Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

Full Moon and Stars

(Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

This week, I went back to work.

I started a terrific new job as Legislative Director of a progressive union of nurses, National Nurses United. It was as good as it could be — welcoming colleagues, a job with real meaning and opportunity, and even based close to home in Silver Spring. It is the position I was hoping for all along.

It is also an incredible luxury to be able to keep what I believe aligned with my paycheck, which is something only a few of us get to do. And it was delightful in many ways to feel that sense of autonomy from leaving the house behind, to get dressed in the morning with purpose, to eat lunch in a restaurant without asking them for crayons, or to read something without interruption and be able to form a thought. In short, it was nice to be out again in the world, beyond the solipsism, exhaustion and solitude of caring for a child.

And yet, it was still hard as hell to leave my girl. All week, in keeping with the turmoil, she’s been angry at me. She’s lashing out physically, hitting and kicking in the intense manner she only uses when she actually intends to hurt someone. She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much. And I’ve been short-fused as well, my normal responses to her misbehavior infused with guilt, sad understanding and my own small heartbreak.

On Wednesday night, or Day Two of the new job, she and I were snuggling in bed, everything cuddly again, and she started pleading with me to “stay home.” She incanted it over and over again, until, in desperation, I called to her dad to come in and distract us. I would have given her anything, but could not give her that.

On Thursday night I had a dream. I was exploring a beautiful, sun-dappled orchard with a friend, talking about grand topics like whether plants communicate to one another. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered I had a child, and she was nowhere to be seen. I panicked. I ran, panting hard, to the edge of the field only to see her small body under the wheel of a stopped car. “Maya,” I screamed, then broke into pieces and woke up in a cold sweat.

She was snuggled up next to me. I went to the next room and stared out the window, unable to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In an uncannily timely way, I had two wonderful friends from college over last weekend for brunch, both my age, and these subjects were on the menu alongside the eggs. One is married and does not want children, but spoke with genuine anger of the toll that time out to have kids took on her female peers in the academic world. Another is unmarried, and always assumed she’d have a family, but works at a law firm and has too many long hours to meet someone or to have a child on her own. She sounded sad, and not a little surprised, to find herself in her 40s without children. Knowing her, it surprised me too.

It struck me that me and my peers are really the first full generation of women to be able to work hard enough to make something of ourselves in the professional world, and to have widely internalized the expectation that we would do so. At the same time, many of us — though certainly not all — also want children, a family, and want to be good at all that as well.

I’m not the first one to notice this tension, of course. As I wrote with regard to the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece last spring, the institutions in which we work have a lot of work left to do to accommodate this balancing act, and women are equally bewildered by it much of the time.

I do know many women who seem fulfilled by not working, some of whom are home with children. I know many more who, like me, want a career and a family too, and live with the ambivalence of these half-measures — at work with an undeniable sadness in her heart, or home but stuck on the Blackberry or computer.

Talking with my dear friends, it became clear that some agonizing may be unavoidable. Women need and want to work, to be useful in the larger world. We have ambitions, and we have a right to them. But creating a life that includes the incredibly meaningful act of caring for children, should we so choose, is also so important that for many it ranks as a necessity. How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.

We can hope that someday, the political system will catch up a bit, and provide better supports for working families, including Slaughter’s proposals for more accommodations and the ideas I suggested here. But even with paid family leave and affordable universal preschool and paycheck fairness and an increase in the minimum wage and all the other things I dream about, there will be women like me and my friends:

Women who would have been amazing moms but forgot to work less so they could meet someone. Women who might have been moms if the professional penalties were less — or yet might not. Moms who give up a brilliant career to be where they are needed more.

And moms who want to work — who love their work — but love their children just as much. Those of us who live with a small but constant betrayal of some part of our heart, yet bear up under it, smiling through our confusion and loss, comforting our child however we can, and facing the nightmare of our inattention, late at night, alone.

More Misadventures with Flame Retardants: So.Much.Fun.

Misadventure Number 1:

Sometimes, it appears, moms get stuck between an owl pillow and a hard place. Or at least that’s what happened to me on an ill-fated trip to Target last week.

During a (rare and dreaded) shopping adventure in which I was ISO a dress-up mirror for her bedroom, Maya developed a fondness for an admittedly adorable owl pillow perkily perched at the edge of a shelf in the children’s crapola aisle.

It was kinda’ cute, fairly cheap, and not branded by Disney or any other marketing juggernaut, so I was actually contemplating letting her keep the thing when I noticed its tag. On the one hand, it said “100% polyester” and I recalled that Heather Stapleton had said that polyester is rarely treated with chemical flame retardants. On further examination, however, I noticed that its tag also read “This product complies with TB117,” indicating that it meets the California flame retardant standard that requires harmful chemicals to be put into things like my old couch. Cue record scratch here.

Despite all my research on the evils of flame retardants, I had no earthly idea whether this confusion of labels meant that it complied with the California law because its icky polyester already complies without any need for chemicals, or whether this particular pillow had also been doused in IQ-lowering carcinogens. I was pondering the possibilities when I looked over to see that Maya was enthusiastically putting the pillow in her mouth, which is nasty for a whole host of parenting-fail-type reasons.

When my attempts to wrestle the pillow out of her hands were met with embarrassingly loud wails of protest, I conceded that I should at least try to figure out an answer on the whole toxics dealie. First, I asked a sales associate, who gave me a look like I was fresh from an asylum for helicopter moms and suggested I call the main Target consumer help number.

I did just that, and their associate (allegedly named “Bob,” who was obviously an underpaid hourly employee at a call center not here in the U.S.) in turn referred me, after the several explanations I was able to deliver over Maya’s screaming, to Circo, the manufacturer of said owl pillow, even though there is no number for Circo anywhere, given that it’s just a Target brand.

Since I was Not About to Call Anyone Else About This Stupid Pillow anyway, at this point, I dunno how, the pillow got thrown into the air into the middle of the children’s clothing department, where it would do no one any harm. I told Maya that the owl was nocturnal, and had flown to its nest for “night-night.” After a few concluding sobs, that seemed to end the question and the ensuing crisis, with both of us a just little less wise for the wear.

Misadventure Number 2:

I was always one of those snobs who could not believe that kids and their stuff could fully occupy my friends’ living rooms, leaving no trace of adult life. Like all of my pre-actual-parenting judgments, however, this one bit the dust as soon as I was the one with a child. It’s just so much more convenient to have them in earshot and right off the kitchen, so that you might hear if they are choking on something with a few seconds to spare.

Nonetheless, now that M is less likely to sample the flavors of choking-sized objects, and there is the impending arrival of my new, less-chemical couch, I hatched a tentative plan to Take Back my living room. This involves, by aesthetic necessity, selling the insta-Romper Room primary-color plastic fence around the raised marble edges of the fireplace, and replacing it with some kind of cushion to protect foreheads and the like from its sharp corners.

(Although the fence is plastic, I bought the thing in Maya’s early crawling days, when a rounded-edge, musical contraption looked like a decent option. She didn’t chew on it (much), and the tunes do allow us to experience her awesome dance moves. It’s since dawned on me that there are other gates made of metal or wood to do this job (like this one, which I have not tried). Now that I’m further down my own personal anti-plastics highway, I might have used those instead.)

I recalled the One Step Ahead catalog had some hearth options for child-proofing, including strips for $30 and a large mat for $130. Not cheap, and then I saw the following:

Made of flame resistant, FDA-approved non-toxic dense foam with self-adhesive hook ‘n loop.

As we know, putting “non-toxic” and “flame resistant” in the same sentence is a form of ultimately meaningless — albeit tragically entertaining — noise, much like a Vice Presidential debate.

But actually, it’s not as funny. This picture of a large hearth pad made of flame retardant polyurethane foam with a child playing in front of it literally makes me want to choke. Well-intentioned parents who want to protect their child from both fire and physical injury will buy this hundred-smackerooni-plus pad, thinking that they are doing the best for their family, and will instead be bringing in yet another source of very exposed toxic chemicals into their home. Yeesh.

And I would guess, though this is just a guess, that the corner cushions on our glass-topped dining room table are also made of flame-retardant doused polyurethane (i.e., “PU”) foam, which is just great to have around at mealtimes, I’m sure.

In the living room, I was not about to give up the modest toxicity of our hard plastic fence to replace it with a new source of flame retardants to infect our household dust, so for a minute my reclaiming-adult-living project threatened to go off the rails entirely. Then I found this utterly sketchy product on Ebay of all places — corner cushions made of PE (polyethylene) straight from Hong Kong, for about $9 per package: THICK 2m Table Edge/Corne​r Cushion Softener Guard Protector Bumper Baby Safety.

No mention of flame retardants, though they do claim to be “non-toxic and environmentally friendly.” I’m not sure how that works, exactly. Not being born yesterday, I know this foam is not eco-friendly at all, but as it is a “needed” safety item, I held my nose and ordered it. I’m still awaiting its arrival, and will update the post when it gets here in all its ugly glory.

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The up-shot? All in all, it’s stunning to see how complete the infiltration of these chemical flame retardants is into our lives and the spaces occupied by our children. It’s truly upsetting to think of all the families who are likely not following this arcane battle over toxic flame retardants (i.e., much of sane America) and are bringing this stuff into their homes completely unaware of its risks for them and their children.

And, as with the pillow, the lack of real information on even the simplest product — a pillow, for pete’s sake — is both troubling and problematic. What’s in any of the stuff we buy, anyway, and how was it made? We don’t really begin to know, even if we think we know a few of the questions we should ask.

The End of Summer

Yesterday at the pool, the air had a bite to it, causing both Maya and me to keep as much of our bodies submerged as we could, to the point of bobbing awkwardly just below the water line, stretched out in the baby pool.

And today after the rain cleared, the warmth largely went with it. At the park, it was possible to think of a light sweater with distinct longing.

In my small world, this end of summer has a pronounced bitter-sweetness. Maya is starting preschool in two weeks. It is a particular kind of beginning, the first year in which there is no “back” in back to school.

Up to this point, she’s been cared for by us, by a nanny and relatives based out of our home, which I realize is a very sheltered life. She’s never been to the hurly-burly of daycare, and has spent relatively little time around other children, with the exception of the four close-by cousins with whom she’s officially obsessed.

Hence, this beginning maintains an edge. It is an actual beginning, which is a rare thing, since most are colored by similar events before them.

And while I doubt that her play-based Reggio, two-days-a-week, co-op preschool bears much resemblance to Lord of the Flies, it nonetheless is the first time in which social consciousness may begin to be a force in the formation of her personality. Until now, she has never been:

  • late;
  • laughed at by others or teased;
  • embarrassed;
  • called upon to perform a particular task at a particular time;
  • asked to conform her day to a predetermined schedule;
  • spent any considerable time in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people;
  • been characterized as anything by other people within earshot of her, etc.

In short, for Maya this is the start of a social mode of being that is utterly novel, in a real sense. It comes with embedded expectations of her, and eventually, for her.

Of course, even without preschool, by age three, many of these things likely should have occurred, and would have occurred. But the advent of preschool marks them with clarity, and even allows us some attention and ceremony around them.

And it does feel like a loss of freedom, even for me as an instigator and second-hand observer. Today in the car, Nina Simone’s powerful anthem of unfettered naturalism, Feeling Good, came on, stirred up by the magic of shuffle:

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Contrast that with my much-beloved Adrienne Rich’s almost-clinical telling of the costs and benefits of a truly liminal moment:

Prospective Immigrants, Please Note

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

Of course, in the Rich poem, our courageous immigrant has a choice, and Maya has none. As parents, we hold all the choices still, and merely hope we’ve chosen well.

Then again, about growing up and, more tragically, starting to see ourselves with the double lens of how we are perceived by others, none of us have agency. I recall in high school, when we were encouraged to read a number of bildungsroman – novels about the passage from childhood or adolescence to the long twilight of adult life.

There is so much literary talent and attention spent on this moment, and so little on the earliest transition from a self-directed to a social being, perhaps because this initial stepping forth into the world happens alongside our meaningful first uses of language, and even prior to real memory. But if there is an “age of innocence,” surely this is it.

About school, I have as much ambivalence as most likely do. I remain deeply appreciative of certain teachers, and still have some friends from those faraway days. Yet when I think about it for any length of time, I also relive the harshness and bureaucracy of it: the way we watched those fundamentally humanitarian John Hughes films for clues about how to find, we hoped, our own comic forms of justice in all the petty mess.

Without learning and context, of course, we could never appreciate the transcendent. But still, as Maya enters the fray, stepping into the mundane of scheduling and schoolmates, I wonder to myself how to preserve her current intense presence in the world.

I once wrote a short poem, about an older girl tussling with these late-summer impulses and threats, poised in self-discovery. I was that girl, and the memory of bicycling up that steep incline is as clear as yesterday’s sunlight over the pool.

Gospel

Serious child, it is September.
You are bossing your bike up

this hill, and worried for school.
Summer has you in her long arms

still, and her permissiveness
seems natural. She goes on musing

in your ear of mushrooms, sprung
from sleepy lawns, demure

and shining in the late light, echoing
an early moon. Or of last Sunday,

foreign in a Baptist church,
when sudden angels trilled

their brilliant wings, and took you,
for the first time, from yourself.

Some New Shoes: Looking for Work at 40 Years Old

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (Photo credit: AlbinoFlea)

I’ll be 41 in November and, in some ways, I still don’t know exactly what I’d like to be when I grow up. More precisely, I’m just this minute trying to figure out what more I would want to be, since I’m pretty much set, like everyone is, with what’s happened up ‘til now.

This looking for work business for mid-career folks is now far more common than it used to be, back, oh, whenever that time was when people went to the same job for much of their adult lives. Now, we change jobs more often than shoes.

(Well, at least for some of us. Personally, I haven’t updated my shoes since I got pregnant and they mostly became an expensive form of torture. I refuse to concede that I will never be able to fit into those utterly dated but still pristine kitten heels again. Stubborn, pointless pre-preggo nostalgia, anyone?)

Still, each moment of change asks us something different – who and what do we want, now? Is the next step a linear move from the last one, a side-step, a step down, or a leap off the steps entirely into something new?

Since I’ve been writing about work-life (im)balance a bit, I’ve had to acknowledge my ambivalence, and that my priorities since having my daughter (who turns 2 in two weeks, sniff) have shifted more profoundly than I would have thought possible as a mid-thirties workaholic.

Being with Maya is so delicious, right this second, with her stumbling attempts at 3-word strings that actually mostly make sense, and her “look, mommy” need for my gaze while she tries something new.

I’m keenly aware that this will too soon pass into something else entirely. Even when she’s testing me, I think, well, she’s still so manageable, so obviously ill-equipped to deal with her quick shifts of emotions and desires that she’s really hard to dislike. I suppose that parenting will soon become so much less about physical labor and so much more emotional work – less what will she eat and more what will she think. Wow, that will be harder.

So I rather like it here, with her, right now. I have a job to do that’s reasonably clear to both of us. And Maya would still agree that she needs me, which is something.

Unfortunately, it’s not something I can take to the bank. One considerable downside of being a public interest lawyer, as opposed to some other kind, is the persistence of student loans that require continuing employment.

And far more importantly, so long as my health holds out, I have 30 years of gainful contributions to things I care deeply about left in me. I’m up for that, and looking forward to what can be done with whatever I already know, and whatever I’ll learn. I have energy for that next thing, and I think I’ll know it when I see it.

But let’s be clear on terms: it’s more about values clarification than “work-life balance,” which, when you think about it for more than two shakes, doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway.

After all, for many of us, myself included, our professional work is a defining aspect of our so-called “life,” and we find purpose and meaning there, when we’re fortunate. On the other hand, of course, the notion that all of what we do outside of our jobs is not “work” is unfair because it disqualifies the ordinary labors of running a household, paying bills, or, more essentially, maintaining the emotional and physical lives of our relationships.

Weighing scale

Weighing scale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s not about “having” it all, or, more crudely, having some boxes checked. And while maybe sometimes it feels like a balancing act, it’s not really about a “balance” either, because it’s all (or mostly) work, and all (or mostly) life. Instead, it’s about how we want to spend our always limited time.

Once that’s clear, the question becomes what we value, personally, and what we think should be valued, by society at large. On that second measure, I would suggest, any truthful account would show we’re doing a terrible job at valuing the ways we care for and support each other – both for parents and other caregivers, and for the caring professions like nurses and teachers.

As to the more personal, my job search this time around is of course mainly about finding a job. But not just any job, I’ll (boldly) hope:

Mom, 40, ISO purpose, job: in that order.

When I consider where I am today – in terms of both looking forward to the next three decades, and what time away from Maya now and then will cost us – I need the following: to be part of something that suits me, that feels powerful and meaningful, and that allows me to build on and make sense of the my work and experiences thus far.

If only I could I be so lucky. As they used to say on my favorite series before they rushed out to take the field, “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

Toddler Nutrition: Feeding Your Child for Optimum Health

The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.

But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!

Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.

I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.

We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.

While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.

Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.

Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).

Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.

1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:

We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.

We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).

Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.

In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.

Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.

Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.

On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:

Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.

As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.

We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.

2) Minimizing processed foods:

I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums”  and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.

In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.

Sugar

3) Minimizing sugars:

Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.

Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.

We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).

We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.

Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)

We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.

In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)

The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:

Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.

We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.

While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.

Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).

I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.

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Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.

There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.

I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)

And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.

As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.

Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.

I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.

Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.

More resources:

Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”

  1. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
  2. Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
  3. Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
  4. The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
  5. Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
  6. The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
  7. A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
  8. Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  9. Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  10. The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.

Talking to Toddlers: A Eureka Moment

Redheaded child mesmerized.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In a more-or-less crash course on how to deal with a near-two-year-old, I’ve flipped through a significant number of parenting books full of perky, preachy “dos and don’ts” on talking to toddlers. They typically include tips on how to distract toddlers from a sudden obsession by introducing a different new toy, how to be soothing when an injury occurs (“You’re ok“), or how to structure daily routines in the hopes of minimizing conflict.

And yet I had a gnawing sensation that few of my responses to our daily situations were landing right with Maya. Indeed, it seemed her very set-up, which is all about testing boundaries, was to push relentlessly on all of the serious limitations of this paltry toolbox of tricks. After all, if the corny dialogue in these books failed to hold my interest, how rich are they as a structure for a relationship between a parent and child?

On the other hand, when I actually sat down and read some of the latest fascinating explorations of the infant mind, such as Alison Gopnik‘s The Philosophical Baby, it became clear that, with the research that has become available in only the past decade or so, we now know a lot more about the inner lives of pre-verbal toddlers. We know, for example, that even very young infants connect cause and effect, have rich emotional and imaginative lives, and are more like people in miniature than we guess — meaning that the mix of inauthenticity, expectations for performative little moments (“come give mommy a hug”) and condescension we show them much of the time must grate a little, to say the least.

So imagine my delight when the director of Maya’s new preschool sent around an article about a philosophy of infant and child interaction called Resources in Educare, or RIE, which precisely addressed some of the missing pieces of this puzzle.

RIE, as a school of thought, was popularized in the U.S. by Magda Gerber, an author and teacher who brought a distinct philosophical approach to interactions with infants. One RIE disciple, Janet Lansbury, has a blog called Elevating Child Care that includes many interesting posts that I have since found helpful for dealing with older children.

I’m currently reading Gerber’s book, Your Self-Confident Baby, and while, predictably, I don’t agree with everything in it, there’s a lot to like as well. I’ll be posting a fuller review when I’m finished.

But I don’t want to wait, because right away, I have found her and Lansbury’s analysis of toddler psychology to be revealing and incredibly useful in my conversations with Maya. My instant take-aways to her writing and Lansbury’s thoughtful posts thus far include the following:

  1. It’s preferable to be authentic than falsely cheerful in that “toddler tone.”
  2. Distracting a child who is focused on a task, even a frustrating or inappropriate one, may encourage a lack of sustained attention.
  3. You can usefully (and thankfully!) drop the urge to entertain and allow child-directed play instead. (Given the literature on the importance of relationship-building and engagement, I sometimes feel Gerber takes the “do not teach” imperative a bit too far, but I get her point: parents, including me, play “the expert” all too much and fail to let children just learn for themselves.)
  4. Resist the impulse to always correct a toddler’s verbal mistakes — language acquisition is hard enough without fear of being caught in a mistake!
  5. Don’t say “you’re ok” impulsively whenever there is an injury or perceive hurt — it’s minimizing and mostly serves the interests of the parent, who needs the child to be ok. Instead, ask, “what happened?” first, which is far more respectful, and may actually give you information you may need.
  6. Call out the intention of the child in a conflict and set boundaries clearly instead of just saying “no” loudly and repeatedly, which is the “technique” we had been trying. LOL. (Most exciting is that this actually works, mostly, as you’ll see below — Eureka!)

The overall point is that parents unwittingly and with all good intentions over-ride and blot out children’s own particular intentions, emotions, and useful frustrations in an attempt to make behavior more manageable, acceptable and pleasant. Yet these confrontations with the facts of the world are incredible learning moments.

While we must not ignore the social expectations others will have for toddlers, and we should communicate clearly about boundaries, we also don’t have to let them know “the rules” in a way that dishonors or denies their feelings or motivations.

Cockily, I thought that we were doing pretty well by allowing Maya child-directed play as her main activity, and that we were respectful in our dealings with her. But when I had this “aha” moment, I was actually shocked to reflect upon how much of my dialogue with Maya still revolved around an attempt to conform her behavior through manipulation, often against her obstinate will to do some other thing instead.

In these tiny but powerful struggles, I would tell her “no” to something and witness the internal battle that raged within her, as she struggled to alter her desires to match mine. Mostly, of course, that struggle placed my request for compliance firmly on the losing side. And then had to be reinforced again, more loudly. You can see why this “strategy” was destined for failure.

But the other night, at the pool, with RIE in my pocket, things were different. The stage for an epic battle was set when Maya wandered 10 or so feet away from me close to some large steps leading up a hill, and I was still in the water. It was the ultimate test — could I control her with my voice alone?

I summoned my calmest, most determined voice, and tried the RIE approach, saying clearly, “Maya, I can see you want to go up the stairs [naming her intention]. But you may not go up the stairs because I am still in the pool, and you may not go up the stairs without me. That is the rule. [naming the rule and reason]. Please walk back to me.”

A woman was standing nearby, and I would swear that when these words came out of my mouth she looked over at Maya and shook her head, ever so slightly. Yeah, right, lady, I could almost see her thinking, that’ll work.

But here’s the thing that truly shocked me: it did!

Maya gave out an involuntary little squeal like a angry pterodactyl, balled and unballed her fists, then turned and walked back to me. By the time she got back, she was actually smiling. (I may have, though I can’t really be sure, shot the lady a brief, smug look as Maya was heading back my way.)

I’ve since tried this approach at other times, and I would have to say that even when it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s still far better than the former tactic of escalating “no’s” or even, threatened consequences, Supernanny style. It feels more respectful, recognizes Maya’s intentions and desires, and forces me to articulate our roles and whatever principle may be stake. As a geek and lawyer, I can’t help but think of it as basic due process for children.

As this implies, when Maya is fully verbal, I may need new tools to avoid her lawyering everything to death. But for now, I would say, I’ve finally stumbled across a set of working guidelines that serve our family interactions far better than our former muddling-through.

I hope these few insights are useful to you as well, and I would encourage anyone working through similar issues to check out RIE and Lansbury’s site. If you have techniques you like, please do share as well.

20 Healthy, Easy Toddler & Adult Breakfasts (That Are Not Cheerios)

This is a picture of Yogurt Burst Cheerios tha...

Unlike most of America (if we are to believe the staggering number of options in the grocery store), I’m not a big cereal person. It never has the get-up-and-go I actually need in the morning to jump-start my confrontation with living.

I’ll do a post later on my views on toddler nutrition, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about wheat, and in particular, about highly refined wheat products. (See, for example, this exploration by a critic of The China Study of the raw data from counties in China on wheat consumption and its relationship to obesity, heart disease and a host of other ills.) As a fascinating side-note: people who eat a lot of flour are considered, in my husband’s native India, to be just a little bit dumber than other people, which I find interesting, if not at all scientific.

The “Nourishing Traditions” folks are also critical of seeds and grains as hard to digest due to the phytic acid (and of expeller-pressed grains as particularly bad), and point out that people who are healthier around the world generally soak their grains before cooking them. So while I’m not quite ready to join the anti-gluten crowd, I do look for ways to keep things wholegrain, and try to avoid the pancake/waffle/breakfast strudel temptation. I do love the chia seed pudding below, but it soaks all night in milk…

(Distracting side-note: While I appreciate their back-to-basics approach to whole and farm-fresh foods, I also feel compelled to say in my persnickety way that I do not agree with everything about the dietary recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). For example, I do not think raw milk should be given to children, because it is risks their health and even their lives — in addition to e coli, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are also a threat, as you can read from a milk producer’s comments here to a WAPF blogger’s post full of dangerously poor advice on this particular question. For those interested in this debate, a more serious and balanced discussion of the health and political issues with raw milk is here.)

But back to breakfast. On its own, the refined sugar in most cereals is worth avoiding, especially in cereals marketed to children. And just to ensure we’re all a bit underwhelmed by the latest ad campaign for Fruity-Loop Cinnamon Crunchios, Marion Nestle’s food tome, What to Eat, has a long chapter on the suspect politics behind the cereal aisle and the fakey marketing claims of heart-healthiness stamped on virtually every box. So I think it’s important to think beyond the box for breakfast, and hopefully in the direction of nourishing, low-sugar, healthy and nutrient-rich meals.

I try to make a warm breakfast most mornings, if time allows. Cooking is a pleasant way to get over the fact that Maya has rousted me from bed far earlier than seems humanly possible, and she often takes great pleasure in climbing up on a chair and playing at sous chef.

Eggs, in particular, are a favorite, as they are healthy, full of vitamins and minerals, and a complete food. I do think it’s important to cook them thoroughly, as rates for salmonella poisoning are too high and many farm conditions for eggs are atrocious. We like organic, pastured eggs from small farms for this reason, and because they are also higher in vitamins and minerals from the chicken’s more natural diet of grubs and seeds. (Just a “free range” label is misleading; it often means that the chicken never went outside.) As you’ll see from the suggestions below, there’s a reason why Maya’s favorite things to make in her own small wooden kitchen are eggs!

Below are more than 20 half-decent ideas for a fairly easy and delicious breakfast, with a bonus: most, if not all, would appeal to adults, and also are good candidates for a busy toddler’s begrudging consideration:

  1. Simple french toast, with dense wholegrain, good quality bread. To pasture-raised organic eggs, I add whole, grass-fed organic milk, vanilla and cinnamon, soak the bread and cook it in organic, grass-fed butter, which provides plenty of flavor even without maple syrup or other sugars; if you need something sweet on top, pan roasting fresh orange slices for half a minute can do the trick, and fresh berries are also delicious in this role;
  2. An even easier variation on the above is an Egg-in-the-Hole: pinch a hole in the bread, fry the bread in some butter, and drop an egg into the open space;
  3. Hard-boiled eggs on buttered wholegrain toast (with specifics as above in 1); 7-8 minutes of boiling will cook eggs thoroughly; add pepper and a touch of salt;
  4. Egg scrambles, which are a great way to bring veggies to the breakfast menu. Just add butter to the pan, and cook the vegetables until the moisture is mostly gone. Favorite combinations include: 1) feta, tomato, spinach; 2) peppers, cheddar and green onion; 3) caramelized onion and swiss; 4) cauliflower with a touch of mild curry and cilantro.
  5. Frittatas, like this one with cauliflower, spinach and asparagus (boiled or steamed potatoes, peas, or julienned zucchini, are also good options; sausage can be added as well);
  6. Fritters: I don’t used canned veggies, so I take 1/2 cup of frozen vegetables (like corn and peas, and cook in water in the microwave for 2 minutes in a small glass bowl, then drain). Mix the vegetables with an egg, pinch of salt and about a tablespoon of flour and cook in melted butter or oil (I use medium-heat organic coconut oil) to make fritters. Variations to try: add grated carrot, grated coconut, fresh mild herbs like basil, mint, or cilantro. Serve with plain yogurt for dipping.
  7. Egg salad: Everyone has their own recipe, I’m sure. I use hard-boiled eggs, a small dice of (organic) apples, onions and celery, with a dollop of (organic) mayonnaise, a dash of salt, pepper and cumin, and chopped slivered almonds, and serve on buttered toast;
  8. Channeling the wonderful Julia Child, a one or two-egg omelet — when I’m feeling bold, I add a streak of pesto, a smear of (organic) ricotta cheese, and diced tomatoes just before attempting to fold it neatly in half like our hero;
  9. Easy herb popovers, which I serve with smoked (wild-caught) salmon or scrambled eggs with spinach (these do use flour, but are mostly eggs, and are so worth it anyway);
  10. Fried slabs of polenta with melted cheese and fried eggs (to avoid the plastic packaging of ready-made, here’s a dead-easy way to make your own rosemary polenta);
  11. Oatmeal (here are directions for soaking it overnight to make it super-nourishing); I add flaked, unsulphured organic coconut; organic flax and chia seeds, whole milk for cooking and on top, unsulphured, organic raisins or other dried fruit, cinnamon and a small amount of blackstrap molasses, which is high in iron, and then add fresh berries when cooked (this sounds like a lot of ingredients to have on hand, but Maya likes this so much that I just buy the stuff and keep it together in the cupboard); I’ll note that oatmeal is also considered a very supportive food for pregnant and nursing moms, and assists with lactation, as do coconut and flax;
  12. Coconut Raisin-Nut Cous-Cous, as I describe here (in addition to what’s in the recipe at the link, I’ll note that walnuts, which can be chopped small, are high in Omega 3s);
  13. Brown rice pudding: in a similar turn, just take last night’s cooked brown (organic) rice, cook with milk at a level that almost submerges the rice, add cinnamon, raisins, grated coconut, a touch of vanilla and cashews, and boil gently until soft;
  14. Brown rice, coconut and green lentils, cooked with coconut milk: (Soak the rice for as long as you can — an hour is best if you have the time, but even 20 minutes is better than nothing.) Add 2 cups rice and 1 cup split green lentils (also called moong dal) to the (stainless steel) rice cooker, with 6 1/2 cups water and 1 can of (BPA-free Native Forest brand organic) coconut milk. Cook as normal. Variations: add grated coconut, grated carrots, fresh or frozen peas, cinnamon or grated nutmeg.
  15. Thick wholegrain toast spread with ricotta and sliced dried or fresh figs (if using dried, moisten first and microwave for 15 seconds before slicing), warmed slightly in the toaster or regular oven, or toast with sliced bananas and cashew or peanut butter;
  16. Grilled cheese sandwich (it had to be in here somewhere!): I add black bean hummus spread and thin slices of tomatoes to the sandwich, and have been known to slip in fancy gruyere or other nice cheeses that Maya will only eat melted;
  17. Sweet potatoes, cooked in the microwave, contents scooped out and mashed with cashew or peanut butter and a little milk until smooth and creamy;
  18. Wholewheat quesadillas: with roasted red peppers and cheddar; or mushrooms and swiss cheese, with plain yogurt for dipping;
  19. Simple huevos rancheros: chop tomatoes and garlic and saute, add can of (BPA-free Eden brand organic) black beans, serve with scrambled or fried eggs,  avocado slices and warmed tortillas, salsa or diced tomatoes optional;
  20. A make-ahead option: Wholewheat or rice flour carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread or muffins with cream cheese or ricotta cheese (I’ll add raisins, flax seeds and nuts to anything);
  21. A bonus no-cook, make-ahead option: Chia seed pudding: combine 2/3 cups (organic) chia seeds, 2 cups whole organic milk, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, a touch of sugar and a Tbl of shredded coconut (optional) and leave overnight in the refrigerator for a delicious, omega-3 rich pudding. Serve with fresh blackberries if you have ’em. (Note: chia seeds, due to uncertainty about their properties, are not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, or people with high triglycerides);
  22. A bonus no-cook option for really hot days: fruit salad with mint and grated coconut — just use whatever fruit is in the house, and serve it up with plain yogurt for dipping or drop it all into a (glass) blender for a smoothie. To avoid having to use ice and diluting it, try frozen (organic) fruit instead. When they’re not looking, you can even sneak in some avocado and get away with it, most days.

Update:

Here’s three more we like recently that are super-fast for on-the-go mornings:

  1. Raisins and seeds: Maya loves raisins (I use unsulphured organic ones given the high levels of pesticides on grapes), mixed with organic chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds and other squirrely seeds from the bulk foods aisle. I’ll also throw in some grated coconut.
  2. Low-sugar flavored yogurt with granola, ’nuff said.
  3. Rice or spelt cakes with peanut/almond/cashew butter, raisins optional. (I’m using more rice alternatives given the issues with arsenic in rice, opt for brown organic rice cakes, which have less arsenic, with minimal or no additives.)

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If you like this post, you may want to check out an old, still-functioning grist mill my parents discovered for freshly milled flour, grits, polenta and oats, which are amazing (though not organic). They can be mail-ordered by the pound unless you happen to live near Oak Ridge, NC, in which case you should really just go pick up some of these tasty grits.

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I hope this adds a few ideas to your early-morning arsenal!

Vacation, (not) All I Ever Wanted

So as it turns out, Maya is afraid of the ocean, with its roar and unpredictability and all the many bubbles she kept pointing out.

I should have expected this, because earlier this year she went through a several-month phase of being terrified of the bath. Yet, like a sneak-up-on-you kind of wave, I really didn’t see this one coming. There was no frolicking with joy at water’s edge. Instead, she was so unnerved by the shifting horizon that she panicked even if I made attempts to swim alone, obviously fearing I would disappear in the churn.

Grounded

Sometime along the time when we were checking into the small pediatrician’s office in Milton, Delaware, just as surprised to be there as they had been to get our 8 a.m. call about Maya’s 101-degree fever and cough, the hopes we’d been nurturing about a real vacation (with a toddler) suddenly turned into the bracing ice-cold reality of a splash of Atlantic saltwater.

It was just an ill-timed virus, and she’s already feeling better. I do have a few hold-out memories of good eats, and of Maya playing happily, if with a wary eye, in all that sand. She looks pleased enough in the picture, right?

And last evening, after we were back, she drew long lines on a large piece of paper and pronounced them “way-aves.” They made a big impression, obviously.

If you find yourself on the Delaware shore, I would particularly recommend the homemade dark chocolate-enrobed frozen key lime pie on-a-stick (a stick!) from Maureen’s (to the left just before the boardwalk) in Bethany Beach. And I had 10 incredible fresh-battered, never-frozen succulent scallops, among some other less memorable but still delicious seafood.

Also, we saw dolphins cavorting just off shore. Twice. So, there’s all that, plus some fresh air and sunshine and getting out of town for a while. We may not have gotten what(ever it is) we want, but we did get a little, after all, of what we need.

Weekend Morning at Woodend Nature Sanctuary

Saturday morning was spent very pleasantly at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Nature Sanctuary, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The preschool on the grounds was holding a fundraiser, the “Earth-friendly Re-use It” sale, with items from preschool families for reasonable prices.

There was a nature walk, on which we saw many birds, a deer crossing the meadow (which I was too slow to capture on camera), and bullfrogs sunning themselves. Throughout the year, the preschool constructed an enormous nest of twigs, which will be dismantled over the summer to begin again next year. Maya was excited by the walk, and only asked to be carried for half of it (the uphill part, of course!), which I thought was pretty good, considering.

I have a habit of picking up stuff for Maya second-hand (see my guide to thrift-store shopping here), and this sale was no exception. We found some nice books and clothes, as well as a few toys. The real find was a beautiful handmade wooden dump truck with moving parts, complete with the maker’s initials in a burn mark on the bottom.

It’s a lovely place, with a nature and science-based preschool curriculum. Maybe the right fit for us? We’ll likely apply anyway. I’ve learned the hard way already how competitive preschool admissions can be. Seems worse than college, really…