Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday Tip: Traveling with the family? Have a gameplan.

 Last week the kids had off from school for Winter Break so, we planned a family getaway to give ourselves a break too.  Given that we have five children and airfare to a sunny spot in Florida or the Caribbean would be cost-prohibitive, we opted instead to load up the minivan and head north to Manchester, VT

Back in the day, my husband and I were both avid skiers and it's a sport we'd love to share with our children.  It's also a very expensive sport so we have to be tactical about how we do it. Come to think of it, pretty much everything we do with five tykes in tow is expensive and we’ve learned the hard way that it always helps to have a gameplan.  (For more about how we learned that lesson, check out my recap of our trip to Irleand on the Huffington Post).  In the meantime, here are a few tactics that work for us – wherever we’re headed!
  1. Plan ahead.  We had our Vermont vacation planned months ago.  We rented a house with another family -- which is not only more affordable than a hotel but, more practical and, more fun.  We signed our two "big kids" up for ski lessons weeks before our departure and, if you're ever headed that way, would highly recommend the family friendly folks at the ski school at Bromley We coordinated with our friends on meals and grocery shopping so that dinners were prepped and ready to go after a day of outdoor adventures and breakfasts were cued up before the kids were -- eight kids seven and under in total... hence the need to really plan ahead!
  2. Set reasonable expectations.  Put another way, don't bite off more than you can chew.  I have not historically excelled at this.  In fact, my expectations for what we can accomplish with five small children along for the ride is often way out of whack – for instance, I thought we could see the entire country of Ireland in ten jam-packed days and I was wrong. Very wrong.  And my misguided ambitions made for tired cranky kids. And parents.  For our recent trip, I set more reasonable goals – we planned to ski two days and spend the rest of our time (which wasn’t much given a day to get there and a day to get back!) enjoying each other, the local sights and some downtime. Which we did.  And which yielded more smiles, fewer tears and less stress than our prior over-booked journeys.
  3. Always have a Plan B. I’m not good at rolling with the punches. I like to have a plan and stick to it. But, as I’ve learned time again as a parent, things rarely go according to plan.  And that’s why it’s always good to have a backup plan.  So, if for instance you can’t take the clan on a horse-drawn sleigh ride because it’s raining and there’s no snow on the ground, well, you have a few choices… 1.  Put on those snow boots and do some old-fashioned puddle-stomping  2. Pack away the parkas and settle in for a day of crafts and cookie baking  3. Head to the farm and check out those sled-pulling horses anyway.  That’s what we did and although it was a wet, stinky adventure, we got to pet horses (and cows!), frolick with a few roosters, and take home a hunk of cheese straight from the source.  
Come to think of it, I usually have not only a Plan B but a Plan C, D and possibly E as well.  Which isn’t to say that we don’t occasionally just roll with it… that’s just what we did when we decided on a 5:00 dinner at a local pizza spot en route home from our smelly agricultural adventure.  It was the perfect end to an imperfect day… which, I suppose, pretty much sums up many of our days… both home and away! 

Monday, February 27, 2012

How a bum thumb became a symbol of work/life balance

If you regularly check in to see what's new in the Lyons Den, you probably noticed that I've been MIA for over a week.  It struck me that I should have said good-bye; I should have let you know that I was taking a week off to be with my family.  To really be with my family. Last week, we went to Vermont and my computer stayed home. This is an all-time first.  My trusty laptop has accompanied us on adventures far and wide; it's been to Cape Cod, Ireland, Washington D.C, San Francisco, you name it -- if we've been there, it has too.  But not this time.  This time I was officially burned out and needed a break.  A real break.  A chance to recharge.  An opportunity to take the short-tempered, over-tired, over-committed Mom that I'd become and leave her behind... in the hopes of rediscovering the even-keeled, level-headed Mom I aspire to be.

Did it work? I'm not sure.  As I prepare to head back to work today, I can honestly say that I do feel better.  Less wired, less tired.  Less stressed and better prepared to tackle what the day, the week, the months ahead have in store. I have great memories of my unplugged week -- just the thought of it makes me smile.  It was a wonderful week, filled with many firsts.  Our seven year old skied his first "blue" trail, followed by his first black diamond.  This very thought fills me with fear but, he did it and he is so proud.  And that is awesome.  Our five year old daughter faced fears of her own in ski school and ended the week with her first ride up the chairlift with yours truly.  And that was pretty awesome too.  The triplets took their first trip without bringing along the three pack & plays which have been standard cargo in our minivan for the past three years; they slept in sleeping bags for the very first time.  And, they actually slept!  ALL NIGHT LONG.  It was amazing.  And, I was reminded once again, so are they.  So are all five our incredible kids, who are really very tolerant of their often too tired, too wired, manic Mom.

As for me, well, for the first time in a long time, I finished the book I was reading!  I love to read and last week, I read for at least an hour every night.  It was bliss.  I was in bed in every night hours earlier than usual, allowing me to really catch up on some much-needed shut-eye.  Last but not least, I also took my first major fall skiing since about 1996.  Not surprisingly, it was on the last run of the day; it was a slick black diamond that I'd done numerous times before but this time, it got the best of me.  Before I knew what hit me, I was ass over teakettle (whatever does that mean?!  I'm not sure the origin of that expression but it seems to accurately describe my fall!), sliding down the mountain face-first.  That downward slide seemed to last forever but was really just a few seconds.  A few seconds that thankfully resulted in nothing more serious than a bruised leg and a jammed thumb.  

The thumb is slightly troublesome in that it can't really grip a pen, open a child-proof bottle of anything or zipper a kid's coat... or pants... or, for that matter, my own!  But, I am thinking of this thumb as a good reminder.  A good reminder of the downward slide I was on before our rejuvenating week away.  A good reminder to pause, to take a break, to put away the computer and really really be with my family.  A good reminder to stop and recharge when the pendulum of work/life balance gets too swings too far toward work.  A good reminder of what really matters -- life.  Family. Friends. 

So, I hope you'll forgive me for taking off for a week without saying good-bye and also forgive me if you don't see quite as much of me here.  I'm sure I'll still post at least once, and probably twice a week, but if I should disappear again for a short while, you will know why.  It will be because that pendulum has once again swung out of balance and I need to swing it back where it belongs.  Either that or this bum thumb has interfered with my typing!  Either way, I'll eventually be back and hope you will too.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Simple Sunday Supper (that works for weekdays too!) -- Win the book!

The more I look at Debbie Koenig's new book, Parents Need to Eat Too, the more I like it.  I was instantly impressed by the thoughtfulness and new mom savvy of her easy, approachable, common-sense chapters and the recipes they contain.  "Remember cutting my meat hon?" I said to my husband.  "Seriously, remember how many months I sat salivating at the table while begging you to cut my chicken?"  It was kind of pathetic and I think he kind of liked the power he wielded, knowing I might starve or succumb to gnawing the chicken caveman-style if he didn't come to my rescue.  Well, other new moms need not suffer such a fate thanks to a whole chapter -- a WHOLE chapter! -- on One Handed Meals.  Pure genius. 

Today, I made the Balsamic Beef Stew, from a chapter I know I'll be returning to -- Mom's New Best Friend: The Slow Cooker.  I got a slow cooker for Christmas and have been patiently waiting for it to change my life.  As it turns out, it's not going to as long as it remains unplugged in the back of a cabinet.  However, plug it in, turn it on and pick one of Debbie's simple, family-friendly recipes and it just might!  The stew was a snap to prepare and the only snafu was totally mine... I accidentally put in a tablespoon of Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire sauce instead of soy sauce and, well, I'm pretty sure the soy sauce would have been a far superior choice!  Even so, the little ones gobbled it up over egg noodles and my husband and I enjoyed it with some crusty bread and a glass of red wine. It was a super simple Sunday supper and would be a warm welcome home and hearty meal on any night of the week.  And, for those of you out there with a newborn on your hip or in your lap while you're eating, you'll be glad to know the Balsamic Beef Stew also qualifies as a one-handed meal... just as long as you follow Debbie's good advice to cut up the beef, potatoes and carrots into one inch chunks! 

If you'd like to get yourself a copy of this awesome new book, you can leave a comment here or on my facebook page for a chance to win.  Happy Cooking and hope you have a great week filled with easy crowd-pleasing meals... with Debbie's book in hand, I'm pretty sure that you will!

A new twist on forgetting Valentine's Day

I recently wrote a piece for Parents where I shared the many personas of pregnancy.  One such pal I met along the way was Felicia the Forgetful.  She arrived during my first pregnancy at the onset of the second trimester -- right about the time when I forgot to bring my lunch to work and couldn’t remember where I left the car keys.  I naturally assumed she would leave once the baby arrived and, like so many assumptions I had about “when the baby arrived”, I was wrong.

As it turns out, Felicia is here to stay and, the prognosis isn’t good.  I heard a report on the radio the other day that one of the symptoms of perimenopause is forgetfulness.  What does this mean?  I fear it means we ladies don’t stand a chance.  We get a severe case of “Mommy brain” before we even meet our babies and now it seems that a good decade before the big M (Menopause!) sets in, we officially have no chance of finding the mind we lost; it just may be gone forever.  Which brings me to an interesting little tale from this week.  It involves our dog who, under different circumstances, just might have been gone forever as well.

It was Valentine’s Day.  We’re not big believers in Valentine’s Day since my husband rightfully proclaimed many years ago, “when you love the one you’re with, every day is Valentine’s Day.”  So, we didn’t have big plans. Some might say we had no plans at all.  Des was going to take our second-grader to his 6:30 basketball game, leaving me home to tend to dinner for our other four kids.  After basketball, we hoped to hustle them all to bed as quickly as possible and then cuddle in with some wine, fondue and last week’s episode of 30 RockSounds romantic, right?

I got home from work a few minutes earlier than usual and realized I needed to get a baguette for the fondue-dipping.  Perhaps not surprisingly given my post-pregnancy, pre-menopausal brain, I’d forgotten that critical detail for our Valentine’s dinner.  Being the consummate multi-tasker, I decided to take our dog with me while I ran around the corner for bread… it wasn’t quite doggie exercise but, at least it was a chance for our large, loyal lab Finnegan to pee.

I returned home pleased with my bounty and quite content to whip up a Valentine’s meal of “Dinner Eggs” and heart-shaped toast for the kids.  When I cracked the eggs, I recall saying “have you guys seen Finnegan?  That’s weird that he didn’t come running when he heard the eggs crack.”  This is a dog that loves a good eggshell.  Don’t ask. He just does.  In any case, when he didn’t come running, I assumed “we must have left the gate closed at the top of the stairs.” And I carried on.

About 15 minutes later, my sweet Valentine’s kiddie supper had pretty much imploded.  There were fights about the not-so heart-shaped toast, spilled milk and a 5-year old having a fit.  That’s when the phone rang.  In an effort to diffuse the tension, I asked the sobbing 5-year old if she'd like to answer it. And she did.

I couldn’t help but notice the caller i.d. was “Mima” – the name of a cute little Italian restaurant right around the corner.  My heart leapt.  Could it be?  My sweet hubbie had a Valentine’s day surprise in store?  He’d booked a sitter and made a reservation and we were headed out for a late dinner after tucking the tots in?!  It seemed to good to be true.  And, as my confused 5-year murmured “What? You have Finnegan?” into the phone, I realized it was.

As you may have guessed by now, when I went around the corner for that baguette, I left the dog behind.  Tied up and totally forgotten. I never even looked back. When I snatched the phone from my bewildered little girl, the lovely hostess on the other end of the line said “I’m really sorry to bother you but he’s been here over an hour and he’s really starting to look sad.”  Um, oops.  Chalk that one up to Mommy Brain!  

The kids were crushed “You left him in the dark?! All alone?!  On VALENTINE’S DAY?!”  Yes, yes I did.  But, I didn’t mean to.  And, after calling a neighbor to watch the kids while I ran back around the corner to get him, he greeted me with a wagging tail and unconditional love.  And we all had a Happy Valentine’s Day after all.  I think.  Part of me doesn’t quite remember…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday Tip: Treat Every Day Like Valentine's Day

So, here it is again.  Valentine's Day.  February 14th.  The day that can make hearts leap or sink in the flash of an FTD bouquet.  In years past, I've been a great Valentine.  I've been thoughtful and creative, finding the perfect card and gift for my amour.  This year, I've been so consumed by work and kids and life in general that the best I could do was a twenty minute, twenty dollar trip to Target yesterday -- a trip that yielded cards, stickers and candy for the kids and only a simple card for the man in my life who deserves much much more.  

My husband is a patient, funny, loving, gentle soul.  Of course, he is also a husband and, like many husbands, has on occasion completely forgotten Valentine's Day and instead professed "every day is Valentine's Day with you!"  I never thought I'd stoop to his level but this year, I have.  And, as I'm prone to do far more often today than when we first got married almost a decade ago, I have to admit, he just might be right.  

Maybe we should treat every day like Valentine's day -- not in a roses and chocolate kind of way but rather, in the way we treat each other each year when February 14th rolls around -- with an extra dose of love and kindness. With an extra sense of care and devotion.  With the thoughtfulness and sensitivity we bestow upon new love and forget all too soon as that love grows familiar and comfortable.  Wouldn't it be nice if on any given Tuesday you reminded your loved ones what you loved most about them?  What makes them so special to you?  That's what I've decided to do this Valentine's Day.

I started by writing that card from Target to the dear man I snuggle in with each night and start anew with each morning.  I also wrote cards to each of our kids, taking the time to think about what I love most about them, what makes them each unique.  This was a great way to remind myself of what matters most -- on Valentine's day and every other day of the year.  In short, it is...
  • Des' ability to make me laugh even when I'm tired and grumpy -- which lately, is far to often!
  • Liam's willingness to try anything once, his determination to succeed in school and in sports and his wide-eyed innocence that I fear will fade all too soon.
  • Ciara's ability to connect with little kids, old folks and anyone in between and offer a sweet smile or kind word. Her smile brightens days, and often brightens mine.
  • Kevin's innate happiness... the way he climbs out of his crib and into our bed with a huge grin that is just a delicious way to start the day.
  • Declan's infectious laugh and power hugs.  The kid has a hug like no other -- it can squeeze a bad day right out of you and for me, often has.
  • Cormac's sparkling eyes, alive and aglow with a sense of mischief and disarming charm.  It charms me daily and, will surely charm and disarm many other ladies -- and Valentine's -- in the years to come.
Perhaps more than anything else, I love this picture, which my handsome hubby drew and I think says it all:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Parents Need to Eat Too

Parents need to eat too.  This may sound obvious but, it is a simple little fact that is often forgotten in the blur of baby days and toddler tantrums.  My husband is actually great at remembering this little tidbit and frequently recalls the airline advice that urges adults to put on their oxygen masks before tending to the children around them.  He thinks of food (three full square meals a day) like that oxygen... it is absolutely essential and copious amounts are required for his base level of functioning.

The same can not be said of me.  Don't get me wrong.  I love to eat.  Really.  I love love love food.  But, the notion of putting together a plate for myself while a little one is howling never even occurred to me. I just assumed that in the natural order of all things food-related, the kids come first.  Well, guess what?  I was wrong. And, in a moment more rare than a solar eclipse, I'm going to admit something else -- my husband was right!

And, he's not alone.  Debbie Koenig, who you may know from the blog Words to Eat By has a fab new book that will help parents everywhere master the struggle of the juggle -- in particular, the juggle of a jiggly newborn or tuggy toddler and the dinnertime dilemma.

In Parents Need to Eat Too, Debbie shares tips and recipes that will speak to busy moms of tiny tots, myself included!  Although my kids no longer require swaying and shushing and being strapped to me in a sling, those days are not so far behind and I sure would have appreciated this book then.  It contains tasty, simple recipes that be made during nap-time, like Zucchini and Spinach Risotto  or Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.  It also includes what I think is a stroke of pure genius -- an entire chapter of meals that can be eaten with one hand!  Only a mom (and especially a new mom!) can truly appreciate what it's like to have to eat meal after meal with only one hand free because the other one is building up a huge bicep while supporting the head of your precious offspring.  I kind of remember feeling like this in those days...

It's true.  I can vividly recall being so hungry and so helpless that I literally wanted to put my face in my plate just like "mommy's little piggy."  Thanks to Debbie's chapter of One Handed Meals, other moms need not face the same humiliating fate!  Her Broccoli and Cheddar Pinwheels will please kids and parents alike and the same can be said of her Chicken (Pot) Handpies.

I was lucky to receive an advance copy of her book and look forward to trying out more recipes in the weeks to come... especially since she also devotes a chapter to "Mom's New Friend: The Slow Cooker".  I got a slow cooker for Christmas and was convinced it would help solve my dinnertime woes... it hasn't yet but, with Debbie's easy recipes in hand, it just might!  

To get your own copy, visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday Tip: Let Common Sense Prevail

Did you see the article in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal entitled Why French Parents are Superior,  by Pamela Druckerman?  It’s another cleverly timed, argumentatively inclined piece of prose (a la the “Tiger Mom”) promptly published just days before the release of the book that expounds upon this very premise, “Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” 

According to the article (and I assume the book as well), there are five key tenets to French parenting success:
·      Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please.  It helps them learn that they aren’t the only ones with feelings and needs.
·      Whey they misbehave, give the “big eyes” – a stern look of admonishment
·      Allow only one snack a day. In France it’s at 4 or 4:30.
·      Remind them (and yourself) who’s the boss.
·      Don’t be afraid to say no.

Really?  Is it just me or do these seem more like common sense than yet another shining example of French superiority?  Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the French and will be the first to admit that as a country, they produce many superior products – wine, baguettes, brie and croissants come instantly to mind.  But to presume that they wrote the book on parenting?  I don’t think so.

I understand that today’s American parents can be, well, a bit crazy.  I’m one of them.  I have five kids – a seven year old boy, five year old girl and three year old identical boy triplets.  Take a moment for that to sink in.  It’s taken me a few years to be able to say “I have five kids” without stuttering.  I admit I occasionally struggle with parenting and have a lot of not so proud “Mama Moments.” It’s not easy.  It’s loud, it’s messy, it’s expensive and it’s exhausting.  However, I (in fact, we), never for a moment let our kids rule the roost.

Maybe it’s because we have so many of them that we’d be completely overrun.  Maybe it’s because we were both raised in stoic Irish families where discipline (apparently more broadly captured as “education” by the French) reigned supreme.  Maybe it’s because my own mother is a Francophile at heart, even though her maiden name was O’Brien and she married an O’Connor; when I was in fifth grade, she wore a green beret on St. Patrick’s Day and I swear I have friends that still talk about it.  The point though, is that my husband and I are raising our clan of kids the way we were raised.  We were expected to follow the rules, to be polite and to know our place in the family pecking order – which, until we officially moved out of the familial roost, was as the bottom.  For many families today, it seems the kids get a place at the top.  And this, no doubt, is why Ms. Druckerman’s book will sell many copies. 

For anyone who doesn’t have the time to pore through yet another parenting tome, I suggest you take the advice shared here to heart and start by reestablishing the pecking order in your home.  Parents first, kids second. You are absolutely the boss and you probably don’t need a book to tell you so.  It goes without saying that your kids should say please and thank you – not just because it reminds them that other people have “feelings and needs” but, more simply put, because it is the right thing to do and normal functioning members of society all tend to say hello, good-bye, please and thank you.

If you’re afraid to say no to your children, well, I suspect you may need another book altogether.  As for the big, admonishing eyes Ms. Druckerman recommends, that was called the “evil eye” when I was growing up; my mom had it, my grandmothers both had it and, as sure as the day is long (especially the days when I’m home alone with five kids!), I have it too.  The evil eye can stop a trouble-bound triplet in his track and elicit instant silence from my sensitive seven-year old.  It doesn’t work quite as well on my feisty five year old but for her, fortunately, the threat of no snacks – at 4:00 or any other time of day – tends to work just fine. 

So, there you have it.  This parenting stuff isn’t easy but, it’s not rocket science either, "if you just use the common sense that God gave you!" -- which is something I seem to recall hearing quite often in my formative years.  Today, my husband and I find that consistency is king, discipline is required and at the end of the day, after the tots are tucked in, there's no better way to unwind than with a glass of wine.  Possibly French wine -- which, in some instances, is most certainly superior.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Read Kiddo Read: How to grow a bookworm

Read Kiddo Read. Read Kiddo READ! My mantra was eased the other day when I came home to find Liam immersed in a book.  A new book, selected for him by the smart, book-lovin’ folks at Just the Right Book.  I came home from work and he was completely immersed in Soccer Hour, by Carol Nevius -- a tale about soccer practice and teamwork, illustrated by Bill Thomson with amazing life-like pictures that convey the emotion of the words and the action.

I didn’t even have to ask Liam to read for 20 minutes after dinner, he offered to read his book (for the second time!) out loud to his little sister and triplet little brothers, who together make for a good audience although, at five and three years old respectively, they can’t resist constant, incessant questioning the likes of which I sometimes find irritating and after the other night, am pretty sure Liam does too!

In any case, the point is that without my urging, nagging and demanding, Liam actually had his nose in a book.  And was sharing the story with his siblings. Again, unasked.  Now, I’m not suggesting that one Monday night of bookish bliss is going to become an overnight habit but, it sure is a step in the right direction and it’s one that was strongly assisted by the good folks at ReadKiddoRead.  Liam and I are both looking forward to the arrival of the next book and, I daresay, Ciara, Kevin, Declan and Cormac are too!

I also think I now have some good pointers for how to grow a bookworm...
  1. Provide a constant supply of new books (from the library, school, the bookstore or even Just the Right Book!); recall that you're likely dealing with a youngster with a short attention span so, keeping reading material new and fresh is critical to success.
  2. Read those books.  Read them together. Read them out loud and allow your budding bibliophile to show off his reading savvy in front of siblings; this will not only make him feel great but instill the reading bug in the little ones as well.
  3. Read to your kids, in front of your kids, with your kids.  Kids typically want to emulate the behavior they see in you.  Sadly, this sometimes includes saying things like "freakin", which my five kids have recently adopted into their daily parlance. On the upside, they've often heard me say, "just give me five more minutes, I'm really into this book" -- which hopefully, will be a more positive behavior for them to imitate!
  4. Repeat! Get a new book, read it together, let them see you enjoying a good book. Repeat!
In our house, the development of avid readers is still a work in progress but, I find repetition is the key to success in most things kid-related (potty training triplets being my most recent shining example!) so, read, read, read and I bet your kids will too!

And, if you haven’t already checked out Read Kiddo Read, it’s not too late…

ReadKiddoRead subscriptions are available from ReadKiddoRead for $14.99 per week or month. Once each week (or month) your child will receive a new book chosen specifically for him or her based on reading level and individual interests from the recommended book list at ReadKiddoRead. Enter this code (RKRTSHIRT) when you check out to get your t-shirt and extra goodies and don't forget to get your kids involved and let their voices be heard when they (and you) vote for their favorite books. View the Kiddo Award nominees for this year at http://www.readkiddoread.com/uploads/kiddos2012.php and vote for the ones your kids just can’t put down!