Tuesday, September 15, 2015

We need to talk more about mental health, and it starts with me

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and it really comes at an important time for me this year. Over the past few months I have really taken control of my mental health, and I am in a really great place. Probably in a better place than I have been in years, if ever. While it feels amazing, it is also a little bit scary, because the happiness I feel right now, the solidity, purpose, and hope I'm currently experiencing, is so deeply contrasted against the dismay I was feeling only a few months ago. It's like when your eyes adjust to the darkness... You think you are seeing okay until someone flips on the light and you realize how wrong everything was.

This isn't a recent struggle for me. I started exhibiting symptoms of my depression around 15 years old. My parents chalked a lot of it up to my being moody, mostly writing it off as typical teenage antics. I'm not exactly sure when it became something more than that, but my mom whisked me off to the psychiatrist, who put me on a low dose antidepressant. That worked for several years. I certainly still had bad days, but all in all things were well managed with 10mg of prozac every day. A small price to pay for sanity during my teenage years, when I look back on it. But I certainly felt embarrassed by it. There were definitely people making me feel that way. Suggestions swirled around me, making me feel incompetent. Why couldn't I just suck it up? Everyone has bad days. Why was I being so dramatic? Didn't I feel like I was getting enough attention? All of those things ate at me slowly, like an acid, burning me layer by layer.

I recall very clearly the first time I thought about committing suicide. It was New Year's Eve. 2005. I was 17 and we were in Orlando, Florida. We had taken a family trip to Disney World. Maybe that's why I remember it so clearly, the stark contrast between the most magical place on earth and my feelings of unending hopelessness. I was in a hotel room with my brothers, my parents were in a room next door with my sisters. I was feeling incredibly low. I had no energy and the stress of pretending I did was beginning to crush me. My dad had just finished scolding me. In his mind the reason I was so mopey was because I was missing my boyfriend. Again, it was being chalked up to teenage angst. In his defense, I'm not sure I could have identified it as anything else on my own either. I was taking my medication as prescribed, so surely that was enough to render me "un-depressed." But I didn't feel that way. I felt alone. I felt hopeless and hated and angry. I kept looking around the room, trying to determine exactly what I could do about it. I remember unpacking bottles of tylenol and benedryl and wondering just how many I would have to take to fix this problem. I'm not sure why I didn't. I don't really remember that part of it clearly. A few days later we went back home and everything went back to normal.

During my senior year of high school I opted to increase my medication to 20mg. Stress seemed to be hitting me harder, and I felt like I needed more help. A simple increase was enough to fend off the anxiety and sadness and I was glad for the little bit of help. I was headed off to college, I had broken up with my boyfriend, and I was feeling like a new woman. I think the end of my senior year and the summer after were really happy times for me.

I moved away to college, and I think that's when my mental health started its down hill trajectory. I didn't take care of myself. I was inconsistent at best with my medication. I was stressed out and chose to fix that by burying myself in my studies. I began to self-harm again when I became particularly stressed out. I would have complete breakdowns at least every two months, where I would sob for hours, sleep for about 13 hours, drag myself to class looking like a mess, then begin the process over again. But I convinced myself that I had it under control. I knew myself and I knew my limits, so clearly I was managing. Upon my graduation, I visited my doctor and proudly declared that I did not need my medication because I had it handled.

About a month later I was pregnant with Nathan. Halfway through my pregnancy I realized that I was not fine and I needed help. I was angry all of the time, I was having complete meltdowns about simple things, far past normal pregnant mood swings. I remember one night, laying curled up in a ball in the middle of the living room, completely unable to move or speak, just sobbing. During one of my routine appointments I brought it up with my doctor and she put me back on my 20mg of Prozac. There was some risk to the child, she explained, but certainly in my case it was less than the risk I was posing to myself. She also explained that my history of depression put me at increased risk of postpartum depression.

You see your doctor once after you have a baby, 6 weeks after you are released from the hospital. That is the extent of the the care that is required. During that appointment, you are screened for postpartum depression using what is called the Edinbugh Post Natal Depression Scale. It includes statements like "I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong" and "I have been anxious or worried for no good reason," which then are rated and scored to test for depression. I'm sure that the screening means well. But I find it sort of silly. When I am deep in the throes of depression, I don't feel like I'm blaming myself unnecessarily. It seems completely reasonable. In addition, six weeks postpartum is incredibly early to diagnose depression. I know very few people who felt it set in that quickly. Mine hit at about 4 months postpartum. I don't fully even remember how I knew, but I remember talking to Dan and saying "I need to do something." I had been dealing with it long enough to know the signs, and I was headed down the wrong path. A visit with my doctor, and another increase in meds. 40mg of Prozac daily, and I was doing fine.

I continued that way through my next pregnancy. Again, I passed my postnatal exam with flying colors. This baby was much easier. She slept better, she was an expert at breastfeeding, she was growing and happy and perfect. I was nailing the mom thing. I had two kids, but my house was clean, I was working, and my marriage was great.

And just then just like that it wasn't. I started feeling agitated. I wasn't sleeping. Then I was sleeping all the time. I stopped showering. I got up, nursed the baby, then went back to bed. I didn't feel like doing anything. Another trip to the doctor. She explained that pregnancy had changed my body, and perhaps I was no longer responding to the medication as I had in the past. She switched me to a low dose of Zoloft, and asked to see me in a month.

Over the course of the next two years, I was in to see my doctor almost every month. I was having panic attacks. I had migraines. I was crying. I was angry. I was falling apart. I don't think I can count how many times I contemplated suicide. I was losing myself slowly to this dark monster, and despite my best efforts, I saw no end to it. I was doing everything I was supposed to, but I couldn't gain control. And that was the scariest part. I was taking my medication. I was talking to my doctor about my concerns. But I wasn't getting better. We kept increasing my medication, trying to find the right balance to treat both my ongoing depression and my newly realized anxiety. I was fighting tooth and nail to keep my head above water, but lying to everyone around me about just how bad it was.

I was self medicating when I could. I had been given hydrocodone to treat my migraines since I was still nursing and nothing else was really safe. I began making up excuses to take it, suggesting that my back was really bothering me, or my sciatica was particularly bad. I just wanted to be numb for a little bit. I couldn't find a way to be happy, but at least I could stop hurting. Certainly I knew it wasn't right. But I wasn't getting relief any other way. I was doing the things my doctor told me to do, but I wasn't getting better. I was looking for anything to make it okay. My thoughts were constantly turning to ways to fix this deep, dark smoke that was billowing up around me. I contemplated suicide over and over again. The one thread that was holding me to reality was my baby. I kept telling myself that if I died, if I took my own life, she wouldn't be able to eat. Simply put, I couldn't kill myself because I didn't have enough breast milk stored up in the freezer.

I continued not to sleep for ages. I would get a few hours, then wake up in cold sweat with my mind racing. I couldn't fall back to sleep. I was constantly on edge. I was having panic attacks nearly daily. A year into my official treatment for this problem and I still wasn't getting better. Eventually Eleanor stopped nursing. She was about a year and a half at that point. I was able to start taking something to combat the anxiety, an immediate release medication to calm me during panic attacks. I was given 0.5mg of Ativan, along with my Zoloft, which was up to 75mg at that point.

Since I was no longer nursing, I could start drinking again. Not heavily, but certainly more frequently. I would have a drink every night after the kids went to bed. Anything to calm my nerves and slow things down. During this time everything came crashing down. My job situation fell apart due to company wide changes. I had to reapply and re-interview for a position that I had held for 9 years. They were insisting that everyone start working full time. I knew that we couldn't afford the daycare for that, and quite frankly, I knew that I couldn't handle that. I spiraled even deeper. At one point I met with my doctor and tried to explain things as best I could. One of the standard questions they ask about depression is "Do you think things will get better?" I was adamant that they wouldn't. Sure, we might find a treatment that keeps this black monster at bay. But for how long? This wasn't a rain cloud, some external force ruining my day. This thing was inside of me. It had always been there. It would always be there. Certainly I could fight it down, lock it in a cave for some unknown period of time. But it would always be there.

Finally, we tried a new medication, immediately titrating up to a higher dose. If you are keeping track, this would mark the sixth medication change since Eleanor's birth, just under two years of fighting. And that was what it was-fighting. Every step of the way. Fighting to get myself out of bed. Fighting to get dressed. Fighting to take care of my family. Fighting to get to work. Fighting to keep my job. Fighting for my life. It was exhausting. And that is really the thing about mental health- it takes everything to function an even a basic level, much less advocating for yourself, which is what is really needed for quality treatment in most cases. If I hadn't been aware of myself and how I behave when my depression worsens, what symptoms really manifest, it could have been much worse. I was doing everything I was supposed to, following up with my doctor, taking my prescribed medication, all of it. And I was still struggling. How can we expect people around us who are suffering to just be okay?

We eventually found the right dose and medication. I take 20mg of Lexapro daily. It keeps me sane. When I'm off of medication I'm very insistant that I don't need it, that I shouldn't have to take a pill every day to feel normal, that maybe-just maybe- unmedicated me is the real version of me. But when I'm back on the medication I realize that one pill a day is a small price to pay to feel like a whole person.

I'm doing much better now. In November of last year I began the process of getting an ADHD diagnosis. This involved more fighting for myself- weeks of phone calls to different offices, being told they weren't taking new patients, being told that I had been added to a wait list only to find out that I hadn't, requesting to get medication in the mean time until a diagnosis could be provided. In all it took about two months of phone calls to get an appointment scheduled, then another four months of waiting to get in, and a full month of appointments (one appointment per week for four weeks) to get a diagnosis. I got my official diagnosis in June. I am still working with a psychiatrist to adjust my medication to adequate levels, but I'm doing much better. I always thought I would turn down medication even if I did get a diagnosis, but I'm glad that I decided to accept the help being offered. This process alone has been life changing. I've learned that a lot of the behaviors that I've really been hard on myself about are part of my disease. I'm learning to deal with that. Moreover, I'm just learning to be gentle with myself. I know that sometimes I just need to take care of me.

But there are certainly some sad realizations to come out of this. First, the realization that I will probably never be rid of this creeping black smoke. It will always reside somewhere inside of me. It is still deeply upsetting to me to think about that part of it. The thought that this will be a constant, lifelong struggle for me is very disheartening. In truth, it is the nexus of everything I feel when I am in that deep dark place. When the voice inside of my head is telling me that things will never get better, I know there is some small kernel of truth to it. I'm certainly not saying it won't get better at all. I can control my symptoms. I can live a fairly healthy, happy life. But I will never be cured. 

The second realization is that my family has likely grown as far as it ever will. I grew up in a big family. While there were many things I didn't like about being the oldest of five kids, I certainly could understand why someone would want a big family. When Dan and I discussed how many children we wanted I always envisioned two as my very lowest limit. Life is a funny thing that way. The universe cares very little for our grand plans. I love being a mom. It makes me insanely happy. It feels right. I love watching my children grow, I love helping to shape them. I love watching them become loving, empathetic beings who will do great things. It makes me sad to think that I won't feel a baby move inside me again, or feel a tiny being snuggled up to me in the middle of the night while I nurse. It's a very difficult thing to say that I, at only 26 years old, will not have any more children. In the end, however, I have a difficult choice to make. I have two beautiful, healthy, happy children who deserve everything I can give them. They deserve me at my best. I could have another baby. My body is capable. In doing that, though, I risk that baby, and my children now, not having a mother. I have spoken to my doctor about this. Research shows that if you have postpartum depression after your first child you are even more likely to have it after a second child. It does not seem that there is a lot of research on what happens beyond that. Would it necessarily be worse with a subsequent pregnancy? No one can really answer that for me. Only I can answer for what I am willing to risk. I don't think I could repeat the events of the previous two years. I certainly couldn't handle anything more than that. In addition, the medications that I am taking now to manage my symptoms are not safe for pregnancy, meaning I would have to forgo them completely or turn to an alternative, which is a very risky process. Being on the wrong medication or even the wrong dose can be worse than being on nothing at all. 

In the past few months, mostly since I have begun to really take hold of my life and feel like myself again, I have started to be more and more open with people about my struggle. As a woman, I am frequently asked about my plans for future children. I am very open with people. I think that often it makes them slightly uncomfortable. We live in a world where talking about mental health is taboo. But it shouldn't be. More importantly, it can't be. People are struggling. Life seems overwhelming and hopeless because of this disease. When we refuse to speak about it we are only furthering the loneliness and helplessness that people are already feeling. We are telling them that we don't care or that they need to deal with it on their own. It isn't right. We are losing people we care about because we are uncomfortable. 

This starts with our doctors. Medical professionals need to talk openly and honestly with people about mental health. I remember taking Nathan to one of his well child appointments. The doctor looked him over, measured and listened. Then, he turned to me and asked very clearly and openly if I was doing alright. I was surprised. Nathan sees a family practice physician, so he is able to treat adults and children, but he isn't my primary care doctor. He must have sensed my confusion because he went on to explain that his job was to take care of my child. Part of taking care of Nathan meant making sure that I was doing okay too, because if I wasn't taking care of myself, if I wasn't thriving, there was no way Nate would thrive. It really struck me, and continues to stick with me. Like I said before, the only visit I was really required to go to was my six week postpartum visit and my depression hadn't set in yet at that point; but I was taking my baby to the doctor every few months for check ups. It made perfect sense that the doctor would make sure I was doing okay then too. I honestly wish that more doctors would do this. I know many people take their children to see pediatricians, so perhaps treating mothers isn't in their wheelhouse, but a few simple questions could really save a life. It would be so simple for a doctor to suggest that the mother get herself checked out too. In those early days of caring for a child the doctor's word is so important. 

We also need to be talking to each other. In coming clean about my struggle I have gotten so many responses of "I had not idea you were going through all of that!" and "I knew something was up but I didn't want to say anything." Please say something! I wish more people had. I probably would have broken down, sobbed uncontrollably, making you terribly uncomfortable. But I needed people to acknowledge that I wasn't going crazy. During that time I felt like I was slowly losing my mind and I was trying desperately to hold on. I felt like I was the only one who had ever felt that way. I wanted just one person to say "I know how you feel." It would have meant the world. No, it would not have taken the place of quality medical care, of medication, of exercise, of therapy. But it would have helped. Certainly some people did say something, but for everyone that did, there were others that visibly cringed when I tried to bring up my anxiety or depression. 

I'm moving forward in my journey. I hope that things never feel that dark again. I'm taking steps to make sure that they don't. Part of that involves talking openly and honestly about the realities of my own mental health. It means discussing and realizing my own limitations. It means having a plan. I currently see a psychiatrist every few months to manage my medication. I will continue seeing her until I am on a steady, therapeutic dose of my ADHD medication. I also see my primary care doctor every three months for medication checks. I exercise at least a few times a week (I would like it to be more but the reality of life with two children and a job that requires an hour of driving each way gets in the way). I keep open lines of communication with my family about where I am at with my mental health. I am also looking into establishing a Power of Attorney for mental health. Much like any other POA document, it would grant someone guardianship in the event that I would be rendered unable to care for myself. I hope that it wouldn't be something I need, but it might. When I look back on the past two years I realize that there are plenty of red flags, many times that I probably should have been put in a hospital but I was stubborn and refused help that was offered to me, or lied to make my problems seem less severe because I knew that being inpatient probably was the best thing but I was scared. For someone like me it is very important to make preparations while I am healthy because when I am in that deep dark place I know that I cannot think clearly. 

There is hope for the future, but the reality is that it is a long and arduous journey. I'm just glad to have made it this far. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Are Police Nice: Being Respectful and Challenging Authority

A note to anyone reading this: My thoughts are garbled. I tried to be as coherent as possible. I've had this post rattling around in my brain for months and I've kept trying to edit and condense and polish, but it still seems like my mind has spilled all over the page. It is a subject that is close to me and one I feel passionate about. Current events have only strengthened these feelings. I ask that you bear with me as best you can

There was a time in my life where I seriously considered getting an anarchy symbol tattooed on my wrist. I was 17 and there was no way my mom would have consented (though she did say that it would be better than a lip ring, which seemed odd to me). I never did it. At 26, I still think about it and wonder if it would have been a good or a bad idea. I think I identify as more a socialist now, which technically falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. Even so, I'm not certain that I would regret it.
Sure, anarchy isn't for me. I'm a fan of a good social safety net. Universal health care gets me every time. But some of those ideals still feel right to me. At the core, anarchy celebrates aspects that I inherently value. I like the idea that no person is above any other person. I love the sense that people, deep down, know what is best for themselves.
As great as those things are, though, they aren't the reason that tattoo still feels relevant. No. Deep down, the reason anarchy still calls to me is it's constant desire to challenge authority as the rest of the world views it. I've always shared that same desire. Even when I felt too small or unimportant to say it out loud, I wanted to know why things had to be the way they were. Some questions started small, like wondering why the high school administration was so heavy-handed in their editing of the school paper. They technically had the right to edit content (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeir), but the things they chose to edit seemed silly in some cases, and down right authoritarian in others. I could understand a desire to edit certain things (even if I didn't agree), things that may have caused problems or distracted from learning. But it often went beyond that. Every year the students on the newspaper staff would put out a satirical edition of the paper (like The Onion). There was an article in that edition that poked fun at the principal and it was removed before it went to print. An article like that would have caused no real problems for the school and was not inappropriate. The administration just didn't like it.
Some questions were bigger, like when I began researching Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), which requires any secondary school receiving federal funding to provide military recruiters with student information, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Schools are only required to provide parents with a single notice of this release of information, at which time they may choose to opt out, the catch being that if they opt out of releasing that information to military recruiters, they also opt out of releasing that information to college recruiters as well. If schools to not comply the risk losing their federal funding. Naturally they comply. Despite all of the other detestable things in  the NCLBA, I was really hung up on this one section for a long time. I signed as many petitions as I could to get it repealed. It still makes me angry, nearly 8 years out of high school.
As I get older and gain more understanding of the world around me, my questions about authority, real or perceived, only become greater. Becoming a parent has further clouded my vision, because now, in the eyes of another human being (two in my case), I am the authority figure. In some instances it makes me realize the intense pressure our teachers and administrators were under. Constantly trying to figure out what is best for children from a seemingly infinite list of choices is truly a humbling, if not soul crushing, task. I have a new-found respect in some ways. But in other ways, it also opens my eyes to the fact that these are real human lives and it is an enormous responsibility that cannot be shirked, even for a moment.
There is something more that has been bothering me though, a question that is constantly in the back of my mind, and really what this whole post is meant to be about: How do I teach my children to be respectful of authority figures in their lives, while still teaching them that it is okay to question those same people? 
Here is an example of that conundrum: I often take my kids to play at the park. I prefer a particular park because the play area is quite small, meaning I can see all of it at one time my children never leave my field of vision. This park also happens to be right behind the municipal building, which houses the local police department. When we play there we often see squad cars entering and leaving. Nathan likes police cars, mostly because they are cars. He always waves to the police officers in the cars. They wave back. But one day he turned to me and said "Are police nice?"
How do I answer that question? My instinct as a mother says I should say yes. I should encourage him to trust police officers and explain that he should seek one out if he is ever lost or hurt. Those are the things a mother tells her child. And those things are not untrue in his little 3-year-old, white, suburban world.
But they certainly aren't true for everyone. Recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and even right here in Milwaukee have shown the darker side of authority in this country. So in my version of the world, I can't answer the way a mother should. Because from up here, with my face a few feet farther from the ground, it doesn't seem like we can trust the authorities in our lives. It certainly doesn't feel like the police are worried about the best interests of people in every case.
I obviously can't explain hundreds of years of racial tension and authoritarianism to my preschooler. I strongly believe in age-appropriate truths. I don't want to lie to my children, but there are some things that he just can't understand yet. In cases like this, I'm thankful that I have time to ponder his question. Because there isn't a simple answer.
Sometimes, police are nice. My youngest sister was recently hit by a car. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, unconscious, with a fractured skull. After she had been home a few days my dad received a call from the Milwaukee police department. It was the officer who had been first on the scene. He called to see how Anna was doing and ask if they could send her a card. He told my dad that they had been pretty shaken by what they saw when the arrived on the scene. A few says later she got a card in the mail, with an iTunes gift card. They had taken up a collection to buy her that gift. In this case, the police were really nice.
Sometimes, police are not nice. Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed, mentally ill man, was shot 14 times by a police officer. The officer responsible was fired, but not until 6 months after the incident. The firing outraged the police union and caused them to take no-confidence vote in the Milwaukee police chief. In this case, the police were not nice.
These are issues that I'm going to continue to struggle with. I'm still not sure how to answer Nathan's question. My ultimate hope is that I can teach my children that it's important to listen to authority figures (teachers, parents, police) because they are often looking out for you as best they can. But it is also okay to ask questions, because sometimes they aren't, and you can't always wait for someone else to ask why.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mer-Nate: Pretend play and gender binary

This post has been a long time coming. It's taken me ages to sort out my thoughts into coherent sentences. They probably still aren't as coherent as I would like. I have a lot to say. Most of it boils down to this:

Stop with your stupid preconceived notions.

Nathan is my little boy. He loves to run and jump and crash his trucks and be a super hero and play football. You know what else he loves? My little Pony and dressing up as a princess and the color purple. And every one of those things is okay.

A month and a half ago Nathan decided he wanted to be a princess. He borrowed a dress and a crown from his Auntie Anna. He wore them both constantly for nearly three days.

He told me he was Elsa from Frozen. It was adorable. 
But it also led to questions. More than one person made comments about not showing it to people, or concerns that he could be gay. 

A few weeks ago Nathan was playing at the park. Some girls were playing with princess dolls and Nate asked if he could join. He told them that he loves to watch Little Mermaid and Frozen and that he likes to dress up as a mermaid. They told him boys couldn't be mermaids and proceeded to ignore him. Nate was sad and kind of hurt. I was hurt for him. I think he makes an awesome mermaid. 

Here's the thing: My little boy likes to dress up as a princess. And a mermaid. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. But there are so many things wrong with these reactions. 

Gender doesn't have to be binary
Let's preface this by saying that I'm talking about gender, not sex. Sure, something like 99% (according to some estimations) of people are comfortable with the gender associated with their sex. But a toddler isn't aware of things like that. He is exploring his relationship to the world. He isn't trying to understand complexities or assert his orientation or subvert the gender binary. He's just trying to understand his place in the world. We start assigning gender from birth. We put our boys in blue clothes and our little girls in dresses (Though I though Eleanor looked cute in blue)

We decorate their rooms in the assigned colors. It's a societal norm that his been entrenched for ages. But no person is necessarily all male or all female all of the time. We each have all of our intricacies and subtleties. And reducing it to male or female, black or white robs us of the true complexities of humanity. Moreover, a toddler didn't choose those things for himself. Simultaneously he doesn't understand why they were chosen for him. He is exploring where he fits into all of that. Which brings us to...

The importance of Pretend Play
Dress up, dolls, cooking in a play kitchen. All of these are forms of pretend play. Study after study has shown that pretend play has huge developmental benefits for children, including increasing creativity later in life. Why would we not try to encourage those kinds of things? Yet when you look at the things I suggested before, like dress up or playing with dolls, we overwhelmingly associate them with girls. There are very few boy baby dolls. When I wanted to look for dress ups for Nate I had to think about alternative options (Goodwill, Halloween costumes), rather than simply buying them in the store like I could with princess dresses. In the long run this is only hurting our children, boy and girl, because...

We are teaching them that women are weaker than men
It sounds strange to say it like that at first. Society is perfectly comfortable with the idea of a tomboy. We are okay letting our girls play as boys. Sure, we get a little uncomfortable when women start to look too "butch" but most of the time we don't call girls derogatory names when they like to climb trees or play sports. But what about our boys? When a boy likes to play dolls we start suggesting he might be gay. If he wants to play dress up people start asking what we are doing wrong as parents. I suggested to Dan at one point that I would be offended if someone told Eleanor that she couldn't be what she wanted, the way those girls told Nate he couldn't be a mermaid. I felt it was unfair to him. And it was, but it's more than that. What's happening here is society is placing more value on masculinity than femininity. We are saying it is okay for a girl to act like a boy because we view males as having an intrinsic value to society. But if a boy acts like a girl, we view him as weak and begin suggesting that there may be something wrong with him. Suggesting that femininity is not something of value but rather a weakness. Further, the suggestion that any sign of femininity in a boy is a sign of sexual orientation is a problem too, because...

It sexualizes children
When my son dresses up as a princess, it's because he saw one in a movie and thought she was beautiful and magical and he wanted to be good-looking and magical too. It has nothing to do with whether he likes men or women. You know what he likes? Cookies. We need to stop saying to ourselves, or each other, that pretend play (dressing up, playing with dolls, etc.) is any indication of future endeavors or preferences. Kids aren't sexual beings. So why are we putting that kind of pressure on them? It doesn't seem right. 

There's so much more that could be said here about all of this. It's a complex and complicated pile of issues. But I'll leave it here for the sake of brevity (though it seems too late for that). Suffice to say I want my babies to be who they are. And I want them to be happy. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day

I had a wonderful day with my little people today.

I asked Dan to let me sleep in a bit and then have the babies come wake me up with snuggles. That didn't happen because I was having some pretty severe back pain, but that wore off as the day went on, thankfully.

We started off with breakfast at Dan's parents. We had glorious weather and they recently put up a play set in their back yard. We spent an hour or two playing outside. It was amazing.

Dan ended up having to go in to work for a few hours because someone called in sick, but it worked out because it coordinated perfectly with nap time. Ellie was falling asleep while swinging, so we went home and rested. 

After nap time we went to the zoo. It was packed but we still had fun for the little bit of time we were there. 

After our zoo trip we were originally planning on going to visit my family, but my mom had just finished working seven days in a row and said she was just too tired. So Dan's parent's invited us back over for dinner. We played outside a little bit more until it began to rain and then we just relaxed inside and had a few drinks while the kids played. 

Finally, when the kids went to bed, Dan and I enjoyed some ice cream sundaes. Mmmm!

Best of all, Ellie spent the whole evening WALKING! She's getting so big! My little lady!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

At the Zoo

One of our favorite warm weather activities is a trip to the zoo. We are very fortunate because Milwaukee has an awesome zoo. We are also fortunate to have a Zoo Pass. My mom is very understanding of the fact that little people need things to do rather than stuff, so each year she gets Nathan a Zoo Pass for his birthday. This allows us to get in and park for free, which is awesome because entrance can be really expensive. It also means I don't feel at all guilty if we only spend a little bit of time there if the kids are too crabby or the weather gets bad.

My sisters are in spring break this week and we had lovely weather yesterday so we decided to venture to the zoo for the first time this year. Nathan always loves the zoo but this year Eleanor was old enough to enjoy it too. My sisters are always up for going with us. We went probably once a week last summer. It was awesome. We usually pack a lunch and eat there, then see all the animals. At the end we always ride the train. This time we also rode the carousel because Anna was very insistent on it.

This is the first year I've had a double stroller. Usually I either bring two strollers or I put Nathan in a stroller and wear Ellie in my Maya Wrap:

They did pretty well together. I packed some snacks because they usually do better if they can much as we go. They seem to get less antsy. 

Even so, after a while Nathan feels the need to get out. I don't blame him. It can be kind of difficult to see all the animals. It is tough when the zoo is really crowded because I'm always afraid of him running off, but he was pretty well behaved yesterday and I had the advantage of having two teenagers with me to assist in toddler herding. 

Nathan was most excited about the giraffes. I'm not sure why, but he told us before we even got there that they were his favorite. He also loved the elephants. 

And of course, at the end, we rode the train like we always do. It was even more exciting for Nathan this time because of his recent obsession with Thomas the train. Eleanor thought the train was okay too, but was very unwilling to sit down....

And finally, before we left, we took a spin on the Carousel. They have a truly beautiful one and apparently with my zoo pass I get four free tickets on it. Also You don't have to pay to ride it if you are just holding your child. So Anna, Ellie, and Nate rode it while Mary and I assisted. 

I'm really glad that the warm weather is here finally. It opens up all kinds of new activities for us to do around here. Soon we will be able to go to the beach too! I love warm weather. I'm just so much happier when it's warm! 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Celebrating Easter

We started off our celebration by attempting to attend Easter Vigil Mass. Notice I say "attempting." If you aren't familiar with the Catholic Easter Vigil, then you may not understand, so here's a little lesson.

When you leave church after service on Good Friday you exit in silence. There is no recessional. This helps to mark the solemnity of the occasion. So when you enter the church for Mass on Saturday, it is done in silence. Mass is also held at night. In our case, 8:00pm, so it is also dark. It stays that way until the priest calls everyone out to the bonfire to light the Pascal candle, which will stay lit throughout the year. The flame from that candle is used to light little candles held by everyone (within reason) in the church. The priest then chants the Exsultet in the darkness. It's quite long. Then there are seven readings from the Old Testament, each with a psalm sung in between. Then the Gospel reading and homily. Then the baptism, first communion and confirmation of all those who have decided to go through the Right of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA for short). Then the Eucharist.

It is a truly beautiful service. I've always loved it and I still enjoy it even though I don't really practice that faith anymore. It is one of the places where the tradition really shines through.

But it is also nearly three hours long. And it doesn't start until after the kids bedtime. And like I said, it starts out silently.... So even though it is lovely and traditional and I like it, it was not a great choice for the kids.

We made it through three of the readings before my kids just lost it... I went with my parents and my sisters. Dan had other plans for the night, but I knew I would have enough help.

I stopped at my parents house before Mass and we got an awesome picture of all of us in our coordinating outfits:

Eleanor and Anna were actually wearing matching dresses. Then I found Nate's shirt at Target and was so excited. Then Mary got her dress and I knew I needed one too. So I got a matching dress. We looked awesome! 

Today we went to brunch at the Crouse's. There are always tons of people there because all of the aunts and uncles and cousins are there. My kids are the 3rd generation of that family. All of my father-in-law's siblings come with their kids.... and their kids' kids. Lots of food and lots of noise. The Crouses are a loud bunch. We had German omelette (or Egg dish as Dan's mom calls it), sausage, fruit salad, ham and rolls and all sorts of pastries. They always do an egg hunt too. We had amazing weather for it this year. We spent most of the day chilling on the patio. 

After the festivities there we went to my parents' house. They only live a few minute's away from Dan's parents, which can make holidays easy. Sometimes we celebrate with extended family on my side, and that constitutes an hour drive south, but it is still nothing compared to what some people have to do. 

Things were very calm at my parents' house. My mom made ham and potatoes and a green bean casserole, but it was just my parents, my two sisters and my brother. Only nine people of you count the little ones. We ate dinner and then Nathan informed us that he needed to go outside and try out his new chalk that the Easter bunny brought for him. It was so relaxing. We watched the Brewers game and chatted. 

Here's hoping everyone else had an awesome and at least somewhat relaxing holiday! 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Creating Nathan's Space

For the last 7 years I have been living in "temporary" housing of one form or another. For three years is was back and forth between a dorm room on campus and "my room" at my parent's house, which actually switched several times. I would come home, walk into my room only to find my brother's furniture in there It felt very strange. For the last four years it has been a rented apartment. These spaces have all offered limited ability to really customize the space and make it my own. It's been difficult for me because I'm the kind of person that really bases my mood off of my environment. The inability to make my living space truly my own has had a negative impact on my emotions. 

Some of this made decorating a nursery for a baby really hard too. I could choose bedding, the color of my rocking chair and crib, but not much else. A few pieces of art on the walls, but certainly not paint or carpeting of any kind. It was a lot of working with what I had. I put together Nathan's nursery in our first home with great care. But we only lived there until he was about five months old. I never really put his room together here. 

Until now. 

We recently decided to transition Nathan into a "big boy bed." We have been casually potty training him and I felt that to really get that underway he would need to be able to get in and out of bed himself. I also wanted a room that he could use for himself. I wanted a space that was totally his. This is mostly due to the fact that we don't have a designated play area in our apartment. I think we spend a lot of time telling him not to touch things in the living room. I thought he needed a space where that wasn't the case. 

We settled on doing a Montessori style floor bed for a number of reasons. First, it was cheaper. Nate's crib transitions to a bed, but we wanted Eleanor to be able to use it because the crib that she was in was older and not as sturdy. As she got bigger I felt that she needed something that would stand up to her and I just wasn't sure the other crib was up to the challenge. I didn't feel that spending $80 on an interim bed for Nathan was a wise investment. Secondly, I knew that a floor bed would be easier for him to get in and out of on his own. It didn't require railings or extra hardware to make it safe. He can get in and out of it completely on his own. It is perfect. 

When we moved his crib out of the room I also set about making sure that everything in his room was toddler friendly. Obviously we had already child proofed everything, but I wanted things to be at his level so he could reach his own toys and books. Having everything set up like that meant that he could play independently and he was able to clean everything up by himself too. 

His room still doesn't have a lot of decoration, but it is getting there. Right now it at least feels like the space belongs to him. I've been trying to add things that make it his. I took some of the projects that he made in daycare, which had previously been stuck to our refrigerator, and put them up on his wall with some ribbon and clothespins. We also have memory/ribbon board that we purchased for him ages ago that I want to use for family pictures. Nathan loves to look at photos, especially of family. He has probably looked through my wedding photos a hundred times! I'm sure he would be really excited to have some of those in his room. 

He loves his space. He has actually done a surprisingly good job of keeping it picked up. He puts his toys away every night before he goes to bed now. Having a room he can be proud of probably goes a long way in teaching him personal responsibility for his things and his area. 

Hopefully it won't be too terribly long before I can make the rest of our home feel as inviting and personal as Nathan's room does. In the mean time I've noticed that he and Eleanor have been spending a lot more time in there than they have in the living room. Because of this they have been spending more time together, without parental involvement. When they "play" in the living room they tend to gravitate toward mom or dad rather than each other. Having a child-friendly space has really meant a lot more bonding for them too. 

The very best part of all of this was the cost.... 

  • Bed: Crib mattress from Nate's crib (baby shower gift), free
  • Bookshelf: From my parent's basement, free
  • Car rug: Ikea, $12
  • Bedding: Crib sheets and a fleece tie blanket I made, $25
  • Wire shelving: Leftover from my dorm room, free
  • Toy drawers: Re-purposed from somewhere else in the house, free
  • Wooden Toy bench/storage (you can see the corner of it in one of the pictures): Mine from when I was a kid (made by my grandpa), free
  • Wall Art: ribbon and clothespins left over from other craft projects, free