Archives for April 2012

Barn Fires, Wakeful Children and Sleep

It’s 2:00am. Or maybe 1:15. Or 3:45. I don’t really want to know, to be honest. What I do know for sure is that somewhere in my house someone made a noise, and now I’m awake. It probably wasn’t even a big noise, but it was enough to jerk my mama-mind to alertness, ready to intervene on behalf of one of my children. Sometimes I stay in bed, listening to the coughing or the tossing and turning, willing the child to be still. Sometimes I leap up and act. And sometimes I discover that what I thought was my child was actually the cat, who is simply thrilled to discover that I am now awake and ready to play.

Since having children I have become a light sleeper. But things weren’t always this way. Take, for example, the story of the night the barn burned down.

As a teenager, my mother, my sister and I lived in an old farmhouse, surrounded by unused fields and two old, out-of-use, not-so-structurally-sound barns. The largest one was readily visible from one side of our house, fronted by a chicken coop that was also old and out-of-use. I went into each of the barns once or twice, but quite honestly, I was worried they would collapse on me, so I mostly stayed out. Inside, there was graffiti on some of the interior walls, and a picked-over feel. The idea that I could happen upon someone else inside also kept me out. I was a very well-behaved teenager, and I thought it best to avoid old, decrepit barns.

You can see the barn in this photo, behind teenaged Jon:

barn fire sleep

One night in 1993 or so (it’s difficult to remember exactly when, now, and since this was pre-internet you can’t find the info online) I went to sleep as usual and woke up in the morning. When my mom saw me she said, “Did you really sleep through that last night?” Having no idea what she was talking about, I said something like (wait for it …), “What are you talking about?” She pointed out the window, and I saw it. Or, more accurately, didn’t see it. The barn had burned clear to the ground. Luckily nothing else was touched. The chicken coop remained. The trees remained. The grass remained. But all that was left where the barn had stood was a black patch of grass and some pieces of charred wood.

The story of what happened the night before starts with my sister’s friend, Heidi, who was working the late shift at a local McDonald’s. When her father was driving her home that night, she noticed a light on the hill, in the direction of our house. They rushed over, arriving at around the same time as the firetrucks. The trucks and the arrival of our visitors woke my mother and my sister, as well as much of the neighbourhood. At some point in the evening, the police arrived, and questioned my younger sister. It was all quite the brouhaha … or so I hear. Because unlike everyone else, I slept soundly through the whole thing.

A string of arsons in local abandoned buildings, including a dairy, followed. Eventually, the culprit was apprehended. Our barn was identified as his first target. And I missed it all.

Tonight, the crisis is much smaller. Still, there is no sound sleep for me. Because tonight, and every night, there is a part of me that is ever vigilant. So I am awake at an hour that I would rather be sleeping, my brain forever altered by the alchemy of motherhood. Walking the halls, wishing for rest, hoping that nothing decides to catch fire tonight.

How has your sleep changed since having children? I’m sure I’m not the only mom who wakes up far more easily than she used to!

Podcast: Erika Katz on Girls and Self-Esteem

I have a seven-year-old daughter. For now, she loves her body. She talks about her strength and her speed. She boasts proudly when she’s grown taller or gained weight. For the time being, she is just as she should be – a child, not self-conscious about her appearance, confident in her beauty. I wish she could stay that way. I know that she probably won’t. At some point, self-doubt will creep in. She’ll go through puberty and experience all the awkwardness of adolescence. And I’m honestly not sure how to equip her for that journey. Podcast Erika Katz Bonding Over Beauty

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Erika Katz, author of the book Bonding Over Beauty. A former child model and actress, Erika is many things that I am not. I rarely wear make-up. I wash my hair with baking soda and vinegar, and I wash my face with honey. I have tried to avoid assigning gender roles to my children. But as I stare down the gauntlet of the tween and teen years, frankly, I could use some advice, and Erika was ready and willing to talk to me about girls and self-esteem. Podcast Erika Katz Bonding Over BeautyThe premise of Erika’s book is actually not that you need to create a beauty routine for your daughter. The premise is that by doing something with your child that she enjoys, and that allows you to fully engage with her and show care for her, you’re helping her to open up and share. In the process, you’re creating a relationship that will see her through adolescence. Some girls really enjoy having their moms do their hair. Some girls really enjoy baking together. Some girls enjoy sports. You can choose the activity – it doesn’t have to be about beauty.

Erika and I talked about some hot-button parenting issues. What kind of swimsuit is appropriate for a six-year-old? How do you talk about things like wearing deodorant and shaving your legs (or not)? And how do you help your daughter feel confident in her appearance, without making her overly image-conscious? If you have a daughter, you’ll want to hear Erika’s thoughts:

Next week on the podcast I’ll be sharing an interview with Katharine Carol, from the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. Whether you’re a Vancouverite, or you’re just interested in arts and culture for kids, you’ll want to tune in. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

Chemicals, Cleaning and Effectiveness

Queen of Green's Spring BreakupIt’s Enviro-Mama Thursday, and today I’m talking cleaning products. I’ve been inspired by Lindsay Coulter, a.k.a. David Suzuki’s Queen of Green. Throughout the month of April she’s running the Spring Breakup. The message is simple: there are toxins in most home cleaning products, and those toxins aren’t good for us or for our children. She’s challenging people to ditch their current cleaners for less-toxic options.

One of the biggest complaints many of us have with “green” cleaners and personal care products is their effectiveness. Sure, you feel good buying them, but they just don’t work the same way. I can’t be the only one who’s had less-than-stellar results from organic deodorants and environmentally-friendly dishwasher detergent.

Earlier this week I had the chance to meet Gillian Deacon, author of There’s Lead in Your Lipstick. It was a blogger event, sponsored by Seventh Generation and hosted by Whole Foods in Vancouver. Among many other things, Gillian discussed the optical brighteners found in many laundry soaps. These are chemicals that reflect blue light, which makes materials appear brighter. Tthey make your clothes look cleaner, but they don’t actually clean them. Plus, there are some concerns that they can irritate skin and accumulate in fish.

Green Cleaning Seventh Generation Gillian Deacon
Gillian reads the label on a bottle of laundry detergent

While conventional cleaning agents may appear to work better, much of it is an illusion, and that illusion comes at a cost. In addition to optical brighteners they contain artificial colours and fragrances, and a whole lot of other chemicals. Many of those chemicals are about creating the illusion of cleanliness, by making things smell nice or look brighter. We’ve been conditioned to think, for instance, that clean clothes should smell like “summer breeze” dryer sheets. This is why I believe that, at least in part, we need to change our definition of clean as we ditch the toxic cleaners.

I used to use heavily-scented laundry soap and dryer sheets. It took me a little while to get past the fact that my clothes didn’t smell the same way when I ditched those products. In pretty short order, though, I found that my sensitivity to artificial fragrance changed. When I was standing near someone who’d recently washed their clothes using heavily-scented products, I found the scent very noticeable. In fact, it surprised me a little to think that I’d smelled like that for years without noticing it, but I had. I’ve changed what I expect clean clothes to smell like, and I haven’t actually sacrificed cleanliness, I’ve just reduced my exposure to toxic chemicals.

Green Cleaning Seventh Generation Spring Breakup Queen of Green Gillian Deacon
Jacob and I talk non-toxic cleaning with Gillian Deacon

Purchasing less-toxic cleaning products is an easy, low-pressure way to green your home. If you really want to up the ante, though, you may want to consider making your own cleaning products. Using some basic ingredients like baking soda, borax, castile soap, washing soda and vinegar, you can make your own laundry soap, furniture polish, glass cleaner and all-purpose spray. The Queen of Green has some great cleaning product recipes you can download. Making your own products gives you total control over what you’re using, and helps you to reduce the amount of packaging, because you’re not buying a new bottle every time you need laundry detergent.

The good news is that many of the toxins you’re exposed to in your cleaning products break down and leave your body quite quickly. This means that if you take up the challenge, you will be reducing your personal chemical burden within a matter of days. It’s never too late to make a change, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been using toxic cleaning products for. By getting rid of them, you’re making a tangible step to improve your family’s health. That’s worth a little bit of adjustment time while you find an effective alternative, don’t you think?

Blinking Lights and Beeping Reminders

Blink, blink, blink.

The light on my phone is blinking, letting me know that I have a voice mail waiting. My call display tells me who it’s from, but I’m feeling a little bit overloaded at the moment, and I’m not ready to have another conversation that may bring me more work, so I ignore it.

Blink, blink, blink.

There is so much psychic weight in all the little electronic notifications I receive on a daily basis. Numbers telling me how many unread emails I have, how many unread items in my feed reader, how many unseen Facebook replies, how many messages I haven’t heard or replied to. Sometimes, I’m tempted to just wipe the entire slate clean. Delete all the emails, and the voice mails, and the messages. I want to just declare email bankruptcy, mark all as read, and be done with it.

Blink, blink, blink.

The problem, of course, is that resetting the current counter wouldn’t close the floodgates. The electronic communications would keep flying at me. Soon enough, I will have fallen behind again, and be right back where I started, staring at the blinking light, not ready to add yet another message to the pile of messages I need to respond to.

Blink, blink, blink.

These blinking lights, email counts and beeping reminders are nagging me, demanding response. They distract me with their seeming urgency, demanding an immediate reply even though I honestly have other things that are really far more important that I could be doing. But those things don’t come with blinking lights and beeping reminders. If I don’t set aside time to handle the things that truly matter, turning off the reminders and ignoring the blinking lights, my own needs and desires and dreams and mental well-being will get lost, left behind somewhere in a dusty corner of the world wide web.

Cherry blossoms!
Cherry blossoms help me forget the blinking lights for just a moment

I have a debate with myself. It’s true that sometimes I need to turn off all the reminders and focus on the task at hand. I can set aside time to handle those blinking lights later. However, it’s also true that just dealing with that voice mail would probably take less mental energy for me than stewing about the blinking light. Which is better – setting clear boundaries around my time, or just dealing with the little things as they arise so that I don’t feel as distracted? Where does that perfect balance lie?

Blink, blink, blink.

I could turn the reminders off altogether, but then I fear I would miss things. We all know people who don’t reply to us, no matter how we try to reach them. It can feel pretty frustrating to be the one trying to make contact, only to be met with constant silence. I don’t want to be unreachable. I just want it all to stop for a little while. Call it a little vacation from all forms of communication.

Blink, blink, blink.

I have this fantasy. In it, I’m living in a small cabin on a remote beach somewhere, by myself. I spend my days writing with a pen and paper, walking on the beach and preparing food, which just sort of magically appears. I know that whenever I need to I can return to my life – my children, my husband, the little reminders of everything I’m supposed to do. And then when I need to, I can return to the cabin, for a few hours or a few days or a few weeks. It’s my retreat, a place to step outside of my life and outside of time. A place where the blinking lights cannot reach me, and everyone who’s trying to reach me will understand why I’m not replying.

Blink, blink, blink.

For now, I have no cabin on a remote beach. I have only my life, just as it is. Connected. Interconnected. Full of beeping reminders and blinking lights. Always moving, always full. I navigate it as best I can, forging a path that honours my own need for stillness and quiet in the midst of the din, and my need to be a part of something bigger than myself. Something that brings emails and voice mails and text messages and appointments on my calendar – and fantasies about a solitary cabin where none of it can find me. Always, it brings more questions than answers, and lots and lots of little blinking lights.

Blink, blink, blink.

Memories of my Babies

When my daughter Hannah was a tiny baby, I insisted on dressing her in what I called “people clothes”. Think little-bitty-baby-jeans and T-shirts and dresses and overalls. She wore sleepers at night, but the rest of the time she wore outfits. While many of my mom friends declared baby clothes a total waste, I couldn’t get enough.

I dressed my tiny baby in real clothes to make a statement, both to the world and to myself. She spent the first week of her life in the NICU, where I constantly heard about how very small she was, and how even though things seemed to be going well, they could change suddenly. From the moment my water broke unexpectedly at 34 weeks pregnant, my baby was labelled as at-risk and both of us found ourselves on a crash course with high-tech medical care. And I understand why, I really do.

Hannah at 1 month old
One-month old Hannah, wearing an outfit

All the same, once I had Hannah at home, I felt the need to get rid of all of those medical trappings that surrounded her birth and first days. I needed to remind myself, and everyone around me, that my baby was okay. She was fine. She wasn’t sick. She didn’t need to be wearing pajamas in the middle of the day. She could wear people clothes, because she was a person – a much-valued member of our family – and she was going to be all right.

I like to think that I’ve gotten over that early trauma. Seven years later, I no longer feel the need to obsessively check her breathing while she sleeps. I no longer track her weight for signs that she’s growing. And I no longer cry on her birthday, because I’m sad about what happened. I say that I’ve made my peace, and for the most part, I have. But parenting wounds leave lasting scars, and we can never really erase them from our psyches.

Hannah meets Jacob
Jacob’s less than 24 hours old, and he’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt

Yesterday, Hannah was feeling tired and cranky and feverish when a cold developed into sinusitis. Not a big deal, and I knew it. Most infections heal on their own, and if they persist, they can be treated. And yet, as I held my sad, sick girl in my arms, and she laid her head on my shoulder, I felt silent tears come to my eyes as my body was filled with a memory. It recalled a much smaller girl nestled against me. Back then, I wasn’t so confident about her well-being. I needed to dress her in blue jeans and do everything I could to remind myself that she was real. She was mine. And she would be okay.

These memories of my babies are always there, somewhere, in the back of my mind. That time my son Jacob fell from a tall play structure. The surgery my daughter had at four and a half to correct an umbilical hernia. The sad face my son wore when he got locked in his room during his big sister’s birthday party and nobody found him for 10 (very, very long, for him) minutes because we couldn’t hear him over the gaggle of shrieking little girls. That image of my children, small and vulnerable, never really goes away.

One day, these babies of mine will grow up and leave home. They will be able to take care of themselves. But I doubt that I will ever be able to look at them without remembering how they were when they were small, and hurt, and scared. When I was their sun, moon and stars, and they needed my strength and protection. I will always remember how I dressed them in people clothes in a statement to the world. These are my babies. They will be okay. I refuse to even consider the alternative.

The Simplicity of Flour

Once upon a time, flour was easy for me. I bought it at the grocery store, and the only choice I had to make was unbleached or whole wheat, or maybe if I was feeling really fancy pastry flour. I used it liberally, and didn’t think too much about it, or where it came from.

After I became interested in local eating, my approach to flour changed. I started looking for flour made from grain that was grown here in the Vancouver area. Eventually, I found it. Once I did, flour was once again simple. I just had to make an annual trip to pick up my share, and I was set.

Future bread
My 2010 Flour

Things became increasingly complicated for me, flour-wise, when I decided to go gluten-free. Flour is generally considered to be synonymous with wheat flour. When a recipe calls for two cups of flour, for example, you can pretty much assume they’re not talking about sorghum or quinoa flour.

It’s possible to mix up gluten-free flour blends that approximate wheat flour. With the addition of xantham or guar gum you can more or less substitute them directly for wheat flour, for pretty much anything except bread. Gluten-free bread is a different animal, and you can’t make it the same way you can make wheat bread. But cakes, cookies, pie crust, muffins and a whole lot of other things are, thankfully, much easier.

Jacob spilled flour and rolled in it
Jacob loves flour!

My first gluten-free flour was a pre-mixed all-purpose blend from Bob’s Red Mill. It had a lot of chickpea flour in it, which made it taste sort of like beans. I wasn’t a huge fan. I decided that I could make a blend myself, after finding a recipe online. I stocked up on a bunch of very expensive gluten-free flours, and got creative. I mixed many, many different kinds of flours and starches together to make my all-purpose flour blend. Quinoa flour. Corn flour. Potato starch. Corn starch. Sorghum flour. Buckwheat flour. Brown rice flour. Sweet white rice flour. Tapioca starch. So many kinds. The results were underwhelming.

Finally, it occurred to me that maybe the best thing was to stop trying to be so fancy. So I did. Now I use a light buckwheat flour to make pancakes or waffles, but for everything else I use this basic flour blend:

Amber’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend

1 part millet flour
1 part brown rice flour
1 part potato starch

See? Simple.

Mixing up a flour blend adds an extra step that I didn’t have to deal with when I ate wheat flour. But once it’s mixed up in a big jar in my kitchen, this flour blend makes baking easy again. Flour is, once again, just flour. No overthinking. No fancy-pants, complicated blends. Just flour.

Sometimes, I guess, it’s best not to make things too hard for yourself. I suppose that’s true whether you’re baking or doing most anything else. Don’t you think so?

Podcast: The Other Baby Book

As a parent, having like-minded friends is very important. Megan Massaro and Miriam Katz met at a mom and baby group, and really hit it off. Their friendship grew, and they decided to collaborate. Their collaboration grew as they spoke with a whole lot of parenting experts including Dr. James McKenna, Dr. Lawrence Cohen and Naomi Aldort. Eventually, it became The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby’s First Year. Podcast The Other Baby Book Miriam Katz Megan MassaroTheir goal with the book was to guide new parents past the “shoulds”, and back to the joy of parenting. The pair believes strongly that while you may not be the most experienced parent in your baby’s first year, you are the number one expert on your own family. They want to combine research with a natural approach to create a simple and connected first year with their babies. And after speaking with them, I have to say that their passion is contagious.

I was able to connect with Megan and Miriam. During our conversation we covered a number of parenting topics, discussed the importance of finding a parenting community, and talked about ways to deal with backlash when your parenting style differs from that of your family or friends. If you’d like some pointers on how you can create your own natural parenting style, or you’ve ever toyed with the idea of writing a book of your own, you’ll want to hear what Megan and Miriam had to say. Listen here:

Next week on the podcast I’ll be sharing an interview with Erika Katz. She’s no relation to Miriam, as far as I know, but she is the author of Bonding Over Beauty. If you want some suggestions for connecting with your daughter and building a strong relationship as she heads into the tween years, you’ll want to listen. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

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