Archives for February 2010

Environmental Toxins, Breast Milk and Cancer

Every so often when I’m reading the newspaper I come across a headline something like this: Breast Milk Now Plagued with Poisons. It makes me cringe, because I believe strongly in the benefits of breastfeeding. I worry that headlines like these will cause women to doubt the safety of their own breast milk, or maybe even discourage them from breastfeeding altogether.

I tackled this question in Attack of the Toxic Breastmilk. I learned that there are higher levels of chemicals like DDT, PCBs and PDBEs in human milk than in formula. Most humans consume animal products. Anyone who’s ever been cautioned against eating tuna knows that many harmful chemicals accumulate in fatty tissue. When one animal eats another animal, they ingest more chemicals than if they ate plants. Humans are at the top of the food chain and so we generally accumulate more chemicals than grass-eating cows, from whose milk formula is manufactured. The fact that infant formula contains vegetable oil as its fat source (see one ingredient list) further reduces the levels of some toxic chemicals.

La Leche League has addressed the issue of toxins in breast milk, and they say that while it’s true that breastfed infants are exposed to higher levels of some chemicals than their formula-fed counterparts, not breastfeeding will not protect babies. Our infants are also exposed to chemicals in the womb, and so the entire chemical burden is not attributable to breastfeeding alone. But more to the point, breastfeeding appears to have a protective effect against toxins. Human milk contains high levels of antioxidants including substances like conjugated lineolic acid, which have anticarcinogenic effects.

Having a snack at the midwives picnic
Breastfeeding my daughter Hannah at 7 months old

In fact, breastfeeding appears to reduce cancer rates. Women who were breastfed as infants have lower breast cancer rates as adults. One study found that there is a lower rate of childhood cancers amongst infants who were breastfed for 6 months or longer, as compared to those who were not. And one Swedish researcher found that human milk can actually kill cancer cells.

In another breast milk as cancer fighter tidbit, I had to share this one. Human milk is sometimes used as a cancer therapy. Apparently, the milk can have healing properties for people who are ill. I’m not sure that it’s strictly applicable to this discussion, but how could I pass up a headline as juicy as that one? Answer: I could not.

My point here is actually not that breast is best. When it comes to feeding our babies we are all just doing the best we can, and I am not trying to cause guilt in moms who didn’t breastfeed. Instead, my point is that we are subjected to a very wide array of environmental toxins in our daily lives. They are in the air we breathe and the water we drink. These toxins accumulate in our bodies, and the World Health Organization believes that the worldwide increase in the cancer rate is related in some way. Many chemicals that we come into regular contact with are suspected carcinogens. One of the easiest ways to measure the chemical load in our bodies is through human milk. It’s painless and easy to collect, and so researchers collect it and juicy headlines that make us fear for our babies follow.

Jacob nursing
Breastfeeding my son Jacob at 8 months old

Knowing that there are toxins in breast milk should not discourage us from breastfeeding, but it should spur us to action. Because if these chemicals are in my breast milk, they are also in my body, and my husband’s body, and my neighbour across the street’s body. Organizations like Making Our Milk Safe are pushing for actions to reduce our chemical load and thereby reduce the toxins found in breast milk. They suggest taking steps, like eating organic fruits and veggies whenever possible, not smoking, choosing nontoxic cleaning and personal care products, eating fewer animal products, and most importantly advocating. If enough of us opt to buy products that aren’t doused in PDBEs, and let our politicians know about our concerns, change can happen.

No matter how you feed your baby, no matter what you feed your baby, my take-away message is that things don’t have to be the way they are. It can be discouraging to learn that our bodies are all harbouring heavy metals and flame retardants, and that we are passing that burden on to our children. But there is hope, and we can help that hope to grow into real progress. After all, no one should have to be afraid that their precious newborn is getting a dose of suspected carcinogens with their mother’s milk.

I wrote this post for the Green Moms Carnival, which is all about environmental links to cancer this month. To read some more thoughts on how toxins are increasing cancer rates visit Nature Moms on March 8.

My Husband’s Olympics

I’ve mentioned a few times that my husband, the fabulous Jon, is working with the Olympics. He is working for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) at the Pacific Coliseum, which is where Short Track Speed Skating and Figure Skating are being held. His job mostly consists of rolling re-plays after the action has finished. He does slow motion, so if you see a figure skating lift creep across your screen, Jon made it happen. International broadcasters, like CTV and NBC, pick up the OBS feed and then add commentary and some of their own footage, but the majority of coverage everywhere in the world comes from OBS.

The job is 18 days in a row, but most days aren’t awful. Jon generally leaves the house in the early afternoon and comes home in the evening after the kids are in bed. In contrast, most of his co-workers traveled from Ontario or Quebec to be here. This is probably the easiest way to cover the Olympics ever, driving to the hotel where his co-workers are staying and catching the shuttle with them every day, but still being on hand to help me take the kids to the doctor.

With his media credentials, Jon also has access to the Main Media Centre at Canada Place, and was able to get in to visit some of his friends that are working at the International Broadcast Centre where the TV studios for the international television rights-holders are located. He also spent some time wandering downtown, in the middle of the Olympic fun.

I have considered taking the children down to soak it in, but the idea of bringing 18-month-old Jacob, in particular, doesn’t appeal to me. Hannah and I will be attending the Closing Ceremonies on Sunday, so she and I will have our Olympic experience then. In the meantime, I am living vicariously through my husband.

A view of the International Broadcast Centre
International Broadcast Centre, exterior

Inside the International Broadcast Centre
International Broadcast Centre, interior

A view of the Canada Place sails
Main Media Centre, exterior

Inside the media centre / Canada Place
Main Media Centre, interior

Jon and the cauldron
Jon poses with the Olympic cauldron

Olympic rings in Vancouver Harbour
Olympic rings in the water off of Stanley Park

Olympic crowds on Granville Street
Crowds in downtown Vancouver

The seat from which Jon brings us OIympic highlights
Jon’s seat for the Olympics

Incidentally, Jon took these photos on Monday, February 22, which was also the day when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the gold medal in ice dance. Jon got to be there to see our Canadian skaters receive their gold medals – lucky, lucky man!

PS – Have you read the posts from yesterday’s link-up? They’re great! And one is in French, which makes me feel very exotic and international. Oh la la!

When the Time Isn’t Right

It’s Thursday and I’m Crafting my Life! February’s theme is time management. In the past few weeks I wrote about the nature of having no time, how I’m learning to seize the moment and how it’s hard to find time with small children underfoot. This week, I’m talking about recognizing when the time isn’t right. I also have links at the end of this post to some other fabulous bloggers and their thoughts on time management, so be sure to check them out!

At the end of my post last week I said that if what you’re doing is soul-destroying, it’s probably not your dream. And back in January when I talked about goal-setting I said that you don’t have to run off and achieve all of your dreams right now. Dreams have no expiration date. Today, I’d like to explore both of these ideas a little further, in the context of BlogHer 2010.

BlogHer is a big annual conference of women bloggers, and it’s being held in New York City from August 5-7 this year. I really, really wanted to go. I didn’t go last year because Jacob was not even 1 year old yet, but he was mobile and not-so-portable so I settled instead for attending the I’m Not Going to BlogHer Pity Party. I made grand promises that next year, which is now this year, I would make it to BlogHer. It’s a huge networking event, and it would be chance to meet all the bloggers I read and love. It’s being held in a city that I’ve long wanted to visit. My husband has more than enough frequent flyer miles saved up to send me there and back.

But. But, but, but. New York is very far from Vancouver. The conference is the week before Jacob’s 2nd birthday, and I expect that he will still be breastfeeding. I don’t think that I will be ready to be away from him for 3 nights. I tried to convince Jon to come along and turn it into a family vacation, but he doesn’t relish the idea of spending days and nights alone with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old in a bustling and busy city, and I can’t blame him. While I could see taking the kids to New York at some point, the ideal time would not be when they’re still so young. I could bring Jacob myself, but traveling alone with a 2-year-old scares me, and would seriously limit my ability to participate.

This has been a months-long internal struggle for me. I want to go, but I most emphatically do not want to leave my nursling for several nights. I know that other moms make different decisions, and I support their choice. Please do not read judgment here, because I honestly have none. I have waffled back and forth on this so many times, convinced I should just go and that it would all be fine, and then equally convinced that my toddler would hate me for leaving him. The longest I have ever been away from my 5-year-old is 24 hours, and usually around the 23 hour mark I get antsy.

A couple of things helped me to make my personal decision. The first was reading Annie at PhD in Parenting’s thoughts about leaving her kids. She said that when her kids were old enough to hold a phone conversation and understand when she would return she found that she was able to leave them with family members. Jacob is not at all verbal and has no idea what time means, and I doubt that will change substantially in the next 5-6 months. The second thing that helped me was listening to Meagan Francis and Gina Crosley-Corcoran talk about raising big families on BlogTalk radio. Meagan is a mom of 5 and she pointed out how short kids’ early months and years really are.

Here’s the thing – some times are harder than others. Some times are not the right times to pursue one particular dream or goal. And that’s OK. It is OK to put something on the backburner for a while as you have a baby or finish school or deal with a health issue or save up your downpayment. It does not mean the end of your dream. If the struggle is driving you crazy, you can let it go, at least for a while. I was so caught up in BlogHer 2010 that I forgot there will be a BlogHer 2011 and a BlogHer 2012 and a BlogHer 2017. No, they won’t be the same. But they will be fabulous in their very own ways. They might even be a little bit closer to home or more accessible to me for other reasons.

If you can’t work around your toddler right now, or you can’t make it to a particular event or training session, it is going to be all right. Sometimes the best way to manage your time is take things off your plate and lower your expectations. Free yourself from the guilt and remember that 2 years from now things will be totally different. And maybe along the way you will discover other options, and other dreams, that you’d never considered while you were beating yourself up because you couldn’t make it to BlogHer 2010.

Now it’s your turn. Have you written a post about time management? If so, enter the details below. And whether you have or not, go check out these other blogs and get a time-ly dose of inspiration. (Ha! I am punny.)

Dishwater Blues

My name is Amber and I hate doing dishes. Hate it, with the fire of 10,000 suns. I have ever since I was a kid. Cleaning is not my idea of a good time, in general, but I can stomach tidying toys or vacuuming or scrubbing toilets. Doing the dishes, on the other hand, leaves me feeling sullen and angry.

I think my dish hatred stems from my experience at Brownie camp as a 7-year-old. After each meal we had to wash our own dishes. They had sinks set up – one for washing, one for rinsing, one for sterilizing. There were 20 little girls lined up to wash and we weren’t all as diligent about scraping our plates as we should have been. By the time you got to the end of the line the water was awful. Dunking my plate in that water rendered it dirtier rather than cleaner. Those soap commercials that show a sparkling glass emerging from a sink that has already washed a dozen greasy pans? They lie.

Following my Brownie camp adventures I learned to fear what lies beneath the dishwater. As a single woman I only washed my dishes when I absolutely had to, and frequently found myself cleaning a single bowl so that I could eat soup. I alienated more than one roommate with my less-than-stellar kitchen cleaning. When Jon and I got married and went searching for our first shared apartment, a dishwasher was at the top of our list of requirements. I wasn’t going to lose my husband over my hatred of washing by hand.

More dishes
This is a mostly staged photo of me happily rinsing a pot.

While we do have a dishwasher these days, the sad truth is it doesn’t save you from having to clean your kitchen. There’s the loading and unloading, of course. There are also items that need to be washed by hand, surfaces that have to be wiped, and kids’ spills to contend with. Thankfully, Jon usually steps up to the plate. Approximately 5 nights out of 7 he tackles the kitchen and I thank my lucky stars for him. He’s a prince among men.

Sadly for me, my prince is currently on day 15 of 18 of Olympic work. The days he’s working are long and he doesn’t get home most nights until after 10pm. I have had to do far more kitchen cleaning than I normally would. It turns out that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, and my Samantha Stevens nose-wiggle is on the fritz. There’s nothing for it but to hold my nose and dive in. Practice is not making perfect for me, and I hate the dishes as much as ever. Luckily, though, my kids seem to like them, so maybe in a few years I can pass them off.

So, tell me – what’s the household chore you hate the most? Or are you a happy soul who can find joy in even the most mundane of tasks? Please share!

With the Touch of My Hand

It’s the middle of the night and my 18-month-old, Jacob, is awake. He is stirring and kicking and maybe even crying. If I don’t hear him right away and I’m not already in bed with him he might even pad down the hall, a bleary-eyed little man in a footie sleeper on a search for Mama.

He finds me, or I find him. Then I am there, and he is there, and in my lowest voice I say, “Shhh, shhh, you don’t have to wake up, it’s time for sleeping.” And I lay my hand on him, and he quiets. He stills. He exhales. He reaches for me and I nurse him and he falls back to sleep quickly. I follow him, my hand still on his back, and together we drift off and share our dreams.

There are other nights, too, when my 5-year-old Hannah wakes up from a nightmare. Her waking is far more rare, but much more dramatic. It has always been this way, my girl has slept well at night but has always woken crying if it’s still dark outside. On those nights, my husband often goes to her while I pull the night shift with her little brother. But not always. Sometimes I find my way to her in the night, and I lay my hand on her and she clings to me and the tension melts out of her. Mama is here, she is safe, and she can go back to sleep again.

Of course it isn’t always so idyllic or easy. I have had the nights where nothing I can do will calm the children, when teeth or stuffed noses or the phase of the moon force the whole house awake for an hour at 3:14am. I have had night terrors and bed-wettings and late night diaper disasters from newborns. I have struggled with the different personalities and needs of two children at night, and fought to balance them with my own.

But most of the time, still, I am like a talisman in the night. I am Safety and Comfort, and my mere presence means that everything is OK. It baffles me and inspires me, the way that I am not just a 30-something suburbanite who can’t figure out what she wants to do with herself. I am not just Amber, math whiz and all-around crunchy sort with a tendency to talk too much and rush to judgment. I am also Mother, the source of all things, the symbol of nurturing and abundance.

It will not always be so. My feet of clay will be all too visible to my children one day. I will be the one who mixed everything up or said the wrong thing or left them waiting for 27 minutes after band practice. But for right now my children are still small, and I am still the world to them. So I am mostly willing as I drag myself from my bed and bestow calm, with the touch of my hand.

Just a quick reminder about my Crafting my Life link-up, which is happening on February 25th. February’s Crafting my Life series is about time management. Exciting? Debatable. Important? Absolutely. To participate, write a post on this month’s theme and add yourself to the list that will appear with my regular post at 6am on the last Thursday of the month. Then go off and read everyone else’s ideas and thoughts and be inspired! Check out January’s link up to get a feel for how it works.

Toddlers are Hooligans

18 months ago I welcomed sweet baby Jacob. He did not always sleep as much as one would hope, and he sometimes cried rather a lot. There were hijinks involving spit-up and other bodily fluids that I could have lived without. But that baby stayed put, man. I could lie him down on a blanket in the middle of the floor and he wouldn’t go anywhere. He wouldn’t even reach out to grab a toy, because he didn’t even have control over his wee baby hands.

Babies like to change things up, though. Jacob started grabbing things and rolling and crawling and walking, and pretty soon I had a toddler on my hands. A terribly cute little person who is on a one-man mission to destroy everything in sight. Along the way he’s picked up skills like a short-term memory and the basic ability to plan. I imagine this is what Jacob’s internal dialogue sounds like, “I see a terribly dangerous object on the counter. I see a stool. If I move that stool to the counter, then I can get that dangerous object. Oh! Mama is moving the dangerous object and putting the stool back. OK, I’ll go get the stool again and move it to the dangerous object’s new location.”

Toddler on Mama's lap
18-month-old Jacob

At 18 months Jacob can climb higher and reach farther than is good for anyone. He can also remain dedicated to a goal in ways that both impress and terrify me. Whereas he used to get in trouble when my back was turned, now he is quick enough and tenacious enough to get in trouble right in front of me. Mayhem frequently follows him, like it did on Saturday when I was attempting to mix up a loaf of bread.

I gathered my ingredients on the kitchen island, and Jacob climbed on to the island to check them out. I moved him back to his stool and gave him a snack to occupy him. He brought his snack up on to the island. I took him off. We did this a few times, and then he climbed back on to the island and threw my whole wheat flour on the floor. The container holding the flour opened and a small amount spilled out. I picked up the container and replaced the lid, more securely this time. I placed Jacob in front of the pile of spilled flour, hoping it would entertain him. He climbed back on to the island and I moved the other containers on to the floor where they would be safe. He crawled down on to the floor and knocked over the white flour, and that container fell open and a large amount of flour fell out. Jacob proceeded to roll around in it.

He rolled happily
Rolling in flour is fun!

He played in it with his fingers
You can draw designs in the flour with your fingers

I know that Jacob is acting his age. He is behaving exactly as an 18-month-old should, it’s just that his abilities are outpacing his judgment. His judgment will catch up at its own pace, and so I am trying to take it in stride as much as possible. All I have to do is keep everyone alive and remain approximately sane, and it will work out. But in the meantime, you may find me screaming into my pillow so that I don’t frighten the kids. And the muffled words you hear will be, “Toddlers are HOOLIGANS!”

Commiseration, or stories about the time you attempted to wash the dishes and your toddler nearly burned your house down, would be very welcome right about now.

Treasure Hunting

There was a time in my life when I would not have been caught dead in a thrift store. I have never been a big shopper, but back before I had kids I bought everything new. I was convinced that thrift store shopping was a lot of work, and I found the idea of wearing second-hand clothes or eating off of second-hand plates distasteful. Never mind that I would happily visit other people’s homes or frequent restaurants and eat off of their plates, or borrow my friend’s clothes. Using a faceless stranger’s cast-offs did not appeal to me.

Then I had children. Tiny little people who grow at alarming rates and always need some article of clothing or another. Suddenly, spending $20 for each new pair of teeny-tiny pants seemed exorbitant. Let’s say your kid has 5 pairs of pants, which is maybe not even enough. That’s $100 in pants that they will outgrow in 3 weeks, and poop on, and generally cover in yucky kid goo. Suddenly, the thrift store with its $4 baby pants seemed much, much more appealing.

Thrift store shopping has other things going for it, too. It’s an environmentally-friendly choice, since you are giving new life to old things, and not consuming any additional resources. Re-using at its finest. Also, the variety of items that you can find in a large thrift store is unparalleled. If you want the perfect shirt to match a great skirt you found, you’ll likely have better luck at a thrift store with hundreds of shirts in different styles and colours. They won’t all be winners, but you only need one. Plus, second- hand shopping is like the best treasure hunt ever, my 5-year-old loves combing through all the teacups and saucers and picture frames and sparkly shoes.

A thrift-store pig

Pretty bowl

Lovely teacup

Hannah trying on hats

Oh, the shoes!

On some random Tuesday you’ll find the kids and I out on a walk to our local thrift store. We check out the books and the dishes, and I always take a spin by the pots and pans in search of cast iron. Sometimes we buy clothes, sometimes Hannah spends her allowance on toys, and we always stop off to check out the kids’ shoes and the jewelry. I find 3 shirts I like for a grand total of $17, which is less than one new shirt from the mall. And when we get home I just give our new treasures a thorough wash and we’re good to go.

Do you like to comb thrift stores for hidden treasure, too? If so, care to share any great finds? I promise to be suitably impressed. 🙂

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