Category Archives: Just Being a Mommy Stories

These aren’t researched food stories, these are just about me being a mom and what it’s like for me.

On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

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New Year, New Job, New Voices

Remember over a year ago when I wrote about how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms to return to the work force? Not because you might want to continue to stay home (please kill me now) but because it’s very hard to overcome the stigma associated with women who voluntarily leave their careers to raise kids? And how I was feeling shocked by the very real possibility of not being able to get a job I thought was worth my time and experience? Well, scratch all that. I got a job.

No big deal, it only took me two years. Given the fact that Portland is a city full of highly educated hipsters all willing work for pennies just to live in Portland, I’m kind of impressed that I managed to get a job at all. I’m patting myself on the back about that.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I should write this post, and there are two points I want to make. The first one is easier; it’s the advice I’d give to other stay-at-home moms who want to return to work at some point. Here it is: make certain you’re looking for a career in something you genuinely care about, and keep your toe in the water even if you have to do it for free or even pay out of pocket. Don’t pursue a career in something just because that’s what you did before. If you didn’t like it then, you’re not going to like it any better now. Pick something you feel passionately enough about that you might be willing to do it in your spare time. Because you probably should be doing it in your spare time. There were definitely times my husband said, “What? You’re going to pay your own money to go to a professional conference?” or “Why are you getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to take pictures of a Christmas tree harvest … for free?” or “That’s not worth your time, you’re hardly making any money on that job.” I felt strongly enough about advocating these issues that I kept doing it anyway; so find something you feel that strongly about and make yourself valuable in that industry by continuing to do it in some capacity. Even if that means re-training. Do some soul searching and if you have to go back to night school for a few years, do it.

The next point flows naturally out of the above, but is a little trickier. In the end, I’m a journalist, and I’m guided by those ethics classes I took in journalism school (even though I get the feeling many journalists can’t seem to be bothered with that). I feel compelled to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. I don’t want you, readers, to feel like now I’m getting paid to have an opinion and so somehow that lowers my trustworthiness. At the same time, I’m not willing to give up my anonymity for all the very real reasons I’ve written about before. So, I’m not going to tell you where I work. But here’s what I will tell you – I got hired into my job because of my passion, knowledge, and voice of reason on many of the issues I have discussed on this blog. I’m not getting paid to have my opinions, I’m getting paid because I already had those opinions. That’s an important distinction. This blog has always been and continues to be based on my own well-researched opinions. Nonetheless, I’ll promise you that I will not write posts on topics that directly conflict me or would have an immediate impact in my field.

Now, on to some more exciting news: I’m adding three new writers to It’s MomSense! I’m really looking forward to diversifying the number of voices on this blog – we’re coming up on two years since I started this and bringing in more opinions will help transform this blog into something even more valuable. It’s also necessary. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to work a full-time job, exercise, spend time with my family, sleep AND create regular compelling content for this blog. Enter the new writers.

I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves to you below, but all four of us have a few things in common: we’re all moms, we all live in Oregon, and we’re all passionate about evidence-based thought. You’ve also already met all three of them: Jen wrote a guest post on sunscreen last summer, I profiled Tiffany’s farm last fall, and although she’s unnamed in my post, Sarah was part of the March Against Myths campaign I blogged about last May.

Joining me on the new It’s MomSense team:

——– Jen ——–

JenI’m a scientist and mother based in Eugene, Oregon.  My husband and I moved to Eugene for me to attend graduate school at the U of O and loved it here so much we never left.  I had both my kids in grad school, and graduated with my PhD in Biology in 2003.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, I was invited to stay on as a non-tenure track research associate. My work focuses mainly the molecular biology of Usher syndrome, a hereditary form of deaf-blindness.  You can read some of my blog posts on this topic on the Usher Syndrome Coalition blog, where I’ve been a contributor for the past eight years.

My children, now teenagers, have taught me a lot about who I am as a parent, an educator, and a person, and some of my contributions here will be about what I’ve learned on that journey so far.  I am the product of a parenting style in which all that I did–every action, accomplishment, and misstep–was evaluated solely by how it reflected on the parent. My own parenting approach is pretty much 180 degrees from that.  My kids are their own people, increasingly accountable to and responsible for themselves as they grow. To facilitate them being the best versions of themselves, I have tried to create the structure and security for them to explore their interests and obligations in the way that feels best to them.  I usually let them figure things out for themselves rather than providing the answers. I encourage them to question the information that comes to them from all sources and form their own opinions.

Living an evidence-based, grounded life in Eugene, Ore. has its challenges, given that the culture here tends to skew more toward fairies than facts. The community vibe as a whole is often in stark contrast to my work and home life, but it definitely makes for some interesting conversations!  I strongly believe that effectively communicating science—and debunking pseudoscience—requires respect and genuine acknowledgement of different points of view.  No matter how clear cut the facts are, science can only speak for itself if people are willing to listen.

You can follow me on Twitter @ClutchScience, and soon on Facebook, as soon as I get around to activating my professional page.

——– Tiffany ——–

TiffanyFarming in real life; that’s what my family does. Not what the media says, not what the latest issue of Natural News says, and certainly not how that meme that your BFF shared from the Food Babe says. We farm in the real world. The everyday, not-so-exciting, get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-in-your-eyes real world of farming.

Keith and I are 4th generation family farmers working alongside his parents in the Willamette Valley, right next to the state capital of Salem. Our farm focuses on seed crops like wheat, grass seed, barley, oats, turnip seed, and field peas. In the last few years we started to plant hazelnuts (It’s MomSense blog post) and that has added a lot of excitement to our lives.

I work off the farm right now in the corporate world as an assistant for agricultural appraisers in a small but growing company. Balancing being a working mom after being a SAHM has been an adjustment for the whole family. I am sure that there are many of you that could relate and maybe even give me a few tips!

We have two funny/smart/awesome/infuriating/charming daughters from my previous marriage who are initiating us into parenting the teen years. Go US! Also we have a scattering of pets that seem to show up in my social media channels often because, well, pets are fun.

I grew up “in town” so when I married Keith, I was not only marrying him but this way of life. Culture shock is the best way to describe it.  Several years later, I am still adjusting but I’d like to think I am getting the hang of it.

If you want to know more about me or our farm, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter. I also started a Facebook page recently, where I will be focusing on farming posts. A couple of years ago I did a spot for KATU Channel 2 for the Celebrate Agriculture campaign. Check out the video!

——– Sarah ——–

sarahI’m a twenty-something vegan mom of a rambunctious three- year-old boy and full-time student working toward a B.S. in Biology at Portland State University. When not busy with school and child-rearing, I enjoy spending my time communicating and advocating for science and biotech as well as completing the occasional craft project and eating copious amounts of soy ice cream.

As a young vegan growing up in Portland, I once fell prey to many myths associated with health and nutrition. I believed that organic food was safer and more sustainable than conventionally-farmed foods, that it was important to avoid “toxins” and processed foods and that genetically-modified crops were a science fiction horror story waiting to happen. Although I considered myself a skeptic and science enthusiast, I subscribed to these views because of how pervasive they were and continue to be. Becoming a mother further compounded these beliefs, as I was surrounded by misinformation from both the internet and well-intentioned friends and family members who had me believing that unmedicated birth, long-term breastfeeding, “clean” eating and attachment parenting were the only ways to ensure that my child would have a healthy and happy upbringing.

Once I realized that many of the views I held were not supported by empirical evidence, I immediately felt compelled to learn more and to educate others. I now understand that genetic engineering is not only as safe as traditional breeding methods but that it also holds many advantages for the environment, for global economy and for human and animal welfare. My current focus is educating other vegans about crop biotech, as I believe vegans especially should acknowledge and embrace the benefits this technology has for animals and the environment. In May 2015 I helped co-organize the Portland chapter of the international March Against Myths movement and have since become involved in pro-science activism both online and in person.

As a mom, I want my son to live in a society that values education, rationality and human progress. When parents decline to vaccinate their children, citizens vote against water fluoridation and misguided activists fight to oppose new breeding technologies I believe that human health suffers and progress is hindered.

————-

That’s the new team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this next year brings and how this blog will grow and change. Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

 

 

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The Science of Mom: Read This Book (or Give it for Christmas)

When I was pregnant with June, the only book I read was What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I took the childbirth classes recommended by the hospital, and I can’t even remember, but I think I took a breastfeeding class. That was it. I’m not even sure I made a birth plan, or if I did, it was very basic. I didn’t read any books about what to do when the baby actually arrived –I was completely focused on the pregnancy and getting all the right baby gear.

It did not go as planned. I went into labor one day shy of full term, and when I got to the hospital we discovered June was breech and I’d have to have an emergency cesarean. I was shocked. I’d only skimmed the chapter on cesarean in the book and I only half paid attention to that part in class. But then everything happened really quickly, they delivered June via cesarean and it turned out fine. June was perfectly healthy even though she was technically premature.

first weekI will never forget the complete and utter feeling of astonishment when we were moved from the delivery room into the post-partum room and the nurses started to leave. Both my husband and I looked at them, no doubt with utter shock in our eyes, and said, “Wait, you’re going to leave us alone with her??”

Two years later I had spent more hours alone with a baby than I ever thought possible (most of them in the middle of the night.) I had more realistic expectations for July’s birth and by then I knew all the gear I really needed was diapers and boobs. Again, it did not go as planned. I went into labor even earlier this time, just shy of 36 weeks, it went slower than before, I ended up with an epidural, I freaked out my OB by having a vision-altering migraine while pushing and July was delivered very quickly with forceps to avoid further complications. I was encouraged to have an MRI and think hard before having any more children. He was perfect, but I needed pain killers for a long time.

The point of these stories is that childbirth rarely goes as planned and it is only just the beginning of the confusion.  When you’re pregnant, being pregnant is all-consuming – what should you eat, how do you get prepared, how should you exercise? Then when you’ve had a child, what to do with that child is all-consuming – where should she sleep, what do you feed him, do you really need that vitamin K shot?

Here’s my unsolicited advice to new moms: don’t just read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In fact the pregnancy part, as all-consuming as it feels at the time, isn’t the most confusing part because at that point it’s still your body (IMO). Once your pregnancy becomes a tiny little human separate from you but for whom you’re completely in charge the decisions are even more complicated.  Spend your time reading information that will help you make those decisions.  And under no circumstances should you rely on Google and mommy forums to help you make those decisions, because there is nothing more judgmental than a mommy forum. You will not get good, evidenced-based advice there. They’re not terrible and can offer a support group if you find the right one, but in my experience, moms are the biggest critics of other moms and you’ll get pressure to do things a certain way, often with total disregard for science.

A few months ago I was asked to read and review a book called The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year by Alice Callahan. Alice is a blogger with whom I am familiar because she lives just down the road in Eugene.  Now, my kids are much older than one year and to be honest, I don’t normally review books. But I’ve gotten a lot of support from fellow bloggers in this space, so I felt like I should at least give it a read and if I didn’t think it was useful, I wouldn’t review it. Alice is a new(ish) mom who has a PhD in nutritional biology and spent two years investigating fetal physiology as a postdoctoral scholar, so she’s clearly qualified to write on the subject.

Her book is fantastic. If all you do is stand in Barnes and Noble and read one chapter, read the chapter about vaccines. It should be required reading for all new parents. Alice writes in a soft and non-judgmental way, in a way I’d have a hard time doing. It’s not pushy,  just informative. I’m not even going to have any more kids and I was reading out loud to my husband at night about the science behind when to cut the umbilical cord, simply because I found her presentation of the subject so compelling. In her book, Alice has applied her scientific scrutiny of the literature on subjects ranging from the benefits (or lack-thereof) of breastfeeding, to the cultural framework behind co-sleeping, to what your baby’s first foods should be. She calms fears and provides parents with real facts. She doesn’t make the decisions for you, but she makes it a lot easier to make sound decisions.

So if you know someone who’s having a baby soon and you’re not sure what to get them for Christmas, get them this book. In fact, even if you already got them something, do them a favor and get them this book, too.  I wish I had read it when I was pregnant with June, because it would have kicked off my whole parenting experience on the right foot – an evidence-based foot. Thankfully, I’ve gotten there on my own, but for new parents Alice’s book provides the tools to potentially save them from falling into the black hole of pseudoscience and misinformation that runs wild in parenting communities. You should read this book, even if you’re like me and don’t plan to have more kids, because it’s interesting and well written.

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Ending the Over-Scheduled Schedule

Last night I made a declaration to my kids: we’re cutting back on activities. At the end of this week, soccer and swimming sessions will be over and I am looking forward to it coming to a close.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I am not allowing my kids’ schedules to supersede our lives. Somehow we’ve slipped into a situation I swore up and down I would never be in: there are only two days out of seven each week that don’t have an activity holding down a recurring block of time on the calendar.  And now they’re asking me to sign them up for basketball and rock climbing and gymnastics. And can we please squeeze in a playdate between when the bus drops us off and before we have to be at swimming? I’ll just eat dinner in the car.

No.

And the reason is not because I’m mean. I want my kids to participate in fun activities that they enjoy. I see the value in team sports; they’re both very athletic and I want to encourage that.   I want them to have friends and play and do all the regular things kids do. But over the last two months, I’ve noticed the side effects of that kind of schedule. We only have a few hours with them each day and a full day of school maxes them out. Adding anything else to it just leads to bad tempers and grumpiness.

I thought when both my kids were in all day school I’d be more patient because I’d only have a few hours with them. I’d be totally available to listen to their stories about school and help with homework and we’d have a nice relaxing dinner and play a game. And I am available, but they aren’t. They’re emotionally and physically exhausted and my patience runs thin because they unload all the feelings their little bodies are churning up on me.

When did we become this society that feels like our kids need to have every moment of their lives scheduled? When are they supposed to just relax and process all the stuff going on? I was talking to a speech pathologist recently who told me she sees high schoolers who are passing out on the sports field. Their parents thinkSoccerMom-1 they have a health problem, but it turns out they’re just wound so tight they literally can’t breath and they collapse. She has to teach them how to relax. She told me she was seeing a five-year-old for speech therapy and his parents couldn’t figure out a way to fit his therapy into his soccer schedule so they dropped therapy because there just wasn’t time. When the pathologist suggested maybe they cut out some of his other activities (like soccer) they baulked and said he had to continue soccer so he could get a soccer scholarship to this private elementary school.

I see the stressed-out, frazzled parents all the time, so I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. When I didn’t sign my daughter up for soccer like every other kindergartner (because she has no interest in soccer) one of the moms said to me with a concerned look, “But aren’t you afraid she’ll get behind?” No. I’m just really not concerned she’ll get behind at soccer. Parents contact me to take their family pictures but when we go to schedule it, there isn’t a free weekend on the calendar for two months because of soccer tournaments and double-header baseball games and dance recitals.

It doesn’t have to be like that. You can just say no. No, we don’t need to be doing something every minute of every day. It’s ok to just do nothing after school. Whether or not you enroll your six-year-old in baseball is not going to make or break his future as a baseball player, or, likely, have any impact on his future at all.  Half the time it seems like the kids like the idea of soccer more than they actually like playing it. Parents end up having to force them to get out on the field and even then they just kick the dirt. I understand sometimes kids say they want to do something and then after they go to one practice they say they don’t want to anymore, but maybe just don’t sign them up next time. Maybe just play soccer with them at the park sometimes.

So I’m saying no, at least for the time being. We can play basketball in our own backyard. We can go on family hikes for exercise. Want to learn something new? Great, I can teach you piano and Daddy can help you identify trees. We can go rock climbing together on a Saturday; you don’t have to be part of an after-school rock climbing club. I know the kids will still bicker with each other, but I want to re-align our priorities to put extra-curricular stuff way down on the list. I’m going to do my best to resist the pressure to enroll them in everything under the sun just because it exists and everyone else is doing it. At least, that’s my plan. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Gwyneth Schmyneth

Wouldn’t it be cool if I were a celebrity? Like, say for example, that I got rich and famous for some beautiful landscape photographs that I took, or for some song I wrote on the piano, or for some movie I acted in. Let’s say I got so famous that millions of complete strangers knew my name and cared about what clothes I wear and where I go on vacation. You’d see my face on magazines in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and you’d stop to read about whom I am dating or what clothes my kids wore on their glamorous beach vacation. I’m not sure I’d actually like that, because then I wouldn’t be just a regular person anymore, but at least I’d have super powers. I’d have the power to sway how you feel on controversial topics that I have no expertise on simply because I am famous. That would be pretty awesome.

But, unfortunately, I’m not famous. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t fly in a personal jet, I don’t own any private islands, I don’t hire someone to take care of my kids while I’m out posing for the paparazzi in my expensive, designer clothes.  So I guess my opinion is not as convincing and not as important because I’m just a regular, not-famous mom.

At least, that’s the impression that I get when I read in the news that Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a news conference in Washington D.C. to try to influence how Congress votes on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that would create a uniform, science-based labeling standard and prevent costly state-by-state GMO labeling laws. Somehow her opinion on GMO labeling is very important because she’s not just famous, but she’s also a mom.  And as a famous mom, she’s going to stand up there and represent all of us poor, not-famous moms who are too busy taking our kids to soccer practice and microwaving pre-packaged frozen dinners to understand about GMOs. We need that warning label on our packages of Oreos because otherwise there’s just no way to know if it’s bad for our kids.

moms4gmosOnly, that’s bullshit.  I don’t need Gwyneth Paltrow to represent me. And I have absolutely no idea why anyone would give a flying you-know-what about what Gwyneth Paltrow thinks about GMOs. She did not become famous by being an expert in biotechnology, or food, or nutrition – she’s just a good actress. She is not any more of an expert on GMOs than some random mom at the supermarket, so why does anyone think her opinion matters? What she thinks doesn’t matter any more than what Jenny McCarthy thinks caused her son’s autism or how Neil Young feels about Monsanto or how Sarah Palin feels about climate change.  The only people who should be influencing how you feel about science are scientists.

What do the scientists think about GMOs? That’s who’s important. Those are the real celebrities we should be listening to. Like the scientists at the FDA. Or the ones at the American Medical Association, those at the National Academy of Science, and the ones at the European Commission.  They think GMOs are safe and are the same as non-GMO foods. They think putting a label on foods that contain ingredients derived from GMO crops doesn’t provide consumers with any useful nutritional information any more than putting a label on foods grown with irrigation would provide useful nutritional information. I think those scientists are convincing because they understand the thousands of studies that have been done on GMOs, including the same studies that anti-GMO groups who score celebrity representation claim demonstrate GMOs are unsafe or damaging to the environment, and they’re still not changing their minds. Not because it’s a conspiracy, but because those studies aren’t convincing. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have any information that the FDA doesn’t have. For me, at least, I’m going to listen to the people who are truly experts at determining what’s safe and what’s not instead of actresses and song writers. Unless, of course, I’m looking for advice on acting or writing songs.

This is exactly why I recently participated in a campaign to support the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act and challenge celebrity moms who are trying to represent all moms.  A bunch of us “regular” moms got together and wrote an open letter to the celebrity moms demonstrating that we do, in fact, accept the scientific consensus on GMOs and don’t feel that GMOs need a stigmatizing mandatory warning label. Most of those “regular moms” aren’t just offering their run-of-the-mill opinion on the subject, either. Most of them (like Julie Borloug, granddaughter of Nobel Peace prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug) actually are subject matter experts – scientists, science communicators and farmers.  If you’re going to listen to how moms feel about GMO labels, you should listen to these moms.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have to listen to any moms to decide how you feel about mandatory GMO labels, particularly celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who are not a reliable sources for science-related issues.  Inform yourself – read evidence-based information, talk to a farmer, or talk to a real expert on GMOs.  Then, if you agree with us non-celebrity moms on GMOs, join us: sign this letter and pledge to judge GMO food with facts, not fear.

 

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The Summer of Truth

Today is the first day of our summer – school got out yesterday and the kids and I have exactly 11 weeks of (mostly) unscheduled freedom.  Usually, that great big yawn of unscheduled-ness freaks me out. I’ve never been very good at the “stay-at-home” part of being a stay-at-home mom. While I’m not a proponent of scheduling every minute of my kids’ lives, I do usually sign them up for camps or plan activities over the summer to break up the long stretches of nothingness.  I like to think it’s for them, but admittedly, it’s mostly for me – to give myself a week or so of kid-free hours. But not this summer. I haven’t signed them up for anything partly because I’ve been so busy I never got around to it, but primarily because this could very well be the last summer that I’m a stay-at-home mom.

summer-1Next fall my youngest starts kindergarten, and it will be my moment of truth: what do I do now that both my kids are in full-time school? My daughter turns seven this month, marking the seventh anniversary of me becoming a stay-at-home mom. That is the longest I have done any “job.” In fact, it’s twice as long as my longest paying job at Monsanto.  While there are lots of things I don’t like about staying at home (always putting my schedule last, never having more than ahandful of hours to myself, being fully in charge of every mundane detail about running the house, not having much intellectual stimulation, to name a few) there have been lots of things that I do like. Aside from getting to be present for virtually every moment of my kids’ lives before the age of five, my favorite part has been the complete freedom to dictate our time. I don’t really have to be anywhere at any specific time, and I have no one to answer to. In fact, until this month, neither of my kids was even legally required to be in school (that starts at age 7 in Oregon.) I have the freedom to decide at 8:30 in the morning that we’re going to the beach for the day, and I don’t have to explain it to anyone.

The potential end of my stay-at-home career is kind of bittersweet. I’ll be honest, I used to dislike it a lot more than I do now because it used to be a lot harder than it is now. It used to be exhausting with all the diapers and breastfeeding and chasing toddlers around before they injured themselves or someone else. It’s a testament to our species’ endurance and resilience that human children even make it to age three. Back then it was all I could do to just survive the day without breaking into the liquor cabinet. It was essential that we get out of the house and meet up with other moms because I was actually afraid I might lose my mind if we didn’t. I was the only one in the house for ten hours straight that could form a coherent sentence, and even that was a stretch some of the time. Looking back, it feels like utter chaos, and I can’t believe we all made it out alive. Now, it’s so much more peaceful – my kids (sometimes) have interesting and funny things to say, and they can (sometimes) entertain themselves for long stretches of time without me having to constantly wonder if they’re still alive in the other room. There are no diapers, they get themselves out of bed, there are no nap schedules to abide by, and they’re actually cool little people summer-2(most of the time). That makes it a little harder to close the door on this part of my life. But even if I wanted it to continue, it can’t. Time marches on – my daughter already prefers being with her friends to being with me. I’m no longer the most interesting thing in her life. And that’s as it should be. My job here as a stay-at-home mom is (mostly) done.

To some degree, then, I want to force myself to soak it up this summer. I want to take advantage of my last few weeks of freedom, from staying in our pajamas all day to packing a lunch and heading off to Mt. Hood to explore a trail we’ve never hiked, to having a playdate at the park that ends up rolling into dinner and a sleepover at a friend’s house.  My kids are right in that sweet spot – old enough to do lots of stuff on their own but not old enough yet to hate being with me. And next summer I might actually have a job (fingers crossed) that brings with it something I’ve been longing for since I left the workplace: using my brain to bring in some income and shedding the stay-at-home title. But it also brings the end to my untethered-ness with the kids. There’s a lot of unknown for me between now and then – like, for example, what that job will actually be – but I’m going to put off thinking about those questions until September. Now is the time for going camping and having picnics and spending the afternoon swimming in the river.

All that is to say expect fewer blog posts from me this summer. I’ve lined up some guest bloggers and I’m still planning to continue to (slowly) work on a few stories as time allows, but I’m not going to send the kids off to soccer camp so I can research a blog post. I can do that next year when they’re in school, and I will. Now I will sit here with my coffee and watch them splash in the kiddie pool.

Or, wait, they’re actually pointing squirt guns at the sleeping dog. Gotta go.

Crater Lake-1

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Are We Giving Our Kids A New Eating Disorder?

Remember when people used to just eat food? They didn’t obsess over it – it was just, you know, make sure you eat a well-balanced meal. Eat your veggies, that orthorexia story-5sort of thing. Now it’s all everyone talks about – at least that’s the way it feels to me. To be fair, I probably bring some of it on myself since I have a blog about food and I constantly read about agriculture and I’m hyper-aware when people start talking about food. But in a lot of conversations with my friends, at some point or another, it always turns to food. Everyone has an opinion about the quality of what our kids are eating.

Recently I heard the term orthorexia for the first time, and it made me wonder if we’re creating a new generation of kids with eating disorders. What the hell is orthorexia you ask? It’s an eating disorder that is characterized not by an obsession about how much you eat, but by an obsession with food quality and purity. From the National Eating Disorder Association’s webpage, “Every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good,’ rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).  Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.” Because nutritionists and psychologists are seeing this more and more, experts are considering adding orthorexia to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM 5.)

Wait, that sounds familiar: “Rise above others in dietary prowess” and “they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.” Let that sink in. Recently I wrote about how frustrated I am with some moms’ superiority complex over where they buy their groceries and what’s on the label. I’ve read stories online about moms who spend their entire day obsessing over what to feed their kids, and I have personally heard moms say, “I just don’t know what to feed them anymore, everything is so loaded with crap.” And the thing is, our kids are listening.

Twice in the past few months my daughter has proven to me that she’s listening. I rarely let her buy hot lunch at school, simply because I’m cheap. But she’d been asking to buy hot lunch, and one morning the coffee pot broke and I was pretty sure my hands would notfunction without coffee to make her a lunch so I said, “Guess what? Today is the day you get to buy hot lunch!!” When she came home I said, “How was it? What did you have?” and I can’t even remember what she said she had, but I do remember she said, “They had those sugar yogurts, but I didn’t get one of those.” I said, “What are sugar yogurts?” and she said, “You know, those ones Grandma and Grandpa like but that you say are just full of sugar?” She means Yoplait or something similar that comes in a single serving container. Another time I asked her what kind of Girl Scout Cookie she wanted for dessert and she said, “The do-si-dos (peanut butter patties). They have peanut butter in them, so they’re probably the healthiest.”

She’s six.

Now, I feel like my husband and I do a pretty decent job of keeping it real, if you know what I mean. We try to teaorthorexia story-8ch both our kids good eating habits and model good behavior, and I think we strike a pretty good balance between healthy and indulgent. They know ice cream isn’t good for you, but we still eat it sometimes. But clearly she’s been listening when my husband and I talk about sugar content and what we think might make one food better than another. So, I’m making sure to explain that a little better. But when does it change from teaching healthy eating habits to creating an eating disorder? I’m not really worried that I’m giving my daughter an eating disorder – but I do think it’s something we should be aware of. It’s not just a body image thing, there is a real problem with people getting so caught up in the supposed superiority of one food over another that it becomes an actual eating disorder.

I understand this fed-up feeling that many moms have, though, about what to feed their kids. The amount of information (accurate or otherwise) that’s on social media about food and where it comes from and whether or not it’s good for us is overwhelming. I’ve felt the same feeling of, “what am I even supposed to feed them?” When my almost five-year-old went in for his three-year-old checkup, the pediatrician told me his BMI had been climbing for the past few checkups and he was technically overweight. They brought in the pediatric nutritionist to consult with me about how I could change his diet. “Maybe cut down on juice,” she said. “We don’t drink juice,” I said. “Is he active?” she asked. I gave her a pretty good are-you-shitting-me look, “He’s three. Of course he’s active; I can’t even get him to sit down.” All she could really come up with was that maybe I should give him smaller portions of dairy, and I kind of felt like she was stretching to make that recommendation. I left there with a pretty desperate feeling. I thought I was doing a pretty good job – I work really hard to make home-cooked, healthy meals. We don’t eat a lot of snack foods. My husband and I exercise a lot, we model good behavior. WTF am I supposed to feed him?!

orthorexia story-7I took a deep breath, called my mom, and after she reassured me I’m doing a good job, I changed nothing. I went back in with my son three months later and the pediatrician gave me a solid pat on the back for doing a great job, his BMI had gone down. He’d also grown considerably taller. So I confronted the pediatrician about it and let him know that I was feeling pretty pissed that I was kind of made to feel like a bad mom when I’m really not doing anything wrong. That’s when I saw a mix of desperation and exhaustion in his eyes. He explained to me that the push in the pediatric world to “fix” childhood obesity is intense. As a pediatrician, he’s not always sure what to do, either. I get that.

I understand that feeling of not knowing what to do, because none of us (parents) truly know what we’re doing either. The pressure to do the very best for them is powerful, and I certainly don’t know the answer to the question of how to fix childhood obesity, but let’s make certain that we don’t instill in them a sense of desperation about food that could cause them to spiral into an eating disorder. We, as parents, need to make sure we’re keeping a level head about food. Are the quality and purity of the ingredients really so important? Or is it really more important that they understand some foods are better for you than others, but it’s ok to eat those not-so-great foods sometimes? Ice cream is really good, I love it, let’s eat it together sometimes. Not every day, but sometimes. It’s no big deal if you like Kraft Mac and Cheese, let’s have it sometimes. Let’s also try homemade mac and cheese, too, though – maybe you’ll like that better! Just take a deep breath, call your mom (or a friend), and reassure yourself that you’re doing a good job. It’s all going to be ok, it’s just food after all – it doesn’t define who you are as a person; don’t let it take over your whole life.

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Sign this petition: vaccinate your kids

I’m about to talk about something that I know a lot of people feel really strongly about. I touched on it before in my post about denialism, but recent political events make me inclined to say it again, and say it stronger. I hope I say it strongly enough to convince you to sign my petition.

Oregon has the worst immunization rates in the country and has the most lenient rules on vaccine exemptions. Since 2000, the percentage of Oregon children entering kindergarten whose parents have chosen to exempt them from vaccines has grown from less than one percent to greater than seven percent. Why is that unacceptable? Because, as many of you know, vaccines only work when a certain percentage of the community is vaccinated. Together, this community of vaccinated individuals protects those for whom the vaccine wasn’t effective (yes, that happens) and those who are unable to be vaccinated (infants, cancer patients, kids who are too ill to get the vaccine). Each disease has a different “herd immunity” threshold – this threshold indicates the percentage of the community that must be vaccinated in order for the vaccine to work most effectively. For measles, that threshold is 94 percent. We are precariously close to falling below herd immunity for vaccine-preventable diseases, making those vaccines less effective for the community as a whole.

That pisses me off, and it should piss you off, too. Vaccines are safe and effective. The medical community is solid on that message. Nonetheless, parents are choosing not to vaccinate their kids because they don’t believe the medical community. Maybe they’re afraid of autism, maybe they think their kids should build up a natural immunity, maybe they don’t like the pharmaceutical industry but frankly, I don’t care why. Choosing not to vaccinate your kids is not like choosing a parenting approach; it’s not like choosing what to feed them for breakfast, or what car seat to use, or what school to send them to, or how much screen time they get. Because all of those things only impact you and your family. Choosing not to vaccinate your kids impacts MY FAMILY, and that’s why I’m pissed off. You do not get to make poorly-informed decisions that put my kids’ health in jeopardy because you think you know better than the doctors.

If you don’t want to vaccinate your kids, that’s fine. But you should not be allowed to send them to school with my kids because it’s selfish and dangerous. It’s straight-up selfish of these parents to rely on my vaccinated children to protect their unvaccinated children while at the same time they’re reducing the effectiveness of the vaccine for the entire community. Two doses of the measles vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing measles. That means if my kid falls into that three percent for whom it is not effective, and there is a measles outbreak because the herd immunity falls below 94 percent, she could very well contract measles even though I had her fully vaccinated. For every 1,000 people who get measles, one to two of them die.

I vaccinated my kids, I did my part, but it’s still fully possible that one of my kids could die from a vaccine-preventable disease because other parents are deciding not to vaccinate. That’s unacceptable and needs to change. If immunization rates in Oregon continue to fall as they have been falling for the last 15 years, we’re headed for disaster. So let’s do something about it. I am not willing to wait until we have a much bigger problem on our hands before we make a change.

The Oregon Senate Committee on Health Care is currently reviewing Senate Bill 442 that would eliminate the current option for parents to opt their school-going children out of state-required vaccines due to religious or philosophical reasons. As it is, Oregon parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children have to obtain a Vaccine Education Certificate so they can opt-out. Parents can either visit their doctor to obtain the certificate, or they can simply watch a video online and print out the certificate at the end of the video. Clearly, that’s not enough because Oregon still ranks as the worst in the nation for immunization rates. And that’s just the state average. The scariest part is that there are schools in Oregon that have greater than a 70 percent non-medical exemption rate.  Yes, you read that correctly, that means that less than 30 percent of those kids are vaccinated.  If you look at this list you can find your child’s school and see what the non-medical exemption rate is. If it’s greater than six percent, you’re below herd immunity for measles. Mississippi, on the other hand, does not allow non-medical vaccine exemptions and in 2014, only a scant 0.1 percent of Mississippi kindergartners were exempt from vaccinations.

I tried to watch the public hearing held February 18 by the Senate Committee on Health Care.  You can watch the whole three-hour saga here if you like. I was unable to stomach the whole thing – it was a dog and pony show. The committee must have thought so, too, because when they got wind that Andrew Wakefield was planning to attend and testify at the March 9 meeting, they changed the meeting to a work session instead of a public hearing and uninvited all speakers. Yes, Andrew Wakefield is the one whose infamous study linking the MMR vaccine to autism was retracted from the journal in which it was published and whose medical license was revoked because his study was found to be fraudulent and unethically financed. While he has been disinvited, he claims he’s still planning to have a town hall in Portland. Let’s send a message to him and to the anti-vax community before the March that we are tired of their anti-science rhetoric and that we won’t stand for it when it comes to protecting our children.

We need this bill to pass so Oregon’s vaccine rates don’t continue to fall. Please contact your representative and let them know you support this bill, and sign my petition to pass SB 442.

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Organic Junk Food is Still Junk Food

You know what I’m really tired of hearing? “We eat really healthy food. Every once in a while I feed my kids mac and cheese, but I make sure to buy the organic kind.” Or maybe it’s, “Oh, I only give them Annie’s organic cheddar bunnies, I would never give them Goldfish, those are just loaded with crap.” Or maybe it’s, “I love these organic fruit snacks from Whole Foods, they’re much better for you than the regular ones.” Or, it’s some derivative of one of those – I’m sure you know what I mean.

USDA organic, smart for youI’m calling momsense on that. And if you’re really honest with yourself, mom-who-makes-that-claim, you’ll also admit it’s total crap. I’m sick and tired of moms lying to themselves about the nutritional superiority of a food simply because they bought it at Whole Foods or because it says organic on the label. Look,  I’m not going to make any generalizations about what is or isn’t considered junk food. But if you think the regular version of {insert culprit food here} is junk food, the organic version is STILL junk food. I don’t care if you want to feed your kid cheese crackers or mac and cheese. I feed my kids that kind of stuff sometimes, and I’m not ashamed. I’m not a bad mom, and my kids are very healthy. I’m not judging anyone for that. But own up to it, and admit to yourself that you’re fine with occasionally feeding them those kinds of foods. Don’t pretend that it’s in any way better or that you’re in any way a better mom simply because it’s not Kraft (or Pepperidge Farms, or whatever brand it is that you think is inferior.) Don’t justify your behavior with the organic label. If you really don’t think they should be eating something because it’s nutritionally void, don’t get the organic version because you think it magically turns a food into a slightly better version of that food. That’s complete nonsense.

Now, I can already imagine feathers getting all ruffled. “But, here’s the thing, Sara, I buy those brands because they don’t use artificial flavors and food dyes, not because they’re organic.” Ok, I get that. But let’s be honest about what we’re talking about here. Mac and cheese is not a health food. It’s not the food dye in Kraft Mac and Cheese that makes it junk food; it’s the fact that it has virtually no substance that (in my opinion) qualifies it as a junk food.  And while I agree that food dye is by no means necessary in mac and cheese, the amount that your child is ingesting in a third of a box that you give them once or twice a month is trivial. I guess if you want to boycott Kraft for that, that’s your call. Alternatively, you could just not buy boxed mac and cheese. You could just cook macaroni noodles and make a cheese sauce out of butter, flour, milk and cheese. I’m just saying you have options that don’t include falling for the marketing hype. But I do get it. Everyone has their sticking point. I’m not different – I refuse to eat at Chipotle because their haughty marketing is offensive to farmers.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about here, anyway – I’m not talking about one product per se. I’m talking about this condescending superiority and elitism that many moms effuse because they think they have found a higher-quality version of what really boils down to potato chips. This belief that organic versions of foods are better for you is a real documented thing, too, I’m not just anecdotally pissed off about it. The Cornell Food and Brand Lab did a study in 2013 that demonstrated that people perceive foods (like cookies, yogurt and chips) with an organic label to be more nutritious, have fewer calories and fat, and to be more appetizing and flavorful. The researchers had people taste test the same product, side-by-side, but one was labeled organic and the other not organic. Even though people were eating the exact same cookie just with a different label, they perceived the one labeled organic to be better for them. It’s called the “health halo effect.” It’s pure marketing, and people have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

saltinesI’ll confess, though. I’ve fallen for claims made on packages before. I used to buy whole grain saltines because I assumed they were better. Whole grains are better, right? Then one day I decided to actually compare the nutrition labels and see how different they are. Not different. At all. Basically the same calories, fat, sugar, protein, fiber, everything. Maybe you could make an argument that there’s more to it than just what the nutrition label says – maybe there’s some other element that would make the whole grain version better, but let’s be honest: they’re saltines not wheat berry salad. So then I decided to compare some other labels. I concluded that there is no substantial nutritional difference between products that many seem to think are vastly different. For example, Annie’s Organic Bunny Grahams actually have slightly more calories annies v honey maid grahamsand fat than Nabisco Teddy Grahams, but are identical in protein, fiber, and sugar content. Annie’s Organic Bunny fruit snacks are also slightly higher in calories and sugar than Mott’s fruit snacks, but not appreciably so. Annie’s Organic shells and cheese were marginally higher in calories, fat, fiber, and protein, and lower in sugar and sodium than Kraft Mac and Cheese, but again, not appreciably so. Pepperidge Farms Whole Grain Goldfish also fared slightly better, nutritionally, than Annie’s Organic Cheddar Bunnies, but not significantly. The bottom line is that these products are not really nutritionally different. You can’t make claims that one is Annies v Motts fruit snackssignificantly nutritionally superior.

I want to be clear about one point. We are lucky to live in a country where we have the choice to buy organic if we want to. Food is cheap and safe here, and it’s great we are free and capable of making whatever choice we want at the grocery store. I also support all farmers – even the organic ones. I don’t blame the organic farmers – they’ve found a niche and they’re supplying a product that is in demand. I blame the consumers for creating this ridiculous demand. The US organic industry is booming, and demand grows every year, it was an estimated $35 billion industry in 2014.  And it’s all because of marketing. When organic certification was being considered, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said it better than anyone can, “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” In fact, the organic industry has been accused of  “widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities” that have caused “false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods.” Basically, the only way the organic industry makes money is by scaring people about what’s in conventional food. They’re throwing conventional farmers under the bus in order to sell a product.  They’re selling fear, plain and simple. The organic label ONLY distinguishes a process method, it is not a USDA endorsement of that method, nor is it an endorsement of superior safety, nutrition, or environmental stewardship.

It’s been pretty well documented that organic food is not more nutritious. I’ve written previously on how it’s not more sustainable. Organic farmers do use pesticides, and some argue that because they’re less effective, they may be worse for the environment because they have to be used at higher rates and frequencies. Organic food is not safer, either. I’ve also written previously that while organic produce does technically have lower pesticide residues, conventional pesticide residues are so miniscule that there is no significant risk benefit to eating organic. You take bigger risks to your kids’ health everyday simply by putting them in a car. So, like I said, it’s all marketing. So much so that it’s even been called the scam of the decade.

Which brings me to my final point: there is absolutely, categorically, without a doubt nothing superior about believing marketing claims. You are not in an exclusive club because you shop at Whole Foods and buy organic food. I’m not a second-rate mother because I shop at WinCo and buy conventional food. Don’t tell me it tastes better, don’t tell me you think it’s more nutritious, don’t tell me it’s better for the environment, and don’t condescend to me because you think you’ve found the more righteous way to eat. You haven’t. All you’ve really done is come to the exact conclusion that the marketers hope you will: this product is better because the other one is bad.  If you want to keep buying it, that’s your choice. But the only one who’s really winning is the marketers. And, most importantly, this false division of foods based on imaginary superiority of ingredients is creating new and harmful problems in parenting – but I’ll save that rant for another time, I’ve probably preached enough for one day.

 

 

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I’m not here to entertain you

I’m feeling kind of like doing nothing today. It’s half-way through the second day of Christmas break and so far we’ve made pumpkin pancakes, gone to the dentist, had three playdates, decorated Christmas cookies and ridden bikes at the park. Strangely enough, I’m starting to run out of steam. But the reality of it is, I’ve been cramming our time full of fun stuff and having friends over to avoid the inevitable responsibility of actually playing with my kids.

tea party-1

This is how you make it look like you’re playing tea party when you’re actually just taking a picture of your KIDS playing tea party while you do dishes.

I’m going to admit something to you all. Get ready. Here it is: I do not play with my kids. There. Now you all know my secret. And you know what? It doesn’t make me a bad mom. I can very clearly remember my mom saying to me, “I am not here to entertain you,” and no truer sentence has ever been uttered by a mother. It took me a number of years before I, as a mom, was able to come to terms with and accept the fact that it’s okay not to play with your kids. Social media really makes it feel like you should be making cupcakes, throwing glitter, and having dance parties with your kids all day long. But no matter how many amazingly crafty, family-fun ideas you see on Pinterest or how many of your friends are posting photos of picture-perfect family events on Facebook or Instagram, you don’t have to be like that. And chances are your friends aren’t actually like that either. If I were that kind of Facebooker, I easily could have posted at least 10 pictures of my kids having a smashingly good time over the last day and a half that made it look like I’m Mom-of-the-year. I could make it look like I never yell, always snuggle on the couch with my kids, and end each night with books and kisses. Instead, in reality, I yell more than I would like to. Snuggling on the couch with the kids always ends with one of them kicking me in the face. I can only commit to a make-believe game if I’m also drinking a beer, and usually by bedtime my patience is so thin I have to close my eyes while the kids brush their teeth so I don’t have to see the toothpaste all over the sink. They’re lucky if I actually make it through a book before I fall asleep putting them to bed.

Here’s the thing: I am not six years old. I don’t enjoy playing dress up and pretending I’m a ladybug. I don’t like drawing pictures of rainbows. I don’t like playing Go Fish for the seven billionth time, and I don’t even really like to build with Legos. Don’t get me wrong – I can and sometimes do those things. I can play one or two rounds of Uno. Sometimes I do feel like making and pretending to eat a plate full of Play-doh cookies. I can color a picture. But then I’m done. I’m not doing it another fifty times because it was only marginally fun the first time. We all know that kids don’t just want you to play chase around the house for 10 minutes, they want you to do it for an hour. But like I said, I’m not six, so I’m not going to do that. Since I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for over six years, I HAVE done all those things. A gazillion times over. So I don’t feel obligated to do them anymore. Which is why I sometimes have to remind myself that Mommy Doesn’t Have to Play.

playing in a field-3

Instant playmate.

Lest you start to feel like I’m a bad mom, let me assure you that I’m not a bad mom. I do love my kids. And when they were younger, or when there was only one of them, I did get down on the floor and play games. I did chase them around the kitchen island. I have made up stories and let my kids put stickers all over me and I have built a carwash out of unit blocks that we drove matchbox cars through. But now that my kids are four and six – they can play with each other. My job here is to make sure they make it through the day. I do the laundry, I clean the house, I cook every single meal, I do all the grocery shopping, I plan and coordinate all the doctor’s appointments, the playdates, and the swim lessons, I set up the watercolors and clean up the mess, I walk with them to the playground and try to make sure they don’t get hurt while they’re there. But I don’t play.

My job is not to entertain them, and that’s just fine. By not playing with them, I have fostered their ability to entertain themselves. Which, frankly, might be one of the best lessons I can teach them. Life is not one big parade of constant entertainment. No one is offering you a list of things that you can do when you’re bored. In fact, when my son starts telling me he’s bored, I start listing off chores for him to do. (That is exactly what my mom used to do to me, now that I think about it.) I can tell you what you’re not going to do, buddy: you’re not going to watch TV and you’re not going to play the iPad. Go find something to do or you’ll end up folding laundry.

So, don’t feel bad about giving your kids the little “scoot along now” motion with your hand this winter break. You don’t have to play with them all the time (unless you feel like it.) That’s real life. And it’s OK if you want to drink a cup of coffee and look at the Internet. They also need to learn that you do things for yourself that don’t involve them. You can still be a good mom even if you don’t play. I am, and I’m proud of it. You should be, too.

 

 

 

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