Friday, September 27, 2013

Evolution of a First-time Mom

So, I meant to write a big long post about S turning one (way back in June) and all of the exciting changes that have been happening since then (and by "exciting" I mostly mean "exhausting," because she is pretty much always on the go.) Obviously, I didn't get around to it. Sorry.

But last week, I started thinking about how my feelings about motherhood have changed in the last 15 1/2 months. You see, during my pregnancy, I was really focused on the birth. I learned as much as I could about the whole process, about possible complications, about relaxation techniques, about all that kind of stuff. I felt really well educated. It wasn't until S was born - after a (thankfully) completely wonderful birth experience - that I realized that I had not spent any time learning about what to do with a baby. I owned about half a dozen books about pregnancy and birth, but none on caring for an infant. 

Fortunately, babies tend to have relatively few needs. The main goal with a baby is survival. So a little one needs food, shelter, and lots of love/touching. Of course, this might be oversimplifying a bit, but it's basically the truth. As a new mom, though, I started to obsess about every single decision. I obsessed about breastfeeding. I obsessed about cloth diapers. I obsessed about co-sleeping. And, let me be clear, I do not mean "obsessed" in that productive, Type-A way where everything has to be perfect, where I can make enlightened observations about the effectiveness of my decisions and adjust accordingly, and where the obsession really just manifests as devotion to my child. No, I obsessed in the sense that it's all I could think about and talk about. (My poor, poor husband.) I rationalize this by saying it is completely normal. I think most first time moms go through something like this. Somewhere in my brain, I tried really, really hard to remember that the entire universe was not spiraling around me and my little newborn babe. But ultimately, my universe did revolve around this little one, especially as a stay-at-home mom, and especially those first few months where I constantly felt like it was a miracle I was able to keep this sweet tiny being alive. So every little change became monumental, and every decision of vital importance.

Now, I am the mother of a very curious, very active toddler. I look back at those days with a newborn and, while they were definitely not "easy," the needs were much simpler. I didn't have to worry about things like discipline, or teaching concepts like "patience" or "sharing" or "no you cannot eat the entire block of cheese just because you saw it in the refrigerator." Every day has become full of "teachable moments." In the five hours that S and I have been awake today, I have already tried to teach her things like:

* When pointing to my eyes and saying "eyes," you don't actually need to POKE me in the eye. Likewise, smacking in the belly and saying "belly" is not cute. Even if you then rub and say "gentle" afterwards.
* When you pull all of the cooling racks out of the tupperware cabinet, and then get stuck in the cabinet and can't climb out because of said cooling racks littering the floor, a simple "help" will do. Screaming like a velociraptor is not necessary.
* When we are in the shower, no matter how much fun it might seem to play with the bath/shower switch and the nozzles that adjust water temperature, it is not appropriate to do so when I am trying to wash my hair.
* If you don't like my homemade applesauce (okay, okay, it was really gross), you don't need to hide it under your legs. Or discreetly drop it on the floor so I step in it barefoot. Just say, "All done!" and stop eating it.
* When it is time to change your diaper, that is not code for "run in the opposite direction and hide behind the pantry." Also, please note: diaper changing time is not the opportunity you have been looking for to practice going "kick kick kick" like we do in swim lessons.
* When I say it is time to come out of the bathroom, that does not mean throw a whole bag of dental flossers into the trashcan (where I also found a headband and a stegosaurus.)
* When a friend comes over to play, and you borrow/steal all of his toys, it would be helpful to go around and gather all of them up when they are getting ready to leave. Not hide them in parts unknown, only to pull them out to play with innocently the next morning. (Sorry, Becky and Ben!)

I realize this sounds completely daft, but I need to be honest about something. It was only a few weeks ago that this occurred to me: after all those months of planning/reading/preparing for pregnancy, birth, and infancy, that is the simple part. (Please don't misunderstand - I am not saying it was easy, and I think all of those experiences are absolutely vital and valuable in a mother's journey, and yes, they can be very, very challenging in many ways. But the needs themselves are much more basic.) It finally occurred to me that I am not simply helping sustain the life of a sweet little girl and getting lots of cuddles and laughs along the way. Instead. my task - my JOB - is to work with D and teach this little girl how to one day become a responsible adult.

ADULT. The idea of my babbling daughter being an adult is weird, and terrifying, and awesome. I get so caught up in the "why isn't she sharing?" phase that it becomes difficult to remember that this is not a job with immediate results. I am helping to form a person. Not a cute little baby that I can put in dresses and people will go "aww how sweet," but a person who will be expected to be able to make responsible decisions, contribute to the world, and have some semblance of morals and ethics. Considering that I still don't feel like an adult most of the time, I feel completely unqualified for this task. It is totally overwhelming. I find myself exhibiting selfish behavior or a negative attitude, and then I see it mirrored right back at me in her chocolate brown eyes and chubby little cheeks. Every single day I struggle with making good decisions that will teach her and influence her as she grows. How on earth will I continue to do this for the rest of my life?

I think: 

This is exhausting.


I am not good enough/strong enough/selfless enough.

Here is the beauty of motherhood. It is exhausting, and at times discouraging, and there are days when I go to bed just feeling broken. These are the days when I know I am NOT strong enough. Not on my own. 

But with God, I can do anything. He makes beautiful things out of the ashes of sleep deprivation, tantrums (mine or hers), frustration, selfishness. He is taking all of these things stored in my heart, which I thought I had tucked away secretly but have lately been brought out into the open in motherhood, and he is transforming me, bit by bit. And that is truly and completely beautiful.

A friend posted this awesome video on Facebook today, and it is a really awesome version of one of my favorite hymns. It sums up perfectly what I've been trying to say. (So you can just skip the entire reading part of this post, and watch/listen to this video!)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Going on a Bear Hunt...

I am just going to put this out there: when someone is attempting to take their 11-month old camping for the first time, it is not helpful to flood her with stories about how many bears are running around the state park. Because I love nature, but the idea of trying to keep a curious little one from crawling into the fire or off a cliff, rolling in poison ivy, and eating rocks can be daunting enough. Trying to remember the proper procedures for dealing with a black bear (play dead? act big and scary?) and how to get a baby to cooperate with those procedures was enough to make me almost cancel the trip.

Fortunately, I didn't let my silly fears convince me to cancel. And on the first Saturday night in June, the three of us were able to  get out for a night of fresh air and family time - both of which were very much needed!

We decided to go somewhere very close to home (Happy Acres Campground, right next to Little Pine State Park, which is about 30 minutes away) and to only go for one night. This way, if things didn't work out well with Samantha, or if the predicted thunderstorms did end up coming our way, we could just pack up and leave. We went with very low expectations. No pressure to hike five miles and then sit down to a gourmet campfire meal. No belief that Samantha would sleep... at all. No plans other than to just be together as a family, and to be outside.

I'm going to let the pictures tell the story, but there are a few things I learned. First, now that I no longer spend all of my days playing outside in the woods, I have lost my "bug tolerance" (seriously, those critters were everywhere and it was driving me nuts!). Second, I'm getting old, and no matter how many sleeping bags and blankets I pile onto the ground, I still wake up achy. And third, D and I still are most content, and most complete as a couple, when we are able to spend time together in the outdoors, without any distractions, schedules, or agendas.

Without further babbling, here is how Samantha fared on her first camping adventure:

We had a busy day before we left, so she passed out on the way there. She slept long enough for us to set up the tent without her trying to "help."

Sleeping arrangements for the night. we made a little nest of blankets on one side for S, and brought a few comforts from home (her puppy and blanket).

D was excited to show her the tent as soon as she woke up.

"I in a tent!" (words her father woke up and shouted in the middle of the night on his very first camping trip)
The hot day cooled down perfectly as a light rain fell and the sun shone through.

"Now what do we do?"

It took a while for the excitement of having such a large 'playground' to kick in.

D tried very hard to get her to stop eating rocks.

But she's a persistent little girl.

I got this camping chair at a yard sale for $3 that morning. She loved it! It was also the perfect distraction to keep her from trying to play with the campfire.

Snack time.

Trying to climb a hill full of pine needles... and slipping again and again.

She's a persistent little girl.

Practicing our walking skills.

Fast asleep by the fire. Once I put her down on her "nest" in the tent, she didn't stir. Well, until someone's car alarm went off at 2 AM.

We enjoyed mountain pies for dinner, and warmed up some apple bread for breakfast.

Mmm... apple bread. Delicious when smothered with crunchy peanut butter or Nutella.

S asks for more bread. It was the first time she'd ever had any, and she loved it.


I was trying to take down the tent to leave, and she refused to climb out.

No bears, and we will definitely be camping again! :-)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow?

It has long been a dream of mine to have an awesome vegetable garden. Unfortunately, it has also long been a reality that I don’t actually have a yard. So, instead of vegetables I’ve kept house plants, and compromised by going to the local farmer’s market often during the summer months to stock up on fresh produce.

This winter, I approached my landlord and asked if I could dig up a part of the yard for a small garden. He was hesitant to say yes (for good reason, I know), but instead provided me with several containers I could use for growing plants. So I went to the library to look for books on how to grow vegetables in pots. Unfortunately, all I found were books about how to make your plants look good in various containers, and very little about having your indoor/porch garden be functional. Honestly, I don’t care how it looks, I just want to be able to eat it.

D and I spent several months reading gardening books (me), searching for advice on the internet (him), and discussing our dream garden. We made several lists of what grows well in pots. For my birthday, he gave me several new containers to use to start our garden. And then, the entire month of April came and went, and I still hadn’t started anything. So last weekend, armed with my lists, I headed out to Lowe’s to see about getting started.

Now, here is where all of my best intentions fly out the window. I will spend days/weeks/months researching something and coming up with a game plan, but when it’s time to act on it, I tend to just wing it. This is exactly what happened when I got to Lowe’s. After a leisurely stroll down the lighting aisle (Samantha’s favorite), and the countertop aisle (daydreaming about having my own cupcake kitchen), we headed out to see what seedlings were available. My list, incidentally, was tucked into my back pocket. It might be no surprise to you that it stayed there the entire time.

The selection was absolutely amazing… if you wanted tomatoes. I had no idea there were so many varieties of tomatoes! Over one third of the vegetable selection was tomatoes (okay, I know, tomatoes are a fruit, thanks for pointing that out.) The other third was varieties of cabbage. This narrowed down the selection rather quickly. So, without consulting anyone, or asking for advice, I randomly picked a tomato seedling that looked healthy, and also grabbed two bell pepper plants. I debated for a while about various herbs – especially the “chocolate mint” – but decided pot space was too limited.

I wandered around for a while looking for the seed packets. And, again, without consulting my list, I bought things that I am rather positive will not grow well in containers (carrots, spinach, onions). I even splurged and spent the extra sixty cents on “organic” seeds, only to realize once I got home that I am not using organic potting soil and the effort was therefore wasted.

Oh yes, the potting soil. Usually, when I repot my houseplants, I run out of soil and have to keep running back to the store to get more. I didn’t want to bother with that, so I decided to buy two of the largest bags I could find. The problem? I couldn’t lift them. So I wandered around for about twenty minutes trying to find someone burly to help me, to no avail. The only employee in sight was a 16 year old the size of a pencil, and she was swamped with the long line at check out. I tried to muscle it out. With Samantha sitting in the cart watching with great amusement, I attempted to wrestle the first bag onto the bottom of the cart. The soil inside was all broken up, so it was like trying to manhandle an ornery marshmallow. I got it halfway on the cart before it became stuck. I then went in search of one of the low, flat trolleys to put the soil on. After several more embarrassing attempts, I finally managed to get the first bag of potting soil loaded up onto the trolley. I went to reach for the second, and found it oddly much lighter than the first. At this point, I was really frustrated and didn’t stop to think about why two bags of the same size might have such a drastic weight variance. Samantha started to get antsy, so I finally managed to push her and my seedlings in the cart with one hand, while pulling the soil-laden trolley with the other, to the long check out line. We passed the time with Samantha trying to eat the seed packets, and then trying to climb out of the cart to play with the handle of the trolley, and then finally made it to the cashier. We doled out enough money to have just bought fresh veggies at the market all summer long, and headed to the car. I opened up the back only to discover that it still contained the large jogging stroller, the pack n play, and the pack n play mattress, and therefore had no room for the soil. So I wrestled the soil marshmallows into the passenger seat and went home angry and frustrated.

The next day was beautiful and sunny and perfect for gardening.  All of my previous frustrations were gone, and I took Samantha down to the yard to sit happily on a blanket while I worked. She was quite amused with the watering can for a few minutes.

I started by breaking every gardening rule about gently transferring plants, and immediately took all of my houseplants out of their containers and laid them on the ground. This helped me see what space I had available.

Various spider plants
My pathetic aloe plant

I then ordered the houseplant potting arrangement and opened the first bag of soil to begin repotting. The first bag – the incredible heavy one – turned out to be soaking wet. This, of course, explains the extra burden of lifting it (it originally only weighed 30 lbs or so).

While I worked on the houseplants, Samantha decided that she didn’t like wearing a hat or staying on the blanket. Instead, she wanted to play with a dandelion.

 And then, she wanted to eat it. But apparently it didn’t taste very good.

The neighborhood cat Twilite came around, despite my best attempts to get it to go away. Twilite wanted to lounge on the blanket and play with Samantha’s toys. Samantha got so excited she whacked the cat in the face with the dandelion a couple dozen times. Twilite left shortly thereafter.

I finished potting my houseplants in their new containers and we took a short break. When we came back outside, I started tackling the vegetables that may or may not ever grow. Samantha decided to explore the yard.

Then she sat for a while, conducting the music of nature while singing to herself.

After a few songs, she went back to doing what she does best – eating nature.

Do you like my lilac leaf goatee?
I distracted her from eating all the lilacs in the yard long enough to get her interested in what I was doing. She then wanted to help. First, she had to inspect the containers.

They look sturdy...

Next, she wanted to help with the annoyingly wet potting soil.

Carefully reading the directions...
I quickly tossed my seedlings and seeds into pots, filled them with soil, and tried to avoid any further baby interruptions. Unfortunately, I was not fast enough:

What's this?
Can I eat it?
Mmmm… potting soil…

Anyway, I finished all of the plants and set them out on the front and back porches, (hopefully) ready to grow!

Tomato plant, carrots, peppers
Onions & more carrots (spinach not pictured)
I am thinking of this year as a big experiment. If things don’t grow, I’ll be disappointed but not too dismayed (afterall, I completely ignored almost every rule about proper gardening). If they do, it will be a pleasant surprise. I have marked on my summer calendar in big, bold letters the expected harvesting time for each plant (SPINACH! CARROTS! etc.) so I’ll know for sure if this adventure was all for naught.

As for Samantha, she took the longest bath of her life, and so far seems to have no lasting effects from ingesting the various flowers, bugs, and potting soil. All in all, the day was a success.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Good Resources for Expectant Moms

I love talking about birth. It kind of freaked me out when I was pregnant, but now I seriously love hearing how each baby I meet entered the world. I especially love natural birth stories. I was sharing a brief version of Samantha’s birth story (the full version can be found here) with some friends, and a mom of two recently asked me how I knew “all this stuff” about alternative options for birth. My answer was quite simple: my incredible sister has seven children, two of whom were born at home. Throughout my pregnancy, she patiently fielded all of my questions and gently provided guidance, support, and information. I was also able to talk freely with my mom about her personal experiences “back in the day.” Between these two awesome women, I was able to educate myself about the birth experience the way women *used* to – by learning from their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins, instead of from doctors with whom they had no prior relationship. But I realize that I had a unique opportunity, and most women nowadays don’t have quite that network of women.

There are literally thousands of resources out there now to help guide women through conception, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. This is both a good and bad thing. It is fantastic that there is information available in books and on the internet, but with so much information out there, a lot of it seems to contradict each other. Especially when your brain is flooded with pregnancy hormones, it is difficult to filter through all the differing opinions of what is “best” and make a decision based on what is best for you and your baby.

However, I think it is extremely important for women to educate themselves about this incredibly special occasion. Most women spend (significantly) more time researching and preparing for their wedding day than they do for their birth experience. Of course, weddings are important events, but birth is the act of bringing another human being into the world – it is THE most important event (at least, in my opinion). So, just like most of us wouldn’t hand over all the details of our wedding to an “expert” (wedding planner, well-organized friend, whatever) without at least getting the chance to veto the floral design or express our wishes for the meal, we shouldn’t just go blindly into birth and assume that everything the experts (doctors, midwives, nurses, whatever) want to do is what is best for you. None of these people are experts on you and your baby.

I would like to advocate here for women (and their partners) to make informed decisions and be actively involved in the birth process. Disclaimer: I am by no means trying to invalidate the experience of those who did not have natural births (whether by choice or by chance). I believe each woman needs to seriously consider what is best for her and her baby, and to make decisions based upon that information. That said, I also believe that our bodies are designed to birth babies – without medical intervention – the majority of the time. I believe that pregnancy and birth are not illnesses to be treated and managed by doctors on a schedule, but are experiences designed to transition a woman into motherhood. These experiences are not easy, will rarely fit into a perfect time table, and will, ultimately bring forth two new beings: the baby, and the mother. It is the most awesome, terrifying, and empowering experience a person can have.

Anyway, because I am always interested in discussing birth with anyone who will listen, I have often been asked for recommendations on the various books and resources that I have found helpful. I did a lot of reading and internet searching while preparing for Samantha (and even more since she has arrived), and many of these resources have been recommended to me by other mothers. I wanted to share a list of some of my favorites. Most of these follow the type of birth/parenting “philosophy*” that I adhere to, so if you’re not interested in that, then you probably won’t find these recommendations helpful. Please feel free to comment with other recommendations, as well.

*”Parenting philosophy” is a term I use loosely, since I think trying to put everything you believe into one ideology/set of rules is a sure way to set yourself up for frustration with a baby (and I can only speak about parenting itself from my perspective with a particularly adorable eight month old). However, if you’d like some clarification on how I would define my “style” , I’d say part attachment parenting, part “instinctual” parenting, and part “make it up as you go” parenting. It is not the easiest way to parent, and probably not the most effective, but it’s what feels right to me and my husband, so that’s what we do.*

Anyway, back to the recommendations:

For Pregnancy:

*The Pregnancy Book by Dr. Sears – this goes month by month with what to expect. Dr. Sears is one of the main advocates of attachment parenting, and I have read many of his books. The cover on this one is a bit 1980’s looking, but the information inside is solid.

*What to Expect When You’re Expecting – this is probably the most popular book. I read this side-by-side with The Pregnancy Book, each a month at a time so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. This book represents every single possible spectrum, so it is good for pretty much all mothers, regardless of what they are considering. However, I will say that while it discusses natural birth, it is a bit light on some of the alternative options or other more natural approaches to pregnancy, which is why the Dr. Sears book is a good companion.

For Nutrition:

*Real Food for Mother and Baby by Nina Plank – I didn’t read this until just a few months ago, so it wasn’t helpful to me during my pregnancy, but I wish I had read it then! It follows the ideas Plank shares in her book Real Food (simply: processed food, “low fat/carb/calorie/whatever”, and things like “cheese products” are not, actually, food, and that real food in its natural, complete form is quite healthy and good for us… Imagine that!) In this version of the book, she gives ideas for diets for increasing fertility and conception, for pregnancy, for breastfeeding, and for feeding baby when s/he starts solid foods. While I was pregnant, I did try to read “What to Eat While You’re Expecting,” and the Dr. Sears book also had nutrition guidelines, but I have a hard time counting calories, or protein/carb/fat intake, so this holistic approach to eating well to help baby grow and help prepare your body for its biggest physical challenge is simple and wonderful.

For Birth:

*The Birth Book by Dr. Sears – I think this book is extremely important. What to Expect covers every single option for birth available – from drug free to elective C-section – and that is all fine to know. This book, however, while covering all of these topics, puts a lot of emphasis on natural birth and alternative birth options. It discusses all of the tests that will be done during your pregnancy (which, by the way, did you know that you have the right to refuse any test or treatment if you want? This information was the most liberating thing I learned while pregnant. While I only turned down one screening early on – to see if there were any genetic defects in the baby, since we knew we would have the baby regardless of the results and the test can show a false positive and cause unnecessary worry for the remainder of your pregnancy – it was still comforting to know that D and I could be in control of our baby’s wellbeing from the very beginning). Anyway, it also discusses putting together your birth team – selecting your doctor/midwife, and choosing who will be with you (partner, doula, family, friends) – as well as writing your birth plan. It discusses the pros and cons of various birthing locations (home, birth center, hospital). It also thoroughly explains all of the stages of birth and everything to expect. Honestly, by the time I went to my birth class, I knew all of the information already because of this book. It’s a good read if you want to be really well informed. It might even help you prepare yourself to avoid any unnecessary but all-too-common medical interventions. Knowledge is power, afterall.

(Notice there is only one book under this heading? Even though it’s the main topic of my blog post? That’s because I only read this one book specifically on the subject of birth [other books touched on it] and felt that I had all the information I needed to make informed decisions throughout the process.)

*The Business of Being Born. This isn’t a book, it’s a documentary. And it’s amazing. And okay, it made me cry when I watched it with my fearful early pregnancy hormones, but it opened up my eyes to quite a lot of information. Like any documentary, it has a specific spin (this is very homebirth oriented), but I think it is especially important for those planning a hospital birth. It clearly demonstrates the effects of extraneous medical interventions, as well as reveals some of the (now out of date) rather scary aspects of medicalized birth history (twilight sleep, anyone?) It also shows how incredibly awesome and transformative birth can be. Be advised that it does depict actual birth scenes, although none of that close-up nonsense of the baby emerging (which, I’m told by my husband, is “crazy and beautiful and a confluence of emotion that is hard to describe” when you witness it on a loved one, but might not evoke quite the same emotions when watching a stranger on the tv screen). These scenes are very… well, real, of laboring women, and if you’re getting ready to have a baby and you have never seen a birth before, these are the ones to watch. They might not be pretty, but they are absolutely beautiful. Honestly, if you only take one recommendation from this blog, I hope it is to watch this movie. Seriously.

I have been able to find most, if not all, of these resources at my local library. As I said earlier, there are thousands of books out there on pregnancy, nutrition, and birth, and I am sure each one has at least a glimmer of good information. These are just the resources that I found particularly helpful during my pregnancy, and that I routinely loan to friends. I am very interested to hear what resources have been helpful to others during pregnancy, so please comment with other recommendations!

Monday, February 4, 2013

When God Says "Stay"

Yesterday I was rocking out to my oh-so-hip Audio Adrenaline Pandora station, and the theme seemed to be "go." I listened to the lyrics about going wherever God calls, looked down at the sink of dirty dishes I was washing, and thought, "But what about when God says to stay?"

I love going. I love to travel, I love experiencing different cultures, learning new languages, and meeting new people. In general, I love big, scary changes that challenge me (as much as I might moan about them in the moment). A few weeks ago, some new missionaries spoke at church about being called to France. They wanted to follow God's leading, but until He made it very clear this is what they were to do, they had no burning desire to actually go anywhere. I, on the other hand, am filled with wanderlust. I found myself thinking, "Hey, I'll be a missionary to France!" (or Africa, or Toronto, or Antarctica, or wherever...) I would love to go somewhere new and try a brand new way of life. I've always felt closest to God when I am immersed in work for Him, especially on a 24- hour basis (read: camp), and my life has always felt so full during those times. Surely that is what it is like to be a missionary, right? (Note: this was my idealized thought process and in no way reflects reality for missionaries the world over.)

There have been times when God has told me to go. God told me to go to a small camp in Virginia to run the waterfront when I was 19, and then blessed me with three wonderful summers of spiritual growth and ministry opportunities. God sent me to the mountains of Alabama, where five years ago I saved D's life and fell in love. Most recently, God sent me to a new city, along with my husband and then-two-week-old baby. God has told me to go for a new job, go for a new friend, go for family, and, always, go for Him.

Now, my message is to stay.

Stay home, manage the house. Make doctor's appointments and grocery lists. Mend clothes. Bake cookies. Divide my time between laundry, dishes, sweeping, tidying, paying bills, cooking meals, and running errands. Repeat daily, if not more often.

Stay home with Samantha. Change diapers, wash diapers, fold diapers. Feed the baby. Bathe the baby. Put her down for naps. Comfort her when she cries. Make her laugh. Love on her endlessly.

Stay with D. The physical logistics of this have never been in question, but the emotional part but can sometimes be a bit hazier. But God says stay with D in my heart. Stay connected, stay interested, stay engaged. Stay passionate when I feel haggard. Stay attentive when I am distracted. Stay emotionally faithful to the man who works so hard for our family.

To me, today, God has said stay. Stay and I will bless you with a loving family. Stay and I will show you a strong church family. Stay and I will provide for you, even when things seem bleak.

The more I think about it, the more I know that God is with me whether I stay or go, because He will never leave us nor forsake us. But in this less-than-glamorous time of my life, I am starting to realize that I will not be with Him unless I listen, obey, and stay. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Food for Thought, or Thoughts on Food

This is about two weeks late, but... Happy New Year! Two thousand twelve was an adventurous year in our house, and we had the opportunity to end it surrounded by new friends. My ambitious husband has a list of 101 things to do in 2013 that will contribute to our family adventures (although hopefully in less "major life change" ways and more in a "hiking really cool mountains" kind of way), but neither of us really made resolutions for the new year. I never do anymore. I learned a long time ago that if I have to make a grand decision to change/add/remove something, I won't follow through with it. I think this is true for most people. It's why gym memberships sell out in January, and by March there is no longer a line for the treadmills and bikes. Also, in general, the things I want to change in my life don't normally happen around the turn of the year; instead, I generally identify a problem and start immediately trying to remedy it (or stubbornly ignore it.)

This year, however, timing and circumstance have conspired to force me to admit that there is something I want to change in the new year. It's something that's been in the back of my mind for a few years now, but I've never truly had the motivation to deal with. This year, I am going to stop eating (and feeding my family) junk.

It's true, we eat a lot of junk. By "junk" I mean processed and imitation foods. Sometimes, we don't even realize that what we are eating isn't "real food," because it's cleverly disguised to look and - almost - taste like the real thing. Unfortunately, most of these foods are packed full of preservatives, chemicals, hormones, and nasty, unnatural fats and sugars, and I think they are slowly killing us (or, at least, our taste buds).

I've read a lot on "healthy" diets, many of which mean counting calories, measuring out vegetables, eliminating taste... I can't get on board with any of those. I am not good at counting, measuring, reading labels, etc. And I love for food to taste good. Then I read one of Michael Pollan's books, and I liked what it said. But... I still wasn't quite motivated to make any big change. Sure, I tried to eat more leafy greens, but it was a half-hearted effort.

Last month, it was time for Samantha to start trying solid foods. I panicked. I know my diet is not ideal, so how was I going to model a healthy diet for her?

Then I read Nina Planck's "Real Food for Mothers and Babies." It's fantastic. It talks all about what to eat when you are trying to conceive, when pregnant, when nursing, and what to feed your baby as first food. And while I don't agree with everything she writes, I did agree with one thing: real food is best.

It sound simple, and it is. I can't do justice to all the knowledge she packs into that little book, so I recommend that you just find it and read it (if you're not interested in "mothers and babies," her first book is just called "Real Food" and I've heard is also quite wonderful.) But basically, it speaks to my traditionalist sensibility.

So, I've started making an effort to eliminate most of the processed food from our pantry, and to buy food in its original form. This is a slow process, but I've found that it has actually really helped these last few weeks as our grocery budget has also gotten quite a bit smaller.

For example, instead of buying individually wrapped chicken breasts for $1.99/lb (if I get the Club Pack at Wegman's, which provides me with about a dozen individual serving breasts), we instead bought an entire chicken for $6.00. D seasoned it up and roasted it in the oven, then sliced it up. We got a lot of meat off of that chicken, for only $0.99/lb. (Yes, half the cost of our club pack chicken breasts, with a lot less plastic waste). 

Of course, we were paying for the bones, too, so you might say it wasn't worth it. But the bonus: we used the bones and extra skin to make homemade chicken broth, and had several soups the following week that were full of natural, no-preservative flavor. Homemade chicken broth (or chicken stock) is insanely easy. We only used some of the larger bones, but next time we will use the whole carcass. All you do is cover the bones/carcass with water, bring it to a boil, and then leave it to simmer for about 4 hours. Occasionally you need to add some hot water to make sure the bones stay covered. After about four hours, strain out the bones/skin/etc. I put a colander over a large bowl and poured the stock into it. Once I dumped all the large pieces, I put a dishtowel over the colander and re-poured. This strained out some the smaller pieces that were easy to miss.

I know this sounds silly, but it is really satisfying to use almost an entire animal instead of just bits and pieces. Just this one chicken and the stock we made from it provided over a week of diverse meals. For six dollars. Even if you aren't very good at math, it's easy to figure out that it's less than a dollar a day. That's the type of expense that my grocery budget can handle.

After the success with the chicken, we started thinking about what else we can make, both to cut back costs and to have "real" food in our house. Every morning, I love to eat wheat toast with peanut butter, and D takes a sandwich to work each day, so we tend to go through a lot of bread. And while we don't want carbs and refined flour to be a major part of our diet, the reality is that we like toast and sandwiches, and we spend a lot of money on bread. I like wheat bread, but D does not. Then I stumbled upon this amazing food blog (Mel's Kitchen Cafe) and her tutorial on yeast. Yeast breads have always made me nervous. One, I didn't understand the differences between the types of yeast, so that was a big problem. Two, I've always found that homemade breads might be good for toast, but are too crumbly and heavy to make sandwiches. Enter this amazing whole wheat bread recipe - I tried the third recipe (although left out the Vitamin C because I bought vital wheat gluten that already had it added - oh, and I got it at the surplus store for only 29 cents, too!) She even has a photo tutorial on how to make this bread step-by-step. I gave it a try, and it turned out amazing! How amazing? This bread was so wonderful that not only did it make great toast, it worked well on sandwiches, and D loved it so much that he routinely would cut slices just to eat on its own. My white bread loving husband has been converted to a whole wheat bread fan, and I am thankful. And there is seriously something very satisfying about eating something you made entirely from scratch. I have found that half of that recipe makes 2 9"x5" loaves and that lasts anywhere from three days to a week.

On a side note, since my success with the whole wheat bread, I have wanted to give homemade pita bread a try. Granted, this recipe is made with refined white flour instead of wheat flour, but sometimes you have to splurge. And while not all of my pitas puffed, some did and they all tasted great! The recipe is really simple and I managed to make them and get S ready for bed at the same time (yes, including bath time, story time, and nursing - all of which happened when the dough was resting), in addition to preparing this super delicious chakchouka recipe. I felt like superwoman.

Of course, there is another big part of our attempt to eat real food - fruits & vegetables. I am really bad at this, and until Samantha started eating solids I usually threw these onto the plate as a side note. Now, I plan my meals around them because I like to make sure that, at least a few nights a week, Samantha has something new to smash into her hair. While spring brings a fabulous (albeit small) grower's market to Williamsport, D and I are hoping to plant a small garden to help supplement the fresh veggies. We are still working out what form this will take, since we rent a 2nd floor apartment. I am hoping to talk to our landlord about gardening out in the yard, since there is a small plot right next to the house that appears like it was once a flower garden and now has some sad shrubbery in it. It would be awesome if I could make that a small vegetable garden. However, we aren't sure how much longer we will be living in this apartment, so we are also discussing doing an indoor herb garden on some bookshelves, and planting a few vegetables in containers so we can take them if/when we move. I am still in the "research" phase of all of this, but I am excited about the prospect. My dad had a wonderful vegetable garden in our yard when I was younger, and I remember the pride he had when he harvested fresh green beans and broccoli for our family (not that I liked to eat them as a picky youngster, but in hindsight I am thankful.)

So, it isn't happening overnight, but slowly our packaged and processed food supply is dwindling (and not being replenished). I have had to get more creative with meals now that we are trying to include more "real" food, but it has been an enjoyable challenge.