Thursday, November 15, 2012

Saying goodbye to Veronica Mitchell

Well, folks, the time has come. I have switched my online identity to my real name, and I'll no longer be blogging under Veronica Mitchell. My pseudonym has been a lovely home for me, and I will always cherish it. I think, though, it is time for other things. You can find me now under my real name here.

And if you still want to call me Veronica sometimes, I won't mind.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nothing makes me more grateful than sick children

My youngest child is asleep in my bed. She is four, and like her sisters has spent the weekend with an unidentified illness. Fevers and sore throats, aches and headaches, nausea. I went from one to another, dosing medicine, taking temperatures, and soothing.

It was, strangely, a good weekend. I was tired to that point where you no longer think of how tired you are, which helped. I had back-up: my husband took one night off from work, and my parents, who moved to our city a month ago, were only a phone call away, if there was an emergency. But no one else is mama, and the work of nursing them was squarely on my shoulders. They wanted mama's lap, mama's arms, and mama's bed.

Yesterday afternoon, after the worst of the illness had passed for most of them, I fell asleep on my bed, and three of the kids came quietly to my room and arranged themselves on and around me, not ready yet to rest without mama's comfort. I slept, too tired to notice. I woke up to find my seven-year-old's head on my calf, her arms wrapped around my leg like it was her teddy bear.

There are many things that are hard about being a stay-at-home mom, especially in this intermediate period, when the kids no longer have the needs of an infant, but are not ready for much independence either. My time here can feel purposeless, and I have to fight a constant sense that I should be getting more done, whatever "it" is: writing, cleaning, cooking, reading, earning. Something.

But then I have a weekend like this, where I feel so grateful that I get to stay home with the kids. On Saturday night, my five-year-old daughter had a fever of 103.9. It kept rising, and the medicines I had given her were not lowering it, so she lay on the couch watching cartoons, while I laid wet towels on her, changing them as they warmed to her body temperature. It took hours, but it lowered her fever at last, and she slept. I was so grateful that this miserable night could be followed by a low-pressure day, that I had no deadlines to meet or substitutes to find. I knew that the next day I could nap briefly, and make it a slow, recovering day. This is a gift.

A few feet from me now, my four-year-old is asleep in my bed. She is almost well, and only needs a napping day. There is no safer place to sleep than mama's bed.

In a minute, I may join her.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How I Was Seduced by Doctor Who

(There are plenty of spoilers here.)

I've always had friends who love Doctor Who, the British science-fiction television show, but I could not get into it. I saw the old series on our local PBS station back when I had television, but it never pulled me in. Maybe it was the clunky special effects. My friends would enthusiastically try to explain the show to me, arguing over which actor was the best Doctor. I would blink at them dazedly, wondering how anyone could take this seriously.

When the current reboot of the show appeared on Netflix, I told myself I would try it again and see what all the fuss was about. I tried twice to watch the first few episodes with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. And I couldn't get through it. Both times I fell asleep. Clearly this show is not for me, I thought, and gave myself permission to ignore it.

But my friends kept raving. People whose opinion I liked and respected. People whose recommendations for movies I usually solicited. Maybe I should try one more time.

So I did. I struggled manfully through the first two seasons. I may have fallen asleep a couple of times, but when I woke up, I tried again. While washing dishes or folding laundry, I watched almost the first two seasons until I felt I could solidly have an opinion on the show.

And I hated it.  I hated the Doctor's arrogance, and his inexplicable loyalty to one timeline over another. I hated his contemptuous dismissal of his companion's "human morality." I hated the inconsistency of a randomly generated universe alongside discussions of morality, as though the two can exist together.

Most of all - and probably because it's presidential campaign season here - I hated the manipulative way the Doctor claimed two horrifying options were the only choices available, and his companion had to pick one. You must EITHER desecrate human dead OR commit genocide against an alien species! You must EITHER kill your father OR destroy the planet! You must EITHER enslave genetically modified humans OR condemn people to die horribly of disease!

Like I said, the campaign season is making me more than a little hostile to being told my ONLY options are lousy ones, and no, little voter, you cannot question the false dichotomy we've set up; just shut up and pick one. I was so fed up, I found myself shouting at the screen one night: Is this why Doctor Who fans are so rabid?  Does this show self-select for sheep?

So I was all set to give up on this show again, but there was still laundry to fold, and looking for a new show would require me to move the stack of wash cloths from my lap. So I kept watching.

And then there was the episode where The Devil tries to convince the Doctor to choose between EITHER freeing this devil creature to harm worlds OR killing the Doctor's friend Rose. And the Doctor refuses to accept the options. "I believe in Rose," he says, and trusts the rescue to his friend's ingenuity.

Hmm, I thought. That's interesting.

And then there was the season with Martha Jones as companion, and her insistence that saving individual lives matters even in the midst of catastrophic death. Her morality was particular and personal, and the choices presented in the episodes began to change.

And then I saw "Blink."

Wow, I said to myself when it was over. That was great television. I may never turn my back on a cemetery angel again.

I can't remember the last time a show scared me AND made me like it.

But what really sold me was Donna. I could not stop watching after Donna. She was played so perfectly - brash and abrasive and immune to the Doctor's charm. Donna made me a Doctor Who fan. In fact, if Donna Noble were running in our current presidential election, I wouldn't be nearly so reluctant to cast a vote.

(But she'd need to have been born in the US first. Or the Constitution would need to be re-written. I'm sure the Doctor could arrange either one of those.)

So now I have watched all the 2005-2011 seasons available on Netflix.

Erm. Twice.

It got me. It has completely, irrevocably got me.

(You are now free to say "I told you so.")

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Stuff You Really Need When You Have a Baby, Part Two

Part One is here.

We've covered sleeping and eating, a baby's favorite activities. Now on to the less glamorous stuff.

Peeing and Pooping
(I did not make this heading brown or yellow. You're welcome.)

1. Diapers - Well, obviously. First you have the choice to either cloth diaper or use disposables. Here's a cost comparison. The lower cost of cloth diapers will continue to save you money if you have more than one child. That being said, I used disposables, because I knew I would not be able to keep up with the laundry. As it turned out, I had three kids in diapers at one time, and I definitely could not have kept up with that laundry. But some parents do. If you choose cloth, you will need a few other items to go with them.

If you choose disposables, keep in mind that some babies react to brands differently, and different brands fit differently. My kids could not wear one particular bargain brand because the position of the stiff tabs scratched their thighs. Switch around till you find one your baby's happy in.

2. Changing Pad - When my first baby was born, I thought a changing table was a necessity. It wasn't. It was a nuisance. All I needed was a padded plastic changing pad. I could take it with me from room to room and change the baby wherever she was. This became even more useful when I had more than one child. If your three year old is in the bath and you suddenly need to change baby, you can change baby right there on the bathroom floor, on the changing pad you habitually carry from room to room. We finally ended up with two pads, storing one under the couch for living room activity.

A changing pad gives the baby a little cushion when you change him on the floor. It also - most importantly - protects your floor or bed or couch from the baby if he poops in the middle of being changed. Yep. They do that. They do that with enthusiasm. That's why changing pads should be plastic and easy to wipe and disinfect. It's also why I stopped using pretty cotton covers for my changing pad. I did not need one more thing to wash.

3. Diaper Rash Cream - Buy a tube of several different kinds and see which works best. Mix 'em up. Sometimes one worked better for one of my babies, while another baby did well with another. Keep a tube on hand wherever you keep your changing pad and diapers. Diaper rash can be horrible - even large, open bleeding sores. Anything that brings relief or prevents it is welcome.

4. Paper Towels - A lot of folks use wet wipes, and those are handy when you are traveling and there's not a sink nearby. But wet wipes are made with alcohol, and if your baby has diaper rash, the alcohol burns. Wet wipes are also more expensive than plain old paper towels and water. There's nothing a wet wipe can do in your nursery that a wet paper towel can't do just as well, and for less money. You can also wet a paper towel with warm water, which is less of a shock to a bare butt than a cold wet wipe.

I think that covers the basics for this area.

Getting Baby from Here to There

1. Car Seat - When a baby rides in a car, the baby is required to be in a rear-facing car seat. Some hospitals and birth centers give these away if you don't already have them. Ask yours. Some insurance companies give them away or subsidize the cost of them. Ask.

Do not buy a car seat used or inherit one from a friend. If the car seat has ever been in an accident, no one knows if it is still safe in case of another accident. Car seats also now all bear expiration dates, after which the plastic is too weak to meet safety standards. This is an item you should buy new.

2. Baby Carrier/ Wrap/ Sling - This was the single most sanity-saving item I owned. Babies want to be with mom all the time, but mom has things that must be done. Wearing your baby on your body keeps you both happy. Some women can even nurse in the wrap (I could NOT do this, no matter how I tried, so it's not a possibility for everyone).

There are many different options out there. I was unwilling to spend a lot of money on a wrap, but given how much time I spent in one, I wish I had asked for a pretty Moby as a baby shower gift. If your baby likes being in a wrap (and I had two who refused to be in one - they wanted the feeling of my arm holding them instead), the wrap will become part of your wardrobe. Owning more than one, and owning wraps that are pretty to wear, is a reasonable part of a clothing budget for both of you.

Stephanie at Adventures in Babywearing can offer a primer on the whole wrap/sling/carrier experience.

3. Stroller - Some parents have so much success with babywearing that they never need a stroller. I get enough back pain, though, that sometimes I needed a rest.

Strollers get a lot of wear and tear, but they are worth buying used if you find a good one. I would never buy a stroller from a catalog or online store. I want to feel how heavy it is to push or lift, and I want to see its turning radius in action. You definitely want a stroller than can be unfolded with one hand, and that fits inside your car. If you do find a used one, check safety recalls to make sure it is a safe product.

4. Diaper bag - This will effectively be your purse for the next three years, so ask for a nice one. In fact, I ended up using a big pretty purse for my diaper bag with my last two kids. Make sure it is washable, because it will carry some gross things. In fact, you might need two for when one of them is in the wash.


Babies like to play with stuff. Grandparents like to buy baby toys. This means you do not need to buy them toys at all. Seriously. That first year of life, your kid will be thrilled with your car keys or an empty Pringles can. All those lovely, brightly-colored toys in the shops? Unnecessary. Even if you really want the baby to have toys, other people will be bringing them over all the time. They will multiply like rabbits. You will not even know where they came from. So on the list of necessary expenses this does not even rank.

That's all for now. Next time I'll cover "Stuff You Need for Baby Health" and "Stuff You Don't Necessarily Need, But Is Nice to Have."

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Stuff You Really Need When You Have a Baby: Part One

I told a pregnant friend of mine that I could make her a list of all the things you really need when you have a baby, instead of all the marketed gizmos and nonsense that people try to sell you. And as I was making the list in my head, I realized hey! This is a blog post. So here I am.

This list may not be complete. Feel free to supplement in the comments if there's something important I have forgotten. And maybe there's something I missed that you found life-saving.

Defining "need" may be a bit tricky. For example, plenty of people in the world have babies without owning cribs. Many of our grandparents slept in a dresser drawer. I am assuming a certain western middle-class-ish lifestyle here, that may not be appropriate in all instances. Take it with a grain of salt.

Babies sleep, eat, pee and poop, and play, and they have to be carried from place to place. That is all babies do. That makes organizing this list easy.


1. Crib - Even if you decide to co-sleep, you will want a crib for naps or times when the baby needs quiet time. Cribs should have bars that a kid can't fit her head through. Cribs should not have lead-based paint because many kids chew on their cribs. The latest statistical studies say cribs should not have drop-down sides, because sometimes children are injured by them.

Cribs last FOREVER. Don't buy one new. This is the number one thing I would buy used. I had two kids in cribs at the same time, so a friend gave me an old used one and I bought a fancy new one. The old one has held up better. It is probably twenty years old by now and we still keep it assembled for stuffed animals.

2. Crib Mattress - Well, obviously. Baby mattresses should be firm. Firmer mattresses help reduce the risk of SIDS. Mattresses do NOT last a long time (my toddlers jumped on theirs till the springs sprung). A used mattress also has contagion risks. Buy this one new.

3. Mattress pad - You need two, and they should be waterproof but washable. Babies often pee or poop through their clothes in the night, and you have to strip the bed and make it over again. If you only have one mattress pad, that is a big nuisance. If you don't use a mattress pad, you may have to wash down a poopy mattress in the middle of the night, and that is a miserable task. Sleeping on sheets without a pad can also feel cold for the baby. My kids refused to sleep without a pad in winter.

4. Crib Sheets - Own as many as possible. You really cannot imagine all the ways a child can soil or wet or otherwise make a sheet unsleepable. It's like their super power. Cotton sheets are easiest on a baby's skin. The sheet should fit snugly to the mattress.

My own experience: do NOT buy cotton jersey, that stretchy t-shirt material. I had some lovely cotton jersey sheets and, just like a t-shirt, they stretched out the longer they were on the bed. I heard my daughter screaming one afternoon during nap time, and I ran upstairs to find that she had caught her foot in the loose edge of the jersey sheets, and from rolling around had wrapped it tighter and tighter around her ankle until it cut off the circulation. She ended up being fine, but it could have been a lot worse. Cotton jersey crib sheets are just a terrible idea.

5. Blankets - Babies are not supposed to have loose blankets in their crib, because it is a suffocation hazard. A large, square, flannel receiving blanket for swaddling is perfect. Actually, having MANY large, square, flannel receiving blankets are a good idea. Did you miss that part about pooping through their clothes? That includes blankets. And some babies will only sleep if tightly swaddled, so if you are out of clean swaddling blankets, then welcome to another sleepless night, mom.

A baby under nine pounds cannot maintain its own body temperature, so you may still need other blankets to put in the crib with a baby if the house is cold. They should be large enough to tuck tightly into both sides of the crib so the baby can't pull them loose, and they should not be positioned higher than the baby's armpits to prevent suffocation.

6. Clothing - I know there are a lot of adorable baby clothes in the world. But just because they look cute on the rack does not mean your child will be comfortable in them. Frills and straps and bows and belts do not feel good on baby skin, and the truth is you will be so tired, you won't want the unnecessary laundry. Because did I mention pooping through the clothes? They do that a lot.

What babies need are onesies and sleepers. That's it. Sure, a fancier outfit might be nice for pictures, but truthfully? This is your baby, and you will think he is adorable in anything. Onesies are those little jumpsuits that snap under the crotch. You can buy them in packages of three or six at any store that sells baby stuff. Sleepers are the one-piece long-sleeved jammies. Get footed sleepers to start with, and as your child gets older, he will express a preference for footies vs. socks. I had two kids who REFUSED to sleep in footed sleepers by the time they were ten months old.

And then there is the zipper question. I eventually gave away every sleeper I had that didn't have a zipper. Buttons on baby clothing are a curse and a burden and should be banned by law (okay, not really banned, but I hate them, I hate them, I hate them). That leaves you the choice of snaps or zippers. Zippers are easier, but run the risk of a sleepy or impatient parent zipping baby skin into them. I learned to always zip with my hand between the zipper and the baby's skin. Snaps have no zip risk but OH MY WORD have you ever tried to line up snaps on a sleeper in the dark when you haven't slept in 36 hours? This should be part of the entrance exam for West Point. It tests dexterity like nothing else.

Are you going to breastfeed? I hope so. It's a good idea to at least try it. I breastfed my babies because it was cheaper and easier than the alternative. Here's stuff you need.

1. Breasts - Good news! You don't have to buy these.

2. Pillows - A boppy pillow or some kind of firm donut pillow is a great help. It is not strictly necessary, but when you put it around your waist, you can rest the baby comfortably at breast-level and use both your hands to arrange breast and baby for feeding. This helped me so much that I'm including it on the necessary list. If I hadn't had one, the first six weeks of breastfeeding might have required the help of a second adult. Sometimes it did anyway.

3. Ointment - Breastfeeding hurts. Here's the part where the dogmatists rush in and say "Oh no! Breastfeeding, if done right, does not hurt! You must have had a bad latch." Thank you, dear, for dictating to me how my body is supposed to work and denying the validity of my pain. It's charming of you, really.

My experience: a good latch hurts LESS than a bad latch, but in those first two weeks of breastfeeding, it still hurts. The pain lessens dramatically after about two weeks. I could not agree with Lindsay more on this subject:
If I could choose whether to go through labor and delivery again or the first two weeks of breastfeeding, I’d choose labor and delivery. In fact, I’d choose two weeks of labor and delivery- a baby a day- over breastfeeding. Seriously.

So an ointment to relieve cracked nipples or sooth sensitive skin can help. The ointments safe for nursing (you don't have to wipe off the ointment before your baby nurses) are lanolin-based. You can buy them anywhere baby products are sold.

4. Nursing pads - Your breasts will be bigger than they ever have been before, and you will stuff your bra for the first time since middle school. Welcome to motherhood.

Your milk will not only let down when you feed your baby. It will let down when you hear your baby cry, when you think sweet baby thoughts, or when your breasts are very full.  You can keep nursing pads in your bra to soak up the milk so it doesn't soak through your shirt. It's handy. You can buy either washable, reusable pads or packs of disposable ones. Of course, if your breasts are so sore that you are staying inside topless for the first month, this won't be necessary. 

5. Nursing bra -  The idea is a bra that supports your breasts while having snaps or hooks on the straps so you can uncover your breasts for nursing without taking off the bra. I had four babies and dreamed of a good nursing bra. It is the holy grail of the undergarment world. I suspect it does not really exist. But like the noble mother-knights before you, you must go on the quest. The challenges are many. You can have no idea what size you will wear. Neither band nor cup size is predictable. As your baby grows inside you, it presses your rib cage out, so you cannot try on nursing bras while pregnant and rely on them fitting when you are no longer pregnant. Even if you could, the sizes of the bras themselves are notoriously non-uniform.

After my first baby, I gave up on the whole nursing bra idea. I think the final straw was when I dutifully unsnapped the elasticized straps, fed my daughter and then began to snap the strap again, but the elastic slipped out of my hand and smacked her in the forehead like a rubber band. "No more, " I told myself. "I do not want to tell people some day that my daughter only has one eye because of the Great Nursing-Bra Mishap of 2004."

So I settled for either tank-tops with those little shelf bras in them (which have very little support), or I wore very stretchy normal bras, knowing the process would ruin them. Both were better options than another futile nursing-bra hunt.

6. Burp cloths - you know how often babies poop through their clothes? They spit up on you even more than that. They spit up many, many times a day. And when they get old enough to stop spitting up, they drool from teething. They drool like Saint Bernards. Having a mountain of clean soft thick cotton clothes to catch the goop that flows from their mouths will help you. Even if you reach a point of exhaustion so severe that you no longer care what crusty stains adorn your shirts (or maybe you've given up shirts altogether), your mother-in-law will approve your motherhood preparedness when she sees your mountain of neatly folded burp cloths. This is one of those items you don't even need to buy. Ask your friends and they will give you the mountain of burp cloths they received from their friends.

7. Breast Pump - Not everyone needs these, but if you need one, you REALLY need one, so I'm including it on the necessary list. I tried four or five different breast pumps, and many of them are not made to accommodate the generously proportioned woman. Some of them seemed to be built on the principle that women were creatures with more enthusiasm than intelligence and would buy anything. FWIW, this was my favorite, and I used it almost every day with one of my babies.

8. Bottles - If you use a breast pump or you use formula, you need bottles. And this is an area where the options are so many and so dependent on your baby's preferences, I have no guidance to offer. I would only say since they are expensive, buy one or two and see if your baby will accept it before you spend money on a dozen or on some inclusive set. It may be that the breast pump you like and the bottles your baby likes are from two different companies and don't fit together. Happy pouring, mom!

This list is getting really long with all my opinionated rambling, so I will take a break here. Maybe my commenters can respond to my list so far. I'll cover pooping (they do that A LOT - and THROUGH THEIR CLOTHES), play and transportation later this week.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Home and Hearth

Our home was built in the nineteenth century, and like most homes of its era, it has a fireplace. We have only used it once or twice. Currently it is so stuffed with spruce needles and cobwebs that we would burn the house down if we tried to light a fire in it. But fireplaces have hearths, a raised pad of bricks or stone that protects the floor from spitting sparks or rolling coals.

During toddlerhood, we kept our hearth covered with the cushion of a patio chair. Now that all the kids are big enough to walk without toppling, we pitched the cushion (seven years of stains, and it doesn't fit in the washer) and left it bare.

Though it rarely stays bare. If it isn't covered with toy boxes, the girls have cleaned it off to use it as a stage. For four small people, it is the perfect place to stand in your mother's gaze and pretend to be Cinderella or a brave knight or a fairy queen.

Once, the girls wanted to put on a Nativity play, and they brought me into the room to be the audience. "Lie down on the couch, Mama," they said, "So you look like a bigger audience."

I happily complied.

"Close your eyes, Mama, so you can imagine the scenery better."

Well. I didn't want to disappoint them.

Thirty minutes later they woke me up and said, "What did you think of our play, Mama?"

I thought it was the BEST PLAY EVER. I clapped SO hard.

Today my girls performed Sleeping Beauty. They collected every canister of pens and pencils in the house and lined them up in front of the stage to be the thorns that grew around the castle. There was a princess, a prince, a good fairy and a witch. There was a castle and a spinning wheel and a dragon. A pool noodle was a lance. I stayed awake this time, but clapped just as loud.

Motherhood rearranged my life. Things that I had always found useful suddenly seemed pointless. Priorities I'd always had slipped to the bottom of the list. It didn't happen all at once, and it didn't happen painlessly. But eight years into this adventure I realize that my essential self is still here - all the pieces of personality I think of as me are still present - but they have been put to new use. Some days it is painful, and some days exciting.

The architect who designed my house could not predict how it would be used in 100 years, but he built it to last. Sometimes I think of him, whoever he was, and wish I could thank him for my sturdy home. I wish I could tell him what a peaceful home it has been, standing strong through the changes of a century. I wish I could tell him to be proud of his design: the hearth is still in the center of this house, and it still keeps me warm.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.

One of the most important acts of faith is deciding which world is real.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the darkness. Not merely the many brutal crimes that exist in the world, but the justification of them. The human tolerance for vile exploitation. The blaming of the victim. The dismissal of violence that is even more deadly than the violence itself.

I have learned that I should avoid certain stories in the news, and I should definitely never read the comments. Anything involving sexual violence, for instance. The comments will excuse or justify the perpetrator, often with sweeping claims about the nature of men or the nature of women. The current stories about sexual harassment and threats in the gaming community is another. The sheer volume of threats posted to shut up women who protest is mind-numbing.

And it is tempting - even easy - to believe the basic lie that those comments claim: that this is the way of the world. The studied cynicism of the commenting hordes says that no one is good, no one is kind, and no one merits kindness. That vulnerability is an invitation to exploitation, and deserves it. That compassion is a fiction motivated by greed or lust, and the expectation of decency or courtesy is a pose and manipulation. There is a slavering in these comments and stories, a clawing eagerness to scratch out any assumption that we are more than our basest impulses.

One of the reasons I return to my Christian faith over and over again - and to Reformed theology in particular - is that it stands in direct contradiction to this furious baying. It asserts that the world is good, that humanity was made in the image of a good God, and cannot erase that image, however it claws at it.  Creation has been corrupted, but will be redeemed. That the most powerful wickedness in existence is only the dying scrabble of a cornered rat.

There is more to the world than the darkness.

One of my favorite movie lines ever is from The Two Towers, when Sam must persuade Frodo not to despair in the face of overwhelming evil. The most inspiring line is not actually in the original book, but I think it reflects Tolkien's sentiments all the same. "There is some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

Fighting for the good in the world means refusing to believe that darkness is all there is. Kindness is real, and I will show it, and demand it. Love is real, and some men are good, and I will live here in this marriage with peace and trust, no matter what hate is hurled at the walls from the outside. My children - my daughters - will be cherished and believed in, no matter what screeds of one-handed typists someday say about them.

There is the world I believe in, and the world the haters believe in. Only one of them can last, because only one of them is real. "Evil is the privation of good," Augustine said, meaning that evil has no reality of its own, it is only the absence of good.

How we live, how we act is every day a declaration of which world we believe in.