Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nursing mom

I have had the awesome privilege to experience nursing my kids.

Nursing helps me sleep. It helps me calm down my kids in a hurry, floods my body with feel-good calm-down hormones, and puts my sleep cycles in synch with my child's, so that their night-waking is less disruptive to my night.

Nursing keeps me in touch. I am hormonally, biologically in touch with my child. We are a pair. We are rarely apart and it is hard for me to leave them for any length of time. Listening to my baby cry is close to physically painful. I think that is by design.

Nursing has connected me to many other wonderful moms. I meet them at La Leche League and in attachment parenting groups. I sit next to them in nursing rooms, and on chairs in the church nursery. I join them in celebrating nursing, this natural and amazing gift, in person at events, and online, through facebook, forums and blogs. I stand with them through Human Milk 4 Human Babies. We are connected through nursing, and to most nursing moms, this is of profound significance.

Nursing keeps us healthy. My breastmilk is perfectly adapted to meet the nutritional needs of my baby. I make precisely the right antibodies that my baby needs to fight her cold. I protect us both from cancer, from obesity. I keep my baby hydrated, even when she is vomiting. I keep away her ear infections. I can treat diaper rash or an eye infection with a few squirts. And I burn calories every day to make it. Extra brownie, anyone? ;-)

Nursing is free and healthy, empowering and beautiful. I feel blessed to have experienced it, because I know not everyone does. I have been lucky. I have the support of my mother, husband, friends and La Leche League. I have the knowledge I needed to be successful, and the encouragement I needed from health care professionals. And I have been blessed with the stubbornness needed to persist in the face of challenge.

I have been bitten and scratched. I have been in tears over a baby who would not latch. I have woken up insane amounts of times in the night to nurse a fussy baby who would not sleep. I have had over-supply, under-supply and a painful plugged duct. I have been criticized for how, where and for how long I choose to nurse.

About all of these things I can say the same thing: Worth it, worth it, worth it.

To all the other moms who might want to nurse, I have just a little advice. Learn all you can. Meet other nursing moms. Believe your body was made for this. And don't give up. I can't promise it will be easy. But it will be worth it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A bit of earth

Our teeny veggie garden

"Might I," quavered Mary, "might I have a bit of earth?"

In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.

"Earth!" he repeated. "What do you mean?"

"To plant seeds in--to make things grow--to see them come alive," Mary faltered.

from 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodges Burnett

Our apartment bedroom

When I got pregnant with Nik, we were living in a third floor walk up apartment a block from the train tracks, in an inexpensive area of town. We liked the apartment, with its two bedrooms, tiny kitchen and plethora of closets. It was the perfect place for newlyweds. But when the time came to start adding to our family, we started house shopping. Not for the space, so much. Our bedrooms in our house are actually smaller than the ones we had in the apartment. And not even because a mortgage seemed smarter than paying rent, although that was a factor. No, the real reason we looked for a house right then, is because I couldn't imagine raising a child without a backyard.

Until I was ten, my family lived in a one-and-a-half storey house, with a white fence and a blue shed. We had yard on all sides of our house, which seems so uncommon, now. In the front yard, we had a big and bumpy stone step that led up to the front door, flanked by two flower gardens, and one large elm tree. On one side of the house we had a sidewalk that led back and around to the back door, and on the other side, there was another tree with a tire swing, just outside the kitchen window. Our backyard was home to a vegetable garden pushed up next to a fence, a gravel driveway, the shed, a large sandbox, a birch tree and an old, green, metal swing set with two swings, a hanging teeter totter, and a slide that got blazing hot in the summer. We also had an old fashioned clothesline strung above the wooden picnic table that sat on our patio. In reality, I know that our yard was small and crowded. But in my childhood mind's eye it is spacious and full of possibility.

I remember the buttercups that grew through the stones in the driveway. I remember hanging from the cross bar on the 'A' that made up the side of the swing set. I remember my brother climbing the fence and the wood pile to get to the roof of the shed, and then watching him throw his plane off the top. I remember walking on the bricks that bordered the flower garden, digging in the black earth of the vegetable garden to find worms, and climbing the trees.

So how could I even entertain the idea of having kids of my own, and raising them without a backyard?

It took us a little while to find a house. In a seller's market, it is so common to bid on a house, just once, and be outbid by someone else, and there goes your chance. We bid four times, got outbid four times. It was discouraging, but, fifth time was a charm for us, and before Nik was born, we were moving in. In the following months, we painted and renovated and welcomed in our freshly born baby boy. A home of our own.

That first summer, we did not go outside much. Nik was fussy, and didn't like to be hot. if I went outside with him, he would usually squint in the sun and complain. If I left him on his own for a bit to pull weeds or what have you, he complained. We used the backyard a handful of times, for a BBQ or fire, maybe to splash in the wading pool for a bit, but... We weren't exactly living out there.

First time in the backyard wading pool

The next summer I had returned to work half-time, and so there was even less time to spend outside. Those days that we did go outside, it was usually to walk to a park, or down to the library, or to my grandparent's apartment building for tea. And last year, IT RAINED. And rained. And rained. Nice days that happened to coincide with my days off from work were spent again at the park or nearby wading pool. We did manage to put in a vegetable garden, but it was largely ignored. It certainly didn't need watering!

This year was finally different. Nik is three, now, and so much more capable of playing. Thanks to my second maternity leave, I am home so much more, so we can take advantage of all the nice weather days, and this summer there have been many of them. It has been dry and hot, so the garden has needed watering, prompting me to get out there, and weed and putter around. My dad and brother surprised us at the beginning of the summer with the gift of a small wooden swing set - a green slide and two swings.

And Alexa is such a happy baby, content to be left to roll around on a blanket in the backyard.

We have a small backyard, with a rickety wooden fence. It is crowded with a tiny patio, sandbox, swing set, vegetable garden. My mom could have said the same thing about my own childhood home. But seen through my son's eyes, I can tell it is different. It is a place to run, to catch grasshoppers and frogs, to roast marshmallows and to swing up to the sky.

It is spacious, and full of possibility.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lake life

Nik and Uncle Darryl

Every summer, as far back as I can remember, I have gone camping. I have childhood memories of walking on gravel roads and beaches with my cousins, visiting the small camp store to buy 5 cent candy. In later years, it was just my family, down in the States, camping on the edge of a small town near Grand Forks. We would play for hours at the park, and in the nearby outdoor swimming pool. As a teen, I remember sitting around the fire in the dark, talking late into the night, looking at the stars. And then, as a newlywed, our first weekend away at the lake, in the May long weekend drizzly cold, trying to keep warm with my new husband. That was the first year that we camped at Falcon Lake, and we have been back every summer since.

We are no purist campers. We have only camped once without the benefits of electricity, and, to be honest, that was a result of our own reservation error. Neither do we camp with extreme style. We have no air conditioned trailer, or fancy speed boat. Our tent trailer is borrowed, and older than me. I think the same could be said of the humble fishing boat we use. But I have learned that no matter what you stay in, the moon is just as bright. And however humble your boat, the view from the middle of the lake is the same.

There are islands in the lake we visit. Last year, we took our boat farther along the lake than we had before, and discovered a larger island with picnic tables and fire pits, covered in blueberry bushes. Of course, our trip this year had to include a visit. It was Alexa's first time in the boat, and I was so fortunate to have gotten an infant life jacket from a friend just the week before we left.

We packed a lunch, took our fishing stuff and cameras, loaded up the boat and set off to rediscover 'our' island. Being in the boat fills the senses. The smell of the lake, the wind in your hair. The roar of the outboard motor is so loud, you have to shout to be heard, and if you face the wrong way, the wind carries your voice away anyways. You see cottages all along the lakeshore, many of them grander than my own home. There are seagulls in the air, and loons on the water that dart away as you approach. And in very Canadian fashion, lots of rocks and trees and water.

We near an island, and peer closely at it. Nope, this is not the one. Not the next one, either. Finally, we find it. Covered in evergreen trees, the surface of the island is blanketed in needles, keeping the undergrowth sparse and leaving lots of room to walk and explore. We slowly bring the boat up to the rocky shore, and tie it to a tree. It is so quiet here.

We tumble out of the boat, and I free Alexa from her life jacket and tie her onto my back in a carrier. My brother Darryl goes off in one direction with his camera, and Andrew and Nik set off along another path, exploring. The wind off of the water is cool and refreshing as I unpack our picnic onto a nearby table.

The air smells like pine needles. Here and there you hear birds, and the scuffle of little ground squirrels.

We walk around for a while, and then sit for our lunch. Afterwards, Andrew gets Nik up to try fishing for the first time. I sit down nearby, resting my feet in a little rock pool, and am struck by the simple richness of our day.

As a child, my parents brought me to the lake. Now, I bring my children. I hope they can look back on their own happy memories of lake life.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I have long believed that simple toys are the best toys. Toys with little detail, and no batteries, leave the most room for the child to invent, and the play they inspire is open-ended, engaging the mind and expanding the imagination. And what could be simpler than a cardboard box?

In preparation for an upcoming roadtrip, we recently bought our quickly-growing Nik a new car seat, and he fell in love with the box. When he insisting on moving his pillow and blanket into the box that first night, to sleep like a little homeless person, I thought, "Here is the ultimate thrifty summer project." Even though our most recent painting project likely took a year off of my life, I decided to break out the paints again, and Nik and I spent a fantastic morning transforming his box into the perfect portable summer hideaway.

Again, like previous tutorials, this is something you could probably figure out all on your lonesome, but maybe seeing it will inspire your own project, for your own thrifty fun.

Adult prep:
Start with a box. Any large box will do, but white boxes are nice. This was ours.
Drag said box onto some sort of paint safe surface. You could do this project outside, if it weren't too windy or wet. We did ours in the kitchen, on top of flyers, taped to the floor with masking tape.
Next step is to prep the box for decoration. My box had a colour glossy print of the car seat on one side that I peeled off. The other sides were printed with orange and blue ink.

This is gesso. I bought it at Hobby Lobby when I was going through an art journalling/altered book phase, inspired by Kelly Rae Roberts and Sabrina Ward Harrison. It is basically a primer that you can apply to any surface to ready it for paint. Think of it as white wash for your box. It dries quickly.

Voila! A mostly white box.

Take a craft knife and cut some windows into your box, prior to painting. You can do any shape, or even cut so that the windows have shutters that open. I used some bowls and plates to mark circles onto my box with a marker, and then cut them out.

Now, you need to gather some paints and whatever you will be using to apply the paints to your box. We had an assortment of brushes, and a large collection of foam stamps that I have amassed for card making.

You are now ready to unleash your little artist! Mine was playing computer while I was getting everything out, and was surprised and happy to walk into the kitchen and find an inviting art project waiting for him.
Decked out in a painting t-shirt of Daddy's, he went to town on the box.

Painting is very serious work.

Keep painting until the box is covered, or your child gets bored, or your other child gets tired of sitting in the bouncy seat and just wants to get nursed already, darn it. Or all three. We finished off with a couple of handprints on the 'floor' of the box, and then it was into the bath for the three year old, while I cleaned up the kitchen. The box was banished for a few hours until it was completely dry, but since coming back not a day has passed that it has been ignored.

It has been climbed in, filled up, turned over, peeked through and shown off. It has been a house, a hiding spot, a rocket ship. A box + paint + a morning's worth of time = thrifty goodness of childhood.

If you love the idea of boxes as open ended play, you'll love this book, by Antoinette Portis.

This post is participating in ON{the laundry}LINE's thrifty summertime link party. Click on through for more fun!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Paving new pathways

The more I share about my own dark struggles with anxiety, the more people open up to me about theirs. Likewise, as I make progress, and live each day a little lighter, those same people have wondered aloud to me about it. What did you do? What do you do? How can I find what works for me, and let go of all this emotional sludge?

Well, I am not a therapist. I am just on a journey, maybe a bit like yours. I have no tricks, and no quick fixes. But I can share what I know, and what is working for me. Maybe it will work for you, too.

In a previous post, Unwritten, I wrote about my patterns of being worried, self-critical and defensive. These patterns, along with a generally pessimistic view of myself and my life, had become so ingrained, so part of my own self-concept, that I could barely even see them anymore. Later, in Practice, I talked about how, once a problem pattern is recognized, it is difficult to change, even when you want to. It takes daily effort, and can be a long and tiresome process. Both of these things are rooted in what we understand from basic neurochemistry.

How we learn patterns

Think of a piano student. This student has a new piece of music, and the first time she attempts to play the piece, many mistakes are made. It is slow and frustrating to get through the piece the first time. But if she keeps at it, and plays the piece again and again, and especially if she gives extra practice to those parts that are particularly challenging, the piece gets easier to play. As learning occurs, the student has to concentrate less and less, the piece sounds better and better, and playing the piece transforms from a difficult and frustrating experience, to a joyful one.

What we don't observe directly, is what happens in the pianist's brain. Brains are full of tiny neurons, that act like stepping stones in a pathway. Every time a path is followed, the electrical impulses in the brain actually cause the neurons to grow towards each other, as if the stepping stones are moved closer together. A substance called myelin also grows around neurons that are frequently used, making the impulses faster. Before we learn something, it is as difficult to follow the path as jumping from one far placed stone to the next, in heavy boots. It is slow, clumsy, and missteps are common. But as things are learned, those stones grow together, and soon it is like traveling an asphalt path in roller blades.

Unfortunately, this amazing, organic process is not only in place when we practice music. It is there when we practice anything. It is there when we practice putting ourselves down. It is there when we practice reacting in anger or fear. It is there when we practice blame, or perfectionism, or defeatist thinking. And sooner or later, our unhelpful patterns too become asphalt paths for our roller blades.

The helpful paths are not gone from our brains, but they are much harder to travel. The stones are far apart, and rough. That path is hard and slow-going. Left on automatic pilot, our brain will not choose to travel that path. Automatic pilot likes ease and speed. No, to find your way back to a helpful path will take effort, over and over. But each time you use the better path, you give it energy. Energy that it can use to grow, and get smoother. And the longer you ignore the old path, the more it will fall into disrepair.

This is not just a metaphor. Scientists have long known that brain tissue needs to be active to live. Neurons that are not used shrivel and die. As you build new pathways in your brain by consciously giving energy to a new way of thinking, the new path gets stronger, and the old path gets weaker. After a long time, the new way will be the faster pathway, and even old autopilot will choose it. But first you have to get there. You have to change your brain.

How we change patterns

Step 1 - Noticing
To shift your thinking from an old pattern to a new one, first you have to recognize what your old pattern is. One of my most pervasive patterns is that of self-critical thoughts, and that is the pattern I will be using in my example, but your unhelpful pattern may be different. Many people find it helpful to record the thoughts they are having during those times that they are feeling at their worst. As you record the thoughts and accompanying feelings, you can get an idea of where you need to focus.

It is important not to sugar coat your thoughts when you record them. For example, let's say I am driving, make some sort of error, and am suddenly feeling awful, anxious and ashamed. If I record the thought, "Gee, Lisa, you should really be more careful." I am not really being honest with myself about my inner voice. The statement, "You should be careful" would not elicit such strong feelings of anxiety or shame. It would be best to record as accurately as possible what I said to myself, and even try to capture the tone:

"Hey! What are you doing? Couldn't you see he was trying to make that turn? You totally cut him off! I can't believe you have your kids in the car and are driving like that. Just you wait and see, one of these days you will really cause an accident. Hurt your kids. Yep. What business do you even have behind the wheel?"

Wow. I am a meanie.

Can you see how those thoughts elicit those feelings of anxiety and shame? Of course I will feel anxious and ashamed if I think I am the worst driver and am going to wind up killing my own kids! The feelings and the self-talk usually match in intensity.

Step 2: Stopping
When you get a feel for your own voices, it is time to step up, and interrupt them. You make that traffic mistake, feel the anxiety, pay attention to what it was you were telling yourself, and just stop talking. Stop. Not another word. No. Some people visualize a giant stop sign, or say 'Stop' out loud to themselves. However you do it, just do it. You are not allowed to talk to yourself like that anymore.

Step 3: Restructuring
Now comes the rewrite. Question your own judgement. Does making that traffic mistake really mean you are an unobservant, rude, incompetent driver who deserves for her kids to die in a car accident? What would be a more realistic reaction? Practice saying that to yourself.

"You were distracted by your crying baby, and forget to shoulder check during that lane change. It is hard to ignore your own crying child, but accidents can happen on busy roads. You usually shoulder check. Remember to do it, even when it is loud in the car."

This is not about false optimism. You don't want to falsely congratulate yourself on your driving skills after an error. But take context into account. If you are usually a good driver, make sure to include that in your perception of events. One mistake does not a terror to the roadways make.

This is just one strategy to use when fighting the battle against anxiety and depression. It is not the only thing I have done, but it is probably the thing that has had the greatest impact. It is also not my own idea, but a simplified and adapted version of strategies conceived of and promoted by many therapists, based on the work of many researchers. Maybe it can help you. It has helped me.

drawings by Frits Ahlefeldt, and downloaded from:
Thanks, Frits.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Children's Garden

Winnipeg, home that I love, has an amazing new place to play. In the heart of Assiniboine Park, there is a new place designed with kids in mind, a nature playground. My son calls it "The Beach Park" because of its huge sand and water feature. But it's official name is, "The Children's Garden".
Come peek inside with me.

Already, just with hearing the name, I fell in love. The Children's Garden. It sounds like somewhere fairies would hide. But when I arrived at the entrance for the first time, and saw the hand-painted sign on the enormous door... Well, I fell a little more.
Through the gate, you see a long path paved with bricks. Planters filled with flowers can be found on either side, and trees tower just behind them. Even though the garden is large and crowded, the entry is spacious and quiet. You know you are walking into someplace special.
The planters give way to sculptures. On the right, there is a sea serpent, fashioned out of twisted branches, resembling driftwood. To your left, you can spot a birds nest, made of logs, with child-size eggs for your little birdies to pretend to pop out of. As you continue forward, you walk between two rows of a merry band of frogs, ingeniously designed to grow along with the rest of the garden.

This is a place charming, and full of whimsy, but it is also most definitely a place to play. The first structure you come on is this one, full of climbing ropes.

It attracts the older kids, who see the web of ropes as a challenge, and race each other to the crow's nest of their conquered pirate ship.

The older kids also love to pile onto to these oversized swings, which can hold as many as five riders or more, depending on how cozy those riders are all prepared to get.

Just beyond that, you feel like you have stepped into the land of the Teletubbies, as impossibly perfect, little rolling hills rise up to meet your feet, with a few coloured spheres thrown in, just for fun.

Adjacent to those are a few more slides. There is a low one, perfect for the youngest riders to explore, and two long winding ones built right into the hillsides. These hills are actually made from crushed and coloured recycled rubber, which makes them non-slip and fun to scramble up, but also a little hot in the sun. No bare feet here!

But none of those are my son's favourite part. He calls this place, "The Beach Park," after all. And this is why.

Starting at this fountain, a trickle of water begins.

It winds around, and weaves back and forth in a concrete trench, all through this beautiful 'sand box' until it disappears under a little bridge at the far side.

All along the sides, kids dig and play, trying to build dams out of sand and round heavy rocks. They can stop the water with a series of rubber locks, or pump it up to pour down a built in water wheel. They can climb in, and splash and stomp, and generally do everything every kid WANTS to do with a public fountain, but isn't allowed. In the children's garden it is not just allowed; it is encouraged.
Parents and grandparents sit along the side of the park in the grass and on lovely wooden benches, enjoying the shade of the trees. And we do what visitors always do in a garden. We gaze upon the beauty of growing things.

Even if they do move a little faster here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Finger paint is the devil

Before attempting this project, do yourself a favour, and run your child a bath. You will need it. Finger paint is the devil. Move the curtains out of reach, strip off as much clothing from your child as you are comfortable with, and put newspaper on the floor. If your child is anything like my child, this still will not help much, but at least you will feel like you tried.

Ah, Father's Day. Time to appreciate dads with cute little crafty projects. Time to put into action ideas that sound quaint and easy. Time to add a few more gray hairs.

This project is fun (for your child), doesn't require many materials, and can be done in a short amount of time. It turns out a cute gift for a dad or grandpa. It also uses finger paint. Finger paint is the devil. See above.

But if you think, nah, surely this women is just inept, I could totally handle my 3 year old when both of his/her hands are full of paint, then read on. But don't say I didn't warn you.

For this project you will need: a canvas, some letter stickers, a permanent marker and finger paints.
Isn't it lovely how clean everything is right now?

Use your letter stickers to put a message on your canvas. These will act as a 'mask' for your message, so because it really doesn't matter what colour the stickers are, choose based on letter style. A thick font works best. Burnish them with your fingernail to get them as stuck to the canvas as you can. Stickers do not stick as well to canvas as they do to paper, and you do not want them coming up mid-project.

After the stickers are adhered, set your little artist loose on the canvas. Well, not exactly loose. If you want the painting to have different colours, instead of turning into one mix-y black and greenish mess, you may need to provide some guidance. Even if that doesn't matter to you, there may still need to be direction given to keep the paint on the canvas, and not on, say, one's chest...

But to each their own.

I have no photo of this step. Just picture the Tasmanian Devil with blue hands. That is pretty much what it looked like at my house.

And then, ta da! This is what you end up with.

After you have deposited your child in the tub, and while the paint is still wet, remove the stickers to reveal your message. Once the paint is dry, you can use the permanent marker to add your child's name and the year.

Cool, right? Almost makes you want to try it?

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Conservatory calm

I wrestle my 3 year old into his clothes and then into his car seat. I snap the baby seat in place, and drive. Wait for a train for 10 minutes. Fight my way through traffic on the 3 lanes of Portage Ave. Loop around the underpass, up Tuxedo, right onto Corydon... Pull onto Conservatory drive. Find a parking space, unbuckle 3 year old, put baby in carrier. Chase three year old with umbrella through rain.

Through one set of doors. Catch 3 year old, and through another set of doors. Up a path, past a crowd of school kids. Around a corner. Breathe.

All around me, at my feet and above my head, are the lush, thick leaves of tropical plants. Soft light filters through the greenery onto the path before me. The air is heavy with humidity, and from somewhere I hear water quietly falling. I can smell black earth, and dusty paving stones, and warm, wet, growing things.

It is well with my soul.

I duck under the canopy of a low growing tree, and follow my quick-footed son. He has spotted a bench to climb onto, and off of again. He runs by the pond, pausing for just a second to watch a koi fish circle in the water. We round the corner and see a trickle of a waterfall, landing in a small pool where five turtles are unhurriedly passing the time. A friend I meet up with asks me, "Do you come here very often?" Sigh... Not as often as I'd like.

We've come to another set of glass doors. Opening them, I recognize the sweet fragrance of hydrangeas. There are so many here, nestled together with tulips, snapdragons, lilies, and many more flowers I cannot name. As the light rain drizzles down the greenhouse roof, I watch as Nik runs to and fro along the paths, up the steps and around the gardens. I find a bench to sit down, and nurse my baby.

Fish and turtles pass slowly through still pools. Trees tower overhead. Ivy creeps near our feet. A group of school children pass through on their way to transplant some seedlings. Seniors take photographs. A young man with autism taps a garden tie rhythmically as he watches a gardener misting plants. The room is alive, but not frenetic. Everyone seems at peace in the midst of these beautiful, growing things.

Time passes and tummies rumble. The time comes for us to leave again, sooner than I would like. Back out through the doors, into the drizzle, babe in arms, and 3 year old in tow. Back into the car seats, down the drive, into the traffic... Back to life. Back to that list of laundry to do, diapers to change, kids to feed, groceries to buy.

But I carry a little peace with me. A lighter breath. An acknowledgement, a gratitude for my moment of conservatory calm. Namaste.
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