Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Joining the cult: How Fitbit changed my life in unexpected ways.

I used to laugh at people in the FitBit cult.

I belong to a group of friends that is absolutely obsessed and constantly competing with each other. They jog on the spot at birthday parties, dance while they're cooking, walk to places any sane person will drive to and watch their stats all day long. My friend Nicole will run next to her bed until midnight to beat someone in a challenge, and Julia blindly does laps around the main floor of her house while her kids are in bed, texting us the entire time.

I laughed at them, but I never wanted a FitBit for fitness sake. I've always been an active person, with long distance running and gymnastics as a child and teen morphing into walking, biking and swimming as an adult. I like to move, and that is motivation enough. But I was curious for other reasons, because it seemed like the mere act of looking after my children was taking an awfully large number of steps. Sometimes I would count them in my head for short periods to get a general idea. I considered asking one of my friends to tear themselves away from a single challenge to borrow one and see.

One day a few months ago Julia showed up at my door (walking of course. The round trip between our houses is 7,000 steps). I was blown away by her incredibly kind gesture of buying me a FitBit so I could finally be included in the madness. She rushed it over so I could get it set up and compete in the Weekend Warrior starting the next morning. I stared at that thing for hours as it charged up, mentally willing that 5th dot to appear. The second I fastened it up, I was a changed woman.

There were some technical difficulties at first. There were some frantic calls and emails to their support team, some lamenting over lost steps and some friendly taunting about the whole thing before I was up and running.

Me before FitBit: I don't really care about competing. I just want to see how many steps I get naturally.

Me after FitBit: Galloping around my mother in law's tiny apartment during Easter dinner so I didn't fall behind the others.

It's never just about exercise. Sure that jog or walk will get you some steps, but in the grand scheme of things, even if you're training for a marathon, if you've got a desk job you're no match for a stay at home mom who walks her kids to school and back every day. A step is a step is a step and they add up around the clock. Everything counts, from that trip to the bathroom at 3 a.m. to loading your dishwasher before bed.

Right away I was hyper aware of my every movement, checking my stats every time I walked past my computer. I was always just ahead of or just behind someone, so I was extremely selective about when I sat down. FitBit graphs out your day in 15 minute increments, and it was rare during waking hours to ever see even one little block of time blank. I consciously chose my sitting time only when I deemed it worth it so that when I saw blank spaces I felt only joy at the memory of sitting and visiting with friends, rather than guilt at time wasted with mindless internet surfing.

Nothing seemed to beat a good solid walk, so I started walking multiple times a day. I would make plans with friends that required me to walk to their houses and back, and would take another long walk every evening when my husband got home from work. I started running errands on foot like I used to back when I had just one child. I noticed I was sleeping deeper at night, my sleep stats showing long patches of solid blue.

In the evenings, when it was too dark to walk and competition was close, I refused to waste precious energy jogging next to my bed or doing laps of my house. Instead, I got those extra steps in by frantically cleaning my house.

I've always been a terrible housekeeper, because there is just always something more worthwhile in my eyes than the never ending battle of trying to keep my house clean. In the past if I ever had a spare minute I would have rather spent it doing anything else in the world. But suddenly I was being compensated for this thankless and endless work. Running up and down stairs to put things back in their proper places, pacing back and forth across the room to put away laundry, bustling around sweeping? It suddenly counted for more than just simple adulting. Every time I picked up a broom or hung up a jacket, my steps went up, and unlike the chore, which would very soon be undone and forgotten, those steps were something I got to keep forever. My house got cleaner, yes. But what really improved was my attitude.

It's tiring to chase after children and it's depressing to be on your feet all day yet feel like you accomplish nothing. After Seven years in this parenting rodeo, I was starting to run on fumes, and earning steps for each ridiculous endeavor put new wind in my sails. Suddenly it was less soul crushing to jump up to clean the spilled milk or run up the stairs to grab a forgotten library book when in the back of my mind was always the thought 'this will give me extra steps'. I stopped cringing at the sound of random cries and demands and simply jumping up to deal with it because it no longer felt quite like drudgery.

My daughter thought it was hilarious that all us mothers were galloping around our houses frantically trying to win a digital trophy every week, but she was also strangely proud when I was winning.

Aside from all these wonderful perks of improved fitness, sleep and attitude, for me the best part of FitBit is the camaraderie. Even when we can't be there in person, my friends are there to cheer each other on, to jokingly curse when someone takes a really long walk, to worry when someone hasn't synced or taken their usual number of steps. It's a constant daily narrative that encourages us all to strive for better health, attitude and connection. So maybe I'm brainwashed now like the rest of them (even if I refuse to jog on the spot), but I can honestly say my life is much richer for admission into this twisted and fabulous cult.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My child's brain has been infected by Paw Patrol

Six months ago my three year old gave up napping completely, a full year before she was scheduled to start school.

"Help me!" I begged my friends. "I've tried everything!"

"But have you tried Paw Patrol?"

After screening a few minutes of it myself and deeming it tolerable, I sat her down in front of an episode and enjoyed my very first uninterrupted coffee in months. 23 minutes later she was already hooked on the pups and I was hooked on the sweet sweet freedom.

From that moment on she was no longer going by her given name. "No, I'm Rubble."

But it didn't stop there. Everything she wore, ate or used suddenly needed to be yellow. Except aside from two pairs of underwear, a shovel and a sippy cup she really doesn't own anything yellow.

I need a Rubble dress. I need Rubble lego. I need Rubble potatoes.

I looked online to see if any of this stuff even existed.

1. In most cases, no.

2. Holy crap, this stuff is expensive!

Eventually I found the Paw Patrol busy book. It comes with figurines for Ryder and all six dogs, along with some of the vehicles. This would exempt us from buying any more action figures, lego sets, stuffed animals or other overpriced crap because she would have every major character to play with.

The Chapters by our house said it had four copies in stock. Perfect. I arrived and wandered the store. It was loaded with busy books from every movie and t.v. show possible, but no Paw Patrol. I enlisted the help of a store employee, who also couldn't find them.

"They must have been stolen during our Paw Patrol event. Things got a little out of hand."

I looked up at her and joked "All four copies? Too many obsessed three year olds?"

She looked traumatized "It was truly awful. They swarmed the store. There were just too many of them. We're still recovering."

I looked around at the obvious mess, misplaced items scattered everywhere. I had one obsessed three year old. I could picture a mob of them. I just didn't want to.

After trying Costco and two Walmarts, I found an Indigo across town that said it had 11 copies. 11 seemed safe. I just needed to find a way to justify driving to the other end of the city to buy a book full of plastic dogs, so I scheduled a visit with a friend living in that area and figured I would just stop in the store on my way there.

I arrived at the store as soon as they opened and raced to the children's section. There was a large display of busy books but not one Paw Patrol copy. I went to find an employee only to find her already helping a woman with two preschoolers. Feeling competitive and a little panicked, I asked the woman "Are you looking for Paw Patrol too?"

She looked at me with genuine terror in her eyes. "No. But please never mention those words in front of them." and she pointed down at her young sons. She quickly ushered them away.

The book was placed in my hands at last. I sighed with relief. My daughter squealed with excitement. I'm still enjoying a hot, uninterrupted beverage daily. Life is good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Don't Push the Buttons on the Microwave: An Autism Social Story

I learned about social stories when my daughter was first diagnosed with autism. She had a difficult time learning to converse, and we finally clued in to the fact that it was hard for her to understand things that she couldn't see- including language. Once she learned to read she started to understand things like grammar and conversation a lot better, and I realized that if something wasn't making sense to her it would be easier for her to read about it than to talk about it.

Last year our daughter's teacher started to help us deal with some of the issues she was having at home and school by writing her little social stories using a sharpie and some scrap paper. They did an amazing job helping her make connections in a way that talking to her couldn't.

We approached our publisher with the idea of turning some of them into something that read more like a regular picture book than a textbook. Our daughter may be very literal, but she's still a child with a sense of humor who very much enjoys books. Why not write some books she could really relate to?

In the past year, with the help of our publisher and some fellow parents, a series was born. Each book features a specific, common issue that children on the spectrum and their families face, written from the child's point of view, but illustrated to show the real reactions of other people, both as comic relief for parents and siblings, but also to foster discussions about the feelings of other people. Also peppered throughout the book are little details that most people wouldn't notice, but jump right out at parents of children on the spectrum.

The first book in the series, "Don't Push the Buttons on the Microwave: An Autism Social Story" deals with the issue of obsessive, controlling behavior. It is available for purchase online from Another Chapter Publishing, and in honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, we are donating $2 from the sale of every book during the month of April to the Autism Canada Foundation.

As parents of autistic children we understand the difference between a neurotypical child's 30 second tantrum after being denied more cookies and an autistic child's one hour meltdown because they don't like the way you folded their socks. We understand that it's frustrating, we understand that it's funny. We appreciate that there are books out there that raise awareness and acceptance, but wish they weren't all of the 'My brother is special but we should love him anyway' variety. Our children are unique, intelligent, funny and caring people. They shouldn't be patronized. They need books that are practical, and they need books that are fun. They need books that are FOR them and not just ABOUT them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Create a Rice Bowl- cheap, easy, healthy and customized school lunch idea

I discovered 'The Tightwad Gazette'about 20 years ago, when I was a teenager living at home and really had no need for anything in it. Yet the contents of that book stayed with me and influenced me in a lot of ways over the years. It allowed me to pay off all my student loans quickly, save for our house and these days it allows our family to live on 1.2 incomes. Without the Tightwad Gazette and everything it taught me about frugal living I never would have been able to substitute teach one or two days a week and spend the rest of my time at home with my youngest.

One of my favorite things in her books were her 'universal recipes', which I still use to this day. They allow you to mix and match ingredients that you have on hand/want to use up to create many variations of the same meal or snack. This is where I got the idea to create my own universal recipe for my daughter's school lunches last month: Create a rice bowl.

My daughter has been on a gluten free diet for about 10 months now, and gluten free bread is both expensive and pretty gross. I was tired of spending 3 times as much money for bread that came home half eaten every day and was trying to think of an alternative to sandwiches. I wanted something that was going to be easy, cheap, nutritious and that would actually get eaten. Something that could taste different yet was generally the same to prepare so it could just become another routine to follow without thinking. And since my daughter loves rice, ADORES rice, I thought a rice bowl would fit all these criteria.

Universal Rice Bowl Recipe

1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups vegetables (any type)
1 can beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer until rice is cooked, or place everything in a microwave safe casserole dish and cook for up to 20 minutes in the microwave.

Here is the breakdown of ingredients variations:

Rice- I use either regular rice or basmati, but you can use any type

Vegetables- anything you have works. Cauliflower and carrots are nice for an Indian based dish, peas, carrots and broccoli for Chinese, while corn and peppers are good for Mexican. I usually use frozen mixed veggies (with the peas, green beans, corn, carrots and lima beans) because they're my daughter's favorite.

Beans- I use chickpeas for Indian, black beans for Mexican, ect. To cut the cost of the recipe even further you can substitute the can of beans with 1 cup dried lentils plus 1 extra cup of water. I do this about half the time. It does not add any more work or cooking time to the recipe and the kids seem to like it just as much. You can also throw in leftover cooked meat or eggs, but my daughter prefers the beans and I prefer the price of beans!

Oil- I use olive oil, but any oil will work. Sesame oil would add a nice touch to Chinese and plain vegetable oil is cheapest. You can also add as much oil as you want to make it more filling or tasty. I usually just pour the oil right in without measuring.

Seasoning- this is where I have the most variation. I use 2 teaspoons curry powder for an Indian inspired dish, or 2 teaspoons of chili powder for Mexican. You can simulate fried rice by adding 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder and perhaps some dried ginger, chives and soy sauce (in lieu of salt) as well. Italian style rice can be made by adding tomato paste and basil or oregano. Feel free to experiment with different tastes your kids will like. The good thing about this is it's just rice, so any flavors that are too strong for them can be recycled into a side dish for the grown ups at dinner time.

Heating and packing:

I make about 2 pots of this a week, usually on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The whole pot will serve one child at least 5 lunches, but to offer variety and make sure it's fresh I make it twice as often and use the extras as lunch for my 2 year old when we're home, or for dinner. The kids even like eating it for breakfast.

In the morning I fill her thermos with boiling water to heat up the inside (I put the serving spoon inside too to make it nice and hot) and microwave a bowl of the rice mixture. I used to measure it out, but now I just heap it in the bowl and if any doesn't fit in the thermos the kids will gladly eat it at breakfast. Once the rice is heated I pour the boiling water out of the thermos and put the rice in right away. This ensures it's nice and hot at lunch time. I have 2 thermoses for her just in case I forget to unpack her bag and wash it so there is always a clean one available.

I pack her a spoon and cloth napkin, as well as 2 inexpensive healthy snacks. These are usually apples, bananas, carrot sticks, or any leftover fruit or vegetable we might have available. As an occasional 'treat' I might pack her air popped popcorn, a tiny container of chocolate chips or raisins or the rare baked good we might have left over from a special occasion. This seems to be the magic amount of food- if I pack a 3rd snack one comes home uneaten.

My kid isn't going to school with fancy lunches made to look like cartoon characters. She doesn't bring hand crafted snacks and home baked goods. She also doesn't bring packaged treats and lunch foods (which from what I've seen while teaching is the norm). Her lunches are simple, inexpensive, and made from real food. But every bite gets eaten, every day, so she can't be suffering too much.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Drop the rope: why fighting online is a waste of your life.

Any woman who has been in an online parenting forum has probably been there. A simple discussion about anything from potty training to circumcision takes a wrong turn and gets ugly fast. Opinions are stated, then personal anecdotes, followed by 'evidence' and when that fails the insults start flying, people are deleted and blocked and eventually an admin shuts it all down.

You might say it's debating, but debating is done with a clear head and cool temper. When it comes to parenting it's impossible to have that sort of detachment about your choices because you feel strongly about what you believe in. To be told how wrong you are with such conviction is going to infuriate you, no matter how right you feel your choices are. You'll try to prove your point, but only be met with more resistance, less tact and more anger the harder you try to show them the light. Eventually your blood will boil with the frustration and you'll reach the point of no return.

It's funny how these fights pan out, how somehow the validity of each comment or piece of 'evidence' is proved with the number of 'likes' it receives from others who are in agreement of that point of view. Few people realize that sheer numbers don't mean merit, and the fact that a narrow minded clique of online friends backing you up doesn't make you right. When you fight online, you're not changing anything. Arguing with someone rarely changes their mind on the issue, but rather strengthens their own point of view. The more someone presents their own argument, the more certain they feel about the ideas behind it and the less they will even consider anyone else's. The uglier things get, the more cemented you become in your own beliefs. And online, things always get ugly.

I belong to birth clubs, natural parenting groups and groups for parents of children with autism, each more vicious than the next. If you think the average mother is territorial, you should see how mama bear special needs parents can be. Those groups have specific graphics they post just to shut down a thread, which is something that often happens multiple times a day. I used to think it was just parenting groups, but then my husband pointed out that it happens to him too. The comments on news articles, videos on youtube and even the forecasts on the Weather Network go off topic and get heated on a regular basis. Just think of the famous rainbow number cake article- on the internet ANYTHING can go sour. It's even worse when it's on your own page, with people you actually know in real life. The ability to post articles, photos and opinions about all sorts of controversial topics previously reserved for private conversations can turn friends and family into enemies when the wrong button is triggered.

I am no stranger to these arguments, and have lost my cool on a few occasions. I had an innocent thread on the spacing between children turn into an all out brawl that ended in accusations of child abuse. I was called an immoral swine by the friend of a relative for standing up in my belief of my sister's right to marry and raise a child with her wife. I've said a few overly rude things to complete strangers when getting caught up in the comments section of articles or blogs.

It's tempting to get involved in these sort of situations. Sometimes it's just because a regular conversation thread goes off on a tangent and goes sour at some point, other times you know it's a hot topic but you feel you can just make 'one little tasteful comment' and then walk away. The problem is that it might even be fun at first. Perhaps you're bored and it's adding a little bit of excitement to your day. At first it can generate the good kind of adrenaline, before it escalates to something closer to rage. Sometimes it's even a bit disappointing when a thread is locked or deleted before it fully goes off the rails and you're left wanting to say and hear more. But other times it gathers momentum so quickly that it reaches a point of regret and remorse before anyone can step in and make everyone behave.

No matter what stage of the game you're in, you need to drop the rope.

Something catch your eye that looks like it might be upsetting? Stop reading.

Read something infuriating or controversial? DON'T READ THE COMMENTS.

Read some comments that have you shaking your head? DON'T ADD TO THEM!

Too late? Already said something and got a rude response? Walk away. Let it go.

Got drawn into a circular, forehead smashing argument with a cretin or two? Forget about the last word. Just disappear.

Let it get way out of hand, spew insults and feel terrible about yourself? Apologize, either privately or publicly and then leave it be.

People always claim they want world peace, but judging from the sheer amount of animosity online about both the big and the small things, clearly that's never going to happen. There are always these pleas for people to 'end the mommy wars' and all 'support each other' but frankly, the world is full of self righteous, uneducated jerk faces that are never, ever going to have a whit of common sense. When you get involved in these sort of things, you actually become one of them.

But the biggest argument against argument is this: Do you really want to waste your precious free time getting sucked into this pointless negativity? It's not going to change anything, or 'educate' anyone or make you feel very good is it? The other day a friend of mine was telling me about how much of a time suck even just READING the comments was for her. 'I didn't even SAY anything, and I lost an entire Saturday morning just trying to follow along. What a waste of my day off!'

What would you rather be doing? What makes you happy? I'm sure you know. If these people are SO stupid, why are you GIVING them sacred hours of your life? Drop the rope, shut er' down and walk away. They will fall splat on their faces with or without you there anyway.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summer Hell-iday

I swore that this summer would be different.

Last summer was really hard, but I had learned from my mistakes and vowed things wouldn't get out of hand. I was going to take the kids on a fun outing every morning, make them a healthy picnic lunch, and eat happily on a blanket outdoors. I bought a big stack of activities and workbooks from the dollar store to keep my oldest daughter quietly occupied while her sister napped, and then we would play outside for the rest of the day. It wouldn't just be effortless, it would be fun!


The last week of school my oldest daughter got really sick, so instead of spending those last precious days of freedom preparing for the upcoming months, I was washing barfy laundry and tending to a feverish child. Then the first day of holidays our basement flooded in two places- one with rainwater, one with sewage. My first day home alone with the kids our dishwasher broke. And then to top it off, I got sick with whatever my daughter had the week before, only I couldn't lay in my bed and recover the way she had, I had to drag myself around to make sure they didn't hurt themselves (which they did anyway).

Despite the best intentions, I was not following through. Instead of fun outings and picnics, my kids were eating potato chips for breakfast while watching Dora as I frantically tried to bail water out of our dishwasher or drag all of our possessions out of the basement before they were destroyed. Some days we didn't even leave the house, despite the shining sun and hyperactive children.

And oh, how social media made it worse, by reminding me of how much I was failing while everyone else was having a great time. "Look, we're having a fun day at the pool!" "We're doing crafts!" "We're on a bonding shopping trip!" "We're berry picking!" "We're baking!"

But after a few days, something strange happened. My children, out of sheer necessity, learned how to entertain themselves. Aside from keeping them fed, I really couldn't be at their beck and call, and told them so. They squawked at first, but eventually gave up and found something fun to do. Unless something was brand new, I don't think I have ever seen them so intently engaged in their toys before. Instead of just picking things up and tossing them moments later, they got involved. They colored several pictures rather than scribbling once and abandoning it. They played with each other. They stopped looking to me to take away their boredom.

When things were going well, we had fun together. I took my oldest hiking and on a picnic one morning while my youngest was at daycare for a few hours. We made a day trip up to a friend's cottage on Sunday to swim and canoe in the lake. We had a BBQ with friends, we went to their cousin's birthday party and one afternoon I took my eldest to the carnival to for unlimited rides. Both the kids and I had plenty of excitement when it flowed naturally, and we enjoyed it all the more for the rough days in between it all.

All of this has taught me that I am not, and shouldn't be my children's daily entertainment director. Yes I like to play with them, and I like to take them places, but on an ordinary day it shouldn't be a requirement. If I need a day to catch up on housework, or lay around being sick, or even just read a book because I want to, my children should not go crazy with boredom in a house full of toys with a backyard full of playground equipment because I haven't planned anything specific for them to do.

Creativity is often born out of boredom, and kids in this generation rarely get a chance to even brush the surface of it. The other day while I was upstairs doing something else, my daughter started drawing faces with her noodles, because she was left alone with her thoughts long enough to come up with the idea.

I am hoping that things run a lot more smoothly for the remainder of the summer, but at least I know now that if things go awry, my kids can handle it. If they don't goes as planned, the skills are still there, and that means my job just got a whole lot easier.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reversing the fairy tale

The other day when my daughter told me that we live in a great big house I was a little shocked.

"We do?" I asked.

Then I thought about it for a minute and realized the right thing was to agree with her, because what we've unknowingly been trying to instill in her is actually working.

Back before we had children, I went through a rough time. I was nearing 30, and despite my education I was still just getting by on temp jobs in the struggling economy. I lived in a nice apartment with my now husband and we had a lovely life together, but I just couldn't let go of the bitterness and disappointment about where I 'should' be financially at that point in my life. I had envisioned a house, a car, a cottage, and fancy vacations. What I had was an apartment, camping and public transit.

Then one bitterly cold January night we met some friends downtown for dinner after work. Leaving the warm restaurant into the horrible cold we braced ourselves and ran to the bus shelter, cursing and laughing and picturing the relief that was soon coming. As we sprinted into the wind one of my friends suddenly said:

"It would be terrible to be homeless on a night like tonight."

Moments later we were sitting comfortably on a warm bus, heading toward our respective warm apartments. With a belly full of delicious food, I crawled under a warm duvet in a soft bed beside the man I loved. I had never felt more rich.

The next year our job situation had improved and we were on our honeymoon, cruising through Italy, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. On a tour bus heading to Cairo it wasn't the pyramids that blew us away, but the living conditions we saw out the window. Countless families living on the side of the road, toddlers playing in piles of garbage next to the on ramp, the mud huts that people called their homes. After seeing that I could never go back to complaining about how 'poor' we were.

Nine months later our daughter was born, and without really meaning to we filled her head not with stories of princesses in castles full of riches we will never know, but a reverse sort of fairy tale of the millions of people around the world living without houses, food or indoor plumbing. 'Aren't we lucky?' we tell her, 'that we have a house with TWO toilets? A fridge full of food? A bed to sleep in? Toys to play with?' We've let her know from the start that WE are the rich ones. Comparison can steal so much joy, but done right, it can also bring gratitude, and a desire to help others. There are always those who will have more, and if you focus on that you'll always be miserable, but when you have all you truly need, you have to realize that you really are wealthy in the grand scheme of things.

As our girls get older, I know they will encounter friends who appear to have more and feel a little envious. Perhaps they will realize that our little semi detached is not the castle they originally saw it as. When that happens I hope to be able to give them the same reality check that I was given- through travel, volunteer work or just frank discussion. Until then we remain happy in our 'great big house' full of food, warm beds and love.