Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Praise of Daddy

"When I big, I want to be a library dude and a daddy."
Yesterday, we were traveling home from story time when my three year old made this declaration. I knew why he wanted to be a "library dude," he is obssessed with trying to go behind the counter where only librarians are allowed and he has told me that he wants to play with books all day like the "library dudes." I was curious what he would say about why he wanted to be a daddy, though, so I asked him. Here was his answer, "Because a daddy gets to hug and kiss his baby." I began to tear up. My son is growing up to be an amazing man, and it is thanks, in large part, to what his daddy is teaching him about what it means to be a father and a man.

The first year of being a parent is really difficult. In our house, this was especially challenging because of our son's digestive issues and insistance that only "Mama" would do. This meant that I almost never left him and when I did, my poor husband had to helplessly listen to my baby cry the whole time I was gone even though he was lovingly holding him and soothing him just as I would have. (Usually, this was not more than half an hour or so, but when I went to the dentist when my son was four months old, he screamed all 72 minutes I was gone getting my teeth cleaned.) My husband, who was completely smitten with our son and was desperate to spend as much time and have as much contact with him as possible was very frustrated by our son's strong preference for me the first six months. He would complain that he felt so left out of his own family and I, stressed out as all new mothers are, tried to explain to him that his time was coming. One day, our son would enter the "era of daddy" and all the things he was doing all along would suddenly add up and he would see just how important he is as his son's father and role model and how much his son appreciates him. It didn't stop my husband from occasionally feeling superfluous and rejected, but he did what my son was most comfortable with and played with/cared for him every chance he could and when my son would not settle for less than mama, he handed him to me. He did what every caring father does: exactly what his son needed at the time.
As he grew older, my husband and my son found ways to bond that I never would have thought of. Our son originally practiced standing by holding on to daddy's legs as he shaved. Whenever we went for family walks, my husband would always want to wear him in his carrier and would joyfully entertain him by running and jumping and doing all kinds of physical acrobatics, that frankly, I would have been afraid to do! My husband began sharing his passion for MSU football, first by insisting that the baby stay in the room on an MSU blanket listening to the game, then by bouncing him in tune with the fight song as the game went on, and then by sitting next to him and telling him about football as our son hummed merrily along and occasionally threw out his own football commentary: "Look, hats! They fall down! Oh, no! He's nigh-nigh!" It was no surprise to me, when at eight months, my son chose to take his first crawling steps on the weekend toward his daddy when I was out of the room. Eight weeks later, he also took his first walking steps towards his daddy (at least I was in the room that time!). You see, I was his comfort and his home base, but his father is the future he is forever moving toward.

I know that many boys grow up in loving homes without their fathers and go on to be great men, but when a man takes the time to provide a good example of what good, caring fatherhood looks like, well, it's a wonderful, beautiful thing. What I especially loved about my son's reason for wanting to be a daddy was that what he appreciates most about his daddy isn't how much fun he is (which is, I'll admit, way more fun than mama) or that he does cool things like takes him to hockey games or that he teaches him neat skills like how to trash talk (accidentally taught him that, I might add and, thankfully, cleanly. . .no swears!). What my son sees as the best part of being a "daddy" and a man, is his capacity for tenderness and love--his ability to "kiss and hug his baby." What better teacher could my baby have for how to be a real man than the example of his father? So, for all the daddies out there who are struggling, trying to find your place in your young child's daily life or schedule. Don't Give Up! You are an integral part of who your child is learning to be and what your child is learning about men and what men can and should do. Keep up the good work and give lots of hugs and kisses. Even when you don't think they are noticing, they are!

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The "I Help" Bag

My daughter just turned 2, and her blossoming independence seems to be showing itself more and more these days.  I find myself constantly trying to come up with ways to allow her to help, as she is always asking to do so.  Months ago she started helping me unload the dishwasher, despite the fact that I have to reposition or even hand her about half of it since she can't reach it, but it was clear how excited she was to do it.  It became a little problematic in that we could not load anything in front of her, because she'd come running in yelling, "I help!  I help!" and start to unload the dirty dishes.  So I started to show her how to put the dishes in too.  Even if it means loading the dishwasher in a fashion that would usually make me cringe, I think it's just as important for me to learn to let go and try to let her do as much as she is capable of handling.  Watering plants, "wiping" her little table when she's done eating, "drying" pots and can always see how proud she is of herself whenever she can help.

A few months back I began a ritual when grocery shopping.  As soon as the groceries start coming through the door, she always comes running saying, "I help!  I help!"  Sometimes navigating a toddler while unloading groceries can be quite challenging.  Especially if it's a trip she did not come along for, and she hasn't seen me in a few hours.  The "I Help" bag solves all of those problems.

What I started doing is finding all the boxes from the grocery trip that she cannot really do much damage to even if she gets into - cereal, crackers, tea, etc...  and group them into one bag.  As soon as she comes running, all the bags I need to tend to go up on the counter, but the "I Help" bag goes right on the floor for her.  She excitedly takes out each box one at a time and runs into the living room with it. There she will usually explore it for a moment and abandon it somewhere.  By the time she is done unloading and investigating the items from her bag, I am also done putting away everything else, and I give her a big hearty "thank you!" for her help and a high five.  The smile on her face whenever she feels like she's genuinely helped me is priceless. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Unplug and Reboot

Like most people these days, I spend a good amount of time reading online. Blogs and online news articles have replaced books and magazines for me to a large extent. I follow a lot of blogs and pages on Facebook, and have some sites that I visit independently. I'm on my iPhone mostly when I'm nursing.

Lately, I feel like every article I read is either about a terrible tragedy, a child getting molested or otherwise abused, horrible and extremely rare accidents, which chemical is going to kill me and my family today, an “expert” telling me I’m parenting all wrong and alienating my husband and messing up my kids for life, or (and this is my least favorite), a judgmental, negative rant written by one mom criticizing the methods of another.

I often joke about being neurotic, but I definitely have anxiety with varying intensity based on what is going on in my life at any given moment. Little things like crumbs on the floor or forgotten tasks can become big and overwhelming. Because my anxiety directly relates to my feelings of depression, no matter how rare that is at this point, and because anxiety causes me to lose it way more than I like, I’m making every effort possible to reduce as much stress as I can in my day to day.

I realized that being exposed to the types of news and articles I outlined above, even though initially I may feel like I have learned something, or even if I feel there is some entertainment value, exacerbates my feelings of negativity and anxiety. Whereas someone who doesn’t have my personality traits may be able to brush bad news off (like my husband, for example), I become influenced by whatever I’m reading or seeing to the extent where it affects my mood, or worse, my general outlook. I’ve always been this way. When I was younger my sister would marvel at how much whatever I watched on TV influenced me, and I would stay transfixed on it for days.

I want to be inspired, and I feel like that’s so rare these days. The ultimate voyerist’s playground, the media allows us to see and read about things that were once private, or maybe just not reported. Everything has a yin and a yang, and though media, the internet and social networking obviously has many benefits, sometimes it just feels like too much information is out there. And stupidly, I’m reading ALL of it.

Every story about child abduction, abuse, etc., makes me think of my own kids and what I would do if something like that happened to one of them. Every freak accident I read about makes me fearful of trying that food/going on that excursion/playing that extreme sport. I can guarantee I am  killing my whole family bit by bit, as I am sure that despite my best efforts, I haven’t gotten rid of all chemicals in my household (we microwave in plastic! Egads!). Every check in on Facebook ensures at least two or three articles on a page I have “liked” telling me what parenting mistakes I’m currently making. And then there are those judgmental articles written by moms, which have made me completely paranoid whenever I do absolutely anything in public with my kids, as I am sure someone somewhere is judging me (whether they are or they’re not, I just don’t want to know about it. Ignorance is bliss, at least in this case).  When this happens several times a day, every day, it’s overwhelming. Meanwhile, my life is passing me by.

The thing is, I just want to be happy. I feel like I am finally ready to let go of my anger, which is a huge step in the right direction, and something I’ve never been able to say before. If it makes me more vulnerable, well, so be it. I have to trust that my friends and family love me and won’t hurt me. I’m tired of being in control all the time. I’m ready to let go. I don’t want to yell at my kids anymore. I don’t want to be mad at my husband anymore. I don’t want to have enemies anymore. I don’t want to think about the past anymore. It’s such a relief. It feels like I can finally breathe.

So. Here’s where this all ties in for me. I need to unplug. And then reboot.

I will spend less time online. I will unplug from negativity. I’ve already unsubscribed from various sites that post nothing but dribble and don’t contribute to my well-being and happiness. One popular site I used to visit often is gone from my bookmarks (they were the worst offenders in terms of reporting absolutely horrible news I otherwise would never come across). I’m not sticking my head in the sand, just not letting sand get thrown in my eyes.

I will cherish my friendships and my loving, amazing family. I’m so lucky to be able to say that I have friends for life, and my family is the center of my universe. I will nurture and cultivate those relationships because I value and appreciate them. I will avoid negativity in those relationships as well.

I will drink in every moment I can with my children—even thechallenging ones. I’m going to stop washing the dishes and look at my son in the eye when he tells me a story. I’m going to hug my daughter gently when she has a potty accident. I’m going to hold my infant close and kiss her when sh ecries. I’m going to hug them and kiss them every day until they are sick of me.

When in doubt, we will dance. Lately, when things are getting a little too serious, I put on music and we have a dance party. It makes everyone happy and no one remembers what the fuss was about.

I will take lots of deep breaths. Recently, in situationswhere I’m about to lose it, I stop, close my eyes, and take a deep breath in and out. Just those three seconds allow me to calm down enough so that I don’t yell/grab/freak/have other insane reaction to a ridiculously silly issue. In that breath, I remind myself that it’s ok to let go—it’s ok to not get mad. I still lose it at times. But it’s getting so much better.

I will count my blessings. I’m probably the last person on the blogosphere to do so, but I’ve recently discovered the lovely and extraordinary Stephanie Nielson, and watching her count her blessings has inspired me to do the same, probably for life.

I will have gratitude. This is totally not my idea, but I love it. Each day I will take the time to write down what I am grateful for. I imagine the list will get long very quickly.

I will pray. I am more spiritual than religious, per se, but my faith is strong and I need to lean on it more. Every time I pray I feel better afterwards.

I will look into my husband’s eyes every day. After all, he is the reason for all of this. He has helped make me who I am. He and I have created this family.

I will try to find something lovely and precious in every single day. Even the worst days are filled with miracles.

This isn’t a new me. It’s a better, upgraded version. I’m sure there will be bugs to fix, but I know that it will be a much smoother running program. A reboot.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Flexibility: The Ultimate Sign of Strength in Parenting

For my son's first birthday, my husband found a deal online that was hard to beat, a $100 ball pit/tent on sale for $25. We were thrilled . . . until we read the reviews of it online. It turns out the supports tended to break and most people thought the craftsmanship was not good for small toddlers because it was too delicate. The ball pit lasted throughout our first home, but by the time we moved less than a year later, we had to buy new supports for it. This time, we anchored it to the ceiling and replaced the flimsy, plastic rods with wooden dowels. Still, by the time we moved from that home into our new one this summer, we decided not to put it back up because we knew that the dowels were likely going to break under the pressure our growing son would put them through without the added rafter support we had in the unfinished basement of the house we were moving from.

Yesterday, I found a play tent on sale. Because my husband is gone camping/kayaking this weekend with his family. I thought it would be fun for my son and I to set up our own tent at home and "play" camp. The supports for this tent were very different then our ballpit/tent had been. They were made of many pieces of plastic curved over a thick elastic center. It actually is amazingly flexible. This was perfect because that tent is exactly the type of playstructure my son needs. It is rigid enough to keep the shape of the tent and provide him with the stability of an indoor/outdoor private space. Yet, it is flexible enough to bend when it needs to instead of snapping under the weight of his constant testing.

I think the tale of the two play structures is ultimately the perfect metaphor for what real strength in parenting means. Often, as our children get older and more vocal about how they feel we get frustrated by their inflexibility and their demands. Too often, we, in turn, sometimes feel like we have to be equally inflexible to "show them who's boss" or "to give them structure." Even I've found myself sometimes getting into silly power struggles with my toddler before I've made myself step back and ask, "Is this really a time for inflexibility? Is this really what I want to draw a line in the sand about?" I've found that if I ever feel foolish about "sticking to my guns," than that is my sign that I should probably find a way to compromise or back out gracefully. (As a matter of fact, when I find myself thinking whether or not I should "stick to my guns," I usually discover I shouldn't. "Sticking to your guns" is about defending your life and being willing to shoot down others. . . not the image I would ever want to use when thinking about my relationship with my beloved son.) I'm usually pretty honest with my son about it, even though I know that he is barely three and doesn't really understand everything I am explaining to him. Sometimes, it's just as simple as telling him, "You know what? I've been thinking about how you feel about this and what you've been saying and I think maybe I was wrong and you were right. It is important that you wear some clothes to the store, but if you want to wear the same shirt you've been wearing since yesterday morning, well, okay. Who is that going to harm? It doesn't have any food on it or anything. Just put on some pants for mama and your shoes." Even a toddler respects a compromise when he hears it most of the time and he chose to put on underwear, pants, and shoes even though moments earlier he was demanding to be allowed to go wearing his shirt and nothing but his shirt.

Like the tent frame, there are times when I have no problem being absolutely rigid and holding my shape without compromise. In matters of safety (like my son's food allergies or running in the road), I am completely inflexible. I compensate by remembering to be soft and tender in the way I respect his emotions even as I am telling him absolutely no. I find it's actually pretty easy to be geniunely sympathetic and still firm with my limits when it is a subject on which I know I am in the right about it. When I get the most upset, childishly rigid, and downright power struggly myself is in the situations that are a little more gray. Because I am not completely convinced I am in the right, I play a caricature of myself in which I am Mrs.-Bossy-Pants-I'm-Adult-You-Are-Child. My son does not respond well to that person, and honestly, I wouldn't either. After all, my support for my argument is as flimsy as the support for the crappy ball pit tent. It's so rigid, it fractures when challenged. When I am at my best parenting my son is when I mimic the balance of the new tent frame. I am rigid when he needs support, but flexible when he needs that, too. When I am open to remembering that my relationship with my son is not about who is boss or who is right/wrong, I find the real power in our exchange with one another. It is the power of our mutual love and respect. He is learning to respect my experience and my ability to be flexible when I need to be (and rigid when I need to be) and I am learning (out of love) to respect where he is at in his learning process and that he may have something to teach me about how to really be a strong person and flexible mother.

So, for all those mamas out there who are at the end of their wits with children who are too inflexible and who constantly start power struggles with you, I offer you a hug and all my love. I am there sometimes, too. Keep in mind that the best way to keep your "shape" is to sometimes bend a little when the stakes aren't very high and when the fight isn't worth it. I'm not saying to let them "win" or to "give in," but I am saying that it's okay to find a compromise where you both "win" and where no one has to "give in." You are the frame of your relationship with your children. The strength of your relationship will be in the way you are willing to bend in order to teach your children how to bend themselves. Remember, an old stick is easily snapped and irreparably broken because it has lost its flexibility. A new branch is almost impossible to break because for all its stiffness, it remains flexible and alive inside. Be that branch, even if it is an olive branch sometimes, for the good of your relationship with your child.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Disposable Free Party

A disposable (and plastic) free party?  It CAN be done!  I was so intimidated by the concept, but so inspired by some like-minded mamas on an online forum I frequent.  If they could do it, why couldn't I?  I decided to put my fears aside and give it a try.  With careful planning and a few ideas to navigate clean-up, it was shockingly easy to pull off, and I'm excited to share how it is possible...

After scouring the web for eco-friendly disposable options for my daughter's birthday party, and finding out that even biodegradable utensils still contained plastic, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I found some wooden utensils, and some plates made from fallen leaves, etc... but in the end, I could not convince myself to pay such steep prices for things that would just be used once and thrown away.  I also laughed at the thought of myself explaining to guests that the plates were made of fallen palm leaves, and the forks from sustainably harvested wood.  I realize that some people may not have the kind of supplies I had on hand to initially pull this off all at once, but if you like to entertain, it is certainly worth considering investing in things here and there that can be used over and over, rather than throwing your money away on what is essentially trash after a single use.


Faced with the daunting task of serving appetizers and dinner to 45 guests, including 15 children, I began to assess my stash of dishes, silverware, napkins and potential glassware.  Before I even began taking inventory, I decided that even if it meant going to some yard sales, thrift stores, or even a  dollar store to get some additional stoneware plates, I'd rather purchase things I could have and use forever.  Thanks to the fact that our large dishes didn't fit in the dishwasher here when we moved in (forcing us to purchase another set), I had a substantial amount of dishes.  After years of entertaining, I was fortunate enough to have ample appetizer plates and bamboo trays that could double as plates for the kids.  Since we've been using unpaper towels and cloth napkins for years now, I even had a nice set of cloth cocktail napkins with just enough for everyone.  The final piece was glassware.  In addition to wine glasses, I used mason jars for drinks set up outside on a table by the beverage coolers.  Since I occasionally can our food, I did have a hefty stash of them, but decided to invest in one set of smaller jars that I knew could not only be reused for entertaining, but obviously everyday as well.  The $7.99 I spent on those jars was the only money spent on servingware, which was far less than purchasing even non-ecofriendly options of everything for 45 guests.

I felt the jars could stand up to use by children, but one sleepless night left me worrying about toddlers who may not be ready to drink out of traditional glasses yet.  This problem was solved by a quick email to all the parents, explaining that I was trying to keep waste to a minimum, and while I was providing water, homemade iced tea, and lemonade, they would be served in large glass jugs and jars - not juice boxes or plastic bottles.  I asked for any parents of small children to please bring their own sippy cups, and they happily obliged.

The only thing I was going to be slightly short on and unwilling to invest more in was silverware. For 9 years the extra stainless steel set I registered for at our wedding have sat in a box, and I was so excited to finally use them!  But even with salad forks and dinner forks, that only gave me 40 forks and 20 knives.  This led me to the next step of the planning process, which ended up being a lifesaver and what really enabled me to pull it off so easily.


I set up a station in the kitchen, right next to the counter on a rolling cart.  There was a tub for dirty dishes, with a sign pointing to the trash below, asking guests to please scrape their plates in the trash before putting them in the tub.  There was an additional labeled tub next to it for silverware, so I could access it easily and wash it if necessary to replenish my borderline adequate supply.  I had another sign next to the tubs for people to put their glasses on the cart, and finally, I hooked a fabric grocery bag to the handle of the drawer on the cart, and pinned a sign to it for "dirty napkins." 

All of the guests happily brought their dishes in and scraped them, and the fact that I didn't have to navigate through a stack of plates with stuff stuck to the bottom as well as the top made loading them in the dishwasher a snap.  I made sure my dishwasher was empty when the party began, and had planned to run a load of tiny appetizer plates while the entrees were being served, but some kind friends ended up washing that round for me by hand.  Nearly all the remaining dinner dishes fit in one load, and most of my serving platters are dishwasher safe, so I rinsed everything that would fit and stacked it and just ran those later.  All the jars (glasses) fit among the two loads.  So that was it - two loads in the dishwasher including some of my serving platters.  Easy peasy!

I almost didn't even need to replenish the silverware, and out of my 48 cocktail napkins, 18 were actually used.  I think when people are made aware of what they are using, that need to grab a stack of paper napkins diminishes, as does the drive to grab a paper plate and plastic fork, ditch it, and just grab another for more food.  We also provided a set of TV tables out on the deck (borrowed from my parents) and as many surfaces as we could to allow people to abandon their things and return to them later if they wanted.

I kept wondering what percentage of guests would think I was totally OCD and insane vs. who would think I was organized, but people were surprisingly accommodating and happy to do their part.  I only hope to provide those of you out there who may have toyed with the idea in the past the very same inspiration I found in hearing others who made it possible.  I cooked enough food that we lived off the leftovers (seriously - I did not lift A FINGER to cook!) for almost another week after the party, and yet amidst the cooking and the serving, I have to say that using my own reusable items was far easier than I ever imagined it would be! 

Appetizer Dishes (set up days before party)