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On Mamalode! Cherish: the agony and ecstasy

My very first blog post here was about an experience shared by mothers of small children everywhere: being told to enjoy every minute by various ogling passers-by. Each time it happened to me, I suppressed the impulse to grab said stranger by the collar and scream “Why don’t you effing enjoy it while I go take a nap!??!”

There is a presumptuous and powerful nostalgia that strangers will shove right in your face as a mother of little kids–a command to cherish, and do so obsessively. It’s sort of sweet. But it’s mostly obnoxious as hell, because remembering life with small kids is light-years away from actually living it. And telling someone to enjoy every minute is clearly delusional, since they certainly didn’t, and since there are many Many things about raising children that are not by any means enjoyable.

My essay, Cherish: the agony and the ecstasy is up on Mamalode. I’m delighted to share my straight-talk over there.

Cherish: The Agony And Ecstasy

The board book: friend or enemy?

If you’ve ever read a board book to a toddler, you may have encountered this one:

The overly wordy board bookAfter 5 pages, or maybe the the thirteenth time it’s toddled up to your lap, you start omitting large swaths of story. Why would anyone in their right mind put this damn many words in a board book? It’s like performing an interpretive dance for a telephone pole. When it’s over, you’re exhausted and quite certain it missed the point.

Or maybe you’ve read this one:The embarassing sing-along board bookIt cajoles you into making embarrassing sounds or singing strange little songs and when all is said and done, you feel like an idiot.

And of course, there’s this old classic:The terribly written board book

It may not make you sing, quack or read until you’re blue in the face, but this damn book is misery in disguise. It insults, it bores. It can turn a warm, soft, snuggle fest into Dissociation-ville USA.

Fear not, you listless, embarrassed board book reader. There is hope.

Between you and me, books don’t even matter yet.

For the first couple years, most humans tend to be into things like light and faces and fresh air and anything that happens to be on the ground. So if you just hang out near your kid and go outside once in a while, you’re probably good.

If you want to get all fancy by throwing a board book into the mix, then it might as well be something you find highly amusing. Or something that will entertain your kid while you go have a cocktail.

For the later, behold, the wimmelbilderbuchs of Ali Mitgutsch!

Ali Mitgutsch's board books
My awesome neighbor Slowmamma loaned me these!

These are “teeming picture books,” meaning that they have full-spread detailed pictures on every page. And a few characters who continue their story from page to page. Delightfully, unlike their Richard Scary counterparts, they have No Words.

Ali-Mitgutsch's board book inside page

That means you can create a whole elaborate narrative if you feel like it (?!) or you can do absolutely nothing while your small, pudgy friend “does some reading.”

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then my favorite board book will come as no surprise.Baby Mix Me A Drink board book

We have Lisa Brown to thank for this breath of fresh air and good ol’ renegade McSweeney’s for publishing it.

Inside, you’ll find visual recipes for those toddlers who tend to forget that mama likes two olives in her gin martini.

Most importantly, it aces the most important board book requirement of all:

It’s amusing as hell for the people who know how to read.

Top 5 toddler toys that aren't toys

1) Stroller wheels

The upright stroller is so yesterday. Need to muck out the chicken coop? Get some gardening done? Wolf down the danish you’ve been hiding in your bag so you don’t have to share? Might I recommend the upside-down or side-lying stroller.

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My feral children find spinning the wheels to be mesmerizing. And they pick up all sorts of immune-boosting bacteria to boot.

Here’s an example of how we like to use the upturned stroller in everyday life.

Though it looks like they keeled over from sheer excitement as they watched us put the finishing touches on our chicken run, our strollers were actually just falling in line for a 1-year-old’s wheel spinning bonanza.

 2) Pot with lid and other stuff

Your kid isn’t obsessed with taking lids off of pots and putting things inside, putting the lid on, taking the lid back off, taking everything out and then starting over again? That’s just because you haven’t given her the opportunity! Add spoons or tongs or trucks and voila! You just created a toddler project. And she might be at it for 20 minutes or more.

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You know what that means. Dishes washed. Strange crust scraped off of table. And maybe, just maybe, some texting in the corner where she can’t see you.

3) Baby snot sucker thing

Behold! The most revered and requested bath toy in our house:

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With it, you can suck whole milliliters of snot out of your baby’s nostrils. But no, that’s not all!! In subsequent years, it doubles as a tub toy that delights for hours. Since the various parts detach from each other, you can watch as your children suck up bathwater and spit it out through the clear tubing like a whale with a blowhole! Listen as they bubble and splurt water out of the blue, egg-shaped chamber, and let your mind be transported to that college dorm room, the glow of Christmas lights on Frank Zappa posters, the intermittent gurgle of bong water.

*Bonus* Plastic tubing also works as a siphon. With only a small cup on your bathtub ledge and some suction, your children can explore the miracle of atmospheric pressure.

*Warning* Persistent bath play with this product can lead to mold growth in the clear tubing as seen above. A pipe cleaner and some soap can do the trick. Or you can take a page from the stroller wheel playbook and let those kids keep on immune boosting.

4) Canning jar rings

While I cannot speak to the use of these in terms of food preservation–we haven’t actually canned anything in years (fingers crossed for plum season 2015)–I can attest to their usefulness to a 1 year old.

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They make a tinny clatter when you pour them out for the 30th time on the kitchen floor. They spin around on their ends sometimes. They are bracelets.

5) And last but not least:

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Think scissors are a terrible toy for your toddler? Think again. There is so much learning and fun to be had with these. Last week, I cleaned the entire house while Cal tried to cut his own fingernails with them. After we bandaged his bloody fingers, he cooked me a delicious roasted turkey supper. Then he built a fire in our wood burning stove and performed Hamlet’s soliloquy as I warmed my feet on the hearth.

And if you believe that, then stay a while, and I’ll tell you another one.

True, I allow my kids to drink their bathwater through *slightly* moldy snot-sucker tubing. But even I have my limits.

Cal can’t play with these till he’s 3.

Car camping is my new best friend

As a long-time backpacker in my youth, I would scoff at car campers. Why would you go to so much trouble to sit in a dusty parking lot and sleep in a tent?

Well, you narcissistic 20 year old know-it-all, because you have small children. That’s why.

And it doesn’t have to be a dusty parking lot, either.

We packed ourselves all up with stuff we had—sleeping bags, folding chairs, camp stove, pack-and-play, an old nonstick aluminum pan that AJ bought at a thrift store in New Zealand while I snuck off with a lid from another cooking set since we only had $6. And then we added a slew of borrowed stuff to the mix: 6 person tent, twin air mattress, full sized air mattress, battery operated thing to blow up air mattresses.

Then we were off. Propelling ourselves through the heavy, hot air of California’s central valley to a place called King’s Canyon.

On the road, back seat version. #familytriumph

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Back when we did childless things like going to trivia night every Monday, I remember one of the co-hosts mentioning how beautiful King’s Canyon was. So we decided to go to there.

Let me tell you, I’ve been dragging my feet on this camping thing. We tried once when Jo was 7 or 8 months and it was not the best. We actually backpacked in a couple miles–AW with Jo strapped to his front and a backpack on his back, only to find out that there was a spot we could have driven to less than 1/4 mile away. In the end, he barely napped and instead rolled around the tent like a ping pong ball. The night was pretty similar and I woke up bleary-eyed and desperate for our usual world of cribs and doors that close.

When it comes to camping, I wish we were co-sleepers–sleep together at home or sleep together in a tent. One less hurdle to get over. But for our separate-sleeper family and particularly me, with my sleep PTSD, the idea of bedding down together in a tent gave me the heebee-jeebees. To his credit, AJ was persistent, and I said OK through gritted teeth.

Then I stumbled across this post about traveling with kids and–cue soundtrack for light breaking through the clouds–a little golden ray started shining through. I commented on the post, admitting my terror of family tent sleeping and Free to Be replied,

…if you’re used to doing things a certain way at home, it often is a case of looking at things from a totally different angle as a camper – just as the cooking gets done in a different way, so does bedtime and babycare.

Eureka!

So damn true.

I packed that little nugget along with us and kept it as my mantra. I still doubted as we wound our way through the canyon to a campsite at the road’s end, all while enduring Cal’s cry which had turned raspy from overuse. We pulled into our site around 6 and I stumbled out of the driver’s seat, grabbed blotchy, sobbing Cal, yanked his clothes and diaper off and deposited him on the riverbank.

There was a cool breeze. Jo scrambled from rock to rock. Banged sticks on things. Threw stones at things. Cal felt the wind in his face. Splashed. Was calm.

I didn’t look at a clock for the next 4 days. We ate when hungry, slept when tired and not only survived, but enjoyed ourselves. That huge tent and the air mattresses helped too. Yes. There were nights when Cal would wake up Jo who would then wake up Cal. But AJ and I would take turns sleeping in and napping by the river. And being up with Cal at 5:30 washing dishes by the river had its own charm.

Camper

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There was a sublime joy in seeing Jo in such a fitting environment. I had a blessed break from the word “no.” Wanna break that branch? Sure. Light that on fire? Please. Hurdle that huge boulder down into the water? Just wait till that girl floats by. Ok, you betcha.

And we got deep into Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Jo saw the cover illustration of the spooky, beautiful witch at the library and was hooked. I required him to sit through my lengthy prologue about the term “witch” and it being a catch-all category for many powerful, magical, wonderful women. Once we got into it, I was struck by Jo’s fear and fascination with deadly, dark characters. Since I’m still afraid of the dark and the Wicked Witch of the West, I worry that stories like these only introduce him to oppressive, new fears, but I had the sense over and over as we read it that it was filling a deep need of his. To have a place to rest some of his knowledge that there are scary things and people out there. To be trusted with a story with some sharp edges.

When we weren’t reading in our camping chairs to the delicious white noise of the South Fork of the Kings River, we were roasting marshmallows over a campfire while Cal slept in his tented pack-n-play. In just four nights, I learned the geography and natural rhythms of Sentinel campsite #13 more intimately than those of the sweet little house we’ve lived in for the last year and a half.

The way the cedars go from 3 dimensional swaying green giants to lacy black frames for a hundred million stars. The evening glow on the east bank of the river, just before sunset. My back pressed into the smooth curve of river rock, eyes closed in the sun, squinting the light in every so often to watch Jo jump and splash through his new river world.

A mom divided

I wrote this 2 weeks ago, and tossed it aside. Not for the blog, I thought. Too fragmented and emotional. When I read it again this morning, I  recanted. I should post this. Because it’s fragmented and emotional, and I’m sure some of you will relate.

***

I love my new job. And it’s making it harder and easier to be a mom.

I get a break from the incessant demands of home and children. I ride my bike up the hill and sit at a desk and order lunch and walk about freely, where I’d like when I’d like. I’m making money, which feels blissfully good. Being at home has a new sweetness to it.

And

I have so little time to spend with Jo, just the two of us. I’m coming to terms with just how many hits our time together has taken in the last year: baby Cal joining the menagerie, Jo starting pre-school and me starting this job. This time last year, I spent all but 12 hours a week with Jo, traipsing to parks, wrestling him into rest time, gardening and navigating his physical outbursts sometimes with patience and other times by screaming in his face and then being racked with tears and guilt.

Ah yes, there was that. It’s easy to forget from this place, where unlimited time with Jo is the greener pasture. That damned greener pasture—always re-locating to somewhere other than where I am.

It’s such a radical shift to suddenly need to schedule time to hang out with Jo. So much so that I haven’t really done it at all. And I miss him. I miss the team that we used to be—sure, it wasn’t all roses, but he was my sidekick.

I worry that he may be suffering as a result. His crazy dips into extreme hyper-ness, run-by pinching of Cal.

And here’s the truth of it. It’s harder for me to connect with him these days not just because I have less time, but because I just don’t understand him as well.

Somehow, in the past couple of years, he’s slowly morphed from a soft innocent into a hard, fast trickster. And it’s harder for me to like him.

Right around that same time, I gave birth to blonde Cal. Sweet blonde Cal, into whose sweet, chubby softness I can dive for hours and feel an easy bliss.

I’ve been avoiding one child and seeking refuge in the other.

And the less I connect with Jo, the harder it gets. And the stranger he seems to me.

This division of myself between my two sons, this is what I worried about when thinking of having another baby—having to shift my attention between 2.

This gorgeous image was generously shared by Barbara Butkus. Talk about an honest photo. It captures that challenge of toggling attention between multiple kids, no?

Is this just the inevitable course of our relationship? This slowly widening distance over which it feels too hard to bridge?

In having a second child, was I unknowingly signing myself up to lose my closeness with the first?

How our family survives cold season

I fear antibiotics the way that some people dread spiders or snakes. I actually had a nightmare when I was pregnant with Cal that I might need them during his birth and woke up in a cold sweat.

Before I go on, let me also mention that I love antibiotics. When I got an infection in my leg from a sting ray wound on my foot, I gulped those suckers down like they were candy. And miracle candy it was. Infection, gone. Leg still kicking. So to be more thorough, I fear and love antibiotics.

In my adolescence, I had several courses of antibiotics after a botched wisdom tooth removal. The surgery also left me with a piece of a dental instrument in my jaw and a partially numb lower lip for life, but the antibiotics threw me the most.

I suddenly became a 13 year old with chronic yeast infections that didn’t abate until college, when I got serious about a sugar free, dairy free, wheat free diet. These days, I don’t have to carry around little baggies of sprouted almonds to snack on while everyone else eats cake. But I do take a probiotic every morning. I started taking it consistently when I had a surprise bout of mastitis when Jo was 2. My acupuncturist recommended them and some herbs and manually expressing pus out of my achy boob. Good times.

I kicked the mastitis, which had gotten pretty serious, without needing antibiotics, and I was delightfully yeast-infection-free to boot.

I got especially lathered up about probiotics after I happened upon a PBS special that talked about how your gut is the first line of defense in your immune system–if you want to stay healthier, dose up your gut with a whole boatload of good flora. So I kept taking the probiotics everyday. Lo and behold, I stopped getting sick so often. Everyone in our house would come down with something, and I’d sail through unscathed. I would swagger around feeling biologically superior and imagining that my gut looks like this:

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Image by Cornelia Kopp

That’s when I decided we should all be taking one. So I found the cheapest place that sells the brand my acupuncturist likes and started giving AJ one everyday too. Jo digs his chewable version and I mix Cal’s into his bottle. They are not cheap, but I decided that the money we save from Jo not having missed a day of childcare in 2 years more than covers it. I swear we get sick less often than most other families we know, even though we’re swimming in the same viral and bacterial petri dish that is pre-school.

When we do get sick, it usually looks like a downgraded version of what everyone else is getting, and my favorite go-to for Jo and Cal is this great kids’ health resource. After checking in with it about 6 month old Cal’s sniffles, I’ve been dosing him up with 3-4 drops of echinacea tincture in his nighttime bottle, along with a couple drops of this for good measure.

On a side note: I started the new job. I chuckle to myself every day that I wander into the sea of cubicles. Being there feels a bit like visiting a foreign country–I feel unsure of the lingo–whether someone is kidding or completely serious, but I’m starting to get a toe-hold on the culture of the place. Like magic, I get excited to come home. I open the door and sigh. Home. I feel a sweet little lift instead of the old kerplunk that used to greet me. Also, I am pleased to say that AJ and I have reached a delightful understanding: after we put the kids to bed, we put the house to bed. So my fears of sinkfuls of crusty dishes and general mayhem have been allayed. And it feels, more than ever since having kids, that AJ and I are team. Woot.

Some relief, courtesy of big pharma

Well things are leveling out around here. Sort of.

I *might* be finding a new Zoloft dosage that works better for my new friend, Anxiety, who has decided to hop on the post-partum emotions bandwagon. It’s only been a few days at the new dosage, and it’ll take a few weeks for things to level out.

We’re still not out of the woods yet, but I actually experienced what it is like to live in the body of a normal, non-anxious person for two nights in a row, thanks to a bit of Lorazepam. I’m always nervous to take a new pharmaceutical, but my friend C nudged me to give it a try, after two horrible mornings of feeling what can only be described as hyper-hell-restless-everywhere syndrome. In the early morning, between 5 and 6 when AJ would bring Cal up for his early morning feed, my body would come online in a bunch of worried, jittery bursts that kept firing over and over and over. As if my whole self was trying to jump/stretch out of my body. And then I’d spend the next several hours reminding myself that I was not dying and that I and my family are all perfectly okay and even doing well.

So an hour after I took the first wee, white circle of Lorazepam, my entire self heaved a huge deep sigh. Relief. I didn’t realize how long my body had been feeling this way until I had my first real break. I’ve been walking around with this tight, fearful, panicked body every day for the last few weeks. And it has been draining as hell.

Last night, after I took my new favorite drug, I just laid on the couch and soaked in the feeling. No aching limbs. No tightness anywhere. Just a tired lady on the couch at 9 pm. Oh, the joy of feeling like a regular person.

Photo by Jorbasa
If I were a cat with a small, wicker ottoman, this is what I would look like after taking my Lorazepam.  Photo by Jorbasa

I feel somewhat guilty for being reliant on prescription medication for my basic sense of wellness these days, but that guilt can just shove it. There will be a time and place when I have more time and resources to try other things. Life is long. Maybe in a few months or a couple years, I’ll be feeling great with an occasional therapy session and the drops of some horrendous tasting tincture. For now, though, I need the big guns, and I’m gonna use them.

Anxietyville USA

It’s been so touch and go around here that when I wrote this post last week, I decided to focus on my recent experience of depression. I just didn’t have enough time to go into the whole kit and caboodle. The truth is, a couple weeks after starting the Zoloft, I found myself smack dab in the middle of Anxietyville USA. The last time I visited anxiety-town was during that special time in Jo’s 4th/5th month of life that I often refer to as “The Downfall.”

Like then, the anxiety has had a consistent and tight grip. The layer of my body beneath my skin and above my muscles is always tense and on alert, particularly in my arms and face.

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Photo by arbyreed

My mind and body feel as though things are always about 13 seconds away from complete catastrophe, even if I’m just strollering baby C up the sidewalk while Jo runs and whollops everything he passes with a stick he found.

Anxiety. A real dream come true, let me tell you.

When it first crept in, I thought it was because I’d had a couple nights of sort of crappy sleep and because baby C started doing the old 40 minute napping routine that Jo started doing just before The Downfall. (Thanks to my sister-in-law, I’ve learned that this whole 40 minute thing is a Thing commonly referred to on blogs and parent forums as “the 45 minute nap intruder.”)

Desperate to reign in the anxiety, I made a plan to get more sleep (Ambien) and to simplify my daily routine (put the cloth diapers on hold and supplement with formula a bit if necessary). Check and check. I was going to nip this in the bud.

I got the sleep, and am still getting it. Our trashcans overflow with disposable diapers. And we did supplement with formula a few times. But my little friend Anxiety is still kicking. Right now as I type, I’ve got that old familiar tight ache in my biceps and wrists, as if to say, “Stay on guard. Be ever vigilant. You might be needed for swaddling at a moment’s notice.”

I’ve started to wonder if the anxiety could be a side effect of the Zoloft. I don’t remember this happening the first time I started taking the stuff, but I was also goggle eyed with exhaustion and depression, and anxiety already had me white-knuckling it through every day. (It was quite a time, let me tell you.) My primary care doc confirmed this for me today–anxiety is a common side effect particularly during the first few weeks on Zoloft. But I’m already 5 weeks in.

Whether it’s a side effect or situational doesn’t really matter, though. Because it’s happening. So what I need to do is figure out how to manage it while its here and hopefully to help it go away.

I made an appointment to talk with a psychiatrist (it only took 26 phone calls to find one who could see me this month and accepts my insurance–such a joy to do that while parenting 2 kids and feeling emotionally unstable) so I can wade more efficiently through my questions about side effects and what the best meds (if any) would be for me, given that I’m breastfeeding.

And I also have had some great revelations about things that calm me down and things that leave me feeling like a frayed live wire.

  1. Trying to connect with the anxiety in my body makes it feel better than trying to wish it away. Thanks to yet another great idea from my miracle therapist, I try to find the time to sit quietly for a couple minutes during the day and touch my arms and face where I feel the coiled up tightness. That physical connection often makes it feel better within seconds, and helps me feel less afraid of it. Yep. That layer of my body feels tight. And here I am. And everything’s okay.
  2. Trying to control things makes it worse. When I nurse baby C in the early morning between 5 and 7, I try and get one or two of his infinite burps out of him and then put him back down to sleep in the co-sleeper. Then I creep over to my side of the bed and lay down. And then I find that I’m barely breathing because I’m trying to disappear any possible sound I might make for fear of waking anyone up. I lay there, in whatever strange position I landed, worried about rustling the covers because I might wake AJ or the baby. I flinch when I hear a blunt thud –is Jo waking up? Is he going to burst in the door with his new helicopter and wake up the baby? Shockingly, being in a state of hyper-awareness and frozen silence does not help me get back to sleep. And on those rare and blessed mornings when everyone else actually sleeps till 7:30, it would be lovely to be sleeping myself or at the very least resting and relaxed in bed. So I’ve trying to breathe a lot more deeply in the morning, and, god forbid, let myself make some noise. I walk around like a normal person who takes up actual space. I even flush the toilet. If I wake someone up, so be it. We’ll figure it out. Cause its not worth the emotional and physical toll it takes to try to make myself so small and silent. And even when I barely breathe and tip toe around, they still wake up sometimes.
  3. Simplicity rules.

I might be am trying to make myself feel better with all these lists. Groping for some sort of structure in the midst of the soupy uncertainty of my days and hours. Here’s the deal–I don’t know if I’m okay. Sometimes I feel brave. Others, I’m scared and defeated. Either way, I have two boys in my care, and I’m still feeding them and smiling at them and trying to find ways to maintain an environment of safety when one of them (take a guess) rages in his little kinetic body and wants nothing more than to hit, kick and throw things at me. At any moment, I can’t say how my seretonin-challenged brain is going to react to all of this, but I do know its flipping out sometimes. I’m just hoping I can stay above water.

It's not about winning or losing

One of the hardest things about the dance I’ve been doing with my depression over the last month is that I feel like I came out the loser in some sort of competition I didn’t even know I entered.

I was so hoping that this time I’d be able to set things up in just the right way to not have to experience this. Enough meals in the freezer, connections with friends, supplements in their little day of the week cubes–enough preparation and I could just avoid having to feel the feelings that are hardest for me.

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What happened to land me here? Things were going so well. I was sleeping (and still am!). Baby C is still so much easier than J was. I’m still taking all the fish oil and vitamin d and placenta pills.

There are a whole bunch of stories I could tell, theories that I have for why I started feeling depressed in the first place. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Because about a month ago, right when I wrote this post, the flat, heaviness that is my depression started to roll in.

After a week of feeling its ebb and flow, I opted to go back on my Zoloft. That was a hard day–not unlike this day, before baby C was born when I had to let go of having him at home and pack for the hospital. My decision to go the pharmaceutical route again was another moment of surrendering to reality. I cried to my dear friend M on the phone, saying, “I hate feeling this way.” And she said, “Well, you don’t have to for long.” The truth of that statement was sobering. There is something I can take that helps this feeling go away and helps me perform the myriad duties that my children and life require of me. So why was I feeling so resistant to filling my prescription?

Some time since I stopped taking the Zoloft that helped me cope with J’s infancy, my brain decided that if I didn’t need the Zoloft this time that I would win.

After turning that thought over a few times and recognizing it as a complete piece of crap, I started accepting reality. I needed and wanted help.

So my little green pills are back. And they’re helping. And I feel really good about making that decision to help myself and, in effect, the people I love, so that I don’t get so stuck in my weepy, catatonic, existential place. It’s a relief all around.

Today also happens to be Jo’s 4th birthday, and the marker of the day I became a mother. Happy birthday, little weasel. And happy birthday to me.

Going beyond "strong female characters" in children's books

One of you dreamy readers, specifically Elisabeth M., left a comment that really got me thinking last month. She was responding to this post where I put a call out to children’s book readers near and far to help me find some stories with good, strong female characters in them.

Here’s what she had to say:

I don’t just want books with “strong female characters.” I want books with “varied female characters.”  And, I want female SECONDARY characters. In other words, I don’t want one strong propaganda-piece for female empowerment leading a show that’s populated by and all-male supporting cast, over and over and over. The thing is, as long as we’re stuck with “strong female characters,” we’re still putting females in a box—a propaganda box—and we’re still making the story about “femaleness” to some extent. People say boys don’t want to read books about female characters; I think the answer to that is to make the stories big, to include (in addition) a healthy number of female-led stories whose scope goes beyond patriarchy, stories that deal with issues other than gender identity. How about neutral female characters? How about “regular people” female characters? Until we have balance in the stories – by which I mean, an undeniable female presence that isn’t calling attention to itself—we’re going to be raising girls and boys to look at “female” as “other.”

So here’s my mission (and I have NO idea how to find this) – books that have a variety of female types—not just “strong,” and not just “stereotypical,” but varied—and which include a neutral cast of 50/50 male/female secondary characters. (Why do all the friendly insects on the pages need to be male?)

Well yowza. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Elisabeth M., for this killer distinction. I’ve been sorting through my list to see if any books fit the bill: having a balanced number of females in them without being about “femaleness.” The best I can come up with right now are the Katie Morag books. They’re written for the 5-9 set, but J has been really into them as the fairly verbal 3 year old that he is.

Katie Morag is supported by a nice balanced cast of characters, including feisty Granny Island who is often on her tractor, Granny Mainland, the ferryman, Katie’s brother Liam and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. McColl.

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The books really aren’t about “femaleness” at all, but rather life on the Isle of Struay, a hearty little island off the coast of Scotland.

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There are also the Mrs. Armitage books which I already reviewed here.

I don’t have a great recommendation for 1-4 year olds. But I did love Sally and the Limpet. It isn’t about “femaleness” per se, though I think most of the other characters are male.

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So now, I have to pass Elisabeth’s question on—do you know of any children’s picture books with a variety of female types and a balanced male/female cast of characters? Do tell.