Thursday, 21 June 2012

How to revise your parenting expectations

I’m not exactly sure how, given that I have four younger siblings, but I honestly had no idea what having a baby would be like. I was shocked by my friend Carly’s admission that she was quite tired a few months after having given birth. Don’t babies just sleep most of the time, and the rest of the time blithely look around in awe at the world while absorbing language and learning how to use their limbs? Well, no, actually. For those of you who don’t yet have children, let me tell you a few salient points, so that once (if) you do have a baby, I can tell you “hey, I gave you fair warning.”

1. Life as you know it will end. No matter how hard you fight it. We were under the impression that people made the choice to let babies take over their lives, and were determined we would not let that happen to us. No, we would continue doing everything we had before, just with baby in tow. This idea was, of course, idiotic.

Not only do many activities preclude the involvement of babies (surfing, snowboarding, staying out drinking until 2 am), but even seemingly benign activities (going out for dinner) are made unpleasant with an unhappy child squirming in your lap and flinging toys and utensils at other diners. We had the mistaken idea that if we just took baby everywhere from the start, he’d get used to it and we could transcend this unpleasantness. He’d get used to sleeping anywhere and we’d be able to continue our semi-nomadic and active lives. Not so much.
Swimming becomes slightly more contrived with baby in tow

2. Babies do sleep a lot, but generally they wake up every 1-5 hours and need something from you. Hence, you will not experience an uninterrupted stretch of sleep for the foreseeable future. Unless you are the father. And you sleep in a different room. But really, ladies, let me be honest: even if your partner offers to feed and/or change the baby in the middle of the night, you’ll be awake anyways, with your special baby-is-about-to-wake-up-and-start-screaming sensors in full overdrive mode.

3. That advice about sleeping when the baby sleeps is only useful for the first few days. Everyone will tell you, “It’s Ok to let the housework lapse so you can nap when the baby does.” This is crap. Unless they are going to come over and cook and clean and do your laundry, at some point you will have used up all of the clean dishes and clothes, and sadly, there are no Mother’s Helper fairies to come fix everything.

4. Your baby may refuse to be “worn,” thus thwarting all of your hippie ideals and plans to keep your life under control and have a baby at the same time. I had the idea that I would pop the baby in a carrier and then go about my business as usual, occasionally feeding and changing and comforting my otherwise happy or sleeping child. This might be all well and good if your child is small, thus not causing your back to break from wearing him all day, and/or if he actually likes being in the carrier.

This is the kind of mother that I imagined being.
This is the kind of mother I actually am, because this is the kind of baby that I produced.
5. You will do a ridiculous amount of laundry. So buck up and buy a washer, and go ahead and use cloth diapers—it’s cheaper, and better for the planet, and it’s not that much more work. (Extra tip: it may not appeal to you, but it’s even cheaper and greener if you buy used diapers—you can sanitize them before use). Please hang your voluminous laundry to dry—it would be nice to leave the planet semi-intact for that little poo and puke-machine you’ve decided to create.

6. Do not believe TV shows. During our nights in, we now watch quite a bit of TV on Hulu (since we are too brain-dead to do anything productive). These invariably paint the picture of parenthood that I thought was real before giving birth. Most of the time the baby is just conveniently not around, or is happily sitting in its car seat making no noise and demanding no attention (see Weeds, Up All Night, etc…). I suppose the shows would be a bit chaotic and hard to follow if the main character was interrupted every few moments needing to attend to her child, but it’s just cruel to perpetuate the lies.
So, there you have it, more or less. Your baby will consume your entire life, and your pastimes will spawn cobwebs. But when you wake up in the morning and he’s smiling at you with the biggest toothless grin possible, it makes it all Ok.

Friday, 15 June 2012

How to take travel advice with a grain of salt

I recently saw a list of easy ways to be a good traveler posted on National Geographic’s website. While Nat Geo probably has some vetting process, meaning this dude’s advice may be a modicum more accurate than mine, I have concrete evidence that he’s pulling your leg.

Advice point #1: “Stop acting like you know. Taxi drivers and bartenders are your consiglieres, your guides. Don’t tell them where you want to go; ask them to point you where you should be. This also applies at restaurants. I gave up menus...simply ask the experts (i.e. people who work there) what you should be eating.”

Really? I guess you haven’t been where I have. I used this tactic in La Ceiba, Honduras, a somewhat sketchy port city. Having arrived at night without a guidebook, I simply asked my taxi driver to take me and my abundant load of coral-drilling gear to a hotel. He then took me to two “hotels” – the first so frightening that I though I might get shanked just looking at the room, and the second only slightly better (the single window faced indoors to the hallway; but at least there were bars on it to protect me from the proprietors). The upside was that it cost less than $10 for the night, and I had the choice of two single beds, one of which did not have rodent poop on it.

And while it sounds very romantic not to order from the menu, be careful where you do this. There are some local delicacies western palates are just not ready for (follow this link if you dare) . I haven’t been served monkey brains, but my father-in-law has (one thing you should always turn down..also spleen, it appears). Even in the western world, you may end up eating something un-delicious so as not to offend the restaurateur whose advice you took, as in Portugal where we ended up having to eat slimy, off-putting salt cod—twice.  

But I suppose asking for local advice may have prevented me from checking my husband and I into a brothel for the night in Panama…

Feel up for some Octopus jerky? Mmmm.
Advice point #7: “Take chances with conversations.

Sure, go ahead and chit-chat with your fellow bus-rider. But if you are in a place frequented by missionaries (like, anywhere in the “third world”), be ready to discuss the finer points of Christianity as well as how many children you have. If the answer is zero, and you are mildly attractive, be prepared for your conversation partner to offer up a family member willing to impregnate you.

Advice point #9: “Take people up on their offers. When someone invites you over to their house, or out to dinner, or on a tour — take them up on it.”

Find out what the offer actually is, first. A one-hour ride in a pickup truck is less fun when you are in the back.
But be ready for some real awkwardness, if you do. When a friend and I traveled to Spain and France, we took this advice to heart. We stayed in the miniature apartment of a friend of a friend of my boyfriend-later-husband, a thirty-something professional dude who really did not have any interest in two college girls sleeping on his couch when he was trying to woo some ladies home from the bar that night. But Paris is expensive, and he suggested the next morning we get out of his apartment and go to the Sacre-Coeur, which was rather breathtaking.

We were quite glad to take up my dad’s coworker’s sister on her offer to call if we ran into trouble in Barcelona, when we arrived at 2 am to find our hotel had given away our room and the entire city was booked out for the holiday weekend. The awesomeness of Spaniards? They had just arrived home from dinner when we called. And they let us sleep until noon, and then fed us Sunday lunch with the entire extended family.

This welcoming attitude is in complete contrast to that of two American girls we encountered before calling the sister—explaining our situation, and asking to crash on their floor, they suggested instead we sleep at the train station. Way to look out for each other, ladies.

So, there you go. You may have better luck than I have following this advice for an authentic travel experience. Or you may end up eating a cup of butter because you didn’t know what it was and having a discussion about dairy farming via charades. But I guess that’s what makes for fun memories.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

How to be plastic-paranoid with panache


It has revolutionized our world, but perhaps in ways we didn’t expect. Along with tons of mostly microscopic plastic particles accumulating in the oceans, evidence is accumulating that chemicals which leach from plastics are bad for us.

Since I recently had a baby, I became hyper-aware of what I was putting into my body and what that might do to my child, both when he was in the womb and now that I’m breastfeeding him. I knew that there were concerns about not eating too much high-mercury fish, and this lead me to think about other chemicals I might be inadvertently exposed to, like BPA, pthalates, and other plasticizers. Plastics ending up in the oceans is extremely worrisome to me, but this post will be about plastics and human health.

Most plastics leach chemicals into liquids with which they come in contact. Using plastic containers instead of the glass my protocol called for, I unwittingly contaminated my coral samples with hydrocarbons during a lab procedure. Granted, I had filled the container with chloroform, which is generally a substance I avoid drinking, but it brought the message home: glass is inert and safe as long as it isn’t shattered on the floor.

Before you follow me down plastic-paranoia lane, there are a few things to keep in mind.
BPA acts like a hormone. We have hormones in our bodies. Pthalates may be carcinogenic, but it's not yet clear if so. These substances therefore aren’t obviously toxic, like cyanide or lead; their inclusion in food containers isn’t actually some evil plot to poison us all. Plastic is useful, so that’s why it’s everywhere. The National Institutes of Health isn’t even all that worried about BPA in adults, though they do express “some concern” over what exposure to hormone-mimicking substances might do to developing fetuses and babies.

We do have organs to eliminate chemicals. That’s the whole point of the liver, for instance—how else do you think we get rid of all the alcohol we drink? We can, obviously, deal with some amount of chemical ingestion without immediately dying, so some exposure is probably Ok. Mind you, I kind of like saving my liver for alcohol-processing, so if that means reducing plastic intake, so be it.
This bower-bird has switched from using blue flowers and beetles to attract mates, to discarded straws and drink caps.
Now that I’ve shown some amount of scientific level-headedness, let me be honest. Plastic scares the absolute crap out of me. What bothers me most is that one of the chemicals which has been the most studied, BPA, was shown to be possibly dangerous, and removed from many products—which have now replaced it with something else to perform BPA’s function. Those chemicals generally haven’t yet been tested for health effects. These other compounds could possibly be more harmful, but we won’t know until studies are done, by which time we will have been merrily ingesting them for years.


So, if you want to go all precautionary-principle with me, here are some changes I have made to reduce my plastic-chemical-intake:

Drinking and eating
·      Stainless steel or glass refillable water bottles instead of single-use plastic
·      Stainless steel or ceramic reusable coffee cups instead of (plastic lined) paper cups
·      Eat-in on plates rather than take-out in plastic (not so easy with 7-month old)
·      Metal instead of plastic for camping and baby-plates
·      Stainless steel pans instead of non-stick (all of which are now black on the bottom because I suck at not burning shit)
·      For eggs, expensive ceramic-titanium non-stick pan, which is supposed to not flake off into food like cheap non-stick
·      Go for glass, or dry goods—essentially all (plastic-lined) canned or plastic-packaged foods can be made from scratch or found in glass jars
·      Buy fresh, cold milk or soymilk instead of the ultra-heat-treated boxes on the shelf. I have no data on this, but I reckon UHT treatment and extra time sitting around increases leaching.
·      Bring your own cloth bags
Baby stuff
·      Glass and silicone baby bottles
·      Stainless steel and silicone sippy cups
·      There are heaps of toys available not made of plastic. Wooden toys may hurt more when the babies chuck them at one another, but I’m hoping they outgrow the throwing phase. I chose silicone teethers instead of plastic.
·      Cook your own baby food

Not sure if this flip-flop is good for him, but he sure is into it!
p.s. Plastics are made mostly from fossil fuels.

p.p.s. Even plastics made from plants use chemicals to turn the plant products into plastic, and they are typically combined with fossil-fuel-derived hydrocarbons as well.

p.p.p.s. As my mom always reminds me, stress hormones are probably worse than all of this. So try to stay relaxed while eliminating plastic.