When Laundry is an Accomplishment: Life with a Toddler and a Newborn

It took me almost a year after having my first child to feel like I was getting anything done. Now that I have two I’m wondering if it will take two years this time. Having children necessitates having new and more realistic expectations of what you can accomplish in a day. I am one of those people who is always pushing myself to get more done in less time. My husband bought me Getting Things done for Christmas (at my request) but I haven’t had the time to read it yet. (How is that for irony?) My house in a perpetual mess and I haven’t even had to cook many meals yet, thanks to generous friends and family who have been bringing meals since our son was born on March 19. The idea of trying to return to regular every day life is an overwhelming one. Then I realized something. Regular every day life has changed, again.

It changed when my daughter was born and I became a Stay at Home Mom. It changed when she finally began sleeping consistently through the night at one year and I felt like I had my life back.  It changed again while I was pregnant (twice) and the lack of energy sapped my ability to get much done. Now I am the mother of a toddler and a newborn. What was once normal no longer applies. Slowly I am trying to add back in activities I once did regularly like exercise, writing and blogging. But for now I need to be happy with the things I do get done; whether it be finished laundry (including my cloth diapers) or a dinner ready on time. This is the new normal.

Confessions of a Real Mom

Sometimes I just want a vacation from being a mom. That is a sentence I never thought I would say just two years ago. I yearned for a child for the first five years of our marriage, and couldn’t wait to be a stay at home mom. While I found it somewhat isolating, I enjoyed most of the first year. I was breastfeeding around the clock and my daughter rarely slept, but at least I could meet her needs with relative ease. But when she began the road to toddlerdome I realized that I was in over my head.

Near constant whining, food and clothing preferences; some how I didn’t seem to have the emotional coping mechanisms to deal with these. Now, I could blame it on my pregnancy or the emotional turmoil of recovering from a miscarriage. But in usual form, I began to blame myself and think I was a “bad mommy.” You know that little voice we all have from time to time that tells us we are bad mommies because we (Fill in the blank). We feel guilty for letting our kids watch too much TV, not feeding them enough healthy foods, etc. We allow ourselves to feel inadequate when we read articles and blog posts about women who seem to be able to do it all; home school, organic meals, constant healthy mental stimulation.  There’s nothing wrong with moms who do these things, and also nothing wrong with wanting to provide these things for your own children. But sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. It’s ok not to love every moment of mothering. There I said it. There are times when I wish that being a mom was a job I could take a day off from. But it’s not. There are always things to do and a little person demanding my attention.

I try to tell myself that perhaps it will get easier as she gets older but my guess is that parenting, particularly stay-at-home parenting, is always difficult. How it’s difficult simply changes. So for now I focus are getting through the tough days one hour at a time, knowing that tomorrow could be completely different (or more of the same). I try to remind myself of how grateful I am for my daughter and try to fully enjoy the wonderful moments.

Going from SAHM to WAHM: How I Accidentally Became a Work At Home Mom

I accidentally became a Work at Home Mom. No, you didn’t misread that. When I left my job as an administrative assistant for a small non-profit two years ago just weeks before the birth of my daughter I really thought I was walking away forever. That fall the assistant they hired to replace me quit, so they asked me to help out for a few days. Then I came to help with the biggest event of the year in January. That spring they were without a full time assistant again and asked if I would consider coming back to work part-time. My daughter was still not weaned and my husband didn’t really like the idea of me going back to work. To be honest, I didn’t either. But I still felt some sense of loyalty to the organization and the extra money would have been nice. But after talking and praying about it, I said no. I returned again last January to help out with the big event, satisfied that my involvement would be limited to once or twice a year. Then this past March I received a phone call. Would I come back to work just two days a week? I said no again. A few weeks later my boss offered me a compromise. Would I work from home and come into the office only as needed during major events until they could hire a new assistant? This was something I was willing to consider.

I will admit it felt kind of good to know that I was valued. I never thought the job was all that challenging, but three other assistants had quit or been fired in two years time. I worked from home for two months and while I enjoyed the extra money, I also found it hard to balance the part-time work with the full time plus job of being a wife, mother and household manager. I always thought working from home would be easy. It isn’t. At the end of May I helped produce a large event for a local business leader and supporter of our non-profit. After the event ended my boss asked if I would continue to work from home indefinitely. “When you decide you can’t or don’t want to do it anymore, let me know and I’ll hire someone,” she said. I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little unnerved. This would mean I was officially a working mom. Yes, I’d be working from home and mostly setting my own hours, but it would still mean one more thing to manage. Deadlines would have to take priority over household tasks as well as my own projects, my novel included.

So far it’s been doable. My mother has graciously watched my daughter on the few occasions where I needed to be in the office or coordinate an event. I’ve been able to make a couple of small extra student loan payments on my husband’s sizeable student loan debt and set aside money for future car repairs and Christmas presents. I don’t know how long it will last, but for the time being I have to stop referring to myself as a Stay at Home Mom.

How do those of you who work outside the home or from home manage to get it all done? Any organization tips?

What We Can Learn from Pioneer Women

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the community mindedness of pioneer women. They were often miles from the nearest neighbor, yet they forged a sense of community that is so often lacking today. Women did their baking and sewing together, delivered each others babies and watched each others children. Harvest was done together and even turned into a social occasion. Neighbors provided support during crisis. The only sign I see of commitment on this level in this century is among the Amish, where even fire insurance is unnecessary. If someone’s barn burns down, the community pulls together and builds a new one. Pioneer women couldn’t run to the store when they ran out of supplies. Help was given knowing that the same support could be depended on from others in times of need.

I don’t know when this sense of community died. Maybe it was when one too many people abused it, making the generous afraid of being overwhelmed. Perhaps it was our overdependence on technology. We post our troubles on Facebook and receive sympathetic comments instead of the helping hand we really need. Worse still, have we allowed our lives to become so busy and egocentric that we no longer make the time to interact with others?

I expected more from Christians today, hoping that we could success in this area where the culture around us has failed, but at least in the United States, we are little better. We fear being judged if we ask for help or offending others if we offer it. Those of us who live on little are embarrassed to admit it and yet shy away from offering our budgeting skills to those struggling. Our society has cultivated an ideal of independence and an anathema of dependence. Worse yet, the philosophy of “love thy neighbor”, for many, has been replaced by “Isn’t that the government’s job?”

So can today’s women reintegrate many of those wonderful qualities found in the pioneer woman? I’m not suggesting we give up shopping at grocery stores and start having our babies at home (unless of course you want to.) But perhaps there is still room for that kind of community even in the 21st century. Cooking at home goes in and out of style, but teaching those skills is not always something every child is taught anymore. Even basic sewing skills have become a lost art. When I told my friends I had begun baking my own bread at home, they were shocked and begged me to teach them. Why not? Our sharing of skills doesn’t have to limited to the home. We can share our love of photography, Pilates, gardening or computers. As women we can learn to depend on each other again. Those who return to the workforce pay a high price for childcare when they might prefer that their children spend the day with a friend. Many couples of lower income rarely go out because they can’t afford a babysitter. Trading off babysitting fulfills this need. We all have something to offer and we each need something in return, even if it is only our time or our listening ears.

Being a Stay-At-Home Parent is a Huge Sacrifice and I Did It Anyway

I recently read two articles that address the long term financial difficulties of being a stay at home parent. Katy Read’s Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom presents the view of a now divorced single mother without a full time job, lamenting her choice to stay home and/or work part time 14 years ago. She blames herself, society and pressure from family members for a choice that she now says has crippled her career and financial future, possibly permanently. Jonathan Liu of Geek Dad responded with his own take in Stay-at-Home Parenting Backlash: “Opting In” or “Opting Out?”.

This is a loaded issue for many parents, particularly women. But I think what it emphasizes most is that how you raise your children is not a decision to take lightly but it is still YOUR decision. I tend to lean more towards Geek Dad’s opinion that parenting is a huge sacrifice and only the seriously naïve and deceived among us fail to acknowledge that going in to it. We know it could theoretically cost us millions of dollars (assuming we have the kinds of jobs that would net those high wages anyway). But we are willing to lay all of that down for the sake of our children.

There is nothing wrong with continuing in your career path and sending your kids to daycare, if that is what you really want. I never sought to be a big time career woman. I went to college because I love to learn and I recognized the importance of a college education in both future job possibilities and becoming a well-rounded human being. But I didn’t go into deep debt to do it. I studied English not because I thought it would net me a high paying salary but because I love to read and write and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I knew that if I wasn’t willing to work in a major city and work the tough novice reporter hours I wasn’t going to climb the ladder. So I opted to work low paying jobs, many of them not in my field, in favor of supporting my husband while he went back to school. I could have commuted 2 hours of Philadelphia or 3 hours to New York City, but my quality of life mattered more to me. My work was just my work, it wasn’t my life. I always knew that if we were blessed with children, I would be a stay-at-home mom, if at all possible.

I left my best paying job to date to stay at home with my daughter after she was born. I actually had the opportunity to return to my old job part time when she was about 9 months old and I turned it down. Part of me regrets that now, not because I really wanted to go back to work outside the home, but because of the financial aspect. It would be nice to use my extra income to pay off my husband’s student loans. I’m still considering this a possible option, but my husband is very much against it. He thinks that the benefits of having a parent at home full-time far outweigh the financial sacrifices. For the most part, I agree with him. The only way we even could afford for me to work part-time outside the home is if my mother watched my daughter for free, because day care would wipe out any money I was making anyway. If it was necessary for survival we would do this, but I don’t want to burden my mother unnecessarily.

For some families a balance can be found, with one parent working from home some or all of the time. In other cases both parents working full time and full time daycare are the only option or the preferred option. But any decision needs to be made knowledgeably and consciously.

I wish I was still bringing home a regular paycheck, but I made a conscious sacrifice, one that I hope I don’t look back on in 14 years and regret. As a child of a stay-at-home mom, I have no regrets that my mom was at home with me and my sister. My dad had a good job, so we were lucky, but at the same time we didn’t drive new cars, have cell phones, or go to Disney World. My parents made very careful choices with their money so that we could have everything we needed, some of the things we wanted and still have my mom at home with us. I don’t regret the missed vacations, name brand clothes or expensive toys and gadgets. I will be forever grateful that my mom was there whenever I needed her. I only hope I can do the same for my children.

Save by using time instead of money: Things that are worth making from scratch

As a stay a home mom I often find that time is easier to come by then money. Not that I have endless time, but since no one is paying me for my time, it seems easier to sacrifice. I have discovered that by putting in a little bit of time at home, I can save on our monthly expenses, which equals more money going into savings or paying down debt.

The less work that is done before you buy a product generally the less you pay for it. So if you buy ingredients and make things yourself, you will usually save money and almost always eat healthier.

Breakfast

I hardly ever buy breakfast cereal for myself or my daughter anymore. My husband is a creature of habit and has made many concessions to our frugal lifestyle, so I let him keep buying his store brand cereals, especially when he sticks to cheaper and healthier choices like raisin bran. But my daughter and I don’t usually eat boxed breakfast cereal. I will make oatmeal or we eat fruit and homemade toast. My daughter likes hers with cream cheese. If you like cereal bars or granola bars for a quick breakfast on the go, those can be made at home too. Check out recipes online like http://backtothecuttingboard.com/dessert/no-bake-chewy-granola-bars/. Depending on where you buy your ingredients and what you put in your cereal bars, you can save a lot by making them yourself. Though I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve also considered making my own yogurt, though I’m not sure whether it would be a significant savings, since my husband is very brand loyal. But here is a helpful link about how to make your own yogurt in your crock pot. http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/2008/10/you-can-make-yogurt-in-your-crockpot.html. I’ll likely try this once we have more children.

Bread

I started baking my own bread when I realized that by buying ingredients in bulk I could make a loaf for only $.33! It took a little bit of experimenting to find the right recipe, but now I make my husband’s sandwich bread for his lunches instead of paying almost $2 for his favorite store brand Italian sandwich bread. I also discovered that a loaf of homemade bread is the perfect side dish to a soup or stew. Right out of the oven, this bread rivals most high priced bakery bread. However, while I do use bread flour I buy in bulk at Sam’s Club, I don’t often use whole wheat flour. Partly because I have trouble making it rise properly and end up with very small dense loaves. They still taste OK, but don’t make very good sandwiches. Sometimes I compromise by using half store brand whole wheat flour and half bread flour. But that does mean that my loaves cost more, though still cheaper than good quality whole wheat bread without high fructose corn syrup or other additives.

“Convenience” Meals

Making things from scratch is especially frugal than when preparing your own meals instead of depending on convenience meals. There were many nights when we were both working full time that it seemed easier just to grab fast food or run out for a pizza instead of make dinner. Now I try to make sure that I have at least a few meals in the freezer ready to go. The best choices are usually stews or soups. Since we are only a family of three right now, and one of us is still eating very small portions, most soup and stew recipes yield at least two or three meals. But eating the same thing two or three times in a week can be a little dull. So I freeze at least half and keep it for a night when I’m tired, we’re busy or running late. It goes directly from freezer to soup pot and in just a few minutes we have a meal ready to go. Another great choice is pizzas or calzones. I make pizza dough in double batches and freeze half for later. Then I defrost in the freezer overnight and I can make a pizza in half an hour. Personally, we prefer making calzones. I have a hard time getting the dough stretched properly for pizza and calzones are generally less messy to make. That way I can make personal sized calzones and each family member can pick his or her own fillings.

Buy in bulk, portion for yourself

Buying in bulk can save you money on a couple of conditions. First, it has to be something that you already buy a lot of and consistently use up before it goes bad. Secondly, the bulk source has to be a significant cost savings. And third, you must be able to store the items properly. Flour for example, can be stored in the bag but is better stored in an airtight canister. But it’s hard to find a canister that will hold 25 pounds of flour. Fortunately, we generally use up the flour quickly from all the bread and calzone making, so I’ve never had a problem. But I’m still keeping my eyes open for a proper affordable storage container. We also buy cheese in bulk, in block form. We’ve discovered that we can cut the cheese into smaller blocks and then freeze them, defrosting as needed. We mostly use the cheese for cooking and baking so I personally don’t know how it would be for eating. But my daughter and husband both eat mozzarella cheese by the handful and seem to think it tastes fine. This has saved us a lot of money over buying cheese in pre-shredded 2 cup bags. Don’t buy single serving items, just portion them out yourself.

I’m Doing My Best, But Jong’s Mother Madness Doesn’t Help

The recent article by Erica Jong in the Wall Street Journal titled Mother Madness has produced responses in every corner of the blogosphere. While I hesitate to add my own voice to the cacophony, I thought some of her assertions were worth commenting on. While Jong is clearly a talented writer, I question whether she really feels as strongly as her words claim. They make for a dramatic article but extreme opinions.

Whether you agree or disagree with women being primarily responsible for raising children, I think Jong has missed the real point. She claims that what she defines as the “noble savage” view of parenting punishes women, putting them in the prison of motherhood to satisfy some societal ideal of parenting. I’m not sure what she arguing for or against. When women do stay home they are in prison but it they are rich and have nannies to raise their kids instead they are selfish narcissists? Perhaps it isn’t having children that Jong has a problem with, just making it look easy. I guess I’ve never aspired to have the life of Madonna and Angelina Jolie. How they parent and whether it looks easy or requires vast quantities of money has never been my concern and never will be. But I can tell you that if you ever walk into my house unannounced, you will see the nitty gritty realities of parenting and not the airbrushed magazine version. Most people are intelligent enough to realize that real parenting is hard work, no matter what method you choose. When parents make their children just another status symbol or high priced accessory, it isn’t the women who lose, it is all of us. That doesn’t represent parenting.

Motherhood for those who chose it, is not a prison, it frees us to pursue the life of our choosing. No one has to have children. Some people decide they don’t want to. I’d sooner see people decide they don’t want to be parents then for children to be just another symbol of the ideal American lifestyle.

Jong presents attachment parenting as a luxury available only to the rich. While Jong grossly misrepresents attachment parenting, the other philosophies of breastfeeding and cloth diapering that she mentions are hardly specific to the rich. My husband and I make less than $40,000 a year. I hardly consider it poverty, but certainly not the kind of wealth Jong seems to think is necessary. We breastfeed and cloth diaper because we believe in the ideal but also because it is less expensive. Most of the natural parenting philosophies are less expensive so I don’t see the wealth Jong claims attachment parenting requires to be a prerequisite. I am a stay-at-home mother, but by choice, not because I am uneducated or inferior. It is cheaper for me to stay home than to keep working. But if I really didn’t want to be at home with my daughter, I wouldn’t be.

Not all of us are rich enough to have a nanny but we may still employ a village. My parents and sister live nearby. I don’t hire babysitters; my daughter always stays with family. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for us. I stay home with my daughter, because I want to, not because I must. I know other moms who chose to return to the workforce and put their children in daycare. That works for them, but not for me. Jong rants for two paragraphs about the necessity of raising a child as a member of a community but minimizes the role of mother and father. Mother and father will always be important to a child. Even if there is only one parent, children know their parents. When my daughter was a baby she was constantly being passed from relative to relative and I used to worry that she wouldn’t know who her parents were. But she always has. It probably helped that Mommy was the one with the milk, but even without that, children still know their parents.

Giving up your life for your child creates expectations that are likely to be thwarted as the child, inevitably, attempts to detach. Nor does such hyper-attentive parenting help children to become independent adults. Kids who never have to solve problems for themselves come to believe that they can’t solve problems themselves. Sometimes they fall apart in college.

I give up my life for my daughter now so that she will be able to be independent later. I don’t necessarily to subscribe to all of the tenants of attachment parenting, but I use those that do work for me. But I doubt that nurturing my newborn with lots of hugs and cuddles will teach her to a dependent adult. I would think that the reverse would be true and I’m sure if I searched hard enough I could find a study to support it. By making my child my priority while she is small, I’m teaching her that I’m here when she needs me. But I don’t need to stand over her. I may be home with her during the day but she still plays independently and she knows where help is when she needs it. John Rosemond once said “You should be the center of your child’s world, not the other way around.” I have other activities and interests besides my daughter, but my husband and I are the most important people in her life.

Indeed, although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?

 I can impact the world my daughter lives in and still be a good parent. Maybe I don’t have the time or the money to run for office or start a grassroots political movement, but I vote, I blog and I share important issues with the other mothers in my circle. I’m a member of a local MOPS group (Mothers of Preschoolers). Their slogan is Better Moms Make a Better World. I believe that by raising my daughter to be a responsible member of society and teaching her to contribute something to the world around her, I will make an impact on the world. This is true of all mothers regardless of whether they stay at home, work from home or work while their children are in day care. We all want to be the best parents we can be and raise our children to be the best they can be.

What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can’t get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers’ market. We can’t do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny’s every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities. Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child’s home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.

I think most parents want to be good parents and as with all things, we may aspire to a perfection that we will never attain. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, as long as we can accept our limitations. Yet I don’t see how trying to raise my daughter with my chosen parenting methods and values equals ignoring the bigger issues of the world around me. As Jong pointed out, those issues are out of my control. I may vote in the presidential election, but I can’t control whether the president starts a nuclear war. I am aware of the fact that I have limited control in this area, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring the big picture. Why obsess about things outside of my control in lieu of raising my child to the best of my ability? This is where my personal faith and values kick in. I have never believed that I am in control. I believe that ultimately God is in control. I take responsibility for the things that I have control of, but when I have done my best, I leave the rest in God’s hands.

When I share my own parenting choices, it has never been about producing guilt, but informing and educating. Women today have more options than ever. When a new mom tells me she wants to pursue a greener lifestyle or save money, I tell her about my cloth diaper experience, not to produce guilt, but to make her aware of options that will help promote her lifestyle of choice. When a mom who really wants to breastfeed is facing challenges I offer advice and assistance, not because I believe breastfeeding is the only way, but because I want to support her choice. The culture around us pulls us in all directions. Breast or Bottle, cloth diapers or disposables, home or day care, public, private or home school: the choices abound. Perhaps the only thing Jong said in her whole piece that I can agree with is that we are all indeed trying to do the best we can. There are no hard and fast rules, but to accept that we are responsible for another human life and put forth our best efforts accordingly. But unfortunately, Jong’s closing line is the antithesis of everything her article stands for. Yes, we should each be responsible to do our own research and make our own choices based on what is best for our own families, regardless of the newest trends or latest research. But I don’t consider 18 paragraphs attacking parenting practices to be a good example of this egalitarian parenting world she claims to aspire to.