Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween!

pumpkin decoration, carving pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns
Happy Halloween!

Halloween is the one holiday that really is just for the kids. I'm not the least bit interested in Halloween - that is, I wouldn't be if I didn't have children. I don't think I'd even bother decorating if it weren't for the boys. It just not my thing. But the kids love it: Dressing up! Free candy! Jack-o-lanterns! Free candy! Haunted houses! FREE CANDY! And I love how excited they get and how much fun it is to dress them up and decorate and all the fun little things that go along with Halloween.

My husband is into Halloween. Very into Halloween. He loves horror movies and cinematography and special effects. He goes all out with full movie make-up for his costume and his pumpkin is always an intricately carved work of art. Mine's your traditional two triangle eyes and a half-moon mouth. He decorates the front of the house with spiderwebs, strobe lights and a spooky fog machine and answers the door to trick-or-treaters in a straightjacket.

If it were up to me there'd probably be a single pathetic pumpkin sitting on the front porch.

kids' crafts
But because the rest of the family is so into Halloween, it has become a very big thing around here.

Halloween treats, Halloween mealsHalloween crafts adorn every corner of the house - construction paper ghosts, toilet roll jack-o-lanterns and bats, and pumpkin-print placemats. We carve five pumpkins - every member of the family gets their own. My pumpkin is used to make Pumpkin Man, who sits on our front porch for the season. (Pumpkin Mom this year - the only old clothes we could find for him were some of mine, so unless he's cross-dressing it looks like he's a she this Halloween.)

And I always make a special spooky Halloween dinner with stuffed pepper jack-o-lanterns as the piece de resistance before we head out trick-or-treating.

The town hosts a Haunted Forest Fright Night event in the local woods - everyone has to dress up (parents included!) and bring their flashlights for a spooky walk through the woods with creepy creatures around every corner and under every tree. The jack-o-lantern-and-gravestone-lined path finishes at a haunted house, followed by a campfire and cauldron of witches' brew for the kids, mini-golf with skeleton bones and eyeballs, and graveyard ring toss. Lots of fun.

Mario, Luigi, mushroom
And then there's the fun of trick-or-treating! This year the boys decided to do themed costumes - Mario, Luigi and Yoshi. Mario and Luigi were easy enough to find, and absolutely adorable. But I could not find an infant Yoshi costume anywhere in North America. After weeks of searching with no luck I tried to make one - but I am not a very good seamstress and it looked more like a worm than a cartoon dinosaur. I can't even begin to describe how much time and effort went into trying to figure out this costume (ridiculous, I know) - but it just didn't happen. I finally gave up last week and decided Baby would just wear one of his brothers' old costumes. But the fact that the three boys' costumes wouldn't be themed anymore - and that the older boys had come up with the idea on their own and would be so disappointed if we couldn't do it - kept nagging at me so the night before Halloween I went out and bought some blue fleece and white felt for a Mario Brothers mushroom, which I subsequently spent the entire night sewing and stuffing and doing and re-doing.

This was literally the extent of my crafting skills - but I think it was recognizable. And the kids were ecstatic that their baby brother was in a Mario Brothers costume too. 

The boys had a blast, their costumes were adorable, the house decor was a hit and we've all had way more chocolate and candy than we should. Halloween was a success - and now it's time to pack it all away and start looking forward to Christmas!

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Monday, 29 October 2012

Baby's first birthday

kids birthday
I can't believe our Baby boy is one year old already!

On his birthday morning his brothers ran in to wish him a happy birthday, jumping up and down on the bed with excitement and smothering him with hugs & kisses. Baby giggled and clapped his hands in glee, no idea what all the excitement was about.

The first birthday, like the first Christmas, is really more for the parents - twelve-month-old children really have no idea what's going on with all the balloons and singing and colourful gift-wrapped toys, other than that whatever it is seems like fun.

They also think playing in dirt is fun.

Thank goodness for Baby's big brothers, whose excitement made the week's worth of work shopping and cooking and baking and decorating well worth the effort. The boys and I plastered the house with balloons and ribbons and streamers and the well-loved Happy Birthday sign. Baby kept pointing to the bunches of balloons everywhere and laughing, probably trying to figure out why I was redecorating.

We had one party just for us, with frosted cupcakes and presents and dinner out at a restaurant. Baby was very interested in the tissue and wrapping paper and gift bags; much less so in the actual gifts. Of course, he's a little more jaded than your average one-year-old; we have more toys in this house for our three boys than most daycare centres. We would probably have done just as well if we'd bought a whole bunch of Mickey and Thomas and Pooh gift bags and just stuffed them with reams and reams of brightly coloured tissue.

But that wouldn't have been nearly so much fun for the rest of us.

The big party for the whole family was on the weekend - almost twenty people crammed into our little living room (I have a huge family; fortunately my husband's family is only his mother and brother so we just cram them in with the rest of us.) It was a great big mess of food and drink and family and fun, gifts and ribbons and balloons and streamers and paper and tissue and toys and a half-dozen children underfoot. Dozens of conversations going on all at once, too many kids to keep track of all wound up on too much sugar, too many toys on the floor, and too much food (it's impossible to guess how much food to make for a group that big!)
birthday cake, kids birthday cake
I made a Mickey Mouse cake for Baby, but we couldn't convince him to blow out his candle - fortunately his big brothers were happy to help.

Baby may not have really understood what was going on, but for the rest of the family it was an excuse to celebrate and we all had a blast making a memory to mark Baby's first birthday.

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Friday, 26 October 2012

Coffee dates with the kids

I've started a new tradition with my two older boys.

Once a week, on alternating weeks, I take one of them out for a mother-son coffee date. The other one stays at home with Husband and Baby and the two of us get a whole hour together, one-on-one, just the two of us.

One-on-one time is something I've been trying to fit in for a very long time, but it's somehow been difficult to manage until now. Our schedules are extremely busy on weeknights because of the children's heavy involvement in sports. We so often have something planned on the weekends - one of our zillion family field trips and traditions, holidays, a family birthday (there are a lot of them in a family this size!) It's often the case that there literally isn't a free hour in the week to devote to a single member of the family.

Baby takes up a lot of my time and attention - more than necessary, probably, which is in a large part my own fault; I have always been a very hands-on, do-it-myself kind of mom and with all three of my kids have never been particularly comfortable leaving them, even if it's with my husband or my mother, let alone a babysitter or anyone else. But as a result, it's been next to impossible to carve out any individual time for anyone in the family - myself, my husband and I together, or one-on-one time with any of the kids.

I've made sporadic efforts to institute some kind of alone time with one or the other of the boys over the years - the odd lunch out together, the occasional swimming date at the local rec centre. But none of these things have ever taken hold as a regular, ongoing thing.

My two oldest boys have always been treated almost as a unit rather than two individuals, for which I feel bad. They are only a year and a half apart. My eldest, as the first child, was babied that little bit longer; Middle Child, because he had a big brother to keep up with, developed and matured that much sooner. They have always been very close in size and development. And, from the time they were infants until we moved in with my husband when my eldest was four, I was a single parent. It was just the three of us; we were a team. And, though I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do or not, the two boys were lumped together as "the boys" and treated as a single unit. It was the only way I could manage with two toddlers, and neither of them seemed to mind - they've been best friends since birth, those two.

But as they're getting older, I feel like they should have more of a chance to be individuals. It's not like we treat them exactly the same - they each have their own friends, they each choose the sports they want to participate in, they're starting to differ in the kinds of shows and books they like, they are most definitely their own little people. Both my husband and I have lots of accidental alone time with one or the other of them - when Middle Child goes outside to help my husband in the garage, I pop Baby into his high chair with some carrot and cucumber slices and my eldest and I sit down to a game of cards, or when he and my husband head out back to kick the soccer ball around I take the youngest two to play at the park. The kids do get time with each of us and without each other - but it's never really alone time because Baby's always there.

So I've started these weekly coffee dates, and the boys just love it.

I've explained how this is what adults do when they want to get together for a talk and a visit and they feel very grown-up that they get to do it too. We walk over to the Second Cup on the corner and order a large hot chocolate each. The boys like theirs loaded with whipped cream and make a great production out of sprinkling the top with cinnamon or chocolate. We take our big, steaming mugs over to the corner by the big fireplace and curl up in the big leather club chairs for a cozy little chat.

Sometimes our talks are serious - talking over the temper tantrum Middle Child threw on a family outing the day before, working through Eldest Child's nerves over his upcoming soccer tryouts. Sometimes they're silly - once my eldest and I spent our entire date talking about the movie he imagined about a story he'd written at school about aliens and rocket ships and space soccer and monkeys and toast. (Yes, toast.) And sometimes we just sit and chat about nothing. I'll hear about things that happened at school that week that they forgot to tell me in the daily after-school chaos. They'll ask questions about when I was a kid. We'll fantasize about our next trip to Disney World, or just chat about what we're doing that weekend.

And I feel like we're getting to know each other in a different and amazing way.

It's only an hour every second week for each boy, but these private coffee dates are so special.

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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Rainy-day zoo craft

We were planning a trip to the zoo this weekend, but the torrential downpour and hurricane-force winds put those plans on hold. So we stayed home and made our own!

paper animals, kids craft, zoo craftThese construction paper animals are super easy to make. Construction paper folded in two and cut out for the legs and body. Two slits cut in the front and back of the body for the head and tail to fit in. Crayons, googly eyes, pom-poms, feathers and glue to decorate the animals. We used popsicle sticks and play clay to help support them on their base. And that's it!

A little imagination and voila! We have a tiger, a panther, a giraffe, a zebra, an elephant, a flamingo and a fish.

Our very own zoo!

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Monday, 22 October 2012

Playroom organization

I've had a few comments on this blog since posting pictures of the kids' bedrooms and the living room. Comments like, "how is your house possibly this neat and tidy with three kids?" and "does your house really look like this or was this just for the photo?"

Yes, our house really does look like this. And we manage this, despite three active energetic boys with zillions of toys spread all over the house, because I happen to be incredibly OCD with regards to organization. Organizing things is my hobby.

First of all, we are in a constant state of purging things. I hate visual clutter, I hate having too much stuff. And with a family of five, there is a lot of stuff constantly coming into the house. So I make an effort to keep a constant cycle of stuff going back out, as well. But the real key to a clutter-free home is deciding what belongs where and determining the best way to keep it accessible without being in the way.

casual contemporaryOur living room, for instance, is where we watch movies, play video games, and play board games - the big brown leather bench opens up and holds all the kids' movies and video games and remotes. The end table next to the sofa has a big open shelf where the tabletop foosball table lives. And the two large brown sueded boxes on the bottom shelf of the reading corner house all the family board games. There's another one of those boxes in the corner of the room filled with a selection of Baby's books and foam puzzles and soft toys.

casual contemporary, shelf styling, organizationSo when we're in the midst of playing, the room most definitely does not look this neat and tidy. It looks like a toy store exploded in the middle of our home. But as soon as we're done playing or if guests are coming over it takes all of about three minutes for everything to find its way back to its proper place. And this is thanks to organization and planning and clever storage solutions (not my cleverness - the people at HomeSense and Ikea who make these clever storage solutions.)

boys bedroom, bedroom organization
boys bedroom

The kids' bedrooms do, in fact, look this neat and tidy all the time. Again, thanks to fantastic storage pieces like those bins under the boys' dressers; but also because their bedrooms are not really for playing.

The boys' bedroom is where they sleep or read - they each have a treasure box full of their special favourites and treasures and there's a large dresser in one corner full of big-boy toys that are too small or dangerous for Baby to have access to, but for the most part their toys don't live in their bedroom.

boys bedroomBaby has his own stash in his bedroom of really baby toys for late at night when the house is asleep and he and I are hanging out playing (well, he plays, I desperately try to coerce him to sleep), but again, most of the toys are not kept in the bedroom.

In our house, everything is shared; everything belongs to everyone. Of course the toy one boy got for a birthday present belongs to him, but there is no such thing in this house as having to ask permission to use anything. In order to make that work, all of our toys need to be kept together in one location.

The playroom.

Our playroom is, quite literally, a masterpiece of organization. Again, because it would half kill me if it wasn't. First of all, our kids have more toys than I have ever seen - anywhere, ever. There are entire sections of Toys r Us that we walk into and have nothing to look at because we already have every single toy at home. Ridiculous. But as a result, organization of the playroom has become not just a fun hobby for Mommy but an absolute necessity.
playroom organization, toy organization, kids room

One of the biggest challenges with organizing a space like a playroom is that everything has to be visible and accessible. If toys are packed away and unseen, they go un-played-with. Rendering them pointless. The playroom is for the kids. It's meant to be a fun space where they can do anything they like. But if it's not organized properly, it becomes one great big mess of stuff and the toys end up unseen and un-played-with then, too. It's a fine line.

toy organization, toy bins, toy drawers, kids room, playroom, toy storageI found my solution in lots of open floor-to-ceiling shelves and those big clear Rubbermaid drawer units (they have to be clear so that the kids can see what's in them). Everything has its place, but everything is out where the boys can see it and reach it and play with it.

toys, kids roomEach drawer has a category - animals, dinosaurs, action figures, Transformers, dinky cars, building toys, Thomas trains, Cars the Movie toys. Hot Wheels tracks are stored in two enormous drawers under the TV unit. Little People playsets have their own little area, as do Thomas playsets, Cars playsets, Handy Manny playsets, and Diego toys. There's a whole area around the tool bench dedicated to construction toys. We have two whole shelves full of puzzles and two shelves full of games (everything that doesn't fall into the board game category - those live upstairs in the living room). The rest of the biggest shelving unit is devoted to crafty-type toys - Play-Doh, Moon Dough, Moon Sand, Martian Matter, Lite-Brite, Glow Station, Mega Blocks and Lego.

kids room, playroom, toy storage, toy organization, LegoAh, the Lego. We do have a big box of regular Lego building blocks, but plain old building blocks are not the real point of Lego anymore. Now it's the building sets - the Star Wars ships, the Lego City vehicles and playsets, army tanks and airplanes and helicopters and boats and firetrucks and police cars and construction vehicles and all the Kre-O Transformers. We have a entire floor-to-ceiling shelving unit devoted to the boys' completed Lego sets, which they hardly ever play with once assembled. (Approximate retail value: more than our car.) At least if it's out and visible the kids can still enjoy it, even if they don't often play with it.

Over in the corner is the craft table - another set of Rubbermaid drawers filled with construction paper, crayons, markers, paint, stickers, glitter, glue, sparkles, sequins, craft foam, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, play clay, and assorted other crafty items. The table also doubles as a puzzle or board game surface, and underneath is the enormous dress-up trunk filled with dozens of  costumes and masks and light sabres and Nerf guns. It's all about using space efficiently.

The playroom. It may not be the most attractive room in the house with so much open shelving and the visual clutter of a zillion toys all out at once. But it's definitely the most fun! It's where we keep the chaos in our house, but because it's organized so that everything has a place, it's very easy to tidy up every evening after the kids go to sleep.

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Friday, 19 October 2012

Powder room makeover

When we moved into our home, the main floor powder room was painfully bare. Builder basic cheap white toilet. Builder basic cheap white pedestal sink. Builder basic cheap white faucet. Builder basic cheap unframed mirror stuck to the wall. Harsh halogen single-bulb spotlight in the middle of the ceiling. That same gross grey colour the previous owner painted every square inch of the entire house in. The only thing that could really be said for our sad little powder room was that the previous owner didn't impose his lack of taste on the room in any way. He didn't impose anything on the room. It was as bare as a prison cell.

Powder room after
A couple of trips to Home Depot, a new vanity, sink and faucet, a new mirror and light fixture, and several rolls of a gorgeously rich textured wallpaper and voila - brand new powder room. A couple of warm, cozy touches and it's gone from a room I wouldn't even set foot in to a room I love. Well, as much as one can love a bathroom.

Powder room before

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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dining room before & after

The dining area is finally finished.
First of all, let me be clear: the "before" picture was taken from the listing when we bought our house last year. THAT IS NOT OUR TASTE. Just to clarify.

Kitchen makeover, dining room makeover, dining room update
Dining area - BEFORE

Like the rest of the house, the walls were given a new coat of paint to warm up that hideous grey. We went with Brazil Nut, a warm beachy golden beige. I am a warm colour sort of girl, and that stark grey was very cold to me.

Dining room, kitchen, eating area, breakfast area, dining room update, dining room makeover
Dining area - AFTER
Also like the rest of the house, the light fixture was replaced. Nothing fancy, just something a little less painfully ugly. The brushed nickel accents tie in with the other stainless steel elements in the kitchen and dining areas and, because our house is very open-concept, the shape and style speak to all the other fixtures we installed throughout the house.

bar, glass storageThe inexplicable extra cabinetry and counter-top (over there in the corner, where a normal person would put a buffet) were removed. I don't know what the previous owner was thinking - I mean, it matched the kitchen cabinets & counters, which makes sense since the two areas are adjoining, but it rested six inches below the counter height it butted up to, stuck three feet out into the room, and ended eight inches short of the far wall leaving a useless, obviously accidental gap. It actually doesn't look that awful in this before picture - but it really was. We replaced it with a pair of clean floating shelves from Ikea in a birch finish (which will look amazing once our new butcher-block countertop is installed in the kitchen), effectively doubling the size of the room and allowing us to put in a much bigger, family-sized table. The birch-finish look is mirrored on the opposite side of the room in our bookcase-turned-bar, also from Ikea.

And, of course, we have our own table & chairs and stuff in there now and an area rug for warmth. It's a little more contemporary, a little more cozy, a little less cluttered and a lot more practical for a large family living in a small space.

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Monday, 15 October 2012

Living room before & after

We absolutely adore our comfy-casual living room now that its makeover is almost complete. 

Living room - BEFORE

Living room makeover, warm colours, organized shelves, wood floors,
Living room - AFTER
So here's how it looked when we first bought the house (These "before" pics are from the house listing - the poor taste belongs to the previous owner, not us.) Was that purple paint on the walls, you ask? No, actually, it was grey - which I also happen to hate, but obviously not nearly so much as purple - it just happens that this particular shade of grey somehow looked lilac when the light shone on it a certain way. And the whole house was painted this colour - the whole house, top to bottom, every single room. Painful.                                                                                
Obviously, painting was the first thing we did. We replaced the purply-grey with the warm, beachy golden-beige Brazil Nut throughout the entire main floor and all the open areas. Much warmer, happier and homier.                                                  
We pulled out the carpet, too. I am not a fan of wall-to-wall carpet - I think it looks kind of dated, plus there's the grossness of years and years of dead skin cells and dust mites that just won't vacuum up lying in layers under there. Oh, and it too was grey. I really do not like grey. We replaced it with a beautiful mid-tone walnut floor that looks just perfect.

Furniture placement was tricky. We didn't want to overcrowd the room, and nothing drives me nuts more than clutter. But we are a family of five, and this is a very small home. We need enough seating, we need to be comfortable, and we need enough space for all our stuff. Some of our furniture does double duty - that leather ottoman opens up and houses all our movies and the brown sueded boxes in the reading corner are filled with board games. Yes, we have a lot more in the room than the previous owner - but, unlike many people, we actually use our living room for living. It's where we watch TV and the kids play the Wii; it's where forts get built and board games played; it's where husband and I sit to enjoy a glass of wine and a movie after the kids go to sleep. 

Being on a budget, we've done all of the work on the house ourselves, which means that projects that should have taken days have stretched on for weeks and sometimes months. I can't count how many nights we were up until 2:00am, me sixteen feet up on a ladder with a paintbrush or putty knife in hand while Husband hammered away at the floor; but now that it's all finished we couldn't be happier.

Living room, seating, shelves
Reading corner

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Friday, 12 October 2012

First world problems

There is nothing that enrages me more than a smug, sanctimonious self-important asshole with a cause. I live in a privileged part of the world. I have both been very lucky, and worked very hard for what I have. I am happy in my life, and I am entitled to enjoy my happiness and my life.

What gives any human being the right to judge another human being for enjoying their life?

We all have one of those friends who forwards links to every cause and posts stories about every injustice taking place in the world in order to show how broad-minded and forward-thinking they are; and, by implication, how selfish the rest of us are. Not because this is a cause they support financially, volunteer time for, or are involved with in any way - simply because it points out how petty we are for thinking about our own lives when there is so much else going on in the world.

My Facebook status yesterday was that after weeks of hunting I'd found the Halloween costume I'd wanted for Baby - followed by the tongue-in-cheek hashtag #firstworldproblems. Because I'm fully aware that this is not a problem. Would the world have ended had I not found the costume? No. Would I have been disappointed? Possibly. Mildly.

This morning a friend posted a link to the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani blogger and activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to speak up for her right to education. His preface was about people who complain when they can't find that "just right" Halloween costume for their babies when there are things like this going on in the world - not terribly subtle.

Malala's story is a shocking and sickening - as are most of the stories that come out of that part of the world regarding the Taliban. It makes me physically sick to my stomach that human beings can behave that way to other human beings, and that things that we take so for granted in this part of the world - like girls being treated equally to boys and our children receiving an education - are so far out of reach in that part of the world.

There is incredible inequality and injustice in all parts of the world - horrible atrocities like women being murdered for attempting to exert the free will we take for granted, entire villages slowly starving to death while one night of our dinner leavings would feed a whole family, an entire race being forced to live in poverty, imprisoned, tortured and often killed because they were born on the wrong side of an invisible political line or the God they pray to goes by another name; closer to home, we have bullies torturing schoolmates to the point of suicide, parents beating their children, little girls with eating disorders, women being raped and blamed because they dress too provocatively. There is racism, sexism, staggering economic and political inequality the world over. These things are terrible, and we should all be aware of them and, if at all possible, help in any way we can.

But that doesn't make anyone a bad person for enjoying and living their own life as well.

I was lucky enough to have been born in a part of the world where free will and human rights are taken for granted, to parents who loved and nurtured me and provided me with a beautiful home and extra-curricular activities and family vacations and a university education, where what I do with my life is limited only by the choices I make. I could just as easily have been born in a part of the world where the mere fact that I was a girl would have eliminated my basic human rights, to parents who lacked the means to feed, clothe or shelter me if they were even still alive themselves, where getting through each day was a struggle and future plans involved how to find enough water to get through the next day. It's as simple as an accident of birth, and incredibly unfair that such staggering differences and inequalities exist. But, unfortunately, they do. And while we should certainly as a human race work to eliminate these inequalities - and the burden of that should absolutely lie more with those in the parts of the world that have the means to do so - I do not think that those of us who are lucky enough to live here should not be permitted to enjoy our own lives as well.

Humans are, by nature, selfish. Regard for other human beings is something we learn and develop by living and growing up in a society. In fact, sociopaths - characterized by narcissism and a lack of empathy or regard for other people - are not even diagnosed as children as the symptoms of this antisocial personality disorder are so similar to the behaviour naturally inherent in children anyway. Empathy for other human beings is not something we are born with. The instincts for self-preservation and self-interest are a deep-rooted part of human nature.

But we do learn empathy for other human beings. Most of us do our best to be as unselfish in our day-to-day lives as possible, and we do what we can within our means for those less fortunate. Perhaps you are the most altruistic person on the planet, living on the bare nminimum and donating the remainder of your paycheque to starving children in Africa and volunteering your vacation time to work with AIDS patients in Thailand. For that you should be commended. Perhaps all you do is post links to stories about those causes. That's fine too - spreading the word about a cause still helps that cause.

Personally, the only cause I contribute to on an international level is child poverty. Closer to home, we contribute to a children's hospital, the local women's shelter, and the breakfast-in-schools program. These are the causes which I have chosen to direct my resources toward, because these are the issues which tug at my heartstrings the most - some people contribute to animal welfare or the protection of the environment or building for the homeless. All equally admirable. We all do what we can, and we can't all do everything. Could I be doing more? Probably. But I don't think I'm doing any less than most people, and certainly a great deal more than many.

I realize it's positively absurd that, in my world, something like trying to schedule a weekend excursion to a theme park is challenging because of the kids' extra-curricular sports schedule, that rearranging the monthly budget is because we're planning a trip to Disney World, that I can spend hours out of my life searching out that perfect Halloween costume for my baby. Petty, silly luxuries compared to the real, raw problems that exist in the "real" world.

But this is my world. I am fortunate enough to have been born into this world, and very grateful for that. I do what I can to help those less fortunate, and I teach my children the same. But I also take them to theme parks and on vacations and look for the perfect Halloween costume. I hope they grow up learning to be grateful, to appreciate what they have, and the importance of giving back and helping others; I also hope they learn that if they work for it they can have a happy life, because that is a privilege we enjoy in this part of the world. I live in the first world and I am entitled to enjoy my life here with its #firstworldproblems.

And I will not apologize for that.

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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Teaching kids about money

It's hard, as parents, to figure out where to draw the line with our kids. We want to do everything for them, we want to give them everything under the sun, but we don't want them to grow up spoiled.

It seems like the best way to teach kids about the value of money is to give them their own. We started our boys on allowances when they were four or five years old, and they earn one dollar a week for however many years old they are - at five years old they earned five dollars, at six they earned six dollars, and so on. (This will get very expensive in a few years with three kids!)

We have a "Chore Chart" on the fridge where all of their daily chores are listed for the week. They earn a checkmark for each chore they complete. If they meet the minimum number of checkmarks by the end of the week, they earn their full allowance; if they missed a few, they earn less; if they're below a certain number, they earn none. It's all laid out where they can see it every day and know how they're doing that week, how many checks they have, how many checks they need, what chores they've forgotten, what extra chores they can do to make it up - the onus is on them to know what they're responsible for and what the rewards or consequences are.

And just as the allowance they can earn increases as they get older, so do their responsibilities. When they were younger, "chores" were things like getting themselves dressed in the morning & putting their clothes in the laundry basket, remembering to brush their teeth without being told, hanging up their coats when we came in, finishing their dinners. Now that they're older things like that are simply expected as a functioning member of the family. Chores now involve making their beds and cleaning their rooms, unpacking lunchbags and backpacks, setting the table and clearing their plates, finishing homework, and helping with yard work and house work. They understand what is expected of them and the dollar value attached to those tasks.

One dollar each week automatically goes into savings - each boy has a savings account they can watch grow each week but aren't allowed to touch until they're older. Hopefully this helps them to understand the concept of long-term savings. For short-term saving, the kids have learned that when they see something they want at the store, they have to save until they have enough money for it (or put it on a birthday or Christmas wish list). When they have enough, they can choose to buy it, or save for something bigger, or buy several smaller items - they're slowly learning the value of money now that they have to earn it for themselves and now that it is only available in a finite amount.

When they were younger I had a much harder time teaching the boys about the value of money. It was hard for me to say no to them - mostly out of guilt. I broke up with their biological father when Middle Child was only one year old, and raised them on my own for a couple years. This was by far the best, healthiest decision for all of us, and I don't believe they were affected negatively at all - my ex was such a limited part of their lives even when he lived with us, and they were so young when we split that they have no memory of his ever having been more than someone they visit once every week or two - but I still felt guilty. And, during those first few years when I had just reentered the workforce and was raising two babies on my own - with all the household and daycare and childrearing expenses on one limited income with no support from the ex - there just wasn't any extra money for treats, so any time I could afford not to say "no" when the kids wanted something, I said "yes". Again, out of guilt. The kids were starting to expect that if they wanted something, I'd automatically buy it for them - they were in serious danger of becoming spoiled, and had no concept that things actually cost money or that Mommy had to work to earn that money.

Instituting the idea of earning their own money to buy what they want has helped. It took a while to make them understand that treats are just that - treats - that they are not to expect toys and gifts every time we leave the house; rather, if there's something they'd like, they either need to put it on their wish list for the next gift-giving occasion or save up to buy it themselves. It took many months of saying "no" when I would rather say "yes" and explaining the lesson over and over again before their thinking and expectations changed and they began to understand, but now they do; if they see something they want when we're out they no longer even ask for it - instead the first thing they do is figure out the math on how many weeks of allowance it will take to save up for it.

We still spoil the boys in many respects. My husband says I go WAY overboard for Christmas and birthdays, which I probably do. The boys have grown so used to our constant field-tripping and vacationing that they now just take for granted that I'll have found some fair or festival or fun field trip or activity every single weekend, and it's always "next year at Disney I want to...". BUT, they also know to only have one really super expensive item on their wish list at a time, they ask rather than expect treats on our weekend outings, and they understand that Mommy being home with them every day and the family going to Disney every winter means having only one car and walking to the grocery store sometimes and helping with the shopping without complaint. They save for the things they want, and even spend their own money on birthday gifts for each other.

Christmas presents
Going overboard at Christmas
I'm proud of how smart my kids are learning to be with their money, as difficult a lesson as it was to teach, and I hope these concepts of earning, saving, and smart spending translate into their adult lives.

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's that time of year, when the trees are turning and the air turns cooler and the ground is covered with crunchy orange leaves, when front porches are filled with pumpkins and hay bales and the first thing you smell when you step inside the front door is spicy-sweet apple-cinnamon baking. The first long weekend after the kids return to school, the first long weekend devoted to family, rich food and wine rather than cottage, beach and beer in the long ramp-up toward the winter holidays.

For our family, Thanksgiving means the weekend up north at my grandparents' place. The whole family is there - my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, my brothers and their wives and kids, and the five of us. We're a pretty big family when we're all together. In the last few years as we've all had more children family gatherings have become louder, messier, crazier and more chaotic. I'm not sure how, but although our three, my brother's two, and my other brother's one only add up to six children in all, once they're in a room together they seem to somehow multiply and you'd swear there were at least a dozen of them running around underfoot. It's such a warm, wonderful mess of food and family and laughter and love.

We all love going up to Grandma & Grandpa's. Their home is the warmest, happiest place in the world, at least four times too large for what they need but absolutely perfect for big family gatherings. Grandma way overdoes it every year, cooking and baking enough to feed five or six families our size. So many of my vague but happy childhood memories are wrapped up in Grandma and Grandpa and the great big family functions in their home - that sense of cozy comfort and unconditional love you only feel with family.

So what am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? There's so much.

I'm thankful, first of all, that I have my Grandma & Grandpa and that my kids are growing up knowing and loving them too. I'm thankful for my parents and my brothers and their families. I'm thankful that I get to spend my life with the most wonderful man I've ever known, my very best friend in the world who I somehow fall more in love with every day. I'm thankful for my three incredible, beautiful boys who amaze me every time I look at them and break my heart with their innocence, their cleverness, their openness, their love. I'm thankful for my wonderful life, our loving little home, and our health. I'm thankful to have such good friends, friends I consider an extension of my family. I have so much to be thankful for and I feel so lucky and so blessed to have so much.

So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope everyone else has a wonderful holiday weekend filled with good food and great times, and wonderful friends & family to share it with. There's nothing quite like the smell of turkey and sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, the sound of clinking glasses and laughter and a half-dozen conversations going on at once, the warmth of a house full of family and love to remind you how much you have to be thankful for.

kids crafts, handprint crafts
Thanksgiving turkey craft how-to:
1.paint/colour toilet rolls
2.trace & cut out kids' handprints on construction paper, glue to toilet roll
3.glue on googly eyes & construction paper "beak"
4.collect fall leaves, add craft feathers, glue on turkey's tail

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Friday, 5 October 2012

Competitive Moms

Why is it that almost every mom out there is better at it than every other mom? Where did this competitiveness come from?

When I recently tried to explain to someone guilt-tripping us over not being free for a visit every single week just how busy we are between three kids, their sports, our jobs, school, volunteering, and trying to balance our family time, friends, and extended families, I was told smugly that because she did it as a single parent (her two kids are grown now) she did everything I do and so much more; it's a shame I can't manage it better.

A girlfriend who has recently decided with her husband that their family is complete after one child explained to me in detail how it's just not fair to a child to burden them with a bunch of siblings; there simply isn't enough time or money or attention to go around, and the children suffer as a result.

A few months ago I was chatting with a neighbourhood mom whose firstborn is only one week older than my youngest about the fresh, organic baby food she made for him each and every meal. The look she gave me when I told her I only made about half of Baby's food from scratch and supplemented with organic jar food from the grocery store was the same look I would have expected if I'd explained how I was systematically supplementing his diet with arsenic.

I get attitude from working moms about how my kids don't get enough socialization because they're not in daycare. When I worked outside the home I was judged for sending them to daycare for the hour after school until I could pick them up. The wealthy moms in the neighbourhood are shocked that I send my kids to (gasp!) public school and we don't even have a nanny; the other moms in the schoolyard glance over at the "nanny patrol" grouped near the school door and tsk tsk over the shame of parents who don't raise their own children.

There are those moms who seem to believe that because their baby walked at only nine months old or their son is in a higher grade of piano lessons or their daughter made the volleyball team, they are inherently a better mom. Because they make their pie crusts from scratch and sew their daughter's dance costumes themselves and grow their own organic vegetables and organize the school fundraiser they are somehow superior to all other moms. There is always going to be someone who throws a bigger birthday party or whose child is involved in more sports or earns more music awards. Someone who makes their own frosted cupcakes for after-school snack each and every day and spends six hours on the weekends boiling and bottling jars of jam and preserves.

Turning on the television, checking our Facebook or Pinterest accounts, or a glance at the parenting section in the bookstore reminds us in an instant that we're doing everything wrong; that there is a set of rules for child rearing that works and if that's not the method we use we are likely completely unqualified and of questionable competence as parents; that if we are any kind of decent mom at all we will not only keep a perfect home, have a successful career, cook everything from scratch and bake fancy, themed desserts every day, but we will have endless amounts of time, energy, and creativity to create incredible homemade crafts and projects with and for our children every day of our lives.

I think I'm a pretty good mom. I love my kids and am doing my absolute best to help them grow up into good, loving adults. I play with them, I do crafts with them, I take them on outings and read them books and listen to their stories. I've arranged my life so that during the years my kids want and need me I'm here raising them myself rather than sending them to daycare. We've given them a good home in a safe, friendly neighbourhood and send them to an excellent school, they participate in every sport and extra-curricular activity they're interested in and our lives are filled with family field trips and vacations and traditions. The kids want for nothing and I think I'm doing a pretty good job as a mom overall. But, like every mom, I don't feel like it's enough.

I'm forever wondering if I'm doing the right thing. If I'm doing enough. If I'm doing it right. If I could be doing more. I feel guilty when I'm tired. When I snap at my kids or yell at them or say something I shouldn't. I feel guilty when they fight with each other or with me or throw temper tantrums or act out in a way I don't think  lines up with how they've been raised. When I have to say no.

And I think that's just part of being a parent. Every parent want to do as much as they possibly can for their kids, and every parent feels that sense of guilt that they could be doing more. Thanks to social media, a hundred times a day we are shown the thousand and one ways we could be doing it better. There is no way of eliminating the guilt.

But we could eliminate the judgement, the sense of competition.

I have been a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home mom, and a working-outside-the-home-mom. I have been a single mom and a both-parents-at-home mom. I have been a mom of one, two, and now three kids. I  have raised my kids in both a have and a have-not household. They are all hard work. They are also all rewarding. And at the end of the day, it's just about loving my kids and doing the best I can for them with what I have to work with.

Parenting does not have to be a contest. It shouldn't be a competition. We are all just trying to do the very best for our children in the best way we know how and are able. We should be on the same team.
And if we stop being such competitive moms maybe we can help one another cope with the ever-present mom guilt.

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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Alone time for Mom: get a hobby

Everybody says it, but I don't know many moms who are very good at it. I'm not.

You have to take time for yourself. You have to have interests outside of the kids and the family. You have to somehow find time to do your own thing, have quality time alone, have quality time with your husband, have quality time with your friends, and still be a perfect parent.

All the parenting articles, the mommy blogs, the books and magazines and TV shows and everything we read and hear about how to be a parent tells us we need to do this to be a better person, to be a better mom, to keep our individuality and our sanity and to teach our kids that their parents are people too.

But honestly, who has the time for that?

There simply aren't enough hours in the day.
Every single hour that the kids are awake they require one hundred percent of Mommy's attention. There isn't enough time to sit down and enjoy a quiet cup of coffee and a couple of minutes with a book - how could we possibly find any meaningful time to do something for ourselves?

There are some moms in my neighbourhood who do manage to do just that - I know a few women who will regularly drop their kids off at the sitter's so they can go to yoga class or volunteer at the school bake sale, or ship the kids off to the grandparents' every second weekend so they and their husbands can have a break. If that's what works for their family, then good for them. Personally, I've never been able to do that. My feeling is that if we've decided that I'll be a stay-at-home mom, then the point is for me to be at home with my boys, not to send them off to a babysitter.

I have such a sense of this time with my kids being finite and very limited. Baby will only be a baby for a very short time before he's off to school with his brothers five days a week. And the kids will all be kids for only a few short years before they're busy teenagers more interested in spending time with friends than family, then young adults off to university, then all grown up and starting their own lives. Of course our children will always be our children and we will always be a part of their lives. But we will never have this precious time back when they are in their growing-up years, when they're being kids and love me and need me and I get to watch them and help them learn and grow and become the people they're going to be, when they're saying and doing things that amaze me and make me laugh a hundred times a day, when they want to tell me every little thought and dream that goes through their heads and every little thing that happens to them during the day, when they're learning new things every day and I'm learning so much about the world from the way they see it, when every moment is a memory in the making and I feel like I just want to hold on to it all forever.

This time won't last forever, and I want to cherish every possible moment while it's still here.

There are only five hours between when I pick the kids up from school and when they go to bed.
We generally have sports at least two nights a week, and often once on the weekend.
There is only one weekend every week, one evening of which my two older boys visit their father.
The time with my children seems so limited to me - I want to spend every second enjoying it with them.

Losing any of that time to sending the kids to a sitter for the afternoon just so I can indulge in a couple of hours at the gym, or shipping them off to the grandparents for an entire weekend while my husband and I laze about - it just doesn't fit with my notion of how I should be should be shaping my children's childhood. This is not to say that those moms who manage to do this are wrong - it's just that I couldn't do it without a crippling sense of guilt. I wouldn't enjoy the time to myself, and it wouldn't relax me in any way. That simply isn't a part of my nature. I think it's a matter of knowing what your strengths and limitations are, as a parent and as a human being, and working within those limits.

But we come back to the issue of balance. How do you find time to still be an individual with interests and hobbies and skills outside your family? How do you find time to be that sexy, romantic, fun-loving couple you and your husband used to be? How do you find time for girl talk with your friends? Where is all this time supposed to come from?

Mommies need time too.

Because I know my limitations and I know I can't take time away from my kids during their waking hours, I take my time at night after they go to sleep. Over the years I've learned to function on less sleep in order to have a few hours every night to hang out with my husband. We try to have a couple of "date nights" a week - we don't go out anywhere, but the computers and phones are off, we make a little platter of snacky foods and pour a couple of glasses of wine and watch a movie or one of our favourite shows or play Wii sports. After the kids' bedtime is when I catch up with friends, too - once a week I have a girlfriend phone date to get all caught up with the real world.

But until recently I really didn't take any alone time just for me.

A bath with a book maybe two or three times a year - late at night, after putting the kids to bed, picking up the toys, loading the dishwasher, throwing in a load of laundry, doing a quick workout and catching up on any paperwork from the office - was the extent of my alone time.

But that all changed a couple of months ago. For the first time in eight years, I have a hobby.
This blog.

I can't even explain what a wonderful release it is to have a little something I do just for me. Something in the back of my head during the day other than what's going on with the children. Something to sit down to at night after everything that needs doing gets done that lets me use my brain, to be creative and do something I enjoy that's just for me and no-one else. For the first time in eight years I feel like a person again, too, instead of just a mom.

It's true. You do need to take time for yourself. You do need to have interests outside the family. Take that time in whatever way you can - whether it's waking up extra early to pop in the earbuds and go for a jog, or handing the kids over to the husband and having a coffee date with a girlfriend, or hiring a sitter and going out for a good old-fashioned date with your man - or, like me, waiting until the kids go to sleep and sitting down at the laptop to write.

Mommy needs alone time, too. Mommy needs a hobby.

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Monday, 1 October 2012

Plugged in & tuned out?

I was out for a walk with Baby this sunny October morning, enjoying the beautiful weather and the gorgeous yellows and oranges and crimsons of the fall foliage, basking in the luxurious quietness of a few hours alone just the two of us and keeping up a steady (albeit fairly one-sided) conversation with him the whole way - pointing out the colours of the leaves, the pumpkins and scarecrows and fall front porch decor in the neighbourhood, drifting in topic from the bench I want to buy for the living room to the kids' Halloween costumes to a new class I'm planning at work to my next blog rant, running all these thoughts by Baby. This is pretty much how I keep him entertained during the day when my husband and other two children aren't around - near-constant conversation-monologues, so that he's never just sitting in silence.

I passed a mom I recognize from the neighbourhood, pushing her toddler in a stroller. I smiled and said "good morning." I got no response. Very unusual in this neighbourhood. People tend to be excessively friendly and neighbourly, even to complete strangers. Then I spotted the earbuds - aha.

We passed another half-dozen moms-pushing-wee-ones out walking or jogging while we strolled and chatted, Baby and I. (It's that kind of a neighbourhood - lots of lululemon-clad stay-at-home fit-moms.) All but one of them was plugged into their iPod while their kids sat there silently staring off into middle distance or fiddling idly with the empty tray in front of them.

So disconnected.

I'm not sure I've ever really noticed just how common this is.

I noticed it after school, too, while I was waiting to pick up my older two sons. Almost every parent with a stroller stood there with the stroller in front of them, child facing forward - away from Mom - while they scrunched over their little iPhone screen texting and surfing with studied concentration. Plugged in to the world but completely disconnected from the child right there in front of them.

I understand the need to feel connected and the desire to be in constant communication with the world, but not to the exclusion of my own child sitting in front of me. And I understand the need for music when exercising, but I do not think it's appropriate to pop in earbuds and ignore your child while they are trapped in a seat you are pushing around. If you can't go for a run or a walk without music, maybe you should be jogging on your own when your spouse is home to play with the kids or after they go to sleep. Or why not incorporate the kids into your workout routine? I do Pilates on a yoga mat in the living room with Baby. We crank the tunes and he dances and laughs at Mommy flailing about on the floor. I can still talk to him. I can still hear him.

No-one can be "on" all day long, every day of the week. It's impossible, and unrealistic for any mom to expect that of herself or for anyone else to expect that of her. Mommy "me-time" is definitely important for your mental, physical, and emotional health, and if the only way you are able to eek out a few minutes of that is to pop in the earbuds and check out, knowing that your toddler is strapped in and safe, then, well, a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. But, having started paying attention to just how many Mommies are wandering around with earbuds in or tap-tap-tapping on their little keypads without once lifting their heads to look at or talk to their children, I think it may often simply be a matter of convenience for Mom.

It's important for kids to learn independence and self-reliance, and no child should grow up expecting to be entertained twenty-four/seven - but I have to wonder what kind of a message we're sending our kids if we are choosing to plug in and tune them out over engaging them in a little conversation and quality time.

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