Warts and all

I had a moment the other morning. You know the kind? A “Mother of the Year” moment.

I’m telling you this because I used to think that mothers of large families were different. I used to think they had a special gift, a special patience, a special temperament. That they were “good with children,” whereas I wasn’t.  I used to think that mothers of large families found joy in the little aggravations of motherhood, whereas I found exasperation. I used to think that they had boundless patience and energy, whereas I ran out of both shortly after getting up in the morning.

I am now one of those mothers. I have 8 children including a pair of twins. I am expecting my 9th child in the spring of 2014. I am a member of the large family club although I expect someone to knock at my door and revoke my membership any day. Mothers of large family are inspirations. They make people think they can do it too. I don’t think anyone looks at me that way. Or maybe they look at me and think: “Yeah… let’s not and say we did.”

Mothers of large families have moments too. Moments like the other morning, when my 4 year-old woke-up just a little too early. I dragged my sorry behind to the kitchen to help her with breakfast before she could wake-up the twins. No luck: I heard one baby stir and thought that I may be able to nurse him back to sleep for another hour or two. I hurried to prepare my daughter’s bowl of cereal before the crying twin could wake-up his sister. Doing so, I inadvertently poured the milk instead of letting her do it. We’ve all done this right? Except that the difference between you and I is that you only have two children: I’ve had 17 years to learn these lessons and I still screw-up.

I am nursing one baby to the sound of a major melt down in the kitchen. She is screaming like her arm has been chewed-off by a shark. The second baby starts waking-up. I return the first baby to his bed and leave the room. Return to the kitchen and that’s when I had my “moment”. I grabbed my daughter by the arms, sat her down a little too firmly in front of her bowl of cereal and told her to stop screaming. Actually, I may have told her to shut-up. I did not threaten to tape her mouth shut with duct tape although the fleeting though may have crossed my mind. My entire day was going up in smoke: the twins up before 6 am meant that they would certainly fall asleep in the car when I left for errands at 9; the short car nap would certainly knee-cap the afternoon nap; no afternoon nap means no work in the afternoon; no afternoon nap means a hellish supper time; a hellish supper time makes everybody cranky and uncooperative. And I dumped all this squarely on my 4 year-old’s shoulders. Because yeah, she should know, right?

By now, I was back nursing my second twin back to sleep but my daughter was no longer screaming: she was wailing and sobbing for a hug. And from upstairs, stuck nursing in the dark, my heart sank. My child is only 4 and her need for affection and affirmation is gigantic. Not that my other children’s needs are less significant. But this particular child feels everything keenly. The frustration of having the milk poured for her but also her mother’s disapproval and anger. The firm arm grab, the harsh tone of voice, they just broke her apart. And now, I was at a loss to understand how after parenting so many children for so many years, I could still let a 4 year-old get the best of me.

I did give her a big hug. And I did apologize. Later that evening, as we were reading bedtime stories and cuddling in bed, I still felt the sting of failure but she didn’t seem to remember. We read about the wolf and the seven kids, naming each kid after her siblings, puzzling as always over who would be left out (all the kids are swallowed whole by the wolf so it’s a blessing really.) My little tantrum of the morning seemed all but forgotten.

In the balance of our parenting, we all hope that the happy, cozy, moments, the ones that we share around a bedtime story or a family walk in the park will outweigh the moments when we lose it. That’s why we need to love and cherish our children at every opportunity. So that on the whole, they’ll remember their childhood as a happy one, and their parents as loving. I don’t know yet how my children will remember me: a loving mom or a tired old hag with a short fuse? Maybe it will be a bit of both.

I used to parent with very clear goals and expectations in mind. I still parent with vision. But the minute expectations about my children’s table manners and church etiquette have given way to a broader vision of happiness and respect for themselves and others. If I can’t be a perfect parent, I will cover my imperfections with an extra layer of love and forgiveness. I hope that my children will remember the love over the imperfections. Warts and all.


Review of Once a Month Mom freezer cooking

This fall, my husband and I came to the realization that our days needed more hours, our weeks needed more days and our months… Well, you get the idea. We considered hiring a cleaning service but my husband was very reluctant to spend good money on such a futile endeavour. “Might as well just burn your money” he said and I have to say that if our housecleaning is any indication, nothing would feel more like lighting-up a big money cigar than hiring a cleaning service. We also want to avoid raising our kids to be picked-up or cleaned-up after. When people ask us: “8 kids! You must have a cleaning lady?!” we always answer: “No, that’s what the kids are for.” Our children are growing-up in affluence and we are fighting a daily battle against entitlement and ungratefulness. The cleaning service is one bridge too far.

So we went back to the drawing table to cut back some minutes to our hours. We found that the repeated assault of cooking three meals a day for 10 people was punching a hole in our ability to do anything in the evening, including but not limited to go to bed early. I would come home from work, start cooking supper. My husband would drive the children left, right and centre while I took care of the four younger children’s bedtime routine. Then around 9 pm we would meet-up in the kitchen to survey the damage. Around 11 pm, we’d be done with the kitchen clean-up and dishes extravaganza, tired, grumpy and looking forward to the same hellish routine the next day.

My husband suggested looking into catering and batch-cooking services like Supper Works. We had a mild case of sticker shock: catering is closer in price to eating in a restaurant than eating at home. The premium on Supper Works’ ingredients was significant and the concept not at all adapted to cooking for a large family: we would have had to buy two or three meal packages to cover our family’s needs, yet, feeding a family of 10 is not necessarily double the price of feeding a family of 5. Supper Works is a good option for families who would otherwise eat out: compared to the cost of a restaurant entrée, Supper Works figures competitively. But it is double the price of buying the ingredients yourself.

A friend suggested Once a Month Mom (OAMM): “It takes the thinking out of batch cooking, and your older kids can help too: the instructions are very easy to follow.”  I was ready to give it a try and chose one of their free past menus. Because their menus are planned around seasonal ingredients – whatever that means, I live in Canada where nothing is seasonal for 8 out of 12 months – I went with their November 2011 menu and gave it a try at the beginning of last December. In mid-December, I also tried one of their Mini-Menus to plan a batch-cooking party for a friend who had recently adopted twins.

First, you would be well advised to read through the website for instructions on getting off to a right start. The menus are organized around three main documents: the Grocery List, the Recipe Cards and the Instructions. The Grocery List and Recipe Cards are Google Docs spreadsheets based on the quantities needed to feed one person for a month. You enter the number of people you are cooking for and the software does its magic: the finished product is a detailed grocery list and a series of recipes with the exact amount of all the ingredients required by the menu. We spent an inordinate amount of time formatting the documents in Excel to print it. The getting-started instructions state clearly that the documents are optimized for Google Docs, not Excel. The first take-home message is to download the documents in Google Docs… And read through the website before starting for other pivotal tidbits of information.

We chose the Whole Foods menu because it came closest to the way we cook at home: mostly from scratch, using real food. We printed our grocery list and off we went on a big day of shopping. Planning ahead, you can buy your groceries throughout the month to mimic the ebb and flow of meal preparation, freezing the meat as you go. Buying all the ingredients for a month of freezer meals in one afternoon is not for the faint of heart. We came home with a much lighter wallet and a full-size van full of food. We shopped at Costco for the most part, especially the meat part. (Make sure ahead of time that there is room in your fridge for all the food). Now, we were committed!

I got-up early the next morning and started cooking.

Starting bright and early with my crack-of-dawn baby, still in our pajamas!
Starting bright and early with my crack-of-dawn baby, still in our pajamas!

I didn’t appreciate how intense this cooking extravaganza would be and didn’t make arrangements to have my children looked after. Thankfully, my husband had no commitments that weekend and was able to do most of the baby-chasing, adjusted for whoever was on my back at any given time. Take-home message number two is to plan your weekend well in advance, including childcare and whatever your family will eat for the duration. When I did the Mini-Menu for my friend, some members of my local babywearing community came to help. Half the moms were in the kitchen working while the other half was looking after the little ones. It was a good old-fashioned cooking party: this is how it was done during harvest season when harvesting and preserving had to be done in one shot to avoid spoilage. It’s a lot more fun to do it with friends and if I can figure out a way of pricing meal-units, I would like to organize a batch-cooking coop of some kind.

Believe it or not, I went to the grocery store without reading the recipes first. That’s your third take-home message: study the recipes first. I didn’t realize until I was about to start a batch of 30 enchilada that the Whole Food menu was making tortilla and bread from scratch! Of course, homemade panini bread and tortilla are an order of magnitude better than what you buy in the store. But if you are trying to make a month of freezer meals for 10 people in one week-end (that’s 300 individual meals by the way), you may elect to skip the part where you hand-roll 72 tortilla, know what I mean? Thankfully, I received crucial and timely help from my mother and my daughters who were giddy at the thought of making a recipe that started with “Pour 34 cups of flour into a large bowl…”

My two daughters making the tortilla dough.
My two daughters making the tortilla dough.
My long-suffering mother, hand-rolling tortilla for an army
My long-suffering mother, hand-rolling tortilla for an army

Reading recipes will also highlight any differences of culinary vocab and allow you to adjust. I peeled and “cubed” 21 cups of butternut squash – a real pain in the butt if you ever had one – until I realized that by “cubed” they meant “quartered” (and ready to roast in their peel). Duh, there went 2h I’ll never get back.

Is the finish result worth it? Hell yeah, but it's 11 pm on this picture.
Is the finish result worth it? Hell yeah, but it’s 11 pm on this picture.

At the end of the day, I was thoroughly spent. Don’t underestimate the effort involved in making all your meals in one day: it’s a concentration of 30 days of dinners all in a 48h period. If anything, it highlights the cumulative effort of feeding your family every single month: give yourself a vigorous pat in the back family cooks! I crashed on the couch around 9 pm and promptly fell asleep. I was drooling on a couch pillow when my husband gently shook me and told me to go to bed.

I didn’t finish all my freezer meals in one weekend. The limitations of the spreadsheet are that it calculates like a robot without consideration for the size of your cookware. The reasoning behind batch cooking is that you cook in double or triple batches. OAMM doesn’t provide you with 20 different meals: it offers about 8 recipes that are repeated three times over the course of the month. But as any mother of a large family will attest, a single meal for 10 people already doubles or triples most recipes. So if you follow the reasoning behind OAMM batch cooking, I was cooking in sextuple and octuples batches… Well, nobody has a pot large enough to make a octuplet batch of beef Bourguignon : I found myself having to make several meals (like the boeuf Bourguignon and the risotto) in 2 or 3 separate batches…. And while I was making my third double batch of risotto, nothing else was happening. I am blessed that my twins’ caregiver has a past life in catering: I was able to go to work and  leave her with my OAMM recipes and ask her to please, pretty please, do anything to save the meat and as much produce as possible. We did finish with minimal spoilage…. I think I lost the bottom third of my pre-chopped onions. All in all, not a bad average on a $800 grocery.

So what do I think about OAMM? Is it worth it? You will ask yourself that question as you buy all your groceries for the month and slave away in the kitchen for 48 insane hours. But this week, I took out my meals in the morning and we ate without messing-up the kitchen. Our children are going to bed earlier and my husband started reading novels out loud to our son – he’s 6, they are reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne at bed time. I have been going to bed at 9 pm on average and it is allowing me to take advantage of my twin boy’s longest sleep stretch: I get 3-4 hours of sleep in a row before he starts waking up every 2 hours, for the first time in almost 18 months. And I learned a few things in this first OAMM experience that I will tweak for next month in order to finish within the Friday night-to-Sunday window. Here they are in no particular order:

–          I will study my recipes beforehand and see which corners I can cut. Tortillas will be store-bought although it will be difficult to go back.

–          I will skip the breakfast menu unless it involves casseroles that are substantial enough to be used as a dinner. Like the Tahoe Brunch Casserole http://www.cabbi.com/recipes/detail/200 We eat toasts and cereals at breakfast, I need to focus my energy on dinner.

–          Pancake recipes, however delicious, take-up too much time and RAM to work in the context of a busy cooking day. I burned 95% of my lemon poppy seed pancakes, which was a damn shame.

–          The Whole Food menu includes a few vegetarian entrees but is still very heavily meat-centered. I bought much more meat in my OAMM trial month that  I usually do, by a factor of 2, possibly 3. Next time, I will probably make one Whole Food Mini-Menu and one Vegan Mini-Menu to even it out.

–          OAMM is American and wow, holy stinkin’ cow they love their dairy fat!! There is an unholy quantity of butter and cheese but mostly butter, and heavy cream too, in their recipes. Their pumpkin risotto recipe was heavenly but wow, with Maple Syrup, it would have been a perfect dessert. A lot of the Whole Food Menu’s vegetarian recipes were heavy on milk fat. A vegetarian diet is not healthier if you replace lean protein by butter. Just sayin’

OAMM is well thought out and does take the thinking out of batch cooking. Their recipes are tasty and varied and so far, none have fallen flat with my family. It is well-worth the intensity of the big cooking day. Try it and persevere: you’ll be glad you did.

Twins Birth Story: Quick, normal, natural and uneventful.

I recently met several mothers expecting twins and I decided to post my birth story along with my Birthday Flikr photostream. The Internet is full of stories of how wrong things can get, I thought I would share my very boring story of a healthy full-term, hospital, natural, twin delivery. It’s not a beautiful home water birth or a terrifying train wreck. It happened in the operating room of a tertiary care centre in Ottawa, ON. All photo creds go to my oldest daughter Clara, minus one or two pictures taken by Dr. Doug Black, attending OB-Gyn extraordinaire.

Clara, taking a selfie. Aren’t we having fun?
The cast of characters: my doctor, his most amazing and highly competent resident and my nurse Sue.

First, some stats. My twins were di-zygotic, conceived from two fertilized eggs. Growing in-utero, they had two of everything: two amniotic bags, two placentas. We learned that we were expecting twins at 15 weeks of gestation. The girl was on the left, the boy as on the right and presenting first. They stayed like that until the end. Continue reading “Twins Birth Story: Quick, normal, natural and uneventful.”

Random Bullets

  • My apologies for the light blogging. A perfect storm of moving, listing our house, moving, medical appointments, moving, sick baby, sick baby, moving, sleepless nights, napless days and more moving has severely curtailed my ability to do anything but moving and holding babies.
  • In the last couple of weeks, the twins turned 8 months, got sick and then better. One twin is on a cocktail of 4 different drugs and things — fingers crossed — seem to be settling. And by “settling” I mean that this baby is no longer crying for 2 to 4 hours for no apparent reason in the middle of the night, twice a night, night after night. Dealing with a child with a chronic condition, albeit mild and probably recoverable, has given me a new bone-deep appreciation for parents of severely ill children. It is relentless.
  • Many friends and members of my family have ganged-up to give me a hand moving and looking after the children. This in turn has given me a new, bone-deep appreciation for the value of community. Some have helped me pack boxes, others have helped me prep our house for showings, others — with a medical degree — have decided that enough was enough and we shall get to the bottom of this with the babies. Some people wonder how I do it with a large family. This is how. I don’t do it, we do it. There is nothing miraculous about having a large family when you have as much support as I do. To my most awesome family and friends Cheers! (and a heartfelt thank you.) You can see how well the house shows in the gallery below. I hope to have good selling news soon!
  • When we listed our house, our agent asked that we leave our kitchen table in the kitchen to make it look more kitchen-y. As a result we are eating off these two very ugly 6-ft tables. You’d think I would be looking forward to selling our house so we can get on with the business of paying off our debts, living cash-flow positive and start looking for land on which to build our forever home. But really, I just want to sell so I can get my kitchen table back.

Let him cry it out

Lucas is not the best sleeper baby. He is a fun and engaging little dude who likes to party.

He also likes his mom. A lot. Almost from birth he would look around for mom whenever someone else was holding him and react to the sound of her voice. At night, he likes to know his mom is nearby.

Parenting experts say that babies wake-up at night because they lack the skill to fall asleep on their own. But Lucas says it’s all nonsense. He can fall asleep on his own just fine. In fact, his mommy always put him down in bed wide awake. He and Ève will chat a while then Ève will fall asleep and Lucas will keep chatting her up a bit longer until it gets boring. Then he falls asleep looking at Ève.

Lucas wakes-up several times a night to check on mom. Mom finds it a bit tiresome: if you include the last 6 weeks of the twin pregnancy, the longest stretch of sleep mommy’s had in the last 9 months was, oh, about 2 hours. And most nights, between Lucas, Ève and Sarah, mommy can be up as often as every 45 minutes between midnight an 4:00 am. Some nights mommy wonders why she bothers going to bed at all: talk about setting yourself up for failure!

So about once a month since Lucas turned 3 months, mommy decides that she will listen to the experts and let Lucas “learn” to fall asleep on his own. The experts say that after crying for a while, Lucas will learn to “self-soothe” by using his fingers. But Lucas says this is all nonsense : he knows perfectly well where his fingers are and how to put them in his mouth. But that’s of little use to him since they are not attached to mommy.

Other experts say that mommy should give Lucas some water at night so that Lucas will learn not to be hungry. But Lucas says this is all nonsense: when Daddy gives him water or a pacifier, he still needs to know that mommy is near.

So mommy decides once a month that Lucas should cry it out. And it lasts, oh, about 5 minutes. Because nature did a good job and when Lucas cries, this is what mommy is up against:

“What do you drive?”

I’ve been trying to write an insightful and suitably indignant post about the brewing robocall scandal but words fail me. My oldest daughter is watching the Oscars and between the endless chatter and my incoming Twitter feed, I can’t gather my thoughts… so in the mean time, I thought I would tell you about what I drive.

Any parent of a large family can probably confirm that people are curious about our means of locomotion. We have a large family and so we drive a large van. My van looks somewhat like this:

It’s a 15-passenger van but we don’t use the back bench, making it an 11-passenger van. With a family of 10, it fills-up quite nicely.

We also have a minivan that we use for driving around. I won’t try to justify the minivan by saying that it’s cheaper to have a second vehicle than to pay the gas on the utility van… but it’s a close call! We calculated that when gas hits around the $1.25 / litre mark, you can justify buying a small commuter car by the savings on gas.

Anyway, this is not really what this post is about. What I want to tell you is that nobody want to buy these suckers when they cost over $100 to fill-up. We bought ours for a song in 2008 when gas prices soared to $1.30. We “only” had 5 children then and could still fit in a minivan but we knew that we would have more children.

I’m telling you this because gas prices have been increasing lately. You can read about it here. Ideally, you would purchase your large-family van in November, December, January, when Christmas gift shopping takes over car shopping and dealers are begging you to take last year’s models off their real estate. But with gas prices the way they are going, I wouldn’t rule out some good deals up the pipe. If there is a large van in your future, start looking.

Friday’s Mixed Nuts

Pour mes lecteurs francophones: “Friday’s Mixed Nuts” est un ramassis d’anecdotes et de faits divers rassemblés au cour de la semaine.

1 one vegetarian recipe my kids all love: blackbean quesadilla from Canadian Living.com I serve it with salsa, sour cream and guacamole. I always double the recipe and we eat the leftover filling by the spoonful. I also warm-up the leftovers in a pan, throw-in some cheese and top it with diced avocado. It’s a gazillion time better when the salsa was made with love by your own mother using your own homegrown tomatoes and jalapenos. A little jar of spicy summer heat in the dead of winter.

2 two blogs I found this week that inspired me: The Lucas Adventures (family with 4 children and a touching adoption story from Rwanda) and Crackers (a homemade food blog about eating well, something I try to do in part by growing my own tomatoes and having other people make the salsa — Merci Maman et Faustina!)

3 three sizes of black socks is how I deal with  the laundry for 20 feet (well 16 really since the twins don’t count yet). Large black socks for mom, dad and the two larger children, medium black socks for the two medium children and small black socks for the little boy. Clean socks live in a laundry basket and people play mix-and-match as required.

4 four kilometers is how far I ran on icy sidewalks with my dog and my jogging stroller. You can read about it in the Running Diaries’ First Run post.

5 five billion dollars is what Facebook will file to raise in its initial public offering (IPO).  According to the company, its revenue rose by 65% is 2011 from 3-ish million $ to 1 billion. Ever wondered what made Facebook so valuable? It depends who you ask. According to founder Mark Zuckerberg, it is seizing the opportunity to connect people and building the tools that enable these connections. Uh? Since I don’t pay a dime for connecting with my friends there has to be more: investors are not paid in “connections”. Mashable has the real story here. In case you were wondering, Facebook is a giant advertizing bucket. We users are not the clients, we are the product. That’s good to keep in mind as Facebook prepares to put your personal information on show whether you want it or not. Is this a big deal? It depends how you feel about online privacy. Still, you may want to read this before embracing the mandatory timeline.

Light Blogging – Ralentissement

Ralentissement forcé causé par un méchant streptocoque et 5 jours de misère fièvreuse. Fatigue oblige: il fallait que ça arrive. Mais grâce au miracle de la médecine moderne (les antibiotiques) et une bonne dose de chouchoutage par ma maman chérie, je me remets d’aplomb.

Light blogging ahead due to a mean streptococcus and 5 days of febrile misery. Fatigue does take its toll. But thanks to the miracle of modern medicine (antibiotics) and a strong dose of mothering from my own very best mother, I am getting back on my feet.