Creating a Family History Book

age-2569_640A few years ago the show Who Do You Think You Are? debuted on TLC. I tuned in mostly because family history, and not just mine, has always fascinated me. I remember my high school friend telling me stories about her German grandparents and their experience during WW2. I hung on her every word. Another friend shared with me her mother’s first love and how after decades they reconnected and rekindled their romance. When she tells the story, I picture her young mother, ever the Bohemian, with her long, tawny blonde tresses matching her long, tanned legs traipsing the English countryside with her beau. Recently a friend started to tell me about her family’s lengthy Parisian history and I made her stop so I could get myself a hot chocolate and really hunker down and listen to her stories.

I love hearing about where people have come from. The colourful characters that make up a family, the experience that turned the fortune of a family, how generations influence and hold power, consciously or unconsciously . . . I can’t get enough of it.

It didn’t take many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? for me to fall down the rabbit hole at Ancestry.ca. I spent countless hours clicking through the website and more money than I care to admit on my membership. Every day I discovered something new about my family and the proof was there – a signature on a marriage certificate scrawled by my great-grandmother, a death certificate of baby only few living relatives know about, a census record indicating settlement in the exact neighbourhood my husband spent his childhood.

The information was plentiful and I knew that I wanted to preserve it for my own children. After researching the merits of several Etsy artists and their family trees, I knew that I wanted something more and a book, that I could design, was the best way for me to compile the information I had gathered.

I used the on-line book making website, Blurb, and had great success in creating my book. I am now in the final stages of editing and I feel ambivalent to hit publish. A family’s history is never really told. There are stories that have been buried long ago and stories that have yet to be told.

Finding Time to Volunteer

help-686323_640I’ve recently become a stay-at-home-parent (and blogger – see my stuff here!). Briefly, I’ve taken a one-year leave of absence from my paid work as a bank lawyer to spend more time with my children, and re-set the rhythm of our family life. On my blog I talk about  lots of personal things, and argue that the world needs to see stay-at-home work as valuable work, and that we should not bifurcate our view of the parenting function in a gendered way.

In one of my first posts, I responded to an item from a SAHM that got a lot of attention in the mommy blog world when she wrote about why she regretted her choices. One of her issues was that she got “sucked into” a world of volunteering. Though I kept my original response levelheaded, what I really thought was “WTH? If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it!” I linked this piece on how to say no to volunteering and all the issues that go along with saying yes or no. It’s an excellent article, worth reading anytime and especially in the context of the current 4Mothers1blog series.

As I was getting ready to leave paid work for my leave, almost everyone asked me “What are you going to do?” Though I found the question a bit frustrating – hello, didn’t I just say I’m going to be a stay-at-home-parent? – I know what they meant.

What in the world would I do with all that extra time? Ha. I am finding out that, as anyone who’s spent more than one day as a Stay at Home Parent (SAHP) knows, there is actually not a whole lot of extra time. Taking care of the daily activities and to-do’s of running a household take hours every day, and not in one nice chunk that can be carved out. That care is fragmented throughout the day, leaving few opportunities for non-SAHP projects.

And that’s my main point – if you have time, find something you love (as Nathalie wrote earlier in this space this week) and volunteer to your heart’s content.

But first, make sure you have the time! If you plunge ahead and accept too much, you will soon feel squeezed and resentful.

One of the reasons I decided to take a leave of absence and re-set my life with my children was that I found my priorities slipping, every day. The kids could always be “later” while I sent one last email or unloaded the dishwasher. I firmly resolved, before leaving paid work, that I would not take up any new challenges, learning opportunities, projects or personal activities during the year I would be on leave. My work would be my kids and family, and I knew that if I embarked on, say, learning Mandarin, it would quickly take up my time and my energy that I’d dedicated to SAHPing.

I believe being a SAHP means developing a new set of skills, or at least re-deploying old skills in a new way. Transitioning into that will take some time, like developing a new set of muscles. To have the time, the energy for that, means not taking on new items – at least not immediately. Much as I’d like to finally finish decorating my house – new rug here, non-IKEA dresser there – projects like that are firmly on the back burner for now.

Still, I have an exception, and it’s for a perfect volunteering opportunity. I’ve long attended the kids’ school council meetings. For the upcoming school year, I’ll run as co-chair. Before committing, I’ve done my homework – how much time is involved, what’s the nature of the work, how many meetings, what are the typical questions and problems we don’t see in the public meetings? I’m ready. Also, I think this volunteering opportunity dovetails perfectly with my goal for a LOA and SAHPing. I’m looking forward to being involved with my kids’ lives and school especially. I see this as a great way to integrate more into the school culture and community, something I’ve been missing since my oldest started junior kindergarten. For this, I will make time.

Volunteering will fulfill you in so many ways – it’s a way to exercise your brain differently, a way to give back to your community, a way to build your resume if you’re thinking of going back to paid work someday, a way to network, a way to make new friends…if you have the time!

Family Rules

I’ve been on a bit of an organizing and (re) decoration kick lately, in anticipation of the upcoming holidays and the possibility that someone I’m not related to might visit my house. We live in a typical east-end semi detached house: not huge, but with long hallways just begging to be covered in photos or art.  I’ve been perusing my local Home Sense on a regular basis, looking for cheap and cheerful prints. One trend that I’ve spotted, which I’m sure is just about played out, is those “Family Rules” prints that seem to be everywhere. You’ve probably seen them too: usually printed subway roll style, they list those rules that every family has whether they declare them on canvas or not. Here’s one from the Etsy store Chestnut and Lime:

Cute, right? The best part of these, of course, is that when someone’s not being patient, grateful or forgiving (for example), your kids can just point to the sign and say “Mom, you have to forgive us! It’s the rules!” and there won’t be a darn thing you can do about it.

I keep thinking, though, that I really would need one that outlines OUR rules. I mean, my kids know all about sharing (that’s why they went to daycare) and doing their best (about which I reminded Second Child about eight times between 4:33 pm and 4: 57 pm yesterday). I need a sign that repeats the most frequently repeated rules in our house:

Dirty dishes go in the dishwasher

You don’t need it, you want it. There’s a difference.

The sour gummies belong to Mom

Flush the toilet. PLEASE!

Soap and water are good things. Especially when you use them on your hands (see rule #4)

Socks do NOT live in the Living Room.

Yes, you can always have more broccoli

Snuggling is not optional

And the most important rule?

Love each other. That’s all that matters.

Curing the Nature Deficit

July 1, 2012: Milkman’s Lane, Yellow Creek Ravine, Mud Creek Ravine, Don Valley Brickworks.

In his book Accidental City, Robert Fulford wrote about Toronto’s ravines:

The ravines are to Toronto what canals are to Venice and hills are to San Francisco. They are the heart of the city’s emotional geography, and understanding Toronto requires an understanding of the ravines.

If you’re not familiar with Toronto’s ravine system, I recommend the blog, Toronto Ravines and Trails with Abbey. It’s the personal blog of a Toronto father who has chronicled his adventures exploring Toronto’s ravines with his five-year old daughter.  Of course, if you have a literary bent, there’s always Margaret Atwood‘s Cat’s Eye to read,  in which Toronto’s ravines figure prominently.

Walking in Toronto’s ravines has become a Canada Day ritual for us, those years when we can’t get out of the city (read: most years). There is nothing like an amble along a sun-dappled trail to get the imagination flowing. Not five steps on to Milkman’s Lane, and the boys had launched into a new game of their own devising, which continued, unabated, until they finally stopped to smell (or water) the roses at the Evergreen Brickworks, our destination of the day:

P.S.: We’re wishing our American readers, family and friends a very happy, relaxing and restorative Fourth of July.  Whether you spend the day in a ravine, at a beach, at a barbeque or just in the company of people you love, we hope today is a good one.

Another Half an Hour

I just need another half an hour.

If I’d had another half an hour last night, I’d have been more present in the moment while helping one child with homework, motivating the other child to practice his piano piece just one more time and cooking two separate dinners (one for eldest child who’d had orthodontic work done earlier in the day and who was having trouble figuring out how to swallow with a new dental appliance in his mouth, and one for the rest of us).

If I’d had another half an hour last night, I might have had time to fit in a run. I’ve committed to a 10km road race in May. I have plenty of time to train for it, if I start training now. I just need to figure out when to slot in some running time.

If I’d had another half an hour, I would have gone to bed half an hour earlier. But the clothes in the dryer were still damp at 11 pm, and I didn’t want to leave them in the dryer overnight, getting wrinkled and requiring more of my time in ironing.

If I’d had another half an hour, I’d have finished this blog post last night, in the time between when I discovered that our old computer had finally given up the ghost and when my husband, working to deadline (in paid employment, need I point out our priorities) needed to use our working laptop again.

Do Laura Vanderkam and her ilk account for those small, incremental events that steal away portions of the day? By my count, I require an extra two hours every night to accomplish everything that I want to do: not well, not perfectly, just adequately. Even if I scheduled every waking moment, I can’t anticipate every contingency, and what kind of life would we all be leading if we kept to such a schedule?

Here’s our evening planned out:

  • 5:00 – 5:45: Commute Home (ETA 6:10 every second day because of transit delays; ETA 6:30 if youngest child needs to use the facilities for “pooping time!”).
  • 5:45 – 6:30: Change out of work clothing into workout wear in vain attempt to fake it until you make it. Commence cooking dinner. Children to commence homework and music practice.
  • 6:30 – 7:00  Dinner. (ETA 7:30 if any of the following events occur: (a) dinner burns because person cooking must also mediate a light sabre battle gone wrong; locate a glue stick needed for homework; engage in interesting conversation with a child who needs your attention; or (b) phone is answered immediately before dinner by child under age 18 who does not recognize that a 1-877 number (or worse, 1-234-567-8900) means someone we don’t want to talk to; or (c) “Pooping time!” delays arrival home to 6:30.  Dinner may be ready in 45 minutes or less on nights when both parents realize too late that they both forgot to defrost the pork chops; use emergency telephone code 967-1111 for rescue option.
  • 7:30 -8:30: Completion of homework. Showers. Reading. Family time.
  • 8:30 – 9:00: Tooth brushing. Pajama wearing.  Lights out at 9:00.
  • 9:00 – 9:20: One more chapter. Parent may or may not fall asleep on child’s bed whilst finishing said chapter; this is optional.
  • 9:20 – 9:30: Change out of workout wear, and into lounge wear (Really, this just means taking off my sports bra, but it’s important to acknowledge the day’s little victories).   Curse the winter for making it too dark outside for running.
  • 9:30 – 10:00: Clean kitchen, prep meals for next day, plan clothes, review work. Optional: talk to spouse about their day. End time may be delayed to 12:00 am in the event of work deadlines, overloaded dryers (12:20 a.m. if you do the “smart” thing and split the load into two) or anything spilled on the kitchen floor that requires more than a paper towel to clean up. Consider going to sleep. Maybe.

Another half-hour? Multiply that by four, and we’d be golden. And lest you scoff, thinking that there’s no way anyone’s schedule can go so continually pear shaped as to necessitate two hours of contingency time, I have two words for you: Stomach Virus. Spilled milk.  Book Report. Hockey game. Stale bread. Dead line (ok, that’s one word, but work with me). Only the book report and hockey game can be planned for with any certainty, but they’re all equally likely to occur in any given week.

I wonder sometimes, whether it’s possible to have a “time deficit” the same way we speak of people having a “sleep deficit” — which, I suppose, is just a time deficit in a disciplined form. Don’t we all have this? A collection of things we should be doing, or want to be doing, in addition to the things that we have to do every day? Writing more. Exercising more. Spending more time with family. If the eventual outcome of a sleep deficit is that you crash, what’s the outcome of a time deficit? I suspect, it’s the same: a sudden, overwhelming urge to just lie down and NOT plan, not schedule. Not do. Just be. Or maybe to take a nap.

A half an hour should be enough.

Clone Love

With two boys in the house under the age of ten, it is rare that a day goes by without the words “Star” and “Wars” being said by one or the both of them.  So it’s probably because I am so deeply immersed in all things Star Wars that I find these pictures so clever and charming.  Star Wars fans will appreciate these carefully-composed photos by photographer Kristina Alexanderson. Alexanderson, a Swedish amateur photographer, has been taking so-called “family photos” of a Star Wars action figure Stormtrooper, and his Lego family in various familiar and sometimes tender poses every day since the beginning of 2011 as part of her CClones 365 project. What’s so remarkable about them is how well Alexanderson has captured the intimacy between parent and child with a couple of pieces of articulated plastic. Have a look:

A Trooper in the air

Is it rebel-missile's or is it ordinary summer weather?

Hiking on the bike

All images by Kristina Alexanderson. For more of her photos, check out her blog (in Swedish) and her Flickr photostream.

Go Away, Germ

If only my germ was this cute.

I have a house guest. I call him Germ.

I’m not sure who invited him. I’m not even sure “he” is a “him”. A “what” or an “it”, maybe.  So I call him Germ. The name Germ, while curt, is at the very least neutral.  I suppose I could ask Germ what he/she/it prefers to be called, but I don’t wish to get any closer than we already are.  I’ll be civil, but I refuse to be gracious.

Germ’s not a very good house guest. Someone wiser than me once quipped that house guests, like fish, start to smell after three days.  I wish Germ would take the hint. He just lies around, getting up my nose, giving me headaches, and just generally being a pain in my side. You’d think that, after being around for so long Germ would try to be useful, but he has yet to figure out how to work the washing machine.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to shift Germ out the door.  Oh no. Germ’s a stubborn little bugger. I’m sure he didn’t much like the dose of medicine I gave him this morning after I woke up feeling as if Germ had parked a truck on my chest.  Instead of high-tailing it, he’s been quietly lurking in my pleural spaces. Last night I felt him spelunking in my sinuses. Tomorrow, I’m guessing, he’ll be back to looking for a parking spot. I hope the car’s smaller this time.

And you know, he’s not even a faithful guest. I think Germ’s been crashing on couches all over this city. I know for a fact that Germ has been dallying with my boss.  If I wasn’t so tired I’d be really annoyed at how callous and ill-mannered Germ can be.  If I consider how many people I know who have had a run-in with Germ over the last month — my husband, my mother, my father, my sister, her kids  — well, it’s kind of creepy when you think of it.   I keep wondering how I can exploit Germ’s weakness– this possessiveness — but my head hurts too much right now to try. At least Germ’s been nice to my kids. Well, Germ’s actually ignored my kids,  but like Beetlejuice, I’m afraid that if I say that out loud…oh, you know…

So Germ, if you’re out there (and I know you are): It’s time. Move on. You’ve had your fun. But I’m done. Go pick on someone your own size for a while, okay?

Surviving 6 p.m.

Dinner time.

These two words strike fear in the heart of working parents everywhere. I’m sure someone out there has mastered the art of getting a nutritious, inexpensive and quick dinner (that everyone in the family will eat!) on the table every night, but it sure isn’t us. Given our schedule and after-school activities, dinner needs to be more or less prepared by the time we get home; or at the very least, ready within 20 or 30 minutes. The more we can do in advance to prepare, the better.

Here are some of ways to maximize your time with a little bit of planning:

  • if you buy big club packs of meat for the freezer, package your chicken breasts or pork chops in meal-sized portions and add your favourite marinade to the bag (bottled will do)before you freeze it. The meat marinates as it defrosts;
  • whenever possible, cook extra, especially when cooking on the weekend. It takes as long to make two chickens as one, and then you’ve got chicken for the week.
  • use a menu-planning service. We’ve just started using Six O’Clock Scramble.  Having someone else do the shopping list is a lovely perk;
  • as Nathalie suggests, breakfast for dinner is your friend.  Peter makes a big batch of waffles every weekend and freezes them — a couple of those with some sausage and sliced fruit make a perfectly decent dinner.
I’m also always on the lookout for ways to maximize the nutritional punch of anything we cook. Here’s a recipe for a sauce that I made this weekend that does just that.  It’s nothing fancy — just a standard tomato sauce that you can rely on for any number of meals: pasta, chicken parm, or meatball subs.  I feel a bit guilty suggesting that you use canned tomatoes when the stores are full of bushels of beautiful Roma tomatoes just begging to be made into sauce, but such is life. Unlike those homemade tomato sauces, this one can be on the table in just over half an hour.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m guessing it can also be easily doubled or tripled; the proportions should be about right for everything except the oregano. No one needs that much oregano!

Sneaky tomato sauce

1 onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine (Technically optional. Skip as your conscience dictates).

3 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

2-3 Roma tomatoes (optional — when in season)

1 398 ml can low salt tomato sauce

1/2 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped, or marjoram if you prefer. You could also use basil, but I despise dried basil, so I don’t)

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and start to take on colour — about 8-10 minutes. You want them on the verge of caramelization, not scorching, so turn down the heat if they go too fast. When the onions are browned and softened, add the wine (if using; if not, skip to next step) and stir until the wine is reduced by half.

Stir in carrots, celery and tomatoes if using.  Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the carrots are softened.  At this point, add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, sugar, and salt and pepper, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the carrots are completely softened.  Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes.

Here’s the sneaky part: at this point, carefully transfer the sauce to your blender, or use an immersion blender to process the sauce until smooth. Once blended, season to taste. The carrots and celery lend a nice sweetness and thicken the sauce so that you don’t have to cook it for hours.  Serve as you would any other tomato sauce.

A Little Boredom is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Our family was miserable for the first two weeks of summer this year, all because one of my children was generally disagreeable.  He completely forgot his manners, barked commands at everyone (including his parents) and practiced sarcasm on everyone he met (“Ice cream? Why wouldn’t I want ice cream?).  Finally, after putting up with attitude for far too long,  I regained my senses, looked at him and asked, “What is WRONG? WHAT is going on?”

He promptly burst into tears.

“None of my friends are at day care this summer. I have no one to play with. And I’m bored!”

Oh.

Is that it?

Here’s where I wanted to say something like, “Oh, suck it up, buttercup! Why, when I was your age I was bored all the time in the summer. And look how I turned out! No one ever died of boredom. ”

But no. What I said was “I understand it must be hard for you to not have your friends around you, but surely you can find some new people to play with for the next couple of weeks until everyone comes back…

…and no one ever died of boredom.”

It’s true. Boredom is one of the defining elements of childhood summers, like scraped knees and ice cream.   What child hasn’t sighed deeply and yawned at least once, when faced with the unbridgeable chasm between June and September? It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a kid at camp, at home, or on a never-ending roadtrip with your parents: summer is always, in part, kind of boring.

And well it should be. As Katrina Onstad states in her Saturday piece in the Globe and Mail, “boredom matters because it makes room for its contrast: the burning joy of being alive.”

I actually want my kids to experience boredom once in a while.  They need the room to root around in their imaginations, unfettered. They need time to daydream.  And they need the motivation to do so, and escaping boredom is the perfect excuse. We live our lives so quickly, with the rushing around from school to activities to dinner. What I wouldn’t give for them to have nothing to do but live in their heads, ride their bikes, explore everything from the woods to cracks in the ceiling, and slow down. If they end up complaining to me that they’re bored, I might be tempted to look at them, wink, and pronounce, “I hope so”.

At Issue: Storm of Controversy — the “Genderless” Baby

Baby Storm and older brother, Jazz. Credit: Steve Russell, Toronto StarLast week, an article in the Toronto Star about a Toronto family who had decided to keep their third child’s gender a secret made headlines around the world.  Today, baby Storm’s mother, Kathy Witterick, responded to the outcry over the family’s decision.  Reaction to the family’s unorthodox choice has been polarized, with some suggesting that the family is just using Storm to conduct a sociological experiment — one with uncertain consequences. Others have been supportive of the family’s right to raise their children outside the “gender binary“.

Join 4mothers this week as we explore this topic.