Friday, June 26, 2015

And Then There Were Five

Hello, friends! It has been quite some time since I have written anything on the blog. To say that we have been busy this year would be a masterpiece of understatement. I feel like we are slowly emerging from a haze, and not entirely unscathed. Here's a quick recap of our past year:

I was feeling a little claustrophobic staying at home with the girls. I decided to take a job at a law firm where I was supposed be editing legal contracts based on my copyediting experience. As it turns out, lawyers aren't often the most humble of people and mine didn't particularly like having his work returned to him dripping in red. So, I mostly ended up answering phones and running errands. I found working in an office to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually stifling. However, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. For those that don't know, my health wasn't the greatest the past year. I went to so many specialists, all of whom had no idea what was going on with me, until I finally found a holistic doctor that diagnosed me with Hashimoto's - an autoimmune disorder. I'll write more about that in a later post. Unfortunately, insurance doesn't really cover holistic or alternative medicine - you know, the stuff that actually helps you get better? My stuffy boss ended up helping by not only paying for most of this care with an excellent salary, but by giving me the flexibility to leave work whenever I needed for my appointments. It took over a year and half to get better, but I did it. 

With a renewed energy, I didn't much see the point in working anymore. Especially considering I would frequently cry in the restroom because I missed my two little girls so flippin' much. And then I started getting tired, and queasy, and well, you know the rest. 

hello, little one!
I am four months pregnant and due December 6th with our third child! I finally had the motivation I needed to quit my job and stay at home with the girls again. It has been so lovely going to the park, baking cookies, reading books, making forts, and spending time with my little ones. Since most of my freelance editing is done when the girls are in bed, I was still spending my nights working and feeling exhausted. So, I have dropped all of my editing clients except for my favorite one. I work one or two nights a week instead of seven and still receive a small monthly paycheck. Now my nights are filled with yoga, drinking loose leaf tea, reading books, and of course, Netflix (I have to feed my Fringe addiction). I like it better this way. There will always be time for work and my kids are only going to be this little once. I don't want to miss a moment more of this.

Zoë, our youngest
Meanwhile, my husband had been going to college full time since we arrived here in Alaska almost three years ago. Having our time with him in the evenings being so limited was difficult on everyone. And now, all that hard work has paid off! He just graduated with a bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics. This September, we will all fly to Seattle for his graduation ceremony at the Seattle Museum of Flight. With schoolwork out of the way, we were free to focus on our next big decision - to reenlist or not. It was a tough call, as anyone who has ever been in the military (or married to it) can understand - but we decided to do it.  Ultimately, it was a good move for our family.

I feel like the past couple of weeks we have all just been decompressing from the sheer stress of this past year. This summer, we are all finally relaxing - no more school work, no more appointments, no more decisions, no more calendars to keep track of. Our guest rooms and hearts are full again. As I write, my living room is filled with family, wine, and chocolate. Life doesn't get much better than that, does it?

Baby bro. I seriously love this kid.

My mother, father, and brother are all visiting from Virginia. I haven't seen most of my family in a year and a half, so this visit has been much anticipated! My brother has only been here in the winter, poor dear, so I'm excited that we get to play in the warmth and midnight sun this time around. There will be hiking, fishing, and of course, Moose's Tooth. 

On their first day here, we all drove to Wasilla to get a gender ultrasound. I know, I know - I'm super impatient. We paid out of pocket for this one because I just could not wait until my next medically necessary ultrasound to find out what we are having. Drumroll, please...

say whaaaaat?

Yep, our third one is going to be a boy! I think because I have been popping out girls like an Easy Bake Oven, I was just expecting it to be a girl. I'm pretty sure there is enough estrogen in this house, but still, I was sort of stunned when the technician announced the news. I actually asked her, "Are you sure?" She looked at me, pointed to our son's "member" on the screen, and said, "Does that not look like a penis to you?" Well, thanks for the subtlety! I guess I'm not naming this one Emma. Any ideas for boy names?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Paleo Thanksgiving

As most of you know, my husband and I have been following a Paleo diet lifestyle the past two months in an effort to improve our health. I have lost weight without exercise, I have more energy, not to mention my depression and eczema have completely disappeared. I will never touch gluten again. So we were presented with somewhat of a challenge for our first Thanksgiving here in Alaska. First of all, I have never cooked for Thanksgiving. Ever. I usually just show up at my mom's house, eat all of her yummy food, and go home happy. This year, I not only had to do all of the cooking, but I also had to find a way to do it without gluten, dairy, or sugar. I was so nervous about trying to recreate traditional sugary and gluten laden Thanksgiving foods, that I put off even thinking about it until Wednesday night. Luckily, the few recipes I found online turned out amazing! Our guests could not even tell the difference. Best of all, I didn't fall into a carb coma afterwards. Here's our line-up, with links to the recipes included:

Rosemary Apple Turkey

I usually use this recipe on a whole roasted chicken because it is so dang simple, but it turned out lovely on turkey as well. Simply place sprigs of rosemary under your bird, freshly chopped apples around it, and pour olive oil, sea salt, and balsamic vinegar over all. This was moist and flavorful.

Cranberry Sauce

I have never actually made cranberry sauce before, but wanted something more festive (and healthier) than slabs from a can. This recipe was super easy and very tart, if that's your thing. The grapefruit juice and lemon zest pack a powerful punch. 

Palo Herbed Fococcia Bread

Most holiday meals are served with some sort of bread. I thought of just picking up some dinner rolls for our non-Paleo guests, but being the food snob that I am, I wanted to show them just how delicious homemade gluten free bread can be. This recipe is light, airy, and easy to make. We infused it with two tablespoons of fresh rosemary and thyme, so the herbs were quite pungent. This complemented the rest of our sides well, since most use rosemary.

Paleo Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet potato casserole has to be one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving, next to pumpkin pie. Rather than using brown sugar or marshmallows, this recipe uses maple syrup to keep it sweet. The freshly juiced orange adds a very faint citrus aftertaste, making an interesting twist on the traditional sugary laden casserole. Very few ingredients, and super easy to make!

Paleo Green Bean Casserole

Growing up, my mother's green bean casserole was smothered in cream of mushroom soup and topped with French's fried onions. Unfortunately for me, those things are chock full of gluten. I still wanted a traditional casserole, so I scoured the internet for quite some time looking for anything that came close. I have to say, this recipe was surprisingly similar! Using real onions, mushrooms, and a non-dairy cream was time consuming, but worth it. The onions are so flavorful and rich, and we still got that "crunch" we were looking for. The addition of bacon and shallots gave a great flavor. Warning, this is a ton of work! But hey, it's a holiday, so I don't mind working hard for a day.

Thanksgiving Caramelized Onion & Sausage Stuffing

I can eat stuffing anytime of the year. There is something that is so comforting about warm bread in the fall. There are plenty of almond bread based Paleo stuffings out there, but let's get real. I do not have that kind if time on my hands. This recipe was easy enough, plus I love caramelized onions and sausage together. I frequently add eggs to them and bake for breakfast treats. So, this stuffing caught my eye. The addition of fresh rosemary, pecans, and sweet potatoes make this unique. 

Paleo Pumpkin Pie Bars

It's not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie! I am obsessed with pumpkin in the fall, and I purposely eat smaller portions during Thanksgiving dinner so I can stuff my face with pumpkin pie after. The filling in this recipe uses medjool dates instead of toxic table sugar for sweetness. We went to three stores looking for medjool dates. Yes, three. They are pricey, but worth it. These are much sweeter than golden or California dates, and they have a nice caramel aftertaste. I was a little creeped out when pitting these. Medjool dates have a strikingly similar appearance to a certain bug that once crowded our first apartment. I think roaches are spawned from Satan himself and couldn't wait to puree these bad boys and get them back in the fridge! I don't have a food processor, so soaking these in water can help if pureeing in a blender. I made some fresh coconut whipped cream for topping. Delicious! 

We managed to make all this with a toddler and a baby underfoot, so trust me when I say these are doable. There you have it, a gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free Thanksgiving. You're welcomed. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Simplified Play

Winter is fast approaching in Anchorage. The days are gradually getting shorter, darker, and colder. Consequently, I have been doing lots of reading by the fire. There is nothing more comforting to me than curling up in my over sized chair by the hearth and reading a great book, especially when hot chocolate is involved. One book that has really inspired our family to make some swift changes in our life is Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne. I don't usually read parenting books. I've tried a couple and have never made it past the first 50 pages. It seems like good ol' fashioned discipline is out of style these days. This book is different in that it's more of a lifestyle change, like minimalism  for parents. And since I am huge a fan of Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus, I figured a little more simplicity in our lives couldn't hurt. HOLY COW - what a difference this has made! I really enjoy my work as a stay at home mother so much more now and finally find being a part of my toddler's world exciting.

Payne is a Waldorf educator and consultant, thus many of the concepts of this book have their principles in Waldorf education, which emphasizes the imagination and development of the whole child. His book is sort of a simplified version of Rahima Dancy's You Are Your Child's First Teacher, which delves much deeper into Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophic philosophy. Payne's main beef with American culture is this:

"We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.  By simplifying, we protect the environment for childhood’s slow, essential unfolding of self."

His chapters cover four levels of simplification: environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out the adult world. The chapter that impacted me most profoundly was on environment, specifically concerning toys.

Sophia and I love coloring with Stockmar crayons everyday. 

Ah, toys. As a parent, I both love and hate my daughter's toys. She literally had an entire play room devoted to them, and it seemed even then it was hard to contain them all. It seemed there was always one playing random obnoxious music at any given time, or a meltdown ensuing because the batteries died in another. For some reason, I don't remember toys like that growing up. No longer reserved for special occasions, it seems that toys have now become staples of family life, appropriate as purchases for any day of the year. And they are literally everywhere: the gas station, the grocery store, you name it. And it's not just the sheer quantity of toys that is bothersome, but the quality as well. Modern toys tend to be cheap, mass produced, plastic monstrosities with batteries, blinking lights, and a barrage of sounds. They tend to break easily and overstimulate. We had already reduced TV time, but didn't realize that all our daughter's toys were like a TV. Her toys were so complex, they did so much for her, that the extent of her involvement was merely pushing buttons. They didn't require her to put her imagination into them, to manipulate them in any way. She would become frustrated and bored too easily, which led to tantrums. We were confused. Payne explains where we went wrong:

"When they're not overwhelmed with so many toys, kids can more fully engage with the ones that they have. And when the toy is simpler, children can bring more of themselves to that engagement. There is freedom with less: freedom to attend, engage, and absorb. Toys that don't do things can become anything, in play. When we don't try to fill children's minds and toy chests with prefabricated examples of 'imagination', they have more freedom to forge their own, to bring their own ideas into play."

I think this simplifies our parental roles as well. Payne maintains that as our children gain more time and freedom to deeply explore their worlds, we are liberated from a false sense of responsibility. We don't need to provide the newest in an unending list of toys, we can provide for our children by safeguarding their time and opportunities for open-ended imaginative play. Well, I was sold and very ready to get started. Here is what my husband and I decided to discard:

  • Broken toys. Also, toys that had batteries we had been "meaning to replace" for months.
  • Developmentally inappropriate toys. If it was a toy Sophie could "grow into", we stored it for later. If it was something she had outgrown, it was time to donate it. 
  • Conceptually "fixed" toys. Characters from movies, comic books, or televisions shows leads to a long road of commercial possibilities, with newer products and sequels. They celebrate Hollywood's imagination, not our child's. Hence, Dora and Elmo did not make the cut. 
  • Toys that do too much and break too easily. Enough said.
  • High-stimulation toys. Toys that strive to recreate a television watching or video game experience with flashing lights, mechanical voices, speed and sound effects will set the stimulation bar very high for kids. They are designed for sensory overload and come with a rush of adrenaline. Frequent bursts of adrenaline will also increase the cortisol levels in a child's system, which is stressful. Toys do not need to be roller coaster rides. 
  • Annoying or offensive toys. Those that made an awful noise, or were just plain annoying to us.  
  • Toys that claim to give children a developmental edge. Play is not a race. It is not an advancement opportunity. 
  • Toy multiples - pick one of each thing. Sophie had several musical keyboards. We saved one. This also applied to her stuffed animals. We picked her top five favorites to set out as keepers, donated a few, and put the rest in her toy library.
Keep it simple. 

Payne reminds us that you are the best judge of what delights and engages your child, of what is developmentally appropriate. You know what toys have made a special place in your child's heart and which will be forgotten if they disappear. Kids don't need many toys to play with either. They need us to get out the way and give them unstructured time. With that in mind, here is how to get started:

  • After the kids are in bed, gather all the toys and place them in one gigantic mountain. 
  • Get some trash bags. 
  • Halve the pile - place your keepers in one pile. In the other pile, place the discards. 
  • Now take a look at your "discard" pile. Decide what you are going to trash or donate. Bag it. 
  • Now take a look at your "keep" pile. Halve it again. In one pile, place all the toys you want to keep out currently. Store them in attractive bins at eye level for the kiddos. 
  • In the other pile, place toys that are going to go in your "toy library". This should go somewhere out of eyesight. Pull out these toys on rainy days, or when the in-laws visit and wonder where all their plastic gifted toys are.
The toys we chose to keep are simple, beautiful, and engaging. Toddlers are sensory creatures, so we found toys made of organic or natural materials to be best. We had no toys that really qualified, so we had to get new ones. Luckily, our daughter's second birthday was on the horizon, so we made our toy preferences known to family and were gifted with some truly beautiful things. We now have natural, durable toys that will hopefully become heirlooms valued for generations to come. Here is a sampling of some toys our daughter now plays with:
  • silk streamers
  • wooden cars and animals
  • musical instruments (maracas, percussion block, glockenspiel, wooden crow sounder, etc.)
  • wooden puzzles
  • high quality, beeswax crayons (we chose Stockmar)
  • non-toxic, wooden, embossed alphabet blocks
  • a Waldorf style doll with embroidered face, yarn hair, and changeable outfits
  • nesting blocks 
  • modeling dough
  • a small assortment of things we find outside (rocks, gems, leaves, etc.)
  • a play kitchen with cooking utensils
  • toddler sized broom for sweeping with mommy
While toys are are an important part of a child's play, they are of course, not the overwhelming center. We also spend time on nature walks, imaginary play and make-believe, making art and music, doing household chores, running and rolling about, and reading books. We have also simplified her books, by keeping only 8 to 12 out at a time. We have four built in storage units in our living room. They were formerly cluttered with electronic devices, cords, media, etc. They now house four beautiful wicker bins with floral lining. One is for Sophie's books, the other for blocks, the other for toys. That's right, she has just one box of toys out. We nixed the play room. I decided that play should not be confined to just one area of the house, nor should there be an entire room dedicated to just toys. That puts too much of an emphasis on them. Her larger items, like her play kitchen, now sit in her bedroom closet.

I feel like we can breathe now. My daughter plays independently again, has hardly a tantrum, and needs me less. She is now much more independent and relaxed. And for the first time, I really love being a part of her world. It's not surprising a grown woman with a college degree that once taught in schools and ran a non-profit would be bored sitting on the floor listening to Dora say over and over again, "Lo hicimos! We did it!" I love playing with her toys now, they are fun for the adults in the house too! In today's fast-paced and materialistic society, Payne has reminded me that less really is more.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Your Mummy Tummy

Last week, I was breastfeeding Zoë while reading the news on my iPhone, when I came across an article covering the dress Kate Middleton wore while presenting her baby to the world. Her cornflower blue dress was beautifully high-waisted and unapologetically showed off her "mummy tummy".  When I first saw the photo, I was flooded with relief. It is normal to still look pregnant for a few days after giving birth, but Western society seems to have forgotten that. America's obsession with the perfect body puts an unrealistic and, quite frankly, unhealthy pressure on women - especially postpartum moms. Most celebrity mothers these days do not make a public appearance until they have regained their figure. I have to assume that every outfit the Duchess wears is carefully picked, since no doubt her appearance is under constant scrutiny. I love that she thoughtfully chose not wear baggy clothes or stand with her newborn covering her belly.  It seems she has busted the last taboo of pregnancy - the mummy tummy.

Kate Middleton unabashedly showing off her postpartum mummy tummy. Isn't she beautiful?
This got me thinking of my own postpartum body and the issues I have with my stomach, which now looks somewhat like a deflated weather balloon. After a c-section with my first daughter, I quickly became pregnant with my second before having the chance to lose any weight. While I am grateful that my second daughter was a quick and easy natural birth, both of my babies were around 10 lbs and have stretched out my belly leaving me with a lovely hanging apron and 30 extra lbs. Looking in the mirror has become an exercise in self-deprecation. While consuming 1,500 calories and working out 60-90 minutes a day, I have to remind myself that I am doing all that I can. I mean seriously, I could kill for some freaking carbs right now. 

I took this issue to prayer and was reminded of a passage I totally glossed over in Rachel Jankovic's book Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches. Here is the excerpt:
"...Our bodies are tools, not treasures. You should not spend your days trying to preserve your body in its eighteen-year-old form. Let it be used. By the time you die, you want to have a very dinted and dinged body. Motherhood uses your body in the way that God designed it to be used. Those are the right kind of damages. 

There are of course ways to hurt your body that are outside of God's design for it and disobedient. But motherhood is what your stomach was made for - and any wear and tear that it shows is simply the sign of a well-used tool. We are not to treat our bodies like museum pieces. They were not given to us to preserve, they were given to us to use. So use it cheerfully, and maintain it cheerfully. When you are working hard to maintain the baby weight (as you may need to), think of it as tool maintenance. You want to fix your body up to be able to use it some more. It might be used for more children, or might be used to take care of the children you have. We should not be trying to fix it up to put back on the shelf out of harm's way or to try to make ourselves look like nothing ever happened. Your body is a tool. Use it."
Wow. This passage has helped me to understand God's purpose for my body and to cut myself a little slack. Motherhood can be so demanding. It consumes our time, emotions, and even our bodies. While so many women either choose not to have children or to abort the ones they have, Jankovic is spot on when she says that one of the greatest testimonies Christian women can have in our world today is the testimony of joyfully giving your body to another. So think of it this way, the scars and stretch marks are all part of your vocation. This of course is no excuse to go schlepping around in sweatpants until your children are grown, but it should help you to put things in perspective. After all, aren't they worth it?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer Delights

Summer in Anchorage brings warmth, endless daylight, a verdant landscape, and lots of visitors. Because really, who wants to come here in the winter except the most extreme of outdoor enthusiasts? I have just seen off my last house guest and am anxious for fall already. I am ready for sweaters, suede boots, and a warm fire. Did I mention pie? Fall is arriving early this year, which means we will very soon be picking berries. We are slowly gaining darkness, and it has been dark as early as 11 p.m. lately. 

For our last "hurrah" we decided to play on the Kenai Peninsula. A dear friend of mine had spent a few weeks there and could not stop gushing about it. Since we were to be hosting my father the last couple weeks of summer, my husband and I decided to drag him down there. We spent close to four hours in a car with a toddler and a newborn. We were not sorry. 

We arrived in Seward, a quaint fishing town, to be greeted by breathtaking views of glaciers on the harbor. Our weekend consisted of sampling fresh eateries on Resurrection Bay, viewing sea lions and puffins, and supporting more microbreweries than I care to mention. Visitors can actually tour the glaciers on cruise ships, charter fishing boats, or dog sled if they so desire. The Seavey family, with three generations of Ididarod  mushers, offers tours and rides with the huskies. We decided to spend our money on gratuitous amounts of fish and beer instead, so we opted to hike Exit Glacier for free. 

Living in Alaska is like walking through a postcard, as evidenced by the photo above. Exit Glacier greeted us with lush fireweed, crisp air, and and up close view of the ice. We were exhausted by the end of the weekend, but it was totally worth it. I spent the next week showing my dad Anchorage. Downtown comes alive once the ice thaws with lots of live music and tourists, and there are lots of small shops that showcase ivory, furs, and native art. I actually got my dad to try caribou burgers and reindeer dogs (sorry Rudolph). We had a delightful week, a fitting end to the summer

I met a local who told me that the winters here are like a pregnancy - nine months and horrible, but that the summer totally makes up for it. I may not have believed that when I was up to my knees in snow our first winter here, but she was right. I don't think I've ever appreciated summer until I moved here. And in just a short couple of weeks, we will have fall. We will have pie, berries, and sunsets in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Life in Anchorage

August marks my fifth month in Anchorage, and it's hard to believe I have spent nearly half a year here. It feels like just yesterday I was in Virginia Beach, wearing flip flops in November. At six months pregnant with only three months to relocate across the country, I spent my last few days frantically researching homes, doctors, and parkas. I had little time once here to catch up with friends from home. At seven months pregnant, trying to unpack a home with a toddler underfoot was no small challenge. We were blessed with finding a lovely two story home complete with a back yard, hardwood floors, and a fireplace. I found a great doctor who was willing to let me VBAC, and we had a very beautiful natural birth. Now that our newest bundle is sleeping more, I have finally decided to start a blog and chronicle our adventures in Alaska.  

People are so curious about this state, as I was when we first learned of our upcoming orders. Two of the most common questions I get from friends are, "So, do you like, live in civilization?" and, "Oh my gosh, have you seen Sarah Palin?"

Contrary to what a lot of people may think, we do not sit around endlessly tweeting Sarah Palin. We are not "roughing it". Anchorage is a city just like anywhere else, except noticeably smaller. We do have modern amenities. We even have traffic! Here is what it is like to live in Anchorage:
  • Anchorage is very small. With a population of just 200,000 we have a very tight knit community. The people here are some of the friendliest I have ever met. I got stuck in the snow while driving my first month here, and within two minutes I had 3 strangers who offered to assist me. Within about 5 minutes, I was on my way.
  • You do need to be a little outdoorsy to live here. I would have gone stark raving mad this winter if I did not bundle the girls up and get out for a few minutes each day, no matter how cold or dark. Plus, a lot of activities are outdoors, like Fur Rondy, the kick-off to the Ididarod complete with food and fireworks. 
  • Anchorage is very diverse. There is a military community, a large Alaska native population, many ethnic minorities including Pacific Islanders and Asian, oil-company workers, outdoor enthusiasts, and hippies who want to get away from the lower 48 and enjoy our lax laws. 
  • Alaska truly is the last frontier. Alaska is huge and sparsely populated, with not a lot of government to enforce laws. People come here to be left alone. Many homestead. The land is diverse. Up north is a vast treeless expanse and down south is a coastal rain forest. 
  • The wilderness is right here, right on our doorstep. Literally. I get moose in my yard once or twice a week. People die in avalanches, get mauled by bears, or suffer hypothermia - all within or just outside city limits. There is unparalleled access to public lands and wildlife. The Cook Inlet and Chucagh range surround Anchorage. Some of the most beautiful hiking is just ten minutes from my driveway. 
  • The winters are cold and dark; the summers are bright, rainy, and less cold. I saw very little daylight when I arrived here in February. In the middle of summer, I think I had about 2 hours of darkness.  It is called the Land of the Midnight Sun for a reason, but our biological clocks have adjusted accordingly. 
  • It's really expensive to fly to or from here. Shipping costs for imports can be almost as expensive as the item itself. Since I tend to hang out on Amazon like some people do on Facebook, I have discovered some things that ship here for free. Actually, it's just plain expensive to live here. Cost of living is high. 
  • Oil money does exist. Thanks to the Permanent Fund Dividend, residents can get up to $1,000 a year. 
  • Getting dressed up means putting on your cleanest flannel.
  • Alaska comes with it's own vocabulary. "Break-up" season is spring when the ice breaks up, and the "lower 48" refers to, well, everyone else. 
Alaska has been a true haven for us, a refuge. Upon first arriving, the winter seemed harsh and unyielding, the mountains forlorn and distant. Eventually, the snow seemed inviting, the fireplace cozy, and coffee comforting. I have begun to feel a connection to this land. It breaks you down, but then builds you back up. It's healing. Whether we stay here just our three year tour or longer, this place will always have a very special place in my heart.