Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Art of Baking Bread

This year for Lent, David and I decided that we would give up waste.  We would make a concerted effort for 40 days to not waste money, time, resources, food, etc.

Giving up waste is a practical goal, but also an existential one.  We are constantly trying to simplify our life: get rid of the clutter, minimize our footprint, enjoy life beyond the “stuff-ness” of it, and revel in the living of it.

So, as my contribution to this commitment, I decided that I would minimize our need to buy prepackaged bread at the store, and would bake bread every week.

It is here that I should confess that I have never baked bread, ever.  I worked in a Subway one summer when I was in college, and we “baked” bread there; baking bread at Subway consists of thawing frozen loaves of bread dough, and then putting it through a variety of machines until it is baked.  There is no measuring of flour or kneading.

But, I thought, how hard can it be?  I can follow a recipe!  I was a chemistry minor in college!  I know how to measure precise amounts and I can use a timer, and HEY! the Internet will tell me what to do.

So I found a recipe that looked great.  Whole grains!  Great reviews!  I measured exactly.  I set timers, and… I am now the proud owner of two flat, dense lumps of flour, water, yeast and salt.  It looks more like a wheat cake than an actual loaf of bread.

I took my first chemistry class in high school with a teacher named Mr. Flynn.  He was a sarcastic, unsympathetic, difficult person, and an amazing teacher.  He had a reputation among the students for being unrelentingly difficult and for giving tough exams.  Some students called him unfair, but he was actually remarkably fair.  If you prepared, worked your butt off, and learned the material, you would do well in the class.  If you didn’t, well, you wouldn’t.

I remember my first exam in Mr. Flynn’s chemistry class, because I got a “C” on that exam.  I had never in my LIFE gotten less than, say, an A- on anything, and so a “C” was devastating. I was embarrassed and hurt.  I thought I had prepared.  I thought I had learned the material, but really, I had only scratched the surface.

I went on to learn a great deal from the classes I took with Mr. Flynn (and I eventually did quite well in his classes).  I learned that chemistry is not as exact a science as most text books would lead you to believe.  You can follow a recipe all you want, but you won’t get results until you can get a feel for what’s happening in the lab.  Chemistry becomes about intuition and following hunches.  It’s about practicing a procedure over and over again until it’s nearly second nature.  Chemistry is like playing a musical instrument. It requires failure and resilience paired together, and you will never do anything interesting until you fail a few times.

So I’m now waiting for my lumps of flour to cool to see if any part of the loaves might be spared for my daughter’s peanut butter sandwiches.  I think I know approximately what went wrong.  I followed the recipe to the letter, not giving in to any of my own intuition or hunches. I jumped in and acted when I should have waited.  I decided to wait when I should have acted.  And there is no way that I can learn how to trust my intuition better except to bake another loaf.

Baking bread can be a metaphor for so many things in life: parenting, relationships, pregnancy, etc.  But that is because baking bread is not about following an exact recipe.  Baking bread seems to be more about getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t, having the patience to let the dough rise enough, and then trusting your own instincts enough to know that you can’t do anything interesting until you’ve managed to fail a few times.



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American Parenting Philosophy: You’re Doing it Wrong!

A friend of mine just had her first baby, and she and I have been emailing back and forth for the last couple of days.  (The baby is a little more than a week old.)  She and her husband are trying to figure out all of those little tricks that hep to keep you sane during those hazy newborn days.  (Our experience with Maggie was the vacuum cleaner – the white noise usually calmed her instantly.  Beckett liked to be swaddled, and not too hot.)  So in her emails, she’s been asking me about my experiences with both of my kids.  Did they sleep a lot?  Did you have to wake them to nurse? Did you have trouble getting them back to sleep at 3AM?

(I will here add a note that I would not go back to being a new mother for the first time for anything in the WORLD!  I totally Googled “Does my baby sleep too much?” when Maggie was about two weeks old.  She did not, in fact, sleep too much.)

In the news during the past week, I’ve heard and read a great deal about this book, Bringing Up Bebe.  In it, Pamela Druckerman gives an account of her experience as an American Mother in Paris.  She noticed that French children, in contrast to her daughter, were Calm!  They ate fish (of the non-stick variety)!  And vegetables!  Her daughter only ate white bread and pasta.  Therefore, according to the title of the piece in the Wall Street Journal, French parents are superior to American parents.  In other words, we’re doing it wrong.

Today, I read a piece in the Huffington Post by parenting blogger Roma Downey.  In it she talks about lessons that she has learned as a parent.  One of her most important lessons learned?  That in being a parent, “there is no such thing as “perfect” – but you have to make “perfect” your goal.”  In other words, not only are we doing it wrong, we can, in fact, never actually do it right!

Yesterday, David and I took the kids out to the store to purchase a potty for Maggy and to seek a set of nice rocks glasses.  (Potty training and whiskey go well together, I’ve heard.)  We took the kids out partly because we needed those things and partly because we were all driving each other crazy trapped in the house together.  So we packed up the kids and went on an adventure to various Big Box Stores That Sell Household Items. We found a potty for Maggie, but not any acceptable rocks glasses.  As we stood in line, we ran into one of Maggie’s classmate’s mothers.  She greeted Beckett with the usual “He’s gotten so BIG!” Then her glance traveled south and spotted the potty chairs David was carrying.  (We bought two – one for each bathroom.)  She then confessed that she was afraid to start potty training her daughter because she is a psychologist and a number of her colleagues think that potty training is such a BIG DEAL that it can really mess up a kid.  So she is inherently afraid that she will do it wrong.

I feel like I have read a number of pieces on the general unhappiness of American mothers lately.  This study claims that stay-at-home-moms are more prone to depression and anxiety disorders than working mothers.  Bringing Up Bebe claims that a 2009 study found that American mothers found dealing with their children twice as unpleasant as French mothers.  American mothers are falling victim to mommy wars and mommy guilt.  And it is no wonder!  In the course of a week, I have encountered the message loud and clear from all corners!  You are doing it wrong! Even from the very beginning!

Giving birth at home?  Dangerous hippy nonsense.

Giving birth in a hospital?  What?  You don’t trust your own body?

Breast feeding?  Well, as long as it’s not until the kid is TWELVE, or whatever.

Bottle feeding?  Why wouldn’t you give your child the greatest gift you can possibly give – your sweet nectar from the gods I mean breast.

Attachment parenting? Your kid will grow up to be a spoiled brat who will still need you to tie his/her shoes when s/he is in college.

Free-Range Parenting? Your kid is probably that ruffian who skateboards at the mall and spray painted the parking lot.

Letting your kid Cry It Out?  Inevitably your kid will have abandonment issues and attachment disorders.  Why did you even have children?

Co-sleeping? Like letting your baby sleep with a butcher knife!

Crib sleeping?  Forcing your child to sleep in a cage like an animal!

The message seems to be clear from all corners.  Our children are all DOOMED from the very beginning no matter what choices we make as parents.

And yet, that’s not the case.  Most of us grew up in more-or-less perfectly fine and acceptable good-enough homes with good-enough parents who had good qualities and bad qualities just like humans do.

American parenting seems to have gone the way of American politics.  The rhetoric is strong and vitriolic with very little basis in actual fact.  And I am as guilty of it as the next mother.  When I am feeling a little insecure about my own parenting choices, I tend to get defensive and criticize the first mother with an out-of-control toddler I see.

Some people will say it’s because there is so much at stake.  After all, the children are our future.  But honestly, the culture of parenting that is full of fear and guilt is destroying whatever solidarity and serenity we might have.  Not to mention, the drive to get it right and have the perfect answer (even knowing that the perfect answer does not exist) means that we are going to miss the small moments when our kids surprise us.

The other day, Maggie was being particularly difficult.  She was tired for lack of napping, and she couldn’t focus on cleaning up her toys.  So I bullied her into doing it.  I yelled at her and made her cry.  It is not my proudest moment as a parent, but it won’t be the last time I misstep.  That doesn’t mean that my kids are DOOMED.  Instead it means that tomorrow I have an opportunity to do it differently and see if that works a little better.

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Post-Bab(ies) Body

Beckett is five months old, which means that I have not been pregnant for five months.  YES!

(I want to note here that the last month or so of my pregnancy was particularly crazy-making, just because I was DONE.  Forget savoring that magical time of bonding with the unborn baby inside and feeling all those glorious kicks.  I was tired.  I had to pee.  My almost-two-year-old daughter was heavy.  Can you hear the whining?  My husband was a real trooper for not locking himself in a bathroom just to get away from me.  I would have.)

Anyway, now I have been postpartum for five months and I feel… flabby.

The other day I came across a picture of myself in college.  I was wearing a halter top and my shoulders looked SVELTE! I don’t ever remember feeling so SVELTE, but looking back, I can tell you, I was SVELTE!

When I was in graduate school, I think my body relaxed a bit, because I didn’t spend time going to the gym or some such nonsense, (I was studying!) but I ate sensibly and walked just about everywhere.  When I met David, we made a habit of taking epic walks, and we loved it!  He even proposed to me when we were on a walk.

Then I got pregnant the first time.  We moved to Memphis and continued the Walk Everywhere plan.  We sold one of our cars (we had two) and moved to a neighborhood that was within an easy walking distance to just about anywhere we needed to go, save the grocery store. I gained weight and it felt weird in some ways, but I was so enamored with the process of being pregnant that it didn’t bother me so much.

When Maggie was born, I clearly remember needing to mentally adjust to the “new body.”  When she was about three months old, I started a regular exercise routine.  I discovered the 30 Day Shred DVD and did that routine three days a week.  The other days, we went for walks.  I loved to strap Maggie into our Ergo Baby Carrier and walk to the coffee shop up the street or meet David at school for lunch.  I got back to feeling at home in my body before too long, and by the time Maggie was 12 months, I had most definitely lost the pregnancy weight.

When Maggie was 12 months old, I got pregnant with Beckett.  My pregnancy with Beckett was very different from my pregnancy with Maggie.  First, I had a toddler to run after.  I had strong food aversions.  (I couldn’t stand anything stew-like.  And don’t even come near me with that bean.  I will hit you.)  But the most obvious difference was just my lack of energy.  I spent so much energy writing and being a mother to Maggie that the whole “walking-everywhere” thing suffered.  I poured myself into bed at night after a day of working and parenting, and so exercising became a very distant priority.  (And I won’t even bring up the fact that I was 6, 7, 8, and 9 months pregnant during a Memphis summer where the high temperature was rarely below 100 degrees and almost never below 90, so sitting inside in the air conditioning was the thing I did most of the time.)

And then Beckett was born.  I thought I was tired while I was pregnant, but it was nothing to the exhaustion I feel now as the parent of two kids still in diapers.  I still have the same writing responsibilities, but my time feels like it has been quartered.  My sleep is interrupted and short, and there is simply not as much time to devote to things like workout DVDs.  Add to that the fact that with two kids it seems to take fifteen minutes of prep time just to get out the door for a walk around the block and we go for walks a couple times a week, but not nearly as often as we used to.

Thanks to all of this, I often find myself frustrated with the current state of my wardrobe.  I have one pair of jeans that really fits, and most of my tops still feel just a little too tight.  Most days I wear black yoga pants and a t-shirt.  Most days I don’t really leave the house anyway.  I don’t look svelte any more, and feel like it is very unlikely that I will again.  I have a perpetual muffin top, and all my pants that do fit are just a little too tight around my thighs.  I wear my hair in a pony tail, almost never wear makeup, and continually smell like the spoiled milk that Beckett just horked down the front of my freshly-washed shirt.  Also, the flab under my arms jiggles when I wave.

But then I see my two kids playing together, laughing together at some joke that only they are in on, and I can’t help but think, “worth it.”

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Sick sicky McSick Sick

The kids are sick.  Again.  I am sick.  Again.  It’s a cold.  It’s just a cold, and yet, I feel defeated by it.

Both of the kids cough through the night.  Beckett has a barking cough that continues through the day and means that naps are a no-go and night sleep is interrupted at best.  Fortunately, both of the kids continue to be in relatively good spirits.  The runny noses and coughs and lack of quality sleep don’t seem to bother them too much.

Of course, that can’t really be said for their mother.

All the way back in October (when it was still 2011), we all got the stomach flu.  Maggie got it first, then me, then David.  Thankfully, the stomach flu skipped Beckett, who at the time was about a month old.

Since then, it feels like we have all been either coming down with a cold or recovering from one non-stop.  This is Maggie’s first cold-and-flu season in a preschool/day care setting, and so naturally we seem to have caught every bug that has gone through the place.  I’m hopeful that the light at the end of the tunnel will appear soon.

Being sick is bad.  Being sick and caring for kids who are sick is exhausting.  Apparently, parents don’t get sick days.

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Whale song (The kid version)

One of my favorite shows is the X-Files.  It’s the perfect combination of entertainment, romance, conspiracy, and just plain freak-out-ness.  But today I was reminded particularly of a scene in the 8th season, when Scully is in labor.  Monica Reyes has taken her to the country so that she can safely give birth without the threat of the super soldiers. (Typo note: I originally typed “threat” as “treat.” What a difference “h” makes!)  They drive to an abandoned spa and prepare the place as best they can.  Then Monica (who is a bit of a free spirit) begins making whale sounds, claiming that that is just what Scully needs to relax as she musters her strength to birth her baby.

I have that scene and those sounds stored in my mind, and I like to bring them out when I need a laugh in the midst of high-stress moments.

But this morning, I witnessed a scene that might just trump Monica Reyes and Dana Scully.

Beckett has always been more vocal as a baby than Maggie was.  Now, at two, Maggie is wonderfully verbal, and has a running commentary on everything, (even though we can’t understand most of what she is saying), but when she was a baby, she was mostly quiet or she cried.  Beckett, on the other hand, started cooing and “talking” from the time he was about two months old.  Now at five months, he is remarkably interactive.  If you make eye contact with him, he usually responds with some kind of exclamatory “bwheojrosl!”  (Or baby-sound equivalent.)

Well, today, at around 6AM, the kids both woke up and, in an attempt to get those couple of extra moments of sleep, I laid there as Maggie went through her usual morning litany of “nanas? toast?”  Beckett was letting out occasional bursts of, well, baby noise.  As the cacophony between the two kids grew louder, I realized that there was a call and response happening.  Beckett would yell.  Maggie would yell back.  They would both chuckle.  Then it would start over again.  As I was becoming aware of this, David rolled over and whispered, “It’s like whale song!”

This was the first time in my life as a mother that I have felt left out of my kids’ relationship with each other, and I am certain it will not be the last time.  But I must say, it was a moment that will stick with me.  I think I am going to like this “two kids” thing.

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A Tale of Health Insurance and Fear

Three years ago, David and I were living in Nashville.  I was working for the year as a chaplain in Baptist Hospital while David was both finishing his dissertation and teaching at a small college.  I got health benefits as a part of my employment and David was still on student insurance, but my job was a limited, one-year term, and David’s school was not in a financial position to offer its employees health insurance.

So we were content, imagining that we would figure out the next step when we crossed that bridge.  We weren’t planning on having kids for another several years, and so we expected that if we encountered lean times, we could just button down the hatches and make due.  (You see where this is going, right?)

Well, one early morning in May, I woke up, not to enjoy my first cup of coffee, but to pee on a stick.  I had to set my resolve that if two lines appeared, the first words out of my mouth would NOT be “Oh shit.”

The second line did, in fact, appear, and I can distinctly remember the nauseating rush of emotions that flooded my entire person: excitement, joy, and overwhelming fear.  I decided to stay home from work that day, and I spent most of the day on Google trying to figure out just how we were going to manage.  The baby would be due around Christmas/New Year’s.  My job (and insurance) would come to an end at the end of August.  COBRA benefits would cost nearly $500 a month, and as a pregnant lady, I would simply not qualify for any individual plan.  David’s student insurance would end in May because he was scheduled to graduate and ditto on the COBRA.

That evening, David got a call from an old friend letting him know that a faculty position would be opening up in his department at Christian Brother’s University, and he thought that David should apply.  Long story made short, David got the job, we moved to Memphis and signed up for the employee health plan halfway through my pregnancy.  We managed to transition pretty seamlessly into life in Memphis.  We found our midwives, and Maggie was born at home in January.

Things worked out for us, but I am painfully aware of just how differently it could have gone. Between the two of us, David and I had one PhD (David’s), three Master’s degrees (David has two, I have one), and two Bachelor’s degrees.  We were both willing to work, and anxious to work.  But we were still thisclose to a real financial quick sand.  And, honestly, in some ways we are still there.  We are comfortable, but a medical crisis would send us over the edge.  If I couldn’t get enough work to meet That Number that we need one month, things would get scary, and fast.  I’ve thought about the possibility of getting a “real job” instead of working from home, but I quickly realized that we couldn’t afford it, with two kids needing full-time child care.

This is why I’m so bothered by Mitt Romney’s recent statement that he’s “not concerned” with the “very poor.”  His reasoning for this statement is that the very poor have safety nets (although it’s my understanding that these “safety nets” are the entitlement programs that he wants to defund and get rid of).  He’s concerned with the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who are struggling.  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that NO ONE wants to depend on the safety nets, and a great deal of Americans are a heartbeat away from the status of “very poor.”  We have come to the point where we are all making major life decisions based on where/when we will have access to health insurance.

We have a system in which the “very poor” are trapped, because at the first moment that they break out of that particular classification, the safety nets quickly disappear.  People who are on Social Security Disability Insurance fear losing that status, because once they are no longer on SSDI, they must find a 40-hour/week job with benefits just to get medication that they need. Pregnant women fear being fired, and when the kids do come, many of us cannot afford to work and put our kids in day care, but we also can’t afford to not work.

Mitt Romney claims that he will repair the safety nets if they need to be repaired.  But he is fundamentally missing the point.  The system needs to change.  The quick sand of poverty needs to be stopped with revolution in education, health care, and child care across the board.  We’re not talking nets, here.  We’re talking foundations.

Many people have said it many different ways, but Mahatma Ghandi is credited with phrasing it thus: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  Mitt Romney should be concerned with the very poor, because in the end, that is how we will all be measured.

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