Monday, July 7, 2014

When Mommy Works and Writes: Do or Don't Let It Go

I'm halfway through my fourth year of mothering while working two part-time jobs and writing a novel. Queen Elsa's hit song has been the perfect soundtrack to my life lately. (And that's a good thing, considering how little choice I have in the matter, whether at home or out in any public place!) It's clear by now that a woman can have a lot of things in life, just not all at once, and a woman can lean hard in any direction, but physics limits us to only one direction at a time. Summer and winter can't coexist; there's a season for everything. Blah blah blah.

Juggling this many responsibilities takes the courage to get creative and color outside the lines.

So what does it all mean in terms of specifically when a creatively powered lady needs to let go and when she needs to hold on tight? The complicated truth is that the sweet spot is in the center of a Venn diagram with many spheres of passion and obligation, and its dimensions are as personal and changeable as a mommy's body measurements--making Naked Lady Parties essential (read on). 

But I will go ahead and share my own lists. Keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules; there are always exceptions! Exceptions rule. But it's been important to me to find a new normal so that there are more happy surprises than disappointments.

What I've Let Go

Evenings

It's a constant challenge for us to accept (and try to get our friends and relatives to accept) that it is nearly impossible for us to do anything after work besides eat a light meal at home and go to bed. DaddyMan gets up at 4:00 a.m. to earn us some health insurance, so we normally hit the hay at 8:00. In our early and mid-twenties, in the era B.C. (Before Child), we could deal with sleep deprivation every weekend or so and do fun things after dark. But when you add in a constant level of sleep deprivation, plus a small child who goes all monkeypoop when you disrupt her bedtime ritual, and top it off with the economics of a good babysitter costing more than what we earn, these kinds of things (below) just aren't happening for us anymore. Breakfast and mimosas, anyone?



Entertaining

We used to LOVE throwing parties, complete with fancy treats, pounding playlists, bonfires, wood chopping contests, drinking, and staying up after dark. Most of the things we enjoyed doing with friends were hazardous or inappropriate for children. Now it's rough just having friends come over for a family-friendly visit. If they can hack their way through the weeds growing through the driveway and navigate through the toys and shoes and discarded underpants littering the floor (left in the wake of the child just seconds after I've picked up), I still have to deal with the humiliation of letting people see how I live these days. It's not as though I never let anyone inside anymore, but we have stopped offering to host parties and gatherings. I miss it, but I've also embraced the joys of letting someone else do it!

A tidy home

Cleanliness is important, but a neat and tidy home is something only ogre mothers are able to maintain. Not a moment goes by when my daughter is not building a tower out of bath products, dumping out a bucket of blocks, or covering the houseplant in stickers. All of her messy activities are creative and healthy and skill-building, and she moves faster than I do, so I've had to make friends with Discord, much like the magical friends on My Little Pony. (Oh yeah, I wasn't even going to mention giving up adult-oriented TV shows, but those are out of the question too. Obviously.)

Vegetable gardening

This is going to be a great activity to do with a kindergartener. I keep telling myself that.

Composting and recycling at home

I am ashamed to admit that it's become too hard to make those weekly trips to the recycling center. And on years when I'm not growing vegetables, the task of keeping compostable scraps in a container in plain view in the kitchen (because out of sight would mean we forget to take it out back) is just... no. Nux Gallica is constantly on the search for "ingredients" to "cook" and feed to her troll dolls in between art house weedwhacker haircuts. Recycling and composting are going to be great things to teach a kindergartener. I keep telling myself that.

Jewelry, makeup, and nail polish

Unless they are part of dress-up and sharing time with the child, it is not reasonable to expect that I can apply makeup, put on dangly or interesting accessories, or do my nails and be able to leave the house with my look intact. I've invested in cooler glasses and high quality skin care products so I can confidently leave the house looking nice, if not fancy.

Travel

There is a magical window of time when a baby is about as low-maintenance as a dog you can carry in a purse, and under-twos can fly in your lap for free. Outside of that magical window, forget it. Every hellish odyssey is either coming straight out of the child's education fund or racking up credit card debt. Being a tourist in your hometown isn't a bad idea, especially if you have babysitting relatives or friends around.

45-minute home workouts

My daughter's attention span for mommy working out is approximately five minutes, while her enthusiasm for playing with a yoga mat, free weights, or any other exercise equipment is limitless. Especially if I am using it. Children are like cats times a thousand in terms of throwing their bodies on top of whatever interests you at the moment. So my exercise routine has become play-based. A good day consists of 40 minutes light cardio (walking to and from the playground pushing a Burley bike trailer converted to stroller) with jungle gym strength training and parkour in the middle.


What I Will Not Let Go

Very basic hygiene

I've learned some shortcuts to keeping myself and my daughter AND her toys clean, such as taking mother/daughter/plastic toy baths. My favorite head-to-toe skin-and-hair baby wash, Shea Moisture with marula oil, has powerful anti-aging properties for Mama. Don't tell anyone, but I've found that unless I get real down and dirty, I can get by with just one proper shower/shampoo a week if I share evening baths with Nux Gallica, the My Little Ponies, and the synchronized swimmer Barbies. Baby lotion and rash balms are also great products to share. I never would have found this out on my own. Thanks for sharing, Nux!

Healthy meals

See a pattern here? Health comes first. Being sick has become a more frequent and more life-disrupting occurrence now that we live with a person who has the personal habits of a three-year-old and hangs out with other three-year-olds. Because I'm still nursing this boob-ravenous, kindergartener-sized, vampire creature, illnesses pass through her quickly but leave me looking like a dried up Olsen twin for weeks. Cooking meals and planning healthy snacks is a challenge, but it's essential for me to function--and it's setting her up for a lifetime of naturally healthy habits and the appreciation of simple pleasures, like shelling fresh peas and eating them raw. Crunch crunch!

Partner intimacy 

It's so important for me to remember to give my husband a hug, kiss on the cheek, or shoulder rub at least once a day. Physical affection and intimacy are sporadic and lacking on spontaneity these days, and that is okay as long as there are small moments of connection each day. (This statement is not endorsed by my husband.) The love is being shared among three people now, with one person receiving 98% of the love. Pre-baby levels of romance are unrealistic during early childhood (the hardest time span in the average marriage). It's vital to hold onto a little something that requires the child to be on the other side of a locked door.

Writing time

Though my creative writing time has been reduced to about five hours a week (including blogging, group discussions, critique of others' work, and research), I hold fast to my quota just to keep skin in the game. My monthly writing group is a literary life raft keeping me afloat between childbirth and elementary school. I think of this time in metaphors like seed germination or hibernation. My writing practice hasn't ended or stopped developing, but it's okay--and even beneficial--for it to be quiet and slow for a set period of time. I call it slowductivity.

Learning and trying new things

My foreign film and language software habits have been seriously compromised, but that doesn't mean I can't learn a few new things while taking Nux out for educational experiences. We've been to many programs at the library, science and history museums, zoo, and local festivals learning about Vikings, fungus, robotics, birds, dinosaurs, coal mining, and our local community. It might be just enough to keep my mommy brain from atrophying, but I'll take it. Low-pressure learning and exploration get me in touch with my inner child while building Nux's curiosity about her world.

Fun and friendship

Celebrating every holiday, from the reverent to the cheesy, is a must for a young family. Celebrations are the meat of memory. We love baking cookies for birthday parties, putting up simple but fun decorations, and connecting with family for every special occasion. And when friends or family travel from out of town, playing with them takes precedence over every chore and non-mandatory obligation. These are the days that make life worth living!


It's also good for Mommy to get out once or twice a year (on top of my monthly writing group meetings, of course!) for ladies-only fun. Bonus points if the event saves me money instead of costing a wad. Cocktail nights have been exchanged for things like morning Naked Lady Parties! My friend Duff of Jean Jean Vintage hosted a super fun gathering earlier this summer for a big group of local moms. We dropped off our spawns with relatives for a couple hours to meet up at her house, share homemade treats, and trade clothing that has gotten too big/small/fancy/casual/trendy/dull for our ever-changing bodies and lifestyles. Our waists expand and contract, our breasts swell and shrink, we go back to work or stay at home, we pick up new interests and drop outgrown habits, and our wardrobe needs change. I love these parties, because I can get rid of a heap of clothes that don't fit or excite me anymore and bring home a sack of great, new-to-me clothes for free! Better yet, it's two hours jam-packed with laughter, catching up with busy mom friends, and making new acquaintances on a similar life journey. I come home clothed in warm fuzzies as well as fresh fashions.

Flexibility

And we come full-circle, because flexibility is the ability to let go of something to make room for something else. It's what keeps working-writing-parenting folks from breaking apart at the seams.

So, working and writing people, what have you let go since having a child? What do you hold tight?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Films for the Girl Who Likes to Be Scared

"I like to be scared" comes out of Nux Gallica's mouth as often as "I like to be cold like Queen Elsa," or, quoting Frozen's hit song, "The cold never bothered me anyway" (usually in response to me trying to wrestle a jacket onto her before we go outside). This is the three-year-old with a film buff uncle who claims her favorite movies are Ghostbusters and Spiderman (the Tobey Maguire version) and proves it by demonstrating that she has memorized the dialog. This is the child with the imagination that leads her to fret at bedtime, "There's a monster under the bed," only to be comforted by my assurance, "Don't worry, the ghost in the corner will take care of it." "You mean the nice ghost with the spider on its head?" she whispers. I nod, and she snuggles into the covers and drifts sweetly to sleep.

To the lion at the zoo, Nux Gallica said, "Pooh pooh!"

Nux is not the next Wednesday Addams. She loves pink and purple, sparkles, hearts, Barbies, princess dresses, and My Little Pony. It's just that she also loves the thrill of pretend-scary things.

So last weekend, I took her to a movie theater for the very first time, to watch Maleficent. To be honest, the trailer made me concerned that the movie might be too scary for a three-year-old. But Nux pleaded with me. As my mother-in-law has pointed out, she is a master negotiator. "I like to be scared," she insisted. And: "Maleficent is just a nice mommy lady in a costume pretending to be scary." (When I read her a tabloid article as a bedtime story on vacation last week, I didn't realize it was so educational.)

Maleficent was thoroughly enjoyed by all (me, Nux, and her Nonna), and Nux even called (out loudly, to my chagrin) a couple of plot twists before they happened. Talk about pattern recognition--this kid has only seen a handful of Disney films. (Now that's what I call scary.) If you haven't yet seen the magnificent retake on Disney's Sleeping Beauty, here's a fun review by a mother who had an extra-special experience watching the movie with her child.

I liked the way Disney came through with a tightly woven plot made up of reshuffled elements of the tale, using an old literary/traditional version of the sexually/romantically spurned, vengeful fairy to ask the question, "Why did the villain do this evil thing?" To be honest, I was also relieved that the angle Disney used, which was glorious and made for some awesome movie images, veered completely off from from the angle I'm using in my literary novel retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale (not the Disney movie but the folk tale). Instead of asking "why" about the bad fairy's actions in my book, I go back further: Did the "bad fairy" even place the curse, or was it the girl's own father? Was the fairy bad? Was she a fairy? Was a magical woman even present at the christening, or was she invented or used as a scapegoat? I've been working on my manuscript for several years, so needless to say, I felt deep relief that Disney chose a different path. And that's the beauty of folk tales--there is a nearly infinite array of versions and interpretations for each tale, allowing for many diverse, interesting and delicious retellings.

There were, of course, trailers for other movies shown before Maleficent, including one for The Book of Life, which Nux thought looked good.



My "cultural misappropriation" antennae went up immediately upon seeing this ancient religious and cultural tradition used as the premise of a mainstream U.S. film, but I did notice that many actual Mexican people are involved in the voices and filmmaking. Hmmm, perhaps I will let Nux's Tia Esperanza screen this movie first, if she's interested, and give her opinion on whether it is too problematic. My hunch is that with some conversation about stereotypes and cultural differences, it will probably be okay. Day of the Dead is an important tradition in my household and at my church, though the way we do it in the Midwest is a bit different from the way Tia's family does it in Mexico. In any case, with a child of Nux's social norm absorption level, I'm much more concerned with stereotypes than scariness here--but wow, this movie sure looks pretty, doesn't it?

Speaking of sheer beauty in children's film, we are also giddy to discover that the creators of one of Nux's all-time favorite movies, The Secret of Kells, will soon release a second film, Song of the Sea! The European company's next animated masterpiece (I have high expectations) is a story of selkies.


Already, Nux wants me to play this trailer repeatedly so she can hear the beautiful music, which echoes the eerie, haunting melody of what she calls the "ghost kitty song" sung by her idol, the "fairy wolf" in The Secret of Kells.

It sure is fun to be the mommy of a girl who loves movies and likes to be scared!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Rethinking Pink for a Blueberry Girl

Score one for Pinkie Pie. A few months back, I wrote a post about pinkwashing and the obnoxious overgendering of children's products. I still stand by the obnoxiousness of children's marketing, but I am learning that raising a well-rounded child allows for a little bit of revelry in popular culture without harm.


Last weekend, my daughter hung out with Cinderella (and a crowd of other Disney princesses) and did not get eaten. Nux Gallica and I, together, dressed from head to toe in blinding shades of pink and sparkly things and clickety-clackety high heels and attended a fairy tale princess party at a corporate chain store packed with Disney princess paraphernalia. And after I not only allowed my daughter to indulge in the pinkest and sparkliest of dress-up clothes but also wore a matching outfit and read the barf-inducing book Pinkalicious to her in the store, she made the following choices:

1. What would you like painted on your face? "A rainbow!"
2. At the arts and crafts table, would you like to make a fairy wand, a princess crown, a knight's shield, or a dragon mask? "A dragon mask!" (Hers was the only one and had no pink on it.)
3. What would you like Nonna to buy you from the children's section? "Spiderman stickers!"

Like a true modern princess, Nux whipped off her high-heeled pink sparkle shoes before the end of the event and changed into Elmo Crocs. She had a great time frolicking about as a pink fairy princess AND didn't let that hold her back from enjoying other colors, monsters, and superheroes. I was so proud!

sticker application by Nux Gallica; photograph by Nux Gallica

I believe that pink is like sugar. A cupcake is delightful, celebratory, and fun. It reminds us of the sweetness of childhood and of luxury and whimsy. A cupcake is not inherently evil. But four cupcakes a day just might usher in diabetes, infections, inflammation, rotten teeth, cancer, and premature death. Talk about a poisoned apple! The World Health Organization now tells us that healthy, lightly active women such as myself should ingest no more than 25 grams of "free sugars" each day. For someone whose lifestyle is steeped in processed food, this sounds impossible. A can of soda has 40 grams. An average American might easily ingest half of that in a plate of spaghetti made with sauce from a jar. But if you eat homemade or whole foods, or at least foods with no processed sugar, for every meal and snack of the day, you can also have an ice cream cone without risking your health.

In a culture that packs added sugars and artificial sweeteners into most processed and restaurant food, it is difficult to eat healthily without constantly staying vigilant. The same goes for crappy gender messages in children's advertising. Nux Gallica loves Disney movies, but her favorite movies that she watches repeatedly and has memorized are Ghostbusters and Spiderman with Tobey Maguire. (I'm not proud of the fact that I let her uncle show her PG-13 movies, but I am a little proud of her atypical preferences. Is that naughty?)

At the library, I have gritted my teeth and allowed her to rent a few Barbie movies. In light of my research on medieval European slavery, the infantilized/sexualized figure of Barbie has developed new depth for me. In early and high medieval times, Europe's economy was fueled by slavery. The most valued slaves were child sex slaves, and the finest child sex slaves were blondes. Blondes were thought to be stupid and malleable, and children of any coloration were vulnerable and also attractive because they generally had most of their teeth and hadn't yet started to look like rotting corpses (unlike stale old folks in their late teens and twenties). So to come from that horrific research and watch videos of a coltish, blonde, very pinkly made-up young woman with a high-pitched voice and feminine affectations going on adventures and saving the day (very rarely involving romance or being rescued by a man) looks strangely like the empowerment of youth and women. A positive message I can take away from this is that no matter how sexy, young, feminine, and sparkly a woman is, these qualities take nothing away from her worth or power.

It has made me rethink many criticisms of the infantilization of women in children's media. Now, I understand perfectly well how portraying adults as children to belittle them is wrong. But in media designed for little girls, there might be some true value in showing adult figures (or cartoon animals or robots or whatever) with exaggerated childlike and girly features who also have exaggerated powers, skills, and confidence.

In any case, as with nutrition (and investing and lots of other parallel systems), I feel that diversity is a safe bet. So I encourage Nux to watch, read, experience, and discuss lots of very diverse subject matter. For every episode of Barbie, there's a Jane and the Dragon. We learn that girly girls can be powerful and that "tomboys" are just as perfect as any pretty princess. Of course, we talk critically about the things we watch and read together. I'm trying to say "and" more than "or." Nothing forbidden... and no alternative possibility neglected. It's more fun AND it makes me think harder!

At bedtime, we often read the book Blueberry Girl (written by Neil Gaiman for Tori Amos when she was pregnant with her daughter Tash). It is a celebration of girlhood and womanhood that is beautiful, poignant, and wise. The illustrations show a diverse array of girls moving through fantastical landscapes, and as I turn the pages, Nux likes to point and shout, "That's me! That's me! That's me!" She is the blonde girl, the black girl, the redhead, the pair of rainbow-colored hands. She is a baby sprouting from a blueberry blossom ("I am the one who's awake") and a teenager and a bump inside her mama. She is, as the book says, "all these and a little bit more," and I hope to help her retain that sense of complexity and flow as she grows up.

As Nux grows into a bright, healthy child with diverse interests--superheroes, vintage Duplos, National Geographic magazines, My Little Pony, sports, math problems, gardening, bugs--I have learned to relax and enjoy the occasional indulgence in the pinker things in life.