Can We Afford a Baby? Yes, We Can!

I am really terrible at budgets. I have never even been able to write down what I spend for more than a couple days. There is a long history of being terrible at budgets in my family, one I won’t get into because, well, it’s been “discussed” enough for one lifetime. In my parents’ defense, they were either in the army or living on my dad’s family’s tour bus (there was a family band! a la The Partridge Family!) from the time they got married at seventeen-years-old until well into their twenties. I will say that my mother is enthusiastically supportive of me doing better at following a budget, and I am absolutely determined to do better by the time I have my own kids. Which is now really soon. I hope.

The point is this: I made a budget! It’s not complete, but it lists the big-ticket items we will need to buy when baby comes along and some smaller things, too. I know, I’m missing clothes, but I have got a box at my sister’s house of hand-me-downs. I also left off a baby monitor. We won’t be living any place large enough to require one. Trust me. I think my husband could hear me typing from the bedroom if he weren’t asleep. The place we have our eye on across the hall? It’s big, necessarily, it just has a whole separate room for the kitchen. That sounds like a huge luxury when I think about the kitchen we have now–the fridge wobbles because it sits half on the linoleum put down to prove this is a kitchen and half on the wood that’s supposed to designate “hallway.” It’s going to be a few years before we can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Which is also why I left off any items required to decorate a nursery/child’s room. Yes, even a crib. For the first few months, the baby will sleep with us, and only then will we decide as a family if we want a separate crib or not. I can always run crying to Babies R Us if co-sleeping makes us miserable for some weird reason.

Other notes: the high chair price is static, because I am getting a Stokke high chair. I want their stroller and crib, too, but I’m on a budget, here. Nathan and I have decided on the high chair, though. It’s amazing and worth it. The baby bathtub price is set, too, because I know which one of those I want. I’ve had lots of practice with this one, and it is great for giving baby a bath and still having two hands to use without fear of water in the baby’s face. So, what do you think? What would you add? How many diapers would you start out with, my cloth-diapering comrades?

Conflict Resolution: “Step Away from the Child!”

I observed some fascinating behavior today at a library story time. Before the story began, the kids were all running around, playing with different toys in what is clearly a wonderful and beloved play room. Since this was at about 11:30 am on a Tuesday, most of these kids were under four years old. And perhaps because many of the parents were strangers to each other, there seemed to be a lot of concern about making sure their children were polite to one another. I try so hard not to judge parents, but this really gets me. Three-year-old children are not quiet, they do not sit still for more than thirty seconds and telling them to “Be a good sharer” doesn’t help them one bit.

Figuring out how to negotiate the use of the pink vacuum cleaner is part of play. It’s how kids learn conflict resolution. When you step in to immediately arrange for nice, neat turns, you take all the critical thinking/problem solving out of the situation. How do I know this? Because as soon as another child tries to take away the toy your kid is using, he looks around for you. That is a learned behavior. Why does he need you to solve this problem? It’s a simple choice: give up the toy or refuse to give up the toy. He knows that. He should be able to make that call on his own. If screaming erupts or violence seems about to break out, by all means, ask the kids what’s going on. But do try to help them resolve their conflicts, rather than swooping in and doing it for them. Does no one notice that swooping in does nothing to decrease the number of conflicts between children? It doesn’t remove conflict. It just makes your child less capable of dealing with it.

I see two valid reasons to interrupt play during an activity like this one. Reason #1: To teach manners. “Your friends can’t hear the story when you play with that loud toy. I need you to either sit and listen to the story or find something quiet to play with until it’s over.” It’s not ok to let your kid play the drums while other kids are trying to listen. And it’s rude to the adult. They will understand that, and it’s important for them to learn when certain activities are and are not appropriate.

Fortunately, I was hanging out with a mom who only interrupted the play to point out that her daughter might miss something. This is Reason #2. Your child might be distracted by something and then disappointed when they find out that they have missed the story they were looking forward to hearing. “The story is starting!” or “Do you want to sing with us?” give a kid the opportunity to make a choice. They love that. They hate missing out. The key to this, by the way, is letting your kid actually make her own choice. If she says “No” and walks away, please do not ask her if she is sure. If she changes her mind, she will let you know. But I don’t know any preschooler or toddler who is unsure. They might change their minds every thirty seconds, but when they want something, they definitely want it. When they don’t, they definitely don’t. “Are you suuuuuure you don’t want to listen to the story?” really means “I want you to sit here and listen to this story.” Even if you think it’s for your kid’s benefit, you are really just being passive aggressive. That’s annoying. And kids don’t understand it.

Please. Unless safety is an issue, step away from the child.

Tips For Ignoring Stupid Parenting Advice

When I’m caring for other people’s children, I sometimes get unwanted and unnecessary advice and/or commentary. I’m told that this happens to their actual parents as well, so I feel like it’s good practice for becoming a mother. My favorite is the commentary: “Oh, no! He’s so unhappy!” Wow, thank you. Is that what the crying means? Good thing you were here, random lady at the park! So here are my top five tips for dealing with Random Park Lady, Opinionated Relative and I-Don’t-Have-Kids-But-I-Have-A-Dog Neighbor.[hr]
[ordered_list style=”decimal”]

  1. Listen/pretend to listen to her, if at all possible. Smile and nod. Or not. She probably won’t notice if you’re frowning. She just wants to feel like you heard her, in my experience, and probably gets more out of dispensing advice than anything else.
  2. Do not say “I tried that, but it didn’t work.” Even if you did exactly what your “friend” advises, she will claim that her tip is brand new information
  3. Along the same vein, do not point out that she is wrong. Example from real life: she says “Oh, he’s so unhappy!” but he is actually very happy and screeching and squawking just for fun. I learned from previous experience that this particularly obnoxious woman loves to argue; so I shrug. I do not commit to agreeing or disagreeing with her. She usually looses interest. If I argue and try to convince her that he is happy, she will argue back, whether it makes sense or not.
  4. If she’s going to be around consistently (like a relative), do not back down, even if it makes you uncomfortable. “No. Thank you. No. Thank you.” Rinse. Repeat. Back down now, and she’ll feel all the more eager to dispense advice in the future. “No. Thank you.”
  5. If it’s absolutely necessary that you not offend this person (or, I suppose, if you’re just really keen on avoiding confrontation), fall back on a higher authority. For the babysitter, that’s Mom. With my own kids, I plan on using The Doctor. Pediatrician, child psychologist, real or imaginary. “Oh, his doctor feels really strongly about that.” It’s vague, and I can always go to “It’s really hard to talk about it” if I feel like making things really awkward.

[/ordered_list]

Rethinking Sports… “Just Do It” For The Kids.

I have fond memories of playing catch with my dad. I enjoyed softball for awhile. I even had fun on the soccer team for a whole year, thanks to my friend Jessica. But, true to the polarized mind of the teenager who sees only in black and white, if I were the “Smart Girl,” then I most certainly was not going to be athletic. (Kids did actually use “Smart Girl” to taunt me. I still don’t know why that was such a bad thing.) Team sports at my school were dominated by girls who played down their intelligence. I remember one girl who did well in school and in sports, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she participated in things like running and swimming–teams, but more dependent on individual achievement than basketball and volleyball, the girls’ sports that really drew crowds.

My niece is old enough to participate in sports, already, and it’s really important to me to encourage her in both school and athletics. I think I missed out on a lot of fun, but I also envy people for whom physical activity comes naturally. I want my niece (and nephew!) to want sports to be part of their lives, for all the obvious reasons, but also to keep them safe. Check this out: [quote]Although sports and physical activity are a part of girls’ and boys’ lives in and out of school at varying levels, girls tend to be less active than boys. The sports, education, youth development, and out-of-school time fields can provide opportunity for girls to engage in positive, healthy physical activity.[/quote]

        • In 2005, a much higher percentage of adolescent males participate in vigorous physical activity than do their female peers. Within all racial and ethnic subgroups, activity levels for males are between 13 and 19 percentage points higher than for females. For all grades, activity levels for males are between 10 and 20 percentage points higher than for females. (ChildTrends.org, Child and Youth Indicators Databank: Vigorous Physical Activity by Youth, 2006)
        • In 2005, more high school females (72.2%) than their male counterparts (56.2%) did not meet currently recommended levels of physical activity—doing any kind of physical that increased their heart rate and made them breathe hard for a total of at least 60 minutes per day. (Centers for Disease Control, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States 2005)
        • The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh. Eighty-three percent of very active girls say that physical activity makes them feel good about themselves. (The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006))
        • For girls ages 11-17 it is the perception of being overweight, not just weight alone, that inhibits participation in sports and physical activities. (The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006))
        • For teen girls, being both physically active and a team sports participant is associated with a lower prevalence of sexual risk-taking behaviors. (Kulig, K., Brener, N. & McManus, T. Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2003)
        • A study of school reading texts found that boys were represented in physical activities 65% of the time, while girls were represented 35% of the time. In addition, boys dominated throwing and catching activities, while girls dominated dance and swing-set activities. (Henschel-Pellet, H.A. Research Quarterly, 2001) —Girl Scouts of America

All of this makes sense to me–if you are aware of the amazing things your teenage body can do you’re bound to have a more accurate perception of what it looks like–except the part at the end about school texts. I do not want my niece or nephew or any kids I may have to be reading in their darn textbooks that boys are the real athletes. But even if they do, I figure that the women in their lives can counteract that image. How? Well, I’m not sure it’ll work, but I have two ideas, so far.

One: I’m going to participate in watching sports. Turns out, I actually enjoy it. I always was a competitive person! I’m starting now, so that I know the rules by the time our future children see us watching football together. Nathan did spend about eight hours watching NFL football yesterday, and I’m not sure I want to set that example. I do want them to see us watching his–now our–favorite team. (The Jets. He grew up on Long Island. I grew up watching the Vikings, but I’ll just own up now to not being very loyal… and to liking the Jets cheer better.) I love the ritual, and I still find it adorable that my normally un-superstitious husband has to wear his jersey and eat more or less the same foods every Sunday. To be fair, the Jets almost lost the time he forgot his jersey, and they just barely won after he remembered to put it on. Oh, and remind me to repeat in ten years the fantastic conversation we had about why there are no female kickers in football. There’s no physical disadvantage, unlike in every other position in the game, but it’s still not at all open to women. Court cases have gotten some women onto college teams, but they had a rough time. Brave women, all of them!

Two: I’m going to run around with my kids and throw a ball with accuracy and force. I practice with our dog, although I often use a “ball chucker” so my arm doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall off. Catching a ball might take a little more work. For some reason I’ve always been able to throw any kind of ball, even a football, pretty well, but I now psych myself out of catching things. I will not giggle and run away, though. I will at least try and catch the stupid thing. Hey, it may just show them that you can enjoy doing things even if you’re not good at them! Just don’t blame me for demanding a good game of Scrabble sometimes just to prove I can dominate at something.

My brother-in-law and my husband are both totally awesome about answering my questions when we’re watching a game. And they both watcheverything. World Cup time is particularly awesome. Women’s World Cup games get air time, too. I have awesome memories of watching the NBA finals when the Lakers were great in the late 1990s. My sister and her then boyfriend (now husband) live in Los Angeles. I spent time there every summer as a kid. (She’s eleven years older than I am.) I watched the games with my sister, future brother-in-law and his friends. No one minded answering my questions during commercial breaks, and it was the first time I understood what was happening. It was really cool to hang out with grown-ups, and it was really cool to see my sister enjoying the game as much as ay of the guys. I still feel like an outsider in this weird world of sports, but a game is a game. Like I said, I have always been competitive.

Do you have other ideas about what I can do to show the kids in my life that women belong in sports, too? I can’t change the fact that mens’ professional sports get a lot more attention. But I can make being active a natural part of our family’s life. I can have a sense of humor about the fact that my strengths lie in my intellectual, rather than physical pursuits, without just giving up at everything physical. What else can I do, having spent most of my time reading? Please, more ideas! Oh, and do the commercials that air during sporting events push back against the image of seeing Mom and Dad watching the game? I worry about that. They’re just so awful.

As a matter of fact, please “dislike” this on YouTube. It makes me red-in-the-face angry every time I see it! Why would any reasonable woman demand that “her” man stop doing something he enjoys just because women are not supposed to like it, too? This is just bull crap in so many ways. And this is what I want to fight against just by showing the kids in my life that I can cheer for an awesome catch or recognize an awesome play.

McDonald’s: Sundays Are For Watching Football?

Happy Parents, Happy Baby

laughing mother & baby

This is my friend Avi & her son. (Not the family in this post, but aren't they CUTE?) Go visit Avi at her blog, www.themamafesto.com!

[hr] I spend three full days each week with a baby who is, to paraphrase a family friend, the kind of baby who makes me want babies. More than I’ve ever wanted one before. I spend so much time smiling back at this fat and happy baby that my cheeks often hurt at the end of the day.

This baby’s schedule is a bit complicated, however, so I get a lot of questions about this family, sometimes impertinent questions. Yes, there are two nannies. Dad takes the baby one day a week. Grandma takes for one afternoon. Yes, mom works 9-6, sometimes more. Here are some of the more annoying things people say:

“Why did she have a baby now if her work takes up so much of her time?”

“I don’t understand why people have kids if they’re just going to put them in childcare all the time.”

“So it wasn’t a planned pregnancy?”

Note that the pronoun is always “she.” As if only one half of a married couple just decided to have a kid, all by herself. As if anyone outside that nuclear family has any idea what really happened around that pregnancy. (I also don’t want to know–I don’t want the set mental images that would come with those answers.)

So, I would like to state for the record that I have rarely seen any family do such a great job finding exactly the combination of childcare solutions to suit them. Since those questions usually contain thinly veiled hostility towards this child’s mother, usually because she works a lot, it’s also important to me to advertise how creativity keeps everybody as happy as any I’ve ever seen.

About today’s featured mom: she who works very hard and, this week, travelled for work for the first time since her son was born. I totally admire this woman’s career and the business she started. I admire the fact that she had an idea that would actually improve this planet, followed through with it, hired employees to help her and committed to promoting the heck out of her business. I admire the persistence that is visible when she’s doing something as basic as asking her own mother for advice about a promotional email. She also happens to be a great mom. A great mom with a great partner who is a great dad. Together, they have assembled a team that is comprised of nannies (two), grandma (one) and, of course, Dad. With some help from a dog and two cats.

The genius of this family’s plan lies in the size of this team–the very thing that I hear criticized most often. I’m thinking of making flyers, so that I don’t have to keep repeating myself:

  1. Why not put the kid in day care? Because she runs her business from an office that is located just yards from her own parents’ home. If a nanny cares for the baby at the grandparents’ home, Baby and Mom can enjoy breastfeeding every two to three hours. You know what’s really awesome to see? Mom and baby taking a few minutes out of a busy day to bond. I just sort of stand back and let them have their moment. It’s so beautiful. That’s not available to moms who put their kids in group childcare; they don’t suffer irreparable damage or anything, but I’m sure lots of those moms would love a setup like the one this mom has! [FYI, the plan is to put the baby in group childcare when he’s older because they understand that socializing with other children is healthy.]
  2. Why hire someone outside the family? This one is obvious to me, but whatever. First, because this is my JOB, I have a lot of training in current thoughts about infant safety, how to put the baby to sleep, infant nutrition, child development, etc. And no matter how much they know, Grandma and Grandpa don’t want to give their entire week over to providing free childcare. I wouldn’t! And Mom doesn’t want to give them free reign. She has thought a lot about what this baby will eat, wear on his adorable little tushie and, especially, how to put him to sleep consistently. She has a lot more control over what her nannies do than she has over what her mom does. If you don’t understand that, you clearly have never seen a mother and daughter argue.  Also, the nannies carefully record our entire days with Baby, so mom gets a detailed record of what happened, when he ate, what we played, time outside–you name it, we write it down. And that’s just more reliable when you’ve paid someone to do it! Grandma does a good job, too, when it’s her turn, but I still think the system works best when the employees do it on most days.
  3. Why are there are two nannies? I am there most days and a student spends time with the baby one day a week. If I get sick, Mom has someone else she can call. (And, for the record, Dad is in charge one whole day a week.) Oh, and if Mom goes out of town, Dad has two different people to call to help while he teaches a night class at a local university.

The point: There is NO RIGHT ANSWER when it comes to childcare. Mom staying at home is not always the right answer. Dad staying at home is not always the right answer. Take this family’s effort to heart: they looked at their priorities–not just what Baby “needs” but what Mom and Dad need, too. Everybody in this family is happy whenever I see them! Mom and Dad love their jobs. They are passionate about what they do. They are so passionate about being parents. They miss Baby when they’re gone, which means that they give him their full attention when they come back. Baby loves his playmates. And, in case you missed it the first time, I’ll repeat this: I spend so much time smiling back at this baby that my cheeks actually hurt.

It doesn’t bother me that people in general are especially curious when it comes to families. It’s the one thing everybody has in common, so we’re obviously interested in how other people’s families work. It definitely bothers me that so many people are so quick to judge, as though a woman becomes public property the minute she conceives a child. Example: complete strangers fascinated by a pregnant women often feel compelled touch her belly. Is there any other time when people feel comfortable asking if they can touch a woman’s body? Or worse, they might not ask and just put a hand on her! And why is it ok for strangers to ask me when I’m going to have kids? To give me advice about when to have kids? How many kids to have? What gender to wish for? They never ask Nathan!

I know that it’s going to be hard to brush off this kind of criticism when I am a mother. But I really hope that I can learn to look at our choices and ask: are we happy? If everyone is happy, more or less, then we are doing just fine. If I stay home, I will eventually cry about money and wonder if I should have worked full-time. If I work full-time, I will cry about missing a milestone and wonder if I should have stayed home. I hope that I remember to ask, “Am I happy?” Because chances if I am happy in my day-to-day life, my kid(s) have a much better chance of being happy themselves.

Save Girlhood! and How I Learned to Accept TV

Two events coincided at an interesting moment yesterday. One: my husband’s dream came true, and Direct TV hooked up the satellite dish that brings him a ridiculous amount of NFL and college football. We haven’t had anything except the XBox hooked up to our TV as long as we’ve lived together, so he’s pretty darn excited. I, honestly, am more excited than I expected. What I didn’t realize was that we were signed up for a two-year contract. Whatever. I now have access to BBC America, and this Anglophile is one happy camper.

TV with DVR

Evil Media? Not if used properly! And it's pretty cool looking, you have to admit!

So last night, while my husband watched football, I participated in a discussion called Save Girlhood on Twitter. (This blogger is officially media savvy. Well, I’m getting there!) What do we want to save girlhood from, you ask? Why, sexualization, of course. The kind we see in, well, the ads that air during NFL games. But for those of you who are new to this debate, I’ll let this fantastic lady fill you in:

@nancy_newmoon sexuality is the inner person, as the subject and proactive. sexualization is others projecting on you as passive object.

(Nancy Gruver is an “Expert on girls, author: How to Say It To Girls, Founder: Daughters.com & ad-free @NewMoonGirls Safe Social Network & Magazine for age 8+ www.newmoon.com http://blogs.newmoon.com/parent-girls” – from her Twitter profile. I have loved New Moon since I was small.)

Read this blog, in its entirety, or, if you don’t have time, this post on Lingerie for Little Girls (not a joke) will fill you in on what exactly we’re up against. What does TV have to do with it? Well, I want to have a kid, right? And this isn’t just about girls. It’s also about the messages we send boys about girls. So whether I have a boy, a girl or both, this matters. Here are some highlights from last night’s conversation about the media and its role in the sexualization of girls:

@PigtailPals Q3: Do you limit toys/music/media for your daughter with concern to sexualization?

@DrRobyn: Q3: I’m a fan of actually taking the media, toys, etc and showing #girls the problems. discussing them.

@DrBeckerSchutte: when we teach our girls to be critical of media, we give them tools to push back against peer pressure.

@MauveDinosaur If their peers and media is all they have, that’s all they see.

@KnowldgeLinking: Want another shocker? 29% of kids age 2-3 have TV in their bedrooms. 43% of kids age 4-6 do

@DCalifornia: I think TV is a wonderful conversation starter. Good or bad, talk about it, discuss it, point out why it is or isn’t ok

@TheMomarchy Watching TV w kids is one of the best strategies. Called “co-viewing” in research.

I have never been sure what I think about kids and TV. Obviously, TV is not a babysitter. Unsupervised TV is not an option. A DVR will allow us to remove the commercials. [FYI: Kids can’t tell the difference between the program and the commercials! They don’t have that necessary “this is an ad, and advertisers lie to me” automatic response!] For most of my childhood, we watched movies but didn’t have channels via cable or satellite. I think that this was probably for financial reasons. I’m thinking maybe having TV in our house isn’t such a bad idea, with limits and not in the bedroom and, for many years, watching with the kids. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. Well, I reserve the right to ask that we do not renew the contract. But even if we decide not to pay for this after we have a kid (and let’s face it–there are lots of things we won’t be able to pay for after we have a kid), our children will encounter the crap that’s on TV, and the good stuff too, somewhere. It’s just so accessible. And that’s now–I am going to have to know a lot about what is out there if I want to have a conversation with my child when she or he is ten years old. In 11+ years, it’s just going to be easier to get access to anything we try to ban.

I don’t want to ban media; I want to talk about it and teach our kids to make healthy choices. And the more Nathan and I talk about parenting, the more we agree that all we can do is try to raise healthy, compassionate, self-respecting children who make (mostly) good choices. Our shared goal is to model those choices for our kids. What we choose to watch on TV? Role modeling opportunity! Showing our kids that men and women like sports? Awesome! Talking about why that commercial we just saw during The Game is Bad Media? Teachable moment. Ok, so that’s not going down as easy… maybe too many teachable moments in that scenario. But we’ll figure this out as we go. With help from a seriously awesome support group, if the parents and friends of girls I met last night are any indication!

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?

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!

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.