The Power of Mom Friends

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Jumping sunset poses not necessary, but highly encouraged.

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Being a mom is a heavy task, and when you step back and really think about the daunting responsibility you have of not messing someone up entirely, it’s enough to send you straight to your wine shelf. Really, you–yeah, yeah, and your partner and community–are responsible for the outcome of a human being. Think about it: the power to turn your child into a total dick is right at your fingertips.

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but all that considered, it’s no wonder even the calmest of moms is occasionally riddled with anxiety and guilt. For the number of Super Bowl champs who say they first and foremost need to thank their mothers, there are even more sociopaths who blame theirs for their problems. I’m not saying my son will turn out like Norman Bates or anything–my God, I would not look good stuffed–but the possibilities of his future personality are endless.

It’s times like this, when I find myself going down an irrational rabbit hole, that I am particularly thankful for my mom friends. You know the ones I’m talking about: the friends who justify your neuroses, pull your head out of your ass, and bring some friggin’ levity back into your life.

I hate to categorize friends in this way, sticking them in the oft-dreaded ‘mom’ bucket, but I’ve found that there’s really no better term for the kind of person I mean. Simply put, a real mom friend is not just a fellow mom you call to schedule play dates; a real mom friend is someone with whom you can commiserate and share your greatest parenting fears and victories. Non-mom friends can certainly lend a sympathetic ear, but I’ve yet to meet a non-mom friend who can comfortably discuss baby poop, much less casually over lunch.

What does it mean to be a mom friend? Let me count the ways.

A mom friend will…

  1. Convince you that your baby won’t develop body dysmorphia because you think it’s fun to use Snapchat filters on him.
  2. Never ask you to do jumping jacks because she knows that no amount of kegels will prevent you from peeing yourself a little (or a lot).
  3. Drink a glass of wine in solidarity after you text her the word “poo-pocalypse.”
  4. Encourage you to keep watching HBO in front of your baby because it’s highly unlikely he understands the concepts of sex or violence yet. And that Jane the Virgin is actually educational what with the exposure to Spanish and all.
  5. Concur that it’s totally normal to shower every two days and wear yoga pants exclusively.
  6. Hear you utter the words “I’ve got a sausage in my pocket” and appreciate that you brought a snack instead of judging you for your sexual euphemisms.
  7. Agree that it’s prudent and not at all absurd to have a zombie apocalypse plan.
  8. Talk with you for 45 minutes about your nipples without batting an eyelash.
  9. Be so well-acquainted with your labor and delivery story that she probably knows your vagina more intimately than most of your sexual partners combined.
  10. Assure you that the dirt your baby just fisted into his mouth is an efficient and all-natural alternative to a probiotic and a multi-vitamin.
  11. Offer to watch your baby when you feel the need to be literally anywhere but with said baby.
  12. Remind you that there’s really no such thing as an “overachieving” baby and that they all develop at different paces.
  13. Help you weigh the pros and cons of going back to work and support your decision no matter the path you choose.
  14. Have a meaningful conversation with you about politics, religion, and the scary world we live in because she respects you and reserves judgment even when she has different opinions.
  15. Open up to you as much as you open up to her.

Most importantly, a mom friend will lament with you, listen to you, or give you a hug when you’re feeling sad, guilty, happy, or all three (read: postpartum hormones). A lot like a spouse, I suppose, a mom friend will love and support you in the good times and the bad.

So let’s all rejoice in our mom friendships! Being there for your fellow mom during what can sometimes be a serious and isolating experience is something to be celebrated and cherished. And, really, who can better understand how hilarious it is to watch your baby get stuck in a hamper?

 

Mindfulness & the Great No Phone Zone Experiment

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According to a 2010 Harvard study, we humans spend almost half our time letting our minds wander (46.9% to be exact). Whether we’re thinking about the past, the future, or an entirely fabricated alternate reality, we are not thinking about what we are currently doing. Researchers also found that “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness” in that a “wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

I personally find this to be true. Hell, even in the ten minutes that I’ve had my computer open to write this post, I’ve felt distracted for at least eight of those and subsequently feel both anxious and frustrated.

Mindfulness has been a buzzword for the past few years, so it’s likely you’ve heard of it. Though I’m sure there are varying definitions of the term, to me, mindfulness means being present–in the now, not focused on past or future. Or basically the exact opposite of the mind-wandering described above.

In my extremely unqualified opinion, it makes sense that we’re hardwired to have wandering minds. In some ways, it’s likely helped us survive. We need to think about past mistakes so we don’t make them again just as much as we need to identify future potential pitfalls so we don’t fall into them. With so much to think about, it’s no wonder some of those anxieties and preoccupations seep into our present consciousness. And while mind-wandering occurs regardless of activity, it also seems like a great coping mechanism for life’s more difficult times; if you’re not focused on what you currently face, it probably seems less real, enabling you to endure more easily.

I also fully believe that today’s technology contributes to our mind-wandering. It certainly contributes to our shortening attention spans. Having the entire world at our fingertips at all times is simultaneously a wonder and a burden. It allows us to capture some of life’s most precious moments, call for help in an emergency, and connect with friends around the globe. At the same time, however, it can feel suffocating, like we must be available and responsive at all times of day and night.

I’m reluctant to admit that my phone spends more time with me than anything, including any person. It’s hard to argue against having it on hand entirely, but as time goes on and I find myself turning to check my phone in less than five-minute intervals, I’m forced to concede that my behavior has become obsessive and unhealthy. I never used to be quite so connected. At work, my phone would sit on my desk all day, but I’d only check it randomly (having the computer at my disposal instead, which is arguably not any better). However, once Baby Bear was born and I was breastfeeding an uncommunicative and sleeping infant for hours on end, my phone became my lifeline to the outside world. I turned to it to help me connect to other mothers, catch up with friends and family, browse social media, read, or choose my next Netflix binge (Jane the Virgin, for the win). Well, with enough time and practice, my brain rewired itself to form a new neural pathway and I was left with a bad habit.

Try as I might, I have not been able to break it. After just mentioning the title of this post to my mom and husband, I received an incredulous stare and a snide “Wow, you’d fail that challenge.”

This is the opposite of the reputation I want! Please don’t let me be that person! We all know the one who checks her phone all the time, ignoring life going on right in front her. I resent that person for not wanting to engage and feel hurt that she values her phone more than she values my company. But, to my absolute horror, I have become this person too.

I cherish my friends and don’t want them to think I don’t care about what they have to say. I love my family and don’t want them to feel like they are unimportant to me. I cannot even describe the depth of my feelings for my baby and fear that he will grow up feeling that I don’t care. It wrings my heart to think that I’ve missed some of his cute and beseeching expressions as I’ve blankly stared at my little rectangular screen.

I justify it by saying that I’m reading (I’m often using my Kindle app), or that I want it nearby in case of an emergency or to take pictures, but in reality I think it just makes me feel anxious to be without it. I’ve grown addicted to my phone. I couldn’t care less about Facebook or Instagram, but I check them both probably 15 times a day. I swipe my phone to look at the time and couldn’t even tell you what it is just seconds later. I worry every day that this addiction makes Baby Bear feel that he is less valuable to me than some inconsequential device.

And all this time I’m spending on my phone? It means I’m not focused on the present. I’m not focused on the moment–what I’m doing, what Baby Bear is doing, or what’s happening around me. For example, I finished a book on my phone this weekend while on a walk through a beautiful park with the babe. It was a gorgeous, end-of-summer day; the birds were chirping, the sun felt warm against my skin, and I took it for granted by focusing on something as unimportant as a subpar romance novel.

I recognize that I won’t get that time back, but I have decided to be proactive about changing the behavior to come back to the present.

Mindfulness Exercises

When I find myself focused on my phone, or just generally overwhelmed with anxiety and thereby not focused on the present (since anxiety really lives in the future), here’s how I plan to reel it back in.

Step 1: Focus on my breathing

Simply put, I will stop what I am doing and take a few deep breaths, treating them like a simple reset button.

Step 2: Ground myself

I will put my feet on the floor and feel the ground beneath my heels and toes. Literally grounding myself will allow me to start focusing on my current surroundings.

Step 3: Take in all five senses

I will become consciously aware of what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. If my anxiety is high enough, I will do the five-to-one countdown; that is, I will list five things I see, four things I hear, etc. Including detailed descriptions of the things around me will help me stay even more focused on the present.

Step 4: Repeat a simple mantra

If needed, I will slowly repeat a simple and relaxing phrase, like “I am calm and relaxed.” An abbreviated version of autogenic training, this technique has been proven to help practitioners start to feel what they repeat. If I’m still feeling anxious after steps one, two, and three, this will continue to help me relax and focus on the present.

No Phone Zone

The above exercises will help me feel re-centered and more in tune to what is going on around me, but I don’t want to stop there. Without beating myself up too much about it if I “fail,” I’d like to start enacting a no phone zone policy during certain times of the day when I am most ashamed of my phone addiction. My hope is that starting small will be the first step to a successful phone addiction recovery.

Meals

Embarrassingly, I have started to read on my phone during meals. I typically read the news over breakfast and a book at lunch. Luckily Papa Bear calls me out if I do this at dinner, but I hate feeling like I have to hide my phone from a child. No more!

Afternoons with Baby Bear

As referenced above, I’m not proud that I look at my phone as much as I do when I’m alone with the baby. It’s not like I’m not watching or interacting with him at all, but I still hate to look down and see him looking for my reaction. From now on, I will leave my phone in the other room when we’re playing at home.

Accountability

Like any journey, I’m sure there will be bumps along the way. Stepping back from my phone will not happen overnight, especially because it is an incredibly useful tool much of the time. However, my hope is that by sharing this here and being more mindful, I will eventually come to depend on it, and other anxiety coping mechanisms, less. In turn, I hope that my wandering mind will be more easily focused and I will feel more positive and engaged overall.

I ask that you help me on this path and (gently) remind me when I stray. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from being more aware of what is in front of us. Take the challenge with me!

 

Baby Bear’s Favorite Children’s Books Part II

We just completed Rahm’s Little Readers, the Chicago Public Library’s summer reading program that challenges kids to read at least 500 minutes between June and September. In addition to reading, participants must complete two activities from each of the following categories: talking, singing, writing, and playing. Technically speaking, Baby Bear doesn’t write yet–or talk or sing much, for that matter–but luckily for him, his Mama Bear had some crayons and a strong grip to force his hand.

Nonetheless, when you read for at least 500 minutes, you end up repeating a lot of the same books. It’s necessary, then, to find books you, the reader, genuinely enjoy as much as your babe.

The following books are among our favorite right now, be it for their illustrations, text, and/or interactivity. Take a look and maybe you’ll find your next favorite, too! (See part one for more ideas.)

Another Short List

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
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It’s only fitting that the first book on this list is a nod to one of the very things this blog’s name references. Eric Carle is undeniably one of the most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators of all time (he’s 87 now!). Fun fact of the day: Brown Bear was a collaboration. It was this book that actually kicked off his career in 1967, followed by the arguably more famous The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969.

Baby Bear and I started reading Brown Bear mostly because liked it so much, but before long, I noticed that he’d reach for it on his own. He seems captivated by Carle’s signature bright and blocky illustrations (much to my chagrin, he wiggles in excitement every time we land on the damned purple cat) and eagerly turns the pages to see which animal is next. What’s especially fun is when he points along on the last spread as we recap all of the animals.

Curious George Pat-A-Cake!

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Curious George Pat-A-Cake! by H.A. Rey
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Who wouldn’t love Curious George in finger puppet form? Baby Bear sure does, and has been grabbing George’s little monkey hands for as long as he’s known how to move his own.

With five brightly colored pages of pat-a-cake rhymes, from the classic “baker’s man” verse to an appropriately themed “yellow hat man” one, babies can’t help but to smile and clap along. This is a great diversion book, too, having stopped at least a few crying fits in this household.

My First Slide-Out Book of Colors

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My First Slide-Out Book of Colors written by Early Start Editors and illustrated by Abdi Moshiri
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No, the text in this one isn’t exactly Newbery material, but it’s straight-forward and easy for even the youngest listeners to understand. Each page shows a color followed by two objects of that color. A third object is shown in black and white until the reader pulls out its corresponding tab and its color is revealed. For example, “This is the color yellow. The chick is yellow. The taxi is yellow. What color is the banana?” When you pull out the tab, you learn that the banana is yellow! Good job; you’re getting the hang of it!

Just recently, Baby Bear has become a little obsessed with pulling out and pushing in each tab. Every time we read it, he is engrossed to the point where he actually wants to flip it back and start over. At this pace, this kid is going to know his colors early!

What I also like about the book is that it contains ideas for the reader to encourage more interaction so the book won’t grow stale. The orange page suggests pointing to and discussing each image in addition to talking about the color (e.g., “What do you do with a carrot?”). It’s always helpful to have new ideas like this.

Where Is the Green Sheep? / ¿Dónde está  la oveja verde? 

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Where Is the Green Sheep? / ¿Dónde está la oveja verde? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek, translated by Carlos E. Calvo
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We have quite a few bilingual books, but this one is my favorite. Depending on how long I need to or can occupy Baby Bear, I typically read it all the way through in one language, then start over in the other. The illustrations are simple yet whimsical. The sheep in the story aren’t just any old boring sheep, either. There’s a sheep in the bath, a Singin’ in the Rain sheep, a surfing sheep, and even an astronaut sheep! “Here is the wind sheep. And here is the wave sheep. Here is the scared sheep, and here is the brave sheep. But where is the green sheep?” or “Esta oveja juega con el viento. Y esta oveja juega con las olas. Esta oveja está asustada y esta oveja es valiente. ¿Pero, dónde está la oveja verde?”

My only complaint about the book is that the English version rhymes but the Spanish one does not. While I appreciate a straight translation, I would prefer the content to be changed slightly enough to make both versions equally fun to read aloud. Either way, this one is in our diaper bag at all times.

Peekaboo Kisses

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Peekaboo Kisses by Barney Saltzberg
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As you can tell, Baby Bear is really starting to enjoy interacting with his books. This one is a particular favorite because it has the baby trifecta: flaps to lift, textures to touch, and a mirror at the end.

Each page begins with, “Peekaboo! I see…” along with a picture of an animal hiding behind its hands. The reader must lift the flap to reveal what animal is hiding and what kind of kisses it offers. For example, “Peekaboo! I see…furry puppy kisses.” As a bonus, said furry puppy has a nice, soft patch of purple fur for baby to feel.

Babies pick up on rituals, and, as such, Baby Bear has started to preemptively cover his eyes/forehead before each new page. It’s adorable.

Quick as a Cricket

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Quick as a Cricket written by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood
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Baby Bear received this book for his first birthday, and it’s quickly become one of my personal favorites to read to him. Self-described as a “joyful celebration of self-awareness,” Quick as a Cricket uses contradictory animal similes and beautiful illustrations to capture the many dimensions and colorful imaginations of children. My favorite stanza (and corresponding imagery) is, “I’m as brave as a tiger, I’m as shy as a shrimp, I’m as tame as a poodle, I’m as wild as a chimp.” Plus, Baby Bear’s version came with a cool personalized touch: his aunt wrote the Spanish translation on each page. Thanks, Aunt B!

Little Blue Truck

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Little Blue Truck written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry
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I mean it when I say that Little Blue Truck is a great read for children and adults alike. It’s short enough for Baby Bear to stay engaged but long enough to develop a thoughtful arc about the old golden rule and contains language that’s extremely fun to read aloud.

“Little Blue Truck came down the road. ‘Beep!’ said Blue to a big green toad. Toad said, ‘Croak!’ and winked an eye when Little Blue Truck went rolling by.” You’ve no choice but to enhance your animal noise skills if you read this enough.

I also enjoy this book for its illustrations, which evoke in me a Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia for the countryside I didn’t know I had.

LMNO Peas

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LMNO Peas by Keith Baker
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I’m passionate about this book because it is exceptionally playful and creative, an alphabet book like no other. Perhaps the most talented and diverse group of peas in existence scatter across these pages to teach kids the ABCs.

“We are peas–alphabet peas! We work and play in the ABCs. We’re acrobats, artists, and astronauts in space. We’re builders, bathers, and bikers in a race.”

Not only are these fun rhymes to say aloud, but the illustrations are surprisingly detailed and clever, too. Who would have thought two peas roasting marshmallows could be so cute? In what is an outwardly simplistic book, I find something new and equally entertaining each time we read it. This book earns a Baby Brown Bear Golden Star.

More Books, Please!

At some point in the near future, I may need to admit to a slight children’s book hoarding problem, but I’m not there yet! What are your favorite children’s books?

 

On-the-Go Egg Muffins

Convenience is paramount in this household. Well, food and convenience both, which is why these egg muffins continue to be a hit. This bulk breakfast recipe is healthy, easy, and filling. It can be customized to satisfy anyone, and even appeals to Baby Bear’s palate. After you realize just how simple these are, you’ll no longer have an excuse for a boring grab-and-go breakfast.

Egg Muffins

I like to make this recipe on Sunday night so we have breakfast for the full week ahead. It takes about 30 minutes.

Ingredients

The best part of this recipe is that, with the exception of the base ingredient of eggs, you can mix and match whatever ingredients you have in your fridge. Try it out with your own favorite meats and/or veggies and/or cheeses. This is simply an example based on what I already had available.

  • 9 eggs (if I’m making a meatless version, I’ll use a whole dozen)
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 handful baby spinach leaves
  • 1 handful Mexican cheese mix
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper, diced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Red chili flakes to taste

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the ground meat over medium heat in a large skillet.

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Grab the rest of your ingredients. Throw them all into a large mixing bowl. This includes a couple dashes of salt, pepper, and red chili flakes.

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Once the meat is done cooking, mix it into the bowl as well.

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Lightly oil a muffin pan.

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Use a serving spoon to carefully scoop the egg mixture into the muffin cups, leaving just a little room at the top. If needed, use a second muffin pan or make two batches.

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Throw the muffin pan in the oven. Cook for roughly 15 to 18 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out without residue.

Enjoy a nice glass of wine while the egg muffins are baking. Unless you’re cooking these in the morning, of course, in which case you may want to stick to O.J. (with or without a touch of champagne).

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Remove the pan from the oven and let cool.

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Carefully extract the egg muffins.

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For maximum on-the-go breakfast convenience, place them in individual sandwich bags before putting them in the refrigerator. If you’re extra hungry in the morning (like me), I suggest putting one and a half or two muffins together.

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Guten Appetit!

On Raising My Baby in Chicago

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Baby Brown Bear was born in the city of Chicago. His first year of life was spent living in the city of Chicago, and it is here that I plan to raise him for an indeterminate amount of time. I feel like I express this regularly, even going so far as to loudly sing the city praises for all it has to offer my son, and yet I am often asked when I plan to move.

To be fair, I do talk about, and have seriously considered, moving to other cities. I love adventure, and traveling to other places ignites my wanderlust and makes me wonder what life would be like somewhere else. I find most of the places I visit to be very agreeable; there’s hardly anywhere I can’t see myself living even for just for a short amount of time. I’m not saying we won’t move. I’m just saying I’m not ready for it yet and the constant incredulity I receive about actually liking it here is becoming a little trite.

What makes it rather irksome is that it’s not people asking us when we’re going to uproot to a different metro area; it’s people asking us when we are moving to the suburbs. Or basically, asking us why we’d want to continue to raise Baby Bear in a big city, specifically this one.

“Chicago is so dangerous. When are you moving to the suburbs?”

To that, I have a few canned responses, but I usually try to convey lighthearted indifference while I brush off the question with a meek smile. Depending on my mood, though, the person asking might very well get an eye roll accompanied by a tired and sarcastic diatribe.

It is a fully American assumption that people who breed will want to immediately expand their square footage along with their family head count. Don’t get me wrong, I love big, quiet backyards, and appreciate the smell of freshly cut grass that isn’t tainted by the smell of bus exhaust. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and loved it. (I’m not being sarcastic now, either. I really did love it.) My schools were among the best in the state, the extracurriculars in which I participated were top notch, the community to which I was exposed was safe and caring. My suburb in particular was even pretty well diversified in terms of race, religion, and sexual orientation. I am proud of my hometown and my upbringing.

Yes, the suburbs would be a great place to raise Baby Bear. I don’t deny it. But I also don’t like that people assume it’s the only good option.

I suppose I can see how they would. Like many other issues, it’s sometimes hard to think that other ways of doing things might work better for different people. Everyone needs to weigh their own pros and cons for decisions like how and where to raise their children. When we feel positive about the decisions we make, it’s natural for us to think other people would benefit from those same choices. Voicing these opinions doesn’t make us bad neighbors or friends, but rather means we care. We want other people to be happy and feel positive, too.

The case for or against the city of Chicago is especially loaded. It’s not for nothing that some people think we should move.

Chiefly, our safety is a little more at risk here. There’s a lot of crime right now, constantly making headlines. In blanket, city-wide terms, it isn’t what I’d call the safest place. And while most of the violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that are not where we live or frequent, the occasional shooting does happen not too far away and, I’m not going to lie, it freaks me out. My heart breaks for the innocent lives taken each day and seizes in terror at the idea of anything similar happening to my family. But you know what? Bad things happen everywhere. I’m not using that as an excuse, and it certainly isn’t to justify the crime, but no ground is too sacred and no place is immune to destruction. It’s arguably what human beings are best at, and have been for centuries.

All that said, however, I’d argue that another of mankind’s most remarkable abilities is to bridge together to form supportive communities. For as many rotten apples as there may be, I think big cities show better than anywhere else how many millions of good ones there are too, ready and willing to help those around them. Yes, we have to be careful and make sure we’re aware of our surroundings, but I do believe that we’re largely surrounded by people with the capacity to love, protect, and aid. We cannot stop living life because we are afraid.

Another reason people question our decision to stay in the city with a baby is simply due to the lack of space that comes along with apartment living. Given that our previous apartment had around 600 square feet, you can imagine how palatial our current place feels with about 1,200. Plus, with two bedrooms, one may argue it’s downright luxurious. As I like to remind everyone who asks, literally billions of people around the world live in apartments, many of them smaller than ours, and sometimes with many more children!

Sure, babies do seem to acquire an enormous amount of things, many even before they are born. I registered for a lot of it, but I continue to be surprised at the stuff Baby Brown Bear seems to “need.” I’ll save my own registry opinions for another post, but suffice it to say you don’t really need all that much to get by.

Babies are pretty simple folk. As many toys as we have (and enjoy), Baby Brown Bear is mostly drawn to non-toys like dog bones, coolers, and pretty much anything else he’s not supposed to touch. With the help of some cute storage shelves from Target, we’re able to stuff a lot of his odds and ends into boxes and keep them hidden away when they’re not in use. We are also extremely fortunate to have a temporary storage unit in my parents’ basement. When he outgrows something, it goes straight to their house. Without this extra space, I’m not exactly sure what we’d do, but I’d imagine we’d try to loan things out, sell them, or donate them. As a rule, city dwellers just have to figure it out when it comes to space. I’d like to think it helps you prioritize your belongings simply because you can’t continue to accumulate without semi-regular purges.

When talking about issues with raising children in Chicago, I’d be remiss to not mention this one that continues to baffle me: the Chicago public school system. Unfortunately the constant controversy of the last few years has caused it to reach peak notoriety for its problems with leadership, unions, and funding (to mention a few). Like anywhere, how “good” a school is here changes neighborhood to neighborhood. And since the success of any school largely depends on the support it receives, it’s important for families who are passionate about quality education to become active participants in their schools.

When I think of four years from now, when it’s time for us to send Baby Bear to kindergarten, I feel very torn. On the one hand, I want to stay, become involved, and be a champion of progress within Chicago Public Schools. On the other hand, if the school isn’t supported, the teachers are worn too thin, or, God forbid, I fear for Baby Bear’s safety on his way to and from school, well then I’m not willing to sacrifice his education or safety to make a political point. And forget private school; I cannot afford to (nor would I want to if I could, based on principle alone) pay $20,000 or more a year from kindergarten on so that Baby Bear can get an education he could get at a public school in the suburbs. For now, when people ask about what we’ll do when it’s time for school, I tell them the truth: that it’s something I’m going to have to reassess when it’s time. Anything can happen in four years, anyway.

Needless to say, there are challenges that come along with raising a baby in a big city. I, however, believe there are still so many more reasons to do it.

It’s not cheap to live in the city–we could have a nice house in the burbs for what we pay for an apartment each month–but it does allow you to save in some ways. For one, I don’t have as much square footage to furnish. Renting also means I don’t have to worry about making several trips to Home Depot and draining my bank account on home repairs. For another, public transportation is a thing of beauty, a thing that provides endlessly fun people watching opportunities, and a thing that allows you to get by without a car. If you can’t find a train or bus to get you where you need to go, then you can hop in a cab or an Uber, rent a car or a bike, or just plain walk. While we do have a car, it’s mostly because we have a dog and a baby who make taking public transportation to the suburbs to see grandparents a little harder. Still, I probably only fill up my tank about once a month, and that’s not bad.

Papa Bear and I walked a lot before Baby Bear was born, but now that I have more time to do it, Baby Bear and I walk almost everywhere. It’s great for him, for me, and for the environment. Plus, being on foot allows us to become much more intimately acquainted with all the city has to offer. If we lived in the suburbs, we would drive everywhere. For some reason, it just feels more laborious to walk in the suburbs, even when the distance is short (and this is coming from someone who isn’t afraid of distance). There, going for a walk rarely serves any other purpose than just going for a walk. Which I really like to do, but as a multi-tasker, I love being able to sneak in a little exercise while I’m on my way to do things. Plus, walking to brunch means I can eat a shortstack and a skillet without feeling guilty about it!

Walking around also allows us to see all the people who make this city so vibrant and alive. No matter the time of day, we can walk outside to see people going about their lives. There’s a constant energy here that just doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It’s not like stores are open 24/7 and people are milling around my neighborhood at three in the morning, necessarily, but there’s just enough going on that you are constantly reminded of how many different kinds of people leading different kinds of lives there are. I recognize that might not be for everyone, but I thrive on it. I relish that Baby Bear hears at least five different languages every day. I love that he sees people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds. It’s my hope that seeing this multi-dimensional world from the start will allow his worldview to be that much broader; that he’ll take for granted how well people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, etc., can function together.

Living among so many people is incredibly conducive to building relationships, too. Big cities allow us to connect with like-minded people, regardless of subject matter or interest. There is no shortage of people with whom to gather and form bonds, which means anyone can find some sense of community. The new mom group I joined after Baby Bear was born is an example of this, and it’s become an invaluable support network for me. I’m so grateful that I was able to find such a positive group of women, and it makes me sad for fellow new moms who don’t have access to something similar. I know these types of groups are not unique to cities, but they do seem harder to come across in the suburbs, even if it’s just because everything is much more spread out.

On the flip side, it’s sometimes nice how easy it is to remain anonymous in a city of this size. Our friends and family care about our well-being, of course, but I never have to worry about strangers knowing our business. When we want to be around people, we can be. When we don’t want to be, we don’t have to be. I have no reference for small-town living, but I do wonder how people deal with that aspect of it.

And if that’s not enough, there’s just so much to do in a city. I love that we’re never lacking in ideas for activities, many of which are free. On any given day, we have so much at our fingertips: museums, cultural centers, libraries, sporting events, world-class art and music, story times, gardens, parks, zoos, conservatories, running paths, playgrounds, beaches, pools, neighborhood shops, restaurants, bakeries, and mom and baby get-togethers. The list is practically endless, and this is all just within city limits. We could spend a lifetime exploring this city and it would hardly scratch the surface. Knowing that my kid might take for granted seeing a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton blows my mind. I hope to instill in him a sense of appreciation for all of the opportunities he has, but I do love that such wondrous things are so readily available to him.

Adventure is always around the corner when you’re raising your baby in Chicago. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to living here, but what matters is that we each make our own informed choices.

For me, all the benefits outweigh the challenges. Being surrounded by the people, activities, culture, and energy make living here well worthwhile for our family. This might change as Baby Bear grows and has different needs, but for now we will be damned sure to enjoy every minute.

 

Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration: A Chicago Spotlight

Hidden behind the clean-lined and somewhat inconspicuous exterior of Andersonville’s Swedish American Museum lies one of Chicago’s best kid gems: the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration.

By now, my inner Swedophile has made herself known a few times on this blog, but it bears repeating that I’ve yet to come across something related to the Scandinavian country that I didn’t love. Even though we’re more than four thousand miles away from Stockholm, this counts as yet another one of those things.

Before I take you on my tour, I’d like to note something shameful. I actually only visited this beautiful children’s museum to do just that, and failed to tour the rest of the Swedish American Museum. One of these days, I’ll move beyond the lobby, the gift store, and the top floor to meander through the rest of the exhibits. I’m sure I’d love them, too.

museum-outside

[Source]

Having been on our Chicago bucket list for some time, Baby Bear and I were thrilled when a friend invited us to a group play date at the children’s museum. As a bonus, it was on one of the museum’s free days (the second Tuesday of each month, as noted below).

Upon entering, we were met by one of the friendliest museum employees I’ve yet to encounter. As we sat comfortably in the foyer chairs next to the ornate Viking ship (which  entranced the babe) and waited for others in our party, she happily provided us with information about the museum. She also asked how we all knew each other and commented on how she is still in touch with women from her own mom and baby group from several decades ago. By the time we finally went upstairs, I felt like we were buds. In my experience, you don’t get that kind of sincere customer service from many museums in the city.

Despite it being a free day, I was extremely pleasantly surprised to learn that the children’s museum wasn’t crowded in the least. At most, I saw only about a dozen people, including babies. Already I knew this was my kind of place.

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This brightly colored map greets you off the elevator. I tried to show BB where we visited, but he couldn’t have cared less. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I took my first look inside, my inner kid came to life and wanted to run from one thing to the next.

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The sign above says the museum is intended for children between 6 and 12 years of age, but I think it’s great for babies, too. I’d just suggest waiting until they can at least sit up on their own. 

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There’s a Swedish farmhouse! (Or stuga, according to the site.)

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I was tempted to wear one of the little smocks, but decided my 2016 clothes would have to suffice. Maybe when Baby Bear can wear one with me.

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This is one of the things I’m most excited for Baby Bear to grow into so we can explore more. The little house is equipped with things authentic to the time period, including the dining and bedroom areas you can see here, plus a kitchen full of  old-timey cookware.   

A farm!

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The entire museum has a homesteading feel to it. Here on the farm, kids can milk the wooden cow, gather firewood, pump for water….

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And gather pigs for the slaughterhouse apparently. But really, how was I not to feel instant camaraderie with this breastfeeding mama pig? With the exception of only having one baby attached to me, I’m in this position daily.

A ship!

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Baby Bear and friends loved to stand up against the little box seats and push the oars back and forth. They would have been terrible rowers, but anyone who would hire a crew of 11-month-olds has it coming.

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After he grew tired of rowing, Baby Bear (of course) found some stairs leading him up to the top of the ship. Hey, this apartment kid has to practice his stair climbing some time, doesn’t he?

A pioneer log cabin complete with a garden!

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The garden was especially fun because all of the veggies are made from cloth. Yet another reason why I think of this place as a pinnacle of homesteading; it’s full of wooden, metal, or cloth toys and details. Fun, educational, and less plastic waste!

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Now if only I could read that Swedish blessing (I assume?).

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This cabin reminded me of how grateful I am to have been born in this cushy era. Can you imagine winters in this house? 

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Wait a second, chickens don’t lay apples.

And, jumping ahead about a century, space!

You may be wondering why in the hell they would have a space exhibit. Well, it turns out Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong, is Swedish American.

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Some Swedish equipment (I believe it was a camera) that was used in the moon landing.

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Finally, there’s Buzz! Those chairs were the really exciting part here, though. That red button set off a countdown. Once the timer ran out, the chairs vibrated and rumbled to simulate blast off. Baby Bear and friends were a little alarmed by the new sensation, but they handled it like pros. I’m not sure I’m prepared for him to become an astronaut!

Rest assured, there’s even more to this museum that I haven’t shown you, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.

In addition to what I’ve highlighted here, and other fun things for kids to climb on and explore, there’s plenty of educational text to accompany each play experience. Children can leave the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration with a great understanding of what it was like for Swedish immigrants coming to America (and by extension, what life was like for many other kinds of immigrants of that era too).

I truly do think this is a great activity for any kid or parent who’s a kid at heart. Plus, after your visit you can go ahead and visit the Swedish Bakery down the street, or just look at the little Swedish horse on the corner.

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Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

The Swedish American Museum is located at 5211 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640. The Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration has different hours than the rest of the museum. They are as follows:

  • Monday to Thursday: 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Friday: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The museum is closed on several holidays, so make sure to check online before visiting on those days. For more information, click here.

Cost

The museum offers free admission on the second Tuesday of every month. 

Otherwise, admission for non-members is as follows:

  • Adults: $4
  • Children, students, and seniors: $3
    • Children under the age of one are free
  • Families: $10

Parking and transportation

The museum has a free parking lot located on the northeast corner of Ashland and Foster. From there, it’s a very short walk to the museum. Otherwise, Andersonville has plenty of paid street parking.

The nearest CTA ‘L’ stop is the Berwyn Red Line, which is about a half-mile walk away. As always, there are bus options available to you as well. I encourage you to map your trip using Google Maps if you need help.

Stroller or carrier?

With a decently spacious elevator and no shortage of room to park, bringing my stroller was a breeze. Especially during this heat, it’s nice to not have to wear my little furnace.

Final Word

I plan to make several trips back to the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration. If Baby Brown Bear enjoyed it as much as he did before he could even walk, he’ll absolutely love it as he continues to grow.

With so many engaging activities for kids of all ages, a helpful and accomodating staff, and a not-crowded atmosphere, this has quickly become one of my favorite Chicago spots.

Motherhood: The First Year in Review

First and foremost, I’d like to apologize for my recent absence. We’ve had a slew of gorgeous family weddings and get-togethers that have happily taken me away from my computer. In the meantime, I hope you’ve been reading some of my summer book suggestions. If so, I’d love to know what you think so far.

Secondly, and more importantly, in my time away, Baby Brown Bear turned one! Over the last few months, I’ve anxiously awaited–nay, actually felt apprehensive of–his first birthday. It’s hard to say why exactly, but I think it’s because it’s a rather significant milestone in a mother’s life. It’s important for the baby too, I suppose, but it’s not like he cares or will remember it. In fact, I’m not sure he has any sense of time at all at this point, aside from the difference between daytime and nighttime (and thank God for that). But for a mother, it’s when you earn a metaphorical “hey, you made it” sticker.

You made it!

At a year, at least outwardly, it seems like most mothers have found their stride. Though a baby constantly changes and a mother must adapt her parenting tactics accordingly, she at least has an idea of what works well. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff to the same degree she did just twelve months before. She also knows that she must add at least 20 minutes to a given time frame to account for any number of baby-related delays.

She has relaxed into her parenting approach and no longer hears that constant nag of self-doubt (or, at least, she can ignore it). And, most importantly, she’s kept her baby alive and well for an entire year. Though, to be honest, it really freaks me out when people congratulate me for that. One, I don’t like to think of the implication that I might not have been able to keep him alive for a year. Two, it makes me feel like they are jinxing our good health. We all know how fragile life continues to be well past a year (and all those horror stories in the news certainly don’t help). As a mother, I don’t think I’ll ever fully settle without worrying at least a little bit about baby’s well-being.

Better yet, a year marks a full rotation around the Sun. If anything, that’s why we should congratulate each other. We’ve just traveled about 584 million miles!

Take that, Executive Platinum status.

In all seriousness, a year is an easy milestone because it’s one of the most prominent measures of time. It’s a natural reflection point. “A year ago right now…” is an exercise that appeals to the emotional side of nearly all human beings. Mothers especially. Engineers less so (I say this with love, Papa Bear).

In the last few days leading up to Baby Bear’s birthday, I was in an incessant state of reminiscence. Down to the hour, I reminded Papa Bear what we were doing a year prior. “Today was my last work day and I had no idea!” “This is when I took the dog to the beach; our last time alone together before baby came.” “Right now  I was having brunch and poured almost an entire bottle of Cholula on my eggs.” “This is when we were driving to [a friend]’s house and my water broke but we didn’t realize it yet.” “This is about when I had that delicious glass of wine. What a great way to settle into a labor.” “Right now is when my water started to gush in my parents’ kitchen. Remember that picture we took together and it was our last as a childless couple?”

Imagine how many of these Papa Bear heard over the course of the day and a half that was my labor. It was never-ending, but it helped me cope and digest my bewilderment that an entire year had passed.

“Remember that time at band camp the hospital?”

I remembered everything from those 36 hours, more so even than the ones that followed, with such crisp detail, with more clarity than I ever remember anything. It’s like my thoughts, actions, and emotions were crystallized to ensure I never forget how it felt to stand on the precipice of complete and utter change. Like those mosquitoes forever stuck in amber in Jurassic Park, my pregnant self feels frozen in time.

Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth.

But, as much as that is true, it’s incredible to me how different I feel, too. Alongside this trip down memory lane, I couldn’t help but compare life now to a year ago, for me, my baby, and our family life in general.

Past to Present

Physically, I am completely different now than I was this time last year. I’ve lost the 60 pounds (yes, you read that right) that I gained. In fact, I now feel stronger than I ever did before pregnancy, largely because I now only have time for short, high-impact workouts instead of the long runs and gym visits I once enjoyed. Plus, nothing will make you feel as strong as carrying and birthing a baby.

I am woman. Hear me roar!

Though I finally feel like I’m once again in control of my body and am proud of the hard work I’ve put in over the last several months, returning to my pre-baby shape does serve as a bittersweet reminder of the growing physical distance between baby and me. With each passing day, he needs me less and less. No longer does he need to nurse every two hours. No longer can I clearly remember how it felt to have him move in my swollen belly. Where we were connected for nine months, then nearly connected for a few more months after that, it’s clear to see he’s becoming increasingly independent and separated from me. While that makes me happy and feel like we’re doing something right, it also makes me realize how much time has passed since his birth. And how fast things will continue to go.

I’ll tell you one thing that never goes back to normal, though, and that’s a breastfeeding mama’s chest.

Meanwhile, Baby Bear is almost an entirely new person. He’s gained roughly 15 pounds, probably 11 or 12 inches, and now has discernible facial features instead of a more generic newborn look. He doesn’t lie around and sleep between feedings anymore, but is a force of nature. He crawls, stands, shuffles, climbs, and dives everywhere (including many places he shouldn’t). He smiles, laughs, mimics, and experiments with sounds and words. He’s responsive, inquisitive, flexible, happy-go-lucky, and fun. More and more do I realize how much of a mind of his own he has, and so far I’m excited to say it’s one of a very thoughtful, loving little boy.

How can a little baby be my best bud?

Situationally, life is significantly different. All throughout my pregnancy and even after Baby Bear was born, I was sure I would go back to work. I barely even entertained the idea of staying home because it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I placed so much of myself in my job and was proud of the work I did. So much so that it was one of the ways I defined myself. When I even thought of not returning, one of my first thoughts was, “Who would I be without a job?” Looking back, this seems ridiculous, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t sure how I’d define my worth if I quit.

The first inkling I had that maybe, just maybe quitting was worth considering was about a week after Baby Bear was born (because, let’s be honest, that first week was a whirlwind in which I was not thinking about work at all). As I sat in the rocking chair in Baby Bear’s dimly lit nursery, holding a peacefully sleeping baby in my arms, panic struck me. How on Earth was I to leave this angelic, completely dependent little being behind to go to the office? Was anything I did there really more important than being with him? It was an idea that took hold and burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my head and heart.

It was those eyelashes. Have you even seen a baby’s eyelashes?

Within a few weeks, I was starting to test out how “stay-at-home mom” sounded when I said it aloud. I was far from committing to it, but I was beginning to entertain the idea. As I looked into Baby Bear’s face and as he gripped my finger with his tiny little hands, I was becoming more certain that my sense of worth was only going to flourish if I stayed home.

Within a few more weeks, I knew it was the right decision for my family. By that point, I absolutely dreaded going back only to give my notice because I didn’t want to feel judged for my decision (the same for which I had shamefully been known to judge others). I also didn’t want people to think that it had been my plan all along and that I had lied about it. I had severe anxiety even up the morning of my first day back (12 weeks is such a joke, by the way). Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised–even shocked–when I received nothing but support and understanding.

Some of my coworkers had made that decision themselves, and hadn’t returned to the workforce until their children were grown. They told me how happy they were for me because they had absolutely never regretted their time at home. Other coworkers had decided to return to work because it was the right move for their families, and they sympathized with how tough of a call it is, especially when babies are still so helpless. A Canadian colleague said it was a shame the U.S. didn’t offer a full year off because then they wouldn’t lose so many good colleagues. It was a flattering, but sadly true comment.

All told, it was an eye-opening moment because it was one of the few times I’ve experienced women coming together to talk about their shared experiences, specifically the shared difficulty they face when considering career and family decisions.

Luckily, I’ve been witness to a lot more of that kind of vulnerability and acceptance in the last year as I’ve found myself surrounded with incredible, positive women. It’s a powerful thing when we support each other and stand united.

Let’s quickly acknowledge that it’s complete bullshit that the U.S. is the only developed nation without paid maternity leave.

A year into the stay-at-home mom thing, I can tell you that I have never for one day regretted the decision to quit. There are certainly some aspects of the job I miss, mostly my coworkers, and I do sometimes wonder how the yet undetermined gap will affect my career in the long run. But when I think of the alternative, I would not change it for a second.

Not that I know any differently, but I think staying at home has given me the opportunity to know every facet of my son’s personality from its inception. I’ve seen his first smile and know the differences between his morning smiles, his tired smiles, his bashful smiles, his excited smiles, and his lovey dovey smiles. I know what toys he prefers when we travel and what toys he prefers before nap time. I know what makes him giggle when nothing else will (jump squats), or least stop crying (a creepy YouTube video of “Wheels on the Bus”). I know myself well enough to know that if I were working full time, I would be over committing myself as usual. I think I’d be less attentive to the minute details that make Baby Bear who he is.

Pause.

Now, don’t misread me. I’m not on a high horse to tell all women that they should stay home because it is what’s best. I fully acknowledge that it’s not the right decision for everyone. For one, women should take pride in the work they do and should continue to do it if it makes them happy. I also know that for many women it isn’t really a choice; they must work to pay the bills.

As a former daycare kid myself, I think kids who have non-parent caretakers turn out wonderfully. My little analysis isn’t about me passing judgment or thinking I have a holier-than-thou answer to life. This is me spending a little time to reflect on my own experience.

While I’m here, I also want to make clear that, while I spend an awful lot of time thinking  and writing about motherhood, I don’t adhere to the belief that women don’t truly understand life until they’re mothers. Some people want kids, some people don’t. I think what’s most important is that you recognize what would make you happy.

In my short time as a mother, I’ve learned kids don’t necessarily make things easier, the path to self-discovery included. (Of course I say this as I’m writing an essay about how my perspective and self-understanding have broadened in the last year). Motherhood isn’t the answer; it just provides a different lens through which to look at the world.

Maybe motherhood is the answer to you. What the hell do I know? My experience is inherently different from yours. That’s what makes life so interesting! Let’s embrace our differences just like we embrace our similarities.

Unpause.

Okay, so I don’t regret quitting. What else has changed in the last year?

Let’s get the bad stuff over with first. I’m way more addicted to my phone than I ever was before. It’s my worst bad habit, and is one that makes me feel incredibly guilty at all times, especially when I look up to see Baby Bear watching me. Honestly, I don’t even care about what’s happening on Facebook, so why do I check it 7,000 times a day?! I hope that with awareness and time, this gets better, especially as Baby Bear starts to engage with me even more.

We’ve also battled a couple pretty bad illnesses over the last year–the norovirus is the pits–but knowing that it could be so much worse helps to keep things in perspective.

And, try as I might to shut it out, I’ve developed the infamous Mom Guilt. It’s so easy to question every single move you make as a mother, especially when the anonymous assholes of the internet shame you on all sides. This is where having a trusted pediatrician and reassuring friends makes all the difference. When I mention how I feel bad about the margaritas I had for dinner the night before, my good friends don’t judge. Instead they ask, “Ooh where’d you get them?!”

I never valued happy hour more than I do now.

Now the positive changes. There are so many!

I thought becoming a mother might make me worry more, and while I have anxieties about all sorts of bizarre things–some of which are rational–I think it’s done the opposite. When thinking of how it’s affected me, I can’t help but immediately note how much more patient I am. In fact, I’d say I’m more patient, open, and reflective. I think these qualities have grown partly because I have more time to grow them. I’m no longer running from one place to another and trying to squeeze in my life after hours. Instead I can stop and observe life around me. I’m not rushed anywhere (though I’m still often late), and if I am, I now realize it’s only myself I have to blame for it.

I don’t even get annoyed when going to the grocery store, doctor’s office, or DMV anymore because I have the time to wait. It’s a miracle!

I also believe this time and reflection have made me kinder. I certainly care more now about the plights of others. I think I was a kind person before, one who cared about people, righting wrongs, and ridding the world of injustice, but I didn’t do much about it. I’m not saying I’m doing a lot about it now, but spending a year watching and interacting with the people in my community certainly makes me want to try harder.

I feel such a passionate need to leave behind a better world for my son, and feel the need now more than ever to lead by example. I’m no longer responsible for just myself, but now have to act on baby’s behalf, too.

As I mentioned in my open letter last month, I feel that Baby Bear is my legacy and I want to ensure as best I can that he is kind and fights for what is right and good. If I don’t act this way now, he won’t learn to either. Maybe another reason I’m supposed to stay home is because it affords me the time to become more active in giving back to my community. Maybe I can become a better and more vocal advocate for change. I’m tired of sitting back idly.

It’s hard to say how I would feel if I were working, but knowing myself and the amount of stress and responsibility I sign up for, I don’t think I’d have the time or energy to give any of these things nearly as much dedication or thought.

Now I do have time for that.

I also think I’m more confident than I was before. It’s hard to tell if this is because I’m getting older or if this is because of motherhood; it’s probably somewhere in between. Unless it affects me, I’ve stopped caring what other people do with themselves and have realized I don’t care what people think of what I’m doing either. I like and am proud of who I am, and I’ve finally accepted that’s what is important. I think it’s also because I’ve worked hard to maintain a sense of self and nurture my friendships and interests. With the help of an involved partner and more-than-willing grandparents, I’m able to exercise, play games, go to the occasional dinner, and read. I prioritize my mental and physical health because it curbs my anxieties and makes me a better friend, partner, and mother.

Happy self, happy life?

This last year has also made me feel more grateful for all of the good in my life. In addition to having the necessities like a roof over my head, plenty of food to sustain me, and an abundance of clothes to keep me warm (or cool), I find blessings everywhere I look.

My family and I have our health and a comfortable lifestyle that allows us to go on fun adventures. We have supportive and generous friends, both new and old, who help make us better people. We have an incredible extended family, including three amazing great-grandparents and four fabulous grandparents. We have a not-so-cuddly but oh-so-sweet dog who begrudgingly allows Baby Bear to tug at his tail and climb on top of him. I have a loving, hard-working, and attentive husband whose support in this whole parenting thing means more than I could possibly describe. I have an adorable and lively little guy whose smile tugs at my heart every single time. Life is good, man.

And I tell you, nothing helps remind you of that more than watching life pass you by. I literally watched the seasons change this year. I go on a lot of walks with the babe and dog and pass by many of the same parks and gardens day after day. Over the course of the year, I saw trees shed their leaves only to blossom again a few months later. I saw flowers wilt and freeze, then bloom with more vibrancy that I could ever recall. I actually bask in the sunlight now, especially in the winter when I’d previously wake up, go to work, and come home in the dark.

I am so thankful for the life I have, for the time I spend with Baby Bear, and for the world around us. This year has allowed me to grow.

To infinity and beyond.

But, now that baby is a year old, many people are starting to ask me what’s next. Will I go back to work soon?

I think there’s a natural tendency we have as human beings to anticipate the “next” thing. “Once X is done, we’ll be able to focus on Y,” or, “Life will be easier once Z is over.” That may be true, and it may be a great way to get through some of the more trying periods in life, but for me, right now, I don’t want to wish away time any faster than it’s already going.

I don’t know what’s next. Yes, I may be missing out on some cool opportunities, but for now I’m happy just being and savoring. I’m doing what’s right for me, what’s right for my family, and damn if I’m not enjoying it.

Cheers to a phenomenal second year. And many more.

 

 

 

[Cover photo source]

Healthy Homemade Applesauce

At the risk of boring you with two apple-based recipes in a row, I have to share this quick one for applesauce.

Applesauce is something I’ve always loved but was reluctant to feed to my babe because the store-bought brands are typically loaded with added sugar. Learning to make it at home was a game changer because it’s such an easy, healthy, and tasty addition to any meal and one that the whole family can enjoy (husbands included).

Easy-Peasy Apple Squeezy (Applesauce)

This will take you about 45 minutes total, and 30 of those minutes are just leaving the apples in a pot.

Ingredients

  • 7 medium apples (or however many you want; it’s a very flexible recipe)
  • 1/2 lemon
  • A few dashes of ground cinnamon

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I love this spice store and I highly recommend this kind of cinnamon in particular.

Instructions

Peel and roughly cube the apples.

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Throw them in a big pot and fill with enough water to cover the apples. They’ll float to the top as seen below, but you can eyeball how much water to add.

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Squeeze in half the lemon. I’ve done it without this step and it’s fine, but I think the lemon adds a little flavor and helps it keep longer.

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Bring the water to a boil. Then cover, reduce to a simmer, and let the apples cook for 30 minutes.

Drain apples. They should look, well, like cooked apples.

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Add the cooked chunks to a blender and toss in a dash of cinnamon.

Blend until smooth.

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Serve immediately if you want hot applesauce or wait until it cools, refrigerate, and serve cold. If I’m in the mood, I like to add another little dash of cinnamon before serving.

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If your baby hates to be fed with a spoon (like mine), try spreading the applesauce on toast. Here you can see Baby Bear’s gourmet applesauce toast with sweet potatoes. Such a bougie breakfast.

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Enjoy! Have any other ideas for how to eat your applesauce?

 

 

Mama Bear’s Summer 2016 Reading List

It’s been quite a while since my last list of book recommendations, and since I can’t in good conscience claim to be a book blog without them, here we are.

Before you hit the beach, pool, campsite, or couch, consider checking out some of my favorite summertime reads.

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Summer Picks

I’ve organized these suggestions by genre. Before you jump ahead to your tried and true favorite, I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone this summer and pick something you normally wouldn’t read. You never know what you might end up liking.

Humor

Galápagos

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Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
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Kurt Vonnegut was an incredible author whose vast body of work would make any bookshelf better. This book in particular is my favorite and is one I’ve recommended and gifted countless times. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit post-apocalyptic fiction, and a whole lot of satire.

The book follows a small, strange group of people stranded on an island in the Galápagos. After a pandemic leaves the rest of mankind sterile, they become the last surviving humans with the ability to procreate. Therefore their descendants alone are responsible for how human beings evolve (hint: life is a lot less complicated with a small brain). Told by an omniscient, ghostly narrator, this book will make you laugh and cringe at some of the more painfully accurate portrayals of our society.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson
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Bill Bryson is an American author—he famously wrote A Walk in the Woods–who spent a couple of decades living in the UK. This book is a collection of essays he wrote for a British paper about returning and readjusting to the U.S.

Bryson is hilariously observant as he contemplates some of the bizarre and seemingly mundane features of our culture. Though a few of the essays are a bit dated as the book was published in 2000, you can’t help but smile as Bryson artfully describes things like his nostalgia for motel room showers and the perplexing differences between American and English postal systems.

Fiction

Gone with the Wind

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
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Okay, let’s pause. If you haven’t read this book, then it should be the first on your to-read list. If you haven’t even heard of this book, then you need to climb out from under your pop culture rock.

Topping out at about 1,000 pages (I recommend reading the book on a device for this reason), it is arguably one of the finest pieces of historical fiction ever written, as evidenced its accolades, notoriety, and sheer sales volume.

Gone with the Wind is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a persnickety and stubborn, yet intelligent and loyal Southern Belle whose life is drastically altered by the Civil War. She alone makes the book worth reading, as you will simultaneously love and hate her, but perhaps the real main character is the American South itself before, during, and after the war.

An epic, Gone with the Wind will be captivate you with its rich writing and complex characters. Though it’s long, you will not want to stop reading it, which makes for a perfect summer reading candidate. For what it’s worth, I also love the movie. If you’re not going to read it, at least make sure you watch it.

Ella Minnow Pea

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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
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Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea is charming, interesting, and very short. Like many other books on this list, I’ve recommended it time and time again.

It’s the story of a little island that bans the usage of various letters of the alphabet. The story unfolds in a series of letters between characters, forcing the author to very creatively manipulate the English language in order to have the characters comply with their new, letter-less laws. It’s witty and clever, and makes you appreciate how much you can bend the rules of grammar and syntax all while expanding your vocabulary. Note: you really have to read this one with your eyes in order to properly appreciate it. You will not get the full effect in an audio book.

Swamplandia!

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
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This book fittingly takes place in Florida, where real life can be stranger than fiction. Like some of the other fiction on this list, it is the story of a family. In this case, it’s a family whose livelihood depends on a gator-based theme park that falls from greatness following the death of its star, the mother of the family.

An adventure builds as the main character, a 12-year-old girl, must put on a brave face in an attempt to save her home and family from spiraling out of control. This book has a little bit of everything: outlandish characters, fantastic scenery, and even a bit of mysticism.

Cold Sassy Tree

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Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
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Apparently, something about the summertime makes me want to read stories that take place in the American South. I think it’s because I like to imagine myself sipping ice-cold tea (albeit unsweetened), in a rocking chair, and on an old wraparound porch when I read them. Mosquitoes and heat aside, doesn’t that sound lovely?

Anyway, this is another great historical fiction that chronicles life in a small, turn-of-the-century Georgia town. It’s been quite I while since I read it, but I distinctly remember falling in love with the characters as they navigated the ups and downs of life as well as the gossip that runs rampant throughout it. I smiled with their triumphs, cried with their tragedies, and didn’t want it to end.

Romance

No beach or pool vacation is complete without a little dose of romance. While I used to be embarrassed and secretive about my love of love stories, I’ve come to embrace it in recent years. Say what you will, but romance is a genre that has its own literary value.

The Royal We

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The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
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If you, like me, are strangely obsessed with England’s royal family, then you should read The Royal We. It’s loosely based on Will and Kate’s life, to the point where some consider it to be fan fiction. I’d argue that it’s much more elegant than that. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I started it, but I was pleasantly surprised how engaging and intelligent it was. It’s a novel you’ll want to stay up reading.

Sookie Stackhouse series

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Dead Until Dark (book one) by Charlaine Harris
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If you’re looking for a ridiculous-but-fun series of books, here you go. These novels track the exceedingly at-risk life of Sookie Stackhouse and her friends in Bon Temps, Louisiana. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen True Blood, the HBO series loosely based on these novels.

There are 13 main books and each is more far-fetched than the last (which says a lot seeing as how the first already starts you off with vampires). The writing takes some getting used to, meaning it’s not all that great, but I seriously could not put down these books. You’ll get a nice dose of, ahem, love scenes, and have fun tagging along with Sookie and all her Southern charm.

Nonfiction

Into Thin Air

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Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
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You might be justifiably wondering why would I recommend a book set in a such a cold, severe landscape as part of my summertime list. Well, chances are good you will feel a little chilled as you read this harrowing tale. Trust me when I say that reading it in the winter when you are also freezing is a rookie mistake.

Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest misadventure is famous because it is–to most of us–unimaginable. So much so that it reads more like a thriller than a true story. You’ll read this one quickly and can use it to keep you cool at the pool. Fun fact: when I mentioned this list to Papa Bear, he said, “Oh, will you add Into Thin Air, too?” Doubly recommended.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
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Need another bitterly cold story to keep you cozy outside this summer? Let’s move from the Himalayas to the Antarctic. Endurance is also a survival story, but this time about Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914. Shackleton’s ship, after which the book is named, was trapped and eventually crushed by ice, leaving its crew stranded and scared for their lives.

Author Lansing had access to real diaries kept by crew members and was able to interview surviving members as he was writing this book, making it incredibly honest, scary, and arresting. As it is a tale of near hopelessness, it is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re able to read it, you’ll find yourself talking about it for a long time.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
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If keeping cool is not your goal, check out Born to Run, which is partly about the author’s path to self-discovery and partly about the history of human beings and our innate ability to run long distances.

This book was recommended to me because I like to run. And while it did inspire me to get out and run more–I only partially subscribe to McDougall’s running philosophies–it ended up appealing to me in a much broader sense, too. Anyone who is interested in learning about new cultures, meeting quirky and nearly certifiably insane characters, or anthropology in general should check this out. You might even find yourself thirsting to be outside to test his theories.

Your Thoughts

I’m going to make this a regular, seasonal feature, so stay tuned for Mama Bear’s Fall 2016 Reading List.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment with your summer favorites!

Swedish Bakery: A Chicago Spotlight

As I’ve established before, I’m a big fan of dessert. As I’m also a fan of supporting local businesses, it just makes sense that I would love to visit local bakeries. I award completely arbitrary bonus points for family-owned bakeries.

Today I’d like to introduce you to one of my all-time favorites that fits this bill, Andersonville’s Swedish Bakery.

Though it’s traded hands a few times in its 80-plus-year history, this family-owned bakery is a Chicago staple, regularly topping best-of lists. Its primary focus is on European-style pastries and cakes, but it really runs the gamut in terms of sweet tooth satisfaction.

I’d like to invite you now to join me on a visual journey through the bakery. Treasure awaits us!

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The storefront is fairly unassuming. As with people, what matters is on the inside.

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Fika the Swedish equivalent of English tea time. When Papa Bear and I visited Sweden a few years ago, we made sure to partake in daily fika celebrations. You know, to really soak up the culture. Nevertheless, it makes me happy to see some Swedish cultural references in my hometown.

They have cakes.

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I was so impressed with their cake displays that I decided to order Baby Bear’s first birthday cake from Swedish Bakery. I’ll add a picture of it when it’s complete.

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They have cookies. They have a lot of cookies.

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Don’t get me wrong; I love summertime fruits. But cookies shaped as summertime fruits win each time.

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Happy Pride Month!

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Since I can barely draw a stick figure, I’m always impressed by their decorations, including the ones on this Illinois-shaped cookie.

They have tortes, tarts, doughnuts, bread, and all sorts of other pastries.

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I’ll give them points for Father’s Day creativity, but even I’m not sure I’d want to eat a steak cake.

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This is apparently one of their best sellers. If I could eat nuts, I’m sure I’d agree.

Okay, I promised you bread and doughnuts, but each time I go, I get too hungry to actually remember to take any more pictures. I suppose you’ll just have to visit on your own to see the rest of their displays.

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If you go, you must get the raspberry Napoleon and the black and white cookie. They are more than scrumptious. The Easter Bunny carrot cake butt ball was pretty good too, but it’s hard to top perfection.
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I promised myself I would learn how to better stage food photos, but I always lose patience because I want to eat whatever it is in front of me. Thus, here’s a crappy picture of a DELICIOUS Swedish flop cake (accompanied, of course, by some Oberweis vanilla ice cream with cinnamon sprinkled on top).

I’ve never been disappointed with anything I’ve tried here, and believe me when I say I’ve tried a lot.

Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

The Swedish Bakery is located at 5348 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640. It is open Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Parking and transportation

Visitors can use the Calo Ristorante parking lot on the north side of the bakery until 5:00 p.m. every day. After 5:00 p.m., visitors can use the U.S. Bank parking lot to the south of the bakery. Otherwise, metered and street parking are available.

For public transit users, the bakery is about a 12-minute walk from the Berwyn Red Line ‘L’ stop. I’m certain there are buses, too, but you can do some of the work.

Stroller or carrier

There’s a surprising amount of space in the bakery, so a stroller is typically no problem.

Final Word

I know it’s bathing suit season and everything, but you work hard. You deserve this. Treat yourself to Swedish Bakery soon.