Thursday, October 23, 2014

Create a Rice Bowl- cheap, easy, healthy and customized school lunch idea

I discovered 'The Tightwad Gazette'about 20 years ago, when I was a teenager living at home and really had no need for anything in it. Yet the contents of that book stayed with me and influenced me in a lot of ways over the years. It allowed me to pay off all my student loans quickly, save for our house and these days it allows our family to live on 1.2 incomes. Without the Tightwad Gazette and everything it taught me about frugal living I never would have been able to substitute teach one or two days a week and spend the rest of my time at home with my youngest.

One of my favorite things in her books were her 'universal recipes', which I still use to this day. They allow you to mix and match ingredients that you have on hand/want to use up to create many variations of the same meal or snack. This is where I got the idea to create my own universal recipe for my daughter's school lunches last month: Create a rice bowl.

My daughter has been on a gluten free diet for about 10 months now, and gluten free bread is both expensive and pretty gross. I was tired of spending 3 times as much money for bread that came home half eaten every day and was trying to think of an alternative to sandwiches. I wanted something that was going to be easy, cheap, nutritious and that would actually get eaten. Something that could taste different yet was generally the same to prepare so it could just become another routine to follow without thinking. And since my daughter loves rice, ADORES rice, I thought a rice bowl would fit all these criteria.

Universal Rice Bowl Recipe

1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups vegetables (any type)
1 can beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer until rice is cooked, or place everything in a microwave safe casserole dish and cook for up to 20 minutes in the microwave.

Here is the breakdown of ingredients variations:

Rice- I use either regular rice or basmati, but you can use any type

Vegetables- anything you have works. Cauliflower and carrots are nice for an Indian based dish, peas, carrots and broccoli for Chinese, while corn and peppers are good for Mexican. I usually use frozen mixed veggies (with the peas, green beans, corn, carrots and lima beans) because they're my daughter's favorite.

Beans- I use chickpeas for Indian, black beans for Mexican, ect. To cut the cost of the recipe even further you can substitute the can of beans with 1 cup dried lentils plus 1 extra cup of water. I do this about half the time. It does not add any more work or cooking time to the recipe and the kids seem to like it just as much. You can also throw in leftover cooked meat or eggs, but my daughter prefers the beans and I prefer the price of beans!

Oil- I use olive oil, but any oil will work. Sesame oil would add a nice touch to Chinese and plain vegetable oil is cheapest. You can also add as much oil as you want to make it more filling or tasty. I usually just pour the oil right in without measuring.

Seasoning- this is where I have the most variation. I use 2 teaspoons curry powder for an Indian inspired dish, or 2 teaspoons of chili powder for Mexican. You can simulate fried rice by adding 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder and perhaps some dried ginger, chives and soy sauce (in lieu of salt) as well. Italian style rice can be made by adding tomato paste and basil or oregano. Feel free to experiment with different tastes your kids will like. The good thing about this is it's just rice, so any flavors that are too strong for them can be recycled into a side dish for the grown ups at dinner time.

Heating and packing:

I make about 2 pots of this a week, usually on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The whole pot will serve one child at least 5 lunches, but to offer variety and make sure it's fresh I make it twice as often and use the extras as lunch for my 2 year old when we're home, or for dinner. The kids even like eating it for breakfast.

In the morning I fill her thermos with boiling water to heat up the inside (I put the serving spoon inside too to make it nice and hot) and microwave a bowl of the rice mixture. I used to measure it out, but now I just heap it in the bowl and if any doesn't fit in the thermos the kids will gladly eat it at breakfast. Once the rice is heated I pour the boiling water out of the thermos and put the rice in right away. This ensures it's nice and hot at lunch time. I have 2 thermoses for her just in case I forget to unpack her bag and wash it so there is always a clean one available.

I pack her a spoon and cloth napkin, as well as 2 inexpensive healthy snacks. These are usually apples, bananas, carrot sticks, or any leftover fruit or vegetable we might have available. As an occasional 'treat' I might pack her air popped popcorn, a tiny container of chocolate chips or raisins or the rare baked good we might have left over from a special occasion. This seems to be the magic amount of food- if I pack a 3rd snack one comes home uneaten.

My kid isn't going to school with fancy lunches made to look like cartoon characters. She doesn't bring hand crafted snacks and home baked goods. She also doesn't bring packaged treats and lunch foods (which from what I've seen while teaching is the norm). Her lunches are simple, inexpensive, and made from real food. But every bite gets eaten, every day, so she can't be suffering too much.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Drop the rope: why fighting online is a waste of your life.

Any woman who has been in an online parenting forum has probably been there. A simple discussion about anything from potty training to circumcision takes a wrong turn and gets ugly fast. Opinions are stated, then personal anecdotes, followed by 'evidence' and when that fails the insults start flying, people are deleted and blocked and eventually an admin shuts it all down.

You might say it's debating, but debating is done with a clear head and cool temper. When it comes to parenting it's impossible to have that sort of detachment about your choices because you feel strongly about what you believe in. To be told how wrong you are with such conviction is going to infuriate you, no matter how right you feel your choices are. You'll try to prove your point, but only be met with more resistance, less tact and more anger the harder you try to show them the light. Eventually your blood will boil with the frustration and you'll reach the point of no return.

It's funny how these fights pan out, how somehow the validity of each comment or piece of 'evidence' is proved with the number of 'likes' it receives from others who are in agreement of that point of view. Few people realize that sheer numbers don't mean merit, and the fact that a narrow minded clique of online friends backing you up doesn't make you right. When you fight online, you're not changing anything. Arguing with someone rarely changes their mind on the issue, but rather strengthens their own point of view. The more someone presents their own argument, the more certain they feel about the ideas behind it and the less they will even consider anyone else's. The uglier things get, the more cemented you become in your own beliefs. And online, things always get ugly.

I belong to birth clubs, natural parenting groups and groups for parents of children with autism, each more vicious than the next. If you think the average mother is territorial, you should see how mama bear special needs parents can be. Those groups have specific graphics they post just to shut down a thread, which is something that often happens multiple times a day. I used to think it was just parenting groups, but then my husband pointed out that it happens to him too. The comments on news articles, videos on youtube and even the forecasts on the Weather Network go off topic and get heated on a regular basis. Just think of the famous rainbow number cake article- on the internet ANYTHING can go sour. It's even worse when it's on your own page, with people you actually know in real life. The ability to post articles, photos and opinions about all sorts of controversial topics previously reserved for private conversations can turn friends and family into enemies when the wrong button is triggered.

I am no stranger to these arguments, and have lost my cool on a few occasions. I had an innocent thread on the spacing between children turn into an all out brawl that ended in accusations of child abuse. I was called an immoral swine by the friend of a relative for standing up in my belief of my sister's right to marry and raise a child with her wife. I've said a few overly rude things to complete strangers when getting caught up in the comments section of articles or blogs.

It's tempting to get involved in these sort of situations. Sometimes it's just because a regular conversation thread goes off on a tangent and goes sour at some point, other times you know it's a hot topic but you feel you can just make 'one little tasteful comment' and then walk away. The problem is that it might even be fun at first. Perhaps you're bored and it's adding a little bit of excitement to your day. At first it can generate the good kind of adrenaline, before it escalates to something closer to rage. Sometimes it's even a bit disappointing when a thread is locked or deleted before it fully goes off the rails and you're left wanting to say and hear more. But other times it gathers momentum so quickly that it reaches a point of regret and remorse before anyone can step in and make everyone behave.

No matter what stage of the game you're in, you need to drop the rope.

Something catch your eye that looks like it might be upsetting? Stop reading.

Read something infuriating or controversial? DON'T READ THE COMMENTS.

Read some comments that have you shaking your head? DON'T ADD TO THEM!

Too late? Already said something and got a rude response? Walk away. Let it go.

Got drawn into a circular, forehead smashing argument with a cretin or two? Forget about the last word. Just disappear.

Let it get way out of hand, spew insults and feel terrible about yourself? Apologize, either privately or publicly and then leave it be.

People always claim they want world peace, but judging from the sheer amount of animosity online about both the big and the small things, clearly that's never going to happen. There are always these pleas for people to 'end the mommy wars' and all 'support each other' but frankly, the world is full of self righteous, uneducated jerk faces that are never, ever going to have a whit of common sense. When you get involved in these sort of things, you actually become one of them.

But the biggest argument against argument is this: Do you really want to waste your precious free time getting sucked into this pointless negativity? It's not going to change anything, or 'educate' anyone or make you feel very good is it? The other day a friend of mine was telling me about how much of a time suck even just READING the comments was for her. 'I didn't even SAY anything, and I lost an entire Saturday morning just trying to follow along. What a waste of my day off!'

What would you rather be doing? What makes you happy? I'm sure you know. If these people are SO stupid, why are you GIVING them sacred hours of your life? Drop the rope, shut er' down and walk away. They will fall splat on their faces with or without you there anyway.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summer Hell-iday

I swore that this summer would be different.

Last summer was really hard, but I had learned from my mistakes and vowed things wouldn't get out of hand. I was going to take the kids on a fun outing every morning, make them a healthy picnic lunch, and eat happily on a blanket outdoors. I bought a big stack of activities and workbooks from the dollar store to keep my oldest daughter quietly occupied while her sister napped, and then we would play outside for the rest of the day. It wouldn't just be effortless, it would be fun!


The last week of school my oldest daughter got really sick, so instead of spending those last precious days of freedom preparing for the upcoming months, I was washing barfy laundry and tending to a feverish child. Then the first day of holidays our basement flooded in two places- one with rainwater, one with sewage. My first day home alone with the kids our dishwasher broke. And then to top it off, I got sick with whatever my daughter had the week before, only I couldn't lay in my bed and recover the way she had, I had to drag myself around to make sure they didn't hurt themselves (which they did anyway).

Despite the best intentions, I was not following through. Instead of fun outings and picnics, my kids were eating potato chips for breakfast while watching Dora as I frantically tried to bail water out of our dishwasher or drag all of our possessions out of the basement before they were destroyed. Some days we didn't even leave the house, despite the shining sun and hyperactive children.

And oh, how social media made it worse, by reminding me of how much I was failing while everyone else was having a great time. "Look, we're having a fun day at the pool!" "We're doing crafts!" "We're on a bonding shopping trip!" "We're berry picking!" "We're baking!"

But after a few days, something strange happened. My children, out of sheer necessity, learned how to entertain themselves. Aside from keeping them fed, I really couldn't be at their beck and call, and told them so. They squawked at first, but eventually gave up and found something fun to do. Unless something was brand new, I don't think I have ever seen them so intently engaged in their toys before. Instead of just picking things up and tossing them moments later, they got involved. They colored several pictures rather than scribbling once and abandoning it. They played with each other. They stopped looking to me to take away their boredom.

When things were going well, we had fun together. I took my oldest hiking and on a picnic one morning while my youngest was at daycare for a few hours. We made a day trip up to a friend's cottage on Sunday to swim and canoe in the lake. We had a BBQ with friends, we went to their cousin's birthday party and one afternoon I took my eldest to the carnival to for unlimited rides. Both the kids and I had plenty of excitement when it flowed naturally, and we enjoyed it all the more for the rough days in between it all.

All of this has taught me that I am not, and shouldn't be my children's daily entertainment director. Yes I like to play with them, and I like to take them places, but on an ordinary day it shouldn't be a requirement. If I need a day to catch up on housework, or lay around being sick, or even just read a book because I want to, my children should not go crazy with boredom in a house full of toys with a backyard full of playground equipment because I haven't planned anything specific for them to do.

Creativity is often born out of boredom, and kids in this generation rarely get a chance to even brush the surface of it. The other day while I was upstairs doing something else, my daughter started drawing faces with her noodles, because she was left alone with her thoughts long enough to come up with the idea.

I am hoping that things run a lot more smoothly for the remainder of the summer, but at least I know now that if things go awry, my kids can handle it. If they don't goes as planned, the skills are still there, and that means my job just got a whole lot easier.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reversing the fairy tale

The other day when my daughter told me that we live in a great big house I was a little shocked.

"We do?" I asked.

Then I thought about it for a minute and realized the right thing was to agree with her, because what we've unknowingly been trying to instill in her is actually working.

Back before we had children, I went through a rough time. I was nearing 30, and despite my education I was still just getting by on temp jobs in the struggling economy. I lived in a nice apartment with my now husband and we had a lovely life together, but I just couldn't let go of the bitterness and disappointment about where I 'should' be financially at that point in my life. I had envisioned a house, a car, a cottage, and fancy vacations. What I had was an apartment, camping and public transit.

Then one bitterly cold January night we met some friends downtown for dinner after work. Leaving the warm restaurant into the horrible cold we braced ourselves and ran to the bus shelter, cursing and laughing and picturing the relief that was soon coming. As we sprinted into the wind one of my friends suddenly said:

"It would be terrible to be homeless on a night like tonight."

Moments later we were sitting comfortably on a warm bus, heading toward our respective warm apartments. With a belly full of delicious food, I crawled under a warm duvet in a soft bed beside the man I loved. I had never felt more rich.

The next year our job situation had improved and we were on our honeymoon, cruising through Italy, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. On a tour bus heading to Cairo it wasn't the pyramids that blew us away, but the living conditions we saw out the window. Countless families living on the side of the road, toddlers playing in piles of garbage next to the on ramp, the mud huts that people called their homes. After seeing that I could never go back to complaining about how 'poor' we were.

Nine months later our daughter was born, and without really meaning to we filled her head not with stories of princesses in castles full of riches we will never know, but a reverse sort of fairy tale of the millions of people around the world living without houses, food or indoor plumbing. 'Aren't we lucky?' we tell her, 'that we have a house with TWO toilets? A fridge full of food? A bed to sleep in? Toys to play with?' We've let her know from the start that WE are the rich ones. Comparison can steal so much joy, but done right, it can also bring gratitude, and a desire to help others. There are always those who will have more, and if you focus on that you'll always be miserable, but when you have all you truly need, you have to realize that you really are wealthy in the grand scheme of things.

As our girls get older, I know they will encounter friends who appear to have more and feel a little envious. Perhaps they will realize that our little semi detached is not the castle they originally saw it as. When that happens I hope to be able to give them the same reality check that I was given- through travel, volunteer work or just frank discussion. Until then we remain happy in our 'great big house' full of food, warm beds and love.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Toy soup- 15 tips for letting kids play without it taking over the entire house

If any of you are just starting out on this whole parenting thing, take heed and avoid our stupid pitfalls. Because we were stupid, very, very stupid!

We recently went to look at a 5 bedroom house and were dazzled by all the space!! We were giddy with how big it felt. But then we got home and thought hard- yes we're feeling crowded in our current house. Yes it would be nice to stretch our legs. But did we really want to add another 100k and 15 years to our mortgage in these uncertain economic times just to have a bit more space? We only have 2 kids, and we live in a reasonably spacious 3 bedroom house. Surely there was something we could do to make it work?

At first we thought the answer was more storage bins and shelving so more things could be put away. I am a firm believer in the 'rotating your toys' system that daycares and schools use. When all our toys were out in the open they would all get dumped on the floor, never played with and then dumped back into toy boxes in what I like to call 'toy soup' so that nobody could ever find the pieces to anything to play with. So now most things are packed away for weeks or even months and brought out a few at a time until they get tired of them.

You know what it's like when your child gets a new toy and spends the next 3 days playing with it like it's the best thing they've ever seen, then never touches it again? Well when we were new parents we were only aware of the first half of this cycle. Our daughter decided she loved cats- she was given about half a dozen stuffed cats before she completely lost interest. Loved her musical activity table- we bought 3 of them. Bead sorter? Bought 3 of those too. She has SIX train sets. SIX! Anything she was remotely interested in we ran out and bought for her-usually brand new, often in multiple amounts. It was fun for us, and it was addictive. Our living room looked like toys r us and we didn't care. Being a parent was fun!!!

Then we had a second child and all those toys weren't so fun anymore. Not only did we lose our spare bedroom to house the baby, the swing and exersaucer and playpen and vibrating chair and baby toys were all competing for floor space with the train table and play house and rocking horse and ride on cars. We had to throw out our couches just to make room, but it was still really stressful.

A lot of the baby stuff has been slowly exiting the house as our youngest grows, but the space gets filled instantly with more toys. The funny thing is that even with hundreds of toys my kids play with the same few over and over. Even more shocking is that they would rather spend hours running around our yard than playing with any actual toys at all.

When I thought harder about it I realized that it would cost us roughly $50,000 for each additional bedroom we wanted, so that each big bulky toy was actually 'costing' us thousands of dollars in real estate. Wouldn't it just make more sense to get rid of things?

I've been on a major purge the past few weeks. Selling things, donating things, lending things, throwing things out. I am amazed at how huge our tiny house is starting to feel now that we can easily walk around in all the rooms. The only thing my kids have noticed is how I have more time to play with them, because I'm not constantly tidying and rearranging their stuff anymore! It was a vicious cycle- they needed the toys to entertain them so I could clean up their toys. What's the point?

As I've been cleaning I've realized that it comes down to two factors- how much use something gets vs how much space it takes up. So some things are big but used often enough to justify it, some things are small and don't take up space but aren't even used. But the best is finding alternatives to the well used big items that work just as well. So I'm going to give you some tips.

1. Easels

My husband INSISTED on buying one of these for our oldest daughter brand new. She loved it for one day and now rarely touches it. She wants to paint at the kitchen table, not standing at an easel (especially one that is rapidly becoming too short for her). Sure it's got the dry erase board on one side and the chalk board on the other, but you can buy each of those at the dollar store and store them flat on a shelf, rather than have a big clunky item.

Or even better, patio doors and windows make the best dry erase boards. When I was taking university calculus and working on giant solutions I found it easier to write them out in dry erase on the giant dorm lounge windows rather than on several sheets of paper. Kids think it's SO much fun to draw on the windows!

Walls make great chalkboards in winter (face it, even if it scuffs your wall you've got kids. You're going to have to repaint at some point). In summer everything outside is a chalk board- the fence, the deck, the driveway, patio stones.

A pack of sidewalk chalk and another of dry erase markers takes up so little space and is all you need.

2. Train tables.

When our daughter decided she was majorly into trains we couldn't wait to buy her a train set with a table. It looked awesome!

The problem is that they don't just stand there playing with it for hours. After a few minutes they start taking it apart, and it's a giant pain to set it up perfectly again so it all fits on the table. Some people glue it to the table, but then you're stuck with it like that. Other companies make tables that look just like coffee tables so you can convert them when they aren't in use. I say just spend less than half the money to buy them a train set without a table that they can set up on the floor like they are going to end up doing anyway...

3. Play houses.

Kids love to play in these.

But this play tent from Ikea is about 1/10 of the cost and does the same job. The big plastic play house takes up a ton of space, the tent can easily be folded up and tucked behind a shelf until the next use.

4. Indoor climbers.

My kids are major climbers, so they need something to burn off steam indoors in the coldest winter months. This one (a loaner thank goodness) was huge. And would have been expensive.

This one purchased for our younger daughter was only $20 new and folds up nicely for storage.

5. Doll houses.

We NEARLY fell prey to this one but decided against it in the end. It's tempting to buy a big wooden, fully furnished doll house. But then you have a big wooden dollhouse.

Neither of my girls are in to dolls, but if the younger one expresses an interest later on we're going to do something a little different. The cube shelving in our living room is the perfect size for a temporary doll house. You can buy a couple sets of dollhouse furniture to make 'rooms' in each cube and easily put it away in a box when they get bored with it.

6. Play kitchens.

I've heard many many families tell me how much use their play kitchen gets and how great they are. We bought a big wooden one for our daughters last Easter and they loved it for about one day, and then sat there collecting dust. If you're going to buy something big and expensive like this it's always a gamble. If you can, buy used.

7. Cardboard boxes.

Everybody jokes about this but it's completely true- buy your kids every toy in the world and they end up playing in a cardboard box.

On spring break I was looking for something inexpensive to do so I got a bunch of large boxes from the Vietnamese grocery store on the corner for free and my daughter and I made them into a fleet of buses using crayons. The kids played with them non stop and when the week was over some went out with the recycling and some got used to store old clothes to drop off at Goodwill.

Cardboard boxes are free, versatile and temporary. They can be made into anything- forts, vehicles, kitchens, doll houses, ect for a short period of time and then discarded at no cost to you or the environment.

8. Books.

This is one where the amount of use justifies the cost and space for us. We use the library a great deal, but I also purchase cheap books from the dollar store or library discard shelf for 50 cents- $1 each to add to our library.

Each of our girls has a reading nook in their room.

For my toddler we have our board books stored in dish bins which we rotate. She has a little toddler chair next to a bin to sit in.

But... an expired or extra car seat makes a great toddler reading chair.

Our oldest daughter has a book sling shelf for picture books and early readers. We keep the bulk of them on a regular book shelf and rotate a few on her sling shelf every week or two. She's old enough not to dump them all on her floor but her sister isn't...

She sits on a bean bag chair. Which brings us to...

9. Stuffed animals.

Ugh. Just ugh. Unavoidable, especially with daughters. Only mine don't even like them! But people keep buying them. Donating is an option, but people don't like to buy used stuffed animals because of the potential for lice. So we took all of this..

And stuffed it into this...

We bought a large bean bag chair cover from Walmart and stuffed it with 50 random stuffed animals. It gets them out of the way, keeps them available should they ever want them back and saves you money (and potential disaster!) from stuffing them with those little pellets you buy for inside the chairs. They are super soft to sit on this way too!

Each girl has a small basket filled with stuffies they actually play with or sleep with sometimes.

10. Toys with a million parts and pieces.

This one is the biggest creator of toy soup. And once it goes into the soup it renders the toys useless. I keep a large bookshelf in the baby's room covered in labelled dish bins for different types of toys. Ones with really small parts also get stored within the bins in big freezer bags. I keep the most perilous ones (ie the biggest PITA to clean up) on the really high shelves and the not so bad ones (mini board books, dinosaurs, ect) on the lower shelves.

I have bins for board books, mega blocks, little people, puzzles, crayons/paint/coloring/stickers, play dough, dinosaurs, random little toys, blocks, rainy day toys and activities left from birthday loot bags, toys they are still too young for, baby dolls, doll clothes ect. I also have a zipper bag full of dress up clothes and costume jewelry.

I bring out these bins ONE at a time. Sometimes the novelty lasts a few days, sometimes it can last a week or two. When they are clearly bored with that type of toy it's easy to clean up and put back away and swap out with something 'new'.

11. Sand boxes.

Lucky for me I learned my lesson on this one at a play date before actually purchasing one. My daughter sat and proceeded to dump all the sand OUT of the box onto their lawn. We quickly moved into the house to play. Sand is expensive. And just asking to be dumped elsewhere.

What works better is a 'toy garden'. Dole out (or dig out) a garden to the kids without planting anything. Let them use their sand toys and dump trucks and whatever. It will entertain them for AGES for free. When they grow too old for it you can either plant it into a real garden or seed over it.

12. Car mats.

I don't mind these because it can easily be rolled up and put behind the shelf. I also plan to use it for a front hall mat for wet boots once the girls get too old to play with it. We have a large bag of matchbox cars in one of the dish bins that come out every few months and we unroll the rug to play on. Some people make it even easier and just draw roads on a roll of paper but I'm too lazy for that...

13. Arts and crafts.

Keep it simple. Paper, crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, watercolors, stickers. Play dough and cookie cutters. A few coloring books. Perhaps some simple rubber stamps and ink. They have so many fancy 'craft kits' on the market, but I find that they stifle true creativity and take up space. The great thing about the basics is you only have to have enough on hand to last for the time being and once you use them up you just replace them. This takes up so little space for the amount of time they spend using them.

14. Big plastic thingamajigs.

You have three options for this.

1. Buy the smallest version you can find. We found the small ride ones got far more play time than the big clunky cozy coupe.

2. Shove it all outside. Hide it in the shed or under a tarp in winter.

3. Buy it really cheap and used and then sell it for the same price or slightly less when they never play with it without feeling bad.

15. Just wait.

It's really tempting to run out and buy the latest whatever. Sometimes shopping for cute toys and clothes for kids is more gratifying for the parents than anything, and it can almost get obsessive and hoarder like for some parents. Take a deep breath. Give it some time. The toys will still exist. Make them wait until the next major holiday. Make them 'earn it'. Make them trade something else in by selling or donating it. If they really, really want it, they will still want it later. They will actually play with it. You'll have more time to track it down used.

Having less toys makes kids play more with the ones they have. It frees up space for them to move around, forces them to use more imagination, and makes for less clean up for parents. What lessons have you learned the hard way that you can share with the rest of us?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

7 reasons why women with young children are pissed off at their husbands

I saw a lot of disgruntled and disappointed day-after-mother's-day posts in my Facebook feed yesterday. Women who were just hoping for a little break, some hard earned recognition or for just one day to have their wishes come before the matriarch who just won't step down. I wasn't one of these women yesterday, but I still understand what they were feeling.

Husband bashing is a common sport among women with young children. It ranges from harmless joking between close friends to venomous public shaming over social media. These women feel frustrated and unheard and need to get it off their chest somewhere. When it falls on deaf ears at home it's going to come out elsewhere, depending on the severity of the situation.

Most of these women aren't even married to useless, deadbeat fathers. Their husbands are loving men who work hard at their jobs, spend time with their kids and at least attempt to pull their weight in household duties. Then why is it such a problem?

1. Men put on their oxygen masks first before assisting others.

Most fathers seem to have no trouble meeting the basic needs of life, even when they have young children. They manage to eat, sleep, dress, use the washroom and groom themselves on a regular basis. Unless it's a life threatening situation, they will tend to these things when needed and don't understand the big deal their wives make when they try to. Men are surprised when met with dirty looks when they attempt to make their 3rd trip to the bathroom in one morning or take their second shower in one day.

Meanwhile many women hold their pee for hours, miss meals, only poop in the middle of the night and forget the last time they washed their hair because they only make it priority to meet these needs when everyone else is fed and dry and clean and happy. Which rarely happens all at once.

It would be better for everyone involved if women acted more like men in this regard. I know it seems like a great decadence to spend 5 minutes sitting down to eat your breakfast or to empty your bursting bladder BEFORE tending to a crying child, but we're of more use when we're physically comfortable and certainly have a better attitude, which children pick up on.

2. Men are blind to the minutia

When it comes to the basic details our husbands generally get it. The kids need to eat, bathe, wear clean clothes and go to the doctor when they get sick. They either help with, or are at least AWARE that these things need to be done. But what about the rest? Do they buy a birthday present and card to bring to the party their child is invited to? Do they dig out the clothes from storage when the seasons change or a size is outgrown to swap them out? Do they fill out the forms that come home from school and send money for special events? Do they book dentist appointments or return library books or mend torn clothing? Not usually. Do they even have any idea that their wife is doing these 85 extra child related tasks per week on TOP of all the other basic duties that they are also sharing? Not likely.

Women tend to keep track of and deal with a whole host of tiny details that while invisible to the naked eye are essential to things running smoothly for the children. It's not even that we expect or even want our husbands to deal with these things (because our multitasking minds have it all covered), it's that want want them to NOTICE that we're doing them.

I remember one Saturday long ago when my husband was complaining that he had SO MUCH to get done one weekend. I asked him to write down everything he had to do and I would do the same. He had 3 items. I had 17. He was a little shocked.

3. Women want it done THEIR way.

We really wouldn't have to much to do if we learned to delegate and trust a little more. It drives me nuts when my husband just throws all the cutlery in the drawer willy nilly, but the fact that he's washing and putting away the dishes still saves me a lot of time and effort. I trust him to safely parent both our children so I've learned to just back off and let him do his thing. I let him dress the kids in whatever mismatched combinations he comes up with and feed them whatever random stuff he can find in the fridge for lunch and save my effort for the things that I just can't let go of (like the laundry, due to all the gorgeous outfits that have been ruined from his complete disregard for stain remover).

4. They seem to have all the fun and take all the glory.

After spending a long day putting out fires and trying but failing to get 'anything done' your husband finally gets home and takes them off your hands so you can just freaking cook dinner in peace. After a few minutes you hear hysterical laughter coming from the next room and your heart both glows and sinks at the same time as you realize that you've been with your children the entire day and not once did you hear them laugh like that. Suddenly you feel like Cinderella slaving over a hot stove with a scowl on your face while he gets to swoop in and be the 'fun' parent.

I only work part time, so I'm home with the kids most of the time, yet I often feel like I spend less time actually WITH them than he does. When you're the stay at home parent responsible for most of the housework it's easy to get caught up in the endless battle of what needs to get done and lose sight of what matters. I now prioritize my 'to-do list' to include 'enjoy my children' up at the very top above everything else. I find when I'm more flexible that so many wonderful, fun moments with my children creep into our day in between all the grunt work. When I've already shared a lot of laughs with my kids I no longer feel regret and resentment when it's 'his turn', I only feel happy that they have such a wonderful bond with their father.

5. We make them incompetent right from the start.

When a new baby is born it's such an exhilarating feeling that we throw ourselves into that mother baby cocoon without a complaint. When my girls were very little I couldn't stand to be apart with them at all, so I pretty much took over everything and fought when he tried to take them away to 'give me a break'. When I was their only food source something deep inside me couldn't be apart from them longer than it took to run to the store, and my husband got used to that. Eventually his cure for everything became 'she needs a boob', even long after this was no longer true. As time went on and I really did need a break it had already become the norm for me to be the 'default' parent in everything.

What changed things is the fact that he took paternity leave when our second daughter was born so I could continue to work part time. When he became the 'default parent' to our oldest daughter and in charge of both the few times I went to work he learned to master the tiny details that alluded him when we only had one child. He used to sit around or play guitar while I got her ready to go out, which drove me insane. Now when we have to go somewhere it's unspoken that he gets our oldest daughter dressed and packed while I do the same for the younger one and nobody but the cat sits around being useless.

6. We're jealous of them.

When the going gets rough, the grass gets greener. When you're sleep deprived and touched out, what's on their plate looks oh so tempting. We picture the luxury of sleeping all night, of sitting down and eating a sandwich all in one go, of peeing without anyone screaming and of listening to the radio all the way to work! Oh the decadence! They never have to suffer through morning sickness or painful contractions or tearing. Their bodies remain unmarked and unchanged and while they get to enjoy the love and joy and fun of being a parent, their lives are much less changed than ours are.

What helps is looking carefully at what's on my own side of the fence. I think of the things I would never trade in a million years. The feeling of a little person wiggling and kicking inside me, pressing her tiny feet up against the inside of my tummy. The blissful feeling of a milk drugged infant curled at your breast, filling your body with endorphins and your heart with peace. The times I get to take a nap in the early afternoon when the baby is sleeping, or the sunny days I'm at the pool with the kids instead of in a cubicle. We pay different dues and get different rewards, but it all evens out in the wash. I would never, ever actually want to trade places.

7. Women complain and men take.

The peak of marital discord occurred in our house when our oldest daughter was about a year and a half. For months she had been getting up for the day at 430 am, which meant that I was getting up for the day at 430 am and was a ragged mess of sleep deprivation and bitterness. One Saturday morning my husband sauntered out of bed at 9 am, went for a leisurely jog, took a long shower and then wanted to sit downstairs and eat a relaxing breakfast in front of the tv, making him 'available for duty' right in time for our daughter's nap. I detonated like a nuclear missile and while it got ugly for a minute there, it cleared the air in a remarkable way.

When you're exhausted from motherhood and left with nothing for yourself, you start to keep score of everything. The extra sleep he's getting, the exercise, the time for hobbies or outings with his friends. I remember him proudly showing me his latest painting and being unable to compliment it because I was so bitter that he had time to paint in the first place. The problem is, we don't know what to DO about it except complain about it, and men hate to listen to complaining.

After that day when I lost my shit, I learned to stop complaining and take action. I scheduled time with my friends to shop or go out to eat. I started going swimming or to movies by myself, taking long walks alone or asking him to take them out for a few hours so I could just have some quiet time at home. When I stopped complaining about all HE got to do and started explaining what I WANTED to do instead he was very happy to oblige. Men respond well to specific requests if they know it will make us happy. Now we discuss and divy free time depending on what we both want to do without ever having to fight about it.

Most of our husbands are good men. They want to help out. They want to make us happy. They want us to just stop complaining and tell them exactly what we want. We just need to figure out exactly what that is and how to say it and then everything is great.

(PS the reason my mother's day wasn't a let down is I told him exactly what to buy me and what I wanted to do. And guess what? It happened).

Monday, April 28, 2014

I will find you

Aside from being a government worker, a musician who plays in several local bands on occasion, a runner, a soccer player, a kickass husband and dad and a handsome man to boot, my husband is also an artist.

When we were dating and I was in teacher's college I would write books for my classes and he would illustrate them.

When I was pregnant with our first child he covered the entire nursery with murals that would have put Punky Brewster's bedroom to shame.

He went on to do many more murals for other kids and community centers.

When our daughters were born he did pencil, pen and ink and painted portraits of them. He also has a side business doing portraits for other babies and pets.

Soon our walls were covered in dozens of canvas paintings

So he had an art show where he sold some of his super hero paintings.

He did political cartoons for the newspaper, cartoons for his work newsletter and posters for the entire government.

After all this he came full circle, and was asked to illustrate a children's picture book, which was released yesterday.

Konrad, I will find you, by Jennifer Perlin is the story of a little boy starting preschool who suffers from separation anxiety. His biggest fear is that if he goes to such a big crowded place that his parents won't be able to find him when he's done. They reassure him that no matter where he is, they will always find him.

The book is now available to order from the publisher at this site. Ordering directly from the publisher rather than from amazon costs less.

It makes a wonderful bed time story and a great aid to anyone who has a small child suffering from separation anxiety or fear of starting school.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Made up holidays (or the story of Dinosaur Day)

Last year my oldest daughter decided she really wanted a dinosaur cake for her birthday and begged for one every day. The problem? Her birthday was still 5 months away. After about a week I couldn't take it anymore, so I thought of a solution. Dinosaur day!

That Saturday night we were having another couple over for dinner so we decided it was the perfect chance. I baked a cake, slapped some green icing and a package of plastic dinosaurs from the dollar store on top and called it a day. After dinner I brought out the cake and we all sang 'Happy Dinosaur Day' (which sounded suspiciously similar to 'Happy Birthday'). She was beyond thrilled.

This year we decided to go all out and have an actual party. We invited tons of kids, which could have been tricky, but since half of them ended up cancelling last minute with stomach bugs and the flu we ended up with the perfect number. We also kept it simple and low key. No need for an expensive, Pinterest worthy extravaganza. We just wanted it to be fun for our kids.

I made a table of healthy snacks.

I made dinosaur cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread using my trusty dinosaur sandwich cutter.

I cut out watermelon in the shape of dinosaurs using cookie cutters.

I also served cantaloupe, veggies sticks and dip, as well as a jug of water. Despite there only being healthy choices all of the food was devoured. When you don't offer a table full of junk kids will usually eat what is there.

Once the kids had filled up on real food we brought out dessert. Chocolate cupcakes with green frosting and topped with little plastic dinosaurs from the dollar store. That way each child got a tiny toy to keep.

We put all our dinosaur toys and books on display for the kids to play with.

The kids played pin the horn on the triceratops (drawn by my husband. It's handy to have an artist in the family).

He also made this for taking photos of all the guests as dinosaurs.

The only requirement for guests was to wear their favorite dinosaur T shirts and clothing. My little one even wore her dinosaur diaper.

I loved having a made up holiday party. Since it wasn't a birthday there was no financial pressure for anyone to bring gifts so everyone could just come and have fun. Made up holidays are also great for long stretches of time without anything exciting going on. I can see them being a great idea for kids with Christmas birthdays who want to do something else halfway through the year.

A friend of mine had 'Banana Day' for her kids. They ate banana splits and had banana decorations. The holiday was born because her son overheard her talking about his 'BD party' in hushed tones on the phone with her mother and instead of being caught out she told him she was talking about 'Banana Day'. That's the beauty of made up holidays, you can make them whatever you want, whatever you want and change them without notice. Which is perfect when you have kids.