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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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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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What’s Your Flavor of Crazy?

drinks-1The other day I saw a story posted on Facebook by a number of friends about the “Scary New Evidence on BPA-free Plastics.”  There was also recently this story about banning hand-held devices for kids. And this story about how another celebrity is anti-vaccine. And this story that makes you afraid that if you’re too strict, your kids will be obese. There’s also this one that says our efforts to make kids safer on the playground isn’t actually making them safer, it might actually be making them worse off.  Next thing you know they’ll be saying you should be worried about how much you’re worrying. Oh, wait, there’s a study that says that, too.

Maybe some of this stuff is real and actually scary. Probably a lot of it is less real. How do you know for sure?

The number one thing that drives up my blood pressure when I read sensational articles about parenting is when the author makes bold, authoritative statements that scare parents. I call this fear parenting, and it’s a serious problem. Three out of five parents make decisions about their child-raising techniques based on avoiding techniques, approaches, or food that they are afraid will hurt their kids’ health or well-being. (I just made that up, but maybe Fox News or the Huffington Post will publish it.) That’s totally anecdotal, but it’s probably close to true.

running-4

Who is that benefiting, really? We should be keeping parent morale up, not down. At the very least we need to be demonstrating to our kids that we’re not scared into or away from something by the media. I think it’s an evolutionary advantage to pat parents on the back for whatever kind of job they’re doing, because we sort of need people to keep doing it.  Making decisions for someone else (our kids) is one of the hardest things we have to do as parents, but we should be making sound, conscious decisions about how we raise our children based on reality, not fear. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to sort out the real information from the misinformation.

But that’s my point, really. There is just no way parents can be completely educated on all aspects of parenting.  Trying to get a handle on all the issues that we “should” be thinking about is like trying to drink from a fire hose, and it’s exhausting. How much screen time should they have, making sure they don’t wear winter coats in their carseats, how close you should live to a freeway for exhaust exposure, how much pesticide residue is on their food, what kind of milk should they drink, how much sugar should they have, is sunscreen good for them, is there BPA in their plastic sippy cup, should you even be using plastic at all, how long should you breastfeed, does your car meet recent crash safety ratings, how long can you safely keep a car seat, how close is the nearest cell phone tower, what about co-sleeping, are we using love and logic, are we yelling too much, should you give your kids multivitamins, is your water fluoridated and if not what should you do about it, should they eat gluten or meat or cows who eat corn, when do you introduce peanuts, is there too much estrogen in tofu… seriously, enough already. And then you have the environment to think about. Can you balance your desire to keep the kids safe and lower their exposure to chemicals while also doing the right thing for the environment? Can you “do the right thing” and save enough money to take a vacation, pay for their college, and retire so you can spend time with your grandkids? Man.

I read this quote the other day that said we’re drowning in information but starved for knowledge. I feel that way so much with parenting, and if there is any one group of people that doesn’t have time to do research, it’s parents. Everyone always says, “do your research and be informed.” Sometimes I feel pretty good on any given day that I took a run and also showered (often it’s just one or the other), cooked all three meals and did the dishes, supervised some finger-painting, didn’t yell all that much, started (but didn’t finish) a load of laundry, and kept the kids alive until bedtime. That’s it. No research, no reading of studies. No “getting informed.” And then there are the days that I decide to do some research and for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy the onslaught of information about any one topic is overwhelming. I just want to shut the computer and have a drink. You’re inundated with information on facebook, twitter, email forwards, blog posts, the media, your parents, and your friends. Every time I turn around I find another thing I should be concerned with and researching.

This is why I think so many parents have their flavor of crazy. You just cannot know it all, so you focus on one thing. My thing has always been fighting misinformation in the media. I have a friend who rallies against processed food.  I know a stay-at-home dad whose cause is buying local. My husband refuses to live within a mile of the interstate or a busy road with lots of exhaust. Whatever it is, you just have to pick one or two. That’s all you can really commit to doing.

I’m hoping that I can help you streamline some of that information. Or at least feel less guilty. But I’m going to be honest; I don’t even pretend to know all the answers. But let me know what you’re concerned with, and I’ll try to include it on my long list of things to look into. In the meantime, keep using your Mom Sense, because just getting through the day is pretty darn good.

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