Go Team!

Traditional shrimp curry as prepared in Benagl...

If you haven't tried shrimp curry, you are missing out. And yes, I thank God and Nathan daily for my husband's culinary skills, which include Indian food that is better than takeout.

I have “met” with Jan The Amazing Nutritionist twice now, and after both Skype video chats, the flood of hope and relief I have felt has brought tears to my eyes. These emotions come after I begin to absorb the wealth of new information each conversation affords. While a visit to a doctor, even a good doctor, finds me struggling to get a word in, visiting with Jan means answering questions about every aspect of my life, not just about her area of specialization. I have lost count of how many darn times rushed to stop a doctor with a hand on the door handle, saying “Wait! I think this other piece matters!” only to see Doc turn around, sit down again, and reconsider a medication or other piece of advice. Even the neurologist I raved about had no idea which questions to ask. The visit went well because she listened to me, but I have had to learn to make them stop and listen to my speeches about how migraines are connected to anxiety which is connected to you name it. Jan asks me questions and then tells me why she’s asking. Best example? She asked a bunch of questions about Frova, my new migraine medication. I figured she just wanted to know what else I was putting in my body in addition to the foods I reported in my food diary entries.

I felt discouraged this morning, when I woke up with pain all through the right side of my upper body, from my shoulder blades to my eyeball and realized I was going to have to take Frova if I wanted to make it to babysit this afternoon. Then came the beta blocker. Then, I forgot to take my anti-anxiety meds until 11:30 am, and only remembered because I suddenly thought “Why in the hell do I feel so jumpy?” So I added a Xanax to the mix, to make sure that I’d get dressed and leave in time to make it to my 1:00 pm gig at the big house down the block. A baby just felt so far away as I swallowed that handful of blue, red and gray pills, all with warnings on their bottles against consumption during pregnancy.

But then, I read this in an email from Jan:

“Frova is a serotonin receptor agonist. It mimics serotonin production. This is the feel good, calming neurotransmitter. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin.
 Have a look at the foods high in tryptophan..  shrimp is #1!!!!!
That link revealed this list of “events” that indicate a need for foods high in tryptophan:
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Impulsiveness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Weight gain or unexplained weight loss
  • Slow growth in children
  • Overeating and/or carbohydrate cravings
  • Poor dream recall
  • Insomnia
Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, No, Yes, No, No, Yes?, No, No. That’s fully HALF of things I most definitely need help with. And FOOD can help! Because the chemicals in my brain are also in food… which makes total and complete sense. “Hey!” I thought, “I eat lots of shrimp! Shrimp is great!” (Nathan makes the best sauce you’ve ever tasted.) But we had just talked about how I’m not eating enough of any of the animal proteins in eggs, cheese, grass-fed beef, organic chicken and other obvious foods. I am eating more shrimp. Connection? Who cares! Let’s pile on the shrimp and see what happens!

Some of these are on the high-in-mercury or over-fished categories, but lots are in the Wonderland-style "Eat Me!" category even for pregnant ladies. (PS Jan says "shrimp is #1!!!" in her email because it was high on our co-created list of foods to eat more of on a budget.)

Here’s what just makes me insane: not one of the many, many doctors I have asked about migraines and triptans has ever explained to me what they actually do. I have asked. They have been vague. Discouraged and already having taken twice as long as I’m “supposed” to take in the doctor’s office, I give up. Time and again, I give up trying to get doctors to explain to me what exactly these chemicals are doing. I have mutely accepted “help with the pain” and “help keep blood vessels open,” too exhausted to repeat “But HOW?!” I’m smart. I’m well-educated. I even understand a good amount of medical jargon. Hit me. I can take it. But they refuse. The notable exception is my neurologist, but I see him four times a year, and we usually have a whole lot else to talk about. I am now encouraged to email him to ask more questions, though, because he’s just such a nice guy and so good at explaining stuff.
My therapist is right (shocker!)–I feel less anxious when I learn more. The more information I have, the more empowered I feel and the less anxiety I experience. Right now, I am pretty excited about that huge bag of frozen shrimp Nathan found on sale. (I never get sick of it.) As Jan pointed out, preparing for pregnancy by eating more and more often. She tells me that I’m already eating lots of the foods she recommends during pregnancy. And, one of my favorite quotes from her is this one: “You need tons of this stuff when you’re building a human fetus, but you need them to rebuild your own cells, too!”
Maybe the Xanax has kicked in. Maybe I’m excited about my ability to do more every day to help me fill my brain with the happy chemicals the pills are currently helping me produce/use effectively. Information is power.

Apprehensive, Excited and Back in Therapy: Good-bye August

My therapist has returned, ladies and gentlemen! And I am so glad. She was in Vermont, but came back before Irene. As I gushed about how much I LOVE the babies I’ll be caring for this fall in my attempt to earn a living, she said, “It sounds like you’re ready to have your own.” Well, that was really good to hear! But I have to get off of these meds before I can justify trying to get pregnant. Tomorrow, I’m heading to NYC to meet with my psychiatrist (a different person, one with an M.D./Ph.D. and a prescription pad) to discussing shaving a little bit more off of my daily dose of Klonopin.

I am excited about the idea of going off the anti-anxiety medication Klonopin and, after that, my SNRI, Effexor, because after I stop taking those pills, we can start trying to get pregnant. We will have that option. I am apprehensive about even just this next step because, as I have said before, I can feel the Klonopin kick in, calm me down and help me start my day. I want this so badly it hurts. I hate that the pharmacist knows our faces. I wish that this process simply involved throwing all the dangerous pills away and not looking back. I sometimes wonder if I am somehow missing whatever basic information other humans have that allows them to get through a day without feeling panicky. They must know something I don’t know! I’m told that this is not true. That there is no key. It’s just hard. And that sucks.

Why doesn't this freak you out, too? Seriously! Grocery stores are crazy places!

You know what else was hard? August. And August did not suck, at least not every day. I took my “as needed” Xanax a few more times than I do when I’m in regular therapy. I did a lot of talking to Nathan about why I felt scared of [insert mundane, not dangerous object or activity]. I also went out to dinner with people I hardly know (a really big deal for me) and had a good time. I left a job I loved (my summer gig at the child care center) and then went out and got a new job. Two jobs. I went to the doctor. Two different doctors, in two different locations. I went grocery shopping by myself, voluntarily. I do not go to grocery stores alone, people! This morning, I took public transportation to work and home from work and did not panic. The mere thought of getting on a train used to trigger hyperventilation and lead to many skipped classes. And I like trains. Today, I took the bus. And I hate the bus. I haven’t had a migraine in ten whole days [and I am now knocking on wood].

In sum, I did it. I got through August. Not only did I get through it, but I kicked butt. I was happy–am happy. I am also quite proud of myself. September is going to bring new adjustments at work and in my medication. I am scared. I don’t want to take the bus. I don’t want to feel more anxiety. I don’t want to deal with Nathan being gone a lot, as school starts up again. But you know what I have to say to you, September?

BRING IT ON. I can take it. I am one tough lady.

See? Happy! And yes, that is the chubbiest baby you have ever seen.

Placenta Encapsulation: Why not?

(A note of caution: this post is not for the faint of heart or stomach.)

I am glad that I have a long time before I have to make any actual decisions about Baby. If, when, how (birth plan) and what (stuff, stuff and more stuff) can all be decided much later. Including a good year to decide how I feel about little suggestion that shocked the heck out of me:

Eat the placenta. Or, rather, swallow it in pill form. It could prevent postpartum depression.

WHAT? Oh, wait, don’t most mammals actually do this? Where did I learn that? I don’t know. But I don’t remember hearing about human women doing this until yesterday, and it’s already cropped up in about four places since then. So I thought I’d post it here and see what you all think. (The placenta, by the way, is basically what feeds and protects the fetus during gestation. In some cases, it can even protect a fetus from contracting things like HIV from an infected mom. It’s a seriously awe-inspiring organ. And it is “birthed” a few minutes after the baby is born. It’s considered biohazardous waste in the US and hospitals dispose of it as such.) New York Magazine talked about monkeys and other mammals eating the “after birth” and described the process of “placenta encapsulation” in this pretty fantastic article. They also describe burying it and planting a tree over it, which sounds kind of awesome, actually. The “encapsulation” part is the only resin, I’m even considering ingesting a bodily organ that *I* will produce, by the way. I am soooo not brave enough to do what woman in the article says she did–make it into a smoothie and drink it down with some banana mixed in.

Ok, grossed out yet? I am! But if you choose the encapsulation, you don’t do it yourself. You find someone, usually through a midwife, doula or an organization called Placenta Benefits, to take away the after-birth in a safe container. That person then gives it back in pill form. You can read the NYMag article if you want more details. According to that same article, scientists aren’t sure why mammals do this, but they have a few theories. Giving birth is hard. Pregnancy is tough on the female body. The placenta, it turns out, has a lot of the same nutrients that get depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.

But here’s the piece from Bamboo Family Magazine that really convinced me to take this seriously:

“Powdered placenta has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.  In the postpartum period, placenta capsules can be used to

  • Balance hormones
  • Increase energy
  • Increase and enrich breast milk.
  • Decrease the baby blues and postpartum depression.
  • Decrease in lochia, postpartum bleeding.
  • Decrease iron deficiency.
  • Decrease insomnia or sleep disorders.”

And here is what my nutritionist, Jan Katzen-Luchenta, had to say about it when I emailed her:

“Fe, Cu and Zn [Iron, Copper and Zinc] elements appear to have interactive connections in human placenta. The primary essential fatty acid in the placenta is Arachidonic Acid – brain growth. So with Mom being a bit depleted from childbirth – not a bad thing to eat the placenta for extra nutrients. All trace minerals are essential.”

Placenta Benefits.info (PBi) sells this a little too hard, in my opinion, and it’s a bit off-putting. But if this claim is true, I’m listening anyway:

Eighty percent of women experience some sort of postnatal mood disorder, the mildest of which is called the “baby blues”. Symptoms of the baby blues include weepiness, sadness and anxiety, and these negative emotions can last for the first several weeks of the new baby’s life. With proper preparation, the majority of women can avoid the baby blues.”

How do they know this? Why, they have research. Scientific research, of course. Here are just some of the articles their site links to:

  Placenta Increases Milk Production
  Placenta ingestion for pain relief
  Placentophagy alters hormone levels
  Postpartum Depression attributed to low levels of CRH
  Maternal iron deficiency affects postpartum emotions
  Fatigue linked to Postpartum Depression
  Iron supplementation helps fatigue
  The significance of postpartum iron deficiency

Low milk production, pain (yes, it hurts after you give birth, sometimes, a lot, and breast-feeding can hurt, too), the crazy drop in pregnancy hormones and fatigue might all contribute to a low mood. It makes sense that if taking placenta capsules can increase the minerals my nutritionist mentioned and increase milk while decreasing pain, it would help with PPD. And in case it’s not super obvious, I am at REALLY high risk for PPD, PPOCD and quite a few other acronyms.

According to the NYMag article the science out there is pretty small-scale and inconclusive. Ask any woman who has done this, however, and her anecdotal evidence might convince you. And you know what? “It’s just a placebo effect” is not a convincing argument against doing this, because if it’s all in my head, who cares? My mood changes drastically because of what’s in my head all the time! I got stressed out because I put my underwear on inside-out one day last week. The knowledge that no one could possibly know this did not keep me from feeling anxious about what they might think if they did know that I was paying no attention that morning. That is the kind of thing that can throw off my whole day. If taking a happy pill only makes me happy because I think it will, then sign me up anyway. Seriously, though, thinking happy thoughts is an over-simplified way of stating it, but positivity has some serious benefits when it comes to treating mood disorders. I have seen it. Optimistic people overcome serious mental illness a lot better than pessimistic people.

In fact, there is no convincing argument against placenta encapsulation at all. The people who take your money to do it are performing a service I certainly don’t want to do myself, and they tend to be really passionate believers. So I don’t feel like that’s a scam at all. And despite sounding really gross and “akin to cannibalism” it’s something that’s just going to get thrown out if you don’t want to use it. So here’s the analogy I’ve come up with:

If I were in the desert and dying of dehydration, would I drink my own urine to survive? You bet. (Doesn’t the British survival show guy do that in like every other episode?) If I’m dying inside and feeling hopeless and these pills can be taken safely, help me breastfeed AND help with hormone changes, two major factors for new moms at risk for PPD… why wouldn’t I? It’s an odor-less, tasteless pill no bigger than a vitamin supplement. The Pill (the kind that’s meant to prevent pregnancy) used to contain hormones from the urine of pregnant horses. Do you know what’s in your medicine cabinet? I’m just saying.

The question that keeps banging around inside my head is this: do I have a good reason not to do this? If there is any small chance it could help?

Now do you understand why I’m glad I’ve got plenty of time to get used to the idea?

Going Plastic Free

It started with paint. Or whatever that stuff is that OXO GoodGrips uses to label its plastic measuring cups and spoons. One humid day, I was happily measuring flour, when I looked down to find that my thumb was now green and the formerly labeled handle was now blank. I guess I had just assumed that whatever markings were faded had come off during washing. But we don’t have a dishwasher anymore. So then I became obsessed with the idea that the paint was ending up in our food. I wrote angry letters but got NO information about the content of that paint. I did get (for free) a set of measuring cups with stainless cups and the same “grips” for handles. Which did not solve my problem AT ALL–same paint. I also got a patronizing assurance that OXO products meet safety standards in Europe, and since those are higher than any standards in the US, that was actually sort of comforting.

Being in this my-therapist-is-on-vacation-so-I’ll-obsess-over-cookware mental place means that I am now worried about everything plastic in our kitchen. Anxiety is more of a hyper, compulsive kind of thing that incites activity, if not always rational activity; obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually an anxiety disorder, although thankfully not one that I deal with. (Depression, however, did not put me in any sort of place even to write angry letters or, well, to do anything except sleep.) No, I did not throw everything plastic away. But I immediately go to Amazon to look for stainless measuring cups and spoons. Wow, were they expensive. On to etsy! There, I found some awesome and charmingly dented vintage stainless measuring cups.

Enter, Super Mom-In-Law, to the rescue! Be jealous, those of you with less awesome mothers-in-law–the day after reading about my disgust with my measuring cups and my hope to switch them out for stainless, she called me to tell me that she had found some for a good price (the woman is a magnet for a good deal). I now have two sets of nothing-but-metal measuring cups and the most awesome set of measuring spoons ever. Seriously. They fit inside spice jars and go from 1/8 tsp all the way to, get this, 1 1/2 tbsp. Little things make me oh so happy! So, the “green” things in my kitchen now include:

sifter (wood handles), measuring spoons, cups, ice cream scoop (for muffin batter--try it! no spills. less waste.)

I also LOVE these plastic free kitchen items we got as gifts, mostly wedding gifts: ceramic nesting mixing bowls from Nigella Lawson & Bliss Living, bamboo cutting board, chicken-shaped wooden cutting boards from Martha Sterwart (they were a joke, but I use them! hilarious!), stand mixer. We also have pyrex bowls, a wooden rolling pin and, my pride and joy, an all-wood drop-leaf table. It even has two drawers and the all-wood stools fit in spaces under the drawers. Our kitchen is so tiny, and it makes a huge difference. But I’m also amazed at how good it feels to roll out dough on a wood surface, sit and eat at wood and just plain have wood around. It’s nice! It’s the background to all those photos, by the way. Oh, and the “greenest” purchase I have ever made? My vintage cast iron skillet made by Le Creuset. The enamel on the outside (was it originally red or orange? it’s both, now!) is all beat up, but after a good scrub with coarse salt and one seasoning in the oven (rub pan with oil, put in oven upside down for 1 hour), it shines. The best part is that someone else did all the original seasoning for me. Tip: rust on a cast iron skillet can be easily removed with a good scrub–use coarse salt because soap will take off the oil that makes case iron an almost entirely non-stick but chemical free pan. Mine was $24, including shipping. A new Le Creuset can go for well over $150. The star of my kitchen really deserves its own photo:

Good for the planet. Good for my family. Best deal ever.

So far, so good, right? Right. But if I’m going to plan for Baby, I want to have an (almost) entirely plastic-free kitchen. And nursery. I don’t want plastic toys, teething rings or baby bottles. I don’t even want plastic food storage. That’s right, I want glass baby bottles. Is this necessary? Depends on who you ask. Why do I want it? I am the kind of person who will end up thinking “plastic is toxic, plastic is toxic” every time I go to heat up a baby bottle or send a lunch to preschool, knowing the food will be warmed in a plastic container. The toxins in plastic (BPA and many, many others) get released when the plastic is damaged, and, often, heating it up is enough to damage it. The regulations in the US are just not good enough. “Phthalates are common in soft plastics, like baby teethers and bath toys, and can affect the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems.” (Read more about safe feeding products at the hilariously named Granola Babies.) And if you think I’m crazy, then you haven’t read the blog posts out there about how truly terrible it must be that breast milk is pumped through plastic tubes, stored in plastic bags in the freezer and warmed in plastic bottles. This is not, in the scheme of things, high on my list of the truly terrible. If I pump, I’ll see if we can afford a green option. I’m not that deep into this research yet. But I assure you, I am not even close to the crazy end of this particular spectrum.

This is a breast pump from the 1830s. Plastic and rubber free? Yes. But would YOU use it? I looks like a medieval torture device! And probably felt like one, too.

As my mother pointed out, some things must be plastic: nipples/tops for the baby bottles, lids for the glass containers, the baby-proofing cabinet locks and outlet covers, the shower curtain. Even the glass baby bottles have silicone “protectors” (although I’m not sure what they’re protecting–maybe they prevent the bottle from slipping?). Plastic is part of modern life, and it’s a great invention. As I mentioned before, I LOVE my BPA-free, built-in-filter Water Bobble. The idea, here, is to keep it away from my food as much as possible, especially if I’m going to keep throwing it out at the slightest scratch–talk about bad for the planet! I have no desire to go back to the days when we had cast iron but used cleaning products laced with arsenic, cyanide, mercury and any other poison you can think of. (I just read in The Poisoner’s Handbook about an entire household of servants who died because the cook forgot to rinse out a pot after polishing it. Why? The polish everyone used at that time contained cyanide as a main ingredient. She cooked the stew in cyanide. I do not long for history’s kitchens! I love my freezer!) It’s expensive, I know, but it gives me peace of mind, and it lasts a lot longer than plastic in my kitchen and a lot less long in the landfill. Glass is 100% recyclable. And for the record, I have thought about the fact that glass shatters, but assuming we don’t start throwing stuff against the wall or feed the baby from wine glasses, the food-storage-grade glass should hold up just fine.

It’s all about balance. We live in an old building with beautiful wood floors. Pro: no chemicals from icky, gross wall-to-wall carpeting. Con: God only knows what’s under the paint chipping off that radiator. So I’ll put some sort of barrier to keep Baby from the radiator and hope the kid doesn’t ingest lead from, oh, I don’t know, chewing on the walls. You can’t take care of everything–I know this because I have tried to take care of everything and went nuts in the process. I have papers to prove it. So plastic bugs me, while glass, wood and metal just feel good. What bugs you? What will you absolutely not have in your house?

Let Them Eat Yogurt!

The point of this post is that if you want to do something to improve the quality of what you put in your body, just read the list of ingredients on the things that you know in your heart should be simply healthy. Like yogurt. It applies to everyone, but especially to children, pregnant women and couples who want to conceive a child.

Yoplait makes this stuff called Go-Gurt that really makes me angry. Why should yogurt make me angry? Because Go-Gurt not yogurt; it’s adulterated yogurt. I encountered this stuff most recently during playgroup while babysitting and, not being a parent, felt that I shouldn’t say anything. So I’m saying something here. I hate this stuff. My friends at Fooducate hate it too. Get this. “A friend was strolling through her local supermarket when she came upon the yogurt section. A mom was there with her kids, and she gave them choice of several yogurt flavors. They picked cotton candy Go-Gurt. Cotton candy ?!!? As if all the stuff put into kids’ yogurts isn’t enough, now we’re encouraging them to look for spun sugar in their yogurt.” Seriously. Cotton candy. Can I just repeat this author’s ?!!? and add my own #@%^ you, Yoplait! As Fooducate cleverly points out, if this were in the “treats” section, rather than the “yogurt” section, everyone would be much clearer on what this stuff actually is. Sugar. A treat. Something your body can probably handle once in a while. It is not the same as yogurt.

Don't even get me started on how I feel about putting commercials on FOOD or about kids sucking on plastic. I hate this product in every possible way.

(A note on the incredibly useful Fooducate iPhone appit uses the camera on your iPhone to scan any bar code in the grocery store and then tells you important things like “NOT 100% whole grain!” or “Minimally processed food!” It also gives each product a letter grade based on how the nutritionists they asked would rate it as well as the entire range of grades given to the products in that category. In “potato chips” a B might be as good as you’re going to get. In “dried fruit” just keep looking for an A or an A+! LOVE THEM.)

While Fooducate objects, rightly, to all the sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, and all the artificial flavors and color that go into making yogurt taste anything like cotton candy, I’d like to add my own objection: it’s got carrageenen in it. My nutritionist told me to avoid anything with carrageenen in it, and, overwhelmed by things to add to my diet, I didn’t get around to researching why until today.

What is carrageenan? It’s a bit like gelatin. For many years, probably centuries, the Irish made it by boiling a certain type of moss to get out the stuff that made the plant cells so strong. Sounds better than most ways of getting gelatin-like ingredients! Unfortunately, most companies don’t use that method. It is now chemically extracted. I want to believe Tom’s of Maine that what’s in their toothpaste is safe, but I don’t eat toothpaste, I spit it out. Plus, the other toothpaste brands scare me more. Props to the company, by the way, for going into each ingredient in such detail on their website! But that’s a side note. Point is, I don’t believe that all “food-grade” carrageenan is safe. [You can read more about that and how the extraction process/production of carrageenan changed in this (technical) paper I found in the UN Fisheries and Agriculture Dept. archives–thanks for being awesome, Google.]

Why do I think it’s unsafe? There are just too many doubts, and when the evidence is inconclusive at best, why not just avoid it? It may cause cancer. It may give you stomach aches. One researcher is looking into a link to breast cancer. It’s not a necessary ingredient in anything unless you are a 19th century Irish lady trying to make a specific kind of desert. It’s easy to avoid the stuff–the name is easy to remember, and it’s listed on anything you might consume, from supplements like multivitamins to almond and soy milk to, well, “yogurt.” This is a concise explanation with good sources for why it’s best to avoid carrageenan. I’m not a big Dr. Weil fan (the beard kind of creeps me out… but in this case his evidence is good.) Supplements, almond milk and, now, Go-Gurt, which is specifically marketed to children and parents, are the products I have personally come across that sometimes include this additive. It makes me angry that the box tells me that this is “all-natural” and/or “healthy” while the ingredients list tells me that companies like Yoplait and Blue Diamond are adding this unnecessary stuff that just might be unhealthy or, at the very least, uncomfortable, if it gives you a stomach ache.

But I wouldn’t write an entire post that’s just about one food additive I find objectionable. The point is this: food is good. By itself. Yogurt already comes in single-serving packages that only contain real food! Don’t let companies convince you that you can’t handle carrying a spoon. Don’t let them convince you that kids won’t like yogurt unless it tastes like cotton candy. Don’t let them convince you that you should want yogurt that tastes like cotton candy. (Or pie, for that matter–why are there so many pie flavors? As this smart post points out, if you’re not careful you could end up with yogurt as sugary as a candy bar.)

You know what’s great? Yogurt with raw honey. Maple syrup. Agave. I have a sweet tooth, so I don’t like it plain. But I don’t want high-fructose corn syrup! Honey is delicious. Raw honey is more delicious (to me, anyway). Let’s teach our bodies and our children’s bodies to crave real food. Please. Vote with your hard-earned cash until Yoplait stops trying to pass chemicals off as food. And think about what’s in the package before you put that brightly colored box into your cart.

 

Body Image: Remember the Future

Let’s talk about body image. It’s come up a lot, lately, and I went to the beach yesterday wearing my yellow polka dot bikini and could not help but bask in my own enjoyment of my body. I won’t lie–I did compare my body to the very thin body of the friend next to me and long for smaller thighs. But I smashed that thought like an ant at a picnic. I wouldn’t trade this hour glass for anything! And any kids I end up having will benefit from that hard-won attitude.

Take a look at few things I’ve come across just this morning (I did not google “body image”–this all showed up in my Facebook news feed):

Moms pass on body hatred to daughters: Your kids are listening.

Moms buy a children’s book about going on a diet for their daughters. No, I haven’t come across this in any of the homes I work in. If I do, I’ll be having a conversation with the parents, ASAP.

Yesterday:

Photoshopping Phoniness: Beauty altered out of reality and, often, out of beauty.

Fighting Childhood Obesity: The fight to improve childhood nutrition.

First, one unusually great thing about my childhood: my parents served really healthy food, and I’m now glad that I never won my campaign for white instead of brown rice and/or bread. Partly for financial reasons, we never had soda, sugary cereal or salty snacks just lying around the house. Treats were treats. You know what? I don’t want to spend my money on junk, either. So my body is thin and my skin healthy in part because I have always eaten healthy foods.

I didn’t manage to have a great body image, though. Not even a good one. I didn’t believe that I was pretty, not really, until I was about 19 years old. I was convinced that I was probably fat from the moment my body started changing; growing from a lanky, athletic, into a curvy woman was miserable for me. I didn’t know that there would be an awkward phase. I thought it was all supposed to happen so gracefully. Wearing the clothes that I thought I should fit into instead of clothes that actually fit me meant that I wore a B cup bra when I was already a D–in the eighth grade. To be perfectly honest, I still haven’t forgiven the boy who said, “Anne-Marie? Is she the one with the huge boobs?” I’d really rather never see him again. The point is that I didn’t look in the mirror to see how I looked, I looked at Seventeen magazine to see how I should look. I had days when I felt pretty, and I did not have any type of eating disorder or disordered eating. But I was most definitely hiding.

I directly my compulsive energy towards school. I did homework the way other kids played sports. I talked about colleges like other girls talked about boys; no really, I started researching colleges at age fourteen. Once I chose Barnard College in New York City, I wore my sweatshirt almost every day. It was too big and very comfy. I may have also stopped washing my hair… not entirely, just not every day or even every other day. To put it simply, I was unhappy. With myself, my body, my surroundings, my family, boys–you name it, I was angry at it. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone, so I hid.

I was still hiding when I got to college, but I made friends. The best friends. They saved me. They helped me knock down some of the walls I had built around my real self. And they pretty much forced me to buy clothes that fit my actual body. Not the one I thought I had–not the overweight body that didn’t actually exist or the tiny, skinny body I had so wanted–but the body that I really had. I also became pretty active and ate less ice cream because, well, I got happy. So I lost a lot of weight. I bought a whole new wardrobe. And please, if you meet my friends from college, don’t mention “polo shirts” or “khakis” because they still enjoy laughing (with me, of course, not at me) about the over-sized polos and khakis I was wearing when I met them.

Here’s the big bad body image trap I sidestepped–I did not ignore my body enough to have sex too young or take too many crazy risks. I knew that there would be emotional fall-out from sex, so I waited. (It helped that, like I said, I hid under a hoodie during high school.) I made mistakes, but I knew they were mistakes while I was making them.

Here’s why I think it’s related to body image and therefore to self-esteem: if young people don’t like themselves, they don’t like their bodies and they don’t think that it matters if they take these risks. I suspect that this is true because when my self-esteem was at its lowest (oh, say, around the time I went to the psych ward), I stopped taking good care of my body. I ate sporadically because I just didn’t care. I stopped doing laundry because I just wore my pajamas. I know it’s gross. I didn’t shower often enough. I really just didn’t feel that it mattered. And my future? That seemed really, impossibly far away.

So, this morning, I saw a discussion on the Pigtail Pals Facebook page about young women’s attitudes about casual sex and unplanned pregnancy, and I read that Melissa Wardy finds it “Shocking in how cavalier they are towards their bodies, health, and futures.” I felt like I was zooming back through my own sexual experiences and my friends’ stories about their sexual experiences.

Let’s pause for a minute: I have always been shocked at a cavalier attitude toward body, health and future, in my peers, in younger women, in older women, in men of all ages, but the reason for this is odd. You see, I was raised by a puritanical father to believe I could control any and every sexual impulse. He liked to lecture. “What would people think of me if I wore a short skirt! What would people think of me if they knew that I had spent time alone with a boy!” He actually made sure that I knew he would be sleeping on the couch for the few weeks we lived with my stepmother before he married her. I was eighteen at the time. I believe that my reaction to that was “Daaaaaaaddddd! I don’t want to know!” In my house, before I left for college, any conversation about sex was pretty over-the-top. I swallowed, hook, line and sinker, my dad’s line about sex being this peripheral, almost unnecessary thing we don’t really need to talk about. I thought as a teenager that I would become a Self-Realization Fellowship nun so I talked to quite a few. (SRF doesn’t have much in common with the Catholic church, but our nuns do practice celibacy.) For the record, my dad’s craziness is not even similar to anything you would ever come across in any official SRF text or in any conversation with a monk or nun. Fortunately, I did finally realize that all of my dad’s nonsense was, well, nonsense, to put it mildly, partly through talking to actual nuns about why they practice celibacy and why “householders” deserve equal respect to “monastics.” But. Back to the real topic.

Let’s just say that eventually, I got around to exploring my sexuality. The sheer force of sex and my own desire knocked the wind out of me. By that time, though, I was mature enough to handle all those emotions and to take care of my body. I had the bad habit of thinking of my body as something that I couldn’t really trust, but I didn’t have the bad habit of using sex to feel beautiful or valuable. As you might imagine, I am still working through some serious Daddy Issues, and I looked for Daddy’s approval via proxy in plenty of my past relationships. For many reasons, though, I did not go out and look for casual sex in order to feel good about myself. I’m lucky, because the risks I did take never resulted in a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy.

Fast forward: my high school and college classmates and I are going to turn 27 in the course of the next year. More of us are getting married. More of us have kids, or like me, are preparing to have kids. And I can’t help but wonder. So many of us took such poor care of our bodies. So many of us did not really believe that our futures would really, truly, catch up to us. We punished our bodies with alcohol, cigarettes (my vice of choice), unprotected sex, eating disorders. For most of us, it was just for a few years. I quit smoking. I don’t know many friends who still binge drink. For most of the people I’m close to, unprotected sex was not ok, even when casual sex was fun and frequent. But it really is just anecdotal knowledge taken from a small sample of just the people I know well enough to hear such intimate details. Do I know someone whose body is haunted by a mistake she made? Do I know a woman who got an STI when we were young, still has it and must factor that in to current relationships and future plans? Do I know someone who will not be able to become pregnant because she contracted an infection or suffered complications after aborting an unplanned pregnancy? Do I know a man who has become infertile as a result of an early encounter? I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know. It’s painful to think about consequences actually having stayed with anyone this long after one of our parties or nights out.

It still doesn’t seem real that the cigarettes I smoked could mean cancer later in life. And if I’m honest, that knowledge is not what got me to quit. I quit because I could not be around babies and small children if I smelled like smoke. I don’t just mean that no one would hire me; they wouldn’t. But I couldn’t bring myself to carry that into their worlds. Why could I do it for them, but not for me? The really bad choices–the ones we can only make after silencing the voice that says “Use a condom!” or “You’ll get cancer!”–would anything short of a snapshot of the future stop us from making those mistakes?

Kids Are Smart: How I Learned to Love Science Again

Somewhere along my own path from girl to woman, I got the impression that I was not good at science. My talents definitely lay in the humanities, but I got darn good grades in IB (International Baccalaureate) Chemistry and Physics. I even got a decent grade on my IB Physics exam, which took about half a day, included only a fraction of multiple choice questions and almost always had us show our work. English, history and even economics came easily for me, so I somehow got the idea that I should focus on the humanities. Recently, that all changed. It started with feminism.

This is my first summer working in child care. Obviously, I spent a good chunk of every day outside and, obviously, I was bound to encounter bugs and other “creepy crawlies.” As a feminist who wants children to see women participating in all aspects of life, even the exploration of slug slime, I felt bound and determined from day one to show no fear.

I am lucky–I have no hangup about bugs. Never have. I grew up in the woods in Northern Minnesota, so it was mandatory that all children learn what’s actually dangerous and what’s not. If you’re going to be encountering garter snakes on a daily basis every summer, it’s good to know that they’ll never bite you. I am terrified of wood and deer ticks, but they do actually bite and carry disease. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, worms, slugs or even leeches. I put leeches on hooks during fishing trips. Puh-leeze!

My new scientific interest started with bugs, but expanded during my time with the preschoolers at the child care center. I try to take their “Why?”s seriously and answer the question if it is a genuine question (not just reflexive). When they ask about how the world works, I like to give the scientific answer. I have a good memory. It’s really fun to see their faces. They love physics. I am good at explaining stuff. And, one more time, I want them to know that women are good at science. From bugs to dinosaurs to the solar system, I have been re-learning, learning and passing knowledge along every chance I get.

Along the way, I discovered that I love science. I have read, for fun, books on genetics, chemistry, medicine and evolution. Among my favorites are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for telling a darn good story and clearly explaining both the history of growing (culturing) cells in lab as well as the history of ethics in medicine, and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I’m currently enjoying The Poisoner’s Handbook, which explains the history of the chemistry of poisons and how the fields of toxicology and forensic medicine came to be. I also love murder mysteries, so the Flavia de Luce series wins tons of points for teaching me more about chemistry, yes, specifically of poisons, and for starring an eleven-year-old girl with some serious scientific talent and know-how in both the lab and in the crazy situations she gets herself into and out of with remarkable problem solving skills.

Thank you, dear children, for rekindling my interest in how things work, even down to the cells in my body. And now, They Might Be Giants, singing Science is Real.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty33v7UYYbw&feature=related]

Babysitting as Birth Control? Not for me!

Yesterday, a mom was telling me about what she did to prepare for having kids. She had a specific timeline because, unlike me, she wanted to and did finish her graduate degree in English. But she had the best phrase to describe the months counting down until she and her husband could start trying without jeopardizing their chances of finishing their respective programs–“My uterus was growling!” Well, my uterus is growling, people! And it will not be ignored!

It’s almost fall, so it’s time to prepare for a change in schedule for everyone in the child care world–parents and providers. That means that I have met some incredible new families in the past month as I’ve looked for “full-time” work for the coming year. (I use quotes because I ended up with at two regular jobs that add up to almost full-time.) I spent this morning working for a family from Finland with the chubbiest, cutest infant. Everywhere we go, people stop and smile at this baby boy. I spent yesterday afternoon with two other boys, aged 17 months and 4 years, and I want two just like them for my own. The little one walks up to me and holds out his pudgy arms until I pick him up–just for a cuddle! And he is one great cuddler. The big brother made “plasma cannons” out of cardboard brick blocks so we could make lightning on a sunny day! I’m about to start working with an infant whose eyes are so blue and whose smile is so big I just can’t help trying to make him smile all the time. And speaking of infectious smiles, I’m really going to miss H, a toddler with the most infectious laugh I have ever heard from anyone. Everything seems funny to him, too, so it’s pretty awesome to spend time with that kid. I’ve known the family for months, but it feels like forever, and they are moving away! And finally, just before he turns two, the toddler I’ve spent two days a week with since February has started saying “bye-bye Ammareee”! It just brings tears to my eyes. Oh, and on Saturday night, I briefly fell asleep while comforting an toddler who woke up looking for his pacifier. Then his soft little knee connected with my face, and I woke up… But his little hand held onto mine until he was fast asleep and willing to let me leave the room.

The Plasma Cannon, after C and R kicked it down.

My husband’s friend had a baby this year, and she describes him as “The kind of baby who makes you want to have more babies.” Well, lately, all the kids I meet are the kind of kids who make me want to have kids. On a particularly great interview (their babysitter decided not to leave, so I didn’t get the job), I acted out We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with three incredibly imaginative girls. I want some of that in my house! I want noise and toys and even tears, so long as they belong to my family. I love other people’s kids but, gosh, I want some of my own. I want it so much it hurts. I’ve heard people refer to babysitting as the best form of birth control. Maybe it was, before I had this much experience with tantrums, messes and fussy moods. No matter what they throw at me now (literally, sometimes) it just does not scare me anymore. And it just cannot outweigh the sweetness of tiny hands, little cuddles and small voices.

Can you hear it? The growling? It’s getting louder!

Baking and Whole Grains: A Love Story

I feel so much better having gotten that off my chest about my new ugly parent policy that I’m going to write something light, flaky and delicious. Oh, wait… that’s my pie crust. This post is light, though!

I have always had more than a passing interest in baking. Cooking has just never been my thing. But watching dough rise, pie crust smooth out under a rolling pin or cookies fatten in the oven has always fascinated me. When I was teeny tiny, my mom and sister would use extra pie crust dough to make a little flat circle that browned in the oven and sparkled with cinnamon and sugar. It was just for me, and it was ready hours before we could eat the pie. I learned later that they were following in my maternal grandmother’s footsteps; she did the same for the little kids when she made pie. And there were always little kids–she had fifteen of her own! If she were alive today, she would have 52 grandchildren and no one knows how many great-grandchildren.

I made my first pie crust from scratch when I was still in elementary school. It was awesome, and I didn’t know why everyone made such a big deal out of it having turned out so well. The pecan pie filling was from a box, after all. It wasn’t hard–I just followed the directions! Okay, I’m bragging, but I get to, because my first ever pie was amazing and memorable. I now know that pie crust is hard to get just right, so that’s something to brag about. Also in elementary school, I bought a cookie press at a garage sale that hadn’t been opened since it was purchased in 1965. I taught myself how to use it and we had beautiful, tiny, star-shaped Christmas cookies in July. When I found a little counter-top deep-fryer at another garage sale, I begged until Mom bought it and spent an entire day with me making doughnuts. I invited friends. It was a whole day of fun. Thanks, Mom!

So that’s why I love to bake (and leave the cooking to Nathan) and why I’m still determined to do so, even though I’m trying not to bake with white flour. Once I stopped to think about it, I understood why less processed ingredients like whole grain flour require a bit more thought and add richer flavor. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Slow. Down. Baking does not cooperate with your need to hurry. When I hurry, I spill things, skip ingredients and generally make a mess of everything.
  • Follow the chemistry. Essentially, all baked goods come down to what Kim Boyce calls “wet mix” and “dry mix.” Keep them separate until you’re ready to mix it all up! The interaction between your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients starts the chemistry that transforms a batter or dough into flaky crust, fluffy muffins or moist cookies. If you’re using honey or agave instead of sugar in a recipe, but the honey in with the eggs and other wet ingredients, even if the recipe says to add the sugar to the flour in an earlier step. Sugar is dry. Honey is wet.
  • Stir, mix or process only as much as you need to, no more! Once you get flour wet, you start to activate the gluten. Gluten comes from the latin word for “glue” for a reason–mix that batter too much, and you’ll end up with hyper-active gluten gluey, chewy muffins, cardboard cookies or rock-hard bread. Even brownie mixes tell you to stop mixing after a minute or two, even if you still see little lumps of flour.
  • Temperature matters. If it says “at room temperature” then make sure it is at room temperature before you add it! Heat and cold make a huge difference. Melted and slightly cooled butter added to muffins means less mixing, and less mixing means that less risk of agitating gluten in your flour too much. Yeast goes crazy in the heat, which is why bread dough doubles in size and then doubles again during rising and then again during baking. Making a yeasted bread takes me half the time in the summer because our apartment isn’t air conditioned and heat makes yeast super active, causing the dough to rise a lot faster. Did you know that the key to making a good pie crust or biscuit dough is cold butter? Dough is flour, liquid and fat in varying quantities. Flaky crust happens when those little pieces of butter melt in the oven inside little pockets surrounded by flour. It all sticks together because of the liquid, which could be anything from orange juice to water to eggs to milk. So if it’s hot, I’ll mix in the fats as fast as possible and then put the dough in the freezer for five minutes to make sure they stay solid. Otherwise, it all melts together, becomes too uniform a texture and turns into cardboard in your oven.
  • Know your ingredients. I promise, you will have better results if you know that shortening is made of vegetable oil and less fat means a different chemistry from butter (or lard!) not just a lower calorie count. Whole grains are especially important to get to know because they complicate the chemistry much more than, say, switching to a different type of sweetener.
Which brings me to the section of this post on whole grains and why I am so in love with them. How they taste, how they work, how they grow, how we make them into flour, it’s all totally fascinating to me. The (illustrated!) basics:

This is a wheat kernel.

All-purpose flour is made from just the endosperm part of the wheat kernel. Why? It’s easier to grind into flour. If you were milling your own, you’d want an easier path from grain to flour, too! After centuries of choosing the wheat that’s easiest to make into food, we’ve actually created strains that are easier to thresh, which means that the outside parts come away more easily from that kernel of carbs in the middle. Unfortunately, as you can see in the chart above, that means we also got good at taking out the nutrition. Look at all the protein, fiber and iron we’re taking out!
Protein and iron complicate baking chemistry. And if you’ve ever had raisin bran cereal, you’ll know that bran has a unique taste. Wheat germ can be purchased on its own, and I have the toasted variety in my fridge right now, so I can tell you that it most definitely has a taste all its own. And keep in mind that we’re just talking about wheat. Good to the Grain covers whole wheat, including wheat graham (can someone explain graham flour to me? I haven’t gotten around to researching that yet), amaranth,  barley, buckwheat (which is not wheat and is actually more closely related to rhubarb), corn, kamut, oat, quinoa, rye, spelt and teff. Each has it’s own distinct flavor and, in my desire to learn everything all at once, I was overwhelmed at first. I quite like this wikipedia page for its thorough but not overwhelming coverage of whole grains.
I started baking with spelt flour, which has a tangy flavor reminiscent of a sourdough. Last night, I made muffins with oat flour, which is soft and nutty and, has a taste reminiscent of, well, oatmeal. I’ve used a lot of whole wheat flour in my time. I have recently fallen in love with injera, an Ethiopian spongey bread made from teff, but put off playing with teff flour in my own kitchen when I discovered that it is really, really expensive. So my collection now includes spelt, oat, rye, whole wheat and whole wheat graham flours, in addition to my (unbleached! never buy bleached flour! why would you want your food bleached?!) all-purpose and white flours. One can also buy cake flour, pastry flour, whole grain pastry flour, bread four and whole grain bread flour. All of these have different textures and flavors and all for good reasons. But unless you’re really, really serious about this, buy the flour you need for that recipe only. Store your beautiful flours in glass jars that seal tightly (to keep out crawly things). You can get really neat vintage-looking jars at Ikea for as little as $3 a piece. My mom stores her bags of flour in the freezer, which serves the same purpose of sealing them away from bugs and other things that find flour as nutritious as we do, but you know how I feel about temperatures. Flour must be at room temperature before I will use it. And once I get all those jars cleaned and labelled, you will see just how pretty they look on display!
Back to baking: here’s a really simple rule to remember about whole grains–because they are whole, and have all those parts listed in that picture above, they are heavier. They fill you up and stick to your ribs in a way that refined flours never can. (Try steel cut aka “Irish” oatmeal, if you haven’t, and tell me it’s not better than plain old Quaker oatmeal!) But remember, baking is all about chemistry. And heavier flour and you get heavier muffins. Not good. Unfortunately, we can’t just add extra baking powder or yeast to give it the same boost. That’s why Good to the Grain‘s recipes almost always contain some all-purpose flour. As does Heidi Swanson’s amazing Greek Yogurt Biscuit recipe. You can use only whole grain flour, but you end up with a heavier baked good and a wheatier taste. Even butter and baking soda just can’t make whole grain flour light and fluffy. But when I made Swanson’s biscuits (from Super-Natural Every Day), I used a little more spelt, a little more whole wheat and a little less all purpose and the result was delicious, light and beautiful. I probably compromised a little height and a little flakiness, but three of us finished off about 15 of those things (I ate more than Nathan or our guest… I admit it) so I’m calling it a success.
There’s one more increasingly popular way around using refined flour–use leftover cooked grains like oatmeal and quinoa. I adore healthychild.org, and my nutritionist contributes regularly. There are many recipes under the “Eat Healthy” section, and most are tailored to kids. If a kid likes it, you can bet it’s tasty.

Ugly Parents

In case you missed this, my job is to take care of other people’s children; I hope to become an infant/toddler teacher, and I’m a nanny for now. I love my job, take it very seriously, and the parents I work for appreciate this, as they should. I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect a child in my care, and I’m not usually even related to them. All of which is to say, I care about children. I know a lot about children in general–their development, their physical and emotional well-being. I have formal training from school and work and informal training from parents like my sister and the families I work for. The specific children in my care totally capture my heart. As you might imagine, my services are in pretty high demand.

Shutting down the judgmental part of my brain, the part that silently yells at parents in shopping malls, has become a very important skill. I work in families’ homes, and I see how hard parents try. Your choices are none of my business, and I don’t know your family as well as you do. Plus, I don’t want you telling me how to raise my kid, when I have one, so I don’t tell you how to raise yours.

But I will not be keeping my mouth shut about this: if you want a babysitter who will police gender boundaries for you, find someone else. With me, your children will play pretty much however they want to play. I will not discourage your daughter from her love of backhoes and construction sites. I will not discourage your son from his love of pink tutus and princesses. If I hear “that’s for girls” or “that’s for boys” I will have a conversation with your child about why that statement is just not true. If they heard it from you, I will still tell them that it’s nonsense.

In order to describe how I came to this conclusion and how I try to identify families I might not want to work with, I’m going to tell you two stories.

Background story #1–I spent this summer working part-time at a child care center that implements the following dress-up play policy: any kid can wear anything as long as it’s safe and sanitary. Boys dress as princesses. Boys wear “fancy shoes” that are often covered in glitter. They particularly love the fancy shoes, mesmerized by the way the glitter sparkles as they walk. They love it at 1, 2, 3, 4 and even 5 years of age. But the five-year-olds at the center have recently started saying “pink is gross” and taunting anyone wearing the color. They don’t know why it’s gross. We don’t know exactly where they picked it up, or who started it.

So this morning, an article called “The Pink Scare” in Bitch Magazine hit me hard. In this piece, the unflappable Avital Norman Nathman, aka The Mamafesto, blogger extraordinaire, discusses media coverage of “princess boys.” It seems that some people are afraid of what might happen if boys interact with too much pink. Yes, the color, in general. Dresses, crowns and anything princess–also scary.

My face turned lobster red as I pictured a grumpy adult taking away “my” babies’ fancy shoes because “pink is for girls” or telling a boy that he can’t be a princess. The “pink is gross” battle the teachers are fighting at the preschool comes from fear based in the very adult concept that deviating from traditional gender roles is dangerous. I do find Avi’s piece uplifting simply because it shows that there are moms like her standing up for a child’s right toplay. But I am very, very angry after reading her summary of all the ways adults insert their fears into children’s lives.

Background story #2–A few months back, I found myself in a backyard “light saber” battle with a five-year-old and suddenly realized I had no idea how his parents would feel about this. (They were fine with it. We had a blast.) He was really interested in using the light sabers he had cleverly improvised from foam swimming pool noodles as props for the story he was narrating, and violence was not the point. So I made a judgment call. I still think it was the right call. I would have asked him to change the game, however, if his parents had had rules against this sort of pretend violence.

Since then, I ask during the following question during an interview: “Is there anything you do not allow your children to do during play?” In the past, I always had in mind pretend guns and swords made from sticks. So I still ask first about violence in play. But I just recently started asking this as a follow up: “If you came home to see your son playing ballerina with my pink scarf, for example, would that upset you?” As you might have guessed, I am interviewing parents with that question.

Didn’t I say I wouldn’t judge? Didn’t I say that I respect parents’ wishes? It turns out, there’s an exception: ugly parents. If you tell your kid he can’t have anything pink because a color is only for one gender, not both, or that a game is only for one gender, not both, then you are teaching sexism and homophobia. I will not participate. I will not encourage your child to fear the blurring of gender binaries just because you are afraid. I will not help you make your beautiful child as ugly as you are. I will not take part in the insidious flood of messages that follow kids until they learn that “feminine” = “weak” = “gay” or “bossy” = “bitch” = “lesbian” or any other nonsense a culture of fear can come up with.

This idea of Ugly Parents came from a blog post about one woman’s unique reaction to bullying. Photographer and small business owner Jen McKen is now refusing to photograph “ugly people.” Why? Some of the clients who had booked her turned out to be students participating in a Facebook page dedicated to bullying their classmates. In her words, “If you are ugly on the inside, I’m sorry but I won’t take your photos to make you look pretty on the outside!” I love it. She is simply taking a stand against something she personally finds reprehensible. Less apathy, more action. Me, too, Jen McKen. Me, too. I will not babysit for ugly parents.

Avi (we’re twitter “friends,” so we’re on a first-name basis, right?) closes “The Pink Scare” with this beautiful statement: “As I watch Elijah play with his fleet of cars, his nails painted a glittery purple, I’m confident that he will be able to see through the shades of pink, blue, and gray surrounding him in order to figure out who he is. And if he can have fun doing it, then all the better.” Because it is how we learn who we are as children and because it is FUN, I want to say “yes” to play. If I say no, I want to give a child a reason. I am being paid to spend time with a child, so I like to take time to explain every little thing, if that’s what they want. “That’s not safe,” “We don’t have time for such a big project today,” and “That doesn’t belong to us” are answers I like. They teach common sense, time management and respect for other people’s belongings (and that includes the family couch). These answers start conversations. They don’t end play, they redirect.

Parents hire me and pay me, but I work for kids. I want to be another adult who cares, listens and encourages them to explore and enjoy childhood, with all its joys, disappointments, limits and limitlessness. I love that little kids are never afraid to look me right in the eye and ask questions. Generally, those questions add up to “Who are you?” I answer them honestly, because everyone deserves honesty (not necessarily every piece of information I could possibly share, but that’s another conversation). Then, I ask them right back. When I ask “Can you tell me about this drawing?” I am asking “Who are you? What’s important to you?” Every parent, including my own mom, loves a quote that goes something like this, about early childhood: “Anyone can act like a tiger, but we only have a few years to be a tiger.” Why is that only cute if it applies to a furry animal? I will not help anyone who wants to limit a child’s imagination. I will not repeat “You cannot be ____ today.” Why do we have to tell any four-year-old that boys can’t be princesses? Why does it matter if the real-life title is gender-specific? And, more importantly, WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING YOUR CHILD when you say such things?

Be a tiger. Be a princess. Be a king. Be a dancing giraffe. I’ll pretend right along with you. Let’s play.