Thursday, April 23, 2015

The British Nursery Cult

G on a playdate pondering the world with elbow on his knee
Have you ever been pressured into doing something really expensive and unnecessary because everyone else was doing it?

That's how I feel about the British culture of enrolling two-year-olds in nursery.  Now that Gideon has hit that magical age, the pressure is on.

Around the corner from our home is a lovely Victorian era Church of England parish church which houses a nursery.  It's quite popular among the locals.  People get their bubs on the wait list weeks after being born, often initiating church attendance while pregnant so they can get to know the wait list gatekeepers.

Attending is a mere £2,400 per term.  There are three terms in a year, which translates into £7,200, or $11,520 per year for the Yanks out there.

That's more - much more - than I paid for a year of my undergraduate education.

True, there are other varieties of nursery - something more akin to daycare is around the corner, as is the fairly generic Ready, Steady, Go at the Primrose Hill Community Centre.   And the government kicks in compensation for15 hours a week once the child is 3 1/2, and there are free state-sponsored nursery options beginning at that age as well.

But for that year and a half and beyond if nursery is used more than 15 hours per week, people willingly pay enormous amounts to part with their precious munchkin at a very tender age.

I have heard all of the arguments, very eloquently made, in favour of nursery - he needs to learn British culture to allow him to fit in better when he starts school, they are just "ready" at that age, they love it, etc.  The most cited reason is that if we choose to put Gideon in an academically-orientated independent (Yanks read private) primary school starting at age four or five, the school will request a report from his nursery teachers to determine whether he is academic enough to make the cut.

When it comes down to it, it seems to me that the strongest reason for nursery is cultural.  It's just what is done here.  Teachers must be qualified and all nurseries get official government ratings so you can compare them and make informed choices about your child's "education."

I can't buy this Koolaid (for the Brits out there, that's a sugary cordial for kids).  None of the reasons cited are compelling - I can replicate the structured play of any nursery, arrange play groups, and do in-home teaching.  My sister taught all of her nine children to read before they started school, as did my mother for her seven.  I can do this. As to reports, he can get one from a free nursery he attends at 3 1/2 or 4 - or transfer into the independent school at age eight when such a report becomes moot.

As to the cultural reasons, in this I feel distinctly American.  I am fiercely independent.  I grew up with Joy School - where my mother and a few others (one included my aunt) banded together and traded off teaching a set curriculum in their home every few days.  I loved it and still remember some of the lesson plans.  (And it was free!)

And I don't mind if my little boy isn't fully British.  He's not.  Although he may have been born here, Margaret Thatcher made sure he would not have British citizenship for it, bless her (although I otherwise heart the Iron Lady!).  He's an American only, and that may mean that he does nursery the American way - by not doing it, or doing it in an independent, inexpensive way.  I'm sure other little boys and girls who go to the best schools from other cultural backgrounds did not attend nursery, but played outdoors for as long as possible like my boy will.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

8 Tips to Enjoying Having Two Under Two in the City

refurbished toddler's section, double deck bus
Photos thanks to Lesley Colvin, who saved me and my dead camera

With the advent of Gideon's second birthday the latter part of March (see his celebration pictures here at the Transport Museum, aka little boy heaven), I have now successfully navigated the wonders and perils of having two under two in a city--even enjoyed it.

I've learned a few things along the way which I thought I'd share here:

1. Coordinate naps and bedtime.  This is the most difficult and most important element of enjoying having two babies close in age.  I used my sister's sleeping tips to get Esther sleeping 12 hours through the night consistently by three months, with morning and afternoon naps coordinated for each baby till Esther was four months.  It meant that Esther had four naps during the day - two large ones, and two cat naps so that the long morning and afternoon naps overlapped. It was a huge help.  Now that Gideon has dropped his afternoon nap, I rearranged the day with my sister's help so that their afternoon nap is coordinated.  It allows the house (and me!) some quietude so I am energised for the rest of the day.

2. Simplify, simplify, simplify.  I look for ways to simplify life at every turn.  The party pictured here was incredibly simple - I made cupcakes, cut up carrots, and made Ritz cracker peanut butter sandwich (his English friends had *never* tasted peanut butter - it was so foreign, one little boy actually threw it all up - can you imagine?).  My friend, Lesley Colvin (follow her on Instagram - she's amazing!) helped me package up little vintage cars I got at Kempton as favours, and I used some of her balloons.  Done. There was no venue hire fee, and the kids had a ball.

Other things I do - to keep my hands free, Gideon now carries around the diaper bag in a little toddler-sized backpack ("kackkack" as he calls it) his cousin gave him.  I picked up a tip from a friend to put both of them in the same size diapers (Esther is the size of a 1 year old and G is skinny, so it works).  I do laundry only once a week, and the shopping gets done once a week.  I eat when the kids eat and drink when they drink (and they eat naked for breakfast and dinner to save on laundry).  If I am traveling within our neighbourhood, I don't always take the entire children's kit with me - they will survive the 5 minute ride home if they have a blowout, and it saves me minutes on either end.  Finally, I have identified the color palette that each of my babes looks best in (jewel and cool tones for Gideon, cool pastels for Esther) and only try to acquire clothes within that range.  That way, most everything matches, and I don't have to spend too much time thinking about whether clothes, hats, coats, shoes and (when she was little) swaddling blankets matching.

Gideon's "kackkack"

3. Get and receive as much help as possible.  We are lucky to have an au pair, which I think is an ingenious way to get cheap help.  They are part-time, and because they are learning English and you are providing room and board, they come at a fraction of the cost of a nanny and housecleaner and can be just as good.  You just have to hire the right one (I learned from a friend the right questions to ask - whether they grew up with little siblings - genius).  For those who cannot afford regular or irregular childcare, form a mother's co-op.  One of my dear friends and mentors told me of how friends who attended her congregation in Philadelphia banded together and would trade babysitting hours.  Everything was kept track of, and you could call in hours as you needed them and give them when you didn't.  Those who are lucky to live close to family can rely on them to watch children.  When #2 is born, accept help from a mother or in-law or sister for as long as they and you can afford/stand it.  I didn't do this, and wish that I had.  Part-time help during that first month just isn't enough, especially with a husband who works crazy hours.

I'll take help wherever I can get it!
4. Take care of yourself.  Related to #1 and #3, you must take care of yourself in order to take care of two little ones.  Before the baby arrives, figure out a hairstyle that can be done in under 5 minutes, and learn to get ready in 15.  This will often be all you have.  Immediately before #2 arrives, pamper yourself: hair done, mani/pedi, and permanent mascara and eyeliner.  This will do wonders for your self-image during that first month when post partum is likely to set in.  I luckily avoided postpartum depression, but still wished I had gotten the mascara and eyeliner done and gotten a better cut.

After the baby arrives, take the time you need to to heal.  Early healing is faster healing.  My midwives insisted I stay in bed for the first week, then not leave the house for the second, and then stay within the neighbourhood till the third week.  It was incredibly difficult, but my healing with Esther was months faster than my healing with Gideon.

My sister with the nine children is a strong proponent of napping for all breastfeeding mothers.  When I can get it, I love the midday nap.

5. Help your toddler become as independent and obedient as possible before #2 arrives.  I worked hard to get Gideon to a point where he could get in his sleep tent by himself at my verbal prompting (or to let me know when he was tired, which he often does: "Aseep!" he says), feed himself, put books and toys away, and sit through an hour of church quietly.  I also started disciplining him and teaching him to listen to me using the 1-2-3 method (why it works, I don't know!) from as soon as he could move with the thought that #2 might follow closely.  This of all the things I have done (other than sleep training) I have been so grateful for, as he is fairly obedient now and will often respond to my verbal cues even when I am immobile while breastfeeding.  It's a lifesaver - often, quite literally.

6. Spend quality time with each one.  My parents would take only one of us seven kids with them on a "together time" - often to run a simple errand like going to the bank.  But it always made me feel so special, and allowed me to develop relationships with each parent.  I am trying to do the same with our munchkins.  For instance, I signed up for a baby massage class with Esther and arrange for care with Gideon during her sessions.  I also try to focus on one at a time especially when I am putting them to sleep - that is our time for stories, one-on-one prayers, and as many giggles as they can stomach.

7. Invest in a good baby carrier.  Being a city mum means you have to be lean and agile to get around on public transport and in and out of tight London spaces.  You also walk a great deal.  Rather than get a double stroller (not allowed on buses and unmanageable on the Tube's many steps), I own an ergo baby (pictured above), which is, as the name implies, designed to be ergonomical, especially for a breastfeeding mum's still-mobile joints.  I determined I would carry her till she was six months, which is this week!, and I'm preparing to make the switch to a buggy board and scooter (more on this in another post).  Unfortunately, I grossly under-estimated the time it takes for children to ramp up on a scooter and should have purchased Gideon's scooter when he turned one.  He still can't ride it where many of his friends can.

8. Stop comparing yourself.  I am constantly comparing myself to my sister.  "If she could have six children eight and under, surely I can do two!" is my constant inner mantra.  While this is often motivating, it can also rather dampen my confidence.  Two under two is hard, especially when they are your first two.  You've never been a mother before, and you haven't ever had two babies before.  It is hard, especially without the ability to clip in and out of a baby carrier system or have the luxury and convenience of a strip mall, Target, or large backyard/garden.  City living is hard, especially with tiny kiddos.

So, now that I've shared what I've learned, how about you?  What advice would you give?

Friends at G's party

Gideon and his girlfriend, Kate

Vintage car favours from Kempton Antiques Market

Curly haired Gideon turned into baby Einstein.  Maybe more product next time.

Gideon was so happy to have his closest friends there!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Because He Lives

Gideon's girlfriend, Kate Colvin.  The better of the two Easter Egg hunts we joined was designed by this adorable little girl's mother, a dear friend and party planner extraordinaire.  The egg hunt and roll came complete with flower garlands and boutonnieres, individually wrapped Easter treats and small crafts for the children, cupcakes, and party favours - delicious homemade caramels.  Gideon just enjoyed spending time with Kate, squealing with delight when we arrived upon seeing her and finding every chance he could to "talk" to her and be close, sometimes just holding on to her as pictured here.  I don't blame him.  She's pretty cute!
Although my Easter parent education training is not yet complete (I may have skipped the required Easter Bunny 101 course and thus the Easter Bunny doesn't even know where we live let alone visit us this year), I did attempt this year to do a few holiday-appropriate things.  These included taking G on two Easter Egg hunts, resurrected (pun intended) my mother's traditional nest-egg donuts, albeit home-made and gluten free, and dressed the kids up in their Easter best, including making G a bow tie.

Ready to hunt.  The compost bucket will do, right?

Heath Street Baptist Church Egg Hunt.

Enjoying the sunshine in our back garden

Esther's Easter dress was about 100 years old, purchased at Newark with the chaise lounge on which she sits

Because one picture is never enough, right?

What candy face?

Yet instead of creating more holiday mayhem, I attempted to focus this year on Easter's true focal point: the Savior.  

(Warning: this post is about to get very personal.)  I have been overwhelmed lately with changes I need to make.  Turns out I love conditionally and am rather controlling - neither of which has healthy outcomes when you are a wife and mother.  I am attempting to change a culture - mine.  

I struggled to find hope of success.  I couldn't possibly get what I wanted without controlling my environment, right?  (Don't laugh - it sucks when you wake up to your reality and the only way out is to let go.  Terrifying, actually.)

I was hopeless but for the fact that I knew I had a Savior.  I couldn't, but He could, that I knew.  So I started praying, and praying hard that my heart would let go of the past and allow Him to build me anew.  

I prayed for an Easter miracle.  I wanted *my* tomb to be empty - I wanted new life and a new heart.

Easter weekend started with Cafe Rio (the best Tex Mex in Utah) and my faith's annual General Conference.  (I love it when the two coincide - Conference is the first weekend in October and April).  As it began, I listened with intent to find my miracle.  Nothing yet.  But I was reminded while watching that perfect love casts out fear, and fear was causing me to be controlling.  So if I could be given God's perfect love, I really could let go.   

This mental shift precipitated an emotional and spiritual shift. I awoke Sunday morning with a lightness.  I wasn't sure if it was the sunshine or if I really felt a different on the inside.  

But I did.  Instead of being fearful, I wanted to trust, love, and let go.   It was a soft kind of a change, one I would have missed had I not been praying for it, and I'm sure it could be easily snuffed out if I wasn't on the lookout for old habits that could crowd out and overtake the newness.  But it *was* a change of heart, one that has begun, I hope, to change my life.  I am excited to learn how to live with my new self.  So far, so good.  

Because He lives,  I have hope in a new kind of life for myself.  One in which I can love without judgment and without control.  

G was really cooperative to the whole Conference watching thing, likely due to 1) my watching a Conference talk while making breakfast many mornings with him perched atop the island in his chair, and 2) more, him being a total and unapologetic gloobie. 

Chalcot Square near our home was appropriately decorated for the holiday, with Easter Egg-colored homes and trees in full bloom.

How did you celebrate the newness of life this Easter?  What do you know is true and are grateful of because He lives? 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Icelandic Adventure Day 3 & 4

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I want to blog about Easter and the kiddos, so I'll finish up the Iceland blogging here in a hurry.

Day #3

This was also a hefty travel day, as we backtracked from Reynivellir just past Jokulsarlon Bay to Hella.  We had already traversed this way the day before, but the lighting and mist meant much of it looked new.  I loved the journey back.

We started as early as we could - our travels were often delayed by my pumping/expressing three times a day to keep production up. (A note on maintaining breastfeeding while traveling without your baby: I had planned the trip around Christmas thinking Esther would be six months when Gideon gave up breastfeeding, not five (math is *not* my strong suit!). In any event, I was definitely not ready to give up breastfeeding - am still not - so I worked on it for about a month prior and left with the freezer full of milk so she would maintain familiarity with the taste and then pumped and dumped while on the road. Broke my heart it all went to waste, and Lance was convinced he could angle an economic value out of it...but it worked!  She's still breastfeeding three times a day.  I'm so, so grateful.) Anyway, was pretty sure I was the only breastfeeding mother on the island sans baby--saw a lot of babies there touring with their mums--but it worked beautifully and made for a nice, very needed getaway with my sweetheart.


(I watched the above video of Esther maybe 20 times a day while pumping to simulate as close as I could being with my baby to trick my hormones.)

We ate breakfast at a no-name hotel in Hnappavelir - unremarkable but for the little sod playhouses above.  Architecture isn't really Iceland's strong suit.  Buildings are built to withstand the elements and be functional - often, a mere box, as materials are so very expensive (everything is expensive!).  The exception are these old sod homes and churches - wood is scarce on the island.  More on these later.

sod church
Church in Hnappavelir

Then it was a 2-3 hour drive through the lava fields, which I loved.  Lonely, beautiful, solitary.  Without the passing cars on Highway 1, there is not a sound about.

moss covered lava
The lava is either found in rocks, above or in bumpy "fields" of moss-covered rocks, pictured here.
It was then on to Vik, home of the black sand beach, where we stopped off for groceries.  We finally figured out that to save money on our adventures: we would either bring groceries (we did plenty of this, but by day 3 we had run out) or purchase them there, and then eat breakfast and lunch on the go. Dinner would be a bit of a splurge and something to look forward to after a long day of hiking.

They had these fun little tykes carts.  Our groceries included an Icelandic hat for yours truly, as I did not have one.  Turns out purchasing it at the grocery store avoided the tourist tariff.  Score.
black sand beach
Vik's sea stacks, Reynisdrangur.  Legend says that these are ill-fated trolls that got caught out in the sun. 
We then made it to Skogar, where we had determined to enjoy a long hike above the falls. We were hoping to make it all the way to the volcanic craters - I was eager to see live lava - but the hike proved with only a few exceptions to be more than we could have hoped for.

The hike above Skogarfoss is called "waterfall way," and consists of 23 waterfalls.  Many are more stunning than Skogarfoss itself, and you get them all to yourself.  March isn't exactly hiking weather, but geared up we were ready for the sun, mists, rain, and sleet (!) that beat upon us - who said there is no inclement weather, only inadequate gear? - and enjoyed ourselves despite the elements.  Our least favourite part of this hike was the mud.  Solid ground was not so solid, but more like muddy quicksand, even when topped by sturdy rocks.  Thank goodness for good boots!

We were finally stopped by Spring melt that had left big holes in a frozen bridge over a churning stream/river.  We couldn't see fresh tracks, and had a certain sense that our weight plus Spring melt could mean a nasty and irretrievable fall into the water and then possibly over the cliff not 20 feet away where the stream morphed into a beautiful but treacherous waterfall.  I counted 18 waterfalls before we had to turn back.

We then discovered Skogar Museum - a pristinely preserved sod village.  You could even climb into the attics.  I got many decorating ideas.

Icelandic sod houses

sod houses

This was the sherriff's home, the first all-wooden home in the region, built from drift wood and a shipwrecked vessel.

Clearly Iceland is culturally affiliated with Scandinavia

We then made our way to the quiet town of Hella where we enjoyed an amazing meal at Arhus campsite, where we also stayed.  The staff was friendly and my four-cheese chicken penne was possibly the best I have ever had - I even got the recipe and was happy to make the chef's day.  This was our favourite night.  Our little cabin at Arhus was quaint, compact, and rather economical--for Iceland.  Our only disappointment was not seeing the Northern Lights again.

This barn was built right into the lava formation.

Coca-Cola is Lance's Mormon beer.  He enjoys it, usually in bottle form, while we are on the road.
Day #4

We were planning on seeing the Blue Lagoon the next day, but I thankfully discovered while waiting for Northern Lights that it had to be pre-booked and was sold out for the day.  So, knowing that we disliked crowds and big tourist attractions anyway, found another hot spring to hike to in Hveragerdi called Reykjadalur.  We enjoyed the hike and swim in the snow immensely - until we found ourselves changing back into our clothes in a blizzard!

Rainbows in Iceland are plentiful

Planks are and changing platforms are being added to this hot mountain stream

Icelandic Hot Mountain Stream

And then it was home again, home again.  We booked it to the airport 90 minutes away and made it home to our babies.

All in all, this trip was an epic adventure, and reminded both of us how much we enjoy and love each other.  I'm re-converted to couples time, even when (and perhaps especially when ) you have tiny children.

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