Friday, December 30, 2011

Taking a break

I really, really hate to do this, seems the wisest and kindest thing to do right now.

I have some pressing health issues and family matters to tend to (when it rains it pours!) so I'm having a hard time spending quality time with MaMammalia. I'm going to take a short time-out and hopefully be back within a couple of weeks. Don't worry, I have plenty of wonderful ideas in the works for the new year.

Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't call it a time-out since that has all kinds of punitive, negative connotations attached to it. How about a break? That's better. I'm going to take a little break.  :)

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Gentle Parenting Looks Like

When I tell people that I practice gentle parenting, I think they get the impression that this means always being positive, having infinite patience, and never losing one's temper or getting angry. In truth, I see gentle parenting as a practice, and one that takes considerable practice at that.

Yes, I do strive to always be responsive to my son. I try to maintain a positive outlook, to be supportive, to use gentle guidance instead of punishment, to be patient, and to keep my own emotions in check. But I'm human. And I have my own baggage. And I wasn't raised this way. And I'm not naturally patient or calm. And he's a toddler.

So sometimes I falter. Sometimes I feel resentful when my own needs go neglected too long. Sometimes I get sick of playing the same game 20 times, of cleaning up messes, of answering the same question over and over again, of repeating myself, of hearing him repeat himself, of whining, crying, and the whole lot. Sometimes I am just too darn tired to deal. While I don't use punishment, I do sometimes yell or say things I don't really mean. Sometimes I look like any other parent of a toddler.

So how is that "gentle" parenting? I think it's largely a matter of attitude and motivation. I don't condone my own shortcomings, nor do I dwell on feeling guilty about them. I apologize for my behavior to my son when I act in ways I don't want to. Then I make concerted efforts to do things differently, and tell him I am doing so. I reflect on what's driving my own emotions, then take steps to care for myself and heal myself if necessary. Sometimes I repeat my mistakes. So I try again. And again. I just keep trying. Parenting is, after all, a lifelong practice.

I also have an intense desire to be a better parent today than I was yesterday. I make that commitment every day and I make it a conscious choice. It's a decision that takes high priority in my life, but it is a decision I have to make repeatedly. I can't take it for granted that I'm just parenting along fine all the time. Even when things are going well, I still take time to consider how and why they are good so I can nurture those qualities. Over time, I believe those positive aspects of my parenting will become so habitual that my shortfalls will become less frequent and less intense. I'm growing with my son.

However, I think maybe the real trick to gentle parenting is being gentle to the parent. What I've found is that when I am patient with myself, I am patient with my son. When I put my basic needs first, I can easily tend to his. When I allow myself to experience and process my own emotions - however ugly or beautiful - I handle my son's emotions with sensitivity and compassion.

Don't get me wrong, my son's needs do come first. Sometimes his needs are in direct conflict with mine and I have to negotiate how and when to address my own needs. Those are challenging situations that I work on as they arise. Sometimes clarity comes with hindsight, but the point is I'm always looking, always trying to learn, always open.

More importantly, I am learning to love myself through those stressful circumstances so that I can show him the unconditional love that I feel for him, too. Self-love is a wellspring of unconditional love, the place where I find positivity, undying patience, and emotional well being. It's where I find my guide to gentle parenting.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Light in the Darkness

Welcome to the December Mindful Mama Carnival: Staying Mindful During the Holiday Season
This post was written for inclusion in the Mindful Mama Carnival hosted by Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ. This month our participants
have shared how they stay mindful during the holiday season. Please read to
the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Winter is usually a dark time for me. I am deeply affected by the shortage of sunlight and my body yearns for hibernation.  Blood meant for warmer climes retracts from the chilly surface. I become sluggish. My limbs recoil, aching for sanctuary.

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, my longing to withdraw is further complicated by the holidays. The season brings up a mix of both magical childhood memories and memories still too dark to fully retrieve. Adding  to the challenge is my son's birthday and the memories of his difficult entrance into the world. He was born in winter, even though he wasn't due until early spring. Keeping vigil in the NICU that year, I escaped my usual holiday anguish as I faced a new, utterly foreign reality. Coming home was even harder but we got through that, too. My new family survived that first dark winter.

When I look at my son now, two years later, I wonder how I got so lucky to have this being share the winter with me. I watch him run laughing, rosy-cheeked from the cold. I feel warm. I answer his litany of questions and listen to his endless discourse about the rocks, the barren trees, the dog's hardened poop. I feel elation. My arms unfold, extending outward. My feet move easily. I am awake.

When incomprehensible emotions creep up, when I feel disgust, distance, and discord over the madness of the holidays, I look at him. I remember his fight. I remember my own. I see the results of hope, commitment, and deep attachment. I see him grow and I see myself transform. I see the now and move beyond the past. I see the holidays as a time of joy, a time to celebrate that we are alive through the dark, cold winter. I see light.


Mindful Mama Carnival -- Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ Visit The Mindful Mama Homepage to find out how you can participate in the next Mindful Mama Carnival!

On Carnival day, please follow along on Twitter using the handy #MindMaCar hashtag. You can also subscribe to the Mindful Mama Twitter List and Mindful Mama Participant Feed.
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Same shirt, different size

The first thing I noticed was the young boy's shirt: it was exactly the same as one Munchkin has, albeit several sizes bigger. I felt the urge to approach The Mom, to tell her it was one of my favorite shirts, to forge a connection, to have a chuckle over kid stuff.

The occasion to act on this urge was interrupted by the first strained interaction between The Mom and Her Daughter. The 9 or 10 year-old girl was climbing the jungle gym while The Mom was pushing Her Son in the cool shirt on the swing. The Mom called out that they would be leaving soon. The daughter responded with a gesture and something I couldn't hear, something that The Mom must have heard before.

"Don't do that. That's disrespectful," The Mom called out in a sing-songy voice. Her Daughter kept climbing. A few minutes later Her Daughter joined them at the swings. I heard another tense exchange of unintelligible words before Her Daughter scuffed off towards the slide play structure.

 A toddler girl, close to Munchkin's age, was exploring the bottom rungs of the rope ladder up to the large slide. The Daughter moved close and must have put a hand on one of the upper rungs because The Mom immediately burst out with, "Get away from there!" Her Daughter mumbled an objection.

"You get away from there now! That little girl is using it. She's small and you're big." The toddler's mother was on the other side of the play structure, like me, casually observing the drama unfold. I couldn't tell if she said anything, but it didn't seem to matter to The Mom. The Mom suggested -- no, barked -- that Her Daughter should walk around to climb up from another point. Her Daughter remained sullen near the rope ladder and bleated something else I couldn't hear.

The Mom left Her Son on the swing and walked towards Her Daughter, wagging that big finger. "I said, you get away from there now. You're big and you need to leave her alone. We always look out for the little guy. Always!"

Her Daughter ignored The Mom's orders. She stood close to the rope ladder, head down, gently spreading out the wood chips with her foot. The Mom made a beeline for their gear and started packing up, coughing up more admonishments to Her Daughter. She instructed Her Son to get off the swing and get ready to leave. To Her Daughter across the playground, she yelled, "If you don't get away from there, I'm leaving!" Her Daughter did not move.

The toddler girl moved away from the ladder and went off to explore the swings where her mother sat watching. The Daughter seized the opportunity to climb the ladder now that the whole reason for avoidance was gone. The Mom hissed at her before she laid a hand on the rungs.

"But Mom, she's gone now..." Her Daughter moaned.

"I don't care! I told you to get away from there. You made the little girl leave. You made her mommy make her leave!"

My jaw dropped. I stopped listening to them. It only took a few minutes more for The Mom to gather Her Daughter and Son to leave the playground. Munchkin and I played quietly in the sand box. I turned to smile at the toddler's mother, rhythmically pushing the little girl on the swing. She smiled back. I heard the wind rustle in the trees and the soft cry of a hawk above.

Maybe I should have mentioned the shirt, I thought.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Child-proof Breakfast of Champions

One of the hardest things for me to adapt to as a first-time mother of a young child was being interrupted. Constant. Interruptions. While eating, pooping, talking, dressing, brushing teeth, cleaning, and of course, sleeping.

In nearly two years, I've learned not only to accept the repeated interruptions, but how to work with them.  In addition to finding new ways to cook and do laundry with my toddler, I've found a breakfast of champions that is interruption-proof. By interruption-proof I don't mean I don't get interrupted a hundred times while I'm eating it. I mean that it can withstand countless interruptions and still be enjoyable. Unlike a hot meal, granola, or cold cereal, this breakfast just gets better the longer it sits. Interruption-proof.

What's that, Munchkin? You spilled milk all over yourself and need a change of clothes? Oh, and you spilled it on all your cars, too? You peed on the floor again? Now you don't like that shirt and want a different one? Did the grapes get squished into the couch? And now you want something else to eat instead? No problem. I'll just take a quick bite then come back later for the rest of my Child-Proof Breakfast of Champions:

plain yogurt
honey (local honey is best if you have allergies)
fresh fruit (I prefer berries, bananas, or whatever is in season)
"Grape Nuts" cereal (I use a generic brand but I'm also trying to figure out how to make my own)

Put the yogurt in your bowl, then top with grape nuts. Drizzle honey over the grape nuts. Mix yogurt, cereal and honey well. Top with fruit. If you like crunchy, eat it up immediately. If you have a rogue child to tend to, go ahead. When you get back, the grape nuts will have softened a bit, but they will still have some good texture.

In my experience, granola doesn't have the same lasting quality as the gravelly grape nuts. Granola tends to just get soggy and I rarely enjoy it later on. This, breakfast, however, has gotten me through many hectic mornings. It also happens to be delicious, nutritious, and filling. It makes a great snack any time of day and Munchkin likes it, too.

Lunch, however....

Do you have any quick, easy, interruption-proof meals? Please share!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank You, Mama Bloggers

On this year's day of giving thanks, I am reminded of some thoughts I had awhile back. Now seems like a good time to share them.

When you have a lifestyle that's considered alternative to mainstream culture, it can be hard to find community. Mainstream culture tends to fly in direct opposition to most of what I hold dear, what I find most natural, what I find to be truly human. Consider Milwaukee's recent attack on co-sleeping as but one example.

When I became a mother and realized my place in the parenting world, I started reading natural parenting blogs, mama blogs, and blogs about natural living. I sought information and insight from like-minded people. So I've been reading all sorts of mama blogs...the big impact ones with a zillion Facebook fans, the little ones who quietly share intimate stories, and many in between.

Since joining this virtual community less than a year ago, I've noticed subtle changes in myself. I have more maternal knowledge and skills. I've grown more comfortable in my mothering. No, not just comfortable, confident. I feel good about my general parenting choices, like I'm on a path that's right for me. Part of it is my own growth, but I think another big part is that I've been reading the mama blogs.

So here, I'd like to formally say Thank You to the Mama Bloggers:

Thank you for creating a community of open-mindedness, sharing, and respect. I find connection and support in what I once thought was the least likely place (the internet).

Thank you for providing so much useful information. I continually learn new things to apply in my daily life.

Thank you for sharing your trials and tribulations. I often learn your lessons vicariously or am reminded of my own shortcomings that need attention.

Thank you for cheering about your successes. I am inspired and motivated, knowing that someone else has a way that might work for me, too.

Thank you for making me laugh, so that I could laugh at myself, too.  Some days I really need it!

Thank you for your poetic prose that touches me as a mother, a world citizen, a woman, and a fellow writer.

Thank you for honoring motherhood in all its glory and hardship. 

Thank you for making me a better mother.

And, of course...thank you for reading :)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Airplane Travel With a Toddler

Traveling by air with a toddler can be entertaining or stressful, but it is unlikely to be uneventful. During the holidays, especially, it's easy for adults to get busy or wrapped up in the season. It's easy for us to forget that air travel is so much more than going from Point A to Point B (not to mention the ecological costs).

However, if we take the time to slow down, avoid rushing, and allow the toddler to discover this amazing human feat, we are more likely to enjoy a simple, domestic flight -- holiday bustle or not. Being mindful and compassionate may also create an atmosphere of contentment and cooperation for a small traveling companion. Of course, a bit of preparation really helps, too!

Here are a few ideas for making plane travel with a toddler a positive experience. Many of these you likely do already, but I'm a big fan of checklists because they help me remember those little things...

Before your trip, talk about flying on airplanes.
As early as a couple of weeks before your trip, start talking about it with your toddler. Then he will know what to expect and it will give you a chance to confront any anxieties ahead of time. It also helps build excitement and honors your child by letting him be involved in trip planning. The day before the trip, remind him of what you will be doing the next day.

Watch videos of planes landing and taking off, both from the inside and outside.
Although your toddler has likely seen planes in the air and might even have a toy plane, these are quite different than what traveling by plane actually looks like. I'm not sure if all kids would like this as much as my son did, but this step was a total hit! He loved watching airplane videos. Avoid images of plane crashes. Here are a few links to airplane videos to get you started:

Airplanes taking offPlanes taking off
Eight minutes of many different planes taking off.

Over 4 minutes long with just one plane, but it's filmed from a great angle where you can see the plane go safely from the sky to the ground.

Airplanes from the inside: Kids on a plane!
This is a long (16 min) video but it's great because it shows door-to-door travel for a family with four kids. It includes loading the car with suitcases, riding to the airport, going through security, walking through the airport, boarding the plane, take-off and landing...all with kids!

Talk about your destination. Who are you going to visit? Where will you stay? What kinds of activities are you likely to do there? YouTube is a good resource for examples (e.g. kids playing on the beach, kids skiing, etc.). We used Skype to introduce our son to friends who hosted our family. When he met them in person the first time, he was already somewhat familiar with them.

Pack ahead of time.  Pick out what clothes to take ahead of time to avoid doing last-minute laundry. Be sure to include travel clothes, keeping in mind the different climates of home, destination, and airplane. Also set aside (read, hide) any toys you want to bring on the plane. Even if you can't get all of this packed into your bags, just having them selected and set aside will prevent a lot of stress and conflicts when you do pack. I'm usually a last-minute packer, but I managed to pick out what I needed a whole week before our last trip and I was so glad I did!

Pack your carry-on thoughtfully. When choosing toys or books to bring, consider your toddler's interests, energy level, and temperament. For us, having familiar items mattered far more than any new one we brought. Extra clothes for temperature fluctuations or messes can also help keep your toddler comfortable. A blanket, scarf, or pillow from home can help create comfort and privacy for nursing or napping during the flight.

Bring a good supply of snacks, food and drinks. A hungry toddler is a cranky toddler. Unless you plan to rely on airline food and airport snacks, prepare and bring your own. Remember that these will have to last the entire door-to-door trip, i.e. from the time you leave your house until you arrive at your lodging. That can turn a 5 hour plane ride into a whole day's worth of meals. Note that milk in bottles is allowed to pass through security, but water is not (brilliant, right?).

Consider using noise-reduction headphones at the airport or on the plane. If your toddler is easily overstimulated, these are a great "toy" to bring along. You don't need to buy the expensive ones, either. For a sensitive individual, background noise can agitate the nerves and interfere with focus and concentration. In toddlers, this over-stimulation can lead to extreme fussiness. This is easily relieved by donning a noise-reduction headset...even if it doesn't fit quite right.

On travel days, let go of schedules. Focus on your toddler's cues for hunger or fatigue rather than looking at the clock.This makes even more sense if you're changing time zones. A new environment can throw off even the most regular toddler biorhythms.

Allow plenty of time at the airport before boarding the plane. Avoid the need to rush your toddler by showing up early at the airport -- at least earlier than you ordinarily would. Having time to explore the new environment will also make it more fun. Airports with long open walkways and chairs to climb provide plenty of ways for a high energy toddler to burn off energy before you cram onto a plane. 

Get your toddler involved when passing through security. Show your toddler where all the bags come out on the other side of the tunnel, aka X-ray machine. Avoid taking away that beloved plush toy (or other belonging) amidst strangers and commotion because it can be unnecessarily distressing. Instead, let him copy you by placing it on the conveyor belt himself. Security should allow you to hold his hand and walk through the metal detector together. If not, make it a fun game for him to follow you through.

Bring a baby carrier for getting around the airport.  When you need to move quickly or safely, it's a whole lot easier to wear your toddler. Small carriers, like the Ergo or a sling, won't be counted as carry-on baggage. A larger carrier, such as a Kelty backpack carrier, may count as carry-on (check with your airline), but you can ask the flight attendants to stow it for you (typically you just leave it at the end of the jet bridge).

Car seats and strollers. Be sure to check with your airline ahead of time. You should be able to check a car seat for no extra charge. It will be loaded on the plane separately from the luggage with large and bulky items, so you don't have to worry about damage. Some airports and airlines supply a plastic bag for the car seat, others do not. Strollers can be taken all the way to the jet bridge where the flight attendants will help stow it for you. Again, be sure to check with your airline for restrictions.

Board the airplane early. When they call for passengers who need extra time to board, or those flying with infants, go! We passed on this opportunity once and will not do it again.  It's much easier to allow a toddler time to walk through the jet bridge, time to walk through the aisles, and time to investigate the back of the seat when a person isn't actually seated there. Plus, you'll have your pick of where to stash your carry-ons.

You are free to move about the cabin. Like the airport, the plane itself has some toddler-friendly activities...strolling down the aisles, saying hello to the flight attendants and other children on board, checking out the tiny bathroom. Keep in mind that a captivated, exploring toddler is far less annoying to other passengers than one having a tantrum! For tips on gaining toddler cooperation, check out this post and this one, too.

Have fun. Traveling by plane with a toddler can be an incredibly exciting adventure, especially for first-timers. Enjoy this truly amazing (albeit environmentally costly) experience's part of your vacation!

Do you have any helpful hints for traveling with a toddler? I'd love to hear your experiences!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kreativ Blogger Award (or, 7 Things About Me)

I recently received my first blogger "award", The Kreativ Blogger award. This blogger-love-sharing award was passed on to me by Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama (thanks!). The rules for accepting the award state that I must:
·         Share seven things about myself
·         Pass on the award to ten deserving bloggers

So, here are a few things about me:
1.       I'm short. Like, as in 5 feet tall, short. I also love being small because I can still fit on some kids equipment. Fun!
2.       I appreciate a dark sense of humor. I love parody, satire, and sarcasm. Unfortunately, these are totally inappropriate when gentle parenting a young child so you will rarely see this side of me on my blog.
3.       I also love toilet humor. I think farts are hilarious, not because they are "forbidden" but because the sound of a fart is inherently hilarious (pfffft!prrrrp!bllp!). Fortunately, this type of humor is totally appropriate for gentle parenting so it may slip in from time to time. I hope my readers are not too offended.
4.       In my early 20's, I believed that Bob Marley was my soul mate -- we were just born too many years apart. I still love reggae and value his lyrical messages about love and simple living, but my husband has my heart.
5.       My mother and I are both non-native English speakers. Actually, I was bilingual when I first started talking but English has been my primary language most of my life.
6.       Before the age of 22, I had circumnavigated the planet twice. I paid for it entirely by myself, mostly with crappy, minimum wage jobs. Choosing to travel rather than go to college right away was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
7.       Although I have a master's degree in evolutionary biology (also self-funded by scholarships, work, and loans), I have been a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none". I have been a bread slicer in a bakery, an au pair, a shiatsu masseuse, a deck hand, a scuba diver, a cancer researcher, a teacher, a bird surveyor, and many other professions, both exciting and dull. Being a full-time mother has allowed compelled me to change and grow in ways that no adventure ever has before. I am perpetually grateful to have this amazing "job."

Now for the second part of the award: who to pass the award on to next.

There are many blogs that I love and follow. Some have already received this award so I've purposely left them out to give others a chance to participate (if any on my list have already participated, I apologize). At the risk of creating an annoying chain-letter type of phenomenon, I didn't include every blog on my reader, although they are certainly all "deserving"! Alas, here are the 10 bloggers to whom I pass on the Kreativ Blogger Award:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Washing Hair with Baking Soda and Vinegar: An Update

About 2 months ago, I decided to go no poo and switched from my regular shampoo and conditioner to washing my hair with baking soda and vinegar (for simple instructions, read this). I was skeptical, but willing to give it an honest shot. I played around with different quantities and procedures and have finally settled into a pattern I like. Here's a synopsis of how the switch has gone for me so far:

I started out by using about 1/2 cup baking soda in 2 or 3 cups water. I went for this option because I have full, long hair. I poured the solution on to my scalp, scrubbed as I would regular shampoo, then rinsed it clean. I followed it up by spraying on a 50% distilled vinegar-water solution, then rinsing it out well.

The first few washings like this were fabulous. Then my hair went through a serious funk phase where it felt coarse and not really clean. I still had to wash it every other day, contrary to what I expected. This lasted about 2 weeks, after which my hair seemed to get progressively worse. Icky. I almost gave up and went back to regular shampoo, but I remembered that it takes a minimum of two weeks for hair to change pH and adapt to the no poo regime.

So I tinkered around with the ingredients.  I thought maybe my hair was greasier than I believed, so I increased the baking soda concentration by making a paste instead of a liquid solution. I tried eliminating the vinegar step. Super ick!! My hair felt crunchy and I could hardly comb through it. Gross.

I also tried spraying my hair with vinegar first and then washing it with the baking soda. That was only nominally better so I went back to my original plan but I cut back the baking soda and used more vinegar since my hair felt so dry.

After about 6 weeks (!!!) of using baking soda and vinegar, my hair magically transformed. The change from icky to beautiful hair happened quite suddenly. I was relieved because, like I said, I almost gave up a few times. Maybe my hair took that long to adjust or maybe I finally hit the right concoction. Or both.

This is how I currently wash my hair:

I now use about 1/4 cup baking soda dissolved in ~1.5-2 cups water. I put the baking soda in an empty 16 oz bottle of Dr. Bronner's (a funnel is very useful for this part) and take it in the shower with me. I get my hair soaked through, then massage the scalp thoroughly to loosen dirt and oil. I rinse again with plain water. Then I add warm shower water to my Dr. Bronner's bottle of baking soda, maybe 3/4 full of water. I shake it up good then squirt it on my head, starting at the crown. My hair is long and there's a lot of it so I like that I can squirt the baking soda solution directly where I want it. I massage and scrub my scalp really well and do a quick rinse.  I repeat the wash with what's left in the bottle (maybe half?), then finish by gently rubbing the length and ends of my hair between my hands. I rinse well, then squeeze out extra water from my hair. Next comes the vinegar. I still use a 50% solution of just plain white distilled vinegar that I keep in a spray bottle for all my other cleaning. Since my hair is somewhat dry and pretty long, I spray quite a lot on, concentrating on the ends. I comb through it with a pick (I know I've used enough vinegar if this is easy to do), then let the vinegar sit in there a minute while I wash my face. Finally, I rinse out the vinegar. Yes, the smell comes out! At this point, I only have to wash my hair about twice per week. I save money and time! Fabulous!

I'm glad I stuck with the baking soda and vinegar because it really is so much better than any shampoo/conditioner I've used.  My hair is always clean. It's shiny and full of body. It's soft and easy to get my fingers, a comb or brush through.  The natural waves are bouncy and beautiful (if I do say so myself!). When my hair is dirty, the natural oils just seem to nurture it rather than make it grimy. I can easily adjust the baking soda and vinegar proportions when conditions change so my hair maintains its health through rain, low humidity, heat or cold (we've had weird fall weather so I've had to do this).

So if you're in doubt, still experimenting, or just curious, I really encourage you to give baking soda and vinegar a try. Just be prepared to spend a few weeks waiting for your hair to adapt to not having the natural oils stripped. And don't be afraid to experiment and play around with your own concoction. It is so worth it!

Any questions or concerns? Want to share your experiments with no 'poo? Please leave a note, I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cooking With a High-Needs Toddler

Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids in the Kitchen

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how kids get involved in cooking and feeding. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Nowhere else has my mothering evolved quite as much as in the kitchen. Our first year, cooking was disastrous and heartbreaking. In addition to being premature, my son was what Dr. Sears calls a "high needs baby." Cooking while caring for my son was so stressful that I nearly lost my love for the culinary arts altogether. In the second year, I've gone through phases of trial and error, acceptance, compromise, finding balance, and finally being able to involve Munchkin in my cooking. These days, I love preparing wholesome meals and having him work by my side.

Part of Munchkin's profile is a need to be directly involved in whatever I am doing and to do it with me. It's a bit beyond the "normal" level of toddler interest and imitation. His need for connection is intense, demanding, and very real. Without direct involvement or constant undivided attention from me, he quickly becomes a very unhappy camper -- whining, crying, clinging, acting out. If his needs aren't met during the day, he'll save the emotions for nighttime when they bubble up as nightmares.

Tasks like cooking, then, have been a particular challenge for us. Frequent, prolonged interruptions made for burnt, overcooked food, limited menu options, or at best, very awkward cooking experiences. I gave up babywearing in the kitchen early on because it simply wasn't safe with his wiggling and reaching; riding in back wouldn't satisfy him, either. These days he can sometimes entertain himself for a few minutes at a time, but certainly not long enough for me to prepare a meal.

That is, until I found the right equipment. Through my research on Montessori philosophy and practices, I learned about these special stools (e.g. the Learning Tower) that would allow a small child to work safely at counter level. I thought we could really benefit from one because it would allow Munchkin to engage with me directly and participate in kitchen work. He could even have his own cooking project along side me.

Sometimes the universe is good to you and you get a break just when you need one. We found a used Steffy Wood Products I Can Reach step stool  for $50 at a preschool yard sale and it literally changed our lives. We have used it almost every day since then. It's not quite as fancy as the Learning Tower, but it does the trick!

On his stool (or "tooh" as he calls it), Munchkin is safe and at just the right height to work at the kitchen counter or sink. He also enjoys working at a small stand loaded with kitchen activities just for him. For example, I can set him up with a "pouring game" next to me while I chop veggies. I give him dried beans, a spoon and a few containers. He transfers the beans from one container to the other. 

With an extra tray and towel, he can do it with water instead or work at the kitchen sink. 

I also gave him a set of wood vegetables and cutting board for "cutting" alongside me (similar to these from Melissa and Doug, but we found a cheaper set elsewhere) . He could stay focused on either of these tasks, without needing much from me, for up to 10 minutes. Wow! Is that my kid?!

With such a turnaround, I've been able to take the Montessori approach to the next level (for great information and resources, check out Living Montessori Now). Now, I invite Munchkin to participate in my kitchen work. He helps me wash vegetables and measure rice. He helps pour, stir, and sort as part of my prep work. He's not even two years old. Yes, his help is messier, but not as messy as a lonely, upset toddler with a cup of milk in the next room. Yes, it takes longer than cooking by myself, but not nearly as long as it took to cook anything when he was younger or not directly involved. More importantly, we are engaged and connected while we cook. This new system satisfies my need to enjoy preparing something I enjoy eating, and it satisfies his need to be woven into my tasks. Like I said, that stool was life changing!

The other big factor in regaining my love of cooking comes from a transformed attitude that underlies many of the adjustments to becoming a mother. Acceptance. Compromise. Letting go. And a whole lotta patience. Now, I'm aware of our limitations and recognize that many of them are temporary. Today's unbearable need will be tomorrow's forgotten plight. I more readily accept interruptions. I plan better so that we're never rushed to get dinner ready. I'm more flexible with when and how I cook. I'm a lot less perfectionist about the process and the end product. I've learned to welcome new tools, new practices, and new ideas that I might not have used otherwise. Because there are still hard days and there always will be. Being open to creative change makes it possible to get through those rough patches. It's certainly made it possible for me to love cooking again and I dare say Munchkin loves it, too!


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Learning To Work Through Frustration

Munchkin was futzing around, poking a stick into his box of balls. He must have been trying to get something out, or move the balls around, or some other inventive task that only a toddler finds captivating. I was doing my own futzing, dashing about here and there to get ready for our outing to the park. I heard him fuss, the usual whiny groan of exasperation. I waited. Usually he wails and asks for help right away. In the past, I often went to him quickly because his screeching grates on my nerves. Over time, however, I've been gradually extending the time before I offer him help. I'd like to give him a chance to work things out himself. I'd also like to give myself a chance to cope better with his cries without getting frustrated as well.

"I think you can do it," has been my new mantra. I encourage him to repeat the task on his own, at least if it is one that I am certain he is capable of doing. Yet so often, his frustration takes over.  His motor skills won't allow him to do whatever it is he is trying to do. This seems to upset him deeply. I know I can too, Mama. But my little hands just can't move that way! I imagine him thinking.

The ball and stick fiasco was one of those times when his frustration just escalated into sharp shrieks and woeful cries. I thought it was a good opportunity to help him with a coping skill that I use when I'm frustrated.

"Hey, will you look at me?" I went up close to Munchkin and made eye contact with him, arresting his focus away from the anger. "Look at me. Good. Now take a deep breath. (I demonstrate) Can you take a deep breath?" He imitated me and took a breath with obvious effort.

"Niiice. OK, now try again. I think you can do it." I gestured toward the stick and balls. "Oh, look, you did it!" A little, bouncy green ball popped out and Munchkin smiled with pride.

This is a scene we've played out over and over again, but not just with the ball and stick. It could be anything Munchkin is trying to do himself. Loud squeal. Mama breathes. Munchkin breathes. Try again. We've been working on it for months. I work on getting past my own frustration as I watch him learn to do the same.

On rough days, he can't quite ever get past the angst, and the poor guy collapses into my arms for solace and relief. I hold him through his anger, letting him cry or scream.  I want him to know that whether he succeeds or fails, whether he is angry at himself or the world, I am there for him and I love him. After a few moments, he recovers and we either return to the source of his frustration to conquer it or we find a new task. It's always his choice.

On good days, he remembers to slow down and breathe. He gets past the frustration. So do I.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Let Your Body Do the Shopping

The other day I had some precious time to run errands by myself.  I was exhausted and feeling pretty low. Our whole family had been sick, we were sleep-deprived, Munchkin had been whiny, cranky, over-sensitive and clingy, and I hadn't had much of a break for almost 2 weeks. Self-care had taken a backseat for too long. My reserves were tapped and I needed to nurture myself.

I bought myself some personal supplies that I'd been needing for way too long (did I mention that  I'd neglected self-care?), then felt I wanted to get myself a little something extra. You know, something I didn't need, but something that would pamper me a bit.

I don't eat much junk food, but I do enjoy it, especially as a treat. So I eyed the candy aisle looking for something sweet and delectable, something to soothe my weary soul. There were literally dozens of items to choose from. A few caught my eye, and I even picked up one or two chocolates. Well, bags of chocolate. I realized that I only wanted one, not a whole bag. I just wanted a treat, not diabetes.

Then I slowed down. I fell back into myself, my tired, drained, worn-out self who desperately needed some TLC. I tuned into my body and felt the fatigue, the lingering sadness. Then a question popped into my mind as I examined each possible choice of treat:

"Is that going to make me feel better?"

I searched and searched. Obviously, I was in the wrong store, because the answer was a pervasive NO. I imagined how I would feel after consuming one of those "treats" and my body rejected each and every one. None of those bags of goodies spoke to me with love. None of those sweets had anything nice to say to my body, a body who was listening, watching, and waiting for sustenance.

It's not that I think all junk food is bad all the time, either. I eat ice-cream every Friday night! But good ice-cream, not garbage. The chocolates in that store were just garbage, though, and my body detected it. Thankfully, I was listening.

I left the store without a special treat and went home to enjoy the rest of my short break in silence and solitude. My body relished the peace, the almost foreign quiet. Thank you, I could almost hear it say.

Still wanting to spoil myself,  I grabbed a piece of high-quality, dark chocolate truffle from my own stash. Mmmmm. I savored it along with the last few minutes of solace before the boys came home. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

What's Wrong With Messy?

Courtesy Flickr
One of our local playgrounds has a delightful sandbox, fully equipped with a spigot of running water. The water splashes down through pavement and rocks, then enters the sandbox down below. Kids love to run over to push the button to activate the water, about 6 feet away, then dash back to splash in the water coming out. Sometimes the button gets stuck or kids push it repeatedly. Then the corner of the sandbox fills with water...enough water to splash feet, dig moats, and get very, very messy.

I've seen two patterns emerge at this sandbox, especially around the water. The most common one is the Forbidden Zone pattern. Toddlers and babies, in particular, are shuttled away from this Forbidden Zone of sand and water. Many of them never get a chance to touch either one. Some brave, well-meaning parents let their little ones explore a few moments, until the first splash of water gets on those oh-so-cute clothes. Then the game is over in a split second, ending with cries of defeat, loss, and frustration. From expressions on the parents' faces, I'm guessing they feel pretty deflated, too. 

The other pattern I've seen is one of Oh Well, Here We Go. Parents remove their child's shoes gently and sometimes pant legs get rolled up. Often these kids are accompanied by a few sand toys to share. They make their mess and when it's time to go, they use the running water to rinse off the sand. Some just play in the water the whole time, getting soaked to varying degrees. The only remorseful parting cries are those from the kid who wants to play longer.

Today I met one of these mothers who admitted to having once been a Forbidden Zone mom. I never would have guessed, watching her 3 year-old daughter romp in the wet sand, caked up to the knees. She didn't even bother taking off shoes or rolling up her pants. Instead, her mom helped fill the bucket with water over and over again. Munchkin and the little girl took turns pouring water through a funnel. Some of the water spilled all around them, some splashed in the sand, and a good portion splattered all over Munchkin and the little girl. The girl and her mother just kept filling the bucket for us. Eventually Munchkin and the little girl were wading ankle deep in sand and water, stomping, splashing, kicking.

"Wow, that's cool that you let her get all messy," I remarked to the girl's mom.

"Well, you know, if you'd talked to me 3 years ago, it'd be different. But eventually I thought, you know, why fight it? She loves getting messy!" the girl's mom explained.

I smiled deeply. I recognized the personal evolution. From Blech! What a mess! I don't want to clean that up! to What's wrong with messy? While I don't enjoy cleaning up Munchkin's relentless messes (spilled milk, pee on the floor, crushed cereal under foot, etc., etc.), I have gotten better at dealing with them. Thanks to a suggestion from Hobo Mama, I now exaggerate any annoyance to a point that just makes us both laugh. I also allow Munchkin ample opportunity to get messy within safe boundaries, like this park with the awesome sandbox.

Watching this woman and her sand-covered daughter reminded me of something else about messes and children: acceptance. It's amazing what a little acceptance will do for a mother. Of course, having a spare change of clothes handy helps, too.

What are your views on letting kids get messy? Please do tell, I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Gratitude is Better Than Praise

I try to avoid overuse and misuse of the phrase "Good job!" when talking to my son. This type of "empty" praise is a value judgment that can lead to an array of self-esteem, autonomy, and relationship issues (check out this article for a primer). Therefore, I'm always looking for more constructive and meaningful things to say. Like many great ideas, this one came about while I was on the, uh, porcelain throne...

Usually, I tend to let empty TP rolls pile up in the bathroom before I take them to the recycling bin because I get lazy or immediately distracted by my messy toddler. Once, I decided to give Munchkin a chance to do it for me while I was - ahem - occupied. When the toilet paper roll ran out, I handed it to him and asked if he could please take it to the recycling bin (if he could get me a new roll, that would be even better!). In our house, this task means carrying the empty roll down the hallway, through another room, opening a pocket door, putting the empty TP roll in the bin, then closing the pocket door using the hard-to-grab latch. This is a multiple-step task that requires dexterity, memory, and the ability to stay focused on task - no easy feat for a young toddler! I didn't really expect Munchkin to actually make it all the way to the recycling bin and back, at least not without unloading a stack of papers or other mess.  But I thought 2 minutes of privacy might be worth the chance.

To my surprise and delight, he did it! He placed the empty roll in the recycling bin, closed the door behind him and came back to inform me. I felt the urge to say, "Good job!" because I was so impressed. I resisted, although I'm sure I let out a "Wow, you did it!" When I realized I was also incredibly grateful for the help, I added, "Thank you, Munchkin! That's very helpful."

This got me thinking. I realized I had a new and incredibly valuable new tool in my arsenal of unconditional parenting techniques.

Instead of offering praise for Munchkin's helpful "achievements", I offer him gratitude and appreciation whenever appropriate. Anytime he "accomplishes" a skill or task, especially a new or difficult one, that is helpful to me or others in some way I say "Thank you, that's very helpful. I appreciate it." I don't exaggerate the gratitude, I just say it simply and honestly.

It makes so much sense. When an adult does me a favor, I don't flatter them by saying "Nice work, you're a good helper!" No, I say thank you. Why would I treat my toddler any differently? If I want to teach him to be helpful, it seems like being gracious and appreciative will go a lot further than telling him "good job." With honest gratitude from me, he may begin to feel the joy of giving instead of the joy of getting his ego stroked.

Here are a few examples of typical toddler situations where I find saying "thank you" is more appropriate than saying "good job":

·         putting waste in the trash, recycling bin, etc.
·         picking up toys
·         opening or closing a door
·         picking out shoes or clothes
·         putting clothes in the laundry bin
·         putting clothes in the washer or dryer
·         returning an item to its stored location after use
·         selecting an item from its location for use
·         carrying groceries or other items to or from the car or bike
·         helping wash vegetables
·         pouring rice into the rice cooker
·         when I ask "Can you help me to...?" and he is able to, and does
·         and of course...flushing the toilet

On the flip side, I avoid showing disappointment or disapproval if he can't or won't do the favor I've asked. After all, favors are just that - favors. They aren't obligations.

The best part is that it feels good to say thank you to him. It feels right. It feels genuine and real and respectful. I don't get that feeling from saying "good job."  I'm guessing he doesn't, either. With a healthy dose of genuine appreciation for his helpful efforts - not empty praise -  it's likely he will grow into someone who enjoys helping others.  And I bet he'll do a "good job" at that, too.

Do you have useful alternatives to saying "good job"?