Baby Boom: Can We Have It All?

I just finished watching Baby Boom for what is probably the twentieth time. The first time I saw it, I was watching it on the recommendation of a dear family friend and I loved it. I still do, especially now that I’m smack dab in the middle of motherhood, and having seen up close what the things that are standard practice in business can do to working professionals and by extension to their families.
Out of curiosity, I went online to read some reviews of the movie as it came out at the time. The LA Times was unabashedly enthusiastic about it, Roger Ebert thought it was a charming fairy tale (actually, he called it “(…) a fantasy about mothers and babies and sweetness and love (…)”). I think it’s more than that. I think that underneath all the comedy and polish, the filmmakers were trying to express a sincere hope that things would be changing for the better in corporate environments, and that it was about time too. I think that they were expressing the belief that the realization of potential and the achievement of success don’t have to be binary as they had been up until then: you can either have it all or you can dip your foot in the pool at best.
A lot of reviews were firmly in the Ebert camp: having a family and a successful career? Cute idea, but a fantasy, of course. I suppose their reviews were written from the perspective of the status quo at the time. It does beg the question: were they worried that change would be detrimental for the economy or, more cynically, just uncomfortable for the established order? Or were they simply convinced that business would always stay the same and there would never be room for a more holistic approach in corporate America, or indeed anywhere in the world?
Perhaps on that, they were right. Even though great strides have been made in recent years, the commercial environment – more than being woman-unfriendly – is decidedly family-unfriendly. And before all the hard-working, self-sacrificing childless (or childfree, as they may prefer to call themselves) earners begin pre-emptively declaring that they will be the ones doing all the work for their slacking, uninspired, uncommitted, parenting co-workers: nobody is suggesting that companies simply put people with families on the payroll and then allow them to only work whenever they feel like it. Of course a responsible job should be taken seriously, and there will be times when more is required from work than will be comfortable to combine with family life. But especially today, in this constantly hailed 24-hour economy and with technology opening up hitherto unimagined possibilities for telecommuting, we should really already have developed more realistic views on work requirements and results, as well as what is and should be humanly possible and reasonably required. Just try this change on for size: efficient performance trumps hours worked. That would be an interesting experiment, no?
Tired people don’t work efficiently. Worried parents tend to shift focus on occasion. Does this means that parents who choose to be involved in their children’s lives should be cut from the workforce altogether? Or is it perhaps time for a new type of economy, one in which all aspects of a person’s life are granted equal value on balance? I think it is.
Baby Boom expresses the hope, even the optimism that this future does exist, per J. C. Wyatt’s speech upon rejecting The Food Chain’s offer. I like to hope it’s right, because by now progress should slowly be steering us toward a reality in which having a full life is truly possible.

Relevance in the Age of Parenting

It’s been nearly a year since I gave birth to my gorgeous little boy (yes, I’m bragging) and nearly 7 years since I’ve been gainfully employed. Well, not counting efforts to start up a company with a friend who had a wonderful idea and developed it into a business, writing a book with my former colleague and mentor (second edition published last year – it’s not a bestselling novel or anything, but it’s a good textbook) and publishing a number of articles in a beautiful online magazine.

Now that I’m summing it all up, it doesn’t really look too shabby. What’s more, I plan to continue writing. So why do I feel so irrelevant sometimes?

My husband and I made a decision long ago that one of us would stay home with our daughter, who has since gained a little brother, and so far it’s been me. Initially, we had excellent daycare for our girl, but on the whole I just don’t want to put my kids into daycare – I think mostly because I genuinely like having them at home. They’re going to grow up so fast, I feel like I want to see as much of them as I can while they’re still young.

Before I continue, let me cut off the inevitable sh*tstorm the previous paragraph will invoke: this is not a criticism or judgment, implied or otherwise, on working parents, nor do I believe that this is the best option for all parents and children. It’s simply an evaluation of myself and an expression of my preferences and choices, nothing more, nothing less. Just me.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll go back to the division of labour I was just talking about. My husband bit the bullet, in my view, and has a full-time job that he’s good at and which pays the bills. And I am a full-time mom. It’s satisfying and it’s hard work but there’s also a certain erosion of self that slips in, and that comes from the inevitable comparison of the status and importance of the stay-at-home mom to the status and importance society grants to those who collect a salary for a job well done.

At the moment, in my mind everyone working and supporting themselves and others is endlessly more significant, stronger and more valuable than I am somehow. And since my husband is the person I am closest to and with whom I share home and hearth and heart, he’s the most natural person for me to compare myself to – though I know he himself sets much more stock by personal value than status.

I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that had repercussions beyond this house. For example, the only planning I do involves grocery shopping, dinner times, what and when to pack for trips, how to schedule the laundry so that any required items of clothing are ready at the time they are needed and/or wanted, and so on. Weigh these things off against, for instance, planning software implementation, incident response, and client conferences which may all have multi-million dollar bottom line ramifications, and it’s easy to see how you could feel every so slightly less relevant than your working fellow human beings. (And now I’m guilty of the same thing I am railing against: assigning worth according to monetary value.)

Here’s the thing: I’m educated, I can hold my own in discussions, I keep up with the news (though it depresses me, lately) and I have an interest in a broad range of topics. As a mom I’ve certainly had to engage my brain to untangle the mess that had been my daughter’s education until the beginning of this school year, and I continue to be deeply interested in education and where I feel it should be going in this fast-evolving future. And yet there are times when I feel like I’ve wasted my education, my mind, even myself in aspiring to be a stay-at-home mom, which is crazy, because simultaneously I sincerely feel that being a mom is an incredibly rewarding, significant and responsible way to spend my time and I wouldn’t want to miss this part of my kids’ lives for the world! Yet somehow I’ve begun feeling stupid, worthless, irrelevant.

It’s a bizarre internal struggle, and I feel strongly that it is actually also a needless one, because here is how it should be: any choice I make for any reason I make it should feel like a valid choice to me. So why do I keep comparing myself to society’s idea of success?

Well, I think I’ve figured that out. It’s partly because any successes I achieve are private, not celebrated or rewarded by anything other than a smoothly running household (nope, not its own reward). Basically, stay-at-home mothering after a while begins a to feel like a mundane occupation, such a basic standard that it fades into the background no matter how many hugs and kisses you may get from hubby and kids – which is not to say that I am not incredibly proud of my husband and children and all their successes, or grateful for their health and happiness.

Perhaps this is my own shortcoming, since self-worth should come from within, right? Personally, I think that only works if you’re either living in a vacuum or you’ve already had your share of publicly celebrated successes and achievements. Clearly, I am not zen.

But more than that what’s been making me doubt myself is this ongoing, often aggressive debate raging between two camps: the stay-at-home parents and the working parents, each feeling attacked and judged by the other. No opinion can be put forth by either side without the other side a) feeling insulted for perceived (and sometimes, granted, real) slights, and b) immediately negating the one side’s perspective on the basis that they don’t know what it’s like on the other side of the fence.

I’ve been feeling stuck and pigeonholed by this debate, and I’ve found myself developing thinner skin as it progresses. Trying hard not to jump to conclusions or take offense, I’ve even started reading judgments and insults into innocuous comments. It’s driving me crazy and it’s doing serious damage to my self-esteem and my self-image. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

And so I think this parental partisanship should end for the mental and emotional well-being of everyone.

Here’s what I submit for a healthier frame of mind all around:

We are all relevant, we all contribute in our own way as best we can to a different aspect of life. One is not better than the other, and each contribution to society does not derive it’s right to exist or be appreciated from the remuneration or status or self-proclaimed moral high ground attached to it. Let’s try not to put a price on everything but rather finally see its value. If we can manage that, perhaps we can finally begin to see each other, instead of the preconceived notions we have of one another.

Pumpkin, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways. 3: Chicken with Garlic & Pumpkin-Potato Purée

Pumpkin! It’s coming out of our ears! But, I think I’ve managed to make four sufficiently different dishes with my stash of pumpkin flesh so as not to bore the family with each serving. Last night’s dinner marked the last in our series of pumpkin-infused evening meals, and so this is the last of my pumpkin recipes (for now).

We closed off our pumpkin theme with a lovely plate of chicken sprinkled with dried Italian herbs on a bed of garlic and pumpkin-potato purée, and here is how I made it.

This will feed 3-4 people.

For the purée you’ll need:

  • 6 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 400 gr of pumpkin flesh, cubed
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 2 tsp maple syrup

potatoes and pumpkin

First, boil the potatoes in water with some salt for 10 minutes, then add the pumpkin and boil it along with the potatoes for another 7 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small frying pan heat  the butter and add the garlic, sautéing it until it turns golden. After draining the potatoes and pumpkin (and turning off the flame), put them back in the pot and mash them. Next, pour the garlic butter in, and add the salt and maple syrup. Stir thoroughly and cover the pot with the lid; this will keep the purée warm until you need it.

garlic butter

For the chicken, you’ll need:

  • 600 gr chicken breast, thickly sliced along the length
  • dried Italian herbs (I used a blend of dried oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary)
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp water

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium flame. On a plate or board, season the chicken slices with the Italian herbs on one side and sprinkle salt on the other side of the chicken slices. Then, fry the chicken in the pan for 3 minutes on one side and 3 minutes on the other side. Always check to ensure that the chicken has been properly cooked (slice open the thickest bit of chicken to check that it has not been undercooked). Take the chicken out of the pan and place it on a separate plate, covering it with aluminium foil to keep it warm.

chicken

Next, pour the water in the frying pan, using a spatula to softly loosen the brown residue from the bottom of the pan. This is tasty stuff, and because the chicken was cooked gently, there should only be golden and brown bits, but no black. Mixed in with the water this makes for a mild and tasty sauce.

 

To serve, first place 2 heaped tablespoons of purée in the middle of the plate, then drag a trail through the middle of the heap with the spoon. This is the pocket in which you can place the chicken. Pour just a little sauce over the top and you’re done.

dinner

Enjoy!

 

Pumpkin, How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways. 2: Pasta with Salmon and Roasted Vegetables

Ah, more pumpkin. Time, then, for the next recipe, which turned out pretty well except that the salmon was not spicy like I had originally planned.

So, without further ado: here is the recipe for today’s pumpkin side dish, and the salmon main dish too, of course. This serves 4.

We’ll start with the roasted vegetables. You’ll need:

  • 450 gr pumpkin flesh, cubed
  • 3 small parsnips, thickly sliced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
  • olive oil to taste
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • leaves from 2 twigs of thyme
  • sea salt to taste

pumpkin veg

Preheat the oven to 190 C/ 375 F. Put the vegetables together in a large bowl, sprinkle them with olive oil and stir in the garlic, leaves of thyme and sea salt. When everything is properly mixed up, spread the vegetables out over an oven tray and roast them in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes at 190 C/ 375 F.

Next up, the salmon and pasta. You’ll need:

  • 300 gr of spaghetti
  • 1 can of sardines in oil (125 gr)
  • 2 tsp Thai fish sauce
  • 350 gr salmon, cubed

salmon

 

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. Meanwhile, heat up a skillet over a high flame. Empty out the entire content of the can – the sardines and the oil – into the skillet together with the fish sauce and fry the sardines until they’ve become soft and have fallen apart.

 

sardines

Now add the cubes of salmon and stir fry them until they are just done and not any longer, otherwise the salmon becomes too dry. After you’ve drained the pasta, immediately add it to the salmon and gently toss the pasta until the salmon has been thoroughly mixed through.

 

pasta with salmon

A serving tip: place the pasta and salmon in the centre of a flat dinner plate and place a circle of vegetables around the pasta. Enjoy!

pasta and veg

Pumpkin, How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways. 1: Pumpkin Lasagne

As some of you may know, I have recently come into possession of a fair amount of pumpkin flesh. Pumpkin is versatile, but how versatile am I going to be able to make it if we are going to be eating it every single day this week, save one…?

Time to find out.

Day 1: pumpkin lasagne.

The thing about lasagne is that it’s a wonderful dish for pretty much anything you want to throw in there. I mostly use it as a leftover dish, for any vegetables still unused by week’s end, supplemented with an emergency stash of frozen beef that I make sure I always have lying around. The thing that ties everything together is the tomato and cream sauce.  For seasoning, I like to use fresh herbs if I can.

Here’s what I used this time:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 600 gr ground beef
  • 450 gr pumpkin flesh in small cubes
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes (400 ml)
  • 200 ml soy cooking cream
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground black and white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh basil
  • 8 lasagne leaves (the kind that cook in half an hour)
  • 200 gr mozzarella, finely cubed

Now, the process is pretty simple: preheat the oven to 200 C/390 F.

Combine the canned tomatoes, the soy cream and the fresh tomatoes in a bowl, and add the salt, pepper, sugar, cumin, thyme and basil, and stir well.

lasagne sauce

Next, in a deep pan fry the onion and garlic in oil on a medium flame for about 2 minutes, then add the beef and fry it until it’s done.

onions and garlic

Next, add the pumpkin and cook it along with the beef for another 3 minutes. Fresh pumpkin gets mushy pretty quickly, so you’ll want to make sure you stop just before the flesh gets too soft.

add the pumpkin

Then add the tomato and cream sauce, stir and bring it to a soft boil, and as soon as it gets there immediately turn off the flame.

vegetable sauce

Almost there: in an oven dish, pour a very thin layer of the sauce you just made, then lay a layer of lasagne leaves, another layer of sauce, another layer of lasagne leaves, and finally the rest of the sauce. Finish it off by sprinkling the mozzarella over the top.

mozzarella

Place the oven dish in the oven for 30 minutes.

pumpkin lasagne

And that’s it: pumpkin lasagne. Enjoy!

 

Switching Schools

ready for school

The summer vacation ended not too long ago and the new school year is already near the end of its second week. For our daughter, her first day signified a big change because she has just started a new school.

In the Netherlands, different systems of education are available to children without having to resort to placing children in often expensive private schools. A specific type of school is often chosen according to the type of personality parents have seen their children develop and/or the values and goals parents have in place for their children. However, as children get older and make their way through the first years of primary school, their learning style becomes apparent and it may turn out that the initial choice of school was not the right one.

Our daughter started her “scholastic career” in a school that aims to teach children who are brighter than your average bear. It seemed like a good fit for our daughter at first, not because we claim that she is some sort of rocket scientist but because the school’s approach was to teach all children at the same level, then offer the ones that needed some more instruction additional help, and offer the ones that were at the higher end of the intellectual spectrum a more intense treatment of the curriculum to hone their already impressive skills. It sounds wonderful in theory. It turned out differently in practice for our daughter.

Our little miss has a number of qualities that made it more and more obvious to us that the school in which we had initially enrolled her was not right for her, and so we have spent the last year and half first trying to see how we could offer additional support at home, then butting heads with school staff at various levels, while at home our daughter became more and more withdrawn and angry and sad.

So which qualities are we talking about that made her unfit for her old school? First, our daughter is a social animal: she loves helping out younger kids, working on projects together with others, and including as many children as possible at all times. Second, when she is bored or uninterested, she will not concentrate on the task at hand and become easily distracted. This is not surprising, after all: don’t we do the same (see many a set of doodle-infested meeting notes at work)? Third, she has a lot of energy, and needs to move regularly in order to expend some of it. Sitting still is not her strong suit. When she feels uncomfortable, she’ll fidget. She spent a lot of last year fidgeting. And fourth, she perceives and processes information differently from the way many schools teach: her learning style is visual/spatial, also known as visual learning, as opposed to verbal thinking, which is what the curriculum in regular schools is based on. (The term “visual thinking” was unknown to me until two of my friends enlightened me and a whole world opened up for me.)

All these traits together resulted in her becoming more and more miserable at her old school, because she had trouble grasping the material, focusing on her tasks and connecting to her classmates. She would often come home in tears, feeling like she was the only child in class who didn’t understand anything that was being taught. Her teachers and advisor, in turn, blamed this on her attitude. Perhaps we should have her tested, they suggested, probably angling for a diagnosis along the lines of ADHD, a “condition” that is not so much a condition as a collection of symptoms for which the underlying cause could be any number of things, among which, it would seem, forcing material into a child’s mind using a teaching style that does not match that child’s learning style.

We had, at this point, already made several attempts to explain our daughter’s learning style, but a parent’s observation, it seems, is not enough, primarily because it does not result in additional funding, which in turn is required to create the space for an adapted approach. And that’s perfectly acceptable, just as it should be perfectly acceptable that we will not place an arbitrary psychological label on a perfectly healthy child in order to facilitate a school that is simply not a good fit for our child, something that an educator should be in a position to assess. We ourselves even tried to find various root causes, even going so far as to have her eyes checked when she complained about what turned out to be stress headaches.

During one meeting, we asked her teachers point blank: do you honestly believe that this is the right school for our girl? Well, they said, other schools aren’t much different, so really, it was fine. (In retrospect, apparently those involved feel this new school will be a much better fit for her.)

Well, it was not fine, and after a year of watching my daughter break herself in half to fit an impossible mould, we knew it was time to make a change because she was stressed beyond belief, miserable and bleeding self-confidence with every day she attended. By now, it had become abundantly clear to us that it made no sense to force a child with such a strongly visually oriented mind into the standard educational system with its straightforward, result-oriented, verbal teaching methods: set tasks to be performed over a continuous period of time, very little opportunities for creative expression, and sadly often large and noisy classrooms.

At this point, I should stress that these are good, hard-working, well-intentioned, dedicated teachers, and the type of education they offer works very well for many children. The disillusionment on my part comes from what I now perceive as either unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the school was unable to offer what was needed.

Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there were options, and in our search for a better alternative we found ourselves at a Montessori school in our district for a hastily arranged introductory visit, because time was running out as the school year was quickly drawing to a close and finding a different school had now become crucial for our daughter’s emotional wellbeing. We sat in the principal’s office and explained to her how our girl thinks and which methods of explanation work best for her – we had spent a lot of time at home offering her alternative approaches to the material she was grappling with at her old school and found that simply showing how things work her using tangible materials worked very well for her; in doing so, we found that once she understood the material she learned very quickly indeed. The principal heard us out, smiled and nodded, and told us that such visual methods are precisely the methods they apply in their school. Other features: one-on-one explanation of the materials, which should ensure a much greater chance of ascertaining true comprehension on the part of the student; the ability to complete elements of the curriculum at your own pace (no more endless repetition of things you already know just because that’s what the set curriculum dictates at that time, or speeding past what you don’t yet fully understand, causing gaps in comprehension); working together with other classmates on tasks, such as language comprehension (social-educational engagement and being able to work together).

That meeting with the principal left me almost in tears of gratitude. Here, it seemed, was a place where our daughter could be herself and thrive under the guidance of a team of educators who approached children as children, stimulating their natural curiosity and eagerness to explore to cultivate an intrinsic motivation to learn. And we were not crazy, none of us: not our daughter, who had gotten lost in a system that was simply all wrong for her, and not us, for feeling that there must be a better way to learn.

Now, there is no more dragging our child out the door kicking and screaming because she doesn’t want to go, no more school-induced stomach aches. Our miss has loved her first week at her new school. First impressions of her teachers are that she is diligent, concentrated and enthusiastic, an outgoing child who connects well with her classmates.

It’s early days yet, but it feels like a very good start. It seems we’ve made the right decision.

Your Versatile Muffin Tray (Spinach and Tomato Mini Frittata)

In my previous post, I mentioned that from now on, I will be writing on a small number of topics that I feel strongly about. While I am certainly passionate about the healthier lifestyle I am pursuing, don’t worry: there will be no browbeating you with health warnings or why you MUST cook these mini frittatas RIGHT THIS MINUTE. This post is just a simple recipe post, and if you do decide to make this dish, I hope you enjoy it.

First, a small introduction. At the moment I am trying to tailor a lot of my cooking to suit the tastes of a person with no teeth, a.k.a. my little boy. At 9 months old, he is eagerly awaiting his first tooth as he very much likes all this tasty stuff we eat every day and he can’t wait to dig into some actual food.

When we were on holiday earlier this summer, he would reach for foods like bread, knödel, pasta (with tomato sauce), even thinly sliced meats. We obliged him by slicing the food into small bits that he would have no trouble swallowing when he was done mashing them between his gums. Not only does our son have quite the appetite, he has quite the palate!

Keeping in mind that he is going to want to eat some “real” food every day, in addition to his mashed fruits and his bottles, I am trying to cook things he will be able to eat right along with us.

Enter today’s spinach and tomato mini frittata.

frittata in tray

This recipe makes 9 mini frittatas.

You’ll need:

  • a muffin tray
  • 6 medium sized eggs
  • 4 small tomatoes, chopped
  • 9 mini cubes of frozen spinach
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp of herb salt (optional)
  • vegetable or olive oil to grease the cups of the muffin tray

ingredients frittata

The process is really simple:

Preheat the oven to 190 C (375 F).

Beat the eggs until they are good and frothy, then add the tomatoes and stir them in gently. If you are using salt, add it in together with the tomatoes.

eggs mixture

Using a small ladle, fill the greased cups of the muffin tray with the mixture until they are about 2/3 full (you should be able to fill 9 cups, depending on the depth of the cups). Now place a cube of frozen spinach in the centre of each cup; the spinach will melt in the process of baking the frittatas, rendering it perfectly soft but not overcooked.

insert spinach

Place the muffin tray in the centre of the oven and bake at 190 C (375 F) for 11 minutes.

I just ate two of these for lunch, and I imagine that my little guy will eat at least the better part of one later this afternoon.

So there, an easy recipe for your versatile muffin tray. Enjoy!

frittata on plate