Have you heard about “forest kindergartens”? I hadn’t until this week. Apparently it’s a thing in several (mostly European) countries where kids—middle class, normal kids—spend basically all day every day outside. In a forest. No plastic toys and safety-certified play parks to be seen. Summer and winter.
(If you’re wondering, they actually do measurably better than their more traditionally pre-K’d peers in areas like reading readiness, social interactions, and paying attention. To add insult to injury, they’re also LESS likely to hurt themselves while playing).
It’s facts like this that intrigue me about the international parenting books I keep reading. Parenting without Borders is my new favorite in the genre. It’s the broadest and the most balanced, the author making a point of mentioning the things that don’t work well in other countries as well as the many things that do (she also has good things to say about certain aspects of American parenting, so there’s that too).
I’m not exactly ready to camp out in the woods behind our house every day, but it’s an interesting counterpoint to another, slightly terrifying, fact: that the average American kid now spends only 4-15 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly who those kids are, because they’re not the kids of anybody I know in real life. But either way, it gives me food for thought as I experiment with various daily schedules for life with a toddler… and eventually two.
I do strongly believe in living life at a slower pace. We’re busy in the sense that we’re highly focused on the one or three things we’re trying to do in life these days, but we’re remarkably unbusy in the committed activity department. We do go to church once a week (usually). We… actually, that’s it for the solid commitments. We share a car, and I usually only have it one or maybe two days a week—or none if Iris is teething a lot and the weather’s bad. A lot of evenings after dinner we’ll walk to the park or drive to downtown Plymouth and get ice cream or just walk around so Iris can get all excited about the dogs and babies everywhere. Sometimes we do yard work. And after Iris is in bed, I usually write or we watch something together or chat. But none of those are commitments. We do whatever we feel up to doing.
Slower living seems like a good thing for us—Iris certainly does better with short bursts of activity followed by long hours of home play, and as long as I get out enough to maintain a few friendships and a sense of the normal it works well for me too.
Making a priority of daily outside play also seems like a good thing.
Having a covered back porch helps, of course. We’ve had rain almost every day this week, but it doesn’t stop us from enjoying being outside. Honestly, it’s pretty relaxing to sit there reading while the rain pours down and Iris runs around sticking her plastic bucket under various drain spouts to catch the water. It’s fun to see her figuring it all out too. At first she just ran out into the yard like normal, only to be startled and offended by the invisible thing SPLASHING HER. It didn’t take long for her to figure out the boundaries of the porch roof, but it did take her a while to learn that the rain falls on her no matter how she tries to go out in it. At first she thought that if I would just carry her she wouldn’t get wet, but that was a no go (to her surprise, judging by her disappointed look). Today she was pretty sure that if I would just take her in the stroller, the rain wouldn’t be a problem.
And I’m still not sure if she understands that the rain that washes the spider out in one of her favorite songs is like the rain that makes the puddles she enjoys so much. But it’s fun to talk to her about it and watch her trying to make sense of things.
We’re having a good time, anyway.
The bouncy seat that was parked on our kitchen island for the last nine months is no more. Don’t tell CPS, but she just sits on the counter now while we’re cooking breakfast (and, yes, always 100% supervised). She even has her very own chore: she puts the coffee grounds in the espresso maker.
She gets grounds on the counter. She gets them on her pajamas, and when she accidentally drops her blueberries on the counter she gets it on them too. It’s all good. For fifteen months she’s honestly pretty dang steady. And she NEVER messes up on purpose. It’s actually kind of cute how intent she is on the whole process. This morning when I didn’t get her the spoon fast enough she started squawking at me.
As for Carl and I, we’re doing well. Busy but well.
I’ve been working hard to make up my word count deficit from our round of colds early in the month, and it looks like I’ll just squeak in by July 1st. 32,000 words. 120-some pages. I’m just a smidge surprised things are working out so well, but of course I’ve worked on the early plotting before. It’s about to get a little more challenging as I launch into part 2.
In more ways than one.
I can feel my body starting to slow down. 28 weeks doesn’t seem that far along in the grand scheme of 40+, but with the heat and the slow, daily stretch of my much-abused abdomen I’m not exactly feeling peppy. Mostly I ache. My stomach, floating ever higher in my chest, feels queasy before meals… and after meals… and pretty much a lot of the time. I’m dizzy a lot more too this time—which I like to attribute to the heat but sometimes worry that it might be gestational diabetes (I just did the glucose screening last week and haven’t heard results yet, so it’s been on my mind). Egh. As tiring as the newborn phase is—or at least what I remember of it through the haze—there’s something to be said for having one’s body on the healing track instead of the cliff jump route.
Soon enough. In the mean time, the book is growing, the baby’s doing great, and we’re all just chugging along. Life is good.
Iris was reaching up on top of the cabinet trying to grab the camera, so we took it down and had a little mini photo shoot of her stuffed dog. “Look!” I said, “Doggy out here. And doggy on the screen too.”
She was pretty excited.
Then we realized there were a bunch of old video clips still on the camera from Christmas when she was just learning to walk. Iris loves video clips of babies, so I started one of them and all of a sudden Carl’s voice came on.
Then she got really excited.
(Ok, and then I finally had to say no, we were done playing, and she pouted, but what are you going to do? Not everything gets to be awesome. And sometimes it’s hard being a baby. Snacks, however, do help.)
Not only have I been lured by the writing of my own (about to hit 25,000 words!), I’ve also been reading through a huge stack on my bedside table. I wouldn’t say my reading habit is Iris’s favorite thing about life ever, but independent play is a good life skill too. More on that later (spoiler: it’s FRENCH).
So here are, in no particular order, my June reads:
Choking on a Camel by Michal Ann McArthur (Fiction)
Full disclosure: this is my aunt’s first novel. That being said, I would have liked it anyway. I don’t tend to read a lot of fiction with strongly religious subjects—mostly because it’s either very pro- in a scary, cloying way (Romantic Lead is so GODLY! Also his voice is deep and we will probably have at least one demure reference to his genitals) or because it’s very anti- in a most-religious-people-are-whack-and-if-there’s-a-pastor-character-he-probably-abused-someone. Let’s just say that middle ground is not a strong point in the field.
But this book explores a crisis of faith in Alex, a young woman in her senior year at a fundamentalist university. In the South. In the 60s. And while there are a lot of scary Christians in the story, it’s not a morality tale of pro vs. con. To me, the real strength of the novel is in the portrayal—the slow unraveling—of the crisis itself.
When you’re not in crisis, it can be hard to remember just how angry, devastated, neurotic, and vulnerable you really were. That’s what makes this book brilliant… and also, at times, hard to read.
Or maybe that’s just a bit of free autobiography.
I’ve had a few religious crises in my day, and while they weren’t over the same things as Alex and the scenarios couldn’t have been more different, the emotional patterns rang true for me. It’s hard to detach from fundamentalism. It’s hard to take responsibility for your own spiritual journey. Mostly, I wanted to tell Alex that she needs a good therapist as much as she needs new theology, but again… that might just be me.
Since there are obvious prejudices at work here, I don’t want to oversell the book. It’s not a perfect novel. The relentless distress of the main character translated at times into the distress of this particular reader, but the book has an honesty that is beyond refreshing in the field of Christian literature. It gave me a lot of things to think about. And I finished it in two days, which—with a toddler in the house—is really saying something.
French Twist by Catherine Crawford (memoir/parenting)
If you don’t have a kid you may not have any reason to be aware of this, but there’s kind of a huge trend in parenting books right now. Basically you pick a country (China! Japan! France!) and then talk about how their parenting is super nifty and obviously better than ours here in the States. If this sounds snippy, it’s not. I’m just mad that my latest buy (Parenting without Borders) didn’t show up in the mail today. I may or may not be getting addicted.
This book is part memoir, part parenting guide with France as subject. And so far, it’s my fav of the bunch.
ALTHOUGH, I just have to say: French parenting basically sounds like old-fashioned parenting with a healthy dose of Good Life-ing and a pinch of feminism. I’m not sure how French it is, but it sounds appealing to me. I make a terrible helicopter mom. (This I realized the other day when we had people over and they expressed alarm that I was totally fine with Iris carrying a heavy dog statuette around. Which, let it be noted, she did actually drop on her foot. But hey, she’s carried that thing around for weeks. It was bound to happen eventually. And you know what? She’s fine. This is not the same thing as letting her run in the street, so you need to just let your eyebrows resettle on your faces, people).
Anyway, if you have kids or just like parenting books, this one is worth the (quick) read.
How to Know God by Deepak Chopra (spirituality)
At the risk of sounding really Oprah, if you’re interested in spiritual topics, or got burnt by a religion in the past, or feel restless in your faith, or have a pulse… you might want to look into this book.
I know there are lots of Christians who insist that God answers their prayers both big and small in obvious, daily ways, but that hasn’t really been my experience in life. I don’t take that as indicative of much, but anyway the point I was trying to make is that the one prayer that is consistently answered for me is when I ask for a book.
I do my best growing through books. I need the exposure to new ideas and the chance to chew through them without the debate or pressure that often comes in live chats. I can usually tell when they suddenly appear in my way—on display at Barnes and Noble when I’m stopping by the bathroom (true story. I liked the blue cover) or randomly in the new books stack at the library. I usually know pretty quickly if there’s something there for me. And maybe it isn’t the whole book or every single idea the author ever had. But something. Something I needed in order to move a little further along in this lifelong spiritual odyssey of mine.
This book is one of them, and I’m only 100 pages in.
Happy June, everyone, and happy reading!
No photo today since Carl went straight from work to do a wedding video taking—as one might surmise—the camera with him. And while I could technically take a snap on my iPod, I’m totally not going to do it. My iPod is great for a lot of things, but taking pictures is not one of them.
Instead shall jot down a few of the stray bits of things about Little Man that I keep meaning to write down somewhere so I don’t forget for his baby book or because there are interested grands, aunties, and uncles passing through here or even maybe because it might help jog my memory should I ever need to write about pregnancy someday.
Also because I spent most of the late afternoon counting contractions and trying to decide if was getting to that sketchy point (every fifteen minutes or 4 an hour) where I should go in and get checked out. Random early contractions are completely normal I know, but one doesn’t mess around at 26 weeks. I’m still having them, to be honest, but they’re not the stop-moving-and-squint-thoughtfully-into-space kind anymore. Just a phantom tightening across my abdomen that comes and goes patternlessly, like stray breezes on the surface of a lake.
I know people say that every woman and every pregnancy is different, but these two of mine have been pretty much the same. I feel exhausted and intensely nauseous from about weeks 6-14, when the nausea tapers down to just one or two hours a day. By week 20 I finally have some energy again and start planning absurdly ambitious projects… like renovating a house or writing a novel. As the nausea goes away, the physical stuff gradually picks up steam. One day I absent-mindedly cross my leg at the knee and spent the rest of the week aching because overnight my ligaments have started to loosen and to compensate I have to sit and move like a 70-year-old. My center of gravity has shifted. I can feel the sudden weight of his pound and a half body catch when I stand up too suddenly, and speaking of standing up: I’m dizzy now and then, and my blood pressure is sluggish. I gained about a pound a week with Iris, and at 26 weeks I’m about 26 pounds up this time too, so there goes that theory about eating better this time around (although: breakthrough: despite all the carbs I will crave in the first trimester, I learn my second time around NOT TO FALL FOR ANY OF IT. Carbs—and especially sugar—make everything ten times worse. Eat cheese and live. Drink ginger ale and die. I still felt sick for 12 weeks solid, but I didn’t throw up once. Why does no one tell you these things?).
From the outside—or whatever side the enveloping human is in this arrangement—he feels exactly like his sister. Because his placenta is attached in the back I was able to feel movement a few weeks earlier, but now that we’re in the mid-twenties they feel the same. Lots of kicks and rolls and punches. An elbow jutting out. A butt sticking to one side, making my belly lopsided even with a shirt on. Regular hiccups. The creepiest feeling of all is when they run their hands or feet along the smooth wall of the uterus. Imagine a ghost brushing your spine. It’s just weird.
He gets irritated by tight waistbands and kicks at the books I carelessly rest on my belly while reading in bed. When I rock Iris to sleep at night, she curls around my abdomen, one sleep-hot hand rubbing it while the pacifier bobs up and down in her mouth. He kicks her too.
The differences that do exist are mostly in me. I worry less and rarely stop to count the days or weeks anymore. The first trimester was harder with Iris running around and still waking up 2-3 times every night, but everything else has been easier. Life is busy. I worry sometimes about how we’ll handle having two kids and the general logistics of things like naps and bedtime, but mostly I just shrug and move on. I’m pretty sure it will be hard enough without borrowing trouble. My feeling now is that if it doesn’t make me happy, I don’t have time for it. So I write when the house is quiet, and when I wake up at night to feel him exploring his tiny world I say hello and tell him I love him, and that’s a good enough place to be.
We named Iris on the way home from our 20 week anatomy scan, but we haven’t named Little Man yet. This could be a second child phenomenon, but I feel like it’s harder with boys too. A pressure I didn’t expect. I’m beginning to wonder if—though taken less seriously in most ways (and I can’t even tell you how insane it makes me when people greet Iris by saying “hey, pretty girl” in singsong)—girls also have a strange, backhanded kind of freedom too. She wears jeans and khakis and every color in the rainbow. Her diapers have Elmo and blue and green bubbles on them. Her toys are anything and everything and definitely any color combination. (And it’s true strangers still assume she’s a boy, but when they realize their mistake they apologize and are embarrassed. Nobody questions Iris’s right to wear khakis). Our only trouble with girl names was cutting down the list. I could find dozens of names I liked.
Boy names are harder. Somehow independence and creativity feel like a liability rather than an asset. The life scripts for girl are trivialized in irritating ways, it’s true, but there’s also something unpleasant in the realization that your baby boy’s name can’t be too gender neutral because eventually all gender neutral names become girl names, and it can’t be too out there because people won’t take him seriously, and it can’t be shortened into annoying nicknames or a euphemism for penis, however far removed (and, wow, why are there so many euphemisms for penis?). Baby boys must wear primary colors and have puppies appliquéd onto all their clothes and be named something safe and strong. The grab bag of expectations is sad to me somehow.
Also I’ve noticed people are far more straightforward about suggesting names for our boy. People were politely curious about Iris’s name, but suddenly we have relatives nominating things and then addressing my belly as said name. Um, no. Pretty sure it doesn’t work like that.
That’s where we are in this 26th week. I can’t believe we’re down to the last 3 months. Judging by how fast the last six weeks have gone, he’s going to be here before we know it. For a split second, I’ll feel sad that I may never be pregnant again, that the single-child stage is almost over, that life is moving so fast. But then I think about that crazy, unfathomable moment when a new, wriggling, incredibly living person is put into your arms, and I can’t help but be excited to get on with this thing.
After 37 weeks, anyway.
Actually, I was just complaining yesterday to Carl about this girl I know who has been Instagramming like every hour for the last two days about her two-day, kid-free super fabulous getaway with her husband. The first time she posted I actually though, oh, how nice for them! But that was before the “here we are getting a couple’s massage,” “#out for #dinner with my #handsome #husband,” and “LOVE SPENDING TIME WITH HIM” in the space of a single afternoon.
So please know that the missing week between this post and the last one mostly involved catching colds, falling behind with work, and using all my manipulative energy to get Iris to nap in such a time and place that I could also nap. It’s cool. We’re doing fine. And today we even had 20 golden minutes where Iris played contentedly while I read a book.
I’ll take it.