Writing and motherhood, eleven months out

As the mother of a baby, I spend a lot of time — I mean, a LOT of time — thinking about the balance between motherhood and my would-be career as a writer. Unlike women who work outside of the home or women who embrace the Stay At Home Mom designation, I feel as if I’m caught in a murky limbo wherein I do stay at home with my child, but I also work at home — or, at least, I try to work at home. I’ve heard women in my situation referred to as Work At Home Moms, but that doesn’t quite capture what it is to be a mother as well as a struggling writer or other creative professional whose job is largely unstructured. The problem with having an unstructured — or, rather, self-structured — work life when you have a baby is that the demands of your work — which are often self-imposed — are quickly crowded out by the demands of your child. Eleven months into this motherhood thing, I am still trying to figure out how I can succeed and feel satisfied both as a professional writer and as a mother. Here are some thoughts I’ve been turning over lately.

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Life as a writer, before and after baby

Before I had Lucia, my work life was blissfully predictable. I rarely worried about whether I’d have enough time each day to get everything done. I’d set high word-count or revision goals for myself every day and I’d almost always meet them. Every morning, I would get up, make coffee and breakfast, sit down at my computer, and write for several hours. If I were working on a manuscript, I’d bang out 1500-2000 words, minimum. Then I’d go to the gym, eat lunch, run errands, and finish up any loose ends in the afternoon (freelancing work, short fiction, blogging, etc.) before calling it quits for the day. It was awesome.

But now, my work schedule, such as it is, must bend to Lucia’s schedule. This makes sense; the baby thrives on a predictable routine of feedings, changings, play, and naps. In the morning, my first priorities are getting Lucia changed and fed, and pumping milk for the bottle that she will have before bedtime. After L has had breakfast and the pumping is done, I play with her until it’s time for her nap, two hours after she gets up. When she goes down for her morning nap around 9 am, I have my first sliver of free time. Hooray! But, as it turns out, by 9 am, there’s always a bunch of crap around the house that needs doing: laundry, dishes, picking bits of discarded food off the floor and walls, stashing toys, answering emails, paying bills, returning phone calls, etc. And now that L is almost a year old, her morning nap is rarely longer than an hour, which means by the time I’ve done all of my annoying chores, I’m looking at maybe a half-hour window in which to get work done. I’m a fast writer, and a half hour is sometimes a feasible timeframe for me to crank out a freelancing piece, but for my fiction work, I need longer stretches of time to get any quality work done. It’s a real dilemma. At the moment, my freelancing work is chugging along (yay for deadlines), but my manuscript is languishing. Those halcyon days of cranking out 2000 words in a sitting are behind me, and I constantly struggle to feel productive or like I’m making any progress on my fiction work at all.

Breastfeeding and babysitting

The obvious solution to the problems I’ve just laid out would be reliable childcare, right? Well, yes, except there’s a wrinkle: breastfeeding. It’s true that things on the work-life balance front have gotten much better since I’ve hired a babysitter, who comes three days a week and watches L for three to four hours at a time. Having the babysitter come allows me to leave the house to work (and go to the gym and grocery store and do other adult human activities, sans baby), and it’s great! I’ve gotten more writing done on my manuscript in the past five months of having a babysitter than I did in the preceding six months of no babysitter. But this is complicated by the constraints of breastfeeding. The thing is, I can’t leave for much longer than three or four hours or I will miss several feedings and have to pump to make up for them. I already pump twice a day as it is (in the morning and at night), and the idea of adding a third or even fourth pumping session into the day strikes dread into my heart. When I set the goal for myself to breastfeed L until she was a year old, I didn’t anticipate the crimp it would put on my work life. And now I’m wondering how anyone makes breastfeeding and working work.

I don’t really see this precise issue written or talked about much online or in my group of mom friends. I think this is because most moms who work outside the home stop breastfeeding and/or pumping soon after going back to work because it’s such a giant pain in the ass to try to pump at work, clean and wash all the bottles and pump parts, and then transport the milk home every day. Moms who stay at home (and who don’t need uninterrupted stretches of the day for work) and want to breastfeed can continue to breastfeed (and maybe don’t need to pump much at all) because they’re always near their babies. But what about those of us who want to keep breastfeeding but also need to be out of the house to get work done? The options aren’t great.

For those who have never breastfed or used a breast pump, you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Just pump the milk and quit your whining.” The thing is, pumping suuuucccckkkks, literally and figuratively. I’ve been doing it for six months now (since L started taking a bottle at 5 months old) and it’s still the most annoying part of my day. You have to get out your pump, put on a special pumping bra, wash and assemble your pump parts and bottles, hook up the parts and bottles to the machine and your bra, and sit down with a giant bottle of water for ten uncomfortable minutes wherein you can’t move more than a foot away from the pump. Then, once you’ve pumped the milk, you have to pour it into a new bottle, store it, wash and disassemble the pump parts, take off the pumping bra and get re-dressed, and put away the pump. The entire process takes a good 20-30 minutes and it’s just the worst. I really don’t know how any woman does this at an office, since even doing it at home is such a time-suck. (Moms who pump at work: I salute you.). As Hanna Rosin said in her piece in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” “[Breastfeeding is] only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”

Weaning and writing

The other option, of course, is to just stop breastfeeding and pumping altogether and put L on formula. The thing is, she’s only three weeks away from being a year old (i.e., weaning age), and dammit, I’ve come this far, and I’m not going to quit now! I guess I’m hoping things will get easier once she’s weaned, because I can leave her for longer stretches (say, five to six hours) without having to worry about pumping. In my fantasies about my post-weaning work life, I return to getting real work done on my manuscript every day. I have enjoyed breastfeeding my child and I will certainly miss the sweet, bonding moments I’ve shared with her, but damn, I can’t wait to be free of that damned pump and its terrible accoutrements.

All of this makes me wonder how I’ll handle breastfeeding with my next baby. Right now, at the peak of my frustration with pumping, I’m thinking I won’t breastfeed for as long, or I will do a combo of formula and breastmilk to allow myself some more freedom. Who knows what my writing career will look like by then, anyway. Only time will tell.

Do you have any thoughts about balancing work and baby? I’d love to hear them.

(The day after) Thanksgiving

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! I just scarfed down a plate of cold turkey and stuffing and then sat in a hot tub for half an hour, so I’m pretty much living the American Dream right now.

As is my custom, I’d like to share a few of the things I’m thankful for this year. As always, I have a long list, but this year, the list is topped by my baby, Lucia, who, in my completely unbiased opinion, is one of the best, if not THE BEST, baby in the world. Also: Al, my family, my friends. My health. The uzh! But the baby — oh, man, that baby. Boy, am I thankful for her. This is one of those things I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate before Lucia was actually outside my body. I didn’t know how much I’d love her and be grateful for her four-toothed little smile every day. What a gift she is. I am so, so lucky to be her mother. And I know this is all very sappy and saccharine and stomach-turning, but having a kid has made me way cheesier than I ever thought possible, and I’m just living my (sappy, gross) truth!

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This year, Al’s mom and stepdad are in town visiting from Canada, and they’re staying with my parents, who recently moved here from San Francisco. Finally having my parents local for the last few months has been wonderful, and it’s great having another set of Lulu’s grandparents in town, too. We had a really delicious Thanksgiving meal yesterday, with fabulous, sunny weather, and good conversation, so what else, really, can you ask for? Nothing, that’s what!

I’ll leave you with a short list of some of the littler, sillier things I’m thankful for this year.

  1. Ingenious baby products that make my life easier. Special shout-outs to this thing, which is a baby butt-paste spatula, and this thing, which has allowed me to do stuff around the house while Lucia entertains herself for minutes on end!
  2. Sleep training. Glorious, liberating sleep training. (Actually, this is not a little or silly thing. This is life-changing stuff right here).
  3. Amazon Prime and all its attendant glories (looking at you, Amazon Video).
  4. My Swimp3, for making swimming way less boring.
  5. Our local coffee shop, Misha’s, where Lulu and Al are now regulars.
  6. My Kindle Paperwhite, for letting me plow through books while feeding my kid (since it only requires one hand to operate, and has its own backlight).
  7. Ravelry, the source of much inspiration and relaxation.

There’s more, of course. But there’s another plate of stuffing calling my name, so I’ll leave it at this. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, wherever you are!

My useless law degree

My Harvard Law School diploma is hanging in my basement, framed, just above my sewing table. When I used to sew, back in those halcyon days of ample free time before I had a baby, I would sometimes glance up at my diploma and think, “Huh.” Then I’d go back to sewing and forget about it, at least until I looked up again. The truth is, that diploma (and the degree it represents), which I spent three years and many tens of thousands of dollars earning, is now pretty much useless. I suppose it looks nice (not that anyone ever sees it, since, as I mentioned, it’s in my basement), but I’m certainly not using it for anything. And you know what the weird thing is? I’m totally okay with that. I wasn’t always. But I am now.

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When I graduated law school, lo these many years ago, I was pretty proud of my sparkling new J.D. degree. For one thing, that degree (and my subsequent passage of the California bar exam) was my ticket to gainful employment in the D.C. office of a large, international law firm. That degree ensured a smooth, uncomplicated path of long-term employment as an attorney, if I was willing to stay the course. Also, like it or not, my degree said something about me. At a bare minimum, it told people the following two things about me: I attended a prestigious law school, and I did the work required to graduate from that law school.

But there are also other assumptions about me that are baked into my Harvard Law School degree, I think: that I’m ambitious, that I’m smart, that I am the type of person who can make it in a tough, competitive environment. So, when people find out that I’m not practicing law (or doing anything law-adjacent, for that matter) and that I don’t plan to ever return to the law if I can help it, they’re surprised, and maybe — just maybe — a little bit judgmental. Now, it’s entirely possible that I am projecting my own insecurities about my career choices onto other people. It could be that no one gives a fig that I’m not using my J.D. to do lawyer stuff. But when I tell people that I’m no longer practicing law, I feel like they’re all wondering why I’d waste a perfectly good HLS degree to try to hack it as a writer. I used to worry about this more, this concern that people might be judging me for letting my lawyer skills go fallow as I try, unsuccessfully, to get a novel published. But as time goes by, I care less and less. This, I’m sure, is a good thing.

When people ask me what I do now, I always say that I’m a writer, period. I rarely mention that I’m also an attorney, barred in two jurisdictions, because it doesn’t seem relevant to who I am, professionally, today. But when I first left lawyering for writing three years ago, when people would ask what I did, I would always mention the fact that I was an attorney, too. I suppose I felt compelled to let people know that I was a serious person and not some artsy-fartsy weirdo sitting around writing stream-of-consciousness essays while staring moonily out the window, or whatever non-writers think it is that writers do all day.

Back then, telling people that I was a writer without also mentioning my lawyer bona fides felt inadequate, incomplete, and perhaps a little false, as well, since while I do write professionally, I’m certainly not making a living at it, and might never do so. I used to feel that to be taken seriously as a writer, I had to bolster my credentials by letting people know that I once had another professional life, one that involved wearing blazers and using two computer screens and writing on stationery with my name and my firm’s name emblazoned on it. I had a serious, structured, lawyerly life, and I left it for something completely different. I wanted people to know, though, that I was still that serious person, with serious ambitions, but I was channeling all of that seriousness into writing.

I don’t know why I cared so much about people’s impressions, mistaken or otherwise, of my career path, but I did. Maybe it was because I didn’t think people would take me seriously as a writer if I didn’t prove to them that I used to hold a prestigious professional services job, as if the two things are connected. In any case, I worry about this less now, at least partly because I have been writing (and not lawyering) for three years, and writing feels less like a fun lark and more like an honest-to-God career at this point. But mostly, I’m not bothered by the current uselessness of my law degree because I’m happier not using it. I’ve figured out that when my law degree was hanging on the wall of my office at the law firm, it wasn’t any more fulfilling to me than it is now, hanging above my sewing table. Using my law degree to be a lawyer wasn’t nurturing me as a person because, as it turns out, practicing international investment arbitration law was not the right career path for me. Writing, whether or not I am ultimately successful at it, is.

So, I’m at peace with the fact that my law degree is not being pressed into use. I don’t regret getting that degree. I loved law school. I met Al when I was there and we even overlapped for a year at HLS. I had great summer experiences as a pre-attorney. I even grew to love Boston (and that’s saying something). I would never take back any of the choices that led me to getting and using that degree, because all of them were the right ones for me at the time. But life changes, and sometimes you have to course-correct when things start to go wonky. Now, six-and-a-half years after graduating from Harvard, and three years into my career as a writer, I look at that useless law degree with abundant fondness and zero regrets. I’m glad I have it. And I’m just as glad I don’t have to use it.

Thirty-three

Today is my birthday. Hooray! I guess.

I have mixed feelings about the significance of birthdays. I don’t have conflicted feelings about birthdays themselves; that is, I’m not someone who bemoans getting older (at least, not yet). I’m in my early thirties, for crying out loud, and I detest when people my age complain about being “old.” Puh-leeze. No, it’s more that I have mixed feelings about how big of a deal should be made of one’s birthday as an adult. I mean, I’m not going to go all Jehovah’s Witness on everyone and eschew celebrating birthdays altogether, but do I really need to mark the passage of each year or my life with some big hullabaloo? Probably not, right?

This debate is theoretical, really, since I rarely do much for my birthday, anyway. This year my birthday is especially anticlimactic since I’ll be spending it with a baby (my baby, as a matter of fact) and pretty much no one else. Al is traveling for business, my parents are moving into their new house, and everyone else is just going about their Tuesday morning, so it’s just me and Miss Lucia today. (This is not to say that my birthday has passed by unnoticed: Al took me out to a great dinner this past weekend and I think I can probably wrangle another birthday dinner out of him this weekend, too). I’m fine with the fact that I’ll be spending today putting soiled diapers out for collection, doing laundry, taking Lucia to baby music class, working during her naps, and all of the other things I normally do on a Tuesday. This is my life, and it’s a good one.

Last night, I was looking through the journal that I kept while I was pregnant to see what I was up to at this time last year, when I was turning thirty-two. Back then, I was three months away from giving birth. I was going to yoga classes and writing 2000 words a day in a manuscript and practicing Hypnobabies techniques and taking naps (NAPS!!). I had no idea what my life would look like today, but I knew it would involve poopy diapers. Yep. Also, fewer naps, more coffee. But also, way more baby laughter, which kind of outweighs everything else. All in all, I’d say thirty-three year old Steph has the better end of the deal than thirty-two year old Steph, despite all the naps that younger lady got to take. After all, I get to spend my birthday with this hilarious little person:

Anyway. It’s time for me to wake up Lulu so we can make it on time to her baby music class, which might end up being the cutest way possible I could celebrate my thirty-third birthday. Enjoy your Tuesday, everyone.

Great reads, good reads, meh reads, and bad reads: a book round-up

Since May, which was the last time I posted a book review round-up, I’ve read (or started to read and gave up on — more on that below) almost thirty books. THIRTY. The experience of reading approximately six books a month for the past five months has had some sharp peaks and deep valleys, as you might imagine. Some of the books I read were fantastic, wonderful, absorbing, un-put-downable! Others, however, were real stinkers. Weirdly, it’s the stinkers, rather than the masterpieces, that are sticking with me as I sit down to write this, perhaps because it seems like there were just so many of them, and they were all so disappointing/maddening.

Given the quantity of books I’ve consumed over the past five months, I’ll not be writing reviews of each one. Instead, I’ve divided the books into four rough (and necessarily reductive) categories: Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. Instead of individual book reviews, I will let the categories do the talking. If you’d like any more color on any of these books, drop me a note or a comment here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Now, a brief explanation of my categories:

A Great Read, in my estimation, must possess excellent writing as well as a gripping plot (if fiction) and/or unique perspective/angle on its subject (if non-fiction). The experience of reading a Great Read is one of absorption. You look forward to reading the book, and while you’re reading it, you’re lost in its world. You want to tell people about it. You want others to read it so that you can share the experience of it with someone else. I will vouch for all of the books in my Great Reads category. They are, like I say, great.

Standards are slightly lower for Good Reads. A Good Read must be thoroughly enjoyable, with solid writing and/or a lively enough plot/story to make up for just pretty good writing. A Good Read is a book that you look forward to picking up, but won’t necessarily tell anyone about at a dinner party.

A Meh Read is just okay, either because the plot is sluggish, or the writing is not up to snuff, or both. A Meh Read, however, is not bad enough for you to actually stop reading. Whatever failures of writing or plotting or research they may contain, Meh Reads are not terrible or a waste of time, necessarily. They’re just okay. They’re the reading equivalent of a shrug. They’re meh.

Bad Reads, of course, are actively awful. Most of the books on the Bad Reads list landed there because the writing was so piss poor that I wanted to toss the book into a bonfire and dance around it while muttering dark incantations. As a writer who would gladly saw off an appendage — any appendage! You name it, I’ll saw it! — to have a novel published, it irks me, to put it lightly, that so many books with stupid, crappily constructed plots and lazy, hackneyed writing are getting published and purchased. And from a reader’s perspective, it’s endlessly frustrating that these horrid books are marketed to the unsuspecting public with bait like, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love [Shitty Novel That Sucks]!” Here’s the thing: we all liked Gone Girl because it was fast-paced and twisty, with smart observations about male-female relationships, and Gillian Flynn can actually write. Yet somehow, any piece of dross that fancies itself a “psychological thriller” gets compared to Gone Girl, and we, the reading public, keep falling for it. Or, at least, I do, and I consider myself a somewhat discerning reader (although perhaps I shouldn’t give myself so much credit). Three out of the four books on my Bad Reads list are “psychological thrillers” that I was dumb enough to pay good money for. I only managed to get all the way through one of them (The Good Neighbor, which contained shockingly bad writing and enough loose plot threads to knit a winter sweater); the other three I gave up on in order to preserve my own sanity.

Great Reads

Among The Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

This Is Not a Love Story, by Judy Brown

Good Reads

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Meh Reads

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

The Ice Twins, by S.K. Tremayne

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, by Amy Butcher

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox

A Good Killing, by Allison Leotta

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Bad Reads

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt

The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Banner

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty W. Moore

The back cover copy for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals promises that this book is a “unique writing guide” to creating personal essays. As someone who likes to write the odd personal essay, I was interested. I was also intrigued by the format: a series of questions asked by “top contemporary essayists” (including Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay) and answered by Dinty W. Moore, an actual person and essayist and not, as I had imagined, an animated can of beef stew.

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I first opened Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy expecting, if not inspiration, then at least some solid ideas for kickstarting my next personal essay. But I got bogged down in the book’s preciousness and soon closed it again. What do I mean by “preciousness?” Well, the introduction is written in the second person (eesh) and includes this sentence: “You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm.” This winking tone continues throughout the book, much to my chagrin. For example, there is a question answered entirely in a series of cocktail napkin drawings. Some might find this adorable, but for me, the humor wasn’t strong enough to overcome the cutesiness. I’m afraid I’m just not the target audience for this kind of thing.

I reopened the book and tried to read it straight through. The first question, from essayist Phillip Lopate, is about how to write about ex-girlfriends without coming off as a “chauvinist pig.” Putting aside my own question about whether Lopate’s letter was sent via time portal from the mid-1990s, I found Moore’s response pat (“don’t be a chauvinist pig”) and the accompanying essay boring. Perhaps the problem here is that I am not familiar with Dinty W. Moore’s essay writing, and that to fully appreciate this book, one must be a fan of his work. I’m not sure. But I found myself skimming, and skimming some more, through the rest of the questions and answers.

Some of the questions struck me as so esoteric as to be useless (e.g., what is “the connection between Buddhism and writing?”), at least to my own writing, but others were somewhat more helpful. I enjoyed Moore’s response to Cheryl Strayed’s question about the distinction among the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. I also liked Moore’s “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” in response to a question from Michael Martone about whether to use one or two spaces after a period. Incidentally, Moore never answers Martone’s question about spacing, but he does discuss the concept of telling the truth and fictionalizing in memoir.

I’m sure that fans of Moore’s work will find this volume entertaining and perhaps even inspiring. But for me, earnest seeker of writing advice, it fell flat.

(Cook) book review: Everyday Detox, by Megan Gilmore

As someone who’s naturally suspicious of the word “detox” outside of the context of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I was a bit trepidatious when I first received Megan Gilmore’s cookbook, Everyday Detox. I think “detox” — as in, clearing one’s body of “toxins” — is one of those woo-woo concepts that doesn’t actually have any basis in science, and my hackles go up when people talk about “detox diets,” because what does that even mean? But, in paging through Gilmore’s book, I saw that there was a whole chapter devoted to “liquid nourishment,” and, being a smoothie fanatic, I couldn’t resist trying some of her recipes right away, pseudoscience or no! (Also, to be fair, Gilmore explains her “detox” philosophy in the beginning of her book by saying that she’s in favor of consuming fresh, whole foods, rather than packaged foods that are “loaded with preservatives and chemicals,” which is reasonable, and not what I typically associate with the word “detox”).

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A creature of habit, I make almost the exact same smoothie for lunch every day, which I like, but I needed to shake things up (pun very much intended!). I cracked open Everyday Detox and started with the Chocolate Chia Shake, which is gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, and vegan (none of which are dietary requirements for me, but nice to know). This recipe did require a trip to the local fancy grocery store to purchase chia seeds and raw cacao nibs, but, as it turns out, the investment was totally worth it because this sucker was DELICIOUS. Even my mother, a professed hater of dates, liked this shake, and one of its main ingredients is dates. That’s how good it was! Emboldened, I moved on to the Banana Nut Protein Shake, which knocked my socks off. Despite involving several handfuls of spinach and two tablespoons of hemp hearts (?), it was rich and tasty and satisfying. I loved every sip.

I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the non-liquid recipes in the book. I will admit that the names of some of the dishes have me a little gun-shy (whenever I see a recipe for “rice,” in quotation marks, I get nervous), but given how phenomenal the two recipes I’ve tried so far have been, I think I need to put my skepticism aside and try more of the ideas in Everyday Detox. I’m looking forward to giving the Peppermint Fudge Bars a whirl, and the Salt And Vinegar Brussels Sprouts also sound delicious. Overall, I’d recommend this book for those looking for healthy, fresh meal ideas who aren’t put off by a few hemp hearts here and there.

 

(Baby) book review: The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, by Lisa Barrangou

Being a parent of an infant so often involves navigating through one murky, doubt-filled morass after another, trying to reconcile all of the conflicting advice you’ve received. Everyone — the internet, your pediatrician, your neighbor, your friend, your mom — has a different bit of wisdom to share and it’s often hard to know which way is up when fumbling your way through growth spurts, developmental leaps, teething, and, of course, the introduction of solid foods. Luckily for me, I received Lisa Barrangou’s The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which takes all of the guesswork out of introducing solid foods to baby.

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Like every new mother, I’d received a mountain of conflicting advice on how and when to introduce solids, what types of solids to introduce first, whether to do baby-led weaning or purees, how to space solids so as to avoid allergic reactions, and so on. I found myself confused, which has pretty much become my default posture in life since Lucia was born. Enter The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which promises to guide you through making three months’ worth of homemade purees in three hours. Hallelujah!

Barrangou is a “former corporate food scientist” with an MS and PhD in food science. Her approach emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, and starts with introducing fruits and veggies, rather than rice cereal or other grains. I was quickly sold on Barrangou’s bona fides and her approach, since I was reticent to give Lucia processed cereal as a first food and liked the idea of starting her off with vegetables, instead.

The book lays out a wonderfully simple and straightforward strategy for introducing solids that includes selecting a menu of whole foods, preparing a shopping list, creating space to store the foods, shopping, creating a mise en place plan, and preparing the food. Barrangou helpfully includes a list of supplies you need, including silicone ice cube trays, a steamer, a food processor or blender, and freezer bags. The plan she suggests is clear, concise, and sensible, and boy, do I love a good mise en place.

The book leaves nothing to chance, explaining clearly how to prepare each food with helpful charts and recipes. It also goes over which foods to limit or avoid (e.g., honey, cow’s milk, high acid fruits, etc.), which to buy organic (the so-called “dirty dozen”), when to introduce solids, in which order to introduce foods, how to ensure diversity of flavors and textures, how to avoid choking, what to look out for in terms of allergies and sensitivities, safe food prep practices, and flavor combos. I love how idiot-proof this book is.

The best part of the book, in my opinion, is the sample three-month menu of meals for baby, which sets out a simple yet diversified menu to follow, starting with pureed sweet potatoes and progressing to such exotic combos as avocado, mango, and black beans. Barrangou says you can follow her sample menu exactly or you can create your own based on the vast array of whole foods set out in the book. I decided to follow her sample menu and started, as suggested, with sweet potatoes.

Big fan of sweet potatoes

Big fan of sweet potatoes

I introduced sweet potatoes to Lucia at five months old, and she LOVED the experience. She gobbled up the sweet potatoes and then, a few days later, sweet peas with relish! Unfortunately, her guts were not as enthused and she had some pretty gnarly stomach distress for about a week after starting solids, so I decided to hold off until her six month birthday to try again. Luckily, I already have a whole bag of frozen sweet potato cubes in the freezer, ready to go, and armed with Barrangou’s book, it’ll be easy to prepare several months’ worth of food some afternoon over this coming week.

Yum.

Yum.

If it’s not clear, I think this book is absolutely fantastic and I’d recommend it heartily to any parent who’s looking for a healthy, easy, no-nonsense way to introduce whole foods to a baby. As a bonus, the book is gorgeous and the photographs make me want to puree myself up some bananas and go to town.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review Tuesday: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

The more I read by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more I begin to suspect that she and I would really get along. As far as I can tell, we have extremely similar personalities and preferences. Also, we’re both former lawyers who became writers. In fact, when I was first considering jumping ship from my law firm and starting a writing career, I sent Rubin an email asking for her advice, and she very kindly responded with a warm, encouraging note. So, I like Gretchen Rubin, even though I don’t know her personally — and I always enjoy her writing, including her newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin’s latest book focuses on habits, asking how we form successful habits, what makes us stick with them, which habits are worth pursuing, and so on. I find the question of habits quite interesting because I am someone who’s fairly consistent with certain habits (for example: getting daily exercise) but struggle to form other, lasting habits (e.g., keeping a budget). So I read this book with interest and really enjoyed it.

Rubin has a real gift for coming up with useful personality taxonomies, and this book introduces what Rubin refers to as “The Four Tendencies.” In order to make and stick with a habit, she says, one must identify which of four personality tendencies one has. The four tendencies, described on Rubin’s website, are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. As Rubin puts it:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations 
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense 
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

This was an easy one for me: I’m an Upholder, through and through (just like Rubin). Also, like Rubin, I was surprised to learn that Upholders are in the minority. Apparently, responding pretty much equally to both inner and outer expectations (that is, getting up for a run because you told yourself you’d do it AND/OR getting up for a run because you told a friend you’d meet them in the park) is not a common personality attribute. Alastair is most definitely a Questioner. He only does something if there’s a sound justification for it; he hates arbitrary rules. He and I have had the same argument about why our bed needs to be made countless times. Al thinks making the bed is pointless, since you’re just going to get into it and mess up the sheets again at bedtime. I think making the bed makes the room feel neater and consequently makes my life feel less chaotic. Also, I’d hasten to add, adults just make their damn beds. Anyway. Knowing one’s Tendency is the first step, Rubin says, to understanding how to form effective habits. You need to know yourself and what kind of expectations to which you respond best in order to set a plan for yourself that will work.

Once you’ve identified your Tendency, you can tackle what Rubin refers to as the four “pillars of habits:” monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability. As an Upholder, I think I can actually take some of these pillars of habits too far. For example, I can go a bit overboard with monitoring. Just this week I stopped using my phone to obsessively track Lucia’s sleeping, eating, and diaper output, because, I finally realized, it was making me crazy. I’m the type of person who loves data. Staring at numbers gives me the illusion of control. I figure if I can study the record of Lucia’s sleep patterns for the last three months of her life, I can crack the code to baby sleep and win at parenting forever. It took me this long to realize that babies don’t work like that, and I was driving myself nuts tracking every second of napping, every poopy diaper, every drop of milk consumed. But I do understand that monitoring, when exercised responsibly, is useful for habit formation; for example, I try to keep track of what I eat and the amount of exercise I get on another app on my phone, and it helps keep me accountable to my commitment to eat healthfully (most of the time).

Having established the pillars of habit formation, Rubin then dives into the nitty gritty of establishing and maintaining habits. One comes away from this book feeling that one can now take on the world, new habits firmly in place (or, at least, the manageable beginnings of new habits in place). As always, Rubin’s take is practical, relatable, and full of interesting anecdotes. I came away from this book feeling motivated to tackle some of the habits I want to introduce into my own life. Recommended!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.