Monday, January 31, 2011

Pride, self-esteem, and self-love

Pride and self-esteem are two sides of the same coin, a coin I call "self-love." Self-love can be a synonym for pride, a deadly sin. Or it can be considered a positive thing, as opposed to self-hatred. Some people lump the two together. Either they say, "This stuff about self-esteem is all nonsense. They used to call it pride, and it's a sin!" Or, they say, "Ah, in those terrible old days people considered pride a sin, but really, it's no more than healthy self-esteem!"

I consider pride and self-esteem to be very different. They are both love of self, sure. But pride is an unhealthy, obsessive love, the kind of love that makes you defend someone when you know they're wrong, that closes off your ability to love others. Not a true love, but "love" in quotation marks, perhaps. Self-esteem is a healthy sort of self-love, the love that you have for a good friend that you admire, but can be realistic about their faults as well. You enjoy spending time with them, alone or along with others, but you don't obsess about them.

Pride is definitely bad. Pride leads you to ignore others' needs in favor of your own; to defend your own ideas even after you've been shown the flaws in them; to refuse to improve yourself; to be rude and dismissive. People don't like a proud person. There's no room for love of others (God included) in the heart of someone in love with themselves.

But I argue that self-esteem is good. Knowing that you are good at a subject or a sport isn't "evil pride," it's simply accepting the truth about yourself. And I think it's okay to feel good about the things you're good at. In the same way, we should acknowledge our faults. But we shouldn't be cast down by them, to imagine that those faults make us no good and not worth loving. Instead we should try to see ourselves as we see others -- a person with some bad in them, but lots of good.

Lack of self-esteem leads to problems. Depression is the obvious example, with its relatives anorexia, bulimia, and cutting. Less drastic are problems like defensiveness (a last hold-out of the instinct of self-preservation, when we are convinced we are not worth preserving), an inability to form good relationships (because we are unable to believe that we are lovable, and fail to accept and trust others' love), and a lack of confidence that keeps us from pursuing ideas and opportunities we should.

It's possible to have low self-esteem and pride at the same time. When we fail at a healthy relationship with ourselves, we turn to an unhealthy one. The person in this situation hates himself, obsesses over his faults, and yet turns an even harsher eye to others. He puts down their faults to make himself feel better. Or he has a false humility and claims to be worthless, but holds his own ideas and opinions as gospel because, well, he might be worthless but his ideas are something entirely different, and anyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong.

It's often said that bullies have low self-esteem, and I believe it. What could be more natural for a person fighting the idea that he is worthless than pushing someone else around? It's a nice boost for their miserable ego.

Because, the fact is, self-love of some kind is unavoidable. It's instinct. There's a saying that self-love doesn't die till an hour after you do. You can pray for humility and you can focus on others, but some time in every day, you're going to end up facing yourself in the mirror. Do you zoom in on the zits, the flab, the wrinkles, agonize over how you look as if it mattered to anyone but yourself? Do you spend your time rearranging your hair, fixing your makeup, trying to impress? Or do you give yourself a quick smile, say "Hello, old friend," and keep going? That's the difference between a healthy self-esteem and its many distortions.

I'm not sure what all this means for me, as a parent. How do I raise a child with healthy self-esteem without teaching him an unhealthy pride? How do I show him that his achievements are of value without making him depend on my praise for everything he does? How, in short, do I teach him to be friends with himself?

I do know what doesn't work. When I was in boarding school, I was labeled as proud. The fact is, I talked a good game because I was so unsure of myself. But the treatment was to put me down at every opportunity, to correct me constantly and tell me what was wrong with me. When I accepted this without crying, getting angry, or defending myself, then I would be cured. (It never happened.) But I think I've shown how a person with low self-esteem does become defensive, and I became more and more defensive the longer it went on. A person who humbly accepts criticism is a person with healthy self-esteem, someone who doesn't need to be perfect in the eyes of others to feel he is of value. He knows he has value, he knows what his talents and strengths are, so he doesn't need so much affirmation -- and when a fault is pointed out to him, he can accept that and try to fix it without feeling like he's no good.

I just don't know what I would have done in the same situation. Reassure the high school girl with the issues, help her fit in so she didn't feel so unsure? Or, perhaps, stay the heck out of it and let her find her own way? That doesn't help me know what to do in my real situation, as the mother of a boy who could grow up to be anything.

My parents are a better example. Though they aren't afraid to criticize, I've always known they believed in me. Perhaps I'd better find out their secret before this baby gets any older.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The "good old days"

I am a conservative Catholic. At any rate, I consider myself to be one. But I went to a conservative Catholic college where I found many people much more conservative than I am.

There's the tendency in any conservative group to compare the present to the "good old days." We're sorted into groups based on what we think the "good old days" were. Neoconservatives get wistful about the 1950's. Back then, the Church was respected! Back then, the Mass was in Latin! Back then, all the priests were Irish!

Back then was also when many Catholics thought their duty ended with Mass attendance and a nice tithe in the collection basket. When the going got tough, they were gone. Yes, there were more Catholics then, but if they had had real faith, they wouldn't have packed up and left the second the Church clarified its position on birth control. Not to mention that the fifties and sixties were when all the sex abuse took place that is coming to light now. Are the fifties-fans saying that sex abuse is okay as long as we don't know about it?

Not to bash the fifties; I'm sure in many ways the fifties were quite nice. I also believe that the 2010's are quite nice in their way too.

More radical conservatives harken back, not to the fifties, but to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Council of Trent is where it's at. Whatever happened to the good old days when the Pope wore a triple tiara and owned a big chunk of Italy? When just about everyone was Catholic and heretics were burned at the stake? These people literally sigh for the Spanish Inquisition.

Personally, I think the Renaissance was a low point for the Church. I'm not a history buff, but you don't have to be to know about popes fathering children, making those children cardinals, and selling offices in the Church. And as for the burning of heretics, it shocks and offends me that anyone would defend this and call themselves Catholic. Heretics were executed for mainly political reasons, and most frequently by the laity, not the hierarchy. Religion was an excuse to these very unreligious men to allow them to do away with their enemies and appear holy at the same time. Executing heretics purely for religious reasons is manifestly immoral, and was condemned by saints like Augustine and John Chrysostom. Vatican II gets a lot of criticism from conservatives, but the fact is, its declaration of religious freedom was completely in accord with Scripture and the early Church, and it's a Good Thing. God does not force our belief, so man has no right to. God wants us to come to him in total freedom. A forced conversion would be meaningless; the execution of a heretic would likely send him to hell. What a horrible thing to do.

In any event, we don't have to defend the deeds of popes and bishops. They could be horrible people and do horrible things. Acknowledging that they were horrible doesn't make us bad Catholics; it's just the automatic response of a well-formed conscience. The only guarantee we have from Christ is that the Church will not teach false doctrine -- not that all the popes would be saints. Obviously, they haven't been. To claim otherwise is to open the Church to ridicule.

I am tired of hearing about how great things were when the Church had tons of political power and worldly respect. Political power corrupts the Church so easily. When power is to be had within the Church, offices within the Church draw ambitious men, not holy men. When the world respects the Church, it is because the Church is failing to challenge it. I am glad that Paul VI had his triple tiara auctioned off to benefit the poor. I don't miss the Papal States; I think it's easier for the Pope to be believed and respected when he is not also the temporal head of a nation.

There was a time when a man could become a priest out of ambition, to rise in social class and the respect in others, and perhaps to make a bit of money. Nowadays to be a priest is to be disdained by a large portion of society; to work six days a week and sometimes the seventh; to have to live on a small stipend; to be required to rush out to sickbeds at a moment's notice; to be required to hear the confession of anyone who asks, at any time; and, as a reward, be mocked and called a pedophile by people who don't even know him. No one would do this except out of great love for Christ.

The world we live in is flawed in many ways, and the zeitgeist is not much in step with the beliefs of the Church. But it does respect charity, humility, and poverty. The only way we will win hearts in the present age is by exemplifying these virtues, not by striving to return to a time when we possessed temporal power and respect. To most conservatives, the present age is a desert. But it is in the desert that the Israelites were purified, that Christ was tempted, and that our Church is slowly being renewed.

So, I am a conservative Catholic, if by "conservative" is meant that I accept all the teachings of the Church and acknowledge them as unchanging. But I'm not conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve the trappings of the "old days," in the sense of power, worldly respect, and wealth. The "old days" have passed away, but our Church is always new. It is never "in step with the times," because the world is never in step with the Church. But it is always the preacher of truth and the bride of Christ. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, January 24, 2011


A couple of interesting links I found recently:

A lot of people assume that "attachment parenting" means following our kids around and doing everything for them. Ganju argues that attachment parenting is about responding to your kids' needs, not obsessively training them to excel. I completely agree -- for me, responding to my kid's needs has meant letting him play a lot on the floor, right from infancy, because that's what he wanted. I have a very independent and curious son -- and the credit for all his accomplishments goes to him, not me!

A Baby's Best Start (Faith & Family)
So I wasn't the only one who thought it was a little contradictory to be pro-choice and anti-spanking or circumcision. True "gentle parenting" means respecting the rights of children from the very beginning.

I don't know if our water is fluorinated, but after reading this, I hope it isn't. The evidence just doesn't support mass supplementation through the water supply.

The author makes a good point -- that we, as a nation, are not "just fine," and we need to change what we're doing instead of assuming that what we've done in the past is working.

Happy reading!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

My past, part II

Previous post here.

I arrived in Rhode Island for the summer program and found it just as I'd expected it -- like a much bigger version of the camps and retreats I'd enjoyed. Everyone was really nice, and the schedule was nonstop fun.

There was a little bump the first week where I didn't think to call home and my mom kept calling me. But instead of getting me, they would give me these little phone messages that said she had called. I didn't know what I was supposed to do about them so I did what I generally did about homework assignments I didn't understand or instructions I couldn't follow ... kept quiet and hoped the problem would solve itself. Luckily it eventually did, as one of the consecrated came and got me, saying my mom was going to call back and she was going to stand there until I answered it. Everyone seemed so upset with me, but I just felt sheepish. No one ever told me how I was supposed to deal with the situation.

Other than that, everything was sweetness and light. We were a group of about 60 girls or so divided into teams. Each team had maybe eight girls, two team leaders -- who were junior or senior precandidates (students) -- and a consecrated woman. We slept in the same section of the two giant dorm rooms, ate at the same tables, and played sports together. We really bonded a lot, and I loved those girls. It was like having instant friends, which, for a girl who had tried all her life to make friends and only succeeded with difficulty, was like a miracle.

Many other things seemed just perfect, too. The performance choir sang a really pretty polyphonic piece that made me cry. We went to Narragansett Beach at least once a week and would swim and get ice cream. The chapel was lovely, and the girls were all trained to sing in three-part harmony for every song -- so every single daily Mass was this huge rush of loveliness and emotion. One night we had all-night adoration in turns, and everyone got their chance to spend fifteen minutes in the chapel, lit only by candles. The only thing I didn't care for was sports -- we played a ton of basketball and Ultimate Frisbee. But I mostly just hung to one side and tried to learn the rules. (Yes, I reached 14 years old without ever learning the rules of basketball. I think I've mentioned how uncool I was?)

During the day, we followed a schedule posted on the bulletin board, from waking up to prayers to breakfast to courses like public speaking and etiquette. We were constantly doing team-building activities, and we got to do some apostolic work, too -- running a kids' carnival at a parish picnic is the one I most remember. I couldn't figure out when I was supposed to do anything not on the schedule, though. We kept being told "wash your stockings in your free time," "write letters in your free time," but I didn't know when they meant. We never had more than ten or fifteen minutes of free time at once, and that was how long it took to get from one activity to the next. (Later I found that was when I was supposed to do things. Just none of us summer program girls had developed that kind of efficiency.)

Near the end we had a silent retreat. That is -- as silent as we could manage. We still whispered to one another from time to time, but we were trying. We wanted to pray. So that was what we did. I wrote a ton in my journal (in secret code because I'm silly that way) and pretty much ignored the impassioned meditations given by the Spanish priest. It was always my way when around adults -- say yes to everything, but do my own thing whenever I had the opportunity. My whole school career, I had daydreamed and doodled away all the class time, and it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with this.

A few rumors drifted among the summer program girls that the life of the precandidates was not exactly like what we had been experiencing. There were more rules. I heard that the "PC's" were not allowed to talk in the dorms, that they weren't allowed to talk in the halls, that they often weren't allowed to talk at meals, that the underclassmen couldn't talk to the upperclassmen, that their spiritual directors read all their mail. But I staunchly defended the PC's from these rumors. "No way any of that is true," I said. "That would be crazy!" There weren't many PC's around to verify these rumors, except for the team leaders -- most of the others were either at camps around the country or working like crazy to keep the school running in everyone's absence.

At the end of the silent retreat, we went down to see the candidates -- the women who had spent the summer directly discerning consecrated life -- make their consecration. After the 8 week program, they made temporary promises; two years later they made permanent promises. I didn't know at the time that most religious congregations have discernment periods measured in years rather than weeks. In any event, it was very exciting and we all couldn't wait. I was very moved seeing these women promise away their whole lives. At the same time, though, I was a little disappointed by the lack of ceremony. I knew that many religious orders have an individual ceremony for each nun, with a wedding dress, a habit, cutting of hair, and many other rituals. For the first time, I felt a little doubt that this is what I was called to.

As all this went on, there was a moment where I imagined God asked me to be his bride. I can't tell you exactly how I knew it was God or not. I didn't have the kind of total certainty that some people say they do. It could have been God or my own head. But I decided it was God, and that to doubt this would be to hesitate to fulfill God's will! I also felt very sure that, rather than being consecrated with these people, I was going to be a real nun. A Poor Clare, because I had read about them and was very impressed. But, since Poor Clares don't take 14-year-olds, I was going to stay the precandidacy for now and develop my vocation there. After all, the consecrated had said that we would be prepared for all vocations, not just the consecrated life, so we would be prepared for whatever God called us to.

Afterward, in the parking lot, I had five minutes to talk to my spiritual director. She'd been supposed to fit me in during the retreat, but hadn't had time. "So what do you think?" she asked. "Do you think God is calling you to stay?"

"Yes," I said, "and I really really want to."

"Then I think you should stay," she answered, "and also, I don't think you should go home before the school year starts. You should change your ticket to visit at Thanksgiving or Christmas, because if you go home in between you might lose your vocation." I knew there wasn't a chance of that, but it was exactly what my parents wanted me to do anyway, so I agreed.

Those five days while everyone else went home and I stayed at the school were really weird. I got to meet a lot more "real" PC's, people more my age rather than the older team leaders. That was when I discovered -- not by being told officially, complete with explanations, but from my peers -- that every single rumor I'd heard about the PC's was true. Later I heard the explanations, but I still felt a little miffed that no one had told us. I was walking down the stairs once and cheerily greeted one of my favorite consecrated, only to be told, "If you don't need something, be quiet." It was kind of a shock. Not to mention that all the "discernment" everyone had done had been without much knowledge of what our life would be like.

Still, I had no regrets, because I wanted things to be harder. That would make me holier faster. I was so excited for the year to begin so I could get going on it all.

Continue the story here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lactational amenorrhea

There are two myths floating around about nursing and pregnancy. One of them is, "Breastfeeding is not a reliable method of delaying pregnancy," and the other is, "You can't get pregnant while your baby is still nursing." Both are false. On the one hand, everyone knows someone who got pregnant while their baby was still nursing, even exclusively. On the other, the average experience is that most women remain infertile for a year or more while nursing their babies.

This makes sense, if you think about it. Doctors mostly agree that it's good for a woman's body to get a chance to recover from pregnancy before getting pregnant again. And yet many cultures throughout history have used no birth control at all, while still having healthy children. For instance, the !Kung tribe of Africa and the Gainj tribe of New Guinea have children spaced about four years apart, despite their lack of birth control, and they don't (as some cultures do) practice abstinence while breastfeeding.

One reason for such varying results is that amenorrhea (the absence of cycles) depends on the level of prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, in the mother. And the level of prolactin depends mainly on how often she nurses her baby, as well as how much time she spends close to and touching her baby. So a mother who pumps milk and feeds in a bottle, four times a day, is in a very different boat from the mother who holds her baby in a sling where he can nurse as often as he likes.

My source for all this information is the book The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding by Sheila Kippley. (Mrs. Kippley is a very nice lady who taught my online NFP course, and was very understanding of the fact that I was only taking it because my marriage prep required it -- you can find her and her organization here. (She also cofounded the Couple to Couple League, but is no longer affiliated with them.)) Two helpful online sources are Wikipedia and this page from Kellymom.

Mrs. Kippley describes seven rules that will encourage the mother to remain in lactational amenorrhea. As an added bonus, they also are good parenting tips. The seven standards are:

1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life; don't use other liquids or solids, not even water. Solids should be introduced gradually after six months so that they don't take the place of nursing.

2. Pacify or comfort your baby at your breasts. In other words, don't wait till you believe the baby is hungry; nurse him whenever he wants, even if you know it's just for comfort. Babies nurse when they're hurt, scared, lonely, or bored as well as just hungry. You can't always tell which is which, but nursing is a safe bet!

3. Don't use bottles and don't use pacifiers. Mothers are told they must pump milk for an occasional bottle, "just to keep the baby used to it" or "just to give dad a turn." That's not really necessary, and will reduce the mother's prolactin. Pacifiers get babies to nurse less frequently by fulfilling his need to suck. My baby so preferred a pacifier he was losing weight at four months old. Very scary -- much better to avoid where possible.

4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings. Being in close contact with your baby increases prolactin levels dramatically, even if he's not nursing much at night. If he is, it's an added bonus. Some mothers will remain in amenorrhea without this rule; some won't.

5. Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding. This one is the hardest for many mothers, who wait for naptime to get things done. But taking a nap with the baby, which I've done a lot recently, really helps to make up for all the nighttime sleep you miss and all the energy baby takes up. It's also really cozy. You don't actually have to sleep for this one, but you should rest for at least half an hour, Mrs. Kippley says.

6. Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules. So the once-every-three-hours or once-every-four-hours schedule is just not going to do the trick. Preferably you should be nursing every two hours or less, but it does depend on what the baby wants. Nursing sessions don't have to be long at all; traditional peoples studied nursed every half hour, with nursing sessions of a minute or so long!

7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby. Working moms do not usually have a very long period of amenorrhea. Neither do moms who are in a hurry to leave their baby with a babysitter at a young age. Obviously, if you're not giving a bottle, you won't be leaving your baby for long anyway. Now that Marko's nine months old, I leave him for short periods pretty readily, but if he starts calling for Mama or nurse, I hurry straight back.

People are different, and so some people will experience a long period of amenorrhea with only some of the seven standards. Others have to follow them slavishly to get the same result. Even with strict adherence, some will have 9-12 months of infertility and some will have two years, three years, or even more. A few will have to wean completely before they are able to achieve pregnancy again.

Because of this uncertainty, I'd stop short of calling breastfeeding a "form of birth control." Because control is the one thing you haven't got. You might have nine months between pregnancies, or you might have two years. You might be surprised to get pregnant before you feel ready, and you might be impatient for your next child and be unable to conceive for awhile. It's pretty much out of your hands!

A baby who is very needy will usually nurse a lot, providing a longer period of infertility than an "easy" baby. When the baby starts sleeping through the night, fertility is encouraged to return. So the spacing will turn out to be what the baby needs, and he'll get your undivided attention for the amount of time he needs it.

Adding to the lack of control you have is the fact that you may not know fertility is returning before conception happens. This happens in about 6% of cases. If you really need to know, some method of natural family planning or fertility awareness should be used.

I'm not doing that, though, because I like not being in control. I believe that deciding when babies come is God's job, not mine, and unless some catastrophe were to make childbearing truly imprudent, I want to allow my children to be born in the timing planned by God and nature.

Another advantage of this method is that a period of amenorrhea is beneficial to a woman's body. This is why breastfeeding reduces the risk, not only of breast cancer, but of uterine, cervical, and other cancers. (source) Not to mention the infertile period is a time to bounce back from birth and renew vitamin and mineral stores. Clearly a pause in fertility is just what nature intended.

So, when I tell people I am not using any form of birth control to prevent pregnancy, I'm not being irresponsible, nor am I likely to have 19 children like Michelle Duggar. (Though she can have 19 if she wants to -- no skin off my nose!) Instead, I'm following the natural course of human reproduction that my body is designed for. I trust that it will return to normal fertility when it's recovered and ready to support another child. Yes, it's an exercise in trust because I have no idea when that will be -- but that's okay. I like it better this way.

Note: The methods outlined above are useful for increasing prolactin for any reason, not just child spacing -- so mothers who need to increase milk supply, for instance, should try some of the seven standards.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things babies don't need

I keep being told about how expensive babies are. BabyCenter tells me my baby's first year will cost us around $9,000. Apparently it costs $250,000 to raise a child to adulthood. I'm not sure who comes up with these numbers.

We've spent maybe a couple of hundred dollars directly on the baby since he was born, and much of that wasn't necessary. Of course, we were lucky to have a lot of gifts from friends and family, but hand-me-downs are pretty easy to find. Even if you don't have friends with older babies, there are tons of listings on Craigslist for baby clothes for a couple of dollars a bag -- or cribs and carseats for less than half retail price. Everyone wants new -- so if used is good enough, it's easy to save a ton.

This isn't, however, a post on how to save money with a baby. Even if you're being frugal, babies do have costs -- like the upgrade from insurance for a couple to a family plan, or the out-of-pocket costs at the hospital. Not $9,000, but there are expenses.

I'm talking about stuff babies don't need at all. Stuff that you might want to say no to, even if it's offered for free.

Infant carseat: You know how you always see moms lugging around those gigantic bucket seats with babies in them? It's our culture's image of how you carry a baby. But those aren't necessary. I have never had one, and though getting the baby in and out of his carseat at every stop can be a pain, it's forced me to actually hold my child. This means that when we're out and about, he's able to look around and interact with his environment (something he loves to do), stay warm in someone's arms, and strengthen his body. Plus, no chance of developing positional plagiocephaly, or flat head, like many "carseat babies" do.

Swing: These have always struck me as just one more way to ignore your baby. Yes, babies love movement. But allowing them to zone out in a swaying seat for hours while they stare at the wall -- it just doesn't strike me as necessary. Most babies would far and away prefer a little holding, perhaps in a cloth carrier. And when swings are used for naps, you're left in a bind when they get too big for the swing but can't sleep without motion. For those few very needy babies that you just can't seem to hold as much as they want, you can always buy a swing after the baby's born. Otherwise, it's likely to be just one more place to put a baby that would rather be with you.

A ton of clothes: When Marko was a newborn, I had a hard time making sure he even wore all his clothes at least once! Now that he's growing out of his 6-9 month clothes, he has hardly anything that fits -- perhaps four or five day outfits and three sets of footie pajamas. And yet, with our tiny washer, that actually turns out to be about right. Also, a baby doesn't need to be wrapped in a million blankets either. As a rule of thumb, if you're wearing shorts, the baby can be wearing something equivalent. If you need a sweater, put him in a sweater or long sleeves. If his cheeks are flushed, he's wearing too much; if his hands are blue, purple, or mottled, he needs more. It's okay for babies to be barefoot. I get scolded almost daily about my kid's bare feet, but he doesn't want to wear socks -- they get in the way of his cruising and crawling. Unless we're outside on a cold day, I leave his feet bare (except for footie pajamas at night).

Shoes: I've just been reading up on how much better kids' feet develop without shoes. In fact, we'd all do better to go barefoot a bit more often: fewer corns, hammertoes, and cases of athlete's foot. Unless the ground is very cold or covered with sharp objects, we don't really need to be wearing shoes or put them on our kids. Obviously non-walking babies don't need shoes at all! It might be handy to have one pair for dressy events and cold days, but other than that, you don't need baby shoes.

Changing table: I have always changed Marko on the floor. As he gets older and more squirmy, I sure am glad I do. Because he would have pitched to the floor a half-dozen times if he were on a table. They're just not very safe. I find it quite comfortable to kneel down and change him, but you can also change a baby on the bed if you'd rather (though you need a plastic pad underneath the baby .... believe me).

Plates, bowls, sippy cups, utensils: Personally, I think the existence of special baby dishes must be a marketing ploy. Marko's never had the slightest patience for a sippy cup. And it's just as well, because they're not as good for developing teeth! He drinks out of my cup and eats with his hands off his clean high chair tray. No flinging of bowls or spoons that way. (Spoon-feeding a baby at all isn't necessary -- just wait till the baby's ready to feed himself with his hands, and give him small soft bits!)

Baby bath tub: It's hard to hold a wet, floppy baby at arms length in a tub. Much better to hold him on your lap in the big tub with you. It's what I do. Now that he can sit up, he sometimes gets baths by himself, but I generally get in with him because it's my only chance to get clean on a busy day!

So what do babies need? It depends. We got ours a crib (Craigslist, $40) because he preferred to sleep in his own space, but many babies sleep much better in mom and dad's bed. Expensive cribs can end up being a $300 storage space for stuffed animals. To be legal to go places, we needed a carseat, but we have a convertible one that switches to forward-facing when the baby's old enough. It will last him till he's out of carseats altogether. A high chair was handy ($15 at Goodwill) so he had someplace to eat, as well as get a good view of things while I was cooking. We did end up buying one "baby-minder," a bouncy seat, because Marko loved being upright so much. He had a lot of floor time as a tiny baby, but his favorite thing in the world was to look around. And we got a Moby Wrap ($40 new) to carry him around in. That thing has been worth its weight in gold, and I've made two more carriers too. (He's sleeping right now in the mei tai. Just wouldn't nap no matter what I did, so I popped him in there -- out in five minutes.)

Other than that, a couple dozen cloth diapers, some clothes (mostly gifts and hand-me-downs), bites of whatever food we happen to be eating, and a lot of toys -- most of which were never meant as toys, like my whisk that he seems to have appropriated -- fulfill his needs pretty well. The main thing he needs is two loving parents, which he has. I shy away from anything that tries to replace those.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cod liver oil

Yes, I'm talking about that traditional health tonic no kid ever wants to take.

When I was in college (as well as before then) I had crippling headaches. They lasted for days and were really, really bad. At one point I talked to a friend's mom who was a nurse and into natural healing, and she suggested I take a bunch of different vitamins. That did seem to help, unless it was the coming of spring that helped. (I only get these headaches in the winter, pretty much, and only on the East Coast. The cold triggers them.) But after awhile I stopped taking them and didn't notice any particular difference. When the headaches came back, I'd take them for awhile and then forget about them.

After graduation, my first winter on my own, I was sick all the time. First off, I was teaching, and being a teacher must be the most disease-prone career ever. You always get everything the kids have. Then I was cold all the time, because I didn't have a car and was walking everywhere ... and the cold set off those nasty headaches. I didn't get much sleep either, I didn't eat right, and I was under a ton of stress. So, small wonder I got pharyngitis and cold after cold. I also had bad skin and overall felt lousy even the few times I wasn't sick.

I couldn't afford to improve my diet much, and the stress and lack of sleep were inevitable for a new teacher with 120 students I saw every day. The one thing I could change was to add a supplement. I had read recently that vitamin supplements aren't really so great, because the vitamins in them are artificially derived and therefore not used as well by the body. I have no source for that, but I have noticed food does tend to work for me a little better than tablets.

I was looking mainly to improve my skin, and wanted vitamin A for that. A friend told me she'd cured her acne with it. But I wanted something naturally derived. My mom suggested cod liver oil, so I picked it a bottle of tiny capsules the next time I was at the store and started taking them every night along with the multivitamin I was taking already.

They worked well enough to clear up my skin in time for my wedding. My sicknesses also got better, but then, it was spring. I kept taking the cod liver oil until I ran out of the bottle -- by which point I was pregnant. I mentioned it to my mom and she said, "Make sure you get more -- you have to take it every day when you're pregnant, because it's good for baby's brain." So I took it every day, along with my prenatal vitamin.

That winter, I was sick once. For one day. I credited this to being pregnant, but I've since heard others say they were sick more often during pregnancy. And, definitely, the kids I taught, being younger, weren't sick any less often. The swine flu went through and gave us 50% absentee rates for awhile. All I got was a sinus thing that lasted 24 hours, with a slight fever.

I now know that cod liver oil is rich in vitamin D as well as vitamin A, and that vitamin D is an extremely important nutrient for the immune system. I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons why sickness is so rampant in the wintertime. Besides those two vitamins, it also has high levels of DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for the brain and vision as well as other areas of the body. (source)

The problem is, I can no longer find it at the grocery store in capsules. And I recently discovered that almost all commercially-available brands are heat-processed, and the heat processing destroys some of the vitamins. The stuff to get, say real-food advocates, is the fermented stuff, made the way the Vikings and ancient Romans used to. They would mix fish livers with seawater in a barrel and leave it for as much as a year. The fermenting process breaks down the livers and releases the oil, which they would then take as a health tonic and a seasoning. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one brand in the US that makes it the old-fashioned way. I was reduced to buying it off the internet in liquid form at a higher price than I used to.

To mitigate the price factor, I got some on sale because they were discontinuing the "Mediterranean" flavor. The stuff is heavy on the basil, but also contains garlic and salt, all to mask the natural flavor, which I've heard from numerous bloggers is pretty nasty.

Okay, so the stuff arrived and I've started taking it. The first time, I loaded in a medicine syringe and shot it to the back of my throat, which is a technique others have recommended. It kind of made me gag having it way in the back of my throat there, but it didn't taste that bad. Just like basil, with maybe a hint of something else, not distinctly fishy, just unfamiliar. So the next time I just took it with a spoon. This turned out to be a BAD CHOICE. It tasted like spaghetti gone horribly, horribly wrong. I can't describe it. It's just a nasty, nasty taste that isn't like anything else I know of. Not much like fish, and not like liver either. (Let it be known, though, that I am picky about fish and detest all liver.)

My current routine is to take it before bed, about a half teaspoon (I'm working up to a teaspoon) out of the syringe. It has to be before bed, because if I take it in the morning, I have to deal with the smell of it in my nose for some time, and I find myself eating all kinds of things trying to forget about that smell. But if I take it really quickly at night, and then follow with my bedtime snack (a piece of bread and jam and a glass of milk), it really isn't that bad. I can hardly taste the cod liver itself, and the oiliness and basil-y-ness is easily washed away after a bite of bread and jam.

So, would I recommend it? You notice I didn't give the brand name, mainly because I don't want you to think I'm trying to sell the stuff to you. I'm not, because I don't use this blog to make money and the company doesn't know I exist. However, I think I would recommend it. I've only been taking it for a few days, but already John's had a truly wretched cold. The baby had it too when I started taking the oil, but I hadn't had it yet. The day after my first dose, I had a scratchy throat and a bit of congestion, and I thought "Here it comes!" But the next day, all that was gone, and the baby was also much better. John's the only one still hacking. True, it may be totally unrelated, or it may be a placebo effect. But the one undeniable fact is that it contains some really good vitamins. In the wintertime, it's hard to get any sunshine to make vitamin D, and there are few foods that have it. Nursing and pregnant moms are recommended to take vitamin D anyway, but I prefer to find naturally occurring vitamins as opposed to artificial ones. Cod liver oil fits the bill for that.

So, if you can find cod liver oil, it's a great supplement for the wintertime. You will probably have to go online or to a health food store, though, since it's hard to find lately. If you want the fermented stuff, follow this link. The Mediterranean flavor's discontinued now, but I have heard the cinnamon tingle recommended. Or, if you don't mind the extra price (and I totally wouldn't, if I had the money at all, which I don't), get the capsules and you won't have to taste it at all.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The problem with primal

I'm a big fan of low-carb or grain-free diets. A lot of people feel way better on them, and you can finally stop the sugar high/sugar crash cycle that carbs give you. They help diabetes and hypoglycemia, because there isn't this up-and-down seesaw. And they often help you lose weight.

But some people get on these diets and can't lose weight, or they even gain it! What's the deal with that?

Well, there may be more than one reason. But one very common reason is that people are eating a low-carb diet without changing their high-carb eating habits. When you're eating a lot of bread, chips, and pasta, you get hungry a lot. You might be in the habit of eating every couple of hours (like me) or of having seconds or thirds after dinner. You know how much food you need, and the amount you need is a lot.

However, once you cut out grains and starches, the amount you need may be much less, volume-wise. Fat has 9 calories per gram compared to carbs and proteins, which each have 4. A high-fat meal can be much smaller and still be satisfying. Even protein, though it has the same number of calories as carbohydrates do, is digested more slowly and will leave you feeling satisfied for longer. So you may have to re-learn how much food it takes to satisfy you.

For example, when I went grain-free for a week, I ate some full-fat yogurt for breakfast. I felt satisfied after a serving of that so I went to work as usual. Then when I got home, I found myself rummaging in the fridge, also as usual. I am usually starving after work (at 10 a.m.) and eat a midmorning snack. But as I regretfully passed up the bread, I remembered to ask myself whether I was really hungry. I wasn't -- not a bit!

I didn't eat till lunchtime, and listening to my body led to eating a pretty small lunch, too (radish greens with a small amount of bacon and parmesan cheese). And then I didn't need to eat till dinner, though out of habit I ate a small piece of cheese. Normally I have at least one afternoon snack, sometimes two.

I'm not eating grain-free anymore, and I never did go low-carb, but I still have to remember to keep in tune with what I actually need. My homemade ice cream is way more satisfying than the storebought stuff -- but I have to remember to scoop a smaller serving of it, or I'll just eat what I used to eat.

It's a little sad needing less food, and thus requiring fewer delicious meals. But meals with a healthy amount of fat in them are so delicious and enjoyable that it's not that much of a sacrifice. It is important, though, to actually enjoy the food instead of eating while doing something else. That's a great way to feel psychologically deprived, even if you're eating enough to sustain your body.

As for our family, we are half grain-free (as in, John still avoids grains except rice, and the baby eats no grains) but not at all low-carb. We all have very high calorie needs, and even primal guru Mark Sisson agrees that some people who have no weight problems can eat starches. Our frequent potatoes and white rice don't seem to be doing us any harm!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My past, part I

For years I have been blogging. For years I have studiously not talked about my experiences at boarding school. I've been afraid of criticism, mainly. Unfortunately there's a lot of controversy surrounding the whole thing, so when I talk about my experiences, I'm sometimes accused of stirring up controversy. But for me, it's never been a matter of controversy, it's just my life.

It's taken me years to come to a point where I can be even remotely objective about the whole thing. For a long time, I would brook no criticism, defend to the death even things I had disagreed with at the time. Later, I swung around the other way and couldn't even talk about it because of all the bad memories it was bringing up for me. Now, I look back on it and it's just one of many things that went into the making of me ... not everything, not nothing, just one thing. And I'm done wondering whether it could have been different, what I would have been like otherwise ... it's irrelevant because I am what I am now, and I love my life -- I wouldn't change a thing, if it meant things would be different now. I've come through a lot, both good and bad, to arrive at my present life, which is wonderful. I can't exactly wish any of it away.

So, I've resolved to finally come out and tell my story. I'm going to try to be as objective as I can, and let you all draw your own conclusions. A lot of people I went to school with had completely different experiences, some better and some much worse, so keep in mind that I'm not telling the whole story. I'm only telling my story.

Here are the basic facts. In 1998 I encountered a group called Regnum Christi. They are a lay movement within the Church that still exists. I first joined the youth arm, called ECYD. In 2000, when I was fourteen, I went to a boarding school that exists for girls who want to discern a vocation to the consecrated life in Regnum Christi. The school is officially called Immaculate Conception Academy, but we called it "the precandidacy." In 2002, at the end of my sophomore year, I was sent home. For years I tried to get back there, while being an active Regnum Christi member. Two and a half years into college, I finally left Regnum Christi for good in 2006.

The story starts, as I said, in 1998. I had just finished my years of conventional schooling, one year of public school and two years of parochial school, and my parents had agreed to let me return to homeschooling for seventh and eighth grade. I had been miserable at school, so I was thrilled and ready for some change in my life. A friend of my mom's from church happened to mention a summer camp I could go to. I'd never been to a real camp, and really wanted to go. It was a Catholic camp on a lake, run by these Regnum Christi people I'd heard of.

That summer I went to the camp and had a really great time. Instead of the cliquish and cruel classmates I'd been dealing with, there were lots of really nice girls who were very accepting of my awkward self. I made friends, a real challenge for me usually. The two ladies who ran the camp were my idols. They told us that they were consecrated women, "like nuns, but we take promises instead of vows and don't wear a habit." They were both young and pretty, and wore nice clothes, like businesswomen. They smiled all the time and were always really nice. At one point I was called to talk alone with one of them, and thought I was in trouble. Instead they asked if I wanted to join this group they'd been talking about, ECYD. I said I really, really wanted to, but I would have to talk to my parents first. So I didn't get to join at that camp. The girls who had called home to get permission all had an "incorporation ceremony," where they made promises and got little commitment cards. The commitments were very easy -- a few short prayers a day -- and you got to take a rosary ring home with you. I envied those girls fiercely.

After that I took every opportunity to go to camps and retreats these people put on. At a beachside retreat, I finally incorporated into ECYD myself. I saw it as a way to finally turn my life around, stop the misery I'd experienced with my worldly life at school with the cliques and the dirty jokes and the meanness. Instead I was going to be holy and good and pure, all the time! I felt extremely guilty that I'd been a Catholic for all these years and had never made it my own. So I made it a point to. I read the catechism and the Bible. I changed my radio from the pop station (which I didn't really like, but listened to so I wouldn't be shown up for my cultural ignorance) to the Christian station. I stopped reading trashy novels and switched to the classics. All of this fit in very well with my new life situation -- with Catholic, homeschooled friends and friends I met through ECYD, rather than the popular kids at school who would laugh at you if you didn't play along with their dirty jokes, dating games, and popularity clubs. I even got my formidable temper under some kind of control, and eventually rid my life of the gigantic temper fits I had been in the habit of throwing. (I'm sure my parents heaved a sigh of relief at that one!)

Those two years of my junior high were kind of a golden age for me. I was finally making my faith my own -- even praying the rosary sometimes before going to sleep at night. I began talking to God again, like I used to do when I was very little. I also began to follow my own interests more, beginning to write a lot, to work on crafts, to spend a lot of time outside. My mom supported me in everything, saying the ECYD prayers with me morning and night along with our usual prayers and driving me to club meetings.

That was kind of odd, by the way. We had been told at camp that the "girls' club" was for ECYD members and others who were interested, and yet ECYD was never mentioned. The explanation was that we, the ECYD members, would be the secret heart of the club, and all the other girls would want to join too when they saw us. From time to time the consecrated women would show up for "spiritual direction" with those of us who were members. I never knew what to talk about.

After about a year, I think after my second camp, I had a strange dream. In the dream, I was at camp, but at the end of camp, all of us girls joined the consecrated women. We were dressed as nuns and we were all rapturously happy. I woke up with the idea that I had received a Call. We'd heard tons of vocation stories, and there was always this moment when someone realized they were called to the consecrated life.

I reached for my Bible and flipped it open at random, hoping to "get a word" that would tell me what to do. (I didn't know then, but I do now, that this practice, called the sortes bibliorum, is condemned by the Church as superstition.) I got Isaiah 54 and read until I got to the point when I read, "He who has become your husband is your maker; His name is the Lord God of hosts." That settled it for me. I definitely had a vocation.

I had already heard of this school in Rhode Island where high schoolers who thought they had vocations could go. It sounded like a perfect idea to me, the next step in changing my life to what I wanted it to be -- something holier, better, closer to God. And, since I now had a vocation, I should definitely go!

I told my parents and they were skeptical. In fact, my dad pretty much just said no. "You're thirteen," they said. "You never stick to anything. You'll change your mind."

I didn't change my mind. I stuck by my determination for a whole year. Two consecrated women (they always travel in pairs) visited my home and talked to my parents. They seemed to know exactly the topics my parents would listen to: to my mom, they talked about prayer; to my dad, about the problems in the world and the Church. With me, they were a bit more doubtful. They were not at all convinced by my claim to "have a call" to the consecrated life, but they said there was no problem with me going to the summer program at their school and seeing if I wanted to go.

Eventually, my parents agreed that I could go. I saved up money to help buy my plane ticket, and in the summer of 2002, at age 14, I finally went. My main plan was to stay and go to school there, but my mom and I had tossed around other possibilities too. It was possible, I admitted, that it wasn't for me. My mom was more concerned that they wouldn't let me stay.

I flew out to Rhode Island near the end of July, as excited as I had ever been in my life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I've been meaning to write this post for quite some time. I didn't want to leave my grandpa without a tribute. But there's so much to say, and I feel I could never say it right. Even so, here's my attempt.

I've talked a lot about Grampy's military honors, his heroism, his big accomplishments -- building planes, running marathons, rescuing people. And I'm definitely proud of those things. It's likely what most people will remember of him.

But not me. I don't remember him by those things. I remember so many smaller things, but things that I think say more about him.

I remember the way he worked on the cabin they had by the lake. He decided to put stonework along the outside of the foundation. I was there that day and he let me help him. He taught me to mix the mortar while he selected just the right stones and fitted them together in his big, capable hands. You can see it now, the perfection of the work he did. But what meant the most to me was that he let 12-year-old me take part in what he was doing.

He was always that way. One of my first memories of him is of sitting on the exercise bike in his workshop, watching him cut, sand, and solder pieces of an airplane wing. He'd show me, step by step, how he did it, let me feel the sanders, give me scraps of wood to play with. Though he wasn't chatty, he never acted like he found me a nuisance. I'd stay there all afternoon, till Grandma called us to dinner.

At dinner, he always let me sit next to him, and would point out my seat beside him. It was he who taught me to enjoy marmalade and sour cream on sourdough bread and milk with my pancakes. He liked us all to hold hands during grace, and even when the rest of the family had lost the habit, he'd still hold my hand. My whole hand fit in the place of his two missing fingers, between his forefinger and his pinky. It was our special way of holding hands during grace.

When he hugged you, it was never just a little squeeze. Instead he'd grab you tight and lift you up a little bit, the kind of hug that makes you feel strong and brave. You could feel the rock-solid muscles of his back when he hugged you.

He and Grandma were both big gardeners, but Grampy's specialty was edible things. He would wander around his vegetable garden, tasting things and telling me what they were. You could go out and graze in that garden, and there were always good things to try.

He was an incredibly devoted husband. Grandma would say, "I wish I had lights above the kitchen counter," or "I'd like some towel hooks," and those things would be done. Not just done, but done perfectly. He made towel hooks carved like birds for Grandma.

It was Grandpa who taught me to look through a camera lens or a pair of binoculars and really see what I was looking at. He knew all the different birds on the lake; he could tell when the fish were jumping or a fire was burning on the opposite hill. He was an outdoors kind of person, the kind of person I want to be.

Though he wasn't Catholic till the very end, he was very religious and had great faith in God -- something he handed down to my mother and she handed down to me. Often he would go to Mass with the rest of us.

Grampy didn't think he was anything special. Paying attention to an interrupting grandchild, doing kind things for his wife, or helping out those in need never seemed like big things to him. But they were big things to us.

He won't ever be forgotten, and I feel a great burden on me to share with those who didn't know him the sort of amazing man he was. I can't really do it -- he was the sort of person you just had to know. But I'm going to keep trying.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Caramel butter pecan ice cream

My original plan for my ice cream maker was to start with simple vanilla and work up to more complex recipes afterwards. Then I saw pecans at Aldi. Never mind then! Butter pecan is my favorite flavor, and I have always felt it would be better with caramel. So I made my own recipe by combining four or five different recipes, and it was a real success!

The recipe is a little complicated, but it's totally worth the effort!

1 pint cream, divided
1 cup milk
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1 cup pecans
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 pinches of salt

First, chop the pecans roughly. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter, and toast the pecans in it for about 10 minutes on medium heat along with a pinch of salt (if the pecans are unsalted). Remove the pecans from the butter and place in the fridge to chill. Reserve the butter.

Next, make the custard. Heat the cream (reserving 3 tablespoons) and milk over medium heat, along with a pinch of salt and 1/4 cup of the sugar, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile put the egg yolks into a large bowl (at least 3 cups) and whisk in 1/4 cup sugar. When the cream just reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low. Slowly pour a cup of the hot cream into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking to incorporate. Pour in another cup, and then pour the contents of the bowl into the pan of cream. Whisk thoroughly. Heat, stirring frequently, over low heat for another 5 minutes or so, until the custard has thickened. (My recipe said it should "coat the back of the spoon," which it didn't, but it turned out fine anyway.) Then shut off the heat and chill the cream -- either by setting the pot in a bowl of ice or cold water, or overnight in the fridge.

A little before you're ready to make the ice cream, make the caramel sauce. (Be very careful with this part, as the sugar gets very hot, and also have all your ingredients ready before you start. Your pan should be relatively deep and heavy-bottomed, if possible.) Melt the last 1/4 cup of sugar over medium to medium-high heat. The dry sugar will turn into caramel -- whisk to incorporate all the sugar. Once the caramel is boiling in places, stop whisking or you'll get a candy-coated whisk -- swirl the pan instead. The moment all the caramel is melted, turn off the heat and add the last tablespoon of butter. It will melt in a big hurry and foam a bit -- whisk to mix. Then add the reserved butter left from cooking the pecans, along with any pecan bits that stayed in your pan. Last, add the 3 tablespoons of reserved cream. Whisk together and cool to about room temperature or a tiny bit warmer. Don't cool it in the fridge or you won't be able to pour it.

Take out the chilled custard and pour it in the (running) ice cream maker. Once it's thickened -- after about 15 minutes -- and almost ready, add the pecans (breaking them up if they're stuck together). Last of all, slowly drizzle in the caramel sauce. Run for a few more minutes, then shut off the machine. Eat a small serving and lick the paddle -- the rest should pack into a quart-sized yogurt container. Chill in the freezer to firm it up.

Note: if the caramel sauce chills too much to pour, go ahead and just add it separately to each serving. That's what I ended up doing.

This recipe mostly qualifies as "real food," except for all the sugar. I did reduce it a bit from the original, but to be even better you could use a more natural sweetener. I had to laugh when a lady at work agreed that you can make ice cream healthier when you have your own machine: "You can make it lower fat!" Well, not so much. This recipe is quite high in fat, but so satisfying a tiny serving should be all you need.

It was, of course, absolutely delicious. I've had some pretty amazing ice cream in my time (I was something of a gelato connoisseur when I studied in Rome), but this may well have been the best I've ever had.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sleep tips from babies

Lately, Marko has not been what I'd call a good sleeper. All these trips really do mess with his routine, and to make things worse, we had to lower the mattress of his crib (he is pulling to a stand, and I was afraid he'd tip himself out). So even his less-favored sleep spot (second to my arms) isn't quite comfy.

I have no objection to sleeping with him in my arms, if it weren't that once he's asleep, he pushes me away and stretches out in MY sleep spot. So where am I supposed to sleep, huh?

This ended up being our solution:

We have an IKEA bed (the Malm) and an IKEA crib (the Sniglar) which are about the same height, when the crib mattress is set to the lowest level. In this picture we have the crib bumper padding the wooden edge of our bed, but I have since replaced this with a fleece blanket that tucks under both of our mattresses, making a nice soft edge if we have to roll over it.

Now I can simply lie down with Marko in his crib, nurse him to sleep, and when he pushes me away and rolls over, I scoot back into my own bed and get comfortable myself.

So that has helped a lot for nighttime. For naps, we've been more stuck. While I was sick, I slept with him for all naps, but now that I'm better, I simply don't need that much sleep. I ended up checking out Elizabeth Pantley's "No-Cry Nap Solution" from the library and reading it cover-to-cover in one day. That's how desperate I felt with a kid who wouldn't sleep more than 30-40 minutes at a stretch, woke up still tired, but refused to nap again for the rest of the day. Let me tell you, he's been cranky!

We're still working on our solution, but the mere fact that I'm blogging and he's napping shows we're getting somewhere! Here are some things I learned about sleep:

A baby Marko's age needs, on average, 2 naps of about 2 hours each per day. He will get cranky if he's awake for longer than 4 hours or so at a stretch. He needs about 11 hours of sleep per night. (He sleeps less than this at night, but the nap recommendation seems spot-on -- when he gets this amount, he's way happier.)

Tiredness and sleep pressure are different things. Sleep pressure is the urge to sleep. It increases the longer you're awake, but it can be relieved with as little as a 5-minute nap! That's why Marko won't take a second nap after a too-short one, even if he's still tired. Catnaps are poison to good sleep, especially for a baby.

When a baby gets overtired, he's as unlikely to sleep as when he's not tired. I've been figuring that one out lately, as my overtired baby screams and screams but won't settle down. Let me tell you, that's no fun to deal with.

Sleep goes in cycles. First light sleep, then progressively deeper sleep, then shallower sleep, and then a short stage of rapid eye movement before the next cycle begins. The easiest moment to wake up is in REM sleep -- which is when many babies awake and aren't able to resettle, even when they're still tired. An adult's sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes, a baby's about half that. So, when Marko wakes up after 45 minutes, that's not him being done -- that's him waking up accidentally and not knowing how to resettle.

Here are some tips I've gleaned from the book, many of which will be just as helpful for sleepless adults:

1. Routine is key. Our circadian rhythms help us know when to go to sleep. Marko naps very well for his morning nap, which is always at the same time because it's when we get home from school. Afternoon naps have been all over the place -- so it's no wonder we often don't manage to take one at all. The trick to finding the right nap time is to watch the baby as well as the clock. If he's close to maxing out the amount of time he can handle being awake (that is, if his sleep pressure is high), watch for signs of tiredness. These can be rubbing eyes, staring into space, or withdrawing from play. If you miss these, the low point of his rhythms could pass, he gets a second wind, and you're dealing with a hyper, tired kid!

An adult can use this tip by always going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time. Our bodies don't know about weekends -- so is it any wonder you have trouble going to sleep Sunday night and waking up Monday morning? It's like a weekly jet lag.

2. Ritual is key. Since you can't explain to a baby that nap time is about to happen, give clues. When it's time for nap, do exactly the same thing each day. I realized that I usually change Marko's diaper before I put him down for a nap -- no wonder he never went down when I skipped that step! For him, it was a clue that sleep time is coming. Pantley suggests a half hour or so of reduced activity and extra quiet before nap time to let the baby wind down. Unfortunately, I don't know how to make Marko cooperate with "reduced activity," but I have been trying to schedule things like baths in this pre-nap window.

An adult can make a nighttime routine as well. If you're battling insomnia, set up a ritual that you do each night. I have always found I can't sleep if I stay out late and then try to go straight to bed. Instead, I have to sit quietly on the couch reading for a bit, have a little snack, brush my teeth, and go to the bathroom before I really feel sleepy. A cup of herbal tea or a warm bath is a great sleep cue. Light is another -- dim the lights before bedtime.

3. Get plenty of stimulation during awake time. Part of the reason Marko's been napping so badly is because he's bored. If he's been in the house all day, playing with the same toys, he doesn't get as tired as when he's out and about. Also, he's learning to stand lately, and he really wants the practice. If I'm not walking him around a lot, holding his hands, and helping him pull up, I find that when he gets to the pre-nap nurse, he spends the whole time kicking his legs and keeping himself awake. After all, he has no idea you have to hold still to sleep.

Adults need to remember that a little exercise, especially outdoors, works wonders for improving nighttime sleep.

4. Settle back to sleep after waking. This is the really big one for Marko, who wakes up before he's ready. Rather than taking his smiles and energy at face value, I've been doing my best to soothe him back to sleep again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The less time he's been awake, the better -- which is why I often stay next to him through the first sleep cycle, to soothe him back down at that first wakeup. If he's stirring a little, a few pats on the back often do the trick. But if he's all the way awake and crawling all over the bed, I just have to start over -- back to the rocker for another nurse!

Adults, remember that just because you woke up doesn't mean it's time to get up. If the clock tells you it's not morning yet, don't get up and do stuff just because you feel awake or because you don't want to be tossing and turning. Give sleep a chance -- ten minutes might have you snoozing again. If that doesn't work, then reach for your bedside novel or your iPhone.

5. It helps to put baby to sleep in the same place he's going to take his nap, rather than rocking him to sleep and then laying him down once he's out. Naturally, if he wakes up in his crib when he fell asleep in your arms, he's not going to want to roll over and go back to sleep. This was a really hard one for me, because the whole "put the baby down drowsy, but awake" thing simply does not fly with Marko. He has too much energy, and laying him down awake is like turning the lights on and saying, "Okay, playtime!" The one thing that does work is lying down with him. So instead of rocking him all the way to sleep in the rocking chair, we rock and nurse till his eyes close and then go to the bed and lie down there. He falls asleep there, and I move away once he's sound asleep and settled. (Or, sometimes, I don't -- because he doesn't much like waking to find me gone. We're working on that.)

This isn't really an issue for adults. But imagine if it happened to you, and you'll see how babies might feel. Pantley's example is, "Imagine if you fell asleep in your nice warm bed. You wake a little to adjust your pillow, and find yourself in the middle of the cold kitchen floor! Every time you fall asleep, this happens. You aren't going to want to go back to sleep until you find out what happened -- and even then, you'll keep one eye open to make sure it doesn't happen again." I thought that was pretty clever. It is natural to expect the same conditions you fell asleep in to remain all night long. You can't really blame a baby for not sleeping well if things keep changing on him.

I learned a lot from the book, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly because it didn't tell me the one thing I really wanted to know -- how do you put a baby down to sleep? Her recommendation is, if you're starting with a newborn, you can try putting them in their crib awake and they will get used to going to sleep there. Otherwise, you're on your own! She basically says, "If you're okay with what you're doing, just stick with it -- whatever gets the child to sleep!" But what if, like me, you always nurse to sleep, but some days the baby doesn't feel like nursing at naptime? No answers from her. She does recommend baby swings, but at nine months, Marko's too big for one. So I'm just hoping I can keep the baby enough into nursing that he'll nurse down for his nap until he figures out another way. Otherwise I'm afraid we'll be doing a lot of driving around the neighborhood at eight p.m.

Whether you're the mother of an insomniac baby or an insomniac yourself, I hope that helps!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Higher education

John's finished his first semester of his masters' degree. The whole time he's been working on it, I admit to being a little bit jealous. Sure, he's busy and stressed out. But he gets to learn all this neat stuff!

I really miss studying. I liked college a lot. Just lots of learning, all the time! Other people wondered why I got such good grades while appearing so relaxed -- I must not be studying at all! But in fact, I was studying, I just mostly studied for fun. Except for a few short deadlines and some core classes I hated, I found it relaxing to study.

Yes, part of me would really like to go back to school and get some kind of higher degree. But I've dismissed the idea for a long time because I have no idea what I'd study. I'm an English major, but I have no real desire to get a masters in English. Then there are the classics, where I know I excel, but ... what would I do with that? Teach? I already teach -- there is nothing a masters could teach me that I would use with these high school kids, who have trouble remembering the difference between a declension and a conjugation. And although it would be nice to get back to reading Greek, I can't really justify spending all that money just for that -- especially when I could brush up on my own and get a lot better than I am now without spending a cent.

So every time John brought up the idea of me getting a higher degree (which he often does, mainly because he thinks I am smart -- even though he's married to me, I still feel proud that he thinks so) I generally dismissed it. But lately, getting so into nutrition and health, and occasionally being beaten down or even having my comments deleted because I don't have "credentials" to say anything about health ... it's been getting me thinking. Biology was my favorite subject for several years, particularly in junior high when I took advanced high school biology, with some additions from my mom's college textbook. When I got to high school and found out what passed for biology there, I was so disappointed! I had been hoping to learn so much more. The workings of the human body, particularly on the molecular level, are just fascinating to me.

And yet, if people ask me my credentials, "junior high biology and a lot of independent study" just doesn't cut it for anyone. I have a liberal arts degree; no help there! Unfortunately people do trust credentials a lot, and so (particularly in comboxes, where I admit I hang out a lot) the objection "Are you a doctor? Are you a nutritionist? Are you a chemist?" comes up all the time. The implication is that you can't possibly have anything to add to the discussion, or any objection to the establishment ideas, unless you have a degree. If you haven't got the education, people assume that you just "read it all online" and therefore don't know what you're talking about.

Personally, I've always been an autodidact (self-teacher) and I know how to sort good sources from bad when I'm researching. All the same, it isn't just the degree that I'd like. I would also like to learn a lot more about the human body works.

For example, I read an article lately questioning whether viruses are really the cause of disease, or whether they are simply a side effect of disease -- being, as they are, simply bundles of DNA in little packets which replicate using a cell's own mechanisms. Could they be created by the cells on purpose? Who knows? I suspect not, but unfortunately don't know quite enough science to address it. Sure, I know what science teaches about viruses -- but I don't know what mechanisms were first used to discover all we know about them. What's the proof? I haven't studied far enough.

But it is mostly the degree. I am tired of people who buck the establishment in various ways -- real food, primal living, natural childbirth, declining vaccines -- being sidelined and treated like they can't possibly know what's good for them, just because they don't have a degree. Does it take a degree to change the way you eat and notice that you feel better? Yet our society can't give the slightest bit of advice on diet, exercise, or childcare without saying, "Before doing anything, ever, consult your physician." Let me tell you, my doctor does not care if I start doing sit-ups or not. The internet told me to "ask a doctor" about the excruciating back pain I experienced during pregnancy. I asked my ob/gyn, who said, "Oh, that's just a normal symptom, I can't help you with that. Ask your mom." Really?

I guess I'd just like to be able to say, authoritatively, "I know how the body works, and so I know this or that course of action is not dangerous just because your doctor doesn't recommend it. I also know it could be good for you for these reasons."

At first I was thinking it would be nice to study nutrition. Fairly easy degree (fewer years compared to, say, medicine), and nutrition is very interesting to me. But John pointed out that my curriculum would be completely determined by the ADA (American Dietetic Association), which I totally and utterly can't stand. Its recommendations, like the food pyramid, are based way more on who's got the money than on science. What science they have is being discredited all the time, and yet they hold on for dear life to their old notions. No, the ADA is not my friend, and John, having had to deal with a few kooky notions the American Library Association keeps pushing, advised me that I would have a lot of trouble dealing with a curriculum that taught the opposite of what I think. I mean, what would I really learn from it, if I didn't trust the teachers?

Medicine itself, though, is beyond me. Do you know how many years it takes to become a doctor? And after that, to get enough experience to practice on your own? Besides the fact that I don't actually want to be a doctor. That's a very demanding profession, and I already have one of those. Not to mention I disagree with the medical establishment almost as much as the nutritional establishment. Doctors seem unfamiliar sometimes with the workings of the human body when it's healthy -- their expertise is treating disease. So when it comes to how to help a healthy baby or what diet or exercise to recommend, they're operating outside their expertise and their advice varies a lot.

So I've settled on biology itself. I want to learn about the healthy human body. Molecular biology and biochemistry are particular areas of interest. I want to know how medications work, and what factors can affect cellular metabolism. Stuff like that. But I also want to study digestion, and, of course, reproduction and birth.

How much biology to study is another question. I would have to start over entirely, because my English degree is no good at all where science is concerned. A bachelor's degree? Do I have it in me to get a masters? I am pretty sure I do not have it in me to get a doctorate -- I know enough grad students to be intimidated by that idea. Writing a dissertation sounds fun, but not the rest of it. Probably I would eventually write a book or two, whether I got a doctorate or not.

Most likely, I will just take what biology classes I can, when the occasion arises, and see how far I go. Money is an issue, after all, and I don't have a career plan involving biology. Luckily John's dream of becoming an academic librarian may open doors for me -- many universities offer a certain number of free credits for families of staff.

What do you all think? Is it crazy to think of getting a degree "just for fun," because I'm interested in the subject and like studying it? Or, worse still, to get people to listen to me? Do you think biology is the right field for me?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My resolutions for 2011

It's a new year! Can you believe it? You better believe I'll be writing it wrong for months to come.

It's time for some resolutions. Last year I didn't really make any except "have a baby" because I simply couldn't imagine what life would be like after that. This year, I have a better idea, though I do know the baby will be growing and changing the whole time -- in fact, he won't be a baby anymore by the time 2011's gone.

(One moment while I go sob. Where is my tiny little newborn peanut I used to have?!)

All right, here's what I resolve:

1. To eat better. I want to cut sugar out almost completely. (My new ice cream maker ensures that I will at least be eating some.) And I'd like to work on reducing my grains again. After trying things both ways, with and without grains, I think I can see that I felt better without them. Refined grains, like white rice and white bread, just turn to sugar and turn my system haywire the way sugar does. Whole grains are better, but they are kind of indigestible. I hope to experiment a bit with grains, soaking them and making sourdough, trying to find what will go down best for John and me.

2. To pray better. Yeah, I'll just come out there and admit that I'm a horrible pray-er. I just don't pray nearly as much as I should, and my life requires a bit more virtue than I can come up with on my own. I also want to read the Epistles -- the only part of the Bible I haven't read much of.

3. To be a better housekeeper. I consider myself to be a good mother. I think I do pretty much what I should in this regard; I make mothering a priority and I flatter myself that I do a decent job most of the time. But I'm a lousy homemaker. We both kind of still live like college students in this regard. We'd like a clean house, but we generally expect this to happen without effort -- and when there's dishes being made, and a kid's toys getting scattered, and laundry coming out of our ears, the college-student method doesn't really work. I'm working out a schedule to get myself to do more cleaning, which I hope to blog about soon.

4. To buy a house. This has been our financial goal for some time. It's going to require a lot of scrimping, a lot of saving, and a lot of compromise -- because on our budget, we can't be picky. If we want it to be within 45 minutes of DC and have a roof, we'd have to pay more. Right now we're thinking of moving further into Virginia, which is where we'd really prefer to live anyway, but it does lengthen John's commute. It's very sad to have even less time with him, but of all our possible choices, it seems the best. We simply can't afford to keep renting. As soon as we manage to scrape together the money to put down for a house, we'll be saving significant amounts of money every month. And that's something I get very excited about!

(On this topic, we went out looking at houses today in the area we're thinking of. Quite educational -- a lot of those houses were on top of a mountain. Very scenic, very picturesque -- and also very hard to reach! The roads were mostly gravel, up and down this mountain. I was shrieking, "You don't want to go this fast on gravel!" and John would calmly reply, "I'm not going this fast on purpose; my foot is on the brake." Oh, that is so comforting! I felt sure we were going to slide right off the mountain. Then we ventured down the steep gravel driveway of our favorite house. No trouble, even in our big van ... until we edged a little off the gravel trying to turn around. We couldn't get traction -- kept spinning our rear wheels in the mud. We kept rocking back to get traction further down the hill, only to end up stuck about 12 feet down the hill from where the driveway ended. Oops. We had to call AAA to come winch us back up again. Very embarrassing, especially as the friendly neighbor next door asked if we wanted to come over to wait for the tow truck. Bet this happens all the time. Ah well, at least we now know two things about this house: 1. Driveway needs work. 2. Nice neighbors.)

5. To be less patient with my husband. Whaaaat? Yes, unfortunately I seem to have two settings in my reactions: react instantly and without thinking (whereupon I always say something utterly stupid) or, even worse, not answer at all, but shut my mouth, resolve to "be patient," and then 50 or 60 offenses later, flip the heck out because I've been resenting every single one of them along the way. So, I admit, it's not exactly patience that's my problem. Just forbearance. I've been very forbearing in the name of patience, and it's backfired a lot. John expects me to be forthright with my problems; he has never demanded that I censor myself in any way. So why am I wasting my time holding back and getting resentful? No idea. So my goal is to think for five or ten seconds before snapping back an answer, but not for a week. That does no one any good. No one is hurt by my saying, "No, I think you're wrong," or, "Hey, that hurt my feelings." But I am hurt when I don't speak up. So I resolve to cut that self-righteous forbearance out. If I'm upset enough that I'm going to resent it, I'll just speak out.

6. To get another baby cooking. Well, that one's more of a hope than a resolution. Till Marko's nursing less, nothing I do is going to achieve much in that direction. But I would love to get pregnant next summer, and have a baby when Marko's about two. I would also love that baby to be a girl. But there I really truly do have no control.

I think that's enough resolutions for one year, don't you think?
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