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Stuff I like

Leading ladies in children's picture books: Mrs. Armitage

Way back when, I posed this lament and request for good children’s picture books with girl and women main characters. Thanks to all of your amazing comments, I’ve had a hold-list a mile long at our library. We’ve been reading like fiends in these parts and have found some real stand-outs. Three books that stick in my mind and that we have gone back to the library for again and again are the Mrs. Armitage books by Quentin Blake.

It all started with Mrs. Armitage on Wheels.

Don’t you love her already?

It’s basically a children’s book version of ‘pimp my ride,’ only the ride is a bike and the detail crew is Mrs. Armitage and her faithful dog Breakspear. And if you feel like Blake’s illustrations remind you of something, you’re right! Quentin Blake drew all of the pictures for Roald Dahl’s books. Blake is also a wonderful storyteller–these are books that you will genuinely enjoy reading out loud.

Then there’s Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave.

Similar storyline–only this time, it’s a surfboard.

And Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road.

In this one, she un-pimps her ride and then winds up playing billiards and drinking cans of banana fizz with her Uncle Cosmo and his friends at the Crazy Duck Cafe.

Go forth. Read. Enjoy. And relax knowing that you’re reading a story to your kiddo that shows off a rad leading lady.

My crisis of confidence with daycare, and the expert advice that helped.

For the past couple months, J has complained just about every time I take him to daycare. The minute I cheerfully tell him that it’s a school day he begins the “I don’t like my school” refrain. It can also express itself as “I don’t like my friends,” or the even more concerning “I’m scared of my school.”

Ever since I had my revelation about how to drop him off at daycare to instill confidence in him, I’ve had that whole situation dialed in. Until now.

For the first month, I just told myself that things would shift. I listened to him, acknowledged his feelings of not wanting to go and then let him know that I think his daycare is a good and safe place for him. And that I trust his teachers to take wonderful care of him. But he keeps expressing resistance. So I’ve started to worry. Is there something going on that I should be worried about? And even if there’s not, is this school just not the best fit for him anymore?

Many of his older friends moved on to pre-school around age 3, but I’ve resisted following that pattern because:

  1. I couldn’t give a rip about his academic development. We live in a culture that is completely obsessed with knowledge and thinking and he’s going to get plenty of emphasis on that his whole life. So right now, I just want him to feel safe and loved and be well fed.
  2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

After our second month of the “I don’t like my school” chorus, started to wonder if maybe it was broke. I decided to ask for some advice. I sent this to a blogger friend with extensive teaching and childcare experience. (She has an intensely helpful blog called Aunt Annie’s Childcare.)

Hello fabulous Annie. I have a question for you. It’s about my sweet J and our current childcare situation. He’s been going to the same place since he was 1 (and he’ll be 3 in a couple weeks). It’s a home-based montessori daycare and the woman who runs it is full of love and joy and makes amazing organic food for the kids. I love her. So for the past month or so, nearly every time we get ready for school, he goes 2 mornings a week, J says, “I don’t like my school,” and is often very clingy when we get there. If I can get him engaged in something, he’s usually happy for me to leave, but sometimes, I have to pry his little hands away from me and leave with him crying. I’ve tried to talk with him about why he doesn’t want to go. He has said that he’s worried about some boys there who have been rough with him and so we talked with his teacher about it in front of him, asking her to please keep him safe and letting her know that J was worried. The whole conversation went well, and I felt great.

The other day, though, J said that he wanted to go to Childwatch, which is the childcare associated with the gym I go to. I found this a bit alarming, since he was actually preferencing one form of childcare over another. I’d always just assumed that he wanted to be with me instead of going to school, which I understand. But his mention of Childwatch made me wonder if that’s his way of saying that this childcare situation isn’t the best for him. The other thing about the current situation that worries me is that there’s been a lot of staff turnover at his school. His teacher usually has 2 helpers, and since J has been going there, her helper of several years left and since then it has been very unstable. At this point I am concerned, but not sure what to do. I love his school and think it is a good, loving, safe place but am beginning to wonder if it’s the best fit for him. When I think of moving him to another school, I worry that the same exact thing will happen, and we’ll go through that whole upheaval for nothing. So there you have it.

And here is Annie’s most helpful reply:

First, it’s not unknown for a child of this age to have a new bout of separation anxiety; he may have associated the gym childcare service with you being in close proximity. Have you asked the teachers at his Montessori care what happens after you leave? Does he settle quickly or fret for hours? If he frets for hours, change is definitely indicated. In this case you should definitely be listening to your child’s signals about the service, regardless of what you think of it.

If he settles once you’re gone, then he is still having a problem with the actual separation rather than with the service. A transition routine which is the same every day can help here- transitions are SO important. You can work out something that works for you (say, a special breakfast with mummy, then when you get to care you read him a story, then you kiss and cuddle once, leave him with the carer of his choice and then GO) and repeat it regardless of his tears or clinginess. The carer should ring you if he can’t settle- I gather this hasn’t happened?

Changes of staff can definitely be unsettling at this age. It’s a difficult time, but the same thing happens in other settings so that in itself is not a reason to move. You really need to be a fly on the wall and find out what happens when you’re not there! You should be able to rely on the staff to tell you this- but if you are still worried, perhaps some surprise visits are in order where you pop in and observe without him seeing you (if possible!).

She provided exactly the distinction I needed: Is his problem with the separation or the service? And I can say with total confidence now that it’s the separation that is hard for him. He always recovers after my departure within minutes, and every time I pick him up, he’s happily playing in the back yard.

Oh, the joy of asking an expert and finding some peace of mind. Now I can focus my time and energy on developing good transition routine and my confidence in J’s lovely school is back in full force.

Thank you, Annie!

A photographic challenge: capture and share a less-than-perfect moment

I’ve been thinking about this photo for a long time.

photo by Jessica Todd Harper

And this one too:

Another beauty from Jessica Todd Harper.

Both were part of this NYT article that a friend recommended after reading my first video blog post. I loved the article for the counterpoint it offered to the “Don’t you just love every minute?” comments that people kept flinging at me when I was out and about with my infant son.

I was so inspired by the photographs that I took one of my own.

It was such a relief to capture a moment simply as it was. It wasn’t begging to be captured, it didn’t show my son in all of his perfect, chubby glory. It didn’t make me look particularly competent or satisfied. I tried to show the moment how it was. From what I remember, I was tired. A little bit bored. And trying to pass the time.

Then last week my friend M sent me this blog post written by a mom of 2 who talks about all of the things you don’t see in the photos of her family life that she posts on Instagram. She tends not to post images of marital spats, colicky infants at 3 a.m. and the like. Of course she doesn’t post that stuff. Most of us don’t. After all, who would want to see that?

I would, for one. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t relish the idea of wading through a ton of photos of screaming children or exhausted parents in dimly lit bedrooms strewn with diapers. But something in me does tire, after a while, of seeing everyone’s perfect pictures of their lives with their children, and, for that matter, my own. The part of me that gets tired of all that perfection is the same part that wonders if everyone else’s life is just a little bit (or a lot) happier, tidier and more successful than mine. It’s the same part that breathes a huge sigh of relief when someone I know tells me about her depression or his failed marriage or her crippling jealousy. That part of me needs to connect with the realness in other people, the darker, messier reality that doesn’t make the cut for Facebook.

This ties into the reason I started blogging in the first place: I feel a responsibility to be honest about my actual, lived experience of parenthood, so that other parents and future parents might feel a little less alone and weird when they’re having a less-than-savory time. And this applies to any aspect of life, really, but I’ve found that our culture’s reverence for family life and unrealistic, filtered portrayals of it to be particularly isolating. The stories we hear and images we see of young families help us form our expectations of parenthood (that later come crashing down…or soar up, perhaps, but that wasn’t my experience) and drive the way we connect with other parents one we join the fold. They help to define what we talk with other people about and what we don’t. What we ask others about and what we think we shouldn’t.

And images, I think, are particularly powerful because they can sink in so quickly. Every one of us, if asked, can instantly bring a long string photos to mind when we think of the word parenthood. A mother lying in the grass, holding her smiling baby up into a perfectly blue sky. A father asleep, newborn baby curled up in his beefy arms. The latest, greatest photo-journalistic rendering of a family of four, wearing jeans, on a walk in a leaf-strewn park, laughing with each other. I like pictures like these. I have some. I want that photo-journalism one.

But I want the colicky infant too. And the sink full of dirty dishes. And the site of 2 frayed moms sitting on their couch, celebrating their son’s decent into a nap by watching crappy tv.

So, I’d like to invite you to take a picture in the next week when you normally wouldn’t take one. To capture a moment that isn’t perfect. See what it feels like to show it how it really is. Without checking your hair or wiping down the kitchen counter. Then, if you’re inspired, I’d be tickled pink if you would share your photo on my Facebook page. Maybe we can start a little photo revolution.

***

If you liked this post and are feeling bold and decisive, please subscribe. I’ve got more where this came from.

Why I take my brain out for dinner. And what we talk about. And what we eat.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed an increasingly intimate relationship with my brain.

Thanks to my friend D, who introduces me to at least half of the things I love the most in the world, I started going to meditation and dharma talks led by this guy. The practice of just sitting with my often frenetic brain for 40 minutes every Thursday was sometimes a refuge and sometimes completely infuriating, but it served the function of sitting down over a nice, lingering dinner with my brain on a weekly basis.

A dinner my brain and I enjoyed recently: Cuban Chicken Salad w/ Garbanzos. Brains really like protein.
More about that later.

We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. And I now understand that my brain does what all brains do. It thinks. A lot. Unceasingly at times. Just like hearts are completely obsessive compulsive about pumping blood, brains are like hyper OCD versions of that one friend you have who needs to discuss everything, all the time.

My weekly meditation pretty much went the way of the dodo as soon as J was born. Much like my relationship with my partner A, my brain and I had a nice solid foundation to draw on in those first soaring and, well, shocking post-partum months. And, much like my relationship with A, the groovy connection I’d developed with my brain started to flail and falter pretty quickly after J was born. And ever since, we’ve been scrambling towards recovery.

The Zoloft certainly helped, as did J growing into a person who sleeps more and has more predictable, human-like behaviors. And, as I’ve discussed, I’ve been trying in the last year to reach a nice, steady, and dare I say optimistic place with my post-partum brain.

Enter: Brain books.

They’ve taught me that I didn’t know my brain as well as I thought I did.

One of them was tucked in the bed side table of the house where we stayed while on vacation in my Colorado hometown. (We managed to sort out a house swap during our time there, which was awesome.)

I’d been meaning to read the book ever since I heard Taylor’s TED talk (which is, coincidentally, the second most-viewed TED talk of all time) and BOOM, there it was, begging to be read. Taylor describes her experience of a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and her stroke of insight, as it were, is that once her left brain shuts down, her right brain floats into a sort of timeless, peaceful bliss.

So I’ve developed this image of my left brain, all numbers and science and words–a stern accountant sitting at a perfectly organized desk, making sure every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed. And right hemisphere, a buddha-like child, giddy with the sensory input of the present moment and happy to sit dangling her toes in the stream and feeling the warmth of the sun. Maybe it’s not necessarily a matter of seeking peace, but rather tapping into that right brain that’s already there (and perhaps tying up and gagging my left brain).

Since we got home from Colorado, I’ve been reading this:

It’s been a game changer for sure. The biggest revelation so far: there are a lot of other mood issues other than depression that are associated with having low amounts of serotonin in your brain.

  • low self esteem
  • obsessive behaviors
  • controlling behaviors
  • false fear in the form of shyness, anxiety or panic
  • perfectionism

Reading that list, while an unnerving indictment of my life for the last 6 months, has been deeply liberating. So maybe it’s not just that I’m one of those perfectionist types, but this could actually have something to do with my brain chemistry. And more than just feeling liberated by an idea, I’ve been actually feeling better. My mood is improved.

As the book recommends, I’ve been paying more attention to my diet, and focusing more on good mood foods–fish, poultry, eggs, lamb, beef, pork, Pippa milk, veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, butter, coconut milk, olive oil. And having less of a love affair with bad mood food: sugar, white flour, wheat, and soy. I’ve also been paying more attention to my daily mood cycles. Ross says that it’s very common to have a serotonin dip in the afternoon, which is why we often crave sweet snacks and caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon–to prop up our mood.  So I started taking my Zoloft around noon–instead of before bed as I had been doing.

And shazzam. My mood is improved. My brain seems to like this new turn of events. And it’s better company during those long, get-to-know-you dinners.

Before this starts to sound like some hopped up infomercial, let me please just say that my main motivation in writing this is:

  1. To celebrate.
  2. To share–in the hopes that you’ll find it helpful for you or some anxious, OCD perfectionist you love.

I just honestly never knew so much about my brain before. And I feel a lot more fondness, interest, and compassion. And less like wanting to exchange mine for a new one.

Why I wish I had been born in West Africa

I’ve been thinking about purpose lately. As in, “What is my purpose in this lifetime?” I’m pretty big on existential questions, so even if I weren’t reading Of Water and The Spirit by Malidoma Somé, I’d be mulling them over. But I have been reading it. And it’s knocked my existential socks off.

Somé writes about his experience growing up through the rites and rituals of his people, the Dagara, in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Check this out:

A few months before birth…a ritual called a ‘hearing’ is held. The pregnant mother, her brothers, the grandfather and the officiating priest are the participants. During the ritual, the incoming soul takes the voice of the mother (some say the soul takes the whole body of the mother, which is why the mother falls into trance and does not remember anything afterward) and answers every question the priest asks.

The living must know who is being reborn, where the soul is from, why it chose to come here, and what gender it has chosen. Some souls ask that specific things be made ready before their arrival–talismanic power objects, medicine bags, metal objects in the form of rings for the ankle or wrist. They do not want to forget who they are and what they have come here to do. It is hard not to forget, because life in this world is filled with many alluring distractions. The name of the newborn is based upon the results of these communications. A name is the life program of its bearer.

My initial thoughts after reading this? Crap. No one ever asked me about my purpose in utero. I’m so screwed.

My name means “A crown or garland,” which hasn’t given me much of a life program. Malidoma, on the other hand, means “friend of the enemy.” And at just about every turn, this man’s life has landed him there–his kidnapping at age 4 by Jesuits and subsequent rearing in a seminary until he was 20, his return and initiation back into his tribe, his extensive education in the West (3 master’s degrees and a PhD) and then writing books like this one, that introduce open-minded WASP-y chicks like me to whole other ways of understanding existence.

I’m just so jealous of the societal focus on purpose that Somé talks about:

For the Dagara, every person is an incarnation, that is a spirit who has taken on a body. So our true nature is spiritual. This world is where one comes to carry out specific projects.

I wish that just as a function of being part of my community, that I was encouraged to find my purpose, that there was some over-arching social fabric that kept us all knit together in that common pursuit. Instead, I feel pretty untethered and on my own, collecting little tidbits along the way.

Not so for Somé, who describes one of his tribal elders explaining the purpose of initiation into adulthood.

What he said was this…Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center, and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it.

The center is both within and without. It is everywhere. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

Once again, all I’m cripplingly jealous. I desperately want to know those things. And I have to believe that I don’t have to go to Burkina Faso to try and figure it out. I do feel like I have some clues. Creativity, connection and women are all themes that rise to the surface in things that I love, and that draw me in again and again.  But where do I go from those hazy concepts? If I just keep on living as I have, will my purpose become more apparent? Or do I need to go all Malidoma Somé to figure it out?

What do you think your purpose is? And what has helped you feel closer to it?

I have a crush on a blog: 6512 and growing

You know when you spot someone across a room and just desperately want to be their friend?

I feel that way about the blog 6512 and growing and the gal behind it. Everyone, meet Rachel. She lives in my hometown. I’ve known of her for quite some time, in that way that you know of most everyone in the small town where you’re raised. I watched over the years as she and her partner transformed a very “normal” looking house in our neighborhood into what most “upstanding” members of our community would call a hippie commune. With every top-heavy sunflower that sprang up in the front yard, I silently cheered. As if that wasn’t reason enough to be friends forever, she is a sensational writer, has refreshing things to say about parenting and relationships, can teach you an easy way to make yogurt, and writes magazine articles about fermentation that read like sonnets, driving J to such distraction that he forgets to eat breakfast. (You can read it too, flip to page 30 here.)

I took this picture with the hopes that Rachel’s kids will see it and decide they want to be friends with us, since J has the same taste in local food quarterlies as they do.

Here’s hoping.