Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cooking with Kids: Applesauce

I recently had the pleasure (challenge) of helping my oldest son's second-grade class make applesauce for Johnny Appleseed week. It was a fun project, made easier by lots of parent helpers and a fantastic, creative teacher. The kids were patient and attentive and great at reading and following the recipe.

Applesauce is an easy recipe to make with children. I've posted the recipe we used on You Found the Secret Recipe! with instructions on how to complete the project without allowing your child to wield a knife (all fingers intact at the end of the project, please!)

Have a look and try it with your own crew. There is nothing as satisfying for children as making something with their own hands. Cooking teaches children teamwork, how to follow directions and plan their work, and the end result is really delicious!

Give it a try!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Going Green: Today, I Moved A Mountain!

Thanks to those of you who encouraged me to get out in the garden and get the job done this week. We've had terrific weather, and I've gotten quite a bit done!

My children begin their fall break today and are off for three weeks. So, now that we are finally lighter on the schedule (the boys' teachers have run me ragged lately!) I can spend a little time each day getting the garden chores done one by one.

I started three days ago with the toughest job of all: ridding my front garden of a certain ground cover called "Snow on the Mountain".

In the Spring, Snow on the Mountain is one of the first foliage plants to fill out. It has variegated leaves of pale green and white that make a beautiful mound wherever it is growing. Delicate white flowers grow on tall, slender stalks that poke up out of the mountain of leaves (thus, "snow" on the mountain!)

However, in the heat of Summer, the leaves brown horribly and the matted root-mass of this ground cover spreads into parts of the garden you never intended it to be. Now that Fall is here, sprouts of the stuff are coming up in and around almost all of my shrubs.

To remove this garden-hydra, I have had to use a spade to dig up the top 3-4 inches of soil throughout my garden and sift out the bean-sprout-like roots. In some places, they were thickly interwoven enough that the top layer of dirt came up like a carpet.

After three days of intermittent work, I think I finally got the last of it this morning.


Now comes the task of making sure the roots of the remaining shrubs are well-cared for. I will mix peat into the soil and start watering and feeding them to prepare for the cold weather. In the process, I may even put in some tulip and crocus bulbs to brighten our Spring.

- Midwest Mom

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Worried about the Economy?

So Am I.

I have a confession to make. As much faith as I have, as much as I am dedicated to having more smile lines than worry lines, as smart as I try to be about money, I am worried about the economy.

You see, I am the caretaker of our household budget, so 90% of our family's spending decisions go through me. Whether I am or not, I feel responsible for our solvency.

Since January, our family has taken steps to cut out unnecessary expenses. We have quit the YMCA and did not take a vacation this summer. We have changed the way we use our telephone service to reduce costs. I have drastically cut down the amount I use my car. We have made a greater effort to save on groceries, clipping coupons and price-matching.

Still, the economy is a mess that is getting messier by the minute.

One thing our family has been working to do that I haven't shared until now is what I hope our country will start to do in earnest -- pay down our debt.

The house we live in is our first home. We purposely moved from a rental in Southeast Michigan, where home prices were sky-high, to central Illinois. Here we were closer to family and home prices were far more reasonable.

When we were shopping for a home, we wanted something "with potential" -- meaning, of course, something with a low price tag that we could add some "sweat equity" to by fixing it up as we went along. What we ended up with was a 1920 brick 2-story that our family has grown into nicely.

Yes, we are still working on it. But it is enough, and it is home.

Because we made sound financial choices, like basing our mortgage on just one income and opting to pay for repairs as we go, rather than front-loading our mortgage so we could hire a contractor, we now owe less than my husband makes in one year. So, if the worst were to happen -- job loss, inflation, or a total freeze in credit -- I hope we will be okay.

Still, I find that I am worried a good bit of the time about what our financial future will hold. I mean, we have two sets of living parents and three children. Life is anything but predictable.

We do not live extravagantly. We do not have a boat or a pool or lots of "toys". We are doing our best to make smart choices, and yet I worry that it may not be enough. I mean, I'm not to the point where I can't eat or sleep -- not yet, anyway.

I wonder, am I alone in this?

-Midwest Mom

Monday, September 22, 2008

Going Green:

Diary of a Lazy Gardener

I will admit it -- this time of year, I am an incredibly lazy gardener.

The gardening season begins so auspiciously for me. As soon as the sun is capable of warming the skin -- even for five minutes in February -- I get the itch to garden. It is as though my mind has a photosynthetic switch. I start going through seed catalogs and digging through last year's hastily stacked seedling trays. I start 8,000 different types of seeds, mostly flowers, but now also vegetables. I get them going under full-spectrum artificial light in the basement, misting them with water 2-3 times a day. My seedlings are like nested eggs waiting to hatch. When they do, I spend the month of April planning exactly how I can possible cram all 7,999 (one didn't germinate; I wonder why?) into my garden.

May is spent hardening seedlings, preparing them for the harsh reality known as the outside world. I introduce them to a lovely thing called sunshine. They usually love it. Around Mother's Day, I am ready to plant. The rest of the month is spent feeding and tending and watering to ease the transition from the crib to the nursery.

June is every gardener's golden month. The first fruits of the garden are harvested with enthusiasm and eaten at the very first opportunity. Flowers abound and the myriad shades of green that greet the eye wherever it may rest are in themselves fulfilling. The weeding is done religiously. There is not a plant out of place.

July is equally abundant, but the heat of the Illinois summer begins to nudge us indoors. The helping hands that had been so willing at planting time would rather be splashing in the pool or waving wildly as my children run through the sprinkler.

In August and September, I finally succumb to the wonder that is summer. My relentless pursuit of weeds, my insistence that watering follow a schedule, my careful measuring of the week's growth are forgotten in favor of the rigors of fun. To weed in August is pure asceticism.

And now September is drawing to a close, and after two months of walking from the house to the car with blinders on -- except to notice the pleasant surprises gardening has to offer, like our many 'volunteer' butterfly bushes or the delicious yellow cherry tomato plant that is flourishing, but that I most certainly did not plant -- I must force myself to open my eyes to the flood of fall garden chores that certainly face me.

This week promises to be a last breath of summer, and I am on the horns of a dilemma. Do I step backward and pretend September never happened? Or do I look at the jumbled chaos that is my late summer garden and dig in to the long work ahead?

I must admit, I am undecided. The idle person inside me could again claw her way to the surface.

Then again, she just might be too lazy to claw. Maybe she'll just mosey.

- Midwest Mom

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Overwhelmed By The Schedule

Do you ever have those times when you feel like "the schedule" is in charge of you instead of the other way around? Lately, I have been going crazy with work. There are fall chores to get done in the house and garden, school activities to coordinate, volunteer commitments to keep, soccer practices, dance classes, religion classes, and tomorrow is my daughter's third birthday.

I need a vacation.

I find myself daydreaming about sleeping late or playing hookie from activities. I mean, why can't I just be the irresponsible one for a change? But then a friend in crisis calls me, and on top of everything else I am doing, I have to run to the rescue. At 10 p.m. some days, I am still folding laundry.

(Did I mention that I need a vacation?)

What about a facial? Or a weekend away, just by myself? Could that be possible? What about a solo shopping trip? (and no, I don't mean shopping for groceries!)

So, short of drinking myself into oblivion or running away, what are my options? When will the weight of "the schedule" be off my shoulders? (I'm sure those of you with older children are chuckling and saying, "umm, not for a long long time.")

Maybe I'm just missing the carefree simplicity of Summer. I love the natural feel of our summer schedule, and it always seemed like we fit a lot into each summer day. The difference is that I was the one deciding, along with my children, what kind of fun we would have together. Now that everything is school and activities, other people get to tell me when to be where and how long to stay. I hate that.

Maybe I just need an attitude adjustment. I need to get in the fall mindset. So, what do I love about fall?

  • I love the cool feel that clean sheets have when you get into bed. I even like the winter feeling of cold, where you need a couple minutes for the bed to "warm up".
  • I love the bright blue of the sky, especially when the sugar maples across the street are in full color -- yellows, oranges, reds.
  • I love the smell of fallen leaves and even the little brown roly-poly bugs that live in them if you let them lay on the lawn for too long.
  • I love fall foods -- soups and stews and pumpkin pie. The best comfort food in the world is cooked in our house during this season. Apples and cider are favorites. And hot potato soup. Just the thought of it makes my mouth water.
  • My hair finally looks good in the fall. I have such humidity hair, but this time of year, it gets smooth and shiny -- like a Pantene commercial. I love it.

Well, that does it. I guess the power of positive mental attitude is proven again. I actually do feel a little bit better.

And maybe I'll take the whole day tomorrow to just spend with my daughter. No chores or work or distractions -- just us.

Yep. That'll do the trick.

- Midwest Mom

Monday, September 15, 2008

What do Women (Voters) Want?

After a long summer hiatus, Illini Family Politics is back.

Today's topic: What Women (Voters) Want

Have a read and put in your two cents -- we'd love to hear what you and your family want this election season. After all, the President we choose will have the job of serving us all. This is the time to speak up and focus on what is important in this election.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kids Sports: Stop the Insanity!

Let's face it, any parent who has an athletic child has been witness to some of the most lunatic parenting on the face of the planet. We've all seen it . Sometimes it's the librarian who becomes more argumentative than a crack addict on steroids. It could be the lawyer who paces the sidelines barking orders at their child (or, God forbid, other children). Or, yes, even a full-time mom can find herself suddenly incapable of recognizing her child's strengths or accepting a compliment on their child's behalf, answering with a list of shortcomings instead of a smile and a thank-you. Sports can make grown-ups into crazy people.

I have to admit, I teeter on the edge of lunacy myself. One thing is for sure, I am one of the loudest parents on the sideline. I just can't help myself -- I love watching my kids play. But I sometimes wonder whether other parents are looking at me sideways, wondering, "Who is that lady?!?" I convince myself that volume alone doesn't make me an obnoxious sports parent (does it?)

Just to be sure, I try to follow a few guidelines to stave off a case of the crazies:

Keep It Positive -- If you are an involuntary yeller (like I am), make sure you're yelling out something you can be proud of later. Saying "good job" or "nice try" or "you can do it" is always better than saying something insulting or letting out a groan if things don't go your way. You are your children's best source of encouragement. You are also their best example of good sportsmanship.

Practices are for Coaching and Games are for Fans -- Your first job on the sideline of your child's game is to be their fan. I always send my sons onto the field with a smile and a twinkling eye. "Have fun! I can't wait to watch you play!" I say as they run to meet their team. Giving your child the gift of unqualified support can make a tremendous difference for them. (I'll admit there was a learning curve for me on this one. I used to use the last 5 minutes before a game to review "teaching points" from practice, but I have truly found that only made my child more self-conscious about his play. But when I assure him that he's my favorite player on the team, he glows. As a result, his head and heart are in the game, from start to finish.)

Keep your Expectations in Line -- I remember when my son started soccer at age 4. It was all we could do to get the team kicking the ball in the right direction. Still, there were parents who questioned the coach or worried excessively about whether the team was winning enough. I felt like explaining that this wasn't the World Cup, it was pee-wee soccer! In retrospect, I doubt that would have made much difference. Still, a dose of perspective is never unwarranted. Focus on your child's own skills. They don't have to be Ronaldhino or A-Rod or Kevin Garnett to be your favorite player. Let them be who they are and love them for that.

Be Even-handed with Praise -- We all know that as a parent, our first concern is our own child. But getting to know your child's team-mates and giving them a cheer when they make a great play reinforces to your child what it means to be a team. Athletics is about making friends as much as it is about individual accomplishment. So, get to know the other parents on the sidelines and spread your positive comments around.

Because I am such a loud fan, I usually try to look over my shoulder and make sure I'm not bothering anyone. I also cheer when the opposing team makes a great play. There is nothing wrong with recognizing excellence, regardless of which team shows it. And I find that positivity can be contagious... even among die-hard athletic parents.

So, remember, sports are meant to be an opportunity to learn and have fun! If you focus on the really enjoying the game, your child will too.

That's always a good thing.

- Midwest Mom

Monday, September 8, 2008

Potty Success! (It's about time!)

Those of you who read Midwest Moms on a regular basis know that we have been struggling with the potty training of our youngest daughter.

Well, do I have news for you!

Today marks the very first day since May 2001 that I did not change a single dirty or wet diaper.

Yes, folks, mark your calendars. (Umm, actually, that might be a little weird.) But you can at least make a mental note, if you choose. Today was a banner day in our household, after seven and a half long years of motherhood. It's like getting a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

Now, I can't guarantee that our little flower will never have another accident. I'm probably jinxing whatever progress she's made just by writing this at all. But, it happened and now it has been appropriately documented.

So, to Kate of The Blankie Chronicles and any other Mom struggling to potty train a child, I have a message:

See that light? It just might be the end of the tunnel, honey.

- Midwest Mom

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sharing Sunday

I rarely post on Sunday, but I just discovered an amazing artist named Carlos Lascano. His work was sent to my by a friend who writes a wonderful blog called Kiwipulse. Kiwipulse is a video/advertising/design site that also shares odd news and short films.

"A Short Love Story in Stop Motion" is a touching story with (to me) amazing animation. I have such respect for those with the talent to create something this beautiful. Please have a look:

A SHORT LOVE STORY IN STOP MOTION from Carlos Lascano on Vimeo.

To find out more about the artist, visit the original post at Kiwipulse. I do not usually gravitate toward video content on the web, but this piece was truly beautiful and absolutely worth sharing. It really spoke to me as a parent and a wife about the fantastic way imagination colors everything we do. I hope you other moms will enjoy it.

psst ... if you're like me, get a tissue before you hit "play". ;)

- Midwest Mom

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Saving the Best for Last

Mom must be another word for rotten egg, because I am always the last one to the car.

My own mother suffered from the same problem. There were six children in my family, and my father is a compulsive early-bird. We would get ready and be sitting down for Easter Mass 90 minutes before it was ready to begin. We showed up to high-school graduations while they were still setting up the chairs on the lawn. We got sunburn from staking out a good spot for Fourth of July fireworks "nice and early."

Still, when I was a kid my Dad always jokingly complained about always having to wait for my mother. He would say that Mom had a psychological 'trigger' like Pavlov's dog -- all we had to do was say the word “Car” and she would have to go to the bathroom. He would have us all buckled up and the car running in the driveway, and she still wouldn't emerge from the house for at least five more minutes. Now that I am a mom of 3, I finally understand why.

When we are planning to go out, whether it is to go to church or the zoo or a ballgame or school, I start out like my father and end up like my mother.

The compulsive early-bird in me starts getting people ready at least 30 minutes before it is time to leave. My style is half caring mother, half paratrooper Captain. (Go! Go! Go!)
  • I check to make sure no one is dirty. I make sure no one looks like a clown (non-matching clothes), a hobo (holes in the pants), a zookeeper (what's that smell?), or an auto-mechanic (stains from who knows where).
  • I remind everyone to go to the restroom and to comb their hair.
  • I help them find their missing barrette, jacket, sock, or shoe. I help them button, zip, buckle, and tie. If it’s cold, I find matching hats and mittens. If it’s rainy, I get the umbrellas.
  • I pack a bag with snacks, water, wipes, hand sanitizer, more snacks.
  • I tell them what toys they can and can’t bring (no, you may not bring the super-soaker in the car).

When I am finished, there are three tidy children lined up and waiting by the door. We are usually ready in plenty of time to make it to our destination with room to spare. The early-bird time-buffer remains intact. (If you are an early-bird, you know what I mean.)

30 seconds before it is time to go, my husband puts his shoes on and gets his keys. (Where has he been for the last half hour?)

Finally, once everyone is ready to go, I look at myself in the mirror. And magically, as they walk out the door, I transform into my mother.

It's amazing how getting it all done for the rest of the family can make you look like you've just been through a train wreck. It is equally amazing how consistently I choose to use the early-bird buffer to my own advantage. As my husband takes the family down the driveway to get into the car, I take a few minutes to do everything for myself that I just did for everyone else.

It is wonderfully refreshing to get yourself ready, wash your face, put on some lipstick, comb your hair, change that shirt that has remnants of your two-year-old's last meal, and yes use the restroom -- in silence. In that few minutes, I find I am able to relax and refresh. It feels good to turn over the task of strapping in the children to my husband. The house is so peaceful when there's no one else in it.

Do I care that the rest of the family is pondering my mysterious disappearance from their midst? Do I mind that they might be waiting at the edge of impatience? No, not really.

I do not rush. Instead, I give myself a few moments of peace. And when I finally walk to the car, I do not hurry nor do I apologize. I just make a modest entrance.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get a “Well, you don't you look nice…”

"Thank you," I say as I slip into the passenger seat. I think we'll arrive right on time.

-Midwest Mom