Monday, March 31, 2014

Raising Independent Kids: Treading the Line Between Safety and Self-Sufficiency

A recent article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin really got me thinking. In it, she talks about how children in generations past (my childhood, my parents' childhood) spent a lot more time out and about alone. I'm sure we all have stories about how we used to go out riding our bikes for hours in the afternoons, went exploring in local woods and open spaces, had secret lairs with our friends, walked ourselves to and from school, and so on. I know I did, and I know you did, if you're my age or older. (I'm 32.) Ms. Rosin mentions that children these days spend considerably more time with their parents than in years past. She discusses the attitude that if we do not take our kids to activities, schedule time with them and for them, hover over them protectively at playgrounds, and police their interactions with peers, then we are not "parenting." It has become a parent's job to direct every step of our children's paths, watch every move they make, jump in to stop fights, and solve their disagreements as well as to provide and be entertainment.

My instinct as a parent has been opposite to this modern standard of parenting. I generally leave my kids to end their own arguments, assuming no one is getting hurt or breaking any house rules. I tell them to go play. I keep an eye out but don't interfere when they're playing with friends, unless, again, someone is getting hurt or they are breaking rules. I don't allow my kids to seriously endanger themselves, but I also don't follow them around paving the way for them and smoothing bumps.

Furthermore, I get bored sitting on the floor and playing with trains for an hour. I don't want to do toddler puzzles over and over again. I detest Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. I like to read them a book or two, but not the same book six times in a row. I don't craft, and I don't do crafts. I don't do Playdoh and paints. They have washable markers, scrap paper, and the occasional coloring book. They have TV and tablets where they watch kids' shows and play Minecraft, puzzles, and toddler games (according to age and interest). They have books and Lego and blocks and train tracks and puzzles and card games and electronics kits and more cars and trucks than I can count. And they find things to do.

I enjoy spending time with my kids. I enjoy watching them play and seeing them come up with new ideas. I like being nearby while they explore their world, but I don't feel the need to direct them in their explorations. I assist, but I won't do it all for them. I'll join them to help build a train track, teach them the rules to a new game, draw a picture, help them find something interesting to play on their tablets, or introduce them to a new movie I think they'll like. I talk to them, answer knowledge questions and ethics questions as they come up. I explain concepts and define words. I tell them about my own memories of childhood, give them new things to think about, and push them a little when they ask a question I think they can answer for themselves, like spelling a phonetic word or solving an addition problem.

But I get stuck when it comes to outdoor play. I feel like I should be able to send them outside with their scooters and bikes and say "come back in time for dinner" like my parents did with me, and their parents with them. I have this idea that, left to their own devices, they'd come up with all sorts of wild fantasies in the hiking trails behind our house. I'd love to be able to send my oldest (when he's a bit older than now) to walk to the coffee shop or the mini-mart in our neighborhood to pick up a snack or some dinner ingredient I need. There's pride and growth in knowing your way around, in discovering shortcuts, in getting lost and finding your way back, in having private time with a friend to walk and talk without adult interruption, to learn to read maps and street signs and negotiate crosswalks, to explore your physical limits and push your boundaries. Kids need those challenges as much as the need the challenge of learning to play the piano or solve math problems.

I have a distinct memory of being about nine years old and spending weeks saving up $11 of allowance money so I could buy a stuffed cat I liked at a nearby store. When I had the money, I walked to the store and bought it myself. Such pride I took in being able to do all that by myself! I remember walking with my friend to the 7/11 in her neighborhood and buying candy with our own money when we were maybe nine or 10 years old. I remember playing in our "canyon" at the end of my street, complete with secret hideout. I remember riding my bike all by myself up the hill at the top of our block and falling into a cactus, then sitting in the bathroom while my mom painstakingly picked spines out of my abdomen. I remember my mom sending my brother and me off with parts of the grocery list to find items and bring them back to her when we all went shopping together.

My kids will have no memories like those if I don't find a way for them to make them. What stymies me is this modern perception that the world is so much more dangerous than it used to be. It isn't. We just think it is because we get to read or see every single news report about every single family who has some horrible tragedy. Not that we'd want our kids or our families to be that news story, but the risks are actually quite low compared to, say, driving them to school every morning.

I think many of today's parents would be aghast at the idea of children wandering supermarket aisles alone, of riding their bikes to the park and playing without supervision, of walking to the corner store for candy or a stuffed animal they saved so carefully for, of walking home to a friend's house after school to play without making a prior arrangement with the friend's parents (which I and my friends did all the time!). And we didn't even have cell phones or GPS watches or any modern devices which make keeping track of each other so much easier!

Ms. Rosin's article points out that kids don't learn what to be afraid of if they aren't exposed to potentially scary situations. They don't learn the dangers of fire if they don't learn to use fire. They don't learn to negotiate heights if they don't climb. They don't learn how to scrape their knees and get up and keep going if they're coddled every time they fall down.

On top of that, they don't learn to solidify friendships and navigate social situations if they don't experiment with what works and what doesn't. They'll learn pretty quickly if hitting and yelling mean people won't play with them, while negotiation and kind words help them make friends. I'm not saying we should stay out of things completely: I like to supply the script when I can, or give them ideas of how to word things or a different tone they might try, but we don't need to pop in every time kids start to argue and end the fight for them.

The conclusion I came to, for myself, was that I want to be able to send my older kids out to play, maybe in a year or two when I feel they have the maturity to do so. I want to be able to say, "Hey, guys, why don't you walk up to the park for a bit," or "Why don't you go down to the convenience store and get some juice," or "Go knock on your friend's door and see if he's available to play." But I feel like I can't, because society has made it somehow wrong to not be within eye-sight of your children all the time. It's no longer acceptable for kids to go out and just play, to be kids, to navigate life without an adult peeking over their shoulders all the time. And I, too, suffer from this inability to just let them go out and do what comes to mind. I don't want them to get dirty or hurt. I don't want them to make a mess. I don't want them to dig holes or play in mud or get their hands and clothes covered in sidewalk chalk. And that's a failing on my part, too, for not wanting my kids to just go be kids.

I needed to find a balance. I decided I needed to find something for them that would give them an opportunity for growth while still keeping them safe. If they had something to do in the backyard, I thought, they might be more inclined to go out and do it. And I hit upon the idea of gardening. Now, I know very little about gardening, beyond, "You put a seed in some soil and water it." I thought, what if I buy them some pots and soil and seeds and give them the supplies and then get the heck out of their way. Let them experiment. Let them read the instructions on the seed packets, figure it out, and hopefully see the fruits of their labors. I figure they can learn a lot from planting seeds: following directions, watching nature do its thing, delayed gratification (an important lesson in today's world of instant fulfillment), seeing the hard work that goes into growing their food, the beauty of a flower as it blooms, the consequences of weather and wildlife on growing plants. They planted broccoli, green onions, watermelon, and carrots. I'm very, very interested to see what happens over the next few weeks and months. Will we end up with edible vegetables? Will the raccoons and gophers get them before we do? Will the kids enjoy the process and the result and want to try it again?

The idea of letting them "have at it" with the soil and pots and seeds appealed to me, but it was also difficult for me not to step in and do it for them. My oldest kept running in and out of the house, asking me how much a quarter-inch is, how much a half-inch is, so he'd know how deep to plant the seeds. I showed him how to estimate using his knuckles and fingers. I made a few suggestions, like finding a way to label which pot held which type of plant, figuring out where to put them in the yard so they'd get sunlight, remembering to water them. So far they've been enthusiastic, but it's only been a few days and we don't even see sprouts yet. It's hard to wait, even for me, a grown adult! They're doing very well so far, and they seem to understand the waiting game, which is very encouraging for me.

There will also be a lesson in it if the seeds don't grow, or if we end up with tiny carrots or golf-ball-sized watermelon. Failure is its own lesson, that sometimes we put in effort and the effort doesn't pay off. But, that doesn't mean the effort wasn't worthwhile; we just need to figure out where we went wrong and try again. Maybe they planted the seeds too deep in the soil. Maybe a raccoon knocked over the pot and the seeds were eaten. Maybe they gave them too much water, or not enough, or the weather just wasn't quite right for planting yet.

I strongly believe kids need independence. They need our trust. They need our belief in their own ability to problem-solve and face new challenges. I don't want to hover, but I don't want them to get hurt. It's a fine line to tread. Now that this gardening idea came to me and seems to have been successful, I'm trying to think of other ways to encourage them to get out and just be without putting them in danger or overstepping the bounds of what society today says is an acceptable level of independence.

In what ways do you encourage independence in your children? How do you keep them safe while still pushing them out of the nest a bit?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Did I Make Tonight? Some Basics

I want to start with the nitty-gritty basics. If you rarely cook at all for your family, if you find yourself mostly serving frozen dinners and takeout, and you want to change that, it may seem intimidating to alter your routine to make time for cooking. If you know how to cook and are looking for new ideas, you can probably skip this post, but if you are new to cooking and need some tips, this is a good place to start.

First of all, some basic kitchen equipment. Don't get the cheapest stuff you can find. You don't need the most expensive, either, but a good set of pots and pans and a quality knife or two will go a long way toward easier cooking and better tasting food.

I don't mean to talk down to anyone, but this is targeted at the extreme novice, so I'm going to explain everything in as much detail as I can so you know exactly what I'm talking about. I hate when I'm reading instructions or a recipe and I don't understand a word or action; I don't know what I'm supposed to do, and there's no explanation! So I don't want to write recipes like that, either.

Here are the bare minimums for kitchen supplies you'll probably want to have:

Pots and Pans:
6-quart pot with lid
2 and/or 3-quart pot with lid
10" frying pan
Large skillet with lid - a skillet is like a frying pan but with higher sides

8" frying pan
12" frying pan - this is good if you're cooking larger quantities
Stovetop griddle

Solid stirring spoon
Slotted spoon
Pancake turner/spatula

Sharp chef's knife (7 or 8-inch, probably)
Paring knife
Serrated knife

Set of measuring cups and spoons
At least one, preferably at least two cutting boards - not teeny tiny ones!
Set of mixing bowls
Baking sheets (aluminum or stainless steel 1/2-sheet pans are great)
Aluminum foil
Paper towels

If you have those basics, you can cook most of the meals I will be describing. Sometimes I'll use a food processor or an immersion blender. Sometimes I'll use the slow cooker. But usually it's a couple of pans on the stovetop.

Now, two staples to get you started.

This is my never-fails-me pasta method. Pasta is a fabulous "I don't feel like cooking" meal to make. It takes about 30 minutes from "I need to make dinner" to "Dinner's ready," and you can keep pasta and jarred sauce on hand at all times for whenever you need it. These are definitely non-perishables that you should have in your pantry for dinner on the fly! To make it healthier, use whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta. You can also easily toss in frozen or canned veggies to up the vitamin and fiber content, or a protein such as cubed tofu, beans, or browned ground beef or vegetarian "beef" to round out this easy meal.

The great thing about pasta is you can make a lot or a little and it takes about the same amount of time. I usually make a package plus half another package for my family of five good eaters. Pasta saves well to use for lunch or leftovers, and you can set aside some plain cooked pasta to use another time for a pasta salad, for example.
  • Take your 6-quart pot and fill with water to within about 2" of the brim. Put the lid on and put it on a burner on HIGH. 

  • When it comes to a rolling boil (bubbling a lot) add a healthy pinch of salt (say, a tablespoon) and pour in your dry pasta. Stir. 

  • Let it boil UNCOVERED for the amount of time specified on the package, usually around 7 or 8 minutes for smaller shapes (elbows, small shells) and 10 to 12 for bigger or thicker shapes (spaghetti, bowties). You should stir the pasta a few times while it cooks to make sure all of it gets cooked evenly and so it doesn't clump together.

  • After the specified time for the pasta is up, take a fork and taste one piece of the pasta to see if it seems cooked through. It should be soft but not mushy, crunchy, or chewy. 
  • Put your colander in an (empty) sink and pour the whole pot slowly into the colander. 

  • Now, here's my method: Put the pot back on the stove while the water drains from the pasta. Turn OFF the burner (you don't want an empty pot sitting on a hot burner). Shake the colander a little to get off most of the water, then put the pasta back in the empty pot. Now you'd add in your sauce, or toss in a pat or two of butter and some Parmesan cheese. 

  • OR: If you want to use the pasta for a cold dish, instead of putting it back in the hot pot, run cold water over it in the colander in the sink, mixing it around, until it's cooled.
To make sauce: 
  • At the same time that the pasta is cooking, take your smaller pot (2 or 3 quart) and empty your jar of pasta sauce into it. (I like Barilla and Trader Joe's marinaras, for a relatively inexpensive suggestion.)
  • Put it on a second burner on MEDIUM to medium-high heat (not all the way up or it will burn). 
  • COVER the sauce pot (tomato sauce splatters) and let it warm up while the pasta cooks, stirring occasionally (every few minutes) so it doesn't burn on the bottom. (Pro-tip, you can use the same stirring spoon for the pasta and the sauce!) 
  • At this point, you can also add in some frozen or canned veggies (frozen peas always work well, for example, or carrots). Another trick is to add in a jar of pureed baby food, like sweet potatoes or carrots. It will blend in with the sauce but still provide some extra nutrients. You can also add white beans or chick peas, tofu, or cooked meat of some kind (we'll talk about meat in another post). 
  • If you want a creamy sauce, you can stir in some half-and-half or milk until the color looks nice, say a quarter to a half a cup. 
  • When the pasta is done and drained, empty the sauce into the pasta in the pot you cooked the pasta in and mix it all together. 
  • Dinner's ready! (If you have picky eaters who don't like sauce on their pasta, obviously you can serve the pasta and sauce separately, but I like to mix it up so the flavor of the sauce gets cooked into the pasta a bit.) 
  • Serve with grated Parmesan cheese for extra yum.

Many people are intimidated by rice. I'm here to take away the mystery. Rice is EASY, and you don't need a rice cooker. Quinoa can be made exactly the same way, incidentally. This method is for plain white rice. You need to know the basic technique to make many of the rice dishes I'll be describing in the future.
  • Take your large pot (6-quart) and put a tablespoon or two of canola, olive, or vegetable oil in the bottom. Turn on the burner to high. Let the oil get hot - wait three or four minutes. 
  • Measure out your rice. One cup is usually enough for three to four people if served alongside additional food. If you're just making rice and serving more people, do 1-1/2 or even 2 cups. Remember, leftover rice is useful, so don't worry if you make more than gets eaten! (Protip: You don't have to use an actual measuring cup for this. You can even just use a juice glass!)
  • When the oil is hot, add the rice to the pot. Season with a couple pinches of salt. Let the rice toast for a couple of minutes, stirring often so it doesn't burn. 
  • When the grains start to turn white (as opposed to pearly or translucent), it's time to add water or broth. You need twice as much liquid as rice. So if you're making one cup of rice, you need two cups of water or broth. If you're making 1-1/2 cups of rice, you need 3 cups of liquid (not that complicated, right?). 
  • Pour in your water or broth and cover the pot. DON'T LEAVE the stove. 
  • As soon as the liquid is bubbling, stir the rice briefly, then put the cover back on and turn the burner down to LOW. 
  • WALK AWAY. Resist the urge to open the pot to check on it. Don't add anything. Don't stir. WALK AWAY for 20 minutes
  • Come back in 20 minutes, open the pot, and you should see that there is no more liquid in the pot and the rice is moist. If there's still liquid, re-cover and leave it for another five minutes. If it's still wet after that long, you may need to turn up the heat a little to boil off the rest of the water.
  • Turn OFF the burner, take a fork and mix the rice up a bit (this is "fluffing" the rice), put the cover back on, and leave it for another three to five minutes. That's it. 
  • (Brown rice is made the same way, but you'll need to leave it for 50 to 60 minutes instead of 20.)

With a plain pot of rice, you can then serve something over it, add stuff to it, fry it, or put it in an airtight container in the fridge to be added to another dish later in the week. Rice has a tendency to dry out in the fridge, so you may need to add some liquid when you rewarm it.

And that's all I have for you for now. We'll get into some other techniques and methods as we go along, such as chopping and sauteing onions, browning tofu, and roasting chicken (one of my favorites).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Milk Donation: A Personal Story

A couple of days ago, a woman reached out on Facebook to a group I'm a part of. She recently gave birth by c-section and was doing okay until she came down with a MRSA infection in her incision. Her OB tried hard to find a treatment that would be compatible with breastfeeding, but it finally came down to her having to stop breastfeeding for a week so she could take some powerful antibiotics to knock out the infection. She made a plea to our group for help getting her donor milk to feed her baby for the week.

I had been pumping and storing milk here and there and had 24 ounces in my freezer that was on the edge of needing to be thrown away. Milk is good in the freezer for about 4 to 6 months, depending on how cold the freezer is, and most of the milk was pumped in December and January. It is now mid-March. I told her, if she wanted, I could ship her the 24 ounces. Better her son drinks it than I throw it away!! And my son doesn't want or need it. That amount should be enough for a day, or most of a day, and several other women local to her also immediately offered what they had. Another friend offered to go pick up all the milk that was offered and bring it to this woman's house. I hope she was able to gather enough donated milk to cover her for the week. I wish I had more to give. I did try to pump some more yesterday but was only able to produce 2 additional ounces with such short notice.

I'm 500 miles away, so I had to ship my milk to her. I've shipped milk once before, when my second son was a baby, across country from California to Florida. The key to shipping milk is that you get it there as quickly as possible, within 24 hours of leaving the freezer, so even if it defrosts on the way, it can still be used at its destination as long as it's been kept cold. Now, you can go all out and use dry ice to really keep it frozen, much they way steaks are shipped, but if you don't have access to dry ice or it's too much hassle, it can be done with stuff you have at home.

Milk donation is an informal arrangement, but you can make certain agreements with your recipient if you want. It's common courtesy for the recipient to ship back any supplies that are reusable (cooler, ice pack) or to pay for anything consumable you need to purchase (if you want them to, such as storage bags and the cost of shipping), but you can make that arrangement with your donee however you see fit and depending on the amount you're shipping, whether it's a recurring agreement (i.e., you'll send milk every month or whatever), and what your and their financial situation is like.

For packing and shipping, you can purchase an inexpensive foam cooler (about $6 - usually either in the freezer section or beverage section of your grocery store) and a few blue-ice packs, like what you'd use to keep a lunch cold. If you'll be doing this regularly, you may want to invest in something sturdier and more insulated, but for a one-time donation, a cheap one will do just fine. Make sure everything is frozen solid and pack it up just when you're ready to leave for the Post Office or UPS store or wherever you're shipping it from. I am shipping such a small amount this time that I didn't want to buy a big 28-gallon cooler, so I found a smaller insulated bag ($4, meant for keeping beer or soda cans cold) to use instead. As long as it closes up all the way around, it should be fine. Remember that most cooler bags are designed to keep food cold for 18 to 24 hours with ice packs, and since the milk is starting out frozen, it should still be cold when it arrives the next day. I also stuck the cooler bag in the freezer for an hour or so before I packed everything so the air inside the bag would start out cold. Cold cold cold!

 Put the ice packs at the bottom, sides, and top of the cooler and the milk in the middle. Remember heat transfer will be highest at the outside, while the inner-most parts will stay coldest; you want the ice packs to melt before the milk! Fill in any empty space with newspaper for additional insulation - you want as little air as possible to minimize heat transfer. Find a box that the cooler fits inside with just a little room around it. Pack the space between the cooler and the box with more newspaper.

Then, take it to the shipping location and ship it OVERNIGHT, not two-day. It needs to get there as fast as possible. Make sure the recipient knows it's coming so she can bring it inside and get it on ice again as soon as possible. When I shipped my milk to Florida, the UPS guy didn't ring her bell and it sat on her front porch for several hours in the Florida sun. The milk was still cold and usable, but the milk at the outside of the pile was defrosted and needed to be used immediately. She was able to refreeze the rest, thankfully. I felt terrible that she didn't know right away that it had been delivered!

My attempt this time around was a bit of an improvisation, because despite visiting three stores with my kids in tow the day before sending the milk, I couldn't find appropriate ice packs (?!?!), so I didn't have time to freeze any additional ones before I shipped the milk. I did have ice in the freezer, so I packed that in Ziploc bags along with the two ice packs I did find, and I prayed that it would stay cold enough. I'd rather overdo it with the ice than have the milk spoil on the way!

I shipped it UPS overnight. They have options for end-of-day, 10:30a.m., and 8:00a.m. I wanted to make sure it got there by the 24-hour mark, but the 8:00a.m. delivery was very expensive, so I chose the 10:30. You can also do USPS next day, which is generally less pricey than UPS or FedEx, but I also wanted them to pack the box securely for me, and it was easier for me to use the UPS Store than the Post Office.

I let my recipient know that the package was on its way and gave her the tracking number so she can keep a lookout for it. After delivery, I nervously messaged her on Facebook to find out if it had arrived safely, and she responded that it had. What a relief!

I'm so happy that my milk found a good home. I was unhappy about having to throw it away, but despite my intent when he was born, I was not good about offering a bottle to Baby Y often, and he won't drink from one. Donating milk is a wonderful way to help another family out, and it was very fulfilling for me to be able to do that again. Of course, donating to someone local, where you just have to drive the milk over to them or have them come pick it up, is much more convenient and better for long-term donation agreements or one-time bulk donations, but if you know someone in need who is far away, it's great to be able to ship milk.

Have you ever donated milk or nursed someone else's baby? Have you been the recipient of donor milk? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

Friday, March 21, 2014

New Feature on the Blog: Quick Weeknight Dinners, or What Did I Make Tonight?

Let's face it, getting a good meal on the table on a weekday evening is hard. Coming up with new and interesting dishes to make, finding the time and inclination to cook, serving dinner at a reasonable hour so the kids can get to bed, and making food that everyone is willing to eat are constant challenges.

I take some pride in my ability to put a tasty, home-cooked dinner on the table several nights a week. It usually takes me under an hour to prepare and serve a weeknight meal, and it's usually cooked on the fly, without planning ahead and without a recipe. I have a few basic techniques and styles that I then spin out variations on, depending on my mood and what's available in the house.

In order for this to work, I make sure I always have certain ingredients available so that I can whip up a quick dinner. These may include (but are not limited to):

Israeli couscous

Boneless, skinless chicken breast
Cut up whole chicken and/or leg quarters and breasts
Fake (vegetarian) ground beef
Canned beans
Canned tuna

Frozen corn
Frozen peas
Canned tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes

Sauces and Condiments:
Soy sauce
Marinara/tomato sauce
Salad dressing
Barbecue sauce

Spices, etc.:
Rice vinegar
Curry powder
Garlic powder
Ground ginger
Smoked paprika
White sugar
Brown sugar
Vegetarian powdered soup base

Olive oil
Canola oil
Sesame oil
Corn starch
Shredded cheese

The way I'd describe this list is, "If I run out of this, I absolutely must refill or restock it as soon as possible," as opposed to "Things that are nice to have around if I'm making something specific." If I have most of the things above, I can put something together without much difficulty. (This is not all I have in my kitchen - we also have breakfast and lunch stuff, snacks, fruit, etc., but we're talking about dinner staples specifically here, so this list is specific to that topic.)

I should note that we do in fact eat vegetables other than what's on this list (we belong to a CSA and get a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits every week), that I acknowledge that some of these dishes may not be extremely healthy, but they're all home cooked and use as few processed ingredients as possible, and I do my best to include a starch, vegetable, and protein in every dinner.

I also want to reiterate that these are styles and techniques that I play around with. You don't have to stick to my "recipe." Rather, I hope to give you some ideas about how to use the foods you have lying around, ways to get dinner for you and your family on the table quickly, and some confidence in the kitchen cooking without a recipe. I rarely actually measure how much of anything I'm using, unless I'm trying out a new seasoning mix or flavor combination. I also rarely end up making exactly the same thing twice! Feel free to substitute your own proteins for mine, add or subtract to your taste, and put new twists on my tried-and-true basics. Many of these dishes can probably easily be modified to fit certain dietary restrictions. All of them are kosher, often dairy, and many are vegetarian or even vegan (or easily modified to be vegetarian/vegan).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Enjoying Quiet Time in an Often-Noisy House

My house is often noisy. There's always something going on. With six people in and out all the time (some more in than others), there's always activity. It may be the TV or other electronics, a bass or guitar being strummed or picked, someone crying, screaming, or laughing, feet stomping across the wood floor as the five-year-old dashes to the bathroom or the two-year-old goes looking for Mommy or Daddy. There's arguing and playing, running around, shrieks of joy or frustration.

And then, suddenly, between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m., usually, the noise stops. It ceases. It's stunning, really. When all four kids are sleeping, the TV is off, the tablets are silent, no one is crying, no one is yelling "Mommy?!!" from across the house, no one is asking for something, no one needs anything, it's so overwhelmingly quiet that sometimes I just sit and listen. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator, the thump of the heater coming on or going off, the white noise of the bathroom fan, gentle snoring from one of the kids, cars moseying by outside, the occasional dog barking. I can hear myself breathe.

The activity of the day is refreshing. It's lively. It's a testament to the excitement of a growing family and the buzz of things happening. It's brothers being brothers, babies being babies, people doing people things.

But when the activity stops, I am reminded of the value of silence, of how quiet helps me order my thoughts, calm my body, and process the day. Some days, even if I could sit and watch TV, I don't, because I'm enjoying the quiet too much. Even if I could pick up the phone and call someone, I don't, because I'm lost in the silence of the evening.

It also makes me appreciate when I can be alone in the car. That's the next-best place to find quiet, and it's most likely to happen when I have only the two youngest with me and they happen to both fall asleep as we drive. Then I turn off the music and listen to the noise of the road, the wind rushing past my window. I talk to myself. I think about what I might write for my next blog, about ways to handle new phases in my kids' lives, about food, about whatever I want.

When no one is asking me for things, needing me to intervene, wanting my attention, I can finally turn inward and enjoy my own thoughts, my own needs, my own interests.

These quiet times are like little bubbles of peace in a busy life. Take time to appreciate silence when you can.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

10 Tips for Success at Breastfeeding

Check out this Ask-Me Monday video from this week, in which a reader wanted tips for being successful at breastfeeding when she has her second baby.

10 Tips for Success at Breastfeeding:

  1. Avoid problems instead of having to fix them later
  2. Learn the four basic rules for good positioning and latch. (Tummy-to-tummy; ear, shoulder, hip in a straight line; baby to breast, not breast to baby; support back of neck not back of head.)
  3. Be determined.
  4. Take it one feeding at a time.
  5. Remember that frequent feeding is normal and desirable. 
  6. Worry only if your baby does not start regaining weight by the third or fourth day of life or starts losing weight again after starting to gain. 
  7. Be confident. 
  8. Educate yourself.
  9. Hide the formula.
  10. Get your partner on board!
Watch the video for more detail!

To ask a question to be featured in an Ask-Me Monday video, like the Facebook page and then comment on an Ask-Me Monday thread or send me a private message through the page.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Car Seat Rule #5: Booster Seats and Seat Belts

This is the fifth in my Car Seat Rules series, in which I focus on one aspect of car seat use in a small, digestible article.

See other Car Seat Rules articles here:Rule #1, on the Chest ClipRule #2, on Rear-FacingRule #3, on NewbornsRule #4, on Front-Facing

*The advice given in the Car Seat Rules articles is not a substitute for having your seats checked by a car seat professional (CPST) or for reading the manual that came with your car seat.--------------------------

A five-point harness is safer than a seat belt as long as it fits properly. Once your child outgrows his front-facing car seat by height OR weight, it may be time to switch to a booster seat. Please check your state laws with regard to the minimum age and weight requirements for use of a booster seat, but the recommendation is typically at least four years old and at least 40 pounds.

A booster seat works differently from a car seat. A car seat is attached to the car using LATCH or seat belt, and then the straps of the car seat hold your child in place. A booster seat is not secured to the car (typically, although some models allow you to use the LATCH connectors to hold the booster in place) but merely helps to position your child so that the seat belt will fit him properly. The seat belt is then the primary restraint, just as it is for the adult occupants of the car.

Your child has outgrown his forward-facing seat when ONE of the following is true:
  • He has reached the maximum weight limit of the harness,
  • His ears are above the top of the car seat, OR
  • His shoulders are above the top harness slot.
Your child is ready for a booster when ALL of the following are true:
  • He has reached the minimum weight and age limits designated by your state's laws,
  • When sitting in the booster, the shoulder belt falls across his collarbone, not his neck,
  • When sitting in the booster, the lap belt sits flat against the tops of his thighs, not across his abdomen,
  • He can sit upright in the seat through the entire trip and not lean over, slouch, or fall forward (otherwise the seat belt will not function properly), AND
  • You trust that he won't unbuckle the seat belt while the car is in motion.
There are two basic types of booster seats, the HIGH-BACK BOOSTER and the BACKLESS booster. Their function is the same, and one has not been proven to be "safer" than the other. The basic difference is that a high-back booster helps to better position the shoulder belt, may provide some additional side impact protection, and helps to protect the head and neck if your car's seats don't have headrests. A backless booster positions only the lap belt, so you need to make sure your child is tall enough that the shoulder belt falls over his shoulder correctly.

Some boosters come with additional features which may interest you, such as a reading light, cup holder, or LATCH connectors. The LATCH connectors do not serve as restraints. Rather, they ensure that the booster seat does not become a projectile in the car if no one is sitting in the seat. (If your booster does not have LATCH connectors, you should buckle it in even when no one is using it.)

It is important to use a booster seat until your child is tall enough for the seat belt to fit properly without it. An ill-fitting seat belt can do more harm than good in a crash by causing internal injuries. Some states have implemented a minimum age or height before a child is no longer legally required to use a booster. In California and a few other states, a child must be eight years old OR 4'9" before using a seat belt without a booster.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lessons Learned from Taking (Guitar) Lessons

I recently took up the guitar. I've always been fairly musical. I took piano for 10 years as a child. I'm one of those adults who can look back and say, ruefully, "I would have been really good if only I'd practiced..." I sang in my school choirs from middle school through college. I've always enjoyed how easily music comes to me, but I've become rusty over the intervening years of not exercising my gift.

One of my fond memories of childhood is sitting with my dad and singing folk songs with him as he played the guitar. He was self-taught. My musical talent comes from his side of the family, down in a straight line from my great-grandmother, who was a concert pianist. He bought me a ukulele and started teaching me a bit when I was little - a full-size guitar would have been difficult for my petite hands - but I didn't stick with it very long. In high school, I went into a guitar store in my neighborhood and bought a classical guitar and case for $150 of my own hard-earned cash. I tried to learn a bit. I may have mastered E minor and a few other chords, but I was frustrated by not being able to figure out how to make the strumming and chords together sound like a song. I couldn't afford to find a teacher and take lessons at the time. I don't remember what happened to that guitar. Of course, now I wish I still had it.

It's important to me that my kids are exposed to music. Of the four, at least some of them should have inherited some musical ability, right? I haven't been good about finding them a teacher or having them choose an instrument, but they're also still young. My seven-year-old has expressed interest in learning "piano...and violin...and guitar!", and we've tried to oh-so-gently steer him toward piano for now. We have a piano, generously given to us by a friend and badly in need of repair and tuning.

A few months ago, my husband finally found that he has time for something outside of work, and he's always wanted to play the bass. He bought himself an electric bass and started taking lessons. I was drooling with envy. Here was something he was doing only for himself, for his own pleasure and benefit, because he wanted to. My itch to learn guitar returned, and he encouraged me to buy a guitar and sign up for lessons at Guitar Center, too. We figured out that I could take a half-hour lesson on the weekend and he could hang with the kids.

It has been an absolute delight. For 30 minutes, I have only myself to answer to, only myself to please. For 30 minutes, it's all about me, about improving myself and doing something I enjoy without having to constantly be thinking about someone else. I can wander into our "music room" (the spare bedroom, for now), pick up my guitar for 10 minutes, and play something. I don't know a whole song yet, but I'm getting there. It's coming very quickly and naturally to me, too, which I didn't expect. Having a teacher to guide you makes a huge difference.

Because I am a mother, I still feel like I have to justify anything I undertake and find a reason that it's good for my kids. And it's really not that hard to do in this case. There are many benefits:

  1. They see me work hard at something, practice, and improve.
  2. They see me taking joy in music.
  3. They hear music, can ask me questions about what I'm doing, and pick up some music theory and get exposure even without formal lessons.
  4. I can make memories with them by playing and singing for them and with them, like my dad did with me.
  5. They see that it's important to have a hobby.
  6. They see how working hard at something is a form of self-improvement.
I'm sure there are many less tangible advantages as well. My 30 kid-less minutes a week rejuvenate me, up my tolerance for my kids' little annoyances, help me enjoy my time with them more because I do get that break once in a while. The serotonin burst I get when I master a new technique or chord progression on the guitar improves my mood in general. The pride I have in myself at being good at something makes me a more confident person overall.

Many new moms are warned not to "lose themselves" in their babies. Many new moms lament that they feel they no longer have time for the things they once enjoyed. I'm here to tell you, after four kids, find that "thing." Find some thing. If you're a musician, keep playing. If you're in a book club, keep attending. If you are a runner, keep running. You may have to cut back, it may not be as intense as it once was, but don't stop. And, if you didn't have a hobby before your baby was born, don't use your baby as an excuse not to find one. You are a whole person, and you need to nurture that whole person.