Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lunch Box Mom: Red Carpet Edition

Here’s a party game for the sandbox set:

If you could invite one famous person and his or her kids over for a playdate, who would it be?

I’ll give you a few clues about my first choice:

He’s a dad (or presumably a legal guardian), has a country house and a place in the city, drives a convertible, recently won an Emmy, and wears a lot of yellow.

I’ll give you one last hint: he buys a lot of bananas.

I think I just gave it away.

Yes, The Man with the Yellow Hat is my celebrity playdate crush and I am not embarrassed to admit that my idol is a cartoon whose child is a monkey.

Is that much crazier than turning to Madonna for children’s literature?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Stay-at-Home Mom's Moment of Truth

A few days ago I woke up and realized I was a housewife.

I am not sure how I missed that fact, but I think it has something to do with being so busy calling myself a stay-at-home mom. And, really, unless they’re on a reality TV show, most women don’t reach into the milieu of years past, sip some Sanka, dust off an Oreck and come out shouting,

“I’m a housewife!”

But maybe it would be better if we did.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a housewife, especially since reading the 1971 preview issue of Ms. Magazine that appeared within New York Magazine forty years ago.

Jane O’ Reilly had an article in that test-run issue, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”. It was the piece that tallied the series of “clicks” or moments of recognition in the minds of housewives all over the country as they had “—the moment that brings a gleam to our eyes and means a revolution has begun.”

A lot has changed since that 1971 issue. For one thing, you can’t get land in Ridgefield Connecticut for $14,500. Yes, the classified section captured my attention—how could it not when discotheque music and a $10 electronic meter that measured romance while holding hands or kissing were being sold.

I was aware of my visitor’s status while reading O’Reilly’s piece, too: men calling women “broads”; both sexes debating “women’s lib” and in that pursuit, attending a “Workshop on Approaching Unisexuality”.

But the question O’Reilly asked four decades ago still cuts to the heart and vocabulary of today:

“The future improvement of civilization could not depend on who washes the dishes. Could it?”


“The liberated society,” she concludes, “—with men, women and children living as whole human beings, not halves divided by sex roles—depends on the steadfast search for new solutions to just such apparently trivial problems.”

The wonderful thing about being a parent today is that many men and women have found new solutions. In the forty years since her story, there is a new generation of stay-at-home dads, a fantastic linguistic tango of men and women merging last names, a conspicuous presence of men taking paternity leave and designers making strollers, diaper bags, and gear to appeal to them. I’ve heard from couples who’ve arranged their teaching schedules to split the day and caring of their children, and who have grabbed the list of domestic chores and divided it in two. We've pretty much come to terms with the idea that neither spouse gets to “have it all” and eventually, each of us, at times, gets stuck holding the stinky end of the toilette brush.

Still, I had to wonder as I read O’Reilly’s piece, what might be learned from looking at the scenarios that triggered the “click” four decades ago:

A husband stepping over a pile of toys on the steps, asking when his wife would put them away—the woman noticing he has two hands to do the task himself; a woman abundantly praising her husband for cleaning the bathroom before they left their vacation house, only to remember that she’d been up since six preparing, too; an artist expressing her desire to carve out time to paint, something her husband supports once the paintings bring in income, which is impossible, of course, until she has time to paint.

Is this much different than the contemporary stay-at-home mom whose husband helps with the dishes, except those that don’t fit into the dishwasher because they are pots or oddly shaped pans? The husband who accompanies his wife to the grocery store every week for five years but pleads ignorance when sent there alone? The medical condition now referred to in the blogosphere as the “man-cold” which, although showing no symptoms more severe or debilitating than that strain of virus known to womankind, renders the victim bedridden?

My stay-at-home mom’s moment of truth occurred during one such bout, when my husband, who does do the dishes, and who acknowledges and supports my writing despite no promise of income, spent one day in bed, sick.

“The next time I’m not feeling well, you’ll take a personal day so I can rest, too,” I said before heading out the door for my third round of errands and pick-ups.

The idea was so radical, so outside the bounds of anything we’d ever discussed, that we were both speechless for a minute.

It was one of those rare moments that made me want to reassess what being a stay-at-home mom means—not in comparison to the public or political spheres, but in relation to the one at home—from 1971 to now.

O’Reilly had seven rules for the housewife seeking liberation:

1. Decide what housework needs to be done. Then cut the list in half.

2. Decide what you will and will not do.

3. Make a plan and present it as final.

4. Think revolutionary thoughts (such the couple who eats sandwiches while reading by the fire instead of eating dinner at the table.)

5. Never give in—“empty one dishwasher and it leads to a lifetime of emptying dishwashers.”

6. Do not feel guilty.

7. Expect Regression.

After all that, she says:

“I cannot imagine anything more difficult than incurring the kind of domestic trauma I describe. It requires the conscious loss of the role we have been taught, and its replacement by a true identity. And what if we succeed? What if we become liberated women who recognize that our guilt is reinforced by the marketplace, which would have us attach our identity to furniture polish and confine our deepest anxieties to color coordinating our toilet paper and our washing machines....What if we finally learn that we are not defined by our children and our husbands, but by ourselves?”

The stay-at-home mom of 2011 has many more opportunities to do what O’Reilly suggests as a cure for rule #6, the guilt one might feel for taking hold of these pillars: have something more interesting to think about.

Maybe that’s why we have our blogs, our entrepreneurial businesses, our positions on town councils, our weekly commitments to assist in our children’s schools. And, we and these institutions are better for it.

But are we or our sisters who work outside the home any less likely to make dinner on Saturday and Sunday nights? Or any more likely to spend hours of guiltless time reconnecting to a hobby or interest that has no point, except that it reminds us of who we were before?

It’s necessary to ask: are men any more able to do that, too? The less I work outside the home, the more my husband needs to.

The thing I took away from reading “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” was a thread that somehow had been buried. It’s the thread that ties me to my mother, and her mother, and my father’s mother, the Phi Beta Kappa who—when my mother first met her, was ironing her husband’s shirts.

So, I send my husband’s to the dry cleaners.

I’d still like to be able to ask him, without justification or hesitation, to stay home from work when I am sick; for my friend to call it a day at 8pm because her husband has figured out how to wash the Crockpot, and, after more than two decades of using the expression, for us to look at the term “Stay-at-Home Mom” as a description of what someone is doing, not who they are.

We’re probably not on the cusp of a revolution the likes of 1971. But, I think those of us who believe in the dynamic importance of both mothers who work outside the home and those who work within it might agree that it’s about time for a new word. Why are we still using one that was coined around 1987 to describe whom we care for (our kids) and what we are not (career women)?

At least there’s something agitating about the word “housewife”. It forces us to say “Oh, no, not in the Mad Men kind of way,” or to say, “Oh, yeah, in the O’Reilly, women’s lib kind of way,” and then to think about how we’ve defined it and what we expect when we use it.

But, it's 2011.

My Stay-at-Home Mom’s Moment of Truth is that it’s time for a new word.

Post Script:
How do you get a copy of the original Ms. Preview issue?

First email your Aunt, who is a librarian, and then you go to the impressive public library in Princeton. A very helpful librarian prints out a list of local libraries that may have the issue but warns the ones who have hard copies may not actually have it. “Something that historical.....sometimes gets stolen.” It’s worth a shot, however, because your last memories of using microfiche are not very happy. Then you head off to the campus of a local University, and park at “Loser Hall,” as advised by a friend, who is also a faculty member, who adds that it’s pronounced “Lozier.” Having parked in the appropriate lot and been given a map, you walk the long path to the campus library which they let you enter even though you do not have an iPod embedded in your outer ear. You approach the reference desk, drop the name “Princeton” three or four times, omitting the “public library” part, and ask to see Volume Four of New York Magazine. They send you to the basement where you are alone with the periodicals and occasional campus tour groups, which offer helpful tidbits, especially about the copy machine. You find the row, rotate the handle, and open the stacks that lead to 1971.

Scanning the shelf you find the right volume. You take it to your desk and hold your breath. You open the book, turning the pages through October 1971, November 1971, and finally reach December 20, 1971. No one had stolen it. It was bound into the larger volume, the pages soft from age, but perfectly smooth.

You can also find parts of  it online, but it's not the same.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nature Camp for Redheads

Nature camp, it turns out, is held in nature. I suspected as much, but having been out of the loop on camp, and for the most part, nature, for the last few decades, I decided I’d better confirm my hunch by attending a summer camp open house at our nearby wildlife center.

“You guys go look at the cockroaches in the terrarium, I need to speak with the director,” I told my family.

Anytime I’ve started a sentence with “cockroach” and it’s not been followed by the word “dead”, I’m a bit out of my comfort zone. It's a feeling that goes back to my younger days in Texas when my mother once asked me, at the wee hour of three in the morning, “Sarah, are you making a smoothie?”


Turned out the Texas-sized cockroaches had hotwired the blender and we had to unplug the thing to stop their madness.

But I digress.

The director of the camp was seated behind a little table, set up a bit like Lucy’s booth in the Peanuts cartoons.

“I’d like to talk about ticks,” I said, taking a seat.

It was a sneak attack. I’d attended a “tea for toddlers” nature walk several months back when we dragged nets through the high grass in search of crickets. Most of us came back with ticks in our collection, which our leader accepted with equal glee.

“It’s a female!” she exclaimed, holding one up on the tip of her finger.

I am no naturalist; I’ve never thought of “blood-sucking” as a positive attribute. That, I suppose, is because of the time I baked a chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday and he spent the ensuing days in bed, pale and clammy, with a fever that defied medicine.

“Either I’ve poisoned you,” I said, looking at a mysterious red rash stretching across his shoulder, “or you have Lyme disease.”

After a few tests, and a heavy dose of antibiotics, we were relieved to confirm that there was nothing wrong with my baking.

“Ah,” the director said, gathering her ideas, “we do teach the children to check each other for ticks, and recommend parents do the same each night at bath time.”

Fair enough.

Puddle Jumping? Wings and Things? So much to talk about.

“What about bee stings?” I asked.

“Is your daughter allergic?”

Clearly, the director had not caught my drift, which was to focus--as I often do-- on hypothetical non-issues, that may or may not take place sometime a half year away.

“No,” I explained, “she’s not allergic to bee stings.”


“It’s actually.... against state law.... for our counselors to carry an EpiPen. You’d have to be prescribed that by your doctor. You could bring in some Benadryl and we’d keep that in our kit for your child...just in case.”

That was the kind of inside information that made coming out in the rain the day before the Super Bowl entirely worth it. Assuming the generic version of Benadryl had not been recalled by mid July, I would definitely bring a bottle.

At this point the director was looking slightly uncomfortable, and I think she suspected I was a mole---and not the kind eating earthworms out by the shed.

I couldn’t stall any longer. I got right to the 64,000 SPF question.

“You’re outside a lot, aren’t you, during these camps?”

“Almost all day.”

“May daughter’s a redhead.”

Finally, the director read my mind. She lowered her voice and leaned closer.

“We have some kids who arrive the first day in long sleeves and pants,” she said, “and...they usually don’t feel so well by the end of the day.”

I stood slowly, thinking about what she'd said. No matter the freckles, no matter the propensity to go from pale as a marshmallow to red as a Twizzler, it would have to be short sleeves and shorts.

I thanked the director and took a brochure.

“Mom,” my daughter yelled, returning from the cockroach tank, “they have a little display on what you should wear to camp!”

Had the Painted Turtle finally agreed to wear Teva's?

I never found out. Whatever was modeling the summer camp gear apparently had a backpack.

A backpack.

The sign of independence.

All brave, big, explorers wear backpacks.

And, mine will also wear a bit of natural bug repellent, SPF 45, a hat, and socks up to her belly button.

But, one thing I sincerely hope she won't wear is her mother's fear of nature camp.

Photo credits: Butterfly: Uwe H. Friese Bremerhaven, Germany
Redhead: LBM, with the help of a very patient daughter and photoshop

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Girl Scout Cookies: The Foodie Mom's Paradox

“I wouldn’t eat a reduced fat, diet cookie if my life depended on it, but I’ll eat three Peanut Butter Sandwich cookies in a heartbeat.”

This from a friend, who made me pledge like a Girl Scout, that I would not reveal her identity.

The topic was no so much calorie watching, as “bad ingredient” watching, and the subject was one of paradox: how can you bake homemade bread everyday for three weeks, never be without a quart of homemake chicken broth in your freezer, regularly make coffee cake from scratch, and spend as much time online with baking expert Dorie Greenspan as some people spend on Facebook and know, sell and eat Girl Scout cookies?

“Honestly, I don’t even sweat it,” my friend told me when I asked. There is so much “crap” out there, she said--so many school events when someone brings juice boxes with high fructose corn syrup, so many yogurts that should be labeled, “pudding” and so many more times that her family perseveres and eats what’s healthy, that “I put this in with the 10% of our diet that’s... well.....” well, not as good.

What does she see as the dilemma with selling cookies?

“It’s more of a logistical drama. It’s 11 degrees outside; my daughter has a cold and rehearsal. How is she going to find time to sell these cookies?”

Her eighth grader does find time to sell them, and by design, with very little help from her mom. Being a Girl Scout has been a positive experience for both mother and daughter, and cookie sales have significantly offset the cost of yearly trips, or, as with this year, a planned service project to help heart patients.

This anonymous Foodie mom likes the nostalgia of the cookies, the taste of a select few (Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Sandwich and Lemon) and is willing to admit that her outgoing daughter has developed a sales strategy at odds with political correctness, but not reality:

“She told me she prefers to sell to dads. They usually have no clue if their wife has already ordered some and they’ll buy seven boxes. And, you know,” the mom said, referring to an order form “her data supports that.”

Down the road a bit, and a few years more junior in the Girl Scout-Mom experience is Dolores Eaton, who is ok with my using her full name, although perhaps a moniker is just as appropriate: 4 oz juice box.

It was one of those that she picked up at my oldest daughter’s first birthday party when she said, “You know, this is about as much juice as a child should an entire day.”

I didn’t show her the stash of 6 oz ones I had hidden in my pantry, but I’ve often thought of her prescient warning when the dentist looks at my daughter’s cavity-inclined teeth and echoes the same philosophy.

The proponent of 4 oz was a peddler of pastry?

“The overall benefit of Girl Scouts outweigh this one issue,” Eaton said, when I asked her how she reconciled the ingredient list in the cookies they sold with the expectations she has for what she brings into her own home. Along with whole wheat pasta, nothing with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or artificial coloring, the packaged cookies she buys and that her kids prefer, show more resemblance to Cool Hand Luke (Newman’s own) than the industrious elves of Keebler.

Eaton would like the makers of the Girl Scout cookies to stop using palm oil, and “in a perfect world they’d change the recipe,” but when it comes to conversations with fellow moms in her troop the issue of ingredients does not come up.

“I’ve had to really learn how to walk that line,” she said, explaining how much she shares her views on food with casual acquaintances, “they’d think you’re a freak.”

Still, “Of all the clubs that are gender specific, that help build character and leadership in a safe environment,” Girl Scouts was one of the best, she said. And she is as selective with how her daughters spend their time as she is with what she’s introduced to their now self-guided food choices. “One physical activity and one club a year,” she said.  Even with those parameters, Girls Scouts (and their cookies) have made the cut.

Caralien Speth, whose five month old daughter is more of a sprout and not yet a Daisy, shares a similar view. With the exception of “lasagna noodles, bread and ice cream” she makes everything from scratch--including beer.

“My daughter is only 5.5 months old, but we plan to allow her to go through Girl Scouts, and sell cookies, if she chooses.”

Could Girl Scouts improve their product? They could, “...use corn based plastics that are compostable...and getting rid of trans-fats (entirely) and corn syrup would be welcomed. Really, however, a little bit of “bad” ingredients annually isn’t that big of a deal if most of what you consume on a day-to-day basis is real food.”

Real food and teaching children how to recognize it is part of the mission of Christina Le Beau, a journalist who writes the blog, Spoonfed: Raising Kids to Think About The Food They Eat.

When a friend asked her if she’d like her daughter to join her Girl Scout troop, she knew enough about Le Beau's passion to say, as she described on her blog post, (Let’s Talk Girl Scout Cookies) :

“I sort of wondered if the cookie thing might be a conflict of interest.”

And, after looking into the subject, Le Beau wrote, Our food habits are far from perfect (whatever that means). But I’d feel like a hypocrite. Or a drug dealer. Go on, tell me I’m overreacting. But, seriously, I couldn’t in good conscience let my daughter sell something I believe to be patently unhealthy."

Chris Le Beau, writer of the blog
Spoonfed, with her daughter
For Le Beau, the unhealthy nature of the food is not limited to what some of the ingredients do to the body, there’s the environmental factor of palm oil, and the associated deforestation and problems production brings.

Still, if becoming a Girl Scout became important to her daughter and joining a troop would enrich her life, she told me the cookies are not a deal breaker.

“I’d just opt out. But I would make it clear why. I wouldn’t just go quietly.”

She is not alone. The writers of the blog, Fork and Bottle wrote a post in 2008, shortly after the reduction in trans-fats, with the headline,“Still Say No To Girl Scout Cookies...” They've also included a link to a make-it-yourself Thin Mint recipe.

The Girl Scouts' cookie manufacturers have made some changes in the past few years. First, just before the FDA regulations, they limited their trans-fat to the under 0.5 gram threshold, and now, according to The Girl Scouts' website, one of their suppliers, Little Brownie Bakers, has removed partially hydrogenated oil entirely from some varieties. LBB’s website prominently touts an optimistically (if not overly so) titled informational sheet “Great News for Health Conscious Consumers.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that cookie sales, for the first time in six years, rose last year to $714 million. And, some councils have adopted a “super six” pilot program to focus on the popular sellers—Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs, Trefoils, Do-si-dos, and Lemon Chalet Crème. And, for the first time this year, Scouts can advertise and market (although not sell) online.

Making a profit is not inconsequential to the health of the Girl Scouts. Of the $3.50 paid for one box of Thin Mints, about $.89 goes to the bakery and the remaining money goes to the Girl Scouts local troop and council, according to a 2011 Cookie Program Family Guide.

So, what do the Girl Scouts say when asked about the use of palm oil?

Besides stating that that their bakers and palm oil suppliers are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the official website says:

"Our cookie bakers tell us it is still necessary to use tropical oils for the production of compound coating (holding the chocolate on). Many top bakers have tried to stop using it, but without it, their products do not meet quality and production standards."

And, why don’t they, as stated in their Frequently Asked Questions, “....offer cookies that are whole-wheat, wheat-free, non-dairy, dairy-free, vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free, organic, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie, low-fat, non-fat, fat-free, etc.?”

“The demand for specialty cookie formulations is simply not great enough to make it economically feasible to offer a variety of specialty types. Of all the different possible formulations, sugar-free seems to be the most popular, yet in the past, even the sugar-free Girl Scout cookies that have been offered have had to be discontinued due to lack of demand....”

The demand, it seems, even from foodies and many, although not all, ingredient-conscious parents, is for the annual burst of nostalgia and packaged diversion that Girl Scout cookies, in all their sugared, palm-oiled, chocolate-ish-y flavor, bring.

Perhaps people like Christina Le Beau, and the movement of which she is a part, of will set a demand for a more healthful product.

But, in the meantime, the Foodie’s Paradox represents the complexity of parenting. It is not that much different than the one I find myself in when I buy a product I believe in from a store that gives money to causes I do not. Or, when, after writing several posts about the lead contamination in children’s toys, I bring home a wooden craft project that has, tucked within its interior packaging, a formaldehyde warning for residents of California.

How often do I find myself saying: “Thank God for California.”

“Thank goodness for Christina Le Beau.”

And, at the very same time,  in this very complicated world of food and parenting, and raising girls, "Thank goodness for the foodies living the paradox.”

Peanut Butter Patties and Thin Mints
Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid) sugar, vegetable shortening (palm and/or partially hydrogenated palm kernel oils,) cocoa (processed with alkali) caramel color, contains less than 2% of high fructose corn syrup, whey, salt, leavening (sodium bicarbonate) soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, peppermint oil.