June 2014

Modern Communal Living

June 30, 2014

Villa Van Vijven
Last week, Margaret sent me an article in Dwell magazine about a group of five families in the Netherlands who banded together and hired an architect to create a modern commune of sorts — one building with five different units and shared (as well as private) garden spaces. I’m always fascinated by ideas like this and love to see the designs people come up with.

What strikes me about this place is that even though the residents commissioned, financed, and agreed to the housing project — no easy feat! — and they share gardening and landscaping, they lead pretty independent, private lives, claiming they don’t see each other every day and are good neighbors more than friends. In this sense, it’s not really a commune, nor even a community with a shared life. But it’s definitely a group of people who share certain values about design, lifestyle, and living space who came together to make it happen.

Van Vijven Private Gardens
I must admit I could totally go for something like this — though my first inclination would be to do it with some of my siblings’ families (and possibly a few friends) whom I’d love to have as neighbors. Of course, I’d have to institute Sunday potluck brunches or dinners, and maybe family movie nights on the lawn. Frankly, it doesn’t seem all that different from how we live now — in a small row house, attached to other row houses, with a gated green space shared by 11 families — except this one in the Netherlands is much grander, intentional, rural, and modern. (Okay, so maybe a little different than what we have now, but some of the concepts are the same at least!)

If a group of people can successfully build a house together that they’re really happy with (imagine the patience of the architects!), it seems to me they could pretty much do anything together after that. Still, issues can always come up: residents not pulling their weight around the property, personality conflicts, and personal issues messing things up (divorce, death, illness, relocation). But some of those things probably get written into whatever agreements are drawn up.

Even with the potential pitfalls, I’m still a big fan of the idea. The balance of independence and community, as well as an intentionally designed space you love, seems like a great combination.

Does this idea of modern communal living appeal to you? What would be your ideal number of residents and your ideal house design? And, of course, who would you choose to share the place with — family? friends? strangers? And where?

Images: Dean Kaufman for Dwell 

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Pull Up a Chair

June 27, 2014

Birthday Girls
Let’s start with my high of the week: My girls’ birthday yesterday. They turned six! I can hardly believe it. They were just four when they came home… I know that’s how time works, but still, how can this be happening?

We had the best day: A morning playdate with two other families at a beautiful local park on the water (complete with perfect weather); a mom-and-daughters lunch at a gourmet food market (at the girls’ request), where we had a trio of salmon and homemade soup with handmade raw chocolates for dessert and then walked out with a bottle of kimchi and butterfly lime kombucha (are they my girls, or what?); a stop at a floral shop to pick out a flower to honor the girls’ first mother (and they picked out pink gerbera daisies for themselves); a fun afternoon manicure (a gift from their aunt and uncle); dinner made by Daddy, who came home early (their request: his special chopped salad); and a cake party with friends (I made two gluten-free cakes — successfully!) followed by gifts, which included m-cro kickboard scooters that they couldn’t be more thrilled about.

Jinji Chocolates!
I’m writing this in a bit of a tired haze after such a full day, but I can’t believe I get to have so much fun with such awesome little girls. Did I mention they are now six? Sniff, sniff.

As for a low, that’s probably it right there: This time really does go so incredibly fast, and I need to remind myself of this when we’re having hard episodes. (We had one of those this past week, but luckily the birthday bliss is blocking it out.)

As for a drink today, I’m pouring elderberry lemonade, which we served at the cake party last night.  A great alternative to wine when you want something special for adults and kids alike.

H Turns Six
Anything exciting on your docket this weekend? The birthday celebrations here aren’t quite finished yet: Tomorrow we’re planning a short hike and a picnic with some playmates of the girls’, and we’ll be helping my brother and sister-in-law unpack in their new place. Looking forward to it all!

Hope you and yours have a lovely weekend, whatever you’re up to, and I’ll see you back here on Monday.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul and JWR

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by Margaret Cabaniss

Kitchen Nightmares and Homemade Pizza
Way back when, Kathleen shared on the blog that her Achilles heel in the kitchen was poultry. I can completely relate, having my own Thanksgiving disaster stories under my belt, but for the longest time, not even those massive turkeys could scare me as much as one thing: homemade pizza.

It is totally ridiculous, I know — but the closest I ever came to a full-on panic attack in the kitchen was in the middle of trying to make pizza from scratch. I’ve blocked out most of the details now, but I remember sweating away in my tiny kitchen, trying to scrape a misshapen pie off the counter and onto a ripping-hot pizza stone, only to watch helplessly as the thing slowly folded over on itself and landed topping-side down, where it proceeded to cook up in a soggy mess of failure and tears. Just…not pretty.

It took me a long (long) time to get back on the horse after that — but I was finally coaxed into it after spotting Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for shaved asparagus pizza. It looked too delicious not to try, and Deb swore up and down that it was really just so easy, so I fortified myself with a few drinks and went for it — and was rewarded with one of the most delicious (if slightly misshapen) pizzas I’ve ever put in my face. After that, I’ve never looked back.

Kitchen Nightmares and Homemade Pizza
That asparagus pizza is still one of my faves — but I’ve since discovered a recipe for the dough that I like even better, via Cook’s Illustrated. It comes together in a snap in the food processor, rises for 90 minutes, and bakes up into the most perfect crunchy-chewy crust I’ve ever tried at home. And that (along with a little practice, and a few tricks I’m sharing below) is how I came to be a pizza-making machine, to the point where I recently cranked out pie after pie all night at a party to rave reviews, with nary a tear in sight. Hooray for happy endings!

Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe is (sadly) behind a paywall, but let me just take this opportunity to plug their online subscription service. Totally worth the money, in my mind — or just pick up their baking cookbook or their 20th anniversary book, which both have the recipe inside. (They even have a gluten-free version!) And now that I’ve gotten the plug out of the way, I’ll also just point out that you can find a free version of the complete recipe (with alternate mixing instructions, if you don’t have a food processor) here. Make of that what you will.

People have lots of different pizza-making methods, but here’s what works for me:

  • Put a pizza stone on the lowest rack of your oven and preheat to 500 degrees at least half an hour before you want to bake.
  • Roll (well, really, pat and stretch) out your dough on parchment paper. Some people swear that all you need is a good dusting of cornmeal to transfer your pie from the counter to a pizza peel to the oven, but…yeah, no. Parchment is the only thing that works for me every single time. I slide the paper and all onto the back of a cookie sheet to transfer everything into the oven and back out again; the paper will get a little crispy around the edges at 500 degrees, but it’ll hold up fine for the baking.
  • Load it up (but not too much!) with your toppings, then bake for 8-10 minutes. Enjoy the sweet, sweet taste of victory.

Do you make pizza at home, or are you afraid of it, too? What are your favorite methods/recipes/toppings?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Bedtime Routines

June 25, 2014

Bedtime
For the past year or so, my daughters’ pre-sleep ritual has been more or less the same: After a little bedtime chime goes off, which reminds us all that it’s time to head upstairs, there’s teeth-brushing, flossing, toilet, and washing face and hands — not always in that order. (We never do bath or shower time right before bed.)

Then it’s time for a story book, and the girls take turns choosing each night. The girl who picks the book sleeps on the edge of the bed that night (our solution to the fact that they both prefer to sleep on the wall side and were always fighting about it). Then they get some water, B or I crawl into bed with them, and it’s lights out. Following that is a round of short made-up stories, some spontaneous prayers, and occasionally a few songs. If they’re not quite sleepy yet, there’s inevitably some pillow talk — often my favorite part of the evening — and then, hopefully, they succumb to dreamland.

As for myself, while I know adults who have pretty elaborate bedtime routines — like leisurely candlelit baths and long face care rituals — my own is pretty simple. And while it’s fluctuated a bit over the years, some things remain consistent: I always brush my teeth and floss, rinse my face, and moisturize. And I almost always read for a bit in bed — even if it’s super late or I’m dead tired. All my life I’ve had a hard time falling asleep and reading helps a lot, even if it’s just for five or ten minutes.

What are the bedtime routines like in your house? Is there anything you do that, if you suddenly stopped, would really throw you off? If you have children, are their bedtime rituals elaborate and drawn out or short and sweet?

Image via Pinterest

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Chia Seed Pudding
I’m always on the hunt for alternative breakfast foods. We don’t do a lot of cereals around here, and eggs get a little old — especially when my daughters only like them boiled, and no one in the family but me eats things like fritattas and quiche.

So when I came across a pudding made with chia seeds and coconut milk, my interest was piqued. Mainly because I’m totally addicted to coconut milk: I’ve always liked it, but I’ve taken lately to opening cans of the organic, whole-fat kind, scooping out the solidified cream, whipping it, and sticking it on everything (or sometimes nothing at all — just eating it with a spoon). Then I take the liquid and use it in smoothies or baking.

I also use chia seeds wherever I can. They’re the highest plant-based source of Omega 3s and include fiber, omega fatty acids, calcium, antioxidants, and even protein. Talk about a super food. I stick them in muffins and smoothies a lot, but since the tiny things absorb over 10 times their weight in water, they’re great in anything that calls for a gelled consistency — pudding being one of them.

This recipe is extremely simple, and I apologize, but for the life of me I can’t remember where the original recipe is from. Lots of sites have versions of it, though, so you can experiment with different techniques and add-ins. Here’s what I did:

Chia Seed Coconut Milk Pudding

  • 1 can full-fat coconut milk
  • 2 -3 Tbsp chia seeds
  • honey and/or vanilla extract (optional)
  • assorted fresh fruit and/or berries (bananas, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) for the topping
  • 2-3 small mason jars with lids

Shake the can of coconut milk so the fat and liquid are blended well, then distribute it evenly between the mason jars. Stir one tablespoon of chia seeds into each jar so they’re evenly distributed. Add a few drops of vanilla extract or honey, if you want some sweetness or extra flavor, then cover the jars and stick them in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, the chia seeds will have absorbed the liquid and you’ll have a solidified pudding. Top it with your favorite fruit (I like berries and bananas), or you could also add granola and nuts. The topping really adds to the pudding, especially if you don’t add much sweetener to the milk.

I gobbled this right up the first time I made it. My daughters were a little less enthusiastic, but they did eat about half of their little jars, and I think it’s something they’ll enjoy better in time if I serve it occasionally. If not, I won’t mind eating their leftovers!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Walking
I read an anonymous post a while back by a woman who says she regrets being a mother and would go back to being childless if she could. My former-counselor, current-life-coach self couldn’t help but wonder if there were more behind her feelings than what she wrote, but it got me thinking about how hard motherhood can be for some women and how difficult it is to talk about.

For me, motherhood came naturally: I always felt destined for it, and although it isn’t easy, I felt equipped. It makes sense: I’m the oldest of a large family, and children were always in my life — and viewed as assets — plus I just seem to have been born with maternal instincts. Long before I became a mom, I was adept at caring for children; I could walk into any chaotic room full of tiny people and pretty much take charge with confidence.

I have friends for whom none of this was true. Some were youngest or only children growing up and didn’t have much — or any — experience with children throughout their lives. Some never felt particularly drawn to motherhood, and while they envisioned maybe having a child or two some day, they never longed for it. Still others were excited about having kids, but after giving birth they suffered depression or anxieties they never anticipated. No matter what the personal stories, these women felt uncomfortable — even ashamed — that they weren’t loving motherhood. Which made it almost impossible for them to admit their thoughts and feelings to others.

Even for women like me, motherhood has its dark and dreary moments. Parenting is not for the faint of heart; it’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And whether you become a mom at 20 or at 40, being a mom can challenge your sense of identity and your ability to maintain the relationships that help keep you sane. There’s a lot that goes into your satisfaction and sense of meaning as a mother, including — and maybe especially — the support you do or don’t have.

Women need other women. Research has shown that when women spend time with other (supportive) women, they’re happier and healthier. No big surprise there: I absolutely need my girl time, and my mom friends tell me how much they need it, too. Sharing the ups and downs, the hard stuff and the victories, makes such a difference. Additionally, friends remind us of who we are — mothers, yes, but also women with talents, interests, dreams, and experiences that aren’t just related to our children.

Have you ever struggled with being a mother, or do you think you would if you became one? What would you say to a mother who admits that she’s really struggling? How do you think we can better support moms — and parents in general?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Pull Up a Chair

June 20, 2014

B and His Girls
This is one of my favorite shots from last weekend. Kind of says it all when it comes to B’s relationship with our daughters.

I posted a number of photos on Instagram last weekend, and even though I don’t post there every day, I’ve got to say it’s probably my favorite social media platform right now (besides this lovely little blog, of course). After the Instagram challenge I hosted over the winter, I’ve found that I really dig the platform. I love photography and the whole notion of capturing little moments in time; I love feeling connected to the people I follow through the everyday snippets of their lives. I also like its simplicity: It’s is easy to browse, simple to “like” a photo or leave a short comment, and it doesn’t suck up tons of time.

Unlike Facebook: I finally signed up for a personal account there, and I’m still not all that happy about it. I bit the bullet because I was missing out on resources that I really wanted: Whether it’s homeschooling, adoption, or a recent online course I signed up for, Facebook is the only place I can access certain information. But it’s so much to wade through, which makes it a real time-waster for me. (I do like my SlowMama Facebook page, however, since I connect to a lot of readers that way.)

Then there’s Pinterest — talk about a place to get lost in! I tend to look for things on Pinterest as I need them, but I don’t post as much as I’d like to. And I still have a Twitter account, but I kind of gave up on it. I don’t find many SlowMama readers there, and most of my friends don’t tweet. While I enjoy scrolling through it sometimes for articles and news, I don’t like tweeting myself… Of all the platforms out there, it seems the least friendly to the notion of slowing down and being present to what’s in front of me.

Where are you spending most of your online time these days? Do you have a favorite platform? I’d love to know! In the meantime, how about grabbing an aperol spritz, a delicious-looking aperitivo (or aperitif, if you want to get be French about it) from The Kitchn, and then tell me your high and low of the week! Here’s mine:

Low: The door closed this week on a potential opportunity we had been considering as a family. The timing was bad, though, so we think it’s all for the best. That said, it’s a bummer when something that may have been an exciting adventure doesn’t pan out. Also, I still didn’t get around to ordering a bathing suit, so I wore a sports bra and old bathing-suit bottom to a friend’s pool this week. I am a dork.

High: My brother, sister-in-law, and adorable nephew arrived in Baltimore this week and found a house to rent! The best part is that it’s a five-minute walk from our home, and they’ll be moved in by the end of the month. Still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll have family close by! Also, my darling girls made me breakfast this week as a surprise: veggie spread on rice cakes, carrot sticks, dried pineapple, little cups with almond butter and raisins (to be eaten with a spoon), and peanut butter crackers dipped in almond milk. They were mighty proud.

Have a happy June weekend, and we’ll see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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DIY: Growth Chart

June 19, 2014

by Margaret Cabaniss

DIY: Growth Chart
My sister had the cutest idea for a Father’s Day gift for her husband: an oversized ruler growth chart for their two wee babes. I apologize for not sharing the how-to in time for you to make one for your own Father’s Day gift, but alas, secrets had to be kept. Still, it’s an easy project that you can definitely whip up in time for birthdays (or Christmas, or next Father’s Day).

What you’ll need:

  • a 6″ wide x 6′ long pine board (or longer, if you grow ’em tall)
  • wood conditioner and stain
  • vinyl decals
  • sandpaper
  • rags
  • hanging hardware

Start by prepping your wood: Give the board a once-over with some sandpaper, to smooth out any rough spots and round off the edges a bit, then wipe down with a rag and repeat till everything is smooth to the touch.

DIY: Growth Chart
Next up: Apply the wood conditioner. Jen was somewhat suspect that this would be useful at all, but it actually made a big difference in how evenly the wood absorbed the stain. Fortunately, it’s an easy step: Just use a rag to apply it in the direction of the grain (making sure your board is free of sanding dust first), let it sit for 15 minutes, then wipe off the excess.

Within two hours of applying the conditioner, apply your stain. Again, use a rag to wipe it on in the direction of the grain (try to blend your edges a bit as you go), let sit for 15 minutes, then wipe off the excess and let dry completely before applying another coat. (Jen did two coats of that cherry color above.)

DIY: Growth Chart
Now for the decals! You could certainly paint on numbers and hatch marks if you have a steady hand, but Jen’s job was made easier by simply buying a complete set of vinyl decals from the “Little Acorns by Ro” Etsy shop, which were super easy to apply. There are tons of other options on Etsy, of course — and if you have a vinyl cutting machine, like a Silhouette or Cricut, you could probably make these pretty easily at home.

Whichever method you choose, you’ll need to start by measuring out where the hatch marks will go. Jen knew her board would hang 8 inches off the floor, so she took that into account and put the 1′ mark four inches from the bottom of the board. Once you have your spacing figured out, peel of the backing to the vinyl pieces, then carefully line them up and attach to the board; smooth the backs with a credit card to make sure everything is good and stuck, then (very carefully!) peel off the top layer to reveal your decals.

DIY: Growth Chart
Then just hang and you’re good to go! Jen added a sawtooth hanger at the top (hung on the wall with a screw and drywall anchor) and some velcro Command strips to the bottom, to make sure the kiddos wouldn’t accidentally knock it off the wall. All that’s left is to start adding the kids’ heights and wondering how they got so big so fast…

Did you have a growth chart when you were kids, or did you go the ol’ pencil-mark-on-the-door-jamb route?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Dinner Guests
Growing up in Nova Scotia, hospitality was a way of life. People there are welcoming: There’s always room for one more at the table, and it’s not unusual for someone to stop by unannounced for tea — or longer.

Given my background, then, I always feel a bit strange about not offering more hospitality in my own home. Creating an extra space at our table is doable (if we can find that lone folding chair), but an extra three or four people is a bit of a feat. Our nine-foot-wide home just doesn’t accommodate large groups — or even small ones — very well.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve also developed the expectation that I need to tidy, clean, and have a special plan in place before inviting guests over — and as any parent with young children knows, that’s not always realistic. Add the needs of my husband (who’s a major introvert) and daughters (who can still act a little weird around people), and I feel like I need to carefully plan invitations to guests.

Still, hospitality is an important value to me, and I came across a post recently that challenged me to start thinking about it a little differently. The author focuses on what he calls “scruffy hospitality”: the idea that, by inviting people into our homes even when there’s toys strewn about, kid chaos, and a simple dinner on the table, we’re really making space for genuine relationships. Conversely, if we wait to have everything together before welcoming friends, we’re missing out. I really like what he says here:

Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together.

Don’t allow a to-do list to disqualify you from an evening with people you’re called to love in friendship. Scheduling is hard enough in our world. If it’s eating with kind, welcoming people in a less than perfect house versus eating alone, what do you think someone would choose? We tell our guests “come as you are,” perhaps we should tell ourselves “host as you are.”

Guilty. It’s so easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I need to whip up a Barefoot Contessa–approved dinner and clean my house top to bottom before any guest darkens my door. There’s some pride going on here, too: I’d like to have a better house for entertaining, and I care about providing an all-around lovely experience for guests — but I also know that real friends come for the company (okay, and maybe something slightly yummy to eat). I know I certainly don’t care about mess and kids running about when the tables are turned, so why can’t I cut myself the same slack? It’s a good reminder that hospitality isn’t primarily about entertaining but about building relationships and sharing our lives with each other.

Of course, I think there’s something to be said for balance. I’d feel so uncomfortable having guests for dinner while knowing that our only bathroom is a disaster zone and we have nothing planned to eat. It feels disrespectful to be unprepared for guests, especially if I’ve extended an invitation in advance.

Still, while I think there’s a place for beautifully laid-out dinner parties and special-occasion gatherings, what about the every-day, last-minute, come-on-over kind of stuff? I’d like to be better in that department.

I’d love to know: Are you all about “scruffy” hospitality, or do you prefer to entertain in style or plan well in advance? What do you expect when you’re invited into someone’s home — especially if they have young children? And what are the non-negotiables for you if you’re having guests for a meal at your house?

Image: William-Sonoma via Pinterest

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by Ann Waterman

Clock
Like most moms, I’m always looking for more hours in the day, so when I heard about Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours over at Modern Mrs. Darcy, I had to check it out. The title refers to the amount of time in one week: The premise is that you have plenty of hours in the week to do the things you want…if you use them wisely. While I still feel plenty busy, it helped me think differently about how I use my time, and consequently, I’ve made a few adjustments (like parking my smartphone downstairs at night, rather than by my bed) that make me feel a little better about how I spend the hours I do have. Here are my main takeaways from the book:

Core Competencies

The first thing Vanderkam recommends is to identify your core competencies — activities you find meaningful and have some aptitude for but that still challenge you in a constructive way (rather than frustrate you!). I came to this realization on my own some time ago, as I got older and busier, but it was nice to be validated. Now I’m content to admire a friend’s talent for sewing without feeling like it’s something I necessarily need to try myself; there are only so many hours in the day (and week!), and I’m OK spending them on just a few activities I enjoy and have a bit of a knack for. For me, those things include writing, cooking, photography, and working out.

Vanderkam also says that, ideally, one of your core competencies should be your job (which, for me, is managing my home and caring for my family), and another should be some kind of exercise (since it’s so beneficial to your health and, ultimately, your productivity). It could be anything from Crossfit to simply walking around your neighborhood, but it should be something you enjoy so you’ll make it a priority.

Controlling Your Calendar

This is a tough one, especially for moms with little ones where every day is unpredictable. Still, there are times of the day I can usually count on to be free and clear — like before the kids wake up in the morning, nap time, and in the evening after the kids go to bed. The trick, Vanderkam explains, is to fill that time with your core competencies first, rather than non-essential work or time-wasters like web-surfing or aimless TV watching. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told myself I’ll quickly check my email before I start work on a project, only to find myself still in my inbox half an hour later — time that could have been spent working on the project I set out to do.

Vanderkam also recommends tracking your time over the course of the week to see where there is waste or where you may be spending too much time on one activity that could be cut back or outsourced. Which brings me to my third takeway…

Outsourcing

I used to iron my husband’s dress shirts. I dreaded the task because it’s so tedious, and the only time I could do it (because unsteady babies and hot irons do not mix) was after the kids went to bed, when I was exhausted. One day, when my husband was down to his last shirt because I kept putting off this horrid chore, he begged suggested that I cut myself some slack and take his shirts to the cleaner’s. The domestic goddess in me bristled at the suggestion, but after thinking about it, I agreed and have never looked back.

If you’re finding yourself pressed for time, it may be worth taking a look at your weekly activities to see if you can get something off your plate by outsourcing. The cost may be worth it if it frees up a significant amount of time for the things that are really important to you.

I highly recommend the book and would love to hear how you make time for the things you love. Any tips to share?

Image: Shannybeebo via Etsy

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