Parenting & Children

Great Fall Days

October 25, 2016

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Fall is finally here to stay in Maryland — at least, I think so. It’s my favorite time of year, but also usually one of the busiest and this year has been no exception. I was missing in action around here last week because I just couldn’t carve out a spare 15 minutes to get a post up. Some slow mama I am!

My mother-in-law arrived last Wednesday. She usually visits every fall and this year she timed it with the occasion of S’s and H’s First Communion. Usually First Communions, at least in the Catholic Church, are in the spring and early summer, but I can’t seem to do anything the normal way. And since we were preparing them ourselves and I wasn’t ready this past spring and didn’t want to wait until next spring, this October it was.

Those dresses, huh? We borrowed them from my dear friend and the girls’ godmother, who made them. I’m dating myself here but they remind me of something out of Princess Diana’s wedding. I bought some tulle and found a local florist to make the crowns and we were all set. Never mind that S had a bad cold and H – who rarely injures herself – somehow managed a bad rug burn near her right eye. But it was a meaningful and celebratory day and I was very proud of my little princess brides.

October is flying by far too fast, but we’re hoping to enjoy the season before the leaves are all gone and we dig out winter coats. Next up is trick or treating, which I always kind of dread because no one does well with sugar in here. But the dressing up part is so fun! I can’t wait to show you this year’s costumes made by their talented seamstress of a grandmother, so stay tuned. And in the next few weeks we want to get away on a quick overnight to the Catoctin mountains, right here in Maryland. They’re so pretty at this time of year and it doesn’t feel like a proper fall without a trip out of the city to see the colors, and drink some hot cider.

What are you up to this month?

Image: Renata Grzan 

 

 

 

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Let Your Kids Get Dirty

September 20, 2016

NS Beach

It seems that all those years growing up in the country pulling carrots from the ground and eating them with the dirt still on had its merits: Here’s yet another article — this time in the Wall Street Journal — about how important it is to let our kids get dirty how microbes are essential to good health and help us avoid a range of diseases:

From the moment we are born, we begin getting colonized by bacteria, which kick-start a series of fundamental biological processes, including the development of our immune system. Before birth, the lining of our gut is full of immature immune cells. When bacteria move in, the immune cells react to them, changing and multiplying. They even move to other parts of the body to train other cells with the information they have acquired from these intruders. If deprived of this interaction, the immune system remains sloppy and immature, unable to fight off diseases properly.

And:

Inflammatory diseases (such as asthma, allergies and inflammatory bowel disease) and metabolic diseases (such as obesity and diabetes) are characterized by alterations in our immune system and our metabolic regulation. Knowing what we do now about the role of the microbiota, it is not surprising that these diseases are being diagnosed in more children. They are, to a great extent, a consequence of relatively recent changes in our lifestyle—modern diet, oversanitization, excessive use of antibiotics—that have altered the specific microbes that affect our metabolism early on. We urgently need to find ways to modify our behavior so that our microbes can function properly.

So what’s a parent to do?

Let your kids play in the dirt and mud and don’t be so anal about keeping them clean. Give babies and children a wider variety of foods. Cut out processed foods from the family diet. Be more restrictive about giving antibiotics to kids (and give probiotics supplements when you do). And stay away from anti-bacterial soaps. There’s more, but that’s what this article focuses on.

Does it freak you out to imagine your baby sucking on something she found on the ground? Or letting your kids go without a bath for a week?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Travelers

I must say, my kids are good travelers. Of course, one of the first things we ever did together as a family was take a very long flight across the globe. These days we find ourselves flying once or twice a year and each time I get a little better about how best to help them pack for plane travel. Here’s what was in their backpacks this time:

  • Two activity books of their choice
  • Small sketch pad
  • Tiny note pad
  • Small bag of crayons and two pencils
  • Small stuffed animal of their choice
  • Small toy (S chose a rubber lizard and H chose a turtle — they wanted them to be waterproof for ocean play)
  • Water bottle
  • 2 gallon ziplock bag with: bathing suit, flip flops, and full change of clothes. (This was incase our bags didn’t make it and we were stuck in a hotel somewhere. A change of clothes also comes in handy if your little one gets motion sick because the flight is so turbulent, ahem)
  • In their small front pocket: lip balm, package of tissues, and snack bar (In my own backpack, I had a larger bag of snacks to hand out, too, since my girls get hungry a lot.)

This was exactly the right mix for my 8 year-olds. If we had longer flights, we would have added a few more things for them to occupy themselves with, but as it was, they enjoyed watching kids’ movies on the longer leg (our shorter flight had no screens).

Any tips for carry-on essentials for kids when flying? I’d love to hear!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

 

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Dad and son

Most parenting advice is worthless. So here’s some parenting advice.

I laughed when I read that headline. And I like the article, too. Well, not the f-word and cussing. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like when writers use curse words, unless it’s in a novel or they’re blowing off steam on their social media accounts. I’ve noticed that many people under 35 don’t hesitate to use the f-word in their published writing these days. I guess I’m just old.

Anyway, I think the gist of the piece is right on. You know when things start coming your way so often that you know you’re supposed to pay attention? This is part of that for me. I’ve been coming across articles and having conversations lately about how out-of-control the parenting industry has become and how we need to focus more on just being parents, rather than treating our children like projects to manage in order to make them into successful adults.

The author says research shows that genes, friends, and socio-economic status are the greatest determinants of successful adulthood, but I don’t buy that entirely. First, it depends how you define “successful adulthood.” He doesn’t say. Second, if I think about my own childhood, the environment my parents created for me, as well as what they taught and modeled, has made an enormous difference to who I’ve become. (Not that I’d be considered a successful adult by some peoples’ standards — probably not!)

But the author’s point dovetails with a recent conversation I had with my mother, a woman who’s gleaned a thing or two from raising 10 kids to adulthood and was never particularly good at going along with the status quo or following cultural trends that struck her as irrational, unnatural, or just plain ridiculous. She was complaining about how the “cult of the expert” reigns supreme today, and how it has eroded parents’ confidence and undervalued the wisdom of older generations.

This is true, and I think there are many reasons for it. I think one reason we don’t glean much from parents, grandparents, relatives, and more experienced friends these days is that they’re not around much. So many of us live far away from these relationships; it’s a very transient culture. Additionally, many of today’s parents grew up in small families and didn’t help with childcare. When you don’t have your own experiences to draw from, or that of your elders, you turn to other resources to help you figure it out. I had all of the above myself, but then I became an adoptive parent and that added an entirely foreign dimension to my parenting. I’ve not only leaned on others’ advice and experience, I’ve turned to authors, writers, and therapists — all of which are certainly considered “experts” — and I’m grateful for them.

So I don’t think it has to be an either/or, but I totally agree we’ve lost something important in our culture and it’s resulted in a lack of confidence to march to the beat of our own drum as parents. Like the author of the Vox article, I think we’ve become obsessed with getting parenting “right” and agree with his point that “childhood is life, not preparation for life,” which I take to mean that everything we do now shouldn’t simply be to ensure a certain future for our kids, but that childhood should be a wonderful thing in its own right. Our children are not just adults-in-waiting; they are people, living their lives in the here and now.

As parents, we’re often anxious and fearful, calculating so many decisions we make. We all want what’s best for our kids, of course, but what if half the things we do and worry about aren’t going to matter much to their future success one way or another? I suppose we don’t want to take the chance, right? But we’d probably do well to realize that too often what we’re doing is more about us, and that we’re approaching parenting as project managers rather than as loving parents who enjoy our kids’ childhoods and who trust that it’s a whole host of factors — many of which are out of our control — that will determine our kids’ futures.

What do you think?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

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H and S

The photo above pretty much sums up how S and H felt on our 8 day trip to Nova Scotia last week. They are generally happy girls, but I don’t know that I’ver ever seen them having more fun — endless playing with cousins, swimming and beach time, and running around outside without supervision. They didn’t want to come back and proposed we stay so that “all the cousins can live together.”

While I always like to come home to my own life, I can’t say I was entirely opposed to the idea. If you want to get away from a hot and humid city, work deadlines, stressful news stories, American politics, and anything that makes you weary, the north shore of Nova Scotia is a pretty great place for that. We happened to choose a week of perfect weather — high 70s and 80s with little humidity and lots of sun. One small thunder storm came through which filled the sky with amazing clouds and light and produced a fantastic fully-arched rainbow over the woods.

We also had more sugar, dairy, and refined flour in one week than we did all year. But it was vacation time and we were in the land of delicious homemade baked goods so how could we resist? Not only that, many of my siblings are great cooks so we were the happy recipients of many delicious meals, including an authentic outdoor-made Spanish paella and the best smoked fish chowder I’ve ever tasted. And then there’s just all those crazy Canadian potato chip flavors like ketchup, smokey bacon, “all-dressed,” etc. — and cookouts with smores. I’m more motivated than ever to start a new exercise routine, I tell you.

Mostly, it was just so good to be with family, by the ocean, away from everything for a little while. Towards the end of the trip I found myself thinking up new projects and feeling inspired to do things I’d lost motivation for — all because I had a break from my daily deadlines and commitments. Each of us needs such breaks — they’re so important to our well-being.

Re-entry is proving hard, but while I make attempts, here are a few photos from our trip. (Check out more on Instagram: @slowzoe):

Baked goods My mother’s cinnamon rolls and my sisters chocolate-filled croissants.

See, you wouldn’t have been able to resist either!

 

Paella Spanish paella in the making

Honestly, I think my brother’s paella was better than the one I had in Spain! He had all the authentic ingredients thanks to my Spanish sister-in-law and did it right.

On the sandbar Sandbar races

These cousins like to run and they’re fast!

Roasting marshmallows Roasting marshmallows

A few smores may have been had right before bedtime…

Sunset One of many gorgeous evening skies

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Fire by Roya Ann Miller

Not long ago I was talking to my daughters about what to do if we ever get separated in a public place, or they get lost. I opened my mouth to say “look for a policeman” and then stopped myself. How would they know the difference between a uniformed cop and someone like a security guard or member of the military? Besides that, older strange men often intimate them. So I asked myself Who’s the safest person in a group of strangers for a child? And suddenly it dawned on me: a mom with young children. So, now I tell my daughters to look for a woman with little kids and ask her for help if they ever need it.

How are children supposed to know which strangers to be weary of? It’s confusing for kids to be told not to talk to strangers, and to be wary of strangers, while at the same time expect them to be friendly and make small talk with the strangers they meet in daily life — like shopkeepers or neighbors down the street. Why didn’t you say hello? I’ve sometimes asked my daughters when getting out of an elevator after someone has spoken to them. At times I’ve felt badly about what must seem like rudeness to others. But they were strangers, mom! they say to me. And they’re right — they are strangers — so how do we teach the difference?

A woman named Pattie Fitzgerald, who’s been teaching child predator safety awareness for many years, has a program called Safely Ever After and she says we should stop telling our kids not to talk to strangers. “They might need to talk to a stranger one day. Instead, teach them which sorts of strangers are safe.”

She says we should instead help children know how to detect what she calls “tricky” people — the kind of strangers they should be weary of. One of her guidelines for knowing who is unsafe is that tricky people ask kids for help, whereas “safe” adults ask other adults for help — not kids. Her web site has a lot of other tips and helpful info. (I was happy to see that she also says if kids are lost, one of their best options is to look for a mom with kids for help.)

How do you teach your kids about stranger danger?

Image: Roya Ann Miller at unsplash

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Being creative

You’ve surely heard me call myself “the world’s worst homeschooler.” Almost three years into it and I still stand by that. Okay, I’m probably not literally the worst, but I seriously think I could start a Facebook group called “pathetic homeschoolers” and not feel the least bit like a phony.

Like most homeschoolers I know, I struggle at times… I wonder if I’m doing enough, or missing the best strategies, or using the right curricula. I’m inconsistent, I get tired, I compare myself to others, and my kids to other kids. I question if this is the best path, and sometimes entertain the idea of throwing in the towel. Not all the time, but there are days.

The truth is, however, I do it because when push comes to shove, I love homeschooling. And I’m convinced that, at least right now, it’s the best option for our daughters and for our family. But since homeschooling is not the typical path and I support school choice and recognize that different options work better for different families, I’m conscious about how I come across when I talk to non-homeschoolers.

When friends and strangers alike hear that we homeschool, they often say things like, “Oh, I could never do that!” or “I love my kids, but I really like when they’re in school!” I understand those comments. There are days when I dream of my kids being in school all day so I have no interruptions and can get all my work done. But when I get such comments, I’m tempted to minimize my love for homeschooling, not wanting to make someone else feel bad or judged in any way. (I often say: Believe me, if I can do it, anybody can! And I really mean that.)

But at the same time, when I’m out and about — like say at the grocery store with my 8 year-olds at 1:00pm on a Monday — I’m aware that people may wonder if I take my kids’ education seriously, or if my kids are missing out, and I don’t want to sound insecure about our decision or reticent to talk about it. So I’m often trying to find that balance of being a happy homeschooler while making sure no one feels like I’m rubbing it in their face.

Recently someone posted this HuffPost article on Facebook called “3 Things Your Homeschooling Friend Isn’t Telling You” and I found myself nodding along with the whole thing. It reminded me once again why a woman like me, who doesn’t think she homeschools very well, continues on. I love the flexibility it allows, the creativity, the ability to tailor learning to my individual children. I love the wholesome environment we can provide our daughters to learn and to discover who they are in this big world. As much as my kids can drive me crazy at times, I treasure all the time I have with them because time passes quickly and the relationships we’re building now are a foundation for the future. I’m grateful to have all the supports we have around us, which make it easier to do this — coops, activities, other homeschoolers, lots of resources.

I suppose this post is mostly meant for me, to remind myself that I really do enjoy being a homeschooler, despite my struggles and chaotic days and my down-playing it to others. Of course, I’m writing this while we’re on our summer schedule, which is an easier time to sit back and feel good about things. But when November rolls around, I think it may help to re-read this post.

If you’re a homeschooler, does that article resonate? If you’re not, do you find it helpful to remind yourself why you do what you do?

 

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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And Now They Are 8!

June 27, 2016

Pastries at the farmers market

My beautiful girls turned 8 years-old on Sunday. Eight! It’s hard for this mama to believe. I should perhaps say that we celebrated them turning 8 because as anyone who’s adopted a child from Ethiopia knows, birthdays are rarely accurate. They don’t record birth dates in Ethiopia and don’t tend to celebrate birthdays. Add to that the fact that children relinquished for adoption are often assigned younger ages to make them more “adoptable” and you rarely come home with a true birth date.

Most people don’t do anything about it — unless the discrepancy is vast and it causes issues with school, health, or developmental issues. Changing it on all of the documents that come with adoption would be a paperwork nightmare in my books. So, June 26 it is in our house!

Last year, S and H didn’t want a party so we had just family and godparents over for cake and did something together as a family instead. This year the request was different: they wanted a party with friends. Since it was a busy week after getting back from Kentucky, we kept it simple: Snacks, drinks, cake, and ice cream in our courtyard for about 20 people. Then most of the group headed down to the carousel and water fountains at the harbor, close to our house. Thankfully, the weather was perfect. Then it was gift-opening when we got home. The girls proclaimed it “the best birthday ever,” which is always a good thing.

8th birthday

I didn’t have time to make two cakes like I did last year. Instead, the girls picked out what they wanted at our local WholeFoods bakery. I did, however, make gluten-free cupcakes since as one of our little guest needed it. The vanilla cupcakes themselves turned out really well, which was edifying since I made some substitutions such as coconut palm sugar instead of white sugar. But the frosting was another story…

The plan was to whip up a topping using coconut cream (from a can of coconut milk) and flavor it with vanilla and honey. But when I went to re-whip it, just before the guests arrived, the consistency changed and more or less curdled. No idea why. (Chemistry was never my strong-suit, which is probably why I’m such an  inconsistent cook.) It still tasted good, though, so I went with it, hoping to disguise the mistake with some colored sprinkles on the top (dye-free, of course). But 10 minutes after I put the sprinkles box on the counter, I couldn’t find them anywhere. The whole family ended up getting into the hunt for the box of sprinkles, with no success; they had disappeared into thin air. So, I stuck some dark chocolate chips on top instead.

I had to laugh, though: after all that, the little guy I made them for didn’t like them! All the adults did, though, and the other kids, too, so the cupcakes still got gobbled up. (Oh, and I found the sprinkles later hiding under our Japanese wood cutting board. Turns out, the little box fit perfectly underneath the board, and rather than lift the board up, we kept simply pushing it around the counter in our search. Good grief.)

Anyway, back to the birthday girls… They are growing and changing so quickly and I’m trying to be present to the everyday moments, knowing they pass all too fast. I don’t want to be a mom who’s always upset that my kids are getting older — and in my girls’ case, they need encouragement as they are sometimes unsure they want to get any older — but I can’t help feeling a little wistful to see their younger selves transforming before my eyes. Just a part of motherhood, right?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

 

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Handmade dresses

Among my mother-in-law’s many gifts is her ability to sew. And I don’t mean simply fixing hems or mending holes. This woman can make stuff. As a young woman, she made her own clothes that were fashion magazine worthy — people would stop her on the street and ask where she got what she was wearing. She has sewn all kinds of incredible things over the years, and I would add kids Halloween costumes to that list as the ones she made for the girls the past two years were really something.

I marvel at this talent because sewing is not something I grew up with. My mother never learned — she was left-handed and refused to do it the right-handed way, which is the only way anyone would teach it when she was young. And I had such a crummy experience in home economics class myself that it put a bad taste in my mouth when it came to sewing so I didn’t pursue it. Neither of my grandmothers seemed to sew, either, at least as far as I remember.

One of the highlights of our trip to Kentucky this month for S and H was being introduced to sewing by B’s mom. She had them practice using the machine, and then she took them to a fabric store where they picked out fabric for sundresses she helped them to make. They were quick to know what they wanted — and both knew they wanted their dressed to be long.

The results are above. Aren’t they beautiful? (They also look so grown up — sniff, sniff!) For Father’s Day on Sunday, the girls insisted on wearing them — to church and out for brunch — and as predicted they made a statement everywhere they went. (These girls can wear any color and look dynamite – I’m so jealous.)

Coming home with a beautiful dress that they can say they made (with Nana’s help!) is indeed special, but perhaps even better is the memories this made. Sewing with their grandmother is something the girls can treasure for many years to come. I guarantee they’ll remember these first outfits they made.

Do you sew? Would you like to learn? If you could make something with a sewing machine, what would it be?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Kentucky Sign

We made it to Kentucky after a two day trek. On the first day we had some crazy weather in the West Virginia mountains. We’d come around a bend and hit torrential rain with almost no visibility; then 15 minutes later we’d come over another mountain and it would be so bright and sunny we’d need our sunglasses. And it went on like that. Thankfully, we seemed to skirt the worst of it and now we’re safely ensconced at my mother-in-law’s. It’s the first time S and H have made the trek to their Nana’s house.

I was so busy last week that I didn’t put much thought into how to pace the trip for them, but they did well — except for the last two hours when they were ready to be there already and exasperated with sitting.

We had already decided to break the drive up into two days. The girls aren’t used to a lot of car time and a 10 hour drive straight would have been too long. So we stopped half way at a hotel with a pool. Beforehand, I tried to prepare them psychologically for the fact that it was going to take a long time to get to Nana’s. I also helped them stock their backpacks with art supplies, a couple of small toys, a few favorite stuffed animals, water — and we brought snacks, of course. B downloaded the audio books for a number of The Magic Treehouse stories, which H and S like — and that helped get us all through the last bit of the trip.

Although this will probably be our only long road trip this summer, it makes me wonder about how parents keep their kids occupied when they make long treks. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

 

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