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.