperatures made me wish I could just fast forward three months. Too bad it was cold for most of May and the first half of June so I had to wait a little bit longer than I originally thought. But when summer finally came this year, it came in style, thanks to this little number I like to call the blob, and its much older sibling mega-blob.
I have to start with my sources on this one because I in no way take credit for the conception or planning of this amazing project. My only goal in writing this is to express how incredibly easy it was to execute and how much fun my family and friends had playing with it. Pretty much everything I did here came from Leisha over at her Homemade Toast blog.

If you follow the directions on Homemade Toast, you will see that it’s really pretty straightforward. You can find a lot of different tutorials online for how to do this, but most of them involve sealing the edgeswith duct tape, which I’ve heard results in almost immediate leakage. I would also think it would be more expensive, since you’d be using so much tape. What Leisha has come up with, with the iron and parchment, is nothing short of pure genius. I want to emphasize here that melting the plastic edges together is really the only way to ensure a true, leak-proof seal. You can get a few small holes here and there and be fine, but if the seams go, the whole thing is going to lose its structure. I’d hate for that to happen when the kids are running and jumping on it.
The only thing that I think was confusing was what to do with the parchment paper, so I’ll try to clarify that. The parchment is meant to create a buffer zone between your iron and the actual plastic sheet. That's why you draw the line down the middle. Once you fit the two layers of plastic inside the parchment, with the edges pushed up against the parchment's inside seam, the line will provide a guide that shows you how far in to iron, about 2" from the edges/seam. There will still be a couple of inches of paper between the line and the plastic, so you don't even have to be exact; just follow the line as best you can, like I'm doing here:

And here's a video just in case it still isn't clear.
Like most projects, I did a semi-trial run first. Turns out the painter’s plastic comes in various weights that correlate directly with the price of the product. So I purchased a smaller 10’ x 9’ sheet in .2 mil weight for about $4 the first time around. The only other thing I had to pay for was the water itself, so this is definitely an economical project to say the least. The only caveat I can offer with the .2 mil is that it was much weaker at the seams and over time small leaks began to develop where the material was stretched, and it was so thin on top that the girl’s toenails eventually began to poke little scratches and tears in it. This was okay at first, as it kept a perpetual skin of water over the top, but eventually it led to more leakage than we really wanted. So definitely go for the .4 mil if you want an end-product that you’re going to be able to use more than once or twice, or even fill and refill multiple times. I would also note that I do not recommend the .2 mil test version for use by any children over 30 pounds, as the thicker plastic is really necessary to support any more weight than that I would think. Here's a video of the original blog:
I also added a final step of spraying down the top and drizzling on  little eco-friendly dish soap so that the kids would have an easier time sliding around on it.
The addition of the slide was a huge hit, at least until they started getting all soapy and falling on the ladder to climb up. In the future I would put a baby pool of water at the base of the later so that they would have to rinse the soap off before climbing up.
Once I was ready to go all in on with mega-blob I went back to the instructions from Homemade Toast, and this time I followed her instructions exactly, rather than using the thinner and smaller plastic like I did for my prototype. The only thing I did differently is that I did not cut down the .4 mil plastic like Leisha recommends; instead, I used the whole roll! It was huge!!!

I am not kidding you, this thing took over an hour to fill up with water!
But the added bonus of mega-blob is that it is adult-friendly.
And here is a picture of the larger and thicker .4 mil version of the painter’s plastic that I purchased off Amazon for mega-blob. HomemadeToast’s instructions have a link to the product and I looked around and did some research and this is really the best thing. At $12 I still think that it’s a pretty economical project overall.

I have to say, this is one of those rare internet finds that reverses the typically inverse relationship that you find between how exciting and fun a project turns out to be and how difficult it is to pull off. Usually I find myself putting the most work into the projects that are least successful, but in this case it was much easier than I thought and the kids had a much better time playing with it than I ever could have anticipated. But I don’t know why I didn’t think it would be a total hit—it is, after all, a giant outdoor water bed covered in soapy, slippery water. It also looks cool once it’s filled up because the plastic is clear. If I ever make another one I might put some rubber sea creature toys inside or something so the girls can pretend its an inside-out-aquarium. But for now blob versions 1.0 and 2.0 have been quite enough. After it was finished we played with it for about three weeks before I found the time to come inside and write this post.

Happy blobbing, everyone.

Friday, June 5, 2015

boxing back the front

One of the best things about having one of us stay home is that we don’t always have to make decisions out of convenience but rather get to find ways to save money by putting in a little extra effort to make or reuse things ourselves. One way in which we have done so is by investing in a substantial garden from which we can pull fruits and veggies for at least four months of the year (I know four months probably sounds pathetic but this is Colorado, after all). This is nice because gardening also happens to be one of Mack’s life passions—something that he throws himself into fully without hesitation or reserve. Usually, we spend our summers embarking on our semi-annual pilgrimage to Kentucky, but with a few recent developments in our family’s living situation, we didn’t feel the need to do so this year. This has left our summer plans wide open in a way that we have yet to experience since moving to Colorado—in eight years, we had never really spent a full summer here. And because of that, a garden was something that we’d never really been able to achieve (since June is such a crucial month for growing here and that’s usually when we would be gone). As Colorado readers already know, the soil out here isn’t necessarily conducive to growing a lot of product in a short amount of time, and coaxing even a modest yield out of in-ground plants seems to take an amount diligence far surpassing that necessary even to get my toddler to eat. So it should go without saying that nothing requiring that much effort could possibly be worth it, and any respectable home-gardener around here will tell you that above-the-ground is the way to go. For my east-coast and southern friends out there, this means that here in Colorado, we buy our dirt at the store. We started by digging down about six inches below where we wanted the surrounding mulch to come up in the bed alongside where the boxes were going to go. Then, Mack hammered in the stakes for the four corners of the western-most box. Here is a picture where you can easily see the corner stakes that we hammered into the ground and then built everything else off of:

But we must have hit rock or something because the far southwestern stake got stuck with about three feet still sticking up in the air. After nearly an entire afternoon of frustrated pounding, Mack decided that a three-foot-tall garden box might not be such a bad idea, in terms of our tomato crop and maintaining his sanity. I personally thought it would look weird to have three-foot-tall garden box sticking up randomly in the air, and so the idea was born to build a second-level tier around the outside of the taller inner box, to make it all more proportional and Roman-looking; because the idea involved more planting, building, power tools, and general digging in the dirt, Mack took little convincing.

Here’s a picture of what the tiered corner looked like (never mind what is going on in the background):

Of course, our limited income makes the economic benefit of growing our own edible plants an added bonus, and it was important to us to maximize our return by spending as little as possible on the overhead. You see a lot of nice-looking and bountiful gardens that probably cost more than a whole summer of trips to Whole Foods (never mind a Costco membership) to get up and running. Once again, we decided that pallets were the way to go—they would provide cheap lumber, after all (and my definition of cheap is really free). Mack had to spend about 100 hours at the dump busting up pallets into their individual panels, which he loved. But after doing some research Mack realized that it can be very hard on the wood to sustain multiple waterings year in and year out, and he didn’t want to have to keep fortifying the thing over and over again, so we decided to go ahead and purchase some ¾” plywood, which we covered in plastic sheeting. This will prevent the side panels from bowing out from water damage after a couple of seasons, and instead allow the wood panels from the pallets to really serve as just a fa├žade. This is basically what you are going for on the inside:

You can also see that there are horizontal braces running the length of the plywood. On the larger box we added an additional vertical post in the middle. All of this lumber came from the dump (read: free). The plastic sheeting was one of our larger expenses, at about $10 for the three-mile-long roll, but we will have plenty to use for slip-and-slides throughout the summer, so win-win-win, I think. In this picture, you can see the plastic sheeting covering the plywood panels on the inside a little more easily (Mack just used a staple gun and wrapped the plywood panels like a present):

For the southeastern corner we just made a single-tier box in line with the proportions of the larger western box (Roman, again). Then, Mack had the absolutely genius idea of finishing the edges, corners, and borders with 2” trim, which we purchased for about $7. This also allowed Mack to use the miter feature on his chop saw, which is always an event worth celebrating in the Holly household. Note his particularly fine craftsmanship here:

And here are some pictures of Mack looking hot and lining up the corners:

And here’s the finished version with the trim (you can see that this again is the smaller of the two):

We coated everything in a clear poly to protect against weathering, but the best part is that the inside is completely protected by the plastic sheeting so if any of the outermost panels become damaged all we have to do is replace them. Overall, we have planted flowers, tomatoes, and herbs in these boxes, which are south-facing and add a much-needed addition to our modest crop. It’s also kind of convenient and nice to just walk right out the front door and grab whatever herbs I need while I am cooking.

Because the backyard is so far away.

Happy gardening, everyone.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

what I didn't learn from playing The Oregon Trail

Last summer my husband and I traveled with our then six-month-old daughter on a cross-country road trip that took us through twelve states. Our Toyota sedan was stuffed to the gills, filled with all the accoutrements that come along with traveling with a small child. It was a new experience for the two of us, as we've always prided ourselves on being light packers. Before we bought our house we were somewhat minimalists, moving frequently and typically giving away most of our furniture and starting over each time. Since the birth of our daughter, though, our possessions have effectively doubled. Like many of the homes in the Old Town neighborhood, our house has minimal storage, lacking closets, a garage, and a basement. About all we have is a narrow attic space above the small portion of our home that isn't an addition. Now every corner of the space is overflowing with baby items, a swing here, a stack of board books there, a pile of folded blankets tucked away beside the couch. As my husband and I packed for our trip, deciding what was necessary to take and what it was possible to leave, I couldn't believe how much stuff we would need to make it through the four weeks that we would be gone. It was the first time I'd ever been forced to take inventory of all the things that we use on a daily basis simply keeping our daughter alive. It got me thinking about how much stuff there is involved in being a parent these days, and how much of it we really do—or do not—need.

Here's what we brought: one Pack-n-Play portable crib; four sets of clothing for my daughter: one for the size she was wearing at the time, one in case she grew, one for hot weather, one for cold; a suitcase full of clothes and other essentials for my husband and I, including one blow dryer that according to my husband took up too much space because "ounces lead to pounds"; one teal Bumbo seat; one Ergo carrier, one Baby Bjorn, and one Maya wrap; rock climbing harnesses and shoes; all our running stuff; three swimsuits per person; our laptop and a few work items I was pretending to plan to make time for during the trip; one forty-pound dog and his large Tupperware box of food; a pillow; four blankets; bottles and bottle accessories (drying rack, microsteam sanitizer bags, natural dish soap, bottle brush, formula); one collapsible stroller; one bag of random things including a bottle warmer and nightlight and baby monitor; one bag of books; one small-ish box of toys; baby toiletries and medicines; a cooler; two packs each of diapers and wipes; a diaper bag with extra outfits, bottles, and formula; two folding chairs; one air mattress; six pairs of adult shoes; four pairs of baby shoes; fourteen headbands;  two rain jackets; one umbrella; two Father's Day gifts.

My husband is truly a master of packing the car. We had everything and anything we needed, or so we thought.

But along the way, each time we played the game of Tetris involved in retrieving some essential item from the trunk, I couldn't help but feel as if we had brought too much. In our defense, every single thing we had was either something we truly intended to use or else something that we would need in case of some emergency. The last stop on our trip was a stay with my husband's sister in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. She's a design student who wants to build tiny houses for disabled adults to live in independently. She and her boyfriend and dog currently reside in a 247 square-foot apartment which the contents of our vehicle alone would have filled. When we arrived there after two days on the road, we bustled in with a tiny mountain of necessities which quickly piled up in the small living space. It was at that moment that the full weight of everything we had accumulated in the last six months really hit me. How could someone so small involve such a huge entourage of things, a quantity of possessions that could easily trump that of four adults?

The hard fact was that it was all pretty excessive. Sure, everything there in some way made life with an infant more easy and convenient, but very little of it was essential. There were a few items we did need. The Pack-n-Play was worth its weight; we only used it a couple of times, but it really allowed my husband and I our much-needed sleep. About five hundred thousand wet wipes definitely saved the day on multiple occasions (two packs was not nearly enough). All the bottles and their accessories of course. And I'll admit that my daughter went through quite a few outfits.

But what we didn't need were things like any of the clothes we brought for ourselves. All of the athletic equipment, not sure what we were thinking there. The second and third baby carriers and wraps. Of course, the stuff I brought for work. The books and toys; the grandparents supplied these as soon as we arrived in town. The truth is we didn't actually need most of what we brought. We had access to laundry facilities, stayed in the homes of family members and used their toiletries with entitlement.

We didn't have everything we needed; we had everything.

Why does it feel necessary as parents to surround ourselves with physical reminders of our responsibility to keep this tiny, helpless little person alive? Maybe because it's such an important job, because failing at it is so terrible a thought that we want to try everything we can to do it better. But I don't think doing it better always means making it easier and having things doesn't always make me feel confident. Maybe if we had a little bit less, we might actually be more.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of The 4th Street Chronicle

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

to schedule or not to schedule...

There are all kinds of perspectives on this, from proponents of free-range parenting to more rigid, autocratic styles, but our approach to everything related to our daughter thus far has been biased toward moderation. We’re against any particular extreme, have always been more middle-of-the-road. We don’t cry it out but we aren’t against it, either—it’s just not what our daughter has needed. We try to follow her cues, for the most part. But when I was at home with her for the eight months after she was born, I felt myself going stir crazy every morning as all of the hours in the day spread out before me. Now that it’s summertime again, and Mack is working more and more at his various jobs, I am yet again in the position of watching her for days at a time by myself. Let me preface this by saying that I could never be a stay-at-home mom; I love my job too much and am too selfish to let that part of my life go, and I truly admire my husband’s patience and the way he has taken on the making of our home as part of his life’s work. Throughout the day, though, now that school is out, I find myself constantly struggling to get things done while Harper wanders, aimless and bored, trying to entertain herself (probably expecting too much of an eighteen-month-old). It’s frustrating to me when she wants me to play because I’m in the middle of trying to do something else, like write this blog. And I catch myself feeling irritated that she needs so much attention.

Wait a minute. What I really said there is that I feel annoyed when she wants to spend time with me. What kind of mother says that? There’s something really wrong here, something I’m going to regret when she’s 18 and goes away to college and all I’m going to want is to sit and play with her for five more minutes. But really, that’s not me. I’m not that kind of mom. I do enjoy my child, love spending time with her and watching her discover life. So maybe the problem here isn’t me, necessarily, it’s with how I’m trying to do too much all at once. Trying play the role of stay at home mom but not really giving it my all. That’s why I came up with the schedule—it separates the time that she can be independent from the time I need to be interacting with her directly.

The schedule is as much for me as it is for her. Instead of getting frustrated about the clash between my needs and hers in the moment, I am engaged with each activity on its own terms. And she’s much more likely to play independently if I’ve just given her a good solid chunk of attention. I just get more done when I’m focusing on one thing at a time rather than multitasking. 

So I started by planning out the entire week. This was based on several engagements that we had to schedule around--story time at the library, for example, or days that either Mack or myself has to work.

Then, I planned out more specific schedules for individual days, doubling up on the days that were the most similar. As you can see, some things happen every day--like nap time. The major activities in the mornings and afternoons are what vary most from day to day.

For example, story time at the library is always on Monday and Thursday mornings.

Sorry if they're a little difficult to read. I had trouble first embedding the Word files themselves, and then converting the Word files to images. I made them as big as I could here so that you can hopefully still read them.

 Here's a look at the Tuesday/Friday schedule, when she has art/music time in the morning (this usually consists of me making a weekly list of Montessori-inspired art activities from Pinterest and leaving it with my husband):

Wednesdays are all on their own:

And Saturdays and Sundays are the most flexible:

Hopefully you can kind of tell that I wrote it in a way that would make it useful if she ever had a babysitter or nanny, or had to go to day care. I think having something like this to give a child care provider might either be very helpful or seem a little weird. But you can also see that the amount of time she spends playing with toys inside is minimized. This is the time when I’d usually go crazy, hovering around her as she needs this and that, constantly distracted but not really getting anything done. The schedule also prevents me from trying to do too much in one day; we don’t have to go to story time and swimming on Mondays, for examples, because I know we’ll make it to the pool at least twice in the week. In general, I think it helps to have a regular pattern for both me and her to rely on. Babies, and adults for that matter, flourish the most and are the most secure (and therefore able to take risks safely) when they are able to predict, within reason, what’s going to happen from day to day. This, I think, is essential to learning. So that’s kind of important. It’s also easier to mess with the schedule once it’s already in place. For example, as long as she has a regular bedtime and a solid routine, it’s okay if I want her to stay up late one night or skip her bath, as long as there is a reason. When there is a predictable routine already in place, she can understand why things might be different on any particular occasion, but if things were always different from day to day it would just be utter confusion all the time. So the point may be that the schedule isn’t meant to make our lives more rigid, but actually make it easier for us to mix things up when we really need or want to. A secure baby is a more flexible, content, well-adjusted baby in my mind. And anyone who’s ever stayed home full time, even if only for a few weeks, knows that when the baby isn’t content and flexible the hours just drag on and on.

Again, you don’t want to get too married to the schedule. If you are rigid enough in the beginning to solidify it in your child’s consciousness, then you can be much more lax about it later on. You just have to follow along until the routine is in place, and then you can adjust from there. Also notice that the schedule isn’t that detailed. I’ve found way more detailed versions than this online but again, I wanted to err on the side of moderation. And it’s important to keep things in perspective too—don’t get all bent out of shape if everything goes to shit one day and you completely lose your ability to think about life, much less the schedule. We also tried doing this in the middle of our transition from two down to one nap, which I would strongly advise against.

Okay so if you have any questions (or want me to go back and try to find my sources, primarily this one and this one) or want editable Word versions of these files, just comment. I wish you and yours happy scheduling and many timely and efficient days to come!


Saturday, May 23, 2015

marathons and mommy mistakes

I was jogging around Lake Loveland yesterday, one of my favorite local runs. It took me six months after giving birth to my daughter to get back to my pre-pregnancy workout routine. I was the kind of new mom for whom the eight weeks of recovery my doctor ordered felt like a life sentence. I thought as soon as I was given the all-clear I'd be back to my morning runs, starting with two miles, then three, then working my way up until my legs and lungs were back in shape. I even considered signing up for the Colorado Marathon in May, just five months after she was born.

Let me pause here to allow space for your hysterical laughter.

Thinking back on those aspirations, all I can do is laugh. Hard. That marathon quickly turned into a half-marathon, then to a 5k, then a weekly walk around the baseball fields at Centennial Park. I learned that it wasn't about getting my legs and lungs back in shape, but rather a whole other set of muscles, muscles I hadn't known existed until that night in December when I pushed a nearly seven-pound human girl out of my body.

All of this got me thinking about the expectations I had for myself before my daughter was born and the kind of mom I actually turned out to be. One of the first baby items that I purchased shortly into my pregnancy was a top-of-the-line (read: very expensive) jogging stroller. I really thought I would be the kind of mother who you would see running my infant all over town, the kind who would whip myself back into shape in a mere matter of weeks.

Things didn't exactly happen the way I had expected. Turns out, being a mom is harder than I thought.

As moms, especially first-time moms, I think it's common to set up expectations for ourselves. As we struggle to form this new identity, often as some kind of consolation for our quickly retreating youth, we try to envision a perfect version of ourselves moving forward. A kind of super-mom who always gives 110 percent, who never cuts corners, does everything not just the right way, but the best way. For me, that meant a natural, drug-free childbirth, at least one full year of breastfeeding, cloth diapers, daily exercise, home-cooked baby food, never fighting with my husband, a baby who sleeps all night long on her back, etc. (insert your ideal baby/mom image here). But so far, I have failed to meet nearly all of these expectations, with the only exception being cloth diapering, which I actually recommend, as long as you don't mind washing poop off of your hands. But these expectations and failures are only the beginning. Beyond this, I have since learned that there are other failures I've had as a mother that I never would have expected. Things I had completely taken for granted before have now become the biggest failures, things I never expected I would be able to possibly fail at.

I expected I would be the kind of mother who would return phone calls from family and friends. I expected to be able to remember to feed my dog. I expected to not dress my daughter in pink every day and assign to her a gender identity at a young age and I expected not to baby talk all of my sentences, even those in everyday conversation with adults. I expected to at least do some laundry, or at least not to use every surface in the house to wipe my daughter's spit up, including curtains, couch cushions, the dog, and so on. I expected to read a story before bed every night, to be willing to turn off the TV (it never occurred to me that limiting screen time also meant that I might have to miss some of my favorite shows). I expected to not shout obscenities in the middle of the night or throw pacifiers across the room. These are the expectations I never would have expected I would fail to meet.

I expected to sleep at least a little bit, or to ever have sex again. Pause again here for your hysterical laughter.

The fact is, what we used to consider normal has become the ideal. It's a perfect day if I can get the dishwasher unloaded, if my daughter doesn't sit in her dirty diapers for more than a few minutes, and if I can pay my husband at least some attention. It's a perfect day if I don't run out of formula or wipes or accidentally leave the back door open over night. Does that make me a bad mother? Does that make me not the perfect mother? When I look at my daughter I see a very different version of life than I expected when I was pregnant. She doesn't get an hour of reading time every day, she doesn't live in a sterile, germ-free environment. She won't be breastfed until she's seven and she probably came into this world in a paralytic haze. But what I do see is a happy baby. A baby who feels safe and loved and confident that her parents are always around.

We finally made it all the way around the lake. Five miles in six months. The old version of myself would have been disappointed. But the mom in me doesn't have time for disappointment. I've learned that my expectations were all wrong, that being a good mom isn't about what you read in magazines or see on the internet. I've learned that sometimes there are no matching socks, and you're just not going to be able to get all of that sunscreen rubbed in. That sometimes it's enough just to have a bedtime routine at all and a properly installed car seat. I've learned that I already have everything I need, strapped safely and perfectly into my (albeit very expensive) stroller. That, for now, is good enough for me.

Friday, May 22, 2015

filtering black gold

Mack came up with this one all his own and I have to say I was pretty impressed because it is a true feat of engineering. Everything we make these days is from pallets because on one income a project is much more worth doing if it is free. If I had known all it would take to make my husband happy would be to go to the dump every day and pick up free stuff, I would have had him quit his job a long time ago. But now being resourceful isn’t just fun; it’s necessary. We used to have one of those fancy drum-shaped plastic bins that you turn with a crank on a side, but it basically desintigrated when we tried to move it from the old house, and besides, we were looking for a more permanent structure here. So Mack designed this bin to suit our purposes, and it kind of turned out halfway between a bin and a heap. It’s kind of hard to explain so I’ll just give you lots of pictures.

So to start out, he took one pallet in relatively good shape. We had some plastic chicken-wire type fencing that the previous owners left in our backyard when they moved out; he just tacked that on using a staple gun. The idea behind the chicken wire is to have a double-layer of filtration (in addition to the pallet planks) to sift out the smaller product from the larger pieces of stuff inside. You only want to use the material that is furthest along and most broken-down, so filtering out the big chunks helps with that. The whole compost bin is going to be built on top of this first pallet, like a base, and you need to be able to access the area beneath the pallet to pull out the material that filters through. Unlike other compost bins that need to be cranked and turned, gravity is doing the work for you here. That's what the cinderblocks are for. You could use something higher if you wanted more space to work with underneath, but for us this is just fine. You can see in this picture that there is a flat board all the way across the ground beneath the pallet that can be pulled out to access the final product; more on that later.

You can already see in the picture above that panels are positioned on three sides, made of plywood. These are going to be the walls of the bin. You can just screw these into the pallet base directly, then use simple 2 x 4 boards as corner anchors. Here's a picture of my husband looking hot and attaching the sides:
 And here's a pic with all of the sides attached. You can somewhat see the 2 x 4 corner anchor in that far back corner.

And now for the final step: accessing your compost. As you can see here, Mack selected a clean piece of plywood in relatively good shape and made sure it was the right size to fit in between the cinder blocks.

 He also positioned some 2 x 2 planks horizontally and vertically so that the board would slide more smoothly when pulling it in and out (rather than sliding directly across the ground). You can see that underneath here:

Having a lid helps of course, both with smell and keeping little critters out, but it also keeps the moisture in and helps the materials inside decay.

In Colorado, you may actually have to water your compost to make sure it is healthy and breaking everything down in an efficient way.
That's black gold, people. Putting worms inside helps, too, but they tend to migrate so make sure you add more from time to time. Happy composting! Please let me know if you have questions.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

loving it while it lasts

I recently participated in a discussion on a friend's Facebook page. She was relating a conversation she overheard in the coffee shop on her college campus, in which a young woman bemoaned the weight gain of her best friend, who had become "so fat" she had begun to wear a size medium.  My friend, a once-again freshman who averages a decade of seniority over most of her classmates, had remarked that she was grateful to not be 18 anymore, to be beyond the stage of skin-deep friendship that comes with a transient, childless existence.
                I think it's an important issue, the tendency of women to succumb to fulfilling the stereotypes of a culture that refuses to judge us on anything other than our appearances (not hyperbole—just Google "Miss America Pageant"). This kind of commentary, unacceptable at any age, is all too common in the media and our everyday lives. But I'm not feminist. In fact, I've always prided myself on not being a feminist. I like it when my husband does things for me, opens doors and carries bags, and I even let him pay my bills once in a while. But in this new role I've been given as a mother of a daughter, a little baby daughter who still is presumably young enough to be molded and taught things, I can't help but wonder how and how early we learn to do this. How young are we when we are taught these things? And how can I teach her?
                The answer to the first question is clear on a Monday morning at story time at the Loveland Public Library. Mostly girls, the audience and participants comprise a who's who of local fashion role models under two feet tall. I'm still adjusting to the shock that the baby I had thought for nine months was surely a boy came out to be a girl, and I'll be the first to admit that dressing my daughter has become one of the unexpected joys of motherhood for me. There's just nothing more fun to do with a baby girl than to dress her up in cute little clothes. Why should we care about the message it sends to our daughters when some of their earliest social interactions are preceded by a significant amount of fussing over the way they look? Aren't the matching polka dot tutus worth it? Aren't the leather jeans and cowboy boots? I've seen a necklace on a baby and thought it was adorable. And then there are the tiny pink sparkly Tom's shoes small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. I'll say it one more time to let the cuteness sink in: pink sparkly Tom'ses small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. In a world of sequined headbands, puffy shoulders, ruffled butts, and teddy-bear-eared hoods, doesn't the adorableness of it all outweigh any permanent scars we may be inflicting on our yet impressionable children?
               The answer to question two is a little more troubling. As moms, we want to give our kids the tools to deal with adversity. We want to teach them how to cope with the way the world works. Should I teach my little girl how to judge and be judged? Should I remind her that her best friend has really chunked up in the last few months, or warn her of the dangers of being friends with an eighteen-month-old who wears a 2T? Should I point out that the bald look is very last-season and so a hat is probably the best choice and that she should have done more tummy time last summer because now she’s going to have to run a few laps around the yard before lunch? Should I not use words like "pretty," "beautiful," and "cute" when I'm talking to her over breakfast or getting our nails done? Along with that, should I avoid objectifying other children by Googling things like "hipster babies" (if you haven't done this yet I highly suggest you devote to yourself the 15 minutes of pure joy and amazement it will bring)? Or is there a better way? Should we instead teach them to love their bodies while it lasts, because once their own kids are born they had better have something else to fall back on, if you know what I mean?  Should we tell them, over and over, how beautiful they are? Because seeing is believing means one thing but when you hear it and know it, it becomes a part of who you are. That's what's so great about story time at the library—every little girl is beautiful in her own way. The little girls don't notice one another's outfits, only the other moms do (we'll leave the psychology of how and why moms try to impress each other through their offspring for another day). After all, is it really so bad that tiny humans are adorable and that we celebrate that, that we fall in love with our babies based, in part, on how they look? Leave the scarring and emotional analytics for a later time, once your kids start to get older and lose some of their cuteness. Luckily, I won't have that problem; I'm the mother of the most beautiful girl in the world.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Fourth Street Chronicle, Loveland, Colorado.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a Very Hungry birthday

We had a few setbacks, but Harper’s first birthday party was overall a major success. Things didn't exactly go as planned because my grandfather died and we ended up going back home to Kentucky the very same weekend as the party was originally scheduled. So we had to postpone things a bit, but it was alright because I hadn't actually sent out the invitations yet! I was a little behind from the start, to say the least, and I will admit to being a little too overly ambitious in my Pinterest party dream-world. And when we decided to change the venue to an entirely different state at the very last minute, well, everything else pretty much went out the window from there.

I decided, of course, to do whatever I could by hand, but the copyrighted images and text I just didn't have time to scan in and format myself. I saved myself countless hours of tedium by purchasing a downloadable package (or really combination of two packages) that included all the signage, invitations, thank you cards, various label-making materials, and a pattern for a pennant banner that I had wanted to make anyway. Again, this saved a ton of time and was definitely worth every penny of the $17 price tag.  If I had InDesign on my computer I might have tried to do it myself, and then I might have actually lived up to my dream of being the world’s first perfect mom. But that shit is just too hard on Microsoft Word. I’m pretty sure Harper didn’t know the difference. And the invites were adorable, and I even splurged on the little food labels with quotes from the book for each individual food.

One thing I did make myself was the birthday board, a piece of plywood that I had Mack sand down and cover with chalkboard paint; then I wrote on it with those chalk paint markers that restaurants and coffee shops use to write out menus. These go for upwards of $100 on Etsy, so this one was definitely worth the DIY. We also didn't want people bringing gifts since I knew she'd get enough from grandparents anyway, so we asked for donations to the local food bank, which we collected in a box I covered with wrapping paper.

 Other DIY projects I could have spent a ton of money on included the 12 month caterpillar banner (thank goodness for this one and the justification it gave me for all those monthly photos all year !)...

...these quick curtains which added a little childish flare...
 ...and, of course, plenty of balloons.

 There were a few fun craft projects, which mainly entertained the adults (mainly myself).

The food consisted of everything the caterpillar eats in the book. This was one of the primary reasons why I chose a Hungry Caterpillar theme—I thought the menu would be easy to plan and relatively cheap. The last part turned out to be a major disappointment to the tune of almost $300; just ask my mom. Thanks, Grandma.


I actually had guests helping hang up the decorations and put out the food as they arrived because we were so busy doing everything that morning! I guess it takes a village to throw a picture-perfect fantasy Hungry Caterpillar birthday party for a one-year-old.

 Everything was so last minute with the changes that I was way behind and didn't get to decorate the cake the way that I wanted to. But it was still delicious--lemon with raspberries inside and cream cheese frosting.  One thing I did ahead of time, though, was make an adorable outfit for Harper to wear for the cake smash. I've been to enough one-year parties to know that you have to have a back up for that super adorable and super expensive dress you bought for your adorable little princess. This one was easy. I made a copy out of the Hungry Caterpillar book that I printed onto iron-transfer paper for Harper’s cakesmash outfit, then just sewed a little tutu we had onto the onesie. It was pretty cute and saved the nice birthday dress I had bought her from certain ruin.

 Did I mention Grandpa came all the way from South Carolina?

We did make favors, but there weren't really any kids there because of the venue change and short notice. The only other baby was Harper’s cousin Sean, but he forgot to take his, probably because I forgot to tell his mom it was there.

If you’d like to see more pictures, please check out my Pinterest board. In all it was a wonderful day and I know my grandmother had a blast. She passed away herself in March, so it was wonderful to have had the time together with her and Harper, my mom and myself.