Saturday, 22 December 2012

A letter to Mr. Claus

I haven't sent a letter to the North Pole on my own behalf for many years.   I try not to ask for too many things for myself, and I don't really like having too much "stuff".  Like most moms, I focus most often on the needs and wants of my family with minimal attention to myself.  But for once, I'm going to be selfish, and prepare a list of some of the things that I really want for Christmas.

I'd like to not look and feel so old, tired, dishevelled and frumpy.  To accomplish this, I suppose I'd need some sort of makeover: hair cut and colour to do something about all those grey hairs that keep appearing on my head; a facial treatment of some kind to reduce the wrinkles that have found their way onto my face; and maybe a new wardrobe to make me look and feel like a 'celebrity mom'.

I'd also like some willpower.  Maybe with some of this magical strength, I'd be able to stop eating all the chocolate and junk which is cumulatively adding on pound after pound year after year.  Oh, and some self-discipline so I could commit to an exercise program to make me fit and trim.  This would also help with the frumpiness.

I still can't really justify spending money on a cleaning service.  It seems like a waste of  money to pay someone else to do something that I'm perfectly capable of doing myself, if only I had the time.   But since there are never enough hours in the day, it might be time to admit that I can't remember the last time I dusted, there are stains on our carpets that our older than our youngest child, and my oven has needed to be cleaned since Father's Day 2011.  So, if I'm really well behaved between now and December 24th, could I please borrow some of your elves during the off season for a regular house cleaning routine?

More hours in the day would also be a great Christmas gift.   Or the ability to function, without being grumpy, irritable and too easily frustrated by young children, on much less sleep.  You are magical, aren't you Santa?

I know you're busy, Santa.  But if you could help me out somehow, in some way, I'll promise not to break any more rules next year.

Merry Christmas!
Average Working Mom

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Christmas Letter

I wrote this spoof of an annual Christmas letter last year, after receiving one too many Christmas letters from distant relatives summarising the perfect events of their perfect lives with their perfect families.

I didn't send it.  Obviously.

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, another year has flown by, and it’s time to reconnect and share our news with you all. And since I’m really too busy to write personalised notes to those of you who I don’t contact regularly, everyone, even those really close friends and family who probably already know all my news, are going to receive this standard letter with my electronic signature on festive paper, that I hurriedly wrote at work while the boss was in a meeting.

The year started off with a bang, literally, when our oldest, Rebecca, crashed into a tree while learning to ski on our family trip. Although she suffered a concussion, she had no broken bones and was a real trooper. So far, no long lasting effects of brain injury are evident.

After Hannah’s first birthday in February, it was time for me to return to work. I was actually looking forward to escaping the chaos of a house full of 3 girls under the age of five with their daily whining and arguments over whose princess toy was whose. I figured that work would be somewhat of a vacation since it is easy to get away with looking busy at the office while not really doing anything productive at all.

Being a working mom again is difficult, although I revel in the challenge of balancing my professional, intellectual self with being a caring mother, cook, house-cleaner and laundress. I deal with the stress mostly by eating a lot of sweets and baked goods, knocking back a couple of glasses of wine each night, and lazing away the evenings in front of the television. My face may be getting more wrinkly, my hair more grey and my figure more rotund, but Greg says he still loves me, as long as I’m happy.

While we would have loved to have the girls return to the day care centre in the neighbourhood school, the spots were full. The cost would have been prohibitive anyway, so we ended up with the most reasonably-priced nanny we could find. The girls really like her, probably because she lets them get away with nearly anything, doesn’t make them tidy up (she doesn’t do it either), feeds them lots of McDonald’s and sweets, and lets them sit around and watch soap operas with her all afternoon.

Greg is as busy as ever at his job. He took on a new management role in May with a large team of mostly young women. While he often has to work late, and has even taken a couple of overnight business trips, he loves coming home to the family and tries not to be too grumpy with us. The women he works with are very nice, often staying late at the office with him to give him massages and help him relax. He is keeping in excellent shape; he frequently goes out running and plays in a football league every single weekend too.

Hannah has grown so much over the past year. Now 22 months old, she is just about ready to potty-train. She is also sleeping in her own toddler bed for at least a couple hours of the night. She also really loves waking us up several times a night, just to be tucked back in her blankets again. Hannah is saying many words, and even some partial sentences, such as “Hannah awake, back bed, please”.

Rebecca and Leah have both been enjoying lots of recreational activities: swimming, ballet, gymnastics, and trampoline. While Rebecca seems to excel in ballet, Leah loves gymnastics and trampoline. That she continues to fall off the balance beam and trampoline will not deter her. Hopefully by the time she is 4 next year, she will be better coordinated and less bruised. Unfortunately, her instructors have told us that it looks like she will be too chubby and uncoordinated to ever pursue gymnastics at more than a recreational level.

Rebecca started Senior Kindergarten in September. She really enjoys sitting alone at the craft table, and doesn’t seem to mind that the other kids laugh at her when she talks about the stars she sees in her head and the bumblebees humming in her ears. The teacher says that Rebecca is a pleasure to have in class and not to worry, eventually she’ll learn to focus her attention and figure out the sounds that the letters make.

It seems that I’ll have more time on my hands come the New Year as I was just let go from my job. Apparently, using company resources and time for personal use is frowned upon, even if you don’t think anyone has noticed.

Well, that wraps up the highlights of 2011 for the Hargrove family. I wish everyone a joyous holiday season and all the best for the New Year. And while I hope that we might do a better job of keeping in touch in 2012, I know that the next time I will probably even think of most of you is when I print off your address labels for next year’s letter.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
Average Working Mom

Sunday, 16 December 2012

My Christmas Card Strategy

Over the past few years, I have developed a strategy for writing and sending Christmas cards.  It's a carefully devised plan to make efficient use of time by streamlining who gets a card, who gets a photo and who gets a personalised note, and who gets a more elaborate letter.

Here it is.
  1. Make sure I have an ample supply of cards left over from at least two Christmases ago so I can avoid sending the same card to somebody two years in a row. 
  2. Arrange to have one of our family or at least children pictures developed into small, wallet-sized photos.   I personally never really know what to do with the photos of my friends' children, so I figure, as long as the photo is small, people can feel less guilty about tossing it or "accidentally" recycling it.  And if they do decide to keep it, at least it doesn't take up too much room.
  3. Begin working alphabetically through my old-fashioned address book that I've had since high school.  If I don't have a mailing address or I won't be seeing someone in person, they won't be getting a card.
  4. Try to be sensitive about the nature of the greeting and image on the card so that I avoid sending "Merry Christmas" to friends who are Jewish, or overtly religious cards to those who are agnostic.
  5. Cards will not be written for those I haven't seen or heard from in a personal way in the past three years. 
  6. Facebook-only friends with no other personal interaction do not routinely qualify for a Christmas card.
  7. If I have regular, personal (email communication included) interaction with someone, they will get a card and a photo (unless it is a business relationship), with a personalised greeting. 
  8. Extended family, even - maybe especially - if I don't see them very often, will always get a card and a family photo.  But if I feel that they receive regular updates on my life from my parents or siblings, I may omit the personal note.
  9. Good friends will receive a card and photo and a personal note, unless I will be seeing them over the holidays, in which case the personal note may be omitted.
  10. For friends on Facebook, whom I assume are relatively current on my life from somewhat regular status updates and photos, the personal note may be omitted.
  11. For special relatives and old friends, with whom I only really keep in touch at Christmas, the personalised note may become a more detailed summary of my year. 
  12. The personal note, is exactly that - personal.  I do not write "Christmas letters".   It is because I short- list the cards which include more detailed notes and letters that I am able to keep my cards personal.
  13. Have Christmas cards sent by December 20th.   If I can't meet this deadline, chances are I won't send them at all.  Like last year.  Although I think it's a great idea, I'm not sure how many others would appreciate a New Year's card.  And besides, if we're being honest, any motivation for writing cards has pretty much disappeared after the 25th.
This year, I didn't get started on my cards until this weekend.  But fortunately, by sticking to my strategy, I plan to have them all in the mail by tomorrow night!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

One Lonely Ukulele

I have a ukulele. 

My husband bought it for my birthday last year after I expressed an interest in learning how to play.  And I do.  I do want to learn to play.

My birthday just past again, and I think it's been out of the case less than a dozen times.

There's just never enough time to do all the things I'd like to do.  Not enough hours in the day.  It's a phrase uttered so often that it's become a cliche.  But it seems so true.   Especially at this time of year.  When the self-imposed expectations of things to do for the holidays are piled up on top of all the regular things.   Things like:
  • making some of the 16 crafts that my 6-year-old has page-marked in our Christmas crafts book,
  • baking cookies and treats from scratch to share with friends and neighbours, and 
  • writing and sending Christmas cards for the first time in 2 years. (One year I thought of starting a new New Year's card trend, but I realised that people would recognise my creativity as procrastination.)

But even before the Christmas rush, and in addition to my Never-Gets-Done-List, here are several other things that I'd do if only I had more time:

  • I'd practise my ukulele more. 

  • I'd read some of the books on my long list of books I'd like to read: "French Women Don't Get Fat", "The Happiness Project" and "I Don't Know How She Does It" have been sitting on my bedside table for months.  There's also "What Should I Do With My Life" waiting in iBooks for me.  And a whole 'nother list of good fiction that I've heard about or has been recommended to me over the years.

  • I'd get around to actually shaping and painting my nails after trimming them.   I usually think, oh good my nails are short enough now to play the ukulele, but then my nails grow too quickly, and I've neither filed them or practised the uke.  (Sorry if this part was kind of gross.) 

  • I'd love to get back to taking dance classes.  And learn how to sing harmony. Or join a musical theatre group.  Maybe I've just been watching too much Glee.  Or singing too many Christmas songs.

I'm sure I'm sounding whiny and complain-y, like I'm making excuses for not getting to do the things I'd like to do.  The positive motivational voice in my head saying "just go and do it if you are serious about it" or "If you really wanted to do something, you'd make the time for it."  And other voices saying "just relax, there'll be time for all the things you want to do once the kids are bigger."   (I'm not crazy.  Really.)

One suggestion of course, is to wake up earlier, stay up later, and generally sleep less.  But there's this fine line for finding the right amount of sleep.   If I get less sleep yet find more me-time, there's a balance between rewarding happiness and satisfaction from doing things I want to do, and the risk of being too grouchy and grumpy and compounded grouchiness because I know I'm not making anyone else happy.  Does this make sense to anyone else?  (Maybe I am losing my mind.)

So, I try to find balance and listen mostly to the voice that says there will be more time once the kids are a little bigger.   

And, kind of like the guitar that gently weeps, the ukulele sits lonely in its case.

What would you find the time to do for yourself if there were more hours in the day?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Suppertime with Shirley Bassey

I've found another terrific parenting/cookbook!  

(Actually, my sister discovered it.  She had borrowed it from the library then loaned it to me.  I've since signed it out again in my name and renewed it twice... I'm just not ready to give it up yet!  This statement may be interpreted as a suggestion for a Christmas/birthday gift.)

Dinner: A Love Story, evolved from a website, written by former magazine food writer and editor, and mom of two, Jenny Rosenstrach, and it is a pure pleasure to read.

Although it is filled with simple, healthy, quick family dinner recipes, what I really love about this book is that it's not so much a cookbook, but a working mom's memoir about her commitment to preparing healthy meals and have dinner together as a family.

I knew right away that I could relate to Jenny Rosenstrach when she wrote about her meal log - her 'dinner diary'.  She has faithfully recorded every dinner cooked and/or eaten since 1998!   A little obsessive, perhaps, but definitely organised.  As many working moms have learned, she further proves that being organised about meal planning is very helpful in conserving whatever shred of  sanity that we can save.

Her story begins in the pre-children phase, when she and her husband began establishing their "rituals, relationships, and repertoires".   Learning recipes; supplying the cupboards, shelves and drawers with the essential tools and cookbooks; gaining appreciation for quality ingredients;  hosting easy and inexpensive dinner parties, and all-in-all, getting comfortable in the kitchen and laying the ground work for the soon-to-be family love affair with dinner.  

Some great 'back-pocket' recipes are introduced here, such as pasta with herbs and bread crumbs, black bean burritos, and oh, the wonderful chicken pot pie.   I wish I had taken a photo of the chicken pot pie... it was not only scrumptious, but beautiful.  (Note to self: put this on the meal plan again for next week.)

The story continues with discussions of her techniques and strategies for surviving new parenthood while still having decent and healthy meals. Her talk about having 2 children under 2 obviously resonated strongly with me (I even got to extend this crazy period of life to having 3 under 3 1/2... a lot of which is a blur) and brought back many memories: 
  • eating meals in shifts
  • trips to the grocery store being a special outing
  • walking through the day caring for young kids in a foggy, sleep-deprived haze, and
  • the extreme importance of successfully dividing and conquering the roles and responsibilities involved in running a household while parenting little children
Reading this chapter also made me recall how proud I felt on those days when we successfully prepared a decent meal and had all the clean up done before I collapsed into bed.   It was always such an accomplishment.  I have no real recollection of the meals that we ate.  Alas, I didn't keep a dinner diary.

I chuckled out loud reading about her 'onion trick'.  My mom always used to say the same thing... as soon as you start sauteing an onion, the kitchen smells like something good is cooking.

From this section, I tried the apricot-mustard baked chicken, chicken with bacon-y brussel sprouts, spinach tomato and feta frittata, and fish presents.  All delicious and well-received!

Spinach, tomato and feta fritatta

Apricot-mustard baked chicken with roasted vegetables

Chicken with bacon-y brussel sprouts
(My photographs do not do the meals any real justice; the photographs in the book , both of the meals and of everyday life, are outstanding.)

As her children grew from being toddlers to little kids, the author promises that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - the milestone of preparing and sitting down to family dinners without too much stress, fuss or fighting is upon us.   That glorious moment when you realise that your children are playing happily and you can sneak away to start preparing dinner.   I am coming to really appreciate the kids programming on TV after we get home from school so that I can have a few moments of relative peace to pour myself a glass of wine and start cooking.
With wine in hand is how I found myself preparing the recipes for royal salmon with yogurt-mustard dill sauce, and mustardy pork chops with apples and onions. 

Since dinner preparation is usually only begins at about 5:45 at our house, the primary criteria for recipe selection is preparation time.  Besides being made from fresh ingredients, it's important to point out that most of the recipes in this book take less than 40 minutes to prepare.  And most importantly - the preparation time written for the recipe is accurate!  Including vegetable chopping-, and trip-upstairs-to-help-the-2-year-old-wipe-her-bum-and-wash-hands time!

Whether fictitious or not, I laughed at the correspondence between husband and wife about barbecuing fears and responsibilities; I too, am not only fearful of the using grill itself, but afraid of stepping into my husband's territory!

I also loved Jenny's parenting philosophies and her interpretation of creating habits and routines as an example of laziness.  But in a good way.   When rituals are in place for getting ready for school, dinnertime, bedtime, etc., we as parents don't need to think too much.  We can resort to autopilot, which is kind of what we need at the end of a long day.

Aside from some great recipes, there are also many gems of ideas in this book:
  • chalkboard painting of tried and true family recipes to the inside of a kitchen cupboard
  • a make-shift miniature 'dollhouse' created with magazine photographs on the inside of a kitchen cupboard
  • a list of essential items and cookbooks for every kitchen
  • the 'conversation starters' for children at the dinner table
  • an exact schedule and menu for hosting a grown-up dinner party with children 'underfoot'
I don't read a lot of cookbooks, so I don't know whether her approach is unique or not.  But I certainly enjoyed the way that the recipes were interspersed with little explanations and personal stories of their relevance in her life.  It was the personal anecdotes of familiar situtations which made the book so enjoyable, and also encouraged me to believe that creating healthy family meals with young children is possible.  Definitely not easy, but certainly doable.

Now you can see why I've been so reluctant to return Dinner: A Love Story to the library.   It's due back on Friday.  I promise to return it so someone else can enjoy it as much as me.