Traveling with kids: airlines gleefully making it harder and harder

So this past week has seen a number of unpleasant developments for families who need to fly with children. Last week, I read that many airlines are taking away the “perk” of early boarding for families with young children. If someone would like to get on early, it’ll cost. Of course. Everything costs an extra fee now when flying. Sure, you might be able to fly for $400, but then you pay $50 for checking a bag both ways, $10 for snacks, and now about $10 per person for early boarding.

Today, it’s about WHERE you sit. If you want to sit in a middle seat, fine. But if you want an aisle or window seat, you’ll be paying dearly for that privilege, $25 or more. If you’re flying alone and don’t mind sitting in the middle, great. But if you’re flying as a family of even just three, one of you can sit in the middle, but then the other two will be paying $25 extra per person, just so you can all sit in a row together. Holy cow, man!

Combining two great loves: reading AND flying.

I used to love flying. I still kind of do. Just driving up to the airport gives me a thrill of anticipation as I think about getting on an airplane and speeding into the sky and then landing somewhere completely different an hour or a few later. It’s like magic. I love being up in the air and looking down on the clouds and the varied landscapes I see below. Amazing. But over the years, a variety of things have chipped away at the thrill I get from the whole experience. One acronym says much: TSA. Yes, I know it’s important. Yes. But standing in the lines and taking off the shoes and moving things around in my bags so they’ll meet all the guidelines (which change a little every time I fly, it seems) and now having my body scanned … it just saps a lot of the fun out of the flying experience. Then there’s just the stress involved in making sure you’re there on time and you jump through all the hoops in time for the flight. Ick. Add to that the stress of trying to find a flight that gets you where you want to go without connecting in two completely wacky places, adding in all kinds of extra time, and then getting it for a reasonable price … argh. If they even existed anymore, I could probably be a travel agent. I’ve had to research and set up flights for my mom because it’s too complex for her to do herself anymore, what with where we live, how far we are from major airports, and the distance between us. It’s just not simple or straightforward, at least if you don’t want to pay $800 for a flight. If you want to just pay an arm rather than a leg as well, it takes some serious Web wrangling.

And flying with kids… that’s its own special kind of hell. I’ve done it quite a bit over the years. In 19 years of marriage, and 16 years of having children, we’ve always lived across the country from one side of the family or the other, so we have to fly to visit some grandparent. And honestly, it’s just not practical to drive 2500 miles. It’s primarily about the time involved; my husband can’t really take the two or three weeks off it would require to make that kind of a round trip. And driving in a car for THAT LONG with two or three or four kids? I can’t think of many things I’d rather do less. Not to say that we haven’t done a big car trip a few times, regionally, for a total of about a week and 3000 miles, but I wouldn’t really want to go across country and back, totaling 5000 miles. Eeeeek!

In 2010, our last big flying trip with the 4 kids, my oldest was 14 and the youngest 3. All things considered, it went pretty well, even though I flew home with them alone, while hubby was at work.

So we’ve done a lot of flying with our children. I’ve done it sometimes with my husband, sometimes without. Either way isn’t easy. We actually have been blessed with kids who are pretty good travelers, and every time we’ve flown we’ve been complimented by other people on flights on how well our girls behaved. But they never knew about the time that one pooped in her panties (far past the age of diapers or pullups) and she had to wear one of the youngest’s diapers instead of a fresh pair of underwear, wrapped around by her baby blanket because her pants were wet and messy too, or how I once pleaded with a flight attendant to just let my six-year-old get up for a minute to go pee, even though there was a little turbulence. The attendant told me she would clean up the mess if my daughter ended up losing it. Right. Where would she find new clothes for her during the flight? Luckily, my daughter courageously held her water. (And don’t talk to me about safety. I do understand. It doesn’t make the situation any less stressful or frustrating.)

The airlines are trying to stay above water (ha!) financially; I get that. I suppose that yes, they can make much better money from business travelers, whose companies can just pay up for whatever the airlines require. Everything would be calmer in the skies without any crying children who are tired, stuck in a seat, or experiencing painfully popping ears. But there really aren’t any other options for traveling long distances, and at least once every few years, a family far away from grandparents or other relatives or friends will want to visit them. It’s simply bullying for the airline companies to keep adding in new reasons for families not to fly. Because there aren’t really other options for traveling distances, the airlines have an obligation of sorts to provide that option for people other than just the lucrative business travelers. To nickel-and-dime us to death to prevent us from flying is just mean and a form of monopolizing.

Until there are other viable options (high-speed rail, wizard-style apparating, Star-Trek-style transporting), airlines are going to have to figure out a way to fairly and kindly transport families across large distances, without ticking us off before we even get to the gate.

Romance: real life vs. books

Yet another day when I’ve been thinking about a topic and I end up reading something closely related. Some of the hottest books flying off shelves (or e-shelves) are romances. The latest is not just a romance; it’s erotica: the Fifty Shades of Grey books are at the top of the e-book bestseller lists and feature not just loads of sex but bondage and domination, apparently (nope, I am not going to read them).

And it would be crazy to even discuss this topic without mentioning the insanely popular Twilight saga (which, apparently, in some way is how Fifty Shades was inspired). Not erotica, at least, but heavy on the romance, lust, making-out, etc. Sure, there are action scenes dealing with the bad vampires, but it’s really about intense teen love. The very interesting series I’m reading right now, Outlander and its many sequels, is historical fiction that has lots of great characters in many settings, but the primary focus is the intense attraction between the heroine and her 18th-century husband.

I think many people concentrate on TV and movies when they consider the effects of mass media, and they are right to do so. But books can be overlooked in the kinds of effects their messages have on readers. This Deseret News article, for instance, focuses on film: romantic comedies, specifically, and how viewing them can affect real people in real relationships. I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that relationships and love are not portrayed terribly accurately in movies, and I can say as a reader that there are plenty of books that fit that pattern as well. At least in literature, there are many more genres and many more books to choose from, and many can be found that do portray life much more realistically than film, in part just due to their length, honestly. But there are lots of books that are just print versions of rom-coms or trite romances (Nicholas Sparks, you’ve done damage in both print and celluloid!).

I’ve thought many times as I’ve read books that feature romance how so many skirt realities most of us experience. I don’t know about you all, but after 19 years of marriage, I don’t feel the same intensity of nonstop attraction to my dear husband as I did at the very beginning. In fact, I probably never felt the same way as some characters I read about. I remember reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and thinking, Good heavens! These people have sex all the time! Do they not do anything else when the husband isn’t popping off into other time periods? And as much as I am thoroughly enjoying the Outlander series, really: does anyone (or everyone) feel like having sex with their spouse all the time? I’m not saying that isn’t a great thing between husband and wife and vital to a good relationship, but it isn’t the ONLY thing or even 50 percent.

The other main issue, I think, with some of these books is that they often posit that there is one “true love” out there for everyone, that love is destined, fated, that each of us must find THE ONE, our soul mate. This can cause a number of problems; for instance: if a relationship isn’t going smoothly, then our partner must not be THE RIGHT ONE (and we ditch a perfectly good partner and move on to find that elusive person); we might be fooled by temporary chemistry that someone we are crazy about is perfect for us (and we ignore all the signs that show he or she truly may not make a good spouse); we may never find someone who fits the supposed characteristics of a soul mate and end up alone.

One of my church’s leaders, Spencer W. Kimball, said something very wise but not what anyone might consider easy or exciting or the basis of a swoon-worthy story line: “‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”

Still, it’s hard to resist the siren song of these romance stories. They just make everything seem so intense, so easy, so larger-than-life. They’re fantasy. But we like fantasy. We like to read about things that aren’t like real life. At the same time, does reading these unrealistic stories do damage to us as readers as we go about our regular lives once the book is put back on the shelf? Do we end up with unrealistic expectations from our relationships? Research seems to show that the answer is yes, at least in film. I dare say the same is true for similar messages in print.

Yep, we look lovey-dovey and dressed-up here, but this is not everyday reality. I don’t care to take a lot of pictures of me (and us) during everyday reality…

Real life is harder, messier, more boring, more frustrating, more mundane, more work. Children can bring joy to our lives, but the work and the commitment involved can easily take away from our relationship as a couple (not that this is a good thing, but it happens easily if we don’t work to stop it from happening). The pressures of just making an everyday living and going about our usual day-to-day business can strip the thrill from our relationships. And time has a way of changing how we relate to each other, mostly for good. Love is a complex, wonderful, deep, multifaceted animal, and romance is only one of those facets. Sexual attraction is just a part of the romance. Infatuation and attraction occur strongly in the early stages of a romance, and real love develops past those, even though it is still desirable and a wonderful thing to still be attracted to our spouse 50 years after those early stages. My husband can still kiss me and make my legs turn to jelly, even 19 years into our relationship. But he doesn’t do it 10 times a day, and … well, I won’t go into any more private details. I don’t always look at him and think, Kiss me! I may just think, Thank heavens he’s home. Or I wish he’d do the dishes. After he’s home, the kids are in bed, and the dishes are done, then I am more disposed to think, Man, I wish he’d kiss me and jelly-fy my legs.

I think I have appreciated Anne Tyler’s books because they feel so much more real. They’re not romances, but they are about love. I was so profoundly moved by The Amateur Marriage, for instance, for its look at a less-than-ideal or smooth relationship. I love how Tyler can just dig right into real life, excavate some broken and dirty old shards, and hold them up to the light for our inspection. Yes, we think, this is how people lived then.

I couldn’t possibly write enough here about all the truths of relationships and longtime marriages. I certainly don’t have it figured out; 19 years is just enough for me and my husband to get in and get serious and tweak some rules so they fit us better. All I know is that media don’t often enough reflect real life. And that’s too bad. The shiny, glittery stuff that’s reflected to us off of film or the pages of books is too often easier for writers to portray and more desirable for us consumers. It’s just nicer or more appealing to consume a quick, too-sweet product than one that’s more subtle and layered. We want escape, all too often, not more of reality. But reality can be wonderful; in fact, it can be much better than the intense but one-sided stuff that comes at us from various media. I thank those amazing writers who have not just transported me to intriguing new places but those who have taken me right back to where I started and made it seem new and interesting in all its reality.

Vulgarity in public places: what is acceptable? what isn’t?

So I think about this idea frequently, as I go about my business on sidewalks, in stores, at the gym, etc., but it came up in the news the other day. A woman was removed from a flight because her T-shirt had the f-word on it. Naturally, it seems that most people find this action unconscionable and un-American. What is this world coming to when a pilot has the right to remove someone because of a shirt? they write in outrage on their blogs.

Well, I’m going to write in support of that pilot and the airline. Good for them. I have grown very tired of being out and about and seeing all kinds of quite offensive material wherever I look. I run a website about offensive content in books, and there are plenty of places out there that give viewers information about offensive content in movies or TV shows. If any of us viewers complain about that vulgar content, the free-speechers out there respond indignantly, Well, you don’t have to watch it, then! Turn it off! And that’s definitely true. Believe me, I avoid a lot of stuff. (Although I would certainly appreciate if more producers would make content viewable by the majority of us, not a minority.) But what do they want me to do about offensive junk I see or hear just walking around in public places? Not leave my house? Not go to the store? Not walk around downtown? Become a recluse? Hm. I think not.

There are laws on the books in place for a reason, to protect the majority of people in a society who have a certain level of expectation for what they should be free to see or not see (or hear, etc.). There are also cultural norms and expectations. There is also what we might call “etiquette” or simply common decency or courtesy. Each of these comes into play in public areas. Businesses also have certain rights to make rules for their own establishments. American Airlines, for instance, doesn’t own the skies, but it does own the airplane on which this woman with her vulgar shirt flew. I believe that AA had every right to draw a line and say, no, that kind of vulgarity is not acceptable to us and our other paying passengers. I’m not sure what regulations might be for TSA (hard to keep up with them anyway), but the pilot did say that this woman should never have gotten through and onto her first flight as it was. I think that TSA, as a government agency, also has a right to draw some lines on what’s acceptable for people who are passing through its checkpoints. (Don’t get me started on its other issues; let’s focus on this…) In most public places, there are laws in place prohibiting public drunkenness or lewdness or nudity of any sort. Why should it be any different that very harsh language should be regulated in some way in those places?

Many people these days may not be offended by harsh language or images anymore. That’s their choice. But they have to recognize that plenty of the rest of us may still have some sensitivity (and rightly so) to offensive language. There are also levels of vulgarity: some words are just mild “curse” words; some are worse, and some are really bad. I brush off whenever I hear people using the mild stuff, and even the moderate stuff. But it still hurts my ears and wounds my soul to hear the f-word and its ilk used around me.

We as a society seem to have forgotten what it means to be sensitive to the needs and desires of those around us. It’s all about “me,” what “I” want or think is acceptable, and the heck with everyone else. They’re just being overly sensitive or it’s a free country is what people tend to say. Yes, it is a free country, and thank goodness for that. (And it being Memorial Day weekend, might I also add, and thanks be to our soldiers for that.) Liberty is a foundation of our beliefs here. But it seems too often we’ve gone far past that into licentiousness and freedom at all costs, no matter how our choices may affect people around us. Laws and societal rules/expectations are there to try to balance the needs of the one against the many. I think we’re just a nation of “one”s now, who forget there are the “many” surrounding them.

Yes, many “old-fashioned” values have gone by the wayside, and more and more that is vulgar has now become acceptable and appropriate. But the f-word, for example, still stands as an offensive word, and it is not used in everyday conversation in regular settings (most workplaces would frown on that kind of language, for instance). It still causes movies full of its use to be rated as unviewable by children younger than 17. It offends most people. American Airlines, the government, any number of “public” entities have every right to draw a line and say that it does not belong in that public arena. I wish more would take that stand and act on it more frequently. It would make me a lot happier about being out and about, let alone exposing my children to it.

Parenting … joy or misery?

Apparently, the world needs studies to “prove” just about anything. Troll the Internet and you’ll find some great examples, both “duh” ones and ridiculous ones (“clothing keeps you warm” or “soap operas lack accuracy”). The latest I read about today regards parenting.

New studies now refute some previous studies (and isn’t THAT typical as well?) that indicated that parenting made couples unhappier than their childless peers. Now, several are saying that “parenting makes you (relatively) happier.”

I’ve thought about this for, well, about 16 years now. First, I think I can say as a parent, I can speak from both perspectives: as a wife without children and a wife with children, because I was married for almost three years before I had my first child. So I know the difference. Honestly, can people who have chosen not to have children speak from both perspectives? No.

But on to my opinions on this subject. I think that there are days I’d say, yep, parenting can be the pits. It’s sometimes miserable. I was just talking with my 16-year-old a few days ago about the stage of parenting infants and how it can just drive you to sheer desperation. Those early months in which you’re constantly being awakened at night and during the naps you MIGHT be able to try to take during the day are miserable. They’re foggy and hazy and overcast by exhaustion. I don’t do well on small amounts of sleep, and while I was eager to get up and take care of my babies for the first few weeks, my energy and enthusiasm dimmed a bit over time as my sleep meter went down into negative numbers. The sleep loss alone can turn you into a zombie, hungry for energy. Add to that the irritants of incessant crying or fussiness and the huge demand one little baby can create, and yeah, I felt desperate. I can still remember that feeling even now, it was just so strong and overpowering, so much that I simply can’t put it into words. Holding and putting down and picking up again an infant who’s overtired or gassy or just doesn’t like to be put down can make one go quickly insane. Doing that four times? Insanity, indeed.

And that’s only the first months of each new life. Then there are the “terrible twos” and the days they say “no” over and over and throw fits or scratch pictures into the surface of your new wood table with the little tab from an aluminum can (that was merely a week ago with my 5-year-old…). There are the years where you’re in and out of the car, ferrying children to and from school and activities. … I couldn’t possibly keep this post to a reasonable length if I went into even a few examples of each age and stage. Other parents know what I’m talking about here, and non-parents have heard many of the “horror” stories.

But at the same time, I have felt my most sublime joy holding or watching my children. Just this week, I stretched out in my recliner on a Sunday evening after the younger three kids were in bed and invited my oldest to climb in next to me. We cuddled and talked for an hour, which wasn’t what I had planned, but it was wonderful. I don’t consider myself a super-emotional person, but just thinking about it right now makes me a little teary-eyed, it was so perfect. And as much as I remember those days of exhaustion and desperation with that same kid a mere 15 to 15 1/2 years ago (she was a very demanding baby, and there were many times I thought I couldn’t wait for her to grow up), I would not trade away that hour in the cozy chair to save myself those many, many hours of struggle.

I think frequently of a scripture in my faith. A father is talking to his sons and explaining life, starting with the story of Adam and Eve. That first couple could have stayed in the Garden of Eden (in fact, many people think they should have), but if they had, they would have not known the transcendent joys of life. As this prophet put it: “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

Yep, the studies are right: parenting can induce misery. And the studies that show parenting can lead to great happiness are right too. As that same chapter says, very wisely: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” You can’t experience true joy without experiencing misery. You can’t be happy to eat if you’ve never been hungry. And on and on.

Smack in the middle of parenting, if a researcher comes in and asks a few questions on any given day, in one slice of time, the odds are that researcher is going to find that parent frazzled. It’s unlikely he or she will find that mom or dad right in the middle of a sublime moment of happiness. But just because there are more moments of craziness than not doesn’t diminish the importance and amazingness of the moments of joy. And that’s true with everything in life; parenting is just one example. Anything great that requires hard work and sacrifice is worth that work and sacrifice, but don’t ask those people about how great it is while they’re in the middle of buckling down and sweating and crying and pouring their whole selves into the work.

No, I’m not going to go on and on about how amazing parenting is, and be a rah-rah cheerleader about it. I’m a realist in many ways, but I’m also an optimist. I’m not going to sugar-coat, but I will be happy to share both sides of the parenting coin, the hard work and the beauty. If others choose not to go through the experience because they don’t want the bad parts, that’s their choice. But they will surely be deprived of a kind of joy that they couldn’t possibly experience any other way. That’s their choice too. For me, I’ll take the good and the bad, the misery and the joy, just to be able to savor those moments out of time that are almost beyond normal happiness. And I’ll try to laugh about the misery, because that’s the best I can do with it.

My starfish friends

Thanks to my girls, I’m pretty familiar with the tween movie “Aquamarine,” about a teen mermaid who gets some time out of the water. In one scene, she introduces her new girlfriends on land to the earrings she wears, small starfish that “compliment her.” And no, she doesn’t mean “complement her.” She says, “They literally give me compliments. They talk to me. Starfish are notorious suck-ups. They love to give me compliments.” She picks out a few great specimens from the sea and proceeds to attach them to her earlobes and those of her friends. The starfish latch on and very pleasingly spout many sweet sayings into the girls’ ears. “Aquamarine is soooo lovely. She is awesome. And she is so smart, yes, like tuna.”

I’ve often thought it would be perfectly wonderful to have my own set of starfish earrings. Every woman, especially busy, harried mothers, needs that kind of encouragement on a very regular basis. Some men are good at being starfish for their wives or girlfriends; many are not. This doesn’t mean that women don’t need to hear good things to buoy them up through their busy days.

Me, I like to hear that I’m still pretty, though I’m older and thicker around the waist. I like to hear that I’m smart and talented and capable. I especially need to hear that I’m doing OK, that my efforts for my family and my community and my own interests aren’t unappreciated or just going to waste. I want to know that I’m needed, that what I do matters, that my choices have been good ones, even though sometimes the outcomes haven’t been what I’d anticipated. I need those encouraging words like … well, like a fish needs water.

I have some friends who are particularly great starfish. They give me that encouragement, those sincere words of appreciation and caring that keep me going. I just wish that I could carry those wonderful friends around with me in my pocket or attached to my earlobes! But I’ll take what I can get. Their love and support keep me breathing, keep me moving on, keep me strong enough, just barely, to persevere through busy and frustrating days and weeks. I salute you, my dear starfish. You are my lifeblood. I hope I can be as useful and loving a starfish to you as you have been to me.

The gift that keeps on not giving

So I wrote yesterday about how I’ve been overwhelmed by all the huge obligations and responsibilities of mothering four growing girls. I’ve been feeling low on the coping scale for a few weeks, so by the time my birthday hit the other day, I wasn’t steadied by very many more reserves of patience or understanding.

I knew my “special day” would be crazy, so I expected that. What I also knew, after 19 years of experience, is that my husband is nearly completely unable to surprise me with anything, including gifts. I have to tell him ahead of time for any kind of occasion what I would like. Either he goes out and gets it and wraps it for me to unwrap and exclaim, “Oh, that’s great! I love it!” or we sit down to order it online together (he’ll click the “order” button so it’s from him), or we’ll go out shopping together after the fact.

I’ve largely grown accustomed to this setup, and I do appreciate that 1) I am difficult to buy for because my mood is always changing and 2) not everyone is a great gift-giver. I like to think I’m pretty good at selecting presents for others. I mostly really enjoy it, in fact. It’s so fun to always keep my eyes peeled for little ideas that come up in the course of conversations and then seeing something in a store or online that just matches up. It’s then so fun to see how the person reacts to what I found. I really love it. But no, not everyone can do that very well.

So my dear hubby really tried to come up with some fun things for me on my birthday (the other big problem for him at this time of year is that my birthday and Mother’s Day are always very close together: two big occasions to honor me right in a row, or even on the same day). He came up with a couple of ideas, one of which was one we’ve already done a few times, and which I do enjoy, but in this case, I wasn’t really in the mood and wanted something different. The second ended up being ridiculously expensive, therefore, out of the question. The upshot: on my birthday, as I was racing around doing mommy stuff and wearing myself out, I ended up with not a single present to open.


This drawing and the new header for the site are actually gifts from my oldest daughter. She’s my amazing, in-house talented artist.


It was not a pretty combination. In fact, that snafu ended up being the match that lit the powder keg. I won’t go into detail on my reactions.

What I keep trying to tell my husband is that I really like gifts. I was informed a couple of years ago about the Five Love Languages, and what I really appreciate are Words of Affirmation and Receiving Gifts. Like the website says, gifts are not about getting “stuff” or anything fancy or expensive; it’s about what goes into it. I love just little tokens that say something meaningful, or even semi-meaningful. I want to be thought about and have that thought go into that kind of action. My husband and I have discussed the love languages a few times since our introduction to them, and he knows exactly what I really like. Has he succeeded in learning and applying that knowledge? Not so much. (Let me even quote from the site: “A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous — so would the absence of everyday gestures.” Ha! See?!)

My mom says that most men are terrible at gift-giving and that I should just accept that my husband, as great as he is in so many ways, will never be able to surprise me or give me good gifts. I wonder if that’s true. If it is, then why would the people behind the love languages encourage couples to do better at speaking their spouses’ languages? It would be a lost cause. I still have hope it’s possible to change or at least improve a little.

I’d like to simply say, no, I’m not selfish or self-centered; I don’t think I have high expectations. I just want a simple but fairly meaningful gift on special occasions and just cute, sweet little tokens to surprise me throughout the rest of the year. I think I’m worth it. In fact, I need those expressions of love and appreciation to feed me, to fill up my tank so I can keep going, keep super-mothering. I simply can’t run on emotionally empty.

What say you? Are gifts important to you or someone you care about?

Motherhood: from pack animal to beauty queen and everything in between

As I hit 42 yesterday and pretty much suffered the “epicenter” of a nervous breakdown that’s been brewing for a few weeks, I had a few epiphanies. One was this: I can totally understand why a woman my age would want cosmetic surgery.

Why? At this age, I’ve given birth to four kids and don’t expect to give birth any more. What’s done is done, baby-wise. Now I’m into a different stage of mothering, one I didn’t expect to make me as crazy as the stage of early childhood (and I really thought that was tough): having kids of varying ages, able to fend for themselves in survival-type ways, but dependent on me in completely different ways, ones that are actually somehow more important to who they are and who they will be. They need guidance, not just food and clean bottoms. My girls range from ages 16 down to 5, and each has specific needs related to her age and unique personalities and interests. None are heavily involved in lots of activities, but just having a few activities all together, along with the usual things to support them in, adds up to a lot of work on my shoulders, a lot of expectations and four precious, amazing young people relying on me to help them grow and develop as good human beings.

Yep, that’s me. Anyone need to add on another bag?

So lately, what with it being “birthday month” at the Lim household, and near the end of the school year, and all the things that go along with those events, I have felt like I am merely a donkey, laden with a huge pile of heavy packs, trudging along, trying to knock off a pack or two at a time. Even as I do so, more packs keep getting laid on my back. I’m about to collapse under the strain, my hairy donkey legs splayed out to all sides at cartoonish angles, my belly and chin flat on the ground.

Every mother has these kinds of obligations, especially at this stage of parenting, and they never fully lift. But every mother is also a woman who just wants to feel pretty and special and … womanly. Sure, I’m not 21 anymore, and I don’t turn guys’ heads, and that’s OK. But I’d like to feel occasionally that I can still turn one man’s head, that I am an object of desire and fascination to him, not just the pack burro who takes care of his home and four kids. It’s really easy for life to get so unbalanced with scheduled events and obligations that each parent becomes an automaton, fulfilling those obligations but losing themselves and their “hearts” in the process.

In interviewing doctors and others, I have learned that most women who have cosmetic surgery are either at the beginning of their reproductive lives or the end. The surgical improvements are done either before childbearing and, often, before attracting a mate or after giving birth to a whole brood and closing up shop in the womb. I’ve talked mostly to women who are in the latter category. They’re mostly parents to children of varying ages and are often stay-at-home moms. I suspect that they’re feeling overwhelmed, out of balance and pretty donkey-like, much as I am feeling right now. I can imagine the siren call of surgery would be very tempting right at this point, when a mother can easily feel very undesirable physically — not necessarily even because she really does look significantly older or plumper or scarred because of giving birth, but because she just doesn’t have time to feel attractive and be a woman, rather than a mom.

Every mother needs to explore and regularly experience that side of herself that is simply a woman, with her own unique beauty and personality. If she doesn’t have time to feel feminine and admired somehow, it’s going to throw her off her game everywhere else. Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of answers as to how to solve this very common problem of unbalance (if I did, I’d probably be a millionaire). I just know that somehow it’s vital to find that balance, to find some time to be pretty, to be oneself, to feel one’s husband turn and look appreciatively, even if that admiring gaze must skim right over a toddler with a smelly diaper and a high school student who needs help with homework or finding a modest prom dress. I know that husband and wife both need to find the time to be themselves, to be just a man and woman who still find each other interesting and attractive. I doubt that plastic surgery can permanently solve these issues, but it certainly would sound tempting as a temporary measure.

Me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stand back up, shoulder my load and trudge on, and balance my life a bit better so I can at least sometimes put down all my packs and revert to my womanly form for at least a little while. Fairy godmother: can you wave your wand for me, please?

Time magazine, moms and sensationalism

I’m beginning to think that most news outlets are forgetting their news roots. I’ve long since given up on watching any kind of TV “news” programs. Those seem to have left behind reporting news and facts, replacing journalism with who-can-shout-louder editorializing. Magazines don’t seem much better. Time magazine has just proved that with its newest sensational cover about attachment parenting, asking “Are you mom enough?”

I’m not going to dispute that reporting about the practice of attachment parenting, and some facets of it that seem “extreme” to many parents out there, is a fascinating idea. But I am not happy with the cover, and many people are not, but there are all kinds of reasons that it’s getting attention, mostly negative.

Some are finding the cover to be offensive because it is partially showing a woman’s breast; many find it repulsive because it shows a young boy with his mouth on that woman’s breast. I’ve seen some people calling it “child porn.”

I’ll try to express why the cover bothers me, but first I’ll explain what doesn’t offend me about it. I don’t mind seeing a child suckling on its mother’s breast. I don’t mind seeing that in public, perhaps even in print.

I’d like to express also why it is not “child porn.” Pornography is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter. Child pornography is the portrayal of sexual activities involving a child. For this cover to be porn, it would require sexual activity to be occurring. A child breastfeeding is not sexual activity. More on this later.

Now. On to why the cover does bother me. Time has deliberately chosen subjects to portray that will garner attention, and the artist has posed them in a way that will grab viewers. First, I think it’s interesting the magazine chose a very thin mother who looks like she should be a lingerie model to demonstrate breastfeeding in the preschooler years. Even though this is a real mother and child who are still nursing, the mother has been chosen to reflect a sexualized image of a model. Second, the way the photo is posed isn’t what I would guess is the usual way this mother and child (or others) would take some time to nurse. Having the mom standing up, posed like a model in an advertisement, with her son standing on a stool is pretty unusual. Most likely, this mother takes a few minutes at the end of the day to sit or lie down to snuggle with her son to allow him to nurse, and it’s part of some quiet, private, mother-child personal bonding time. And neither would be looking away from each other, especially not at a camera.

What bothers me in addition to how Time has chosen to represent this topic is the reaction that it is guaranteed to cause, a negative one about breastfeeding. Even though the topic is about an “extreme” version of parenting that many of us don’t choose, this photo is essentially painting nursing with the same wide brush, and it’s going to be a setback in the still-needed push forward to make nursing more understood and more accepted in public society. That bugs me.

Having given birth to three children and nursed them all for periods of about 10 months up to about 13, I think, I know what it’s like to be a nursing mom. It’s a challenge because you’re ALWAYS on call, always needed, and this particular duty cannot be handed off to the dad or anyone else who could help. (Let’s leave out the topic of breast pumps right now and keep this simple.) I know the difference, too, because I adopted our last daughter, so we fed her formula, and man, was it nice to be able to let everyone in the family take turns feeding her. I was so free, compared to when I was tethered to the previous three by my milk supply! Add in issues that may come up with nursing — sore breasts, sore nipples, infections, what-have-you — and it’s tough work, on top of all the other things that are hard about mothering a baby or toddler.

At the same time, breastfeeding is pretty cool. I wasn’t the “natural mom” type who always gushed about how great it was to nurse, sometimes just complaining about that constant on-call thing, but I did appreciate the benefits. It was the neatest thing to know that my body was producing exactly what my babies needed, just at the right times. I was happy to make the sacrifice to nurse because I knew it was the absolute healthiest thing I could do for them. And snuggling up with them and having it just be their little soft mouths on my breast was a gift. It was just the two of us, skin to skin, and I treasured (some of) that time. (Sometimes/most of the time I just got it over with because it was feeding time and I had to move on to something else. No, I don’t treasure every single moment of life, parenting or anything.) When I gave birth to my last daughter, I knew that would be the last time I’d breastfeed, and having her latch on that first time in the hospital almost brought tears to my eyes because I knew that it was special, and not too long in the future would be the last time I ever nursed a baby.

I also know just how tough it is to nurse a baby when you’re not at home. I was raised to be modest, and still teach my own children to be modest and not show too much skin, so the idea of the possibility of any of my breast showing even for a split second in public was one that was completely opposite to that notion that was so ingrained in me. Plus, I’d never seen almost anyone out and about just nursing a baby, so doing that myself while out shopping or eating at a restaurant or running any of the myriad of errands most people do in the course of everyday life felt strange. I felt like everyone would be staring at me, no matter how discreet I was. Even in my church, where we have more children than average per woman, and where many of us breastfeed, there’s one small room set aside for nursing and taking care of babies, and I’d never seen anyone nurse a baby outside of that room, even when we were in a meeting that was just women. Thinking about it now, I still think it strange. Why in the world do young mothers surrounded by other women of various ages, most of whom probably did nurse, feel the need to leave a room full of other women to isolate themselves in a tiny room in a corner and miss out on uplifting messages? Modesty? Self-consciousness?

Nope, our society is not at ease with the idea of women nursing their babies where anyone can see. Ask any of us women who have had to try to nurse a baby in a bathroom stall (can you say ick? Would you want to eat your lunch in the bathroom?) because there was nowhere else private to do so if we’d like to see more acceptance of breastfeeding in public, and we’ll respond with a very loud and hearty YES!

I find this all so ironic because our society is so highly sexualized. Women of all ages, teen girls, and even 9-year-olds wear revealing clothing without almost anyone batting an eye anymore. Scanty tank tops are certainly normal, and sleeveless dresses are the standard for any fancy occasion. (Try finding a dress for a nice occasion with sleeves that doesn’t look like a grandma dress. Good luck to ya.) Not only celebrities sport revealing clothes: everyday people wear plunging necklines and show a lot of cleavage and breast skin. Yet women who are feeding their babies the way nature intended, with the healthiest possible food made JUST FOR THEM, are stared at and marginalized if they accidentally show any skin for a split second, or (heaven forbid) show part of their breast at all while nursing (I always preferred to be completely covered, and there are some really handy nursing cover-ups, but what’s wrong with letting a little of the top of a breast show while the baby’s head is covering most of it?).

Breasts have become, in our society, simply an object of sexualization. Women have breasts so they can feed their babies, and, yes, they are alluring and exciting for men. That’s natural as well, and part of the whole important biological process that brings new people into the world and feeds them in the early stages of life. Breasts are really useful for feeding, but they’re also fun for men and women as they come together to feel close to one another and to reproduce. But we have lost sight of the fact of their usefulness, seeing them ONLY as sexual objects. So if we see women with a baby attached to them, because of this cultural pattern today, we think “eww” because we think of them exclusively in sexual contexts.

So Time has not done nursing mothers any favors with this magazine cover. Nope, with the choices it made that I already mentioned, it has shocked viewers and made them feel revulsion. What we need as a society is to do better to educate everyone, male and female, about nursing and the great usefulness of breasts, to encourage women to use them as they need to with their babies wherever they are, and however they feel comfortable nursing. Our society has everything backward, upside-down and inside-out. Let’s help encourage women to be more modest and show less skin on an everyday basis, saving sexual behavior for the privacy of the bedroom. But let’s also encourage women to feel free to use their breasts to feed their babies, even in public, and not force them to stay at home or run for cover (especially not to a bathroom!). Parents can teach their sons and daughters about nursing and how the body works in so many amazing ways, and women who are nursing can show their other children and friends how it’s done. It’s just going to take lots of women being comfortable enough in public to feed their babies so everyone can get more comfortable to the sight of nursing moms and babies.

Time, you let us all down and did a great disservice. Stop sensationalizing and show us how things are really done.

Many thanks to my kitchen doodads

Since I wrote about my Kindle earlier this week, I thought I should follow up with an ode to the other gadgets that get me through each day. I do a few things often and well: I read, I write and edit, and I cook and bake. That leaves me either sitting on a couch or reclining in bed (reading), sweating on an elliptical machine (reading), sitting at the computer (writing and editing), or standing in the kitchen (cooking, cooking, cooking and baking). Add in running errands, shopping, picking up kids and sleeping, and that covers a good deal of my life.

I cook most meals for my family. I like to bake muffins for breakfast or throw some pancakes on the griddle; I usually make up some quesadillas, hot dogs or sandwiches for lunches, and for dinner… well, the possibilities are endless. Thanks to my fairly recently added account on Pinterest, I’ve added on all kinds of new items for dinners. And while still on the topic of my Kindle, it has made it really easy to just take my Pinterest recipes straight in to the kitchen for test purposes, without even having to print anything out. (I always wanted all my recipes in some kind of easily accessible electronic format, and while this isn’t quite that, the Kindle has moved me a step closer to it.)

For dinners, almost any cuisine makes its way to my kitchen. I’m very lucky that my girls are all pretty good about eating almost anything I make (exceptions: none of them like scallops, the youngest doesn’t particularly like asparagus, and they don’t like any kind of ethnic fare to be too spicy), so they have eaten Thai-inspired cuisine, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian,  Filipino… you name it. Much of what I make involves a fair amount of prep work, mostly chopping and slicing of vegetables. (We go through a lot of onions and garlic, and during the winter — soup and stew season — a lot of carrots and celery too.) I bake bread loaves and make all kinds of bread products, whether they be “quick” or yeast-based.

Without the proper tools, the prep work involved in every night’s meals could be overwhelming, potentially leading me to just stop cooking and resort to fast food or mostly prepared food from the supermarket. Since I don’t like those options for the basic reasons of expense and health, I have stocked up on gadgets to make my work easier over the years. This week, for instance, my husband has two occasions to shop for me: Mother’s Day and birthday. I’ve made it a little simpler for him over time by requesting kitchen doodads for gifts. My most recent acquisition was my mandoline (Valentine’s Day: isn’t it romantic?). Sure, I have choppers, and a Cuisinart food processor, but none could slice potatoes or other vegetables nice and thin. So it was time to get a good mandoline.

I did a little looking around at reviews other buyers wrote about mandolines, looking first at Williams-Sonoma, and found that a simple Oxo $40 model was preferred by many of them. That’s amazingly what my husband brought home for me from Bed, Bath and Beyond.

I use it primarily for potatoes. It’s perfect for making gratins and just perfectly thin-sliced potatoes for frying on the stovetop. It’s also great for cutting french fries. In my three months of owning it, that’s been my big use, but I’ve also used it for slicing up a bunch of vegetables for a salad. It supposedly juliennes, but I haven’t had the success I’d like to see in julienning carrots. But most of the time, I don’t do much julienning, just shredding, which leads me to …

My Cuisinart.

I didn’t get this until just a couple of years ago. The main reason for that is I was able to find a very nice mini processor 15 years earlier for only $20 that fit my budget much better than the Cuisinart. That mini processor shredded and chopped pretty nicely, and I was very happy with it. Unfortunately, it finally bit the dust and I went out in search of a replacement. I found this Black & Decker, which had not just the chopping capability (most of the mini processors I found were merely mini choppers) but also shredding capacity. But when I got it home, I found that the shredding setup was lousy and it never worked right.

So I don’t recommend this one. In fact, right now I can’t recommend a particular mini processor that both chops and shreds. I just miss the old one that died after a pretty decent life span of 15 years (which is an eternity in this day and age of electronics). At any rate, I kept it because I think I couldn’t find the box or receipt or something. And it does work very nicely for quick chopping of items like nuts, onions, garlic and celery. In fact, I think it’s much more effective than my big Cuisinart.

So since the mini chopper didn’t work for shredding, and sometimes I just really need to shred large quantities of carrots or cheese, I got the Cuisinart. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit for those uses, and it’s been nice to finally have a full-size food processor that can puree/blend. It’s been great for a number of uses I just had to do by hand or figure out how to do with some other gadget before I had it. Note: don’t try to chop in the Cuisinart. It simply doesn’t work. When I first got it, I made a nice Mexican layer dip with beans and guacamole and salsa, and I tried to “chop” my garlic and onion in there for the guacamole. What I got was pureed onion, not chopped. And it was far too much for the avocado to handle. It was like onion dip instead of avocado dip. Nasty. But I’ve made some recipes that are based on quinoa or beans instead of wheat (for gluten-free friends or just for a kick), and pureeing the beans or cooked quinoa in there, along with the other items in the recipe, has worked fantastically. It’s made for that. I’ve also used it to puree the plums from our tree to make jam. Perfect.

I also had a little non-electric chopper I use kind of alternately with the electric mini processor. This one’s an Oxo; before I had a model from Pampered Chef. Both work fine. The PC one just broke after a while, and this one, while still working after a couple years, won’t adjust to lock so I can clean it more easily anymore. So it’s a pain to wash.

It is very effective on the same kinds of things: onion, celery, garlic, nuts. Main difference is how it’s set up and that it uses hand power (if you’re feeling aggressive or annoyed, just bang on that a few times and you’ll have gotten out your anger AND chopped your food very finely). It also allows you to chop right on a cutting board rather than having to pick up the items and put them inside of a machine’s bowl.

Now, the workhorse of my kitchen counter is my Kitchen Aid stand mixer.

I was very fortunate to get this one for only about $140. I got a basic model at Wal-Mart, and my mom worked there at the time, and at Christmas she would get 20% off one item. She let me use that discount to buy this, so after its initial reasonable price and the discount, I was only out $140. But it’s definitely worth $200. I use this every day. Before I had this, I thought I’d always be content with a hand mixer, but then one day I tried an amazing recipe for a decadent chocolate cake I found in the Oprah magazine. The buttercream filling requires beating for 10 minutes, and drizzling a sugar syrup into the filling while it’s being beaten. It’s very tiring with a hand mixer. That was kind of the last selling point for me to get that Kitchen Aid, and I’ve loved it ever since. I use it for cookies, cakes, and doughs. It’s very handy for making pizza dough. The recipe I use requires kneading for 5 or 10 minutes, so I just get it going and let it knead while doing other stuff. (I will say that I never use this for my homemade bread. It just needs real hands working it hard. But this is one of the few things I do knead by hand still.)

You can probably tell just how fond I am of these gadgets. And I have more … I just won’t go into detail about every last one of them. (The ice cream makers probably deserve a post of their own.) In this age of busy-ness, and the stage of my life in which I have four children at home, who are off to different places and activities, and in which I have all kinds of projects of my own on top of that, having these amazing time-savers is wonderful. It means a lot to me to serve healthy, yummy, homemade meals to my family, and these electronic helpers are my little kitchen elves.

Me and my Kindle: why I’m no longer a paper purist

I think there were always two places I loved to smell. One was Baskin-Robbins. My grandparents would take me there when I was very small, and I can still remember standing in front of one of those freezers, not really even tall enough to see through the glass behind which lay the big tubs of ice cream. And for years, I just loved the smell every time I stepped into one of those stores: milky with the overlay of warm fudge and toasty cones and somehow even the scent of the freezers themselves.

The other places that make my nose happy are bookstores and libraries. While graced with similar scents, libraries (and used-book stores) have the tang of age and dust. Bookstores are crisper and fresher, but both just smell like paper and ink somehow. Ahhh. So welcoming and soothing.

So I love the smell of books. I also love how they feel, just turning page after page, whether a new book with fresh, untouched paper, or an old, beloved tome with soft pages that are worn down like Grandma’s bedsheets.

Then there’s just looking at them. My office walls are lined with bookshelves, shelf upon shelf of paperbacks and hardcovers, fiction and nonfiction, classics and newly published, humor and memoir, religious, dictionaries and thesauruses. I love  swiveling around from my computer to cast my eyes on these old friends. Of course, my living room has a wall lined with books too, some of my prettiest ones, matching sets, coffee table books, and a few of my absolute favorites. And my bedroom has a small bookshelf near my side of the bed, with some books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet but hope to. My daughters’ rooms all have lots of shelves, too, with all the picture books, tween and young adult books I’ve amassed over the years. I can walk into any room of the house and feast my eyes on my paper-and-ink friends.

Now. That said, I was resistant to the idea of ebooks, particularly the Kindle. Considering how much I’ve engaged in a love affair with print books for 40 years, the concept of holding a little electronic device didn’t excite me. It was kind of ugly and just seemed rather pointless. And how could I betray my longtime associates, all with their eyes watching my every move throughout my house?

Sadly, that all changed when the Kindle Fire arrived late last fall. It seduced me with its beautiful, sleek lines and full-color screen. Its multifunctionality is what snagged me, I think. I could watch videos on it if I wanted, in larger size than I could view on my iPod Touch. Knowing that all I had to do was take along this one gadget to the gym for my daily workouts and be able to read or watch a movie or TV show, given what kind of mood I was in, was a huge selling point. I’ve been reading books on workout machines for years, and it’s always been awkward, though I’ve managed. Even using those plastic book-holders that slide over a machine’s console has certainly never been ideal. If the book is slim, the pages never get held down flat, and if it’s thick, it’s hard to turn pages. Argh. So knowing I wouldn’t have to use the plastic thingies as often was oh-so-tempting.

I had also started to be lured to the ebook device when reading a very thick novel. No matter where I was, at the gym or on a comfy couch, holding up that 750-page tome to read was sometimes a little annoying. And knowing that there was an alternative … well, I heard that siren call.

So I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. And I have been using it practically nonstop ever since. It’s so easy to carry around, and I can switch among books easily. (I tend to like reading two or three books at the same time, and having them all in my hand at once makes switching and choosing a snap.) I’ve downloaded a number of classics that, somehow, I didn’t own … all for FREE. Who can resist free books, people?

I love the dictionary feature. I have a very good vocabulary, but there are still some books that offer up words I haven’t heard or am not too familiar with, and on my Kindle, all I have to do to look up their meanings and pronunciations is hold my finger on the word for a second. Up pops a dictionary entry. I no longer have to ignore my curiosity or interrupt my reading to go on the hunt for a dictionary off my shelf; it’s instant, and my reading can continue posthaste. It’s so cool!! I’ve been reading a series set in the 1700s that features some archaic words and location-specific vocabulary, and it has been the neatest thing to look up meanings so easily and quickly. I love it!

Along those same lines, if the dictionary won’t do it, I can quickly switch over to the Web feature and do a quick Google search for a phrase or place or something else I don’t understand or know little about. Quick, easy, handy information at my fingertips. Awesome.

I’ve already mentioned how it’s much easier to read a very thick book on my thin Kindle. It satisfied my hopes in that vein. The Outlander series I’ve been enjoying so much, set primarily in 1700s Scotland (so far), comprises about 8 very thick books. It’s been a lot easier to handle these 700-plus-page tomes as ebooks.

And let’s not forget instant gratification. I thought I’d “try” the first Outlander book on my Kindle because of its length, and I got hooked on the great story and characters. When I finished, I had to know what happened next, so all I had to do was go to the Kindle store and press a button. In seconds, the entire second book was there in my palm. Ahhh. No waiting for a trip to the library or a book to arrive in the mail (because we no longer have a bookstore here in town, thanks to Borders going under). Oh, no. When I really want a book, I can get it immediately. I love that!

All in all, my Kindle and I are very happy together. Sure, it has its downsides. I have to charge it every couple of days, but it doesn’t take long. And the Fire is hard to read in direct sunlight, such as when I’m driving in a car at certain times of day. That’s a problem. And like all electronic devices, I’m sure it’s going to give me a few fits. But even so, I’m still thoroughly enjoying my Kindle. I still love to look at all my books on the shelves. And the series I already have in hardback I’ll still finish buying in paper form, just to have a complete set, or I’ll buy certain books in their standard form for other sentimental or practical reasons. And even though I can borrow some books on Kindle from the library, most I still have to get in old-style form. That’s OK. For now, I like my new e-pal.