Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Your marriage or your career?

West Indian Girl singer Mariqueen Maandig is giving up her gig to marry Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, her bandmates declared in August. WWE announcer Lilian Garcia announced her retirement Monday after 10 years with the WWE Divas, trading the wrestling ring for a wedding ring. And over at the, a reader tells columnist Carolyn Hax to put marriage before career because "it really wasn't worth all the sacrifices."

Which made me wonder: If you couldn't have both -- and if finances weren't an issue -- which one would you choose?

I asked this question to my readers at The 36-Hour Day at Work It, Mom!, and the comments are really interesting. Personally, I'm always surprised by the way marriage is touted as the end-all-and-be-all for women, and by the way some people feel that the only proper path to personal fulfillment begins at the altar. "We agreed on one simple rule: For every time I said "no" to my husband because of work, I'd say "no" to my boss because of my husband," the reader explains. "I credit my husband for his patience and the support I needed to recognize that career advancement came at the cost of individual integrity."

One has to wonder: Did her husband follow a similar rule? Is his "individual integrity" tied to marriage -- or threatened by his career?

On the other side of the world, still-single Bollywood actress Rani Mukherji says that false rumors about marriage are ruining her career. "Lot of filmmakers who approach me for roles start by asking whether I am getting married. They have apprehensions whether I can commit myself to their project," Mukherji explained in an interview.

And therein lies the crux of the problem: No matter how far we've advanced, or how well we can juggle, there's still this assumption that a woman who is committed to her husband and family can't be equally committed to her job. And vice versa.

Are more women agreeing with the assumption? Or are we just becoming more aware, thanks to entertainers who go the either/or route? "Clearly, there are women who believe that this is the best route for them and have made arrangements with their partner to pursue a full-time dedication to the household and family," Jessica Ashley writes at Yahoo!'s Shine. "But other than the requisite Housewives of Pretty Much Every Metropolitan City, we don't see these women in the spotlight very often."

Would you leave your career for your marriage? What if one or the other was on the line?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jambalaya: A super-easy, gluten-free, economical, one-pot wonder

I love to cook. When I was in college, after a stressful day of juggling jobs and school I'd come home and cook, the same way other kids would go out and drink. My roommates used to say they could tell what type of day I'd had just by looking at what was on the stove at 1 a.m. (which is when I got home from work, and settled in to study).

I still love to cook, but now that I'm juggling jobs and a family I have less time -- not to mention way less energy -- than I had when I was in college. And right now, with the economy still tight and my budget even tighter, cooking at home isn't just therapy, it's necessary.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kids' fashion goes too far: High heels for toddlers?

I have a 4-year-old girl at home, so this item caught my eye for all the wrong reasons: Suri Cruise, 3, was seen traipsing around Boston with her mom on Monday wearing shimmery high-heeled silver shoes.

Granted, the heels were only about an inch-and-a-half high. (Mom Katie Holmes, interestingly enough, was wearing flats.) But these weren't your typical, plastic, swiped-from-the-princess-costume slippers being worn during a play date. These were proper, miniature peep-toed pumps -- no word on whether they're the custom-made $2,500 Christian Louboutins she's rumored to own.

But even if they're from the sale rack at the dollar store, high heels on a 3-year-old is taking fashion too far. Here's the thing: High heels are sexy -- that's why women wear them. Little girls don't need to be sexy -- that's why they shouldn't.

Now, I understand the desire to "dress like Mommy." I wanted to when I was a kid; my not-quite 5-year-old loves shuffling around the house in my shoes and occasionally tries to wear her pink plastic princess slippers to school.

But Suri's shoes and the ones like it that I'm seeing in stores aren't for playing dress up. A quick online search of the shoe selection at up-scale Nordstroms showed several adorable wedge and kitten-heel shoes as well as chunky-heeled boots in little-kid and toddler sizes with as much as a 2-inch heel.

There's even a soft high-heeled shoe for infants too young to walk (the company, Heelarious, touts them as "her first high heels" and offers rubber teethers shaped like credit cards to complete the look.)

Kids' clothing has been trending away from tradition for a long time now, with the latest hot outfits informed by adult styles. That's nothing new -- I was a kid when Madonna was in her "Like a Virgin" phase. What's new -- to me, at any rate -- is the blatant sexualization that comes with it now, and the way that sexualized look has become the norm for younger and younger kids.

What do you think, parents? Are high-heeled shoes too much for a toddler? Why or why not?

(Photo is of Nordstrom's "Fern" sandal, available in toddler sizes)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No work to do? What to do instead?

The other night, I was sitting in my family room, TV on, my husband at his desk in the corner, tapping away on his laptop. I settled down on the couch, reached for my own computer, and realized... I didn't have any work to do.

Here's the sad part: I didn't really know what to do with myself. Watch TV? I mean actually, really, pay attention to what's on the screen at the other end of the room? Read a book that I'm not reviewing? Write an extra blog post or two?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Some kids know how to network instinctively

I picked my youngest kids up from preschool the other day and decided to stop by the local farmers' market on the way home. My kids love the farmers' market -- it's bright and noisy and colorful, and they always get some treat to munch on while I search for the perfect tomatoes.
My daughter loves it for another reason: She seems to know everyone there.

We run into a few of her classmates, of course. But she also knows their parents, their siblings, and their pets -- and greets each and every one of them by name.

It's uncanny. The girl isn't even 5 years old yet, and she seems to instinctively know how to network. Some of the kids she runs into at the farmer's market aren't even in her class at school, and she still knows their names and chats with them like they're old friends.

Now, I know not all kids are like that. Heck, I'm not like that. I'm not a shy person but, like most people, somewhere along the way from preschool to adulthood I grew to worry about things like rejection, appearances, and protocol.

My daughter doesn't. And maybe it runs in my family, because my youngest brother is like that, too. He moved in with me for a few months after college; I had already lived in the area for five years but, within days, my brother knew so many people that when he and I went out for drinks, other customers at the local bar assumed I was the one who was new in town.

People like my daughter and my brother, who can network instinctively, know that it doesn't matter what, exactly, someone can bring to the table -- it's all good. The more people, the merrier, because if one person doesn't have exactly what you need in your network, there's a good chance that he or she knows someone who does. Which is exactly the kind of attitude we need to have, whether we're trying to boost our client lists, our corporate contacts, or our rosters of mommy friends.

Earlier in the summer, we were at the beach, and my daughter noticed a little girl looking at us from a few yards away. I smiled and looked around, wondering if the girl was lost or needed help. But my daughter walked right up to her, smiled, and gave her elevator speech: "Hi, I'm 4 years old. Do you want to play with me?"

The little girl nodded and, without another word, they ran off together to dig in the sand.
I sat on the blanket with my sleepy youngest son and thought, "Now that's networking."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back on the fence about the flu shot

One after another, my kids have come down with flu-like symptoms this summer. Two of them ended up with pneumonia (one mild case, one severe), and when I took my 4-year-old in to have her pediatrician listen to her lungs yet again, we discovered that she might also have a touch of asthma. Her doctor looked at me and said: "Of course, you're getting her vaccinated for the flu, right?"

And I... hesitated.

I used to think the flu shot was overrated and, to some extent, I still do. But since Thimerosal isn't an issue with the vaccines being offered in my area, I think the benefits outweigh the risks for my children. (Well, my youngest two children. My oldest three are my steps and, as such, vaccinating them isn't my call.)

At's Child Caring blog, I'm back on the fence about the flu shot, and my readers are weighing in.

"Getting the flu shot" makes it seem like one jab and you're protected, but that's not actually the case. The seasonal flu vaccine requires "at least two shots" for many patients, and neither the inactivated influenza vaccine nor the LAIV nasal spray (FluMist) protect people from the H1N1 virus, a.k.a. Swine Flu. A vaccine for H1N1 is still being developed (doses are expected to become available in October), and officials do not know whether it'll require one or two doses to be effective.

And here's where my hesitation comes in: In 1976, the last time the swine flu made the rounds, the vaccine against it was linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease in which the body damages its own nerve cells. Back then, the vaccination effort was halted after just 10 weeks because more people died from complications of the vaccine than from the swine flu itself.

There hasn't been an official word on whether Guillain-Barre is an issue this time around. Nevertheless, New York City has already announced plans to innoculate kids against swine flu for free. (It's voluntary, and will require parental consent, but still, I have to wonder: How far of a step is it from "making it available" to "making it manditory"?)

There's good reason to try protect your kids -- and yourself -- from a swine flu infection. The H1N1 strain seems to be more dangerous than the 1976 version. Unlike with the seasonal flu, about one in 13 U.S. swine flu deaths have been children, and most of the victims have been of school age. The virus blasted through 177 countries in the first four months after it was identified, according to the CDC; the World Health Organization says that lab tests have confirmed H1N1 in 2,185 deaths and more than 209,000 infections, even though most people who come down with swine flu aren't tested. And bacterial co-infections -- when a bacterial infection sets in while the patient's body is weakened from a virus -- are an even bigger danger.

But what we seem to forget amid all of the swine-flu hype and hysteria is that the plain old regular seasonal flu is pretty deadly, too. The CDC estimates that 36,000 people in the United States die from the seasonal flu each year.

So, whether you're waiting for the H1N1 vaccine to become available, or you've already endured your seasonal flu jab, you should still take all the usual precautions: Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, cover your cough, avoid contact with people who show sympoms, and stay home if you're sick. Easier said than done for many of us, but still good advice.

Are you or your kids getting the flu shot and the H1N1 vaccine this year? Why or why not?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Saving money on prescriptions: Do more with less

Healthcare is high on everyone priority lists right now. About 22,000 people die each year because they don't have adequate healthcare coverage, according to a study by the Urban Institute -- that's about six times as many people as died on 9/11.

At the 36-Hour Day, we're talking about healthcare and how we have to do more with less. Before you weigh in (or opt out) of the current debate about health care, you should first read the HR3200 bill for yourself. (Don't feel like sifting through all 1,018 pages of it? A group of voice actors have recorded it as an audio book. Check it out.)

Once you've done that, you need to sift through the rhetoric, from President Obama's speech to Congress yesterday to Sarah Palin's Wall Street Journal piece and everything in between. (The American Nurses Association has put together a great fact sheet that can help.)

And, if you're like me, you'll probably need to find ways to save money on medication while you're waiting to see how healthcare reform affects you.

My company is poised to switch us from our current health insurance plan -- which is actually pretty good -- to one with higher weekly premiums, less coverage, and $9,000 worth of up-front costs and deductibles.

We have five kids. One of them has Autism. Another has scoliosis. One is plays lacrosse and volleyball and has a bum ankle that gets reinjured regularly. Another has already done time in the ER -- twice. And the youngest is a 2-year-old boy, so we might as well pencil in a few extra doctor's visits on his calendar, just because.

So, I'm looking to trim costs wherever I can. Since the new plan leaves us with little prescription drug coverage, it made sense to see what else was out there. And, since I'm far from the only person facing this issue right now, I thought I'd share some of what I've dug up:

1.) Target offers many generic medications at $4 for a 30-day supply, or $10 for a 90-day supply. Other amounts are available, and those costs are reasonable, too. WalMart also has a similar program.

2.) Walgreens has a prescription drug "club" program that offers lower prices on generics and some name brand drugs. It includes insulin, medicines for your pets, and you also earn a 10-percent credit-type bonus that you can use on all other Walgreens purchases. You have to pay a membership fee ($20 per year for individuals, $35 per year families) to join, but if prescription medication is a reoccuring cost for your family, it's well worth it.

3.) You don't have to have a Costco membership to fill prescriptions at their pharmacies. They offer many name-brand medications at cost -- which is still pricey, but at least you avoid the typical drug-store markup. (If you think the markup is a myth, it's worth reading the Snopes take on it here.)

How are you holding down your family's health care costs?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ingrid Hoffmann of The Food Network's "Simply Delicioso"

Ingrid Hoffmann has always been passionate about food. The daughter of a Cordon Bleu chef, she remembers standing on a stool to reach the stove in order to help her mother cook. The Colombian-raised Hoffmann was a successful business owner before she decided to cater to her passion for cooking, opening Rocca in Miami and hosting cooking segments on South Florida TV stations.

She claimed the national spotlight after a spot on "Martha Stewart" led to the launch of her The Food Network show Simply Delicioso last July; her Spanish-language cooking and style show, Delicioso, airs on Galavision/Univision. She's the latest spokesperson for the famed "Got Milk?" campaign (the photo, above, is from the shoot), and took some time to chat with me about cooking, comfort, and how busy people can make mealtime easier.

What’s your go-to meal to make when you don’t have much time to cook?

My go-to meal when I don’t have time to cook is my “Latin Elvis” -- it’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a Latin twist. I love the Latin Elvis because it contains items that I always keep in my house: plantains, peanut butter, and bread containing dried fruit like raisins or cranberries. I like to grill the sandwich or do it on the stove or in a skillet because I’m convinced that a warm meal is so much more wholesome and it sure beats a cold salad. This with a glass of milk is perfect -- a complete, quick meal.

What’s your favorite comfort food?

I would have to say that my favorite comfort food is my Chipotle Tamale Pie. [You can watch Ingrid make this dish in a live cooking demonstration on Sept. 9, 2009, at] It is a great recipe and a great comfort food. The Chipotle Tamale Pie is one of those crowd pleasers that could feed an army on a small budget. It has turkey, beans and milk, lots of rich foods, yet it is surprisingly light. I especially love it because it contains tons of healthy foods like bell peppers and nutritious lowfat milk, yet it doesn’t taste like health food.
I like to use lowfat or fat free milk as opposed to cream or butter because it keeps the dish lighter and healthier. Plus, with lowfat and fat free milk, you are receiving nine essential nutrients that no other beverage can provide. I also like to make this casserole in advance, portion it off and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Let’s say I come home really tired from a long day at work, all I have to do is quickly warm it up!
What's your favorite food indulgence?
My favorite indulgence is hearty comfort food. Aside from the Chipotle Tamale Pie which I just mentioned, I love to make a Cuban Frita -- it’s a type of Cuban hamburger. What makes it different from an American burger is that I mix the meat with egg, milk, and breadcrumbs and then I top it with shoestring potatoes. It’s a special treat and such a warming comfort food -- it brings back that nostalgia of sharing a meal with my family.
What can busy working moms do to make planning and cooking dinner more manageable?
I think that planning ahead is key. A little thinking ahead immediately helps you utilize your time more efficiently and you will spend less money having to buy foods on the go that end up not being nutritious. Every weekend, sit down and plan your menu for the week and utilize your downtime on the weekend to prepare food in advance for the week. Remember to stock your pantry with key food items that will be a health, go-to snack for you. I always throw an apple or banana, almonds and a pint of milk into my lunch bag every day. That way, when I am in the car or in-between meals, I always have a wholesome snack I can feel good about.
Are you married and do you have children at home?
I am the proud step-mother to my boyfriend’s two children and mother to my little 3-pound doggie.

When I think of Latino food, I don’t tend to think of milk. How do you incorporate it into your cooking?

That’s interesting because traditional Latino food actually utilizes milk a lot in food preparation and cooking. As an example, one of the most traditional soups made in Latin America utilizes water, milk, eggs, and cilantro. History books tell us that Simon Bolivar fed this soup to all of his troops -- so most of South America was conquered on that recipe! Horchata, a drink that came from Spain that you make with rice, nuts or sesame seeds added to milk.

How do you feel about the idea of hiding vegetables in traditionally non-vegetable foods so kids will eat them?

I have to say that “hiding vegetables” is a wise thing to do because sometimes it’s the only way for children to consume their nutrients. At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that kids are imitators of their parents and role models and if you feel the need to hide the nutrient-rich vegetables, it’s sending a mixed message. Kids will mimic what you do and what you eat, and if you eat a balanced, healthy diet, they will too. When I was growing up, there were no “kid’s menus” or “kid's food.” In my opinion, kids should eat everything that grown ups eat, otherwise they will be picky forever and never learn to appreciate food. It’s also important to remember that milk is a food option that you can add to just about anything that adds an instant nutrient boost. Milk is incredibly nutrient-rich, and can enhance your wellness.

What’s the most challenging part, for you, when it comes to juggling work and life?

For me feeling disorganized is the worst. I keep myself organized by building lists every evening before I go to bed. I like lists because it helps me get everything out of my head and onto paper which puts my mind at ease and helps me to get a good night’s sleep. When I understand what is on my plate and have a game plan, I feel in control. Really thinking things through allows you to juggle everything.

You have so many wonderful projects on your plate. What do you do to relax?

Eat! I of course love to eat but I also meditate, exercise and spend time with my loved ones. For me, sharing food around the table and hanging out with my family is my perfect idea of happiness.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Making the most of music education at home

It's back-to-school week and many schools in Massachusetts, as well as around the country, are dealing with budget cuts by axing fine arts programs, including music, leaving parents struggling to bridge the gap on their own.

Some families are able to supplement with private classes, but most of our household budgets are feeling the crunch as well. If your school has done away with music classes for kids, how can you help them learn about music at home when you're as cash-strapped as the schools are? That's what we're talking about this week at's Child Caring blog.

The benefits of music education are well studied. High school music students score higher on the SAT than their non-musical peers. Carolyn Phillips, former executive director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony in Connecticut, writes that playing an instrument can help the development of areas of the brain devoted to language and reasoning, and reading music can help children understand fractions and proportional math, both of which are necessary when it comes studying technology and science. Playing in a group teaches kids about teamwork, and performing in front of a crowd helps them learn how to evaluate risk and handle anxiety.

Practicing music underscores the ideas that mistakes can be fixed, instant gratification is rare, and perfection usually comes with dedication and hard work -- all ideas that apply to everyday adult life. And just listening to familiar tunes while you work can help boost productivity.

So why deny kids such a valuable educational tool? According to some experts, school districts commit resources to subjects that are on the MCAS test. Since the arts aren't tested, they're often the first courses to get cut, John W. Hooker, an art education teacher at Bridgewater State College, told Wicked Local. But even if programs aren't cut to save money, a February report by the Boston Foundation shows that while 70 percent of the students in Boston's 143 public schools get "some type of arts instruction during the school day," middle- and high-school students are "less likely to receive adequate amounts of arts instruction." The report also points out that while experts recommend twice-weekly, year-long arts education, only 5 percent of elementary-school students and 6 percent of middle-school students in Boston get that kind of instruction.

You don't have to be able to play an instrument yourself in order to help your kids learn about music. Playing games like Rock Band or Wii Music can teach rhythm, improve hand-eye coordination, and foster a love of music from The Beatles to Beethoven and everything in between.

If you had to cut out private lessons, but still want kids to practice at home, you can download sheet music for kids at Children's Music Workshop, or take advantage of their online music theory helper. A free 10-day trial at Lesson Planet gives you access to more than 600 classical music lesson plans for students in kindergarten on up.

Try using your computer to create your own compositions: Groovy Music City uses animation and voiceovers to teach kids about the fundamentals of composition and to guide them in making their own music. It offers kids a library of sounds to tweak and shape, the online tutorials are easy to follow, and the interface feels kind of like a video game. The software, which costs about $40, works on Macs and PCs, and is geared toward kids age 7 and older; kids can share their musical creations with their peers at

Has music education been cut at your child's school? Do you think it's important for kids to study music, or should schools stay focused on adacemics and testing?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Family time: A walk in the woods

I am not much of an outdoorswoman. I have not camped since I was 13 years old, when a couple of rainy and rocky nights under a leaking tarp during a school-sponsored trip put me off sleeping outdoors for pretty much the rest of my life. My husband and my older kids, all of whom love camping, like to say that I'm "roughing it" if the hotel has fewer than three stars. (Which totally isn't true, because I can't afford even a three-star hotel and we rarely go anywhere that involves a hotel stay, but you get the point).

So it was with much trepidation (on his part) that my husband suggested a hike through the Fells one sunny summer afternoon a few weeks ago, and there was great surprise and rejoicing amongst the kids when I quickly agreed. You see, I may not be one for a hike up a mountain, but I do love a long walk in the woods.

I wrote about the walk in The Boston Globe's "Bring the Family" column recently. Yes, that's a photo of my crew and, yes, our 4-1/2-year-old insisted on wearing a dress to go hiking. My grandmother, who was always bejeweled and impeccably dressed, would have been proud.

Here's an excerpt:

August 22, 2009
A Nice Walk in the Woods
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

Who: Globe Magazine staff member Lylah M. Alphonse, her husband, and their five kids, ages 2 to 15
What: An easy hike on a gorgeous day
Where: The Middlesex Fells Reservation, Malden (617-727-5380, and

... There are plenty of trails to choose from, and some of them even accommodate strollers. You don’t need special equipment, not even proper hiking boots. We outfitted each of our kids with a backpack stocked with their own water bottles and snacks - our 2 1/2-year-old rode in a pack on my husband’s back - sprayed everyone with insect repellent, and were on our way.... [More]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obama's speech to students: What was the controversy really about?

I've read the prepared version of the speech made available on the White House's website. And I've read plenty of stories about the controversy surrounding it. And I had two immediate thoughts, which I threw out to my readers at's Child Caring blog today:

1.) This feels like 1991, except it's the political Right up in arms over a speech to school children by President Obama, rather than the political Left up in arms over a speech to school children by President George H.W. Bush.

2.) Which means all of the hoopla is really about politics, not education, and certainly not socialist indoctrination. Since when is telling kids to study hard and stay in school a Socialist concept?

Some have compared today's presidential address to Hitler's hope to "own the youth" -- no word on how they felt about President George H.W. Bush's 1991 speech from Alice Deal Junior High School or President Ronald Regan's public address to students in 1988. Others, including conservative talk show personality Glenn Beck, urged parents to join the Parental Approved Skip School Day (PASS) movement and keep their children home rather than listen to the president's speech today. (I really don't see the logic in that one -- if it's better to miss an entire day of school than hear the president of the United States say things like "I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education and to do everything you can to meet them," doesn't that point to a greater problem with our country?)

The bigger issue -- which would not have been addressed by keeping kids out of school for the day -- was the original "lesson plan" offered by the Department of Education, in which kids were to be encouraged to write letters discussing ways they could "help the president." Instead, students are now being urged to write letters outlining their own educational goals, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the lesson plan could have better worded.

Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer released a statement last week accusing Obama of using taxpayer money to "indoctrinate" children and saying that he was "absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology. That statement was made before the text of the speech was made available over the weekend; yesterday, Greer told ABC News that it was "a good speech" about the importance of education "and I think that’s what a president should do when they’re gonna talk to students across the country."

Which, I think, really underscores the Obama's point about "the responsibility each of you has for your education." Not to mention doing your homework.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Avoiding "me time": Letting guilt go too far?

I went in to work crazy-early the other day, so that I could leave crazy-early and meet up with an old friend whom I hadn't seen in far too long. A coworker stopped by my desk as I was packing up, and so I explained what was going on.

She gasped. "You're... actually doing something FOR YOURSELF?"

I immediately felt a little guilty. And sheepish. Until I looked her in the eye and saw that she was actually cheering me on.

And then, a confession: She had hired a sitter to come over after she picked her baby up from daycare, so that she could go out and use the spa gift certificate her husband had given her for Mother's Day four months ago. It's been sitting there, unused, because she hadn't felt like she could carve out an hour or so to do something for herself after work if her child was awake.

Working moms talk a lot about guilt: how they don't feel guilty about having their kids in care, or how they kind of do but know they're doing the right thing for their family. But, as I explain over at The 36-Hour Day, this isn't a guilt thing. Well, it is, but it's not a guilt-about-having-your-kid-in-daycare thing. It's feeling like you spend so much time at work that, when you're not at the office, you want to spend time with your child -- and if you don't, you feel guilty about it. Doing something for yourself just doesn't seem as important.

But sometimes it is. Or, at least, it should be.

Take a moment to think about what you'd normally be doing with that time. Me, I would normally be rushing to beat the preschool clock, but my husband was working from home that day -- couldn't he pick the kids up from preschool instead? Yes, he could. Which meant that I could come home an hour later than usual and still have plenty of time for playing and stories and putting them to bed. My coworker realized that she normally would be struggling to feed her not-yet-1-year-old dinner while he was distracted and wanting to play with her. Why not have the babysitter, whom he adores, feed him dinner that night, without distractions? She'd come back relaxed and ready to play, and her not-yet-1-year-old would be fed and ready to play, too.

It doesn't seem like that big of a deal, as I write about it now. What was I so worried about when I was trying to figure out the scheduling?

As working moms, we often fall into the trap of judging ourselves (and others) based on the quantity of time we spend with our kids, rather than the quality. Or the trap of trying to be Super Mom, doing it all even when we don't have to. We talk about striving for work-life balance, forgetting that we are the fulcrums upon which that balance rests.

It's amazing the difference an hour or two can make. I came home feeling not relaxed, but recharged, and a little bit reconnected with the part of myself that isn't "just a mom." And my kids? They didn't even notice I was late.

What was the last thing you did for yourself?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to school: Allergy-free lunchbox ideas

We had a great batch of back-to-school food and cooking ideas at this week, but when it comes to kids who have food allergies, parents really have to think outside the lunchbox.

My family's back-to-school daze is complicated by the fact that three of our five kids can't eat gluten, and one of those three can't have any dairy, either. So, for them, nothing involving wheat in any way, shape, or form. No pasta salads (rice pasta can be nasty if it's not piping hot). No traditional sandwiches (gluten-free bread makes great toast, but crumbles into pasty bits after spending a few hours wrapped in plastic and stuck in a cubby or locker). It also rules out most pre-packaged lunchbox food, though there are some good gluten-free offerings out there.

Our youngest two kids have no known allergies or food intolerances, but their preschool is a nut-free zone -- which, compared to avoiding gluten and dairy, is easy. But, with preschoolers, it's also easy to get stuck in a baloney-sandwich or macaroni-and-cheese rut. ("What do you want in your lunchbox, Sweetie?" I asked my preschooler the other day. And, without even looking up from the picture she was coloring, she answered, "Something not boring.")

Here are five "main courses" that work for us. And by "work for us," I mean that I can whip them together easily, often in advance, and they'll actually eat it.

Chicken salad. I buy a family-size pack of bone-in chicken breasts on sale, roast them all at the same time, use some for dinner, and then chop up the leftovers with a little mayo or salad dressing to hold it all together. Try stirring in golden raisins or dried cranberries, adding crunch with chopped apples or celery, and changing the flavor profile with a bit of korma-style curry paste or some minced fresh herbs.

Fresh spring rolls. I'll send my big kids off with supermarket sushi in a pinch, but these fresh spring rolls are much more economical. Soak rice-paper wrappers in hot water for less than a minute, spread them out on a clean cutting board, and fill them with whatever strikes your fancy -- I use a combination of bean-thread noodles, thawed frozen shrimp or leftover pork, shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, and carrot shavings (made with a vegetable peeler). Here's a more detailed (but still easy!) recipe.

Roll ups. Corn torillas don't hold up well in a lunch box -- they delaminate and go all crumbly -- so I wrapped sticks of string cheese with slices of ham, turkey, and/or salami and called it good. (My non-dairy eating boy got salami spread with soy cream cheese and rolled up into little logs).

Crackers stackers. A pile of crackers (gluten-free ones for us), a heap of cheese squares, and a bunch of little rounds of ham or chunks of salami. Your kids might give you bonus points for putting it into a divided plastic container and pretending you bought it at the grocery store. Variation: Cut everything into large sticks and sub pretzel rods for the crackers; for some reason, food is more delicious if you can wave it around like a baton before consuming it, apparently.

BBQ steak non-sandwiches. Leftover London broil from dinner, cut into small, thin slices, and tossed with bottled BBQ sauce. Super easy. (Another favorite: False fajitas. Strips of leftover London broil, jumbled together with strips of bell pepper, with a corn tortilla on the side. If only we ate steak more often!)

Add a drink, something crunchy, something snacky, fruit, and a treat, et voila -- lunch is ready to go. (Keep your wallet in mind, and remember that brown-bagging it isn't just for the kids. Here are five more ideas for lunches adults can bring to work.)

What are you putting in kids' lunch boxes?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What if a stranger slapped your child?

Today, I'm over at's Child Caring blog, discussing the news of a 61-year-old man in Stone Mountain, Georgia, who slapped someone else's 2-year-old because she was crying at WalMart.

Violence isn't the answer, but I think if a strange man slapped my toddler the police would have to carry him out of the store on a stretcher. Possibly with a certain part of his anatomy in a baggie beside him.

According to the police report, Robert Stephens had warned the child’s mother, Sonya Mathews, that if she didn’t quiet her child, he would "do it for her." He slapped the toddler "four or five times across the face," and then told the mother, "See, I told you I would shut her up."

Another shopper restrained Stephens until the police arrived; he was arrested and charged with cruelty to children in the first degree. He's being held without bond.

Unbelievably, some of the comments I've seen online skew towards congratulating the man for hitting the 2-year-old girl, or suggest that he should have slapped the mom instead. "Good for him. I wished I slap a couple of the kids I have been around." one commenter posted. "What he should have done is slap the mother since she is being the crappy parent not teaching or paying attention to her kid," wrote another.

While it's easy -- and sometimes accurate -- to blame the parents, there could be any number of reasons why a toddler is crying at a store. The child could be sick, over-tired, uncomfortable, frustrated, hungry, overwhelmed, or have autism. The mom could be a single parent without childcare, who doesn't have the option of leaving her 2-year-old at home while she runs errands.

Now, we've all had to deal with crying kids on airplanes, or toddlers having tantrums near us in public. And we've all seethed and gritted our teeth or sympathized with the parents and dealt with it. Because while the screaming child may be annoying, we're the adults and we're supposed to practice restraint and self control. Slapping someone else's child goes way beyond a Mommy Drive-By or discipline or corporal punishment. It's assault.

Sonya Mathews told CBS Atlanta yesterday that she forgives Stephens, adding that she thinks he must have mental issues.

I don't think that I could be so forgiving.

What would you do if a stranger slapped your child?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Finding time to exercise? I'm out of excuses

A confession at The 36-Hour Day: Like so many people I know, I went and bought a copy of the most popular work-out DVD of the moment, 30 Day Shred. It's sitting on top of the TV console, still in the shrink wrap.

I want to get in shape. OK, I need to get in shape. But not because of a desire to look better in a bathing suit or because my 20th reunion is rapidly approaching -- those both of those things are actually true. I want to get in shape because my lovely, fawn-like, reed-thin 4 1/2-year-old daughter hugged me a few weeks ago and said, "Mama, you should run around more. So you can get un-fat."

Out of the mouths of babes, right?

So I went and bought this fitness DVD, even though I have never in my adult life had the time or patience to actually follow anything like it more than once. And I decided that, the day it arrived, I would open it up and start crunching and stretching and sweating.

Except... I didn't. And I didn't the next day, either. Or the next. I complain that I don't have time to exercise, but the truth is that I don't make time. Instead, I make excuses.

Each excuse has a kernel of truth in it, though. I really am wiped out at the end of my second shift. I really am a night-owl, and if I do manage to get up at 5 a.m., my youngest child really does seem to sense that I am conscious and gets up a few minutes after I do. I really do have two jobs to juggle and anywhere from two to five kids to care for at home, depending on the day. But staring at that shrink-wrapped DVD, I realized that I have another excuse in my arsenal.

I don't want anyone to watch me work out.

As most moms know, when your kids are very young there isn't much of anything you get to do without an audience. If I can't go to the bathroom without a curious kid asking questions about feminine products, how can I possibly follow Jillian Michaels for 30 minutes without interruption? (Also: Have you looked at the cover of the DVD? Is it just me, or does Ms. Michaels look like she's irritated by my inability to get started?)

So, friends, tell me two things. How do you make time to work out. And, perhaps more important, how do you get -- and stay -- motivated about it?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sexting in schools: Is banning it enough?

It seems obvious to us as parents: Like emails and anything you post to Facebook, text messages can go public in an instant. But while we're thinking of private information like social security numbers and credit card codes, some teenagers (and even tweens) are sending, receiving, and forwarding something far more personal: nude and semi-nude pictures of themselves.

It's called sexting, and it's become such a problem that the school board in Houston, Texas, has taken steps to ban it. Though, frankly, the fact that kids need the rules spelled out on this boggles my mind. It's like we have to add another line to the litany of Don'ts that we recite to our children: Don't drink and drive. Don't do drugs. Don't have unprotected sex. (In fact, don't have sex at all, if possible, OK? Thanks.) Don't be rude. Don't be disrespectful. Oh, and don't take any nude photos of yourself and then send them to your friends in a text message, mmmm kay?

It's easy -- even comfortable -- to think, "Oh, my child would NEVER do that." But according to a recent study by The National Campaign on sex and technology, 21 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of teenage boys in the United States have sent text messages, posted images, or shared online video clips showing themselves nude or semi-nude.

In fact, it's so prevalent that kids are running into trouble with existing laws. Nude photos of a minor are considered child pornography -- even if the minor child took the photos herself, even if it was consensual, and even if the photos were received, or shared, by another minor. Vermont is considering making sexually explicit text messages shared between teenagers legal -- yes, legal -- in order to avoid having teenagers classified as sex offenders for sending a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves to another teen.

No matter what you say to your teens, ultimately they have to make their own decisions -- and for all they look like adults, they're kids, so their decisions aren't always going to be good ones. Aside from giving your child a cell phone that doesn't have camera capabilities -- and that's more difficult that you'd think, nowadays -- what can parents do to prevent kids from sexting on the sly?

Check your bill. When is your child most active on his or her cell phone? Take a close look at your bill and, if the charges are being racked up during school hours, consider a family ban on cell phone use during those times. This also means that you shouldn't be texting them during class; if there's an emergency or you need to speak to them right away, try to reach them during lunch instead.

Check the school's cell phone policies. Talk to teachers and administrators, and be willing to work with them to reduce all texting during school hours. Can students carry cell phones, but be required to keep them turned off during the school day? Would the school be willing to designate certain times -- like lunch -- as available for talking or texting?

Check your child's phone. I'll be honest with you: The thought of doing this makes me squirm. But, frankly, your child's well being is more important than her right to privacy, especially if you're dealing with a 13- or 14-year-old (yes, kids that young are sexting, too). Is she deleting her text messages right away? To which numbers does he most often send or forward text messages? How can you monitor their cell phone activity?

Check with your cell phone company. Can they limit texting during certain hours, or certain days? Can you ban or block certain numbers from your child's phone? Can you adjust the data plan to allow text messages but not images?

Lest anyone think that sexting is just another silly prank, something along the lines of passing notes at school, or a case of kids being hormonal kids and wearing a too-tiny bikini at the beach, think again. Just last year, 18-year-old Jessica Logan committed suicide after her boyfriend circulated nude pictures of her that she had sent to him via text message.

Of course sexting should be banned in schools. I hope other cities follow Houston's lead. Boston: I'm talking to you. Take a moment or, well, several, to read some of the comments about this topic over at my Child Caring post at -- the discussion is heated and interesting. Here are a few to get your started:

From It's too late: "The fact we are even willing to ruin the lives of teenagers over something as stupid as sexting by putting them on a public registry is ludicrous. What's wrong with thise country? This is what happens when people vote for laws that feel good but do not protect anyone and actually cause more harm."

From Allrilledup: "My wife and I actually refused the package with Texting, and told our 14 yr daughter old that if a text message shows up on the bill she will lose the phone."

From Sebekemsaf: "It's one thing to ban it. It's entirely something else to stop it...which you can't. The genie is out of the bottle folks. Until it becomes completely "not cool" among kids, it's not going to stop. And it's not like this is a rampant thing anyway. 21% for girls and 18% for boys....statistically speaking, it is in fact safe to say, "Oh, my child would NEVER do that!"

From Halcuri: "As a middle school teacher, I can tell you that sexting happens among 11, 12, and 13 year olds which is so disturbing it makes me sick."

What do you think?