Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chronicles of a Rookie Mom: The One-Year Mark

What's life like these days?

I'm a 31-year old working mother of a toddler who works in a fortune 500 company and lives in the suburbs, tucked between a Whole Foods, Zoe's Kitchen and Target. Though I live in a nest of retail and restaurants, I do most of my shopping through Amazon Prime and cook my own meals and occasionally entertain myself with meal-kit services. I almost never eat out.

I binge-watch all the popular television shows like Game of Thrones and keep up with New York Times bestsellers lists so that I am at least familiar with the titles of popular fiction and can insert non-BS claims like 'Oh, I've heard of that! I want to read it too!" I joined a neighborhood fitness center for weeknight yoga and kickboxing classes. My social life is disproportionately baby-friendly and to top things off, my husband and I have officially dipped our feet into the suburbia housing market.

This is my new anticlimactic reality. "Who wants to read that run-of-the mill 30-something year old's story?" life. Becoming a mom and living in white-collar suburbia has opened a new emotional seam for me. I used to pride myself in staying off the beaten path and making unconventional life choices. I was accustomed to gasps and wide-eyed responses when recalling tales from my frequent travels and a career that normalized run-ins with renowned people and places.

People who led exciting lives didn't have time to catch up on six seasons of a popular television series. Interesting people didn't cook everyday because they were always out, dipping in and out of trendy restaurants in the city or getting invited to rooftop dinner parties - always meeting even cooler people.

This past year, I've taken a sharp detour. I'm making headway into the archetypal millennial mom trajectory. Instead of sparks in people's eyes when I update them on my status quo, I get either the 'Been there, done that' rapport or lukewarm interest from women who remind me of the old self. The friends I surrounded myself with in my old life are fading further and further into a phantom capsule. Many of them still living abroad, plucking their dream jobs along the way and inking their passports. I keep up with them on faint note, but avoid talking to them not only because I'm probably the least interesting person to them now, but because my heart literally starts to feel prickly. I miss those days so much as they steadily diminish into a relic of the past. It's no longer just 'last summer' but 'five years ago'. Holy Crap. 

No, I'm not complaining. Having a baby is not a cul-de-sac. Quite the contrary. Life is so good right now. I'm blessed in more ways that I can count and luckier than I probably deserve. Every night when I go to sleep, I look forward to the next morning. Who would have thought that hearing my baby cooing every morning from his crib makes me jump out of bed so fast I almost trip on my face. Then the rush I get when my little human jumps up and down at the first sight of me and running faster than his body can handle, giggling the whole way and plunging right into my arms. Nobody will ever look at me like that. Run to me like that. Love me like that. And every year, he'll learn new ways to show this climactic affection towards me. A soul nourishing state of Euphoria no rooftop dinner party or intellectual conversations with semi-famous people can compete with. 

These peak moments are the much needed remedy for an otherwise confined routine that life has become. In between the gushes of euphoria are cleaning, butt-wiping, floor scrubbing, nose suctioning, screaming 'no' thirty times a day and enduring anxiety-inducing cacophony of fussy, whiny cries. 

It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, I enjoy being a mom. I love it. Really. And I say this as someone who truly believes it is not natural to me. Even a year later. There's a lot of domestication that metastasizes when stepping into the motherhood paradigm. And I'm just averse to that whole concept no matter how much society insists it is a 'natural place for a woman'. Because I did not outsource childcare or any domestic work for the first year - it was primarily a two-stroke engine I had to quickly learn how to generate.

That's the bad news. If you even want to call it that. And it's like 25% of the equation. The rest is a colorful tapestry of happiness, love and laughter.

I also feel like I have improved as a person and titillated into nicer, kinder and a more understanding woman. This could also be an age thing, you know, turning 30 and maybe because I'm a lot less social than before (less people, less drama, less negative energy).

But I think it's primarily because becoming a mom has made me more grounded as a human being. I learned to be empathetic, compassionate and patient to a new degree. I am not claiming motherhood will have this effect on all women. We all know there are terrible evil moms out there. (Cercei, comes to mind.) But it did good by me. 

While I'm still just barely scratching the surface, within a year, I want to salute  myself and say, "I did it!"!! 

Here is a general overview of my first tryout as a mother... 

Timeline of my First Year as a Mom

Months 1 - 3

The Gist: This was the hardest phase. There's still physical pain for two-three weeks and very overwhelming. Baby is completely dependent so a tricky blend of excitement, anxiety and chronic fatigue. Chaotic but beautiful, I also wrote extensively about this period.

Favorite Products: A Pack'n Play, a swing, bandanna bibs, MAM pacifiers, a Glider, and lots and lots of baby wipes

Mom's Rank: #4 

Months 3 - 6

The Gist: Slowly getting the hang of it and attempted to normalize life and enjoy baby, watching him grow and putting away newborn clothes and trinkets and replacing them with a jumper and baby food maker since baby can now eat solids. Began to frequent parks and initiate play dates with mom friends. I also have a newfound appreciation for Chick-fil-a. We took our first vacation as a family and introduced baby to daycare at least once a month.

Favorite Products: Boppy Pillow, Easy Clean Baby Food Maker, Piano Gym Mat and more bandana bibs (my favorite are by Baby Daulia)

Mom's Rank: #3 

Months 6 - 9

The Gist: A major turning point with many milestones like crawling and established routines with nap times (twice a day) and sleeping in the crib in his own room through the night. A new degree of independence meant baby can entertain himself, and I can get more work done. Taking baby out is a lot easier since he can now sit in the store-carts and I don't have to carry around the heavy infant car-seat. Teething is a major pain, though and had several spasms of regression. Making baby food is still kind of a hassle and creates more dishes to wash, and I still ended up buying packets anyway. Still, homemade baby food is worth it.

Favorite Products: A folding high chair, a Humidifier, nasal aspirator (FriedaBaby), a Jumper and I've discovered this amazing alternative to diaper bags called Grab & Go wet/dry bag insert. More baby wipes.

Mom's Rank: #

Months 9 - 12

The Gist: There's light beaming at the not-so-end anymore tunnel. Baby is so much more fun since he can now interact, express himself with low and high baby talk notes, walking, running, playing and has a jolly time throughout the day, everyday. It's hard not to be in awe just watching baby find everything exciting and mesmerizing. Yes, it's getting scary because you have to keep your eye on him all the time and baby-proof the house. He had his first major bloody mouth when he fell hard on his face because he was zapping through the room faster than his little body could handle. Because his personality is surfacing and he actually speaks to me in his language, I also talk to him about the latest news updates and offer my analysis. I also recap the latest GoT episode. (Does this make me crazy?) He's old enough now that I feel comfortable getting a babysitter so I can now resume a social life. Baby has shown signs of difficulty and resists diaper changes and doesn't listen, drops and throws everything while looking me straight in the eye. He bites really hard, too. He knows it hurts because he wouldn't dare bite himself. My friend Laura calls it the 'adorable asshole' phase. 

Favorite Products: Putting away all the clunky gear is the best part of this phase, replacing them with less invasive Lego blocks and child-friendly handheld devices like the LeapFrog Laptop and Flash Music Remote Control. The mega blocks are awesome although they make their way throughout the house, in the fridge, inside the toilet and even our neighbor's patio. He loves them and has to carry at least one piece everywhere he walks, like it's his buddy. It's so cute.

Mom's Rank: #1 

One thing I was worried about this time last year was how much a baby will cost us, fiscally. It turns out, babies don't cost nearly as much as I thought. The industry says a baby will cost around $12,000 a year.

A Breakdown of Baby's First Year Expenses 

Furniture: $1,500-$1,800

Car Seat and Strollers: $600

Activities and Play Gear: $400

Diapers: $45/month or $550/year 

Formula: $75/month or $888/year

Food: $350

Bottles, Pacifiers and Bibs:$150/year

Clothes: $350-$400

Childcare: $880/year 

Photography: $625

First Birthday Party$1,000

Other: $500

Approximate Total: $8,000

I suppose I should pat myself on the back for spending $400 less than the average! Plus, a size-able portion was taken care of by family and friends (thank you!!) If you're about to have a baby, makeup with family members and start reaching out to friends you have lost touch with :)

Life may have stalled for a year, shedding $8,000 while at it, but considering each passing month is becoming a new favorite, I am feeling pretty good about the juncture I've reached and hopeful of what lies ahead. My career track looks promising and I have a couple of international trips lined up this year. My relationship with my husband, family and friends has never been healthier so I can truly say that life is becoming recognizable and exciting again with potential for upcoming chapters to be on par or even outshine the older ones. 

So please, don't ask me when I am thinking of having another baby. I'm finally back at my pre-pregnancy weight and life is starting back up again. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It Happened to Me: Mom Guilt

The first time I straddled with "Mother's Guilt" was in my sophomore year in community college.  I was just shy of 18 years old and we had just completed an essay in our English Composition class about the struggle of a mother's career aspirations. As the case with most liberal art-themed courses in college, the crux was the class-wide discussion of the material more than the material itself.

Looking back, it's easy to dismiss what a bunch of inexperienced teenagers had to say about the complexities of motherhood. But one thing I vividly remember was that the vast majority of students strongly agreed that the preferred ideal scenario would have the wife stay at home with her children. Coming from a family of a two-income household, I remember adjusting my answer (after listening to the majority) to offer a compromise. "I think an ideal scenario for myself is to work part-time. That way I can get the fulfillment from working and still be there for my children a considerable amount of time."

My professor nodded at this and said, "That sounds like a very good option, Lena." Being a childless male, it sounded like a minimally-thought out response. What could he have possibly known? While at the time I also had little relevance to the topic, I came from a culture that revered early motherhood (before 25) and I had to start thinking about this early on. Afterall, two of my best friends had given birth that year and naturally I felt like my time was nearing sooner than later.

Well, it ended up taking much later. Twelve years to be exact.

I stayed true to what I had envisioned for myself 12 years ago, retaining a career as a mother and feeling like I am doing a satisfactory job as a mom. Working from home and keeping my career in check while being the primary caretaker of my baby and dodging the staggering cost of daycare made me feel lucky every day. I am too blessed to feel guilty.

Or so I thought.

Despite being anchored down to my cozy dwelling where I was spending every minute of everyday with my still it hit me. The Guilt.

I think it's imperative that 'guilt' is contextualized as flash moments as opposed to a constant state-of-mind. I am not waking up feeling guilty or going to bed marinated in guilt. And it is rarely ever a result of being provoked by commentary by other people. No.

It comes when I spontaneously decide after work that rather than hop into the kitchen, I want to just play with my baby. When I look at the clock and it doesn't make a difference how much time had passed and I'm still just playing with my baby. Wow, I am actually enjoying my child. I'm not trying to keep him distracted so I can keep working or cooking or cleaning. The fact that this felt so shocking and unusual made me feel guilty. 

Because while I'm literally with my baby 100% of the day almost every single day, I rarely spend more than 20 minutes at a time just playing with him at complete ease. And that moment of truth gnaws at me. Even if for a moment. My throat tightens and my heart sinks.

No, I won't quit my job because that would invite another kind emptiness and guilt. No, I won't stop making home-cooked meals on a regular basis because I enjoy it and it is immensely beneficial for our family. And obviously, I can't stop trying to keep the house and clothes clean. So what is the remedy?

Studies reveal that 94% of moms from all across life have felt the sting at some point, making this 'mothers guilt' an equal opportunity for moms across the board. That's right, from the mom who stays home all day with her kids (like me) to the high-powered corporate mom who spends three hours a day with her children. From moms who utilize daycare regularly and those who don't (like me). This should serve as a solace and ideally end those ridiculous 'mommy wars'.

Because maybe this notorious 'guilt' we are feeling is actually an epiphany to keeping ourselves in check. An adage to our humanness, a badge of humility. Are we supposed to feel confident and satisfied with ourselves 100% of the time? Are we expected to be that arrogant that we cannot allow room for doubt, guilt and uncertainty?

Circling back to the woman's essay back in college, while my response and easy answer to work part-time isn't oafish - it is naive. For starters, part-time work is very difficult to find. I would have also emphasized that raising children is not solely the mother's job, so it shouldn't be a burden placed exclusively on women. So rather than automatically assume I would be the one that has to curtail my ambitions, I would challenge my partner to re-prioritize his as well.

Women don't fit in neat categorically labeled boxes. There are so many conflicting data on what makes mothers 'the happiest'. Some claim mothers who cut back at work are the happiest while others reveal the opposite. There are some who shift their views and feelings along the way. And what about circumstances? There are hundreds of variables that are factored in before these 'choices' are made. And that is what I should have said to my classmates, who overwhelmingly decided what is best for moms and families in one sweeping brush.

It is amazing how not a single person, not even the professor, brought up the government's role in all this. We are so conditioned to fault ourselves that we forget that in almost every developed country in the world, mothers are a lot less stressed because of a system padded with policies that did not punish them for making the right choice for themselves and their families. Better policies and more hands-on contribution by the fathers and I most definitely think we would have less guilt all together. And if we still feel a tingle of guilt, we should embrace it as an ode to our high standards to be the best.

Now if only I can feel guilty about skipping the gym...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Planning a Ski Trip at Breckinridge with a Baby

First Trip with Baby

As I got into the rhythm of motherhood - I began itching for a trip. We took our first official family 'vacation' to New Orleans, when baby was just shy of four months. The "preview trip" was a success though we endured two hurdles: 1) Our baby has trouble sleeping in new environments, which automatically means less sleep for me and 2) Going through security is especially unpleasant with a baby and his feeding needs.

This preview-rip set the prelude for our first real family vacation: Skiing on the famed slopes of Colorado! Yes, with my 5-month old baby. Apparently this trip raised a lot of eyebrows so I will refer to a Q&A themed post below.

Why Breckinridge?

My husband and I have a tradition of celebrating milestones, like birthdays and anniversaries, with travel. I did some research and between several 'Best Places to Travel in December' and 'Best Places to Travel with a Baby' lists - I came across ski message boards that raved about the stellar on-site nursery facilities at ski resorts. Since neither of us have skied before and Colorado is only a short flight away -  the choice was easy. Breckenridge seemed like the most popular choice among families so we went for that. (It's not as expensive as Veil or Aspen but had a lot more to offer than less expensive places like Keystone or Winter Park).

How to Plan a Ski Vacation (with a Baby)

Gone are the days where I would just wing it with dismal pre-planning. When it comes to baby, life requires some proposition.

(1) RESERVE the nursery. There are three nurseries at Breckinridge Ski Resort and I was able to secure two full days at the Breckinridge Child Care and Nursery from 8am to 4pm within a month's notice. The best way to reserve is to call them and provide some information like dates and the age of your child. At this time, the childcare was accepting babies as young as 8-weeks to three years old.

(2) BOOK the Flights. Once I had a good idea of our itinerary, I booked our flights and made sure I added the infant on lap option before confirming payment. (It's easy to forget if you've booked a million times pre-baby) Texas has so many frequent flights to Denver since it is a relatively short trip (2 hours) that finding a good price was pretty easy. I also called the airline to explain the situation and asked for the latest policies and rules regarding baby travel.

(3) Accommodation. Then came the most expensive part of the trip, the hotel. Breckinridge is a popular ski resort town and by the time I started planning, a month before the trip, 90% of the hotels were booked!  So I paid a premium for this unfortunately. Because of the baby factor, I called the front-desk to make sure we can get a pack 'n play reserved for our room.

(4) Transportation. Breckinridge is a two-hour commute from Denver International Airport and it's always best, especially if you have children, to consider flexibility that comes with manning a vehicle yourself. Even during peak-snow season, the roads are very safe to drive through.

(5) Skiing Fun and other Winter Excursions. Plan to have a good time. Since we have two full days without baby, we could pretty much do any snow activity during the day including but not limited to ski lessons, snowmobiling, dog-sledding and snow-tubing. For Ski Lessons, you have to book classes, buy ski lift tickets and rent gear in advance. There are different grades of equipment and remember that they are all safe and if you're a beginner - it won't make a difference. Many people will attempt to ski for two or three days but I like variety in my trips so I went ahead and booked a Dog Sled Tour for the following day. Dog Sledding is extremely popular and gets booked up really quick so make sure to reserve your spot as soon as possible. And if you're wondering if it's worth it, YES IT IS. It was the highlight of our trip. Because you won't need a full-day for this, plan another one or two activity for the day. Consider snow-tubing down 1,200 foot tubing lanes or ziplining for the ultimate winter rush. Other popular excursions include themed-dinner sleigh rides, which is great for families with kids, snowmobiling and ice skating.

(6) Buy Snow Pants. Because winters are mild in Texas, we don't have an extensive snow-appropriate wardrobe. When you're excited about skiing for the first time, it's easy to get carried away and spend obnoxiously on a series of NorthFace and Columbia clothing lines but all that you really need are a pair of snow pants. There are no alternatives to snow pants. You can find modestly priced snow pants at Dick's Sporting Goods. Everything else is common sense. (fleece, layers, water-proof socks, etc.)

The Good, the Bad and the In-Between

Many moms insisted that my son was much too young to travel to snowville and that it was better for him to stay behind with his grandparents. I honestly don't understand this relatively popular suggestion. We have done so much traveling before having a baby, so I am not interested in rushing back to doing what we have done many times before. Now that I am a mom and have this beautiful child, I want to experience traveling with my family - and that includes a 5-month old. I am happy to make adjustments necessary to make it enjoyable and practical. And the good news is that a growing number of travel destinations are catering to families like mine. It's the answer to those of us who don't want to be completely away from our children but want the flexibility to enjoy the trip with baby in tow. And without further adieu, the pros and the cons of baby travel:

Starting with the flight, it was pleasant as expected and baby slept through both the 2-hour duration. Things soured a bit when we arrived at the airport as we had to wait almost two hours to find our 'lost' luggage followed by a less than stellar customer service experience at Advantage Car Rental. But as soon as we hit the wheel, we drove into downtown Denver for some delectable breakfast at Snooze at AM Eatery before heading to Breckinridge. Driving by mountain vistas coated in white powder as they glittered during the late sunrise is very romantic and set up the ambiance to our winter getaway. Once we arrived and checked in our baggage, we took it easy and dipped in and out of Main Street's shops, picked up latte's and devoured the delicious Doubletree chocolate chip cookies.

The next morning, we dropped off the baby at the Breckinridge Nursery by 8am and picked up our ski gear from Alpine Sports while making it to our ski lesson on schedule by 10am. It's imperative to get this done as early as possible since ski rental shops gets crowded and getting sized for your ski garb takes time. And if this is your first ski experience, trying to break into and walk with ski boots will be very strenuous. Ski Rental Shops like Alpine Sports don't provide everything for rent, so you still have to buy some add-ons like snow-sunglasses and special gloves. (Unless you already brought some).

After grabbing a cheap breakfast on-site, we finally begin our ski lessons. They don't take you on any peaks (or even the ski lift) so ignore the skiers whooshing down seamlessly when you're guided to the 'ski for beginners' corner. I was afraid to totally suck at it - but I was in fact pretty good. And when you're good, you get confident and really enjoy it. But if you're like my husband, who struggled to get the hang of it, it can be very frustrating (especially considering how expensive it all is). If you get too tired of the lessons, you can always jump on the ski lift and enjoy the ride. It is spectacular with a side of scary.

You can ski for as long as there is some daylight, and in December, that means around 4pm - just about the time we have to pick up baby. Skiing is such a strenuous sport that by the time we picked up baby, we were exhausted-to-the-core. Even though I had planned for us to take a stroll around Main Street and have a nice dinner out, we just went back to the hotel and collapsed.

The following day, we picked up some breakfast at Breckfest 'n Bread and drove to Tiger Rd. for the Dog Sled. The drive into Tiger Rd., which was pretty remote as you receded away from civilization, was nerve-wracking. For a moment, I was scared because our phones completely lost signal and I watch way too many scary movies about remote cabins. There were also no signs of life or cars. But don't worry, if you follow the snow-brick-road, you are going the right way!

And despite the beads of sweat the whole way there, it was well-worth it. The Dog Sledding was the most amazing experience. Please, if there is one thing you do in Colorado, this is it. And I want to add that this company, Good Times Adventure  made this dog-led escapade into the snowy wilderness the highlight of our trip.

Dog Sledding in Breckinridge, Colorado December 2016

The next excursion was snow tubing at Frisco Adventure Park in a city about 20-minutes North of Breckenridge. This is the real deal and while I thought it might be lame - it was almost as fun as the dog sledding. Keyword: Almost. The best part is that it's cheap and we can do it over and over again. (We capped at three runs). For lunch, we checked out Frisco's Main Street and were lured in by the amazing smells coming out of a little restaurant called The Lost Cajun. Oh My God. What better way to nourish your body after a full-day of prancing around the snow than some warm and spicy Cajun goodness. This gem is the best thing we ate during our whole trip.

After lunch, we drove back to Breckinridge and decided to try the famous Crepes a La Cart right in the heart of Main Street. The line was long - very long. But it was worth every minute. I'm not even a crepe person and I was in sweet-tooth heaven. It was a wonderful way to end the celebration of our anniversary.

As we enjoyed our four-day winter getaway, it was a different story at night where baby fussiness peaked, triggering constant throw-up. It was a nightmare. The high altitude, while considered safe for babies more than three months old, stimulated baby to induce chronic spit-ups throughout the trip. We ran out of fresh clothes by the second day. The hotel laundry service was way too expensive so we hand-wash everything and used a blow dryer to air them out. (This was a tiring and time consuming process that we could have otherwise spent doing more interesting things like sight-seeing or going out to dinner.)

Speaking of dinner, the two attempts of going out to eat with baby during this trip were disastrous. Due to a combination of several factors like the new environment and high altitude, the baby was fussing the entire time. At five months, he wasn't sitting yet but too excited and curious to stay put in his stroller. This meant one of us had to hold him and walk around to calm him down so one of us could eat in a hurry then take turns entertaining baby. It's a peculiar stage that amounts to frustration for baby and his parents. For two nights, we opted to order dinner from our hotel because it just wasn't worth it.

The Verdict

No matter what people tell you (or advise you), and no matter how much you read - you cannot ascertain what it is like to travel with a baby until you try it for yourself. Despite the blunders, some expected (running on little sleep) and the unexpected (heightened throw up and fussiness) - it was an overall enjoyable trip. Looking back, the best memories we have from this trip are my baby's fascination with snow and our exhilarating winter activities (especially the dog sledding!)

The only thing I would have done differently is packed more clothes and booked a little earlier. So if you want a romantic winter getaway with baby in tow, please do not be deterred and make it happen. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chronicles of a Rookie Mom: Work-Life Balance

The parlance of a working parent took center-stage last week thanks to a live BBC newscast blooper of a scholar who was video-bombed by his children, one-at-a-time, seconds within the interview. As the professor struggled to maintain his focus by holding back the toddler, her younger sibling bulldozed into the shot on his walker, followed by the mom who, head-down, dragged them both off-camera.

Mother and Son, my 7-month old flashing his new set
It literally caused a tectonic shift in social media, going viral and sparking laughter, sympathy and even controversy. Some didn't like the muddled facial expression from the father (why didn't he smile more?) and others judged the body language expressed by the mother as too docile. But putting aside prudes, the highlight was the rapport of the 8-month old who swiftly skid into the room like he deserves the spotlight.

Hey, that's my son's age! And working-at-home parent? Hey! That's me. So while I have yet to be noticed by the folks at BBC, I surely felt a striking empathetic bond with this dad.

My favorite take-away was a hypothetical scenario of how a mother would have handled the situation. Aside from the smoking gun accuracy, it so happens that I am currently knee-deep in trying to balance my full-time professional job with my role as a full-time mother. Notice I do not refer to motherhood as a job. It is silly, in my opinion, to equalize the two, because they are in fact very different. The adage "'Motherhood is the most important job for women" is problematic on many fronts, but for me it is the definition of 'job' here.

Being a mom, and a parent, is a role. And like any role, it has responsibilities. Anyone who has written a resume knows that every job has several defined functions. For example, journalists (job title) have more or less the same duties of reporting, interviewing, writing, editing and meeting deadlines. If you can't write or meet deadlines, you will be fired. On the other hand, if a journalist exceeds his employer's expectations, he or she may be compensated with a promotion, a raise or perhaps (considering the industry's condition) an assurance of job security.

It is obviously very different for parenting. It's impossible to generalize what all parents, especially moms, do - considering the vast-possibility of circumstances that can alter the composition of parenting.

Some moms have one child, others have three or four, some have children with developmental challenges while others have 'gifted' kids. Some moms are blessed with angelic children and others are tested with babies who cry bloody murder five hours a day. Many moms dip in and out of the workforce while other moms worked full-time two weeks after giving birth. The list goes on.

The point is, because every mom's circumstance and preference is unique to her, it makes any attempt to reduce it to a 'job' pointedly flawed.

This brings me to my individual lexicon of work-life balance. What's it like to be a full-time mom of a separation-anxiety stricken 8-month old with a full-time work-from-home job? Well, it looks a lot like this parody. Except the SWAT team reference, of course! And the absence of deafening cries. Which reminds me, if anyone wants to come up with a new torture method, please borrow my son.  I don't know what happened to my easy-going happy go lucky baby. The difference between 7-months and 8-months is maddening.

I realize the last time I really got into the mommy life on this blog was when I was going back to work. That was like, jeez, six months ago. A lot has happened since then. At three months, he was really developing with his facial expressions, always smiling and laughing. At five months, he conquered traveling by plane and joined our trip to the snow-capped mountains in Colorado. At six months, he was sitting and eating real food. By seven months, he got his first set of teeth and slept all night. Progress after progress. It was a bright future for mom. I even considered taking a more demanding job.

Then came the corridors of eight months. The arc. The smiles and giggles became dormant and out came marathonic aggressive cries. The sleep-trained baby who slept all night suddenly hates sleep (he sleeps only 9 hours when it should be 11) and wakes up twice every night. And here's the sweet/taxing part: He is obsessed with me. I mean, I am flattered really. But I was just as happy when you stared at me all the time without you needing me to hold you and carry you. I had read that at this age, babies often go through a separation-anxiety and they fully realize who their parents are. Especially mom. And they think - this is cute - they think mom and baby are one. We are the same person. So if I'm not there, baby will panic. Baby will cry. A lot. Intensely. A frisson of Anger and tormenting of mom. And dad. Yes, even dad is like a stranger now. It is really draining.

Consider this 'phase', which I hope to God it is, with the fact that I am working my desk job full-time at home.

People ask me all the time, "How do you do it?" and you know, by 7-months I was modestly saying, "Oh, it's not too bad. I make it work. Dad helps out. Malik is a pretty good baby."

Well. Not. Any. More.

Now, I seriously go to bed thinking, "How the F did I do it today?" and then "How the F will I do it again tomorrow?"

Look, I'm the last person to be ungrateful.

The work-from-home aspect has advantages that are difficult to quantify because there are simply too many! For starters, I save at least two hours everyday by evading the traffic-coated commute. Two hours is a lot of time! Second, I save a lot of money. No more $40 weekly tank refills, no more $120 monthly toll charges to my account, and no more eating lunch, breakfast or grabbing coffee ($50 a week on average). Now those were only the advantages before being a mom. After entering the parameters of motherhood, I am forgoing the pernicious cost of full-time daycare, in my area around $1,200 a month!

The added bonus of being the primary care-taker of your baby is, of course, immeasurable. I get to keep him at the comfort of our home with all his entertainment, food and unconditional nurturing at his disposal. I can take him to the library or the park (during lunch hours) I get to witness daily milestones and I literally watch him grow.

But then I am also there during all his needy and clingy demands. Before, he was just bored so I had to constantly transfer him to different 'stations' I have set-up for him (set-up as in I have to set it up and dismantle over and over again all day because of space-issues) from his swing, jumper, the play gym, the laptop (Naruto) and then feeding him, putting him to sleep, etc. That's not including the additional work of homemaker duties like laundry (which, thanks to Malik and his throw-up carnage, endless), cooking, keeping things looking semi-decent. Now, before you say, "Umm, aren't you a feminist? Why is this YOUR job?" Well, it so happens that if you are the spouse/parent that is home all day, the lion's share just falls on you. And believe me, even with help - it's still a LOT of work.

This is all in addition to my full-time desk-job. Yes, 8 hours a day!

Unread Reading Material Stacking Up. 
If that sounded exhausting. It was. But then the 8-month hell broke loose. I am anchored down by his demands. I literally had a meltdown last weekend. I cried. From anger. From exhaustion. A 'round the clock workload padded with an unsatisfied colicky baby crying can do that to you.

And then new thoughts swirl in your head. "Should I just have another one to get it over with?" and "Why is daycare so freaking expensive!!" and the worst, "Why is it always on the women to have to worry about these things!" Then I remember scenes from shows like HBO's "Big Little Lies" where the high-powered executive mom (Renata) is demonized as angry, condescending and a bitch because she seems to only be screaming at her poor husband. And then I get more mad. Like why does society portray these women so monstrously? Does anyone realize how much work she is doing to be where she is? I mean I'm not even close to my career end-goal and can barely find the time to read!

I  feel heavy-hearted sometimes, especially when I see former colleagues who are getting published and moving up in a career-trajectory I once aspired to follow (and temporarily gave up) or friends who continue to chronically travel on a whim. (No, I will not be able to trek with this baby. That's like asking me to take baby to the movie theater. It is technically possible, but it would drive everyone insane).

By 8 months, baby can feed himself
That being said, I don't want to gnaw at the blessings because I am aware of how very, very lucky I am. Truth be told, minus the moments I feel like I am turning into a knucklehead for allowing my unread New Yorker stack up, I am overall managing just fine. More than fine. My work productivity has increased, my confidence as a mother is solid, I am more active in my professional organizations and have yet to flake out of any social obligations. And all my friends know, I am still conquering the kitchen whipping out dinner (almost) everyday.

And everyday, throughout the day, I enjoy my son. He is adorable and fun, sweet and my heart still drops when he laughs. He also picked up some karate moves, which he sports only when I change his diaper (too much Naruto influence?)

 I love how he can feed himself and I love watching him pick up morsels of food and put it in his mouth. It's a really 'grown up' moment for me, especially since it looks like he's skipping crawling all together. (Thankfully, for me). But can he scrape away the sanity from me. Like yesterday, he just angry cried for 30 minutes straight for no reason. I am standing right in front of him, folding laundry, glaring at him with all my attention. Still, it was not enough. I have to pick him up and walk around, otherwise, RAWR.

Some might say, "Hey, if it's so hard...why don't you just quit?" or "Why don't you put him in daycare?"

Those are valid questions. But you know, I have this natural aptitude for efficiency. The work is still being done. If not better than before. And while I admit that I am worn out from doing it all, everyday, the only take-away every night is, "I need to do better tomorrow."

That is my solace. I still have hope. Not just of my son phasing out of this very mind-numbing stage, but of my ability to conquer. Keeping up with the stamina and the neurotic need to do it all and do it right. That's why any attempt of downplaying my day-to-day struggles, with comments like, "Wait until he starts walking" or "Wait until you have two kids.." really doesn't work. Because when you are enamored with the drive, it cannot be easily knocked down. And that is how many of us working moms keep going. And kicking ass.

I hope BBC takes notice.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Letter to My Son #6

These are strange times, my dear Malik.

I have been thinking about what topic to cover in this letter. I wanted to avoid political discourse as much as possible, but I think I will make an exception this one time. I believe this very moment will be an ugly blemish in our nation's history, and a personal recollection may be valuable to you in the future.

As I write this, the country is positioning itself in the vision of the cruel, xenophobic and hysteria-driven president Donald Trump - at lightening speed.

While the gestation that is Trump's presidency is still at its infancy, we have reason to believe that peril is abound. Friends and family are crackling with tension as we read or hear the latest development at our nations airports, which are glazed with protests as hundreds of legal immigrants and valid VISA-carriers are being held in detention simply based on their country of origin.

This is just hours following the bigoted, reckless and self-defeating executive orders that went into effect. The latest order, 'Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States", is essentially a watered down initiative to ban ALL Muslims from entering the United States. This is textbook definition of racial-profiling.

Furthermore, to ensure his vision infiltrates the country's pipelines, he sacked much of the White House staff he inherited from the previous administration and replaced them with his loyal supporters to dismantle the progressive gains of the Obama era while pushing a dark view of Islam to center of US policy-making. Trump surrounds himself in a tight circle of advisers who embrace a deeply suspicious worldview of our religion. Considering these are campaign promises he's fulfilling, it's fair to say many Americans share this hostility towards Islam. A sentiment that has been flourishing on the fringes of the American right who have been trapped into the climate of fear and suspicion because they probably never befriended a Muslim. It's so easy to fear the unknown. A few months ago, I was asked to speak to a group of university students about my experiences as a Muslim American woman who wears the hijab. I was surprised, at this day and age, that the overwhelming majority have never even met a Muslim before? At a University! I was shocked. This is one of the most liberal and diverse universities in the state of Texas!

What's even more troubling is the way this government spirals into a train wreck as it runs on propaganda, hysteria and misinformation (dubbed 'alternative facts' by the administration team) that rivals dictatorships in the "third" world. (Like the ones we occupy if they have valuable natural resources) The rulers of what some are calling 'backsliding democracy' are reckoning with media intimidation and denying access to unfavorable journalists for doing their job. Social media has only exacerbated this information warfare. For many people, it is too time consuming to ascertain what is true.

Experts are certain that the Trump presidency will continue to corrode public integrity and inflict untold damage to American leadership on the global scale. The damage has already begun, as our President sours strategic relationships on a daily basis. The million dollar question is this, "How much damage can this administration get away with and what can we do about it?"

Times like this are stressful, disheartening and agonizing. Many of us are unable to sleep comfortably at night, anxious about what lay ahead. Don't worry, though, despite the incongruous reality, we are otherwise carrying on as usual. Some of us take a 'break' from the news or social media to escape the duress that comes with staying updated. We have been fortunate enough not to be at the receiving end of harassment, or belong to a mosque or Islamic center that has been damaged or destroyed by racist punks. (Although we anticipate it, sadly) Either way - we are not laying low or concealing our identities. We are proud and raise our heads as patriotic American Muslims. I'm happy to report that the American Muslim community in Dallas, spearheaded by the beloved Shaikh Omar Sulaiman, has responded perfectly, The media is not used to such a charismatic, articulate and personable leader (With no 'foreign' accent) to represent the Muslim community. And most importantly, he is not responding with anger. Quite the contrary.

"Let me say to you that Donald Trump will never make me hate you," he told reporters at the airport protest. "And I hope that no politician will ever make you hate me."

And while there are many who view us with contempt, so many came in droves to protest with us at airports across the country. I don't recall this degree of support in the aftermath of 9/11. But we also didn't have someone like Shaikh Omar Sulaiman. He has become the local hero, and national champion for young American Muslims who look to him with admiration and inspiration. So perhaps there is something to celebrate.

I hope that time will curtail our stress and our profound concerns. I hope to have better news when I write my next letter. I also hope you will start enjoying our reading time, instead of biting on the books and crying for Naruto. (Although that is my fault, I've been tapping into my Japanese side lately) On other news, we took you to your 6-month photo-shoot and it was a success (unlike your newborn pictures). I'm already blowing them up and molding them into canvases, always thinking about where else I can put the latest round of picture frames I bought. Your father thinks I'm too obsessed with pictures. Of course I am! I'm obsessed with capturing memories, and your smiles are my main source of strength these days and your giggles are my escape during these strange times.

Until next time my sweet Malik.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Kusa Mahshi (Levantine-Style Stuffed Squash)

A little contradiction. I don't really care for the zucchini family, but I heart Kusa Mahshi, which literally translates to stuffed squash. Arabs like to stuff a lot of things from chickens, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, so the phrase mahshi, meaning 'stuffed', is used obscurely. Stuffed food, that is. ha..

In the case of stuffed kusa, or squash, you can use any type but a favorite for this recipe is the Mexican Squash. Why? Because the Mexican Squash is mild in flavor, totes a tender edible skin and is relatively small in size - making it easier to handle. 

Mexican Squash is Perfect for Kusa Mahashi (Levantine Stuffed Squash)

Palestinians love to pair these kusa with similarly-proportioned eggplants (betenjan mahshi). You can apply the same cooking directions to the eggplants if you choose to coalesce the vegetables. (I know, they are technically fruit...)

As for the broth-base for this dish, there are generally two versions of Levantine-style broths to submerge stuffed vegetables: 

(1) Tomato-based and (2) Yogurt-based. 

The recipe below is the tomato-based. I infused lamb chops and beef broth as the flavor nucleus and minimized the spices (Just salt, pepper and allspice). I do not add garlic, because I personally have not found it to be necessary and why waste time mincing fresh garlic if it does not substantiate the end-result? I learned to cut back on unnecessary ingredients so here is my recipe.

For the Kusa Mahshi...

Stuffed Mexican Squash, Kusa Mahshi


10 small Zucchini/Squash
2 Lamb Chops, dried and seasoned (optional)
1 Roma Tomato, sliced
1/2 an Onion, sliced

For the Filling
1/3 lb of Ground Beef
1 cup of short-grain rice
2 teaspoons of 7spice
2 teaspoons of Salt
1/4 teaspoon of Ground Black Pepper
1/3 teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon 
1 teaspoon of Vegetable Shortening
2 teaspoons of Beef Broth

3 Tablespoons of Tomato Paste
2.5 Cups of Water
1.5 Cup of Beef Broth
1 teaspoon of 7spice/Allspice
Salt to taste


10-Step Simple Recipe

1. Thoroughly wash kusa with warm water, cut stems and core.

2. Place in salted water for 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, prepare filling. In a large bowl, combine ground beef, rice with the shortening, broth and spices.

4. Begin filling each kusa with a teaspoon of filling, ensuring sufficient separation to avoid over-fill keeping in mind the rice and meat expand when cooked. Close the opening with a finger and shake, to get a sense of filling 'movement'. 

5. Prepare the soup. In a bowl, add 3 tablespoons of tomato paste and 1.5 cups of broth. Mix well, Add 3.5 cups of water and the spices. Mix and microwave for 15 seconds. (taste and adjust to your preference)

6. Place the two lamb chops on the bottom of a large pot, nestled between the chopped onions and tomatoes. 

7. Add kusa over the bed of lamb chops, tomatoes and onions - building layers. Turn on the heat to Medium-High.

8. Diligently pour the soup mixture right over the kusa. If the soup does not cover all the kusa, add more water or divide between two pots. (too much water will dilute the flavor, adjust seasoning/broth)

9. Allow for a roaring boil, cover and continue cooking on medium-high for 20 minutes.

10. After 20 minutes, slightly remove the lid to allow some steam-pressure out and reduce heat to medium/low-medium. Add more boiling water at your disposal. Cook for additional 20 minutes or until fork-tender.


Stuffed Mexican Squash, or Kusa Mahshi Levantine Style

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Letter to My Son (#5)

Dear Malik,

You just turned 15 weeks today, and as I type this, you are taking a nap with your wrist clinging over your eyebrow. Moments like these truly embellish my life even in the confinement of our snug apartment. I was expecting the shine of novelty to wear off by now but it's been quite the contrary. At one month, you were merely coasting between sleeping, crying and feeding. In the intervening weeks, you've demonstrated an upbeat pulse - always smiling, squeaking, mumbling and throwing your feet up in the air. Unfortunately, only your dad and I get to see these exciting facets of your personality because your temperament completely transforms when you are in the outside world.

We try to take you out at least every other day so that you can get comfortable with new stimuli but you don't last half an hour before crying. You really hate it when people come up to you (especially a group) and the massive frown portends a thunderous cry. I am reluctant to tell people not to approach you because they are excited to see you, but these anxiety-inducing moments stress me out and I don't enjoy going out anymore. So now, I too am crated in our snug apartment. Because even though I went back to work a month ago, my office is one feet away from you at all times. Yes, I am a lucky mom who gets to work full-time without stepping foot out the door. But I like to tell people that while I work two full-time jobs, you are the more demanding employer. 

Even though you have not started crawling yet, I am always scrambling to keep you entertained throughout the day. It's a toss up between the swing, the play gym/mat and yes - the television. Since the coverage of the presidential election dominates cable news (which is what I always have on), the soundbites of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have probably penetrated deep into your subconscious. I don't want to get pulled into politics or any prickly subject in these letters but I feel compelled to make a few comments about this peculiar and unusual election:

1. Men ARE emotional. And it frequently clouds their judgement. Gone are the days where that 'trait' is reserved for women.

2. Anyone who relies on superlatives to paint their worldview should be taken with a grain of salt.

3.  There is a big difference between confidence and narcissism. Avoid the latter at all costs.

4. Group-think thrives even in our individualistic culture. Depending on the context, it can be a positive or negative.

5. Always be cautious of confirmation bias. It is a lot easier to back-up established view points than it is to challenge them with an open mind.

6. Changing your mind is not a weakness. 

7. Always check your sources. (This is the journalist in me screaming)

8. Pragmatism is not sexy, but let it be the backbone of all your decision-making processes.

9. You can admire someone without parroting them.

10. We tend to reduce those we strongly dislike to two-dimensional beings, so try to humanize even the most ignoble characters. (Yes, like Donald Trump)

The 2nd Presidential Debate.

I am happy to expand on any of these points for you to chew on, and I probably will throughout the years since they are hardly exclusive to politics. There is so much to learn and watching you explore something as simple as lifting your head and recognizing your hands remind me that there is always a new horizon to reach for, an unfamiliar bend in the river to form, something else out there and it's never too late to pursue it. (Ok, sometimes even I have to remind myself of point #8). You will also reach certain junctures in life and can't help but wonder how the hell you got there and where the hell you're going. But that's life. And I hope you'll consider coming to me at every one of those junctions. If not me, then at least your dad. I see how your aunts tune me out when I 'lecture' them, when all I am trying to do is pass along some hard-earned wisdom. So I have to try to do a better job with you. Maybe package it better. 

We will take it one day at a time. Right now, I have to worry about your milk spit ups. I thought we passed that phase but there is a surging regression. At least you smile while you're doing it. 

Until next time...