Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Things I Will Miss About Tanzania

As our first home assignment appears on the horizon (we leave two months from today!) I find myself noticing some of the things that have become familiar and comforting here in Tanzania over the course of our first term. Here are some of the things I have come to love about our African home:

1. Amazing fresh tropical fruit
2. Being able to take a day trip and see elephants, giraffes, and hippos in the wild
3. Two housekeepers
4. Perspective….I now know that my lack of mocha frappuccino isn’t that big of a deal
5. The school kids who like to practice their English on me when we pass each other road
6. The sense of accomplishment that comes from exchanging a joke in a second language
7. Taking hot tea out to my night guard
8. Fresh air coming through open windows year-round
9. The way noisy children are viewed as blessings and not as disturbances
10. East African fashion – I love seeing all those bold colors that I could never pull off
11. Soda made from real cane sugar instead of corn syrup
12. The slower pace of life
13. Getting to be the one who teaches a 10-year-old to swing for the first time
14. Hearing offhand news like, “So, my little brother tried to kidnap a second wife last weekend…”
15. Eating seasonal and organic without having to pay extra
16. Pilau (a type of rice…just come here and try some, I can’t describe it). And fresh chapatti. And kachumbali, and…sheesh, seriously, what are you waiting for?
17. My kids’ best friends are from all over the world.
18. I know a secret language that I can use when I go home if I don’t want other Americans to know what I’m saying.
19. I have a friendly dog who lives at my house and loves me unconditionally but never requires any upkeep from me.
20. I eat so healthy most of the time that if I get the chance to pig out on something indulgent I don’t have to feel bad.
21. The monkeys that habitually play on my water tank
22. The majestic mountain range in my backyard
23. I now have cooking-from-scratch skills that will serve me well the rest of my life.
24. Tea time
25. I have a group of wonderful friends who are becoming like family to me.
26. Spending my afternoons analyzing linguistic data that I collected myself.
27. I go to a church where probably 50% of the people in the congregation offer up a word of praise during praise time.
28. I am no longer afraid of giant millipedes. Still working on giant cockroaches, but it’s good to have room for personal growth.
29. Engrish bloopers in every restaurant menu
30. Buying eggs from someone I know and not having to refrigerate them
31. If you really need to transport 9 people (six of whom are children who would have to be in car seats in America) in a vehicle with five seatbelts, no one is going to bother you about it
32. Being able to accept grace from people I once thought had nothing to offer me
33. American t-shirts on people who don’t know what they are advertizing
34. Pigs, chickens, cats and children wandering through my yard
35. The laidback parenting style here that helps to put some of my paranoia to rest
36. Buying prescription medications without a prescription, and paying only pennies to get them
37.The inability to take myself too seriously that results from making language and culture mistakes on a daily basis and learning to laugh about it
38. I have a milkman. He delivers on foot.
39. Not having to pay to heat the house
40. Excellent authentic Indian food
41. I never know when the mushroom guy is going to show up at my gate with a box of overpriced fungi strapped onto the back of his bike. It’s like surprise Christmas.
42. When I buy anything, I always feel like I’m boosting the economy and helping a real person who can truly use my business to support their family.
43. The beautiful harmony of Swahili singing
44. Baobab trees
45. Trying to create familiar food products from locally available ingredients is a fun expat-community hobby, and we all share in one another’s successes. I never knew you could “make” marshmallows.
46. Constantly being surprised at how much freight can by moved on a bicycle.
47. The unity with nature that I feel while using the bathroom where there is no bathroom
48. Feeling like I’m in Back to the Future, amazing people with stories of the exotic land from which I come (“We have machines to dry our clothes. And to make the air cold. And to make ambient noise so that we don’t here the sounds of nature when we are trying to sleep.”)
49. Tanzanians know how to party.
50. The cute, ubiquitous little geckos 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Things I Miss About America

In no particular order, and with no particular purpose, I submit...

50 Things I Miss About America

1. My family
2. Traffic lights
3. Prairie Farms milk

4. The public library 
5. Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino
6. Target 
7. Squirrels 
8. Public restrooms 
9. Central air conditioning 
10. American church services 
11. Sleeping without mosquito nets
12. Huggies Overnites
13. Privacy 
14. Free shipping
15. Blueberries 
16. Local agricultural holidays 
17. Clothing stores with the same garment in multiple sizes 
18. Soft couches 
19. Putting away my own laundry/knowing where to find my socks
20. Garage door openers 
21. Soft serve ice cream 
22. Public parks 
23. Yard sales
24. Clean and uniform eggs 
25. Autumn 
26. Kids’ menus
27. Water pressure
28. Baseball 
29. Whiter whites 
30. Arby’s curly fries 
31. Historical tourist attractions 
32. Dollar bins 
33. Garnier Fructis 
34. Evergreen trees 
35. Child-sized clothing hangers 
36. Dishwashers 
37. Non-metric measurements 
38. Office Depot
39. Peaches
40. The roads…so deliberate, so well-marked, so deliciously passable
41. Pediatricians
42. Being able to hold hands with my husband in public 
43. Video streaming 
44. Cream cheese
45. Using my toothbrush without shaking the ants off first
46. Church potlucks 
47. Price tags 
48. Blending in
49. Carpet 
50. Winter

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rationale for Tot School…and Why You are Not a Bad Mom Even if you Never Do Any of the Cute Things You Pin

For several months now, I’ve been posting pictures to a Facebook album called Tot School, showing some of the learning activities I do with the kids. The reason for the album is to put ideas out there for any other parents of young kids who like to do fun pre-preschool stuff too. I was nervous about this right from the beginning, though, as it has the potential to look like showing off. Kind of gives off the vibe, “I not only having my 2-year-old painting triangles – I made the paint myself out of MILK! What do YOU do?” My fears were revived when one of my friends approached me the other day and said good-naturedly, “I saw your facebook album, and I thought, ‘I am a terrible mother!’” Even though she was joking, I felt the time was ripe to explain why and how we do tot school.

There are four main reasons why I tot school my kids. (And just to clear up any ambiguity, I didn’t create the phrase “tot school”; it’s in use on a number of blogs that are aimed at early childhood education. It seems to focus primarily on ages 1-3, and there are even a good number of such activities aimed at babies.)

1. It’s fun for me. Everyone needs a hobby, and mine is tot school. I get the same kick out of creating a sensory bin or a theme-related gross motor exercise as many people do out of sewing, scrapbooking, or hiking. I love to unwind after a hard day by staging a date with my laminator. Yes, I own a laminator.

2. It’s fun for my kids. Rose absolutely loves tot school and usually requests to “do some school” several times a day. For a really active, rowdy kid (like Everett is turning out to be), our activities would look a lot different and a lot less “schoolish”. But with open-mindedness the right sort of planning to address each personality and learning style, I think a version of tot school can be fun for just about any kid.

3. It’s a bonding experience. Like most kids her age, Rose likes to learn, but I think even more important to her motivation is that school is a little piece of the day when I focus entirely on her and we get to enjoy doing stuff (basically playing) together. This is a big part of what I love about it as well. For us, tot school fills that need for mother-daughter time and shared experiences.

4. It is one way of helping my kids grow healthy brains and prepare them for lifelong learning. I do think there is some benefit to the activities we do. Most importantly, I think it shows my kids how much fun learning can be and ignites an excitement for reading and exploring their world, which will hopefully serve them well later, both in school and in general life.

Note that I said this is “one way” of preparing my kids for school and life. I certainly don’t think it is the only way, nor do I think you are setting your child up for academic failure if you don’t do tot school per se. I excelled in school despite the fact that my own mom never heard of or attempted to implement tot school. This is not to say that my mom didn’t prepare me for formal learning, though. She certainly did, through informal teaching and mostly just through using everyday situations as opportunities to discuss and learn.

I do think it is important to help your young child develop a healthy mind, but I don’t think there is any one method for doing this. Parents who engage with their children and enjoy doing things and going places together as a family will naturally do what is necessary to help their children learn. God created children to explore and inquire, to challenge themselves, and to develop healthy minds. Given a safe, loving and stimulating environment with an active caregiver, and barring the interference of any learning disabilities, they will do so without any fancy activities or equipment.

So if you see pins for creative and artsy preschool activities and feel a sense of guilt that those kind of things don’t appeal to you, or if they do appeal to you on the surface but actually spending the time to do them dampens your enthusiasm, stop right there. You are not doing anything wrong, even by foregoing tot school entirely. I’m not an expert on early education, but I got some training in it and have learned a lot in my own self-directed learning since then. From my perspective, this is what you should focus on doing for the first 3-5 years of your child’s life, whether or not you tot school:

1. Interact. Talk with your kid, do everyday stuff together, enjoy experiences together. Your kid will learn best from the things that happen in the course of life by simply talking to you and watching you. Keep your screen time to a minimum during your children’s waking hours; those are your hours to engage their minds simply by being mentally and emotionally available to them. Be watchful for teachable moments.

2. Teach practical life skills. Keep your eyes open for the sorts of things your child might be ready to tackle next: self-dressing, cleaning up toys after play, drinking from a big kid cup, helping you bake, using good manners, folding dish cloths. These things are hugely foundational for the kind of ordered thinking and self-discipline needed for later school success. It takes an initial time investment to teach these things, but then having your kid be a little more self-sufficient frees up some of your time too. (I just want to confess here, I haven’t done well at this with Rose. Now we are starting to back up some from schoolish stuff and do more of these kinds of skills because I see how important they are.)

3. Love your kid. No matter how cognitively advanced your kid may or may not be, their success in school is tremendously dependent on their emotional health and the strength of their family bonds. Meet their physical needs, spend time bonding one-on-one with each child doing the things they like best, show them that you are always there for them, help them build a healthy self-image and respect for others, teach them about God’s love in meaningful ways, plan fun family times, and prioritize the health of your marriage.

If you do these things, I really think you can’t go wrong. Living in Africa has reminded me that even in families where the parents have little formal education themselves and don’t purposefully set out to prepare their children academically for school from an early age, children can succeed because they have healthy families and healthy childhoods. In the situations where they have been adequately nourished and raised in a secure environment, by the time they start school they have spent six years exploring, observing, and imitating. They enter school with the best piece of educational equipment: a healthy mind, ready for formal learning.

The time you could spend tot-schooling could just as profitably be spent investing extra energy in these essential things. 

And for those of you who do get as excited as I do about threading beads onto pipe cleaners, freezing toys inside blocks of ice, or making bath paint from shaving foam – stay tuned! The next few blog posts will be for you. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite sources and our own ever-changing method of doing tot school.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Breast is Best, and I am the worst.

If I could sum up the most important thing I have learned in my almost three years of parenting, it would be “Don’t judge.” I’m not by nature a merciful person. I tend not to give myself much grace, nor others either, and that has caused me a lot of frustration over the years. I’d like to think I’m improving on that front, and much of that is due to the hard-knocks education of surviving my children’s early years.
Maybe it started with the fact that I couldn’t breastfeed Rose. Breastfeeding is a big deal these days. The tables have turned over the past couple of decades, and now it seems the breastfeeders have claimed the moral high ground and feel justified in declaring (or at least privately basking in) their superiority over their bottle-feeding comrades. I probably would have taken that route myself had it not been for the cleft palate thing. My baby was 100% unable to breastfeed, and the only way to keep her alive was to let go of the vision I had of my baby peacefully nursing in bed with me and instead to embrace 2 AM dates with my Medela Pump-in-Style (I’m not sure I will ever hate any sound as much as that of the rhythmic electric sucking of that infernal machine), while my husband was the one sleeping on the couch with my newborn by his side, getting to be the one to nourish and bond with her by painstakingly squirting tiny amounts of milk into her mouth in rhythm with her instinctual but ineffective attempts to suck.
It was a few months before I stopped crying about my own sense of loss, and several more before I could let go of my desire to explain myself to everyone who saw me offering her a bottle in public. I wanted them to know how well I had prepared myself for a nursing relationship that turned out not to be possible, how hard I had worked to give her as much pumped milk as I could, how hard it was to feed a special needs baby…but as it turns out, it’s rather awkward to start volunteering that information to perfect strangers.
So I would sit there feeling ashamed and misunderstood. In some cases, I’m sure I projected all those attitudes from my own insecurity and people were really thinking nothing of it. But I know my own prideful heart, so I would be na├»ve to think I wasn’t sometimes right. I’m sure I was boosting some people’s ego by my apparent lack of concern for giving my child the very best.
So the first lesson I learned was the importance of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Even though I was blessed enough to be able to have a wonderful nursing relationship with my second baby (one that is still thriving at 14 months and that I cherish every day), those first couple of months of extreme pain and exhaustion reminded me that breastfeeding, even when it ends up working, is rarely as simple as just deciding to go for it. Without a great support system, in less-than-ideal circumstances, or in those cases where the baby or the mother’s body simply won’t cooperate, I can 100% understand why someone would decide that it’s not the best choice for their family to keep fighting the battle. Families with newborns are nearly always under tremendous pressures of various kinds, and there may be things they have to prioritize above their desire to nurse. We never know what someone else is going through.
The other lesson I learned is that I can’t really justify my own parenting choices, or anything else in my life, to others and expect them to understand. We will all be misunderstood frequently, by many people, for many of our choices. The desire to feel superior to others and to justify ourselves at their expense is central to our fallen human nature. We can and must work hard to tame that pride within ourselves, over and over, as we repeatedly fail to approach others with the proper grace. And we cannot expect others to have conquered that in themselves. We have to live with knowing that other people will never fully approve of us, and that that is ok, because we do not have to answer to them (unless they ask us, in which case we can unload all of our cleft palate back story). There is so much freedom in letting go of that Mommy Shame, even for the thousandth time.
Breastfeeding, or the lack thereof, has been just one of many aspects of childrearing that have shown me how little control I have and how unable I am to handle, much less thrive in the midst of, parenting two small children. I could go on about my failure to have the natural childbirth I wanted to pursue, or about my failure to have either of children sleeping through the night by their first birthday, or about 18 months of futile potty training, or about how my home can go from spotless to health hazard in just 48 hours when my housekeepers leave for the weekend, or about disregarding the warning on the Bumbo seat and sending my 8-month-old plummeting head first from the kitchen counter…Suffice it to say, I am nowhere close to having it all together, despite my quest to get that magical snapshot of toddler-management bliss and frame it and pretend that our life is actually like that. I have two domestic employees and a fantastically supportive husband, and I can still barely make it through the day.
There is a part of me that will always long to be that mom who is the embodiment of all the calm collectedness of Supernanny, the creativity of Martha Stewart, and the domestic charm of June Cleaver. But all things considered, I guess I would rather be the frazzled mommy learning slowly and imperfectly to embody the grace of Jesus Christ, accepting it for myself and extending it to others. May I always endeavor to let Him work in me.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

It's been a while

I haven't had time to write for the past almost three years. I don't have time now, either, but I think I will anyway. A lot of thoughts have floated in and out of my chronically sleep-deprived head which I wanted to tell the world about, but at the end of the day all I could do was fall into an exhausted heap. These thoughts were probably incredibly insightful, so it's a real shame that they have been lost, but it was either let them go or shrivel up and die at the keyboard.
Parenting is hard. Nothing has ever been so effective at dismantling my pride, at showing me without a shred of ambiguity that I am inadequate and ignorant. And then I moved to Africa, so I got another dose of humility from having not just the regular degree of inadequacy and ignorance that characterizes most parents worldwide, but a whole special brand of inadequacy and ignorance reserved only for foreigners trying to find their feet in a host culture.
Let this serve as my depressing summary of the past 33 months, which, while hard, have actually been the absolute opposite of depressing. This is real life, and it's what I have always wanted: a good challenge.