Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gift Ideas for Young Children that Aren't in the Toy Aisle

 As I look around my house at the overflow of Christmas abundance and think about my youngest son's birthday in six weeks, I can't help but feel like the last thing he needs is more toys. But I know his relatives love him as they love his brother and I know they want to treat him and let him know he's loved.  I just think that sometimes inexpensive gifts and gifts outside the toy aisle are what my boys need most, so here are some gift ideas for young children that don't involve the toy aisle.

1.  Scarves
Not winter scarves, but fun silk/printed scarves.  I used to play with my grandmother's as a child and now my sons play with her collection as well as my collection.  Almost daily, those scarves are used to play dress up, peek a boo, or just be tossed in the air. $5-$15 new or go to a thrift store and buy them for $.50-1.00. Prewash and they are ready for play! Buy a bunch and watch a baby pull them out of the box one by one.  Magic!

2.  Kitchen utensils
Measuring cups, spatulas, whisks, cookie cutters, almost everything that doesn't have a blade is a fun and multi functional toy! Go to the dollar store and stock up! If the kids tire of them, they can be used to make dinner.

3.  Card board box collection
Keep a number of card board boxes, buy some crayons and markers, maybe even some paint.  Help the child make robots/cars/airplanes/houses/whatever!  You will be the coolest gift giver at the party!

4.  Gift memberships to zoos/science centers/local play areas.
  These are great! We have a few and use them often on the weekends!  The child gets fun, free, quality time with the family.

5.  Spend an afternoon teaching a skill
Do you sew, whittle, hunt, fish, cook, knit, paint, garden, camp, play an instrument or have another skill?  Wrap up some representation of it and spend an afternoon (or more) teaching my small child about it. Even if s/he doesn't like doing it him/herself, chances are they will enjoy your demonstration or just getting the chance to spend time with you!

6. Get tickets
Take my children or my family to hockey games, baseball games, plays, or concerts.  Take them to historical reenactments or renaissance fairs.  Help me show them the world in its variety.  Give the gift of a memory that lasts a lifetime.

7. Wooden Craft or Toy Building Kits
These are a huge, huge hit with my four year old.  Most large craft and home improvement stores have them and each one has been a hit at my house.

8.  A Whole Bunch of Stickers and Paper
No explanation necessary, but best for kids over two who won't try to eat the stickers or place them in inappropriate places.

9.  Old Magazines and Newspapers
These can be used for a variety of projects and skill building, from ripping and cutting to paper mâché.  Throw in some other craft supplies and you have kid heaven.

10.  Crazy Hats
Babies to big kids love playing with fun hats.  As a teen, I used to keep my littlest brother entertained for a good half hour to hour every time we went to the store by playing in the hat department.  You can afford a variety by buying used, but prewash and if possible dry!

11. Magazine Subscription 
(Idea suggested by Monica!)
Get my son a magazine subscription and he can do all of the craft ideas suggested  in number 9 and have something new in the mail every month.

What toy less gift ideas do you have?

Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

From Unschool to Public School

We planned on homeschooling. As things progressed, unschooling became more our style.  Our daughter was able to learn what she wanted when she wanted, we were both infinitely happier, and she was learning.

Fast forward to her sixth birthday, less than a month before the school year.  We were on a walk, and as we passed the local elementary school, she turned to me and said she wanted to go to school.  This has happened before and normally she forgot by morning so I nodded and said we would talk about it tomorrow.

She woke up the next day, a Friday, announced she really wanted to go to school and asked when it started.  So, I called the Montessori Charter school to get a private tour. Strangely, people where I live don't like how this elementary school doesn't test as well so they are barely half full.  And for a Montessori school that's huge!  It's free, it follows a Montessori philosophy, and there are so many openings.

That afternoon we had our tour.

I have never seen her so happy.

The Assistant Director gave us our tour, answered all our questions, and it felt right.

Less than a month later, she was starting first grade in a public charter after we originally wanted to unschool.

To many, this is a little out there.  Unschooling isn't the most popular view to begin with, but then it seemed like we gave that up for the exact opposite when she started public school.

To me, we were following her wishes.  I've never been a parent that pushes their own ideals and wishes on their child, to the amusement of many, and we let her choose this too.  Why should I force a decision I wanted on my child when she clearly wanted something different?

Now, I will admit, a public Montessori Charter isn't the same as public school.  There are no desks, most learning is very hands on, there are no group lectures, no forced learning.  She is allowed to learn what she wants when she wants, the Montessori way. 

At first I felt like a homeschooling failure.  How could I want to do something so much, and then love it more when she is at school?  How could we both love this new system more than the freedom of the old?

It took a long time for me to understand that our lives are not a fantastical whim.  Rarely, if ever, do things go exactly how you planned.

For me and my daughter, this is the best thing we could have done.  Both of us are happier.  She has such a hard time when school is out!  She loves the new environment, loves her friends, loves that she has control over her learning.  I love that she is so happy.

In the end, I trusted her.  I was nervous and worried, but she is thriving.

Some children would not thrive in a public schooling atmosphere.  Others would not thrive in an unschooling atmosphere.  Trusting them to help make that decision is so important.  Yes, I understand that not everyone has the resources to make these choices, and it can be so hard to decide when your choices are much more limited, but you can still trust your children.

Talk to them.  Find out how they learn.  Find out what they want to do.

They might surprise you with how much they truly know and understand about what they want.

Monday, January 27, 2014

memories of Mama

A mommy who plays in the snow!
One day, I remind Gwen, she will be a grown up. Its weird to her that she would ever live anywhere other then with us, its weird to me too! But I think she started to understand it more when she suddenly realized that I have a Mommy and Daddy too, and I don't live with them. A-ha!

I think about those days, and what she will remember of this time in our lives. A time that often feels too full of the mundane, with not nearly enough excitement. I had to have my own a-ha moment when I think about what my fondest and most common memories are of my childhood. Yes, I remember that school trip to Disney, but I don't think of it often. The memories that I think of the simple ones: My mom making me noodle soup. My dad reading to me while we waited for the bus in the morning. Playing in the woods behind our house. Lots and lots of time spent talking with my Mom.

Sometimes its so easy to get stuck on the idea that bigger is better when it comes to the special, fun things we offer to our kids. And these extra special things have their worth. We are excited for our trip to Disney for her birthday next month! But while Sesame Place was fun, and the zoo was exciting, I know that in the end its the repetition of "small" acts that will stick with her. Family dinners, where we all get a turn to talk. Back rubs and quiet singing at bedtime. Getting bundled up to play in the snow.

Those are the things I want her to remember anyway. I don't want her to childhood to be a wash of so many big things, I don't want her to think I always got what I wanted. I want her to think: everyday my parents took the time to listen to me, I know that my voice and feelings were important, and my parents loved to be with me.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Help for First Time Pregnant Mothers

As two dear friends announce their pregnancies and begin on their journeys into motherhood, I want so much to ease their transitions. I want to wrap my arms and love around them and comfort them. I want to give them words of wisdom, but I'm not sure I know how.  I still feel a lot like a new mother myself.  So, what I can do is say the things I wish I could hop in a time machine and tell myself five years ago, knowing that my friends are on different roads of motherhood and have different hopes, fears, and experiences ahead of them than I had and as I have transitioned into having now.  

There is no way to be a perfect mother, but there are a million ways to he a good one.

You will mess up. You will make wrong decisions. You will have regrets in your journey as a young mother.  Accept that and accept yourself at every stage. There is a wonderful quote about motherhood:
"The moment a child is born,
the mother is also born.
She never existed before.
The woman existed, but the mother, never.
A mother is something absolutely new." -Rajneesh

Remember in the early days that you are every bit as new and vulnerable as your baby. Just as life in the womb does little to prepare newborns for life outside the womb, your life before children does not really prepare you for the realities of mothering.  Be patient with yourself as you discover the mother you are meant to be.  Dust yourself off when you fall down and believe that with every stumble you are learning to run by learning your own boundaries and balance. Love yourself with the same compassion you give your baby.

Take your pregnancy to do two things: really connect with your partner and get as many house projects as you can done.

No matter how long you've been together and what your relationship has been and is like, having children is going to shift your relationship dramatically and sleep deprivation, stress, and finding your post baby equilibrium will all take a toll on your relationship. Build up as much romance and goodwill as you can.  Snuggle up and smooch as much as you can.  Make love both physically and emotionally with the things you do together.  Really savor these last few months when you are "you"--a couple without kids. It will be nearly twenty years before that will be the case again. As for the house projects, you cannot conceive of how much harder it is to get things done once the baby arrives. You may not think you have any time now, but post baby you will marvel at all the time you currently have.  Use it productively!

Learn about your birth options.

Educate yourself about your birth choices and know that you do have choices.  You do not have to give birth in the nearest hospital with a doctor a friend, cousin, or sister used.  Studies show that planned homebirth with a midwife can be just as safe and may result in a shorter labor with less interventions.  If you really are not comfortable with that option after researching it, you also have the options of birth centers with Certified Nurse Midwives, and independent birth centers with midwives.  You can also go to another hospital a bit further away.  You can still go the doctor at your closest hospital route, but learn what else is out there before you make your decision.  When you are in labor, the last thing you need to do is have things suggested to you that you know nothing about.  Take a good birthing class preferably not affiliated with a particular location and its practices so you can learn as much as you can.  Consider hiring a doula for your birth.  They are awesome women who will support you and your husband and greatly enhance your birth experience.

Learn about babywearing.

Wearing your baby is the absolute best thing you can do for both you and your baby.  Your baby gets to feel the security of being curled against you and you get the benefit of smelling that sweet baby smell and kissing the softest skin in the world while you get stuff done and eat things like burritos.  What's not to love?  Invest in a high quality carrier that protects your baby's hips.   You can learn all about them here and buy them used (Just in case your baby has other ideas about what s/he likes.). I will blog about that and the many benefits of baby wearing some other time. (Seriouslyinvesting in a good carrier, wrap, or sling is the best baby item you can have.)

Buy used.

Whenever you can, buy gently used. Even the most well used baby clothes are still used for only a few months. If you want to cloth diaper, I highly recommend diaperswappers.  You can find huge lots of baby clothes of all sizes on ebay and craigslist, too, for a fraction of what you would buy new.  Consignment stores, donation stores, and specialty children stores are filled to the brim with gently used, like new, baby items.  If you have friends who already have children, see if you can borrow items that can really only be used a few months like swings, bouncy seats, infant bathtubs, etc.  Save your money as much as you can for the unexpected and for items you might use longer like high chairs, booster chairs, good car seats, and baby wearing gear.

Ask for gift cards instead of trying to register for baby items you may or may not use. 

Grandparents and family members are always excited about a new baby and particularly excited about a first baby.  They will want to help you as much as they can in their excitement.  Take them up on it, let them throw you a showerbut don't feel you have to register for a whole lot of stuff when you can often get it used for a fraction of the cost at Mom to Mom sales, garage sales, and gently used kids stores.  Instead ask for gift cards.  Gift cards for your favorite department store like Target or even your grocery store are particularly useful.  That way, once your baby
gets here and you learn more about what works for him/her and his/her personality, you will have the money to accommodate those things.  And don't be afraid to ask for things like gift certificates to stores that sell nursing bras/tops/etc. and for websites like etsy where you can buy washable nursing pads, unique diaper bags, slings, babywearing coats and all kinds of fun baby gear.

Most of all, love yourself and be open with whatever you are feeling when you are feeling it.

Pregnancy and first time motherhood are times of great emotional tumult.  Do not judge yourself too harshly for it.  Sleep in, baby yourself, and be open with how you are feeling!  Get into the habit now because it will only become harder as time goes on to get into the habit.  When your baby comes all your doubts and fears may go away, or maybe not.  You might feel instantly in love, but maybe not.  None of this means you will be or are a "bad" mother.  Just like babies are not born instantly knowing how to nurse, talk, walk, etc.  A woman who has just birthed a baby does not know everything all at once, either.  

Don't ever worry about what others "think" or even what you think you should "think," instead, go with what you "feel" is right every time.

Study all you want during your pregnancy, but be kind if the answers you find beforehand are not the ones that "feel" right once you have a baby.  Mother's intuition is real and don't be afraid to listen to it.  You will still make mistakes, but at least you will know that you did what you did because you were trying your best.  

I have a friend who was sure she would love bedsharing, full term nursing, cloth diapering, and a whole host of other "natural parenting" practices.  She learned through experience that while she did like some of those things, she did not like to do them for as long as she had thought and she actually couldn't stand some of them.  I just "knew" for all nine months I was pregnant with my first (and for years beforehand), that I would never, ever let a child sleep in my bed because I am too light of a sleeper, I would never be able to cloth diaper, I would nurse for twelve months maximum, I was too busy and lazy to worry about too much nutrition, and I would be a strict, traditional disciplinarian.  Now I am a co-sleeping, cloth diapering, full term breastfeeding, mother who believes passionately in gentle parenting and consequences rather than punishment and eating whole foods whenever possible.  I truly believe that this is the best course for my family and we are all better for it, but it took me a long time to get over the disconnect between what I had always "thought" was right and what I "felt" in my heart was right.  Then, just when I had everything figured out with my first, I had a second and discovered different things worked for him!  That's why comparing yourself to other mothers or trying to just clone what they do will never work. Every baby, every mother, every situation is different. Advice (even my advice) may be kindly offered, but don't feel you have to take it too seriously.  Save yourself some pain.  Go with your gut.  

Finally, get your mom and your best friends, both other moms and at least one non-mom, on speed dial.

Being a mother is the toughest job you'll ever love, but no one should feel like they are doing it alone.  In addition to working hard to stay open and connected with your partner, make sure to connect with other women.  They will know exactly how you feel and will not judge you for your "off days."  Your non-mom friend will help you remember who you were before you were a mother when you need it.  You will not believe how easy it is to forget that if you get too consumed.

All my love and good wishes for you on this journey to the woman and mother you were always destined to be.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Anniversary of a Freebirth

It's been a little over one year since our little miracle entered our lives.  Everyday she helps us in ways I didn't even know we needed.

Her birthday brought up so many memories.  All that happened just to get pregnant with her, all the emotions of that whirlwind pregnancy, but especially her birth.

Her pregnancy and birth were the single greatest things I've ever done.

To preface, freebirth isn't for everyone.  It isn't meant to be.  We decided before we even got pregnant that freebirth was something we were very interested in, and once we got pregnant, it felt like the best decision for our family.

The beginning of the pregnancy I felt safer seeing a provider than not.  I had some bleeding and I needed to see my baby. I had three ultrasounds from six to eleven weeks, and discovered I have a bicornuate uterus in the process, but that is for another post.

I saw a high risk OB an hour away, and once I felt safe on my own, I cut care.

From eleven weeks on, I did my own care.  Every four weeks I did an actual "prenatal", but only to satisfy my curiosity.  I loved knowing what my body was doing.  I loved being in charge of what happened to me.  I didn't use a Doppler, only a fetoscope, and that was an amazing experience.  I got to know my baby.

I was able to hear her placenta, her cord, figure out her position, what she liked and didn't like.  It was incredible to me.

At 27 weeks I was admitted to the hospital.  I got the same stomach bug that hit my oldest daughter, and when I get dehydrated, I contract.  A lot.  By the time they were able to insert my IV, I was contracting every two minutes.  Some medication, fluids, and rest and I went home.

From that point on, my baby sat very low, and I contracted all the time.  I was cranky.

The biggest issue with a bicornuate uterus is a very high chance of breech, and I was prepared (and even a little excited) for that possibility.  However, my baby was head down at 22 weeks and stayed firmly that way.  Probably for the best, I didn't need another thing for my mind to focus on.

Time went on, I stayed pregnant with no other major issues, and finally it was time for our birth.

I labored mostly on my own.  Every now and then I needed some pressure on my back, but until I started pushing I was good just being left alone.  I was laughing and talking until an hour before she was born.  Once I started pushing, I needed my husband.  He held me while I leaned onto him.  I couldn't focus, the only thing I knew was that I needed to push and that baby needed to be out of me.  Nothing could have stopped me.

In hindsight, it's probably best we chose to have a freebirth.  By the time active labor hit, I would have refused to move, and it was only about 40 minutes later she was born. 

The moment she was born was phenomenal.  Having had a cesarean, seven losses, and then my body actually did what it was supposed to do was incredible!  I couldn't believe it.  I couldn't believe we actually had a baby.

All the trials, the losses, the four years of trying to get pregnant, and here she was!

Fourteen months later I still am in awe half the time.

I haven't written much on that pregnancy, though I do have my birth story up HERE, and maybe someday I will.  That pregnancy tested my faith, my hope, my everything more than anything in my life.  Her birth healed it and so much more.

It isn't often that one simple act can change how you see past events, but her birth did that for me.  My cesarean is seen in a different light, my losses, our pain.  Everything is now different because of her.

Her birth gave me back something I lost a long time ago.  Her birth gave me back my hope.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Transparent isn't the same as Authentic: Choosing What to Share withSocial Media

There seems to be a misconception out there that who we are on our social media has to be a true representation of who we are in real life.  People complain it is not fair to keep some things private or to present an "ideal" or "best" version of our identities, families, partners, and children.  The general accusation is that by only presenting our "best" selves we are actively working to undermine others' opinions of their own lives and are making them feel bad about themselves.  I couldn't disagree more.  Here's why: other people's lives, their struggles, their embarrassments have nothing to do with you.  Likewise, their successes, their strengths, and their joys have nothing to do with you, either.  If you are basing your self worth or are judging your life as inferior because of someone else's facebook profile, than you are using the wrong basis for comparison.  The only kids your kids should be compared to are the best versions you know they can be of themselves.  The only partner your partner should ever be compared to is the best version of himself/herself.  The only basis of comparison you should have for yourself is the "you" that you want to be.

While I try to be pretty open about the struggles I face as a woman, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a writer, and a mom on this blog and on my personal facebook page, I am also very careful about what I talk about or portray about my children, husband, and family because their struggles are their own.  I try very carefully to only say things that I would say in front of them, if not now than in years to come.  Who knows how long my digital trail will last and it is my utmost desire to make sure that what my sons read when they are older about themselves through my eyes are all things that I would want them to know and hear.  Do we have tough moments?  Sure.  Do I have mean mom moments when I think ungenerous things about those I love? Absolutely.  Do I struggle with how much of my struggle to reveal?  You bet. I will never claim to be an absolutely open book when it comes to those I love or even myself on social media.  I will always present them in the same positive light that I want them to see themselves in.  I feel my words are powerful and I would never want a misplaced word to cause my sons or my husband or any one else I love to judge themselves harshly or to feel judged through my eyes.

I feel strongly that while our social media should probably be a representation of our "authentic" selves, it does not need to be a representation of every facet of us or every whim and emotion we experience and we certainly don't need to share every unflattering thing we know about our children or our partners!  Our "authentic" selves are the selves that are realistic, multi-dimensional and represent what we overall are like.  If we over share every mistake we make, we are not sharing our "authentic" selves because we are sharing mistakes that don't really define us or shouldn't really define us in our own minds or in the minds of others.  If we over share every success, we are not sharing our "authentic" selves because we are also only showing a small part of who we are.  I am perfectly comfortable meeting people where they want me to meet them.  I'd much rather know about people's accomplishments and joys so that I may celebrate with them and know only about the struggles they feel comfortable sharing with me than to have everyone know everything in a public space like social media.  If I wouldn't feel comfortable announcing something to the local paper or announcing it in the front yard, I probable wouldn't offer it up to social media because it is the virtual version of the same thing.  Just because giving everyone access to everything is one click away now does not mean that we have to share everything with everyone.  My facebook page represents an authentic version of me, but only my close friends and family know the complete "real" me warts and all.  I only share all of my struggles with those who love all of me. That's my policy.

What do you say?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Guys and Dolls: How a Little Play Violence is Helping my Son be LessAgressive

"Oh, no, Michael!" CRASH! "Mama, my first son just slammed into the wall! He needs to make better choices! That's a bad consequence."

This is the kind of thing I've been hearing a lot since Christmas.  This is not how I originally envisioned my eldest playing with "Michael" a cloth boy doll with soft velvety material for skin and a wry half smile that my son loves, but, it seems to be very therapeutic for him and is shaping his behavior for the better so, I'm rolling with it for now!

I originally got Michael because my son kept talking about the ten sons he wants to adopt someday and support with his job as a photographer (no spouse necessary apparently and how they are going to all ride on the motorcycle he plans to drive is a mystery, but he's four so he has time to figure it out).   I also thought the doll would be handy for role playing now that our second son is crawling around and getting into all our eldest's toys and he's been frustrated by that.  I remember my mom using my dolls in a similar way and trying to substitute stuffed animals didn't seem to have the same results.  I also thought it could be a chance for him to practice the fathering skills that his father demonstrates daily and can take out some of the down time when daddy or mama has to stop games to change brother or soothe him; I thought maybe Michael's diaper could be changed at the same time.  (I remember vividly doing that kind of thing when I was four when my little brother needed attention.). Maybe Michael will get to fill those roles someday, but for now he's primarily a flying scape goat and occasional car violence victim or punching bag.

At first I found the level of violence horrifyingly fascinating. I wasn't sure how to react.  I decided to watch his "play" with Michael to find the "why and what purpose" the play was serving before I intervened with alternatives and the results were fascinating.  Most of my eldest's frustrations with his younger sibling became deflected on Michael.  If I said "pushing your brother down is not a good way to keep him from your toys," my eldest would simply push down Michael, or throw him, or hit him, or kick him before I could even get to asking about alternatives or suggesting alternative interactions with his brother.  Sometimes, the intensity of his anger was a bit scary.  However, after getting his aggression out with Michael, he was much better at suggesting and using alternative behaviors with his brother, so I let him continue.

This course of (in)action seems to be working because, on his own, the interactions with Michael have become less violent as his interactions with his brother improve by the use of new sibling strategies.  There are just days when Michael is in for it, but the important part is that my youngest is now much safer because my eldest is tempted less often to physically lash out at him.

While I still believe in trying to teach my son to use words to get his feelings out, Michael is helping me see that sometimes it may be too much to expect a four year old's language skills and understanding to be adequate enough to get out the intensity of the emotions he is feeling when he is feeling it.  An adult's primary way of playing through emotions may be to talk about it in conversation and tell what happened, but a child's primary way of working through emotions is to physically play it out and then talk about it later.  In fact, it seems like I was skipping an essential step in even understanding my son's emotions when I wanted him to role play "nicely" with me before he'd even had a chance to physically play out and understand the intensity of his anger and frustration. If we adults "need" to play violent video games, play basketball, call a friend or go for a hard run to work through intense stress and emotion, why wouldn't our children also need to do some intense activity to physically let out the stress of what they are working through?  Isn't it the same impulse?  Frustrations with a newly mobile sibling may seem like small potatoes to us, but that's just because it's not new or intense for us.  It is both for my eldest son.  Michael has helped as a tool to work through that.

Michael also gets to provide some wish fulfillment for my son.  While my eldest broke his arm trying to ride a laundry basket down the stairs just a week and a half before Christmas, Michael has made several unsuccessful and successful dare devil antics without getting hurt.  While my son has learned the hard way that he cannot climb furniture, ride down the stairs, or jump off rickety things, Michael gladly does it for him without injury.  This is particularly important because of the restricted activity my son is currently limited to because of his broken arm.  (Something else that must be supremely frustrating and might have been at the root of some of that anger that got taken out on Michael.)

I'd read in Lawrence Cohen's awesome book Playful Parenting that children work through their trauma and their feelings (especially negative feelings or uncomfortable emotions) through play because the fiction of play creates a safe space in which they can explore both the things they have experienced and that which they fear experiencing.  I think maybe Michael is a vehicle through which my son is doing some tough emotional work and if it keeps my eldest son happy and able to deal more positively with his brother and it means that he will never again scare the crap out of me by riding a laundry basket down the stairs, so be it!  

Thanks for reading,

P.S. I'm still hoping to see those sweet, traditional doll play fathering moments, too . . . some day.