Category Archives: Parenting

Top 5 Tips for Potty Training Your Toddler or Preschooler

1. Camp out in the bathroom naked with a loop of Dora on your iPad for 5-7 days.

2. Can you say, “dog crate”?

3. Wait until Kindergarten — the embarrassment of wearing diapers all day at 5 will be enough for them to train themselves!

4. Rent a hotel room for the duration of the training. The mess will be theirs, not yours.

5. If nothing else works, contract the job out. I hear potty training is going for pennies in China.

Ok. Kidding. I do have some more, uh, implementable tips for all you parents getting ready to potty train or already wrestling with your nonstop-pissing dragon child. These are gleaned from experience, of course. If you have any sure-fire advice of your own, we at Punkernoodle would love to hear it!

1. Start early. By this, I don’t mean trying to potty-learn your child at 5 months (although lots of parents report great success with elimination communication, a technique we’ll explore in a later post). What I mean is start early to make it normal. By the time your child is standing, you should have a small potty in every bathroom in your home (I don’t mean the child’s seat that attaches to the toilet; small kids need their own accessible, self-contained potty sized just for them). Put their potty on the floor next to the toilet. Encourage them to sit on the potty with their clothes on or off. Help them foster a relationship with their potty. Name it. Put stickers on it, whatever. Don’t badger them about “getting dirty” when they inevitably rub their hands all over the potty (teach them about germs, and always wash hands, but don’t paint the potty as a negative, icky thing).

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The Stay-at-Home Agenda

I was cleaning out my home office this past weekend, which meant uncovering about 30 pounds of papers that have long since stopped being useful and were very overdue for the recycling box. Deep under a pile of scrap paper and old receipts, I dug out a planner from 2008. The book was pretty obnoxious – one of those yellow “mom planners” that someone had given me as a gift when I quit my full-time reporting job at The Seattle Times in the fall of 2008 to spend more time with my girls, who were 1 and 3 at the time. Even though the book was aesthetically offensive (a bottle of wine would have been just as appropriate, non?), I used it. I remember thinking that now that I was a “stay-at-home-mom” (whatever that meant, I wasn’t actually sure) I would need to be supremely organized about my mommy activities and duties.

I flipped through it again this weekend, sitting on the floor amid my pile of dead trees, and took a little trip down memory lane. Most interesting to me were the lists I found at the back of the planner. (I am embarrassed to admit to some of this, but I will because I think it speaks so directly to the often unspoken conflict many women, and some dads, too, face when they leave their “professional” career for the underpaid, health- and retirement-benefits-free job of full-time parenting. Like others who have made the shift, I was supremely conflicted.

So, the lists. On one planner page, I took notes on other parents I was meeting as I navigated my new life, landmarked by library story times and visits to Cupcake Royale. Having left behind my work friends, who were still dealing in deadlines and paychecks, I was fairly desperate to find a new club to belong to. The problem was that I couldn’t connect with a lot of parents I was meeting on the mommy circuit. In some cases, the alchemy just wasn’t right – if we had been cruising an online dating site, let’s just say our profiles wouldn’t have generated a match. In other cases, we were all so focused on wiping snotty noses and being the perfect mommies to our little darlings, we couldn’t relax (and ignore the kiddos for a few seconds) in order to get past the chit-chat about breastfeeding schedules and pediatrician picks in order to really get to know each other.

So I took notes, hoping I could filter out the friend potentials from the duds. On my list was “Melissa*– mom to twins Cruz and Carter, 18 mo., funny, cool red boots, likes wine tasting,” and “Liz* — graphic designer, nose ring, not married to baby daddy, lives Fremont,” and “Jenn* — LA transplant! Does yoga Tuesdays mornings + has babysitters!!” I ranked these moms by number (hello, junior high, anyone?!), trying to figure out who could become my new BFFs. Without new instant mommy friends, I worried, I would be a total failure and lonely to boot.

In my nervous new-stay-at-home-mom state, I desperately hoped those notes on the page would morph into my new de-facto daytime family, a replacement for my workplace network and a source of adult conversation that would prevent me from going crazy alone with my two toddlers.

Another list at the back of the ugly yellow planner outlined the possibilities for keeping us all busy, busy, busy: A full weekly schedule of park playground rankings, open indoor gym hours, story times, kid-friendly coffee shops and children’s theater shows. I red-tabbed these pages, the most important in my planner because they represented the promise that full-time parenting could be as diverse and fun as my working life had been. Without the scheduling options, I wouldn’t have anything to do, and my children would be wholly without stimulation, I figured. I had to validate my choice to leave my job by providing us with The Best Fun-Filled Schedule Ever.

I used the planner for about six months, grabbing for it often as soon as I woke up (to the sweet screams of my cranky/wet/hungry children) and sometimes one last time before I drifted wearily off to a temporary sleep. But gradually, the monthly calendars show more white space and less frantic, hopeful scribbles – not because we were sitting at home doing nothing, I remember, but because I slowly realized building a new life could not be done by marking notes in tiny paper boxes.

It’s been almost three years since I left the world of full-time office work. Most of the “friends” I made those first few months have faded away; we run into each other sometimes at the park or grocery store and exchange friendly chit-chat, but that’s about it. The few true friends I found are still there for the occasional lucky night when we can all escape for a girl’s night out, and these are the mothers I would count on the bring me soup when I get sick and pick up my daughter in a pinch if I am stranded. But most of us no longer have the time to while away every day at the park, worrying about how we will be judged against the “working” mommies in some nonexistent comparative contest. A lot of our kids are in preschool and, gasp, grade school now, and many of us have started new journeys onto different projects, jobs, experiments. We are mothers always, but we are following new passions, too, or thinking about how we can strike a different balance.

I tossed the yellow planner, saying a final goodbye to those innocent, angst-ridden notes about what I thought life as a stay-at-home mother would be like. With perspective, I’m glad to realize they didn’t come close to doing it justice.

*Names changed for the sake of those poor, oversimplified mothers.

Keep the Bacon, Bring Home True Equality

I just read a story from The Washington Post and reprinted in The Seattle Times with the headline “Report: Wives Bringing Home More of Bacon,” about a study released today outlining an apparently encouraging new trend: American wives are earning more income than ever before.

The report, published by the Pew Research Center, shows that women have emerged as the dominant income provider in one of five marriages and are overall more educated and more present in the workforce than compared with 1970. The study stems from Census Bureau stats of married people ages 30-44, an age group that is the first in U.S. history to include more women than men with college degrees, according to the story.

Though men are still the major “contributors” of household income — with 78 percent making at least as much or more as their wives — the percentage of women whose income has outpaced their husbands shot from 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent now. And in the recent recession, women fared better than men, losing their jobs at a lesser rate than men and shouldering the financial burdens of their families. Much of this sea-change is due to the gains of the women’s movement, experts point out.

Good news, right? Well sure, any time women begin to approach a level of equality with men, it’s positive. Because, being that we’re all human beings equally capable of achievement, it stands to reason that we should be valued equally by the society we’ve set up for ourselves.

What I take issue with is the weight we, as Americans, give financial achievement over other measures of success. Take these quotes, from the story: 

“What’s radically changed is that marriage is now a better deal for men,” said Richard Fry, co-author of the report. “Now when men marry, often their spouse works quite a bit.” Huh. A better deal? Okaaaaayyyyy. I can only assume when he says work, he means work outside the home — not the lesser valued, bob-bon fueled hobbies of raising children into productive adults and maintaining a household, which clearly should not be counted as actual work — maybe more of a recreational-type thing??

Another jem: “As women have brought more money into the marriage, their authority and decision-making power has grown,” said Andrew Cherlin, author of “The Marriage Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.”

What these types of comments confirm for me is what I already know: To a large degree, as Americans we give much more value to “work” that brings in a paycheck than we do to what should fairly be recognized (but isn’t) as equally challenging and important work — raising children, for example — which brings moral and societal benefits and rewards (someone’s got to ready the workforce of tomorrow) but not often any dollars and cents to the marriage table.

The way I see it, it’s all about the balance of power, as Cherlin so indelicately put it. Whoever earns the most money gets the most power in the marriage, an equation replicated on a societal level. What I don’t understand is why we are so programmed to give more weight, or power, to the achievements which have a paycheck attached.

Yeah, we all need money. We need houses to live in and clothes to wear. We’ve got groceries to buy and cars to fuel and those overpriced soccer camps to think of. Raising families cost money, and it’s true today more than ever before that it’s harder to raise a family on just one income in this country. Some families don’t have the luxury to keep one parent — male or female — home to be with the children.

But why are we so focused on measuring, comparing, competing, our contributions this way? This mindset — that he OR she who “brings home the bacon” rules the roost, or at least deserves to strut around a little more — is counterproductive to a family-friendly society. And on the street level, it’s divisive to marriage.

In my own marriage, Mr. Punkernoodle and I have navigated this moat as we’ve gone. We started out as singles with him earning a higher wage, based on his experience. As a young married couple, there was a long stretch of time when I earned more than him. When our first daughter was born, I took maternity leave first, then he stayed home on paternity leave, then we both went back to work. Now, with two young daughters, I have been “at home” for the past year while he works an office job out-earning me (now and in my former career capacity) by a longshot.

In all of these various mutations, for the entire decade that we’ve been together, never have we felt that one vs. the other had or deserved to have more power within the relationship. Major decisions — from how to spend money to where to live and vacation — are made jointly. Smaller decisions can be made by either one of us; we both have the authority to make money decisions. There’s no “my money” or “his money.” It’s our money, regardless of who “earns” it — meaning whose name is on the payroll paycheck.

Because really, although right now my husband’s name is on that regular check (and thank god for the existence of that check), we BOTH earned most of that money. Why? Because like most “stay-at-home parents” in this country know, the ability of the spouse who leaves the home to find traditional career success depends largely on the support provided behind the scenes by their partner. It’s common sense: As an “outside worker,” the more secure I feel about the safety and happiness of my children, wherever they are, the better I can focus on succeeding at my career — and ostensibly the more money, security, benefits, and opportunities I can earn for my family.

Two stories on this topic stay with me:

An acquaintance of mine came to visit me in my diaper shop to research switching over to cloth diapers. She was a stay-at-home-mother (or a work-at-home-mother, to be exact, as she was bringing in extra income for her family with side jobs whenever she could squeeze in time between bottles and laundry). She had calculated that she was spending a large chunk of change every month on disposable diapers and that, for the cost of just eight weeks of diposables, she could buy many, many months’ worth of cloth diapers, which she was happy to use and launder herself. After crunching numbers and deciding it would be a good move, she looked and me and said, “Well, I’ll just have to check with [husband’s name] and see if I can get his OK.”

I was incredulous but managed to hide my amazement until I vented later that night to Mr. Punkernoodle. This woman had the important, designated job of household manager in her family. She bought and prepared the food, oversaw the children’s activities and understood the family budget. Yet because her name wasn’t on the pay stub, she didn’t have the authority to make a decision about something that fell squarely into the realm of her job description. She had to “check” with her husband to see if it was alright.

The other story: When we were married but not yet parents, we had a dinner date with another couple, friends of ours who had been married longer than we had and were expecting their first child. The parties in this other couple both had successful careers and were working and earning similar paychecks, and were of a mostly liberal mindset — supporters of human equality and all that good stuff. When it came time to pay the bill, we split it. The woman friend of ours reached for their half of the check and said casually to her husband, “I’ll get this.” “You sure?” he said. “Yes, you can get the next one,” she answered. Later that night, my husband and I whispered in bed to one another, marveling at how surprised we felt over our friends’ process of splitting expenses.

The thought simply would never have occurred to us — even then, with two individual paychecks, no kids and a lot more disposable income than we have now — to divide our money. Some feminists might whip me for this, lambast me for sloughing off all the hard-earned gains of the women’s movement. But I maintain it’s because of the feminist movement that I can now be in a place where I comfortably and equally share money with my partner. Whether what I bring to the marriage table is in the form of dollar bills or other, less tangible contributions, I know that it is equally as valuable as what my husband has to bring. And if down the road the tables turn and I earn more money and he eats more bons bons, he’ll still have free will over our checkbook.

And that’s what I wish would seep into our national consciousness a little more: That the measurement of contribution to family success should not be made in greenbacks alone. Maybe a start is to eliminate these overused and outdated colloquialisms we seem so hard-pressed to move beyond, phrases like “bring home the bacon,” which just reinforce money as the standard of success.

Keep the bacon, it’s just empty calories. Bring me true equality, which will feed us all in the long run.

Teaching the Tougher Things

Maybe it’s because of the promise I made myself around New Year’s – that I would try harder this year to appreciate the good stuff in my life and keep perspective when I feel like whining or complaining about something that feels completely crappy to me.

Or maybe it’s because of the god-awful Haiti headlines, which remind me how frustratingly random our fates as humans are, and how maddening it is to feel so removed from the ability to help – really help – our fellow humans in need.

But for whatever reason, after loading the girls into their car seats this morning and heading out into the morning school commute, I glanced at them in the rearview mirror and practically chirped, “What a beautiful day! I feel so happy to be here on this day, so lucky to have a warm house to live in and a good breakfast in my stomach and clothes to wear!”

Maybe I drank the coffee too fast. It’s been known to happen.

But Punkernoodle 1, in all her 4-year-old wisdom, donned her philosophical conductor’s hat and jumped right on my existential train.

“Isn’t it not fair, Mommy, that some people have no houses and have to sleep in tents in the forest, and we have a nice, big house to live in?”

Why yes, babe, it is frightfully, most fucked-upedly, unfair. And then I turned up the radio.

My friend asked me later this morning, “Did you tell your kids about Haiti?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but I realized no, I haven’t told them. In fact, I think I surreptitiously slid the front page of the newspaper underneath the sports section today and yesterday, gambling that they wouldn’t notice the pictures of bodies on stretchers and children their size covered in white dust with big, dazed stares.

We talk big all the time about how we want our children to become citizens of the world and all those other cross-cultural, priviledge-fueled catch phrases. But when it comes down to it, I am still at a loss to describe that which leaves me, an adult, with a sense of despair. Because I know, from my daughters’ innocent perspectives, it makes no sense. Why do some humans suffer so, while others glide through life which few truly harsh challenges? Why is there disease, natural disaster? Why, even when we have the resources and ability to help – as with our own community’s suffering – do we seem unable to alleviate the suffering that leaves the surprisingly wise and simplistic minds of our children baffled?

I feel guilty that the upside of an event so damaging as the earthquake in Haiti is a forceful yet admittedly temporary thankfulness for what’s good in my own life and the lives of my children: health, shelter, political freedom. Yet the reminder a major disaster brings is that nothing is guaranteed. It is a truth that is easier, and more blissful, to ignore than to accept and teach our children.

So while I’m feeling both helpless and grateful in the face of disaster, I’ll thank my friend Elizabeth, who reminded me with her simple question not to shelter my children too much from the realities of the planet. I will find a way to tell them, in terms they can handle, what happened in Haiti and enlist their marvelous and empathetic minds to find a way, a tiny way, in which our little family can help the condition of our fellow humans. After all, it’s our children to whom we will hand the burdens of humanity. It’s only fair they can start thinking about it now – there’s so much work to be done.

A Look Back…

This post was written for the {W}rite of Passage Writing Well Challenge #4:  The Resolution

On New Year’s Day I had a flashback. We were at Salmon Bay Park with the girls, ringing in 2010 as we pushed them on the swings and listened to them squeal across the tire-tipped zip-line in elated terror. As we played among the other parents and young children, a couple walked up and stood at the edge of the playground. They held hands as they strolled, and the mother held their newborn in a carrier on her chest.

This couple had no older child, just the baby sleeping in a bundle of fleece. But they had walked to the park, where they stopped and stood, then sat on the wooden bench. There, with faint smiles on their faces, they watched the children screech around the merry-go-round and pound their fists into the sand. It might have seemed to someone else watching that the couple was out-of-place, maybe waiting for someone to meet them — a grandparent to come along with the other child, a preschooler who had true business at a playground.

But I felt I knew just why they were there, gazing dreamily at the playsets and blur of small sneakered feet rushing past.

Nearly 5 years ago, my husband and I made a trek to a different playground. That park was three blocks from our tiny city house, and as we walked slowly I pushed the complex pale blue stroller/car seat/carrier combo that held our week-old daughter. We had decided to take her to the park to celebrate her 1-week birthday. I chuckle now at the sweetness of it, the new-parent excitement and innocence that brimmed in us as we set out that day, so eager for that first trip to the playground with our first child. Of course our baby, snuggled into the contraption, the sun shield covering her completely, slept right through her visit, and it would be nearly two years before she could understand and fully appreciate the fun a playground has to offer. 

But we couldn’t wait, so eager were we to experience the moments of childhood we imagined as miraculous through a parent’s eye. The world had changed so much with the birth of our child — holy cow, we were mother and father! Suddenly the gap between the magic of our own childhoods and the responsible monotony that adulthood sometimes dictates was bridged. How long had it been since we went to the playground? A decade? Since we sat down and dug in the sand with a plastic shovel, pumped our legs as we swung higher and higher into the sky? We realized, a little embarrassed but mostly enchanted, that we could do these things once again: Mud pies, glue sticks, Disneyland, hula hoops, hide-and-seek — we would get another chance at all of these as we held our child’s hand and showed her the wonder of life. And, one week after her birth, the fantasy had begun and we just couldn’t wait.

On New Year’s Eve, at the end of a decade, we both reflected upon all that has changed over the past 10 years. Where did the time disappear to? Is it possible that our newborn daughter whose cheek caught the summer breeze in the park that day is now a talking, jumping firecracker ready to start school? And that our second daughter’s babyhood came and went while we weren’t looking?

In that couple, pausing at Salmon Bay to marvel their life and the possibilities it holds, I saw how fast time passes. How excited we are to keep moving forward and pushing ahead, to get to the next thing, the next stage, so we can see how it is, how we like it. Then we plow ahead once more.

As a parent I want to try to hold every stage, every moment, in my mind and taste it with my memory. But I forget. I rush. I obsess over the next thing, the next phase. I itch to push ahead. What I would give to just peek into my daughter’s stroller that warm day at the park years ago, to see her wrinkled cheek and the dark patch of hair. To hear her whimper-breath, which knew nothing of swings and climbing walls but everything, everything about life.

Reality Check

So for a year now I’ve been stressing about a Situation.

Three times a week, we drive the same route to preschool. The Punkernoodles’ school is great, but it’s a little far – a 20-minute drive. The route takes us through several neighborhoods and requires us to cross Aurora Avenue. Also known as Highway 99, this mini highway through Seattle is, well, pretty much a shit hole. For miles it basically consists of flea-ridden motels offering hourly rates, strip clubs, gun clubs, fast food “restaurants,” even drive-through coffee huts where your barista will dress up in cheap lingerie. The underbelly of our town, if you will.

Anyway. Before crossing this treasure of a byway, we have to stop at a long red light. At the corner stands a homeless man. A very bedraggled homeless man. He’s an older guy, no doubt looking even more aged than he actually is, with a nest of wildish hair, a gnarled grimace, pale watery eyes, and a sign. The sign has changed a few times since we first started passing him, but generally it is fashioned from a wrinkled piece of box cardboard and is scrawled with a request for food, money etc. For much of the past year (though not in the past couple months), he wore a snowsuit, a kind of torn-up puffy sleeping-bag-looking thing. In this suit, or whatever outfit of the day he can muster, he shuffles along the sidewalk, grumbling and peering into car windows with his sign.

It is sad – I know that. I have a lot of compassion for people like this man. I have interviewed many of them as a journalist, written stories about programs that support homelessness. I have done the midnight homeless count and spent the night in a homeless shelter to interview the men who called it home. It’s not simple – lots of factors contribute to a life like this: Bad luck, sure, and also addiction, mental illness, poor social suport systems. Bottom line, people like him suffer on levels I personally cannot really even imagine.

But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about this past year. This whole time, I have been worried about the minutes we spend every commute sitting, in the right-hand-lane, right at his corner as we wait for the light to turn green. For the first six months or so, when the kiddos were a bit younger, I was just concerned they would notice this scruffy specter and have nightmares. Then, as Punkernoodle 1 inched closer to her fourth birthday, I began to panic about the day she would inevitably ask, “Mommy, what is that man doing?”

I know, it’s weak. I admit it. But I was afraid of having to explain homelessness, in stark terms, with such a compelling visual standing right before us. In the 2 minutes of a red-green light cycle.

Finally, a few months ago, the question came. I played the classic (and weak, I know, I know) brush off. “Oh, I don’t know, honey – sometimes people just stand outside with signs.”

Yes, I am a pathetic chicken-shit of a parent.

Another time, as 2 1/2-year-old Sister listened in, Punkernoodle 1 tried to come in from another angle. “What does that sign say, Mommy?” In that probing, demanding, painfully innocent 4-year-old way.

“Not sure, babe,” I chirped out as the light changed and I slammed the gas pedal. “I missed it.”

Other times I just distracted them at the corner so they wouldn’t notice. “Let’s sing a song,” I’d say. “What’s your favorite dessert?”

It’s not that I am afraid of tough topics. I take them on all the time. I’m like a parrot about the whole “your body is private” thing. We’ve done food drives and toy drives and  have talked about how some children don’t have money for good food or nice toys and it’s good to help them. Heck, my daughters have a cousin being raised by two dads – and they already know all about that.

There’s just something about the harsh reality of a person so run-down, so obviously alone and desperate and unloved, so without-a-home, that I can’t bear to break to them. Maybe that’s because I don’t really understand it, or believe it, myself at some base level: How can someone in our country, our community, have no home? Nowhere to sleep? Or shower, or eat? It’s shameful – not on the people without a bed, but, maybe, on all of us with one. On me.

I know this speaks to a larger issue, the question of how to talk to our children about the difficult topics. I am searching for the best road, the way to give them the information they are going to need to become “citizens of the world,” as the catch phrase goes, without shattering that which makes them regard that world as miraculous to begin with.

Well. Finally, this week, the fateful moment arrived. The day I’ve been avoiding like a coward for a year. We pull up to Aurora. It’s an uncharacteristically sunny fall Seattle day. The girls are very busy looking out their windows. There he is. Here it comes. “Mommy? What is that man doing?”

I can’t avoid it this time. Too direct. Too obvious. She’s gotten too smart, too perceptive. This is going to shatter her innocence forever, steal her open-hearted wonder at the world and give her the first spoonful of human bitterness, but there’s nothing more I can do about it. Fuck. Ok – here it goes: “Well, sweetie. Sometimes people don’t have any food or money. So they might make a sign asking other people for money, or food, so maybe if they hold the sign up people will help them.”

I wait for it. The request to roll down the window and pass this man some money. And some food. And maybe invite him home to sleep in our guest room, at least until Nana comes to visit.

“Mommy,” she barks in her recent, loud, newly assertive and slightly demanding way. I cringe.

“He should just get a job.”

Oh my god. All this time, all this fear – of the wrong thing. She’s not losing her rosy outlook on the world. She’s training for public office. Ha.

Ok. Sigh of relief. Laughs all around. Note to Self: Make a few extra donations to the food bank, kids in tow. Volunteer at a shelter. Find children’s book explaining mental illness?

Find a new route to school.

Just kidding…

Red dirt, Big skies, Here We Come…

We are about to set off for a visit to the Mr.’s childhood home in Arizona. Specifically, to the red dirt and open nothingness of a place northeast of Flagstaff that his family calls “The Land.”

The Mr. is well used to this tract, having grown up there with his 8 siblings and 2 parents in a house they built by hand. After nearly a decade with the Mr., I am still not used to this place. Happily, for me, it is modernized some since he ran around barefoot as a kid – back then there was no hot water, no plumbling, no electricity. Solar panels and some other updates have helped. It is still a place where you can get up close to nature – you have to: Here, with nothing but flat red earth and fresh, sharp air for miles, nature hits you in the face.

It is the first time in 5 years we’ve been back, and then first time our little Punkernoodles will see Daddy’s childhood home – “The house that’s half underground!” as they’ve been chanting for weeks. Any anxiety I feel roaming the emptiness of a place so big and frontier-like, 45 minutes from the tiny town of Winslow (cue The Eagles), should be tempered this time by the excitement of these two little innocents, running around the mud and stone and salt bush, exploring this new world in amazement. Or I hope, anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone near and far!

N