Archive for October, 2011

A New Set of Initials

Monday, October 31st, 2011

I’m adding a new set of initials to the lexicon around here.

SSP was born on Friday morning weighing exactly seven pounds and measuring exactly 20 inches.  He looks just like his brother did as a newborn, and is every bit as sweet.  Delivery was smooth and largely uneventful.  The only drama of the whole affair was the Cardinals’ stunning Game 6 victory as I labored Thursday night.  We came home yesterday, all happy and healthy, and are enjoying the adjustment to a family of four.

I’m not quite sure what my presence in this space will be like in the coming few months.  I will certainly be taking a hiatus from thrice-weekly posting, and from my usual menu of thought-provoking topics.  I’m considering just posting photos – “Scenes from Maternity Leave” or similar – but haven’t really settled on any one approach yet.  Stay tuned and I will let you know once I’ve figured it out.

Thanks for all of your support and good wishes over these past many months of pregnancy.  It is such a blessing to finally have SSP in our family.


Friday, October 28th, 2011

On Tuesday I went to the doctor for my weekly baby check.  I had on black leggings and a grey, black, and white printed top that is less than a dress but more than a shirt, and big enough to accommodate my 38.5 week belly.  I paired it with my favorite grey patent leather stilettos.  During my exam even my OB commented that my shoe selection was impressive for someone on the brink of childbirth.

I chose those shoes because they look nice with the outfit, but also because at this late stage of pregnancy selecting from my usual shoe wardrobe is one of the few things I can do that makes me feel normal.  (I’m lucky that my feet don’t swell during pregnancy and that heels are even still an option.)  But my pride took a dent when I came home that evening and happened across this article which shook its finger at me due to some apparent health risks of high heels.

Most of the risk to a woman’s health is from falling – twisted ankles and the like.  Because I am so gazelle-like I don’t really worry about this.  I’m kidding, though I do tend to be reasonably sure of foot in heels.  And because I work an office job and spend most of my day sitting at either a desk or a conference table I also have less concern about issues of increased pressure on the balls of my feet.  But maybe that’s a mistake.  Maybe these risks are real and I should take better care of my feet and spine.  This, however, brings me to an embarrassing objection…

High heels are so pretty and dainty.  They make me feel so feminine.  They make me taller.  And they are a whole lot of fun!

Trivial reasons all, but somehow even for a health conscious and educated person they manage to factor in.  The article comments that women wear heels for men, and I’m not so sure that’s always the case.  I know GAP appreciates the added boost in height I get when I wear heels (he’s about a foot taller than I am), but beyond that I’m pretty sure he thinks my interest in shoes is pretty ridiculous (and mine pales in comparison to some women’s).  I suppose I could get all giggly about new flats, but something about them just isn’t as exciting.

I care about shoes – heels in particular – because I like the way they look.  I like the way they can be the finishing touch on an outfit.  I like feeling a little bit fancy when I put a pair on.  But I wonder if I should set aside some of these girlie notions and think more seriously about their health implications.  I will spend most of the next three months in flats, sneakers, and shearling L.L. Bean slippers while I am nestled away on maternity leave.  I think I’ll ponder this issue further then, but I have a feeling that I’ll be back in heels for my first day back to work in January.  We shall see.

Finding What’s Missing

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

I was intrigued by Gretchen Rubin’s most recent tip for improving her level of happiness.  She advocates for getting up earlier.  She finds that waking up before the rest of her family provides her with quiet productive time that would otherwise escape her daily routine.  She comments, “I spend the hour from 6:00 to 7:00 working at my desk, and I love the light, and the quiet, and the sense of focus and freedom from interruption that I have during that hour. I wish I could go for a walk, too, but so far the desire to spend the time at my desk has triumphed.”

As a morning person myself I can relate to her approach, but I was disappointed she didn’t explore the roots of why this tactic is so beneficial to her.  She explains what she finds valuable about it, but stops short of further exploration.

If I were to explore this topic more thoroughly I would encourage people to determine what is missing from their lives.  For a busy mother of two young children an hour of peace and quiet at the start of the day may be priceless.  But for a single person who works from home more hours of quiet alone time may be the last thing they need.  Perhaps this person would be better served by a standing coffee or lunch date with a friend.  We all have different shortcomings in our lives, different holes that need filling.  Rubin has successfully identified her own hole – a quiet time of freedom and productivity – but I think she does her readers a disservice to assume that their holes are comparable.  The point here is to add back to your life something that is missing and find a way to incorporate it.

What is missing from my life?  Lately, sleep, but that’s not going to change any time soon.  As I stare down my upcoming maternity leave I anticipate that adult social interaction will be a shortcoming for the next few months, and that is a gap I’ll need to mindfully fill.  Perhaps for you it’s the opportunity to actually sit down to a meal.  Perhaps it’s time to read.  Perhaps it’s a break in the middle of your work day to clear your head and refresh yourself.  No two of us are exactly alike.  We have to make room for our differences and improve our happiness accordingly.

Merely a Source of Fuel

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Most of us live life on some kind of budget.  We reconcile our monthly expenses to our monthly income and determine what we can spend on everything from housing to Starbucks.  We are no exception and I make an effort to be mindful of our grocery budget, not to waste food, and to be economical (and healthy) by cooking from scratch.  That said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown out a half-used bunch of Italian parsley that’s gone South, the last fourth of a quart carton of yogurt that has expired, or pitched the final portion of leftovers because it had lingered at the back of the fridge for too long.  I wince with a small amount of guilt every time this happens.  Nevertheless, it still happens pretty regularly.  I am fortunate to be able to afford these sorts of budgetary transgressions, but many people can’t.

Prompted by a meeting at the San Francisco Food Bank over the summer, chef Karl Wilder was inspired to pilot test the very budget that more than 45 million Americans must follow: food stamps.  Wilder determined that a family on food stamps can spend $1.33 per person per meal.  He then calculated that if he wanted to incorporate oil and salt into his cooking he would have to lower his per meal price to $1.22.  That meant he had a total of less than $4 per day for food.  It started as a week-long experiment, but grew into a two-month long project, which he blogged about on his site, Fusion on the Fly.

Wilder’s blog offers daily updates throughout the months of July and August, but it was his article for Huffington Post that tracked him through a week of his experiment that I found to be the most concise and captivating account of his project.  As I read through a week in the life of Karl Wilder I was struck by a number of things, but what I found most alarming was this: feeding yourself on this kind of a budget is an incredible amount of work.  This is a man who is a chef.  He knows how to buy what is in season.  He knows which independent merchants and which food markets offer the best value.  He knows how to effectively utilize ingredients that many people would find obscure.  And as best I could tell, for the duration of this experiment he had no other employment obligations.  Merely sticking to this budget was his whole job.

Consider that most people on food stamps are working multiple jobs for long hours under physically demanding conditions.  Cooking from scratch is likely the least appealing thing at the end of such a day.  Not to mention that most (would “all” be that big an exaggeration?) of them do not share with Wilder the benefit of a professional culinary education and likely don’t know how to make nearly as much of a food stamp budget as he does.

Wilder provides a great amount of detail about the foods he eats, their costs per serving, the tricks he uses to stretch ingredients, and the nutritional profile of his diet.  Having skimmed several of his posts I have learned that he offers little in the way of reflection, though.  As I glanced at the posts from the end of his experiment I was hungry for some key takeaway, some macro level epiphany about how we could help people on food stamps make more of what they have, or some insight into the food stamps existence in general.  He never offers one.  What he does offer, though, is a glimpse into what toll this kind of life has had on him.  He comments in his August 24th post that,

I admit to being bored by [this diet]. I am sick of many of the foods that work in this budget. I am ready for it to be over.

For many who live this way it may never be over. We have few jobs in the U.S. and the jobs we have often pay so little food is a luxury.

When I say I’ve walked a mile in my brother’s shoes I know that my shoes have custom insoles and by comparison are more comfortable.

While Wilder’s second paragraph is more telling when it comes to the nutritional epidemic that is going on amongst the poverty stricken in this country, it is the first paragraph that hits me the hardest.  I suspect that many poor people feel they are helpless to change the distribution of wealth in America (by and large they aren’t wrong about that) so the fact that there is a larger issue at hand isn’t what afflicts them on a daily basis.  What afflicts them on a daily basis is the fact that they are condemned to a diet that isn’t enjoyable.

For most of us food is a significant vehicle for pleasure.  It is what brings us together at the table with friends and family.  It is a means of relaxation and recreation and communion.  But for people on food stamps food is merely a source of fuel; a source of stress and effort and very little pleasure.

I don’t have a solution here.  I wrote this post not because I believe I have anything new to add to the conversation.  I wrote this post because it made me sad learning about Wilder’s experiment, how difficult it was even for him, and how futile it must be for the 45 million Americans who live it every day.  Maybe you were already aware of the complicated nature of this plight.  Maybe you were already familiar with Wilder’s project.  But maybe you weren’t.  Maybe I’ve exposed you to an issue that wasn’t known to you.  If that’s the case then I’ve broadened the general awareness around this issue, and I have to believe that can only be a good thing.

Yoga for the Soul

Friday, October 21st, 2011

“…like yoga for the soul.”  That is how sleep specialist Rubin Naiman describes dreaming.

Sleep fascinates me.  For starters, I’m a big fan of the stuff.  But I am also intrigued by how little scientists actually seem to know about it.  From time to time magazines like Newsweek and Time feature cover stories about sleep, why our bodies need it, how we get less of it now than we used to, and the wide variety of health benefits it affords.  So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I was equally taken with Dr. Naiman’s article on the benefits of dreaming.

Naiman discusses our physiological responses to dreaming – the dream-induced paralysis that keeps us from acting out our dreams and the release of emotional energy that channels through our muscles – but it was his explanation of the mental and emotional purpose of dreaming that most captivated me.

Dreaming aids in the formation of memory and in the processing of grief.  Even more interesting, though, is Naiman’s assertion about dreaming serving as some sort of psychological calisthenics.  He comments, “Daily life can feel constraining. Our deeper self is not necessarily comfortable remaining cooped up in a physical body 24/7. I believe that dreaming is a kind of psycho-spiritual stretching — like yoga for the soul. Dreams gently expand, release, soften and open us up again. Dreaming provides a poetic cushion for our sharply literal lives. In our dreams, we are free from the constraints of the physical body.”

This gets a little new agey for me, but I don’t totally dismiss it.  My own experience tells me that there is value in dreaming.  When I wake up after a night of active dreaming I feel more refreshed than I do otherwise.  Perhaps this is because a certain quality and depth of sleep are prerequisites to dreaming in the first place.  But I also feel more relaxed, like there was something cathartic about my sleep beyond its mere restorative properties.  I like this idea that dreaming frees us from our normal constraints, “… like yoga for the soul.”

It’s been several months since I slept through the night without waking.  If my second son is anything like my first, it will be at least another six months before I do it again.  This means that my dream life is in the midst of a big hiatus.  There will be many reasons that I look forward to that golden day when my baby sleeps through the night.  Being truly rested for the first time in more than a year will be foremost among them.  But lingering at the back of the pack will be an eagerness to return to the kind of sleep that facilitates an active dream life.  My dreams are usually pretty amusing, but apparently funny stories the next day aren’t the only benefit they provide.

Beginnings and Endings

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Tonight I have a date.  First, I have a date to take our dogs to the vet for their annual checkups and shots (for which they are a month overdue…) and IEP has agreed to go with me and be my helper.  Then, on the way home we will stop by our corner pizza joint, pick up our supper, and come home and watch Game 1 of the World Series together.  (GAP has plans with a buddy.)

Under other circumstances I might find these plans draining.  Getting two Bernese Mountain Dogs in and out of the vet isn’t easy when you’re not 37+ weeks pregnant with a toddler in tow.  So I’m fully prepared for the fact that this evening’s errand could very well be a comedy of errors (and/or frustrations).  But I’m looking at it differently today.

IEP’s days as an only child are numbered.  As of today that number is – at most – nine.  And I am feeling a bit nostalgic about it.

I firmly believe that the very best thing in the world we can give our son is a sibling.  Life as an only child is certainly no tragedy and most only children grow up to be perfectly happy and well-adjusted adults.  Nevertheless, I see tremendous value in growing up alongside siblings.  There are life lessons that can be learned in any number of venues, but a small handful of those, I believe, are best learned from brothers and sisters – conflict resolution, sharing, dominance and submission, justice and injustice, and so on – not to mention all of the shared experiences and camaraderie that come from growing up together.  I am extremely close to my sister.  GAP is likewise close to his five siblings.  So we both believe that the brother that is quickly coming his way is a very good thing for IEP.

But back to my nostalgia.  For the past nearly-three years I’ve been able to give all of my parental time, energy, and focus to IEP.  He has been the sole epicenter of our family.  And we have loved every minute of it.  So there is a part of me that feels a bit sad knowing how drastically his world is about to be upended, especially given that he really has no idea of what’s coming.  Naturally he knows that the baby is coming soon – and he’s excited about it – but he won’t really be able to wrap his head around what that means until he’s living it.

Which brings us back to tonight.  I will get home from work shortly after 5:00.  I will load up 200 pounds of dogs and 30 pounds of toddler into my car.  We will awkwardly navigate our way through the trip to the vet.  I will tell IEP how to be a good helper and he will feel proud of himself for doing so.  When we get home we will go down to the basement, turn on the big TV, and eat our pizza.  I will watch him take bites intermittently as he scans the field for Albert Pujols.  I will listen to him ask me, “Mommy, no like that pitch?” every time a batter lets one go by.  And I will watch him jump and run and cheer “That humongous hit!” when either team makes contact.  He will stay up past his bedtime.  And if I’m very lucky he will crawl up into my lap for snuggles periodically.

Before too long that lap will be filled with a Boppy and a baby whom I know I will love every bit as much as I love IEP, and I can’t wait.  But for now – for tonight – I’m glad that I can still give all of what I have to him.  This is a time of beginnings and endings, and I suppose I should expect to find myself feeling emotions tied to each.

Competing Priorities

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Last week GAP and three buddies from work went to one of the baseball League Championship Series playoff games.  Due to company connections these guys usually watch baseball games from a box or similar prime locations.  Playoff tickets, however, are a bit harder to come by so last week they were in the upper deck – a.k.a. Family-ville.

GAP was the only one of the four who is married or has kids, so for most of the group their setting gave them a slight fish-out-of-water feeling.  Sitting in front of GAP and his bachelor cronies was a family with a baby and a five-year-old.  Sitting behind them were a man and his eight- or nine-year-old son.  It was this duo that most caught his attention.

The game started at 7:00.  Like most evening baseball games, it likely wasn’t going to end until close to 10:00.  It was a school night.  But when your team is in the playoffs, well, that’s serious business.  What’s a pint-sized fan to do?  And what are his parents to do in such a battle of competing priorities?  Which one wins?

Answer: Both.

That night this boy and his dad avidly cheered on the home team throughout the game.  But in between innings?  In that momentary lull that takes place 17 times in any baseball game as the teams switch from offense to defense and back again?  They pulled out the school books and the boy worked on his homework.

I smiled as GAP told me about this.  I thought about the eagerness of a little boy excited to attend a playoff game.  I thought about the conversation he probably had with his parents wherein he was made to understand that this was a privilege, and that it did not supersede his academic responsibilities.  His dad would have told him how it was going to be hard to focus on his schoolwork with the excitement of the game, but that they would get through it together.  And I thought about someday having a similar conversation with GAP and my own boys.

Sometimes life deals us tough choices.  Sometimes we have to pick between Door #1 and Door #2 and we don’t have the option of a hybrid selection.  But sometimes we can find a way to finagle ourselves into the middle ground.  Such opportunities are hard to overlook.  It made me happy knowing that this boy’s parents didn’t let him blow off his school work, but also understood the how exciting a playoff game opportunity was.

Sometimes we get to split the middle.  Sometimes we get to honor competing priorities.  And if it’s the middle of baseball postseaston  sometimes a night of homework becomes a lifelong memory.

An Army of Gadgets

Friday, October 14th, 2011

As of last night three of the four most recent posts on NYT’s Motherlode dealt in some way with kids’ access to technology (television, Facebook, and iPads, respectively).  None of these posts is especially substantial, but their sandwiched nature points to something that intrigues me: we really know very little about how each of these screen-oriented gadgets affects our children.

We know the most about television.  Various studies over the years have told us that it negatively impacts their attention spans, critical thinking skills, physical fitness, and interpersonal skills.  I can only assume that being glued to Facebook or an iPad aren’t that different.  And yet we live in a world where these things are ubiquitous; only the most dedicated of parents will successfully navigate their children’s childhoods without exposure to them.

GAP and I took I pretty hard line for the first two years of IEP’s life.  He was allowed in the room while we watched news or sports, neither of which really captured his attention.  But he wasn’t allowed to watch any children’s programming until after his second birthday, and even then it was a very rare occasion.  Seeing the way his eyes glazed over – captivated, but unresponsive – told me that whatever was going on in my little boy’s brain wasn’t good.  It was only as he developed the ability to interact with the show – shouting out the answers to Dora’s questions, or laughing at Steve’s jokes on Blues Clues – that I developed some peace of mind that his viewing wasn’t putting him into a Clockwork Orange-like trance.

This was the path GAP’s and my guts told us to take.  But we still don’t exactly know what effect this exposure will have on our little boy.  Neither do we know what effect his exposure to iPhones (he’s been able to navigate GAP’s since he turned two), or iPads (Nanny has one that she uses for educational apps periodically) will ultimately have on him.  Facebook isn’t in his vocabulary yet, but if there’s anything I can count on it’s that his interest in social networking will sprout much earlier than I expect it to.

Given all of this, I am prone to wonder – after a certain age, at least – whether a cold turkey approach or something more permissive is healthiest for our kids.  Perhaps no technology at all is best for young kids.  Perhaps the only thing such indulgences achieve are a few quiet moments for Mom and Dad, and nothing beneficial for the child himself.  Or perhaps (and this is the direction I’m leaning, though I’m not fully confident of it) the better direction is something of a hybrid.  Our kids will never live in a world without smartphones and iPads (at least not until the next thing replaces them…), so what good does complete denial do them if it doesn’t represent reality.  (In a sort-of-applicable parallel, most of what I’ve read about kids and nutrition instructs that we should teach our children how to balance healthy and unhealthy foods, rather than declaring war on French fries and chicken nuggets altogether.)  So is a combined approach better?  If our kids can watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and still want to read books before bed is that preferable to requesting a book only because they don’t know that Thomas exists?  (Yes, I know that the Thomas behemoth started out as a simple book.  We have many Thomas books…)

With our second child on the near horizon I also wonder how we’ll chart these waters during his first two years.  IEP knows that Saturday mornings are his time to watch his shows.  Will we pull the rug out from under him just because his baby brother is within earshot?  Likely not, but how we’ll minimize #2′s exposure remains to be seen.

The one thing that I take a bit of comfort in when it comes to issues like this is that we won’t get it 100% right, but we won’t get it 100% wrong either.  We care greatly about our kids’ mental development.  We work to ensure that they are exposed to many different settings and circumstances.  We teach them manners and initiative and boundaries.  It would take an army of tech gadgets to drown out the influence that we spill into our kids’ ears each day.

We may not know what the exact right answer is to our questions about kids and technology.  But we do know that if we’re asking the questions in the first place we’re probably on the right track.

If You Don’t Know, Just Ask

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

About eight and a half years ago GAP told me he had to go out of town for a job interview.   He was in business school at the time and looking for a summer internship, so I naturally jumped to the conclusion that it was for summer employment.  When I asked about the job he told me it was for a position that would be the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding job of his life.  He was very careful not to tell any lies.   When he left town for  this “interview” he actually drove to my hometown, called my parents an hour outside of the city, and asked if they were free for an impromptu lunch.  He asked their permission to propose to me.

I was then, and am now, flattered that he did this.  Most of all, it meant a great deal to me that he met with both of my parents, and not just my father.  My mother is not the type to take a back seat to her husband.  GAP knows this and wasn’t about to offend his future mother-in-law by confusing chauvinism for tradition.  I didn’t take their meeting as any indication that I don’t have control over my own life choices, and they didn’t either.  We all took it as a nod to a custom wherein a young man makes his intentions known and asks for the blessing of his girlfriend’s family.

However, I recently read an article that throws this whole custom into question.

I am certainly not of the delusion that everyone else has the same regard for tradition that I do, that my husband does, or that my parents do.  I know that women are not property.  We are empowered individuals who make our own decisions in life.  Whether or not GAP asked my parents’ permission, these things are as true about me as they are about any other modern young woman.  Yet I still have an old fashioned streak that likes to honor certain traditions, even if their relevance has been diluted over time.

So what struck me most about the article I read was how confused the author seemed to be over where to draw the line on the issue of asking permission.  She didn’t necessarily seem to think that there is a single right or wrong verdict for this tradition in the 21st century.  But she did seem a bit flummoxed over how to chart the right course under varying circumstances.  My response is this: why not just ask?  Very few women are caught off guard by a proposal these days.  Sure, we may not know exactly when and where the question will be popped, but we know whether or not we intend to marry the person we’re dating, and whether or not he (or she) intends to marry us.  How?  Because we talk about these things.  So why, amongst the conversations about religion and kids and all the other big issues that must be discussed before marriage, shouldn’t a young man inquire about his girlfriend’s views on asking permission, and about the views of her parents on the topic?  Shouldn’t this issue be on the easy end of the spectrum of marital pitfalls?

Marriage has served a number of purposes throughout human existence – economic, political, genealogical, and so on.  Today most marriages are about forming a mutually beneficial partnership and this has changed many of the dynamics of the institution itself.  One of the many improvements is increased communication between spouses, so I don’t know why this issue would ever become a minefield on the modern dating scene.

GAP asked my parents’ permission.  So did my sister’s husband.  I have friends whose husbands only asked their fathers.  I have friends whose parents only found out about the engagement after the woman had a ring on her finger.  The great thing about getting engaged today is that there are no hard and fast rules.  Perhaps this means there is more room for error.  But, as with many situations, I think a simple conversation can mitigate a lot of hurt feelings.

Hope and Pajamas

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

I suppose that if you asked 100 different people what hope looks like you would get 100 different answers.  That is human nature.  If I were one of those 100 people and you asked me that question today the answer would be: these pajamas.

A few weeks before IEP was born my mother was in town for one of my baby showers.  She took the opportunity to spoil me in a variety of ways, one of which was to take me shopping for pajamas to wear in the hospital so that I would have something comfortable but attractive to wear when friends and family came to visit me and our new baby.  One pair was pale blue with a chocolate brown floral pattern.  The other pair was white with spring green leaves and periwinkle blue birds.  I loved them both.  But, as it turned out, no one ever saw my cute pajamas.

Just hours old, IEP was transferred to a children’s hospital for treatment by teams of specialists.  (He is fine now.)  This meant that I spent my two postpartum days in the hospital alone with my mother, waiting for my phone to ring with news of my baby’s condition and prognosis, while GAP tended to our son across town.  I won’t lie.  It really, really sucked.

Now here I am, three years later, preparing for the arrival of my next baby.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’ve been trying fairly hard avoid thinking about delivery.  They were complications during delivery that caused all of IEP’s problems, and it’s hard to think about the actual birth of my second son without my mind going to a worst-case-scenario kind of place.  We have taken all the proper steps to ensure a healthy and safe delivery, which does put my mind at ease a bit.  Nevertheless, I struggle to envision exactly what it might be like to go through labor without incident, and to relax in the hospital with my baby for a couple of days before we head home.

And so I turn to pajamas – two pairs, one floral and one polka dotted – which to me represent hope, optimism, and the faith that this time will be different from the last.  They arrived in the mail yesterday and shortly after I got home from work I tried them on.  Then I called my mother and said, “My hospital pajamas came today.  And I’m bound and determined for someone to actually see them this time.”  She knew immediately the significance of my statement.

It’s hard for me to think about delivery.  But in my own way I am mentally preparing for a different experience this time.  For me, right now, hope looks like new hospital pajamas.