One month since we adopted Haddon

Well, where to begin? We’ve been home from China three (almost four now) weeks. It’s been one month, six days since Haddon became part of our family  (I keep adding to that number because this post has taken almost a week to write). Life is very different from just six weeks ago, when we left for China!

The overall theme is joy. Haddon has attached to us really well so far and we have attached to him. He is taking all the changes surprisingly well and is an overall happy kid. We love this little boy and it all feels right — like he belongs here with us.

All of the above may not seem like a big deal, but it really is. There are so many sticky spots with adoption and I don’t take for granted the fact that things have gone so smoothly and the love is naturally flowing in both directions. It’s a grace from God and we are so thankful.

I’ll go back and write in more detail about our time in China (in short, it was amazing!) but right now let’s focus on the past three-ish weeks.

The journey itself home from China was not fun. Everything went as planned — we are so, so thankful there were no delays or hitches — but traveling for more than 24 hours straight on little sleep and with a two-year-old is just never going to be easy. I felt bad for those seated around us on the flight from Beijing… they heard more than a little crying and screaming.

But our arrival in Chicago was beautiful. We were so happy to be home and my entire family was there to greet us with Corban and Mara, and signs and cupcakes. Haddon instantly perked up after crying through customs (which did get us to the front of the line, by the way) and just had a blast running around the airport with his siblings and cousins.

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It was a sweet greeting, and I’m so glad our friend and photographer Anna Sparks was there to document it.

The first few days home were emotional and overwhelming. Our house was a complete disaster in every way. We were jet lagged. Haddon had nights and days mixed up. I was sick for a couple days on top of being in a haze of sleep deprivation and overwhelm, grateful for friends and family reaching out yet not ready to re-enter normal life yet.

Peter went back to work right away on Monday (we got home Saturday night) and I am so grateful my mom came to help out for a few days. She helped with meals, kid-wrangling and cleaning. Without her it would have felt impossible to move beyond the piles of laundry, suitcases and just generally dirty house (that’s what happens when cats are the only inhabitants for any amount of time). It also would have been daunting getting the kids all to nap at once!

Thanks, Mom!

Haddon was overwhelmed by our house at first. In China he lived in a small apartment with four foster siblings, and then in a hotel room with us — he’s always been surrounded by people at all times. So our four-bedroom home is a change for him. For the first few days he would start to panic if he was in a room alone even for a few seconds. Nothing too intense, but it was a sign to me that we needed to keep his world small for a while, as adoption experts recommend.

So our first week was spent at home recovering, playing, cleaning, helping Haddon explore our house and neighborhood and minimally venturing out (both for Haddon’s sake and mine — I was terrified to take all three kids somewhere on my own). We cleared our schedule but still played outside with neighbors and had a couple drop-in visitors. Even with minimal stimulation the days felt busy and exhausting, for Haddon probably even more than me.

We’ve attempted to keep that quiet, low-key lifestyle up but even when I don’t go out of my way to make plans, somehow we end up doing things. That’s been fine for the most part. Corban and Mara basically beg for social opportunities, and Haddon’s attachment to Peter and me is strong and he is happy to be out and about too, so we’re rolling with it and slowly adding more as it’s comfortable.

Three across in a Ford Taurus for the win!

We’ve had friends over to play, met friends at parks, gone to beer gardens, had Peter’s parents visit for a day, gone out to eat (once), gone to church, etc. These are a lot of things that attachment experts advise against in the first few weeks, but like I said, Haddon’s attachment to us is strong and these are things that just feel appropriate and necessary for our family’s happiness. Going forward I think we’ll be at normal activity level. We even went to the pool today with friends.

One of the biggest blessings of this past month (aside from Haddon himself, who is beyond wonderful!) is how loved and supported we’ve felt from our family, friends, neighbors and even people we just met, barely know or haven’t talked to in ages. It is incredible and makes me tear up just thinking about it. The emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, prayers, meals, gifts, cards, offers of help… I’ve at times felt overwhelmed but, oh my goodness, is genuine care from those around you not the best thing to be overwhelmed by? I thank God every day that He has brought people into our lives who are so supportive and generous with their words and time. Without all this support this all would be so much harder. It’s a beautiful thing to feel the warmth of community and I wish every family going through a big transition would feel this kind of embrace.

A meal from a friend… huge blessing!

Some areas to note about Haddon (if I’m on top of things I’ll update monthly (OK, maybe bi-monthly?) to track progress):

Play

Haddon plays independently really well — his favorites are toy cars, our play kitchen, musical instruments and the kiddie pool (he would probably choose to live in that thing). He runs around with Corban and Mara but otherwise I think it’s still hard for him to truly play with them — both because of the language barrier and because he tends to be really possessive of the toys he’s playing with. I’m not sure if that’s an issue relating to being in an orphanage setting or just normal toddler behavior. Probably both.

Language

In China, we tried to speak to Haddon in our limited Mandarin and not throw too many English words at him. He came to us speaking simple Mandarin sentences, but I’m not sure how wide his vocabulary actually was/is. We have learned some basic Mandarin words and phrases (which, by the way, I love and want to continue learning) and can generally figure out what he’s saying as it relates to a need or desire.

But oh is it exciting to watch him learn English! Upon our arrival home,  he had learned to say “I love you,” “good morning,” “diaper” and “bye bye,” without us really trying too hard to teach him.

Within his first day or two home he knew our cats’ names and “gentle” a.k.a. our mantra to him when petting the cats (also, he’s obsessed with the cats! They can usually cheer him up if he’s fussy). He calls both Corban and Mara “Co-ban.” Slowly but surely he’s started using more and more words on his own and in context: All done, potty, baby, fish, deer, otter, dog, ball, baby, banana, fan, drink, milk, hungry, etc…

I remember how exciting it was when we first realized Corban understood certain words and could point out pictures we named in books. It’s no less exciting to hear Haddon point to a picture of a ball in a book and say the word in English, or say to me at dinner “milk” and “drink” when I forgot to bring his cup to the table. You can see his little mind at work as he looks at something and tries to recall the right word in English. It doesn’t happen super often but more and more he is attempting to speak English and it feels just as magical and unexpected as hearing our biological kids speak their first few words.

Physical development

Well, we’ve had three doctors appointments so far and many more scheduled. Some of them are standard appointments every adopted child has: child development center for initial evaluation, pediatrician for vaccines, ophthalmologist, audiologist, dentist. It was not mentioned in his medical file but we learned our first day with Haddon that he walks on his toes on his left foot, causing him to limp. So for that we’ve seen a neurologist and rehabilitation doctor and will also see a physical therapist and orthopedic specialist. We’re certain we’ll have follow up eye doctor appointments based on our observations. So by the end of the summer our doctor appointments count will be well into double digits. It’s kind of like cramming all the visits you have in the first few years into a few months.

The important details: Haddon has cerebral palsy, which affects the muscles in his left leg. It’s a scary diagnosis but doesn’t change what we already knew about him: he’s smart (cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury but it does not affect cognitive abilities) and he still gets around just fine, running and playing like most kids, and with therapy should be able to walk fairly normally. Right now it looks like treatment will consist of a leg brace and physical therapy. We have started doing ankle stretches with him and already his achilles tendon seems to be loosening up a little.

Haddon seems small compared to Corban and Mara, but is on the growth charts at around 30-40% for both height and weight. So he’s small for a Sherwood, but not that small really. It still feels like none of his clothes really fit, though! I think he’s somewhere between size 24 months and 2T, if that’s even possible. He wears about size 5 1/2 or 6 in shoes (but his only shoes that fit really well are from China so I don’t know that they translate exactly to a U.S. size).

Attachment

We’ve been blessed with quick attachment to and from Haddon. He started calling us Mama and Baba on day one and really seems to understand we’re his and he’s ours.

We have not been super strict about letting other people pick him up or help him with things when we’re in social settings. I never wrote a letter to friends and neighbors explaining attachment or cocooning, like some adoptive families do, and honestly have not really laid out any “rules” for friends and family (don’t feed, don’t hold, don’t offer too much affection, etc.). I figured Peter or I would just be there with him anytime he’s around others and be able to take care of his needs. Well, with two other kids in our care it doesn’t always work out that way! But I think we’re beyond the point of it really mattering, and since Haddon is pretty wary of strangers to begin with it hasn’t been a big deal if someone helps him tie his shoe or holds his hand while he walks up a couple steps. He does not show indiscriminate affection and is quite shy around new people.

While in China, Haddon seemed to be more attached to Peter, but since day one here at home he switched into Mama mode. I’m sure it’s because I’m the one home with him every day and I put him to bed most nights. He does ask about Baba throughout the day though (he started repeating, “Baba at work,” and that seems satisfactory even though I know he has no idea what it means).

Sleep

I don’t even want to know how many hours in the past month we’ve spent lying silently next to Haddon’s crib waiting for him to fall asleep. Every naptime and bedtime in China meant lights out, all of us lying down and pretending to sleep. It wasn’t always a quick process.

At home, Haddon sleeps in a crib in his own room. For the first few weeks, I would lie down on the floor next to his crib while he fell asleep. If he would wake up in the middle of the night (a normal occurrence at first, especially with the jet lag!) I would go back in and lie down. He would cry if I would get up and leave before he was asleep, so many nights I spent hours lying there (and falling asleep myself).

After about two weeks or so of that, I was going crazy feeling like I had no time away from the kids, and Haddon was taking longer and longer to fall asleep, watching me closely to make sure I wasn’t going to try to sneak out. It wasn’t working for any of us.

Now, one of us puts him to bed with a story, prayer and song, then tucks him in so he’s turned toward the wall (and not straining to watch us) and sits in the rocker in his room for a minute or two before leaving. He sometimes cries for a minute before quieting down and going to sleep. Although I think it was necessary for us to make him feel comfortable and secure in the first few weeks by lying down in his room, this is now a much better plan for all of us.

We had sent Haddon a care package in China with a photo album and a stuffed panda, and I’m so glad we did. His panda (or Mao Mao, as he calls it — panda is Xiang Mao in Mandarin) is his comfort item and he holds it and pets it while he falls asleep. When he’s tired and fussy, if we hold him and give him Mao Mao he calms down right away.

Food

Haddon is a good eater for the most part. His favorite foods are meat, eggs, dried seaweed, grape tomatoes, bread and fruit. Unfortunately there aren’t many vegetables I can convince him to eat, and oddly he doesn’t seem too crazy about rice. He eats very independently and is skilled with a fork and spoon.

Even though the milk in China is different from our milk (the stuff he drank was shelf stable instead of fresh), Haddon didn’t bat an eye at the switch to regular milk. He loves the stuff and drinks a lot.

We hit up our local Chinese grocery store last week and Haddon got really excited about some snacks he spotted there. It was cute and we stocked up on some of the snack foods we became familiar with in China (we are all fans). It’s nice that we have a local spot to find those things.

Potty training

I am back to cloth diapering. It was a tough reality to face at first but I guess it’s like riding a bike.

In China Haddon was not potty trained at all that we know of, but from the start he has shown signs of being ready. We didn’t want to push it until he was fully adjusted here though.

Well, looks like we are already boarding the potty train (ha) and I think the cloth diapers will be packed up again before long. Haddon has gone on the toilet a number of times in the past week, and has even initiated it himself a few times, saying “potty” to us. He gets really excited each time he uses the toilet successfully, so I think it’s time to make a sticker chart and make it official. He’ll be three in just over five weeks so this isn’t surprising.

Family dynamics

This has been a big adjustment for Corban and Mara too. They are handling the changes well (both the new brother and me being home full-time), but it can be a test of my patience since there are still the normal arguments and competitions but with a third one thrown in the mix.

There are times when Mara wants to be babied by me, and times when she tries to baby Haddon. Neither scenario goes very well. I think one-on-one time for her and me is going to be important in helping her get the attention she desires. Today was a rough afternoon for Mara so tonight I took her to Costco with me after Peter got home and it really changed her mood around. She was such a delight (and oh how much easier it is grocery shopping with one kid instead of three!).

Corban verbalized some disappointment in the early days with the fact that Haddon doesn’t speak English (yet). I think the language barrier makes it harder for them to fully connect right now — they are eager to show and tell him things, which is tender and adorable, but since he doesn’t understand everything there’s still a disconnect. There have still been a lot of sweet moments. When Haddon wakes up in the morning or after nap, the first thing he says is, “Corban?”

Corban is often eager to help Haddon out, and he still calls him by his Chinese name, HaoLei, most of the time and I find that really sweet. All three kids love listening to this CD we have that includes traditional English and Mandarin nursery rhyme songs. That music in particular has been a connection point for them, I think.

I always want to remember Corban and Mara’s intense eagerness to give Haddon his gift they picked out — a really cool toy car — on our first night home. That night they all wore matching pajamas and were giddy with excitement.

Overall, things have gone really well in our first month with Haddon. Each day brings new discoveries and joys, and we couldn’t be happier that he is part of our family.

Packing for China

We leave for China today!

Packing for this trip has seemed overly complicated. We will be gone for 18 days and so want to pack light, but we also want to make sure we have everything we need that will be harder to find there—like medicine, for instance.

Then there are complications like, well, all the paperwork we need to bring, the gifts for officials (small, practical items as a token of appreciation—this is important in Chinese culture) oh and clothes and items our son Haddon will need.

We don’t really know Haddon’s size. We have measurements, but they seem a bit unreliable. But toddler sizes are forgiving, so 3T clothes with a few 2Ts will do. We have his shoe size, but again, there is some question there, so I’m bringing two pairs of Crocs in two different sizes (they are forgiving shoes anyway). Thankfully I have a whole bin of cute shoes that Corban wore when he was younger so I just picked through it and didn’t have to buy any. I did end up buying some new shirts for Haddon because I just couldn’t resist.


I’m also bringing a few of our favorite books to read to him (unfortunately some are board books, so heavy and bulky), stickers, balloons, a couple small balls, race cars and stuffed animal for him.

The gifts are something we were told not to stress about. We decided to buy Wisconsin ginseng tea (Wisconsin ginseng is high quality and prized in China) to put in small red gift bags for officials. My friend we are staying with in Beijing will get tea and whole ginseng, and Haddon’s foster parents will get whole ginseng. I also made a locket with Haddon’s picture in it to give to his foster mom. Made one for myself too!


As far as my clothes go, I’m pretty happy with how much and what I packed (at least from my room pre-trip, ha). The weather will be warm (on some days HOT) so no need for bulky items or jackets.

I’m bringing three pairs of shoes: tennis shoes, Teva sandals and nude ballet flats. Three dresses, including one that is quick dry fabric so I can hand wash it easily. Two pairs of pants: leggings and quick-dry joggers for our four flights (there, back and two in country). Two pairs of shorts: running shorts if I decide to work out at hotels and quick-dry shorts I can wash easily.

The rest of my clothes are tank tops and a couple T-shirts,  light sweaters and workout tops. I did splurge and pack light sweatpants and a light zip-up for lounging in the hotel room, because I know after a long day I’ll want those comforts.


I think I could have pared back even further and planned to wash more tops, but I’m guessing I won’t want to spend too much time doing that, and my tops are mostly light tanks that don’t take up much space.

The biggest weight in our suitcase and stressor to pack was all the meds we are bringing. Pain relievers, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Immodium (it’s common to get sick from the food or water so we are trying to be REALLY prepared!), child medicine, mini first aid kit, lice remover, hydrocortisone cream, vitamins, cold medicine, Sudafed, nasal spray… and more I’m sure. I put them all in a plastic shoebox that we can later use to back breakable souvenirs on the way home.


Toilet paper too! We’ve been warned about the public bathrooms there.

One other key to our packing sanity—packing cubes! They’re those green and blue zipper containers, and I’m so thankful they exist. They will help us keep everything organized (we will be staying in three different cities while there) and help crunch things down so you can fit more.


We fit everything into two large suitcases, two backpacks and a medium-size purse. We are also packing a large duffel bag in the suitcase so we can fit anything we buy while there in the suitcases and check the duffel filled with dirty clothes on the way home. Just under the 50 pound weight limit for both bags (phew!).

So why am I blogging about suitcases when we are leaving on the most exciting trip of our lives today? Nervous energy, I guess! 

I’m finishing this post up from the airport where we are munching on some Mexican (thanks, Rick Bayless) and awaiting our flight to Beijing. I will try to update throughout our trip, wifi and VPN-dependent, but for quicker and more reliable updates, subscribe to my email list I’ll be keeping in touch with hopefully: tinylettter.com/alisherwood

China, here we come!

Our family is growing! Why adoption?

In two weeks, we will legally be a family of five!

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No, I am not pregnant — and this is something we’ve been actively anticipating for much longer than nine months: adoption.

So, first, the exciting details. It’s a boy. He is 2 years, 9 months old. He lives in Harbin, China. His English name will be Haddon, after (or inspired by) the theologian C.H. (Charles Haddon) Spurgeon. Peter and I leave in just over a week to bring him home!

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I had intended on documenting the entire process from the start here, but instead found it easier to share this journey via conversations and prayer requests to friends rather than by sitting down and typing it out. At some point I do want to go back and write more about the details that led us to this point, though.

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First, I’ll tackle a question I’ve gotten (not surprisingly) a lot. What made you decide to adopt?

I think if we didn’t have biological kids or were older than we are this question might seem nosy, but for a relatively young couple with a healthy boy and girl, adoption is puzzling, or at least curiosity-inducing, to a lot of people.

I understand why and don’t begrudge anyone for asking. Most people think of adoption as something for people who can’t or don’t want to have biological kids. Adoption is a great choice for those people.

Or they think of adoption as something for very saintly people who want to give unfortunate children a better life. Adoption is the only way millions of kids worldwide have the opportunity to grow up with a family. (Though I would say saintliness is an unhealthy motivation for anything in life, including adoption.)

The reality is adoption fills a need and desire for both parents and children, and I think it’s healthiest to acknowledge both parties’ needs.

So the short answer to “what made you decide to adopt?” is because we want more kids and there are kids out there who need families.

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From the start of our relationship, Peter has talked about wanting to adopt. Before then, I had never really considered it, mainly out of ignorance. It just didn’t cross my mind, but I had no qualms about it. As we talked about it more and because Peter felt strongly about adoption, it quickly became a foregone conclusion as we thought about the future. We are fortunate to have come to know a number of adoptive families over the years and that just encouraged us even more.

So the superficial “why” I sometimes find myself reciting to people quickly when they ask why we are adopting is, “We’ve just always wanted to.”

But there’s more to it than any of that. Why do we feel called to be one of those families when it would be far easier to just have more biological children? Why would we choose to take on the expense—monetary, emotional, mental, physical—of adoption?

Our deeper motivation comes from looking at our status in relationship to God. Through Christ’s redeeming work for us, we “receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:5) We are born under the law, but through Jesus we are called sons of God, receiving the full inheritance of Christ.

In Romans 8:14-17, Paul writes:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

The Creator of the universe loved lowly, little me enough to adopt me as his child. Adoption is a beautiful, mysterious picture of our relationship with our Father—not because we were born His, but because he pursued us and made us His own children.

I’m not equipped to explain it all very well in my own words, but John Piper has an excellent exposition on adoption, where he lays out eight similarities between God adopting us and us adopting children.

Number seven is especially moving to me. A snippet: “The distance between what we are, and what God is, is infinitely greater than any distance between us and a child we might adopt. God crossed the greatest cultural barrier to redeem and adopt us.”

Jesus paid the greatest price for our adoption, so any cost we bear in adopting our son is pennies in comparison. We rely on God’s grace for the strength we will need for the job (just as with parenting our biological kids) and rest in His promises.

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Corban’s 5th birthday party

I have fond memories of my fifth birthday party. It’s always stuck in my mind as one of my favorite childhood birthday parties. I don’t know if there are pictures or videos recording parts of it (probably, but I haven’t seen them in decades) so all that my mind really has is a vague sense of fun and joy, and memories of jumping in a bouncy house in our backyard on a warm summer day.

It’s strange to me that my firstborn is now old enough to have these types of memories for himself—perhaps an internal recording of excitement and happiness that will stick with him in the coming years. With that in mind, I wanted his fifth birthday party to be a special one.

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(I should note it was nearly three months ago, but birthday parties are apparently the one thing I feel obligated to record here regardless of how long it takes me to do so.)

While I wanted the party to be special for Corban, I also wanted it to be really simple for me to plan. After Mara’s Three Little Pigs shindig a few months earlier and his pirate party last year, I wasn’t really up for DIY and creativity. So I booked a party at our favorite local gymnastics place (Swiss Turners) instead of hosting it at our house.

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The party included an hour of gymnastics fun for Corban and a small group of friends followed by a half hour of scarfing down pizza and cupcakes and opening presents in the party room upstairs.

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The kids had a blast in the gym. The two instructors did a great job keeping the little ones in line (with some parental support).

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Pretty much all I did was jazz up the invitations provided by Swiss Turners, bake cupcakes, slice some raw vegetables and make a birthday banner. We didn’t need to do much to the party room.

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I used two tried and true recipes: Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes and Buttermilk Chocolate Cupcakes with this fudge frosting.

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There isn’t much else to say about the party. Corban had a ton of fun with his friends (he said the trampoline “boat” game was his favorite) and it was sweet for me to just sit back and watch him and the other kids run, jump and play.

I shot a bunch of blurry, poorly lit photos to try to capture the moments. Here are some highlights.

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It’s a little late to end by saying “happy birthday, Corban,” so instead I’ll get emotional for a moment after looking back at these photos.

Five is such a milestone age in my mind. It feels lightyears older than four, and it’s the age at which Corban will go off to school for the first time. (Sob!) Birthdays are such a bittersweet reminder of how quickly the months go by and how fast our little people grow and change. I love this boy so much and am enjoying every stage with him.

Berenstain Bears Halloween costumes

We did another full-fledged family costume this year for Halloween. Last year it was Jake and the Neverland Pirates. This year: Berenstain Bears (yes, that’s how it’s always been spelled).

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Corban discovered the Bear family thanks to the extensive collection of books my parents have from when I was a kid, and these past few months we have been compelled to read multiple Berenstain Bears books a day. You can’t get away with shortcuts with Corban either—he notices if you skip so much as a sentence.

This is a good thing, though: good moral lessons, childhood reminiscence, enjoyable storylines. Naturally, Corban draws connections between the Bear family and our own family of four. He is Brother Bear, Mara is Sister Bear.

So despite a new Star Wars obsession that has them plotting next year’s costumes already, they were excited to dress up as the Bear family for Halloween.

You can’t just go out and buy a Berenstain Bears costume (I looked and came up empty), so we had to get a little bit creative.

Thankfully, I came across this Etsy shop, which sells handmade embroidered Berenstain Bears masks. They only come in kids sizes, so they looked slightly off on Peter and me, but they were perfect for the kids. Without these masks the costumes would have been really obscure, especially since the Berenstain Bears are not normal-looking bears.

Brother Bear was the easiest: blue sweatpants and a red long-sleeve polo (found at Old Navy).

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Papa Bear was simple, too: Overalls and a yellow plaid shirt.

My original plan for Mama Bear was to buy a blue nightgown and paint white polka dots onto it, but upon realizing how expensive even the most basic long-sleeve nightgowns and dresses are (at least the ones that I could find), my mom offered to sew me a dress. She has years of sewing experience and has made many Halloween costumes throughout my life, and I’m grateful for her expertise and eagerness to help! She used blue polka-dot fleece fabric and modified a basic dress pattern, adding a white collar.

Sister Bear was my project. For her shirt, I just used fabric paint to paint pink polka dots onto an old long-sleeve shirt of Corban’s. I could have bought a pair of regular pink overalls, but Sister’s overalls are slightly different—they have scalloped straps and a straight line across the front and back (no bib). So after hunting around unsuccessfully, I got inspired by something I saw on how to turn an old pair of jeans into shorts overalls.

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I bought two pairs of pink fleece sweatpants (thank you, Walmart) and went to town. First, I cut two rectangles out of one leg of one of the pairs of pants in order to bring the waistline up to nearly chest-height. I sewed those two pieces together then sewed them to the waist of the other pair of pants.

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Unfolded:

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No hemming needed with fleece; yay!

For the straps, I put the newly modified pants on Mara, measured the length the straps should be and cut a scalloped pattern out of poster board.

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I took the other extra pant leg and cut along the seams to create two long rectangles of fabric. I folded each long rectangle in half lengthwise and cut the scalloped line out of the open side. Then I pinned the edges to prepare to sew them:

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I carefully sewed along the scalloped edge.

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Then I turned them inside out and ironed them flat (in the photo below, the top strap shows it before being turned inside out and the bottom one after).

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I sewed the front of the straps to the front of the pants, and my mom sewed snaps onto the inside of the back straps and back of the pants. The snaps ended up being unnecessary, though; Mara just pulled the straps up over her arms. I did end up pinning the shoulders of her shirt to the straps so they wouldn’t fall down (thanks to the double layers of fleece, you couldn’t see the pins).

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Oh, and the kids were super excited to wear these gorilla feet slippers we spotted at Walmart. They look enough like bear feet, I guess. They weren’t the easiest to walk in while trick-or-treating, though.

I also concocted some furry gloves for all of us by sewing some felt pieces to cheap cotton gloves to make it look like fur was coming out of our sleeves. If I were to do that again I would have hot-glued the felt…my quick hand-sewing job didn’t really hold up. Mara also refused to wear them, so there’s that.

It was a fun Halloween weekend: costumed play date party Friday morning, adult party Friday night (my solo Mama Bear costume isn’t quite as cute without the rest of the fam…), pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating Sunday and a Halloween party for the kids at our gym this morning.

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Hard to believe we are entering November already!

Past years’ Halloween costumes: Pirate/Tinkerbell (2015) | Peter Rabbit/bumble bee (2014) | mouse/cat (2013) | lobster (2012)

Three Little Pigs 3rd birthday party

Every day, Mara asks me to tell her a story. “Three Little Pigs?” I say, knowing the answer.

“Three Little Pigs.”

At Mara’s request, the pigs are girls. Their names are Flopsy, Mopsy and Toesy. Sometimes Flopsy is the smart one who builds her house of brick; sometimes it’s Mopsy. But usually it’s Toesy.

When Mara jumps in to tell the tale, it gets very condensed.

She races on with the story, skipping words in her excitement: “Not by hair my chinny chin. I’ll huff and I’ll blow your house away! [blows] Ahhh!”

So, for Mara’s third birthday, I couldn’t think of a better theme than the Three Little Pigs.

We celebrated with two different parties (more than a month ago now)—one at our house with my parents and a handful of friends and one in Missouri with Peter’s family.

Here are the highlights. I’ll start with my pride and joy, this cake.

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I painted wooden pegs to make the three little pigs (inspired by a photo I saw on another blog) and made a tiny bunting from construction paper.

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The cake is my favorite simple buttermilk chocolate cake recipe (also seen here). Except I multiplied it to make four layers, and added stabilized whipped cream filling.

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Despite wooden skewer reinforcement, it didn’t quite last through the party.

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So maybe next time I’d cut it down to two or three layers. But it was delicious, so no complaints! (Seriously, try that recipe next time you want chocolate cake. I love it so.)

The cake toppers made a second appearance at birthday party no. 2 (I did not make this cake).

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My other pride and joy were these pig party hats I made from construction paper and tissue circles (and lots of Mod Podge).

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There were also a few black and gray wolf hats. Don’t ask how much time I put into them, or why, for that matter, but they were a good excuse to spend a few nights binging on “Bachelor in Paradise.”

We also brought out our traditional Mara birthday banner for both parties (here it is at party no. 1).

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And the party favors were these creepy pig snouts from Oriental Trading.

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We had water balloons—something that my kids are obsessed with, yet still don’t quite know what to do with once they get their hands on some. Praise hands for those contraptions that fill 100 balloons in 10 seconds. Worth it.

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The kids also played “Pig, Pig, Wolf” (Duck, Duck, Goose), set off stomp rockets and built some impressive structures from our giant Jenga set.

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Dinner was Portillo’s Italian beef and chopped salad. Drinks were a few growlers of beer.

Oh, and there was cotton candy! We purchased a small cotton candy machine for the occasion, and I think Mara would have bathed in the stuff if we let her.

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Party no. 2 also featured cotton candy and pig party hats.

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Instead of Italian beef, we ate grilled burgers, hot dogs and pork tenderloin.

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And instead of “Pig, Pig, Wolf” we played lots of baseball.

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Despite this fake pout, Mara had a pretty spectacular double celebration for birthday number three.

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9 lovely views from Seattle

I had the privilege of visiting Seattle for the first time this past week. It was for a food journalism conference, which is just about the greatest work-related reason to travel.

Of course the food and drink were excellent. The conference sessions were enlightening. I met some very charming and interesting people and got to spend time with my Seattle-based cousin and his wife.

But one unexpected highlight of the trip was this:

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Two wheels borrowed from my cousin that provided me free and fun transportation (and exercise to burn off some of the aforementioned food and drink) around a most bike-friendly city.

There is a lot of beauty in the Pacific Northwest, and between bike rides and conference events I packed in some memorable views in my four days there. Here are nine memorable views of and from Seattle.

  1. Magnolia Park

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After getting off the plane and catching up over dim sum with my cousin Spencer and his wife, Allison, we jumped on bikes and headed 7-8 miles north for some hiking. On our way up a particularly long and painful hill, we stopped for a break and were met with the above view of Puget Sound from Magnolia Park.

And turning to the left… hello, city.

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2. Discovery Park

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Our hiking destination was Discovery Park. It was a nice maybe 3-mile loop with a section along the beach and a section up into the rainforest. Pretty foliage and more lovely water views. With blue skies!

My awesome guides.

My awesome guides.

3. Gas Works Park

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On day two I ventured out on bike by myself to visit Gas Works Park. Above is the… gas works. But the real view is of the city, seen across Lake Union.

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See the Space Needle?

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The photos don’t really do it justice. You’re standing on the top of a very green hill with the city around you in every direction. The lake is quite active with boats and rowers.

4. Pike Place Market

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Pike Place Market is a far more impressive place than I realized. That’s another story, but I’m including it in my list of views because if you glance up out shop windows or in alleys you might be surprised to see something like this:

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There’s also the gum wall, which was completely cleaned off in November, but is back and once again quite a sight to see (and smell).

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5. Out my hotel window

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I enjoyed several sunrises and sunsets out this window at the Sheraton in downtown Seattle. But up 25 more floors was our conference room, which had this view of Elliott Bay that same night:

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(Corban’s earnest reaction when I showed him this picture: “Wow! Look at that construction!”)

6. Rooftop of an Amazon building

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Spencer took me up to the roof of one of many buildings owned by his employer, Amazon. Above is a view of Lake Union from the side opposite of Gas Works Park.

Another side of that rooftop looks out to the Space Needle.

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7. The Space Needle

Speaking of the Space Needle, that night we had a cocktail hour there followed by a food and drink tasting event at Chihuly Garden and Glass, just below.

Based on my knowledge of Seattle weather, I think this view from the bottom with blue skies above is probably noteworthy.

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The view from the top was spectacular. I was not expecting it to take my breath away like it did.

Here is downtown and Elliott Bay.

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Below is Lake Union again. Watching the traffic flow from this vantage point was mesmerizing.

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And on the other side… mountains.

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From inside the glass atrium where our dinner/tasting event was held, we had another nice view looking up through some Chihuly artwork to the Space Needle.

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8. Elliott Bay Trail

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The next morning, I was up early enough for a solo ride along the Elliott Bay Trail. Once I got past Pike Place Market and the cruise ship docks, the view was peaceful. We finally got some real Seattle weather—misty and gray. No complaints though.

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Their fall colors are quite a bit ahead of us here in Wisconsin, so this ombré wall was a treat along part of the ride.

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9. Woodinville/Chateau Ste. Michelle

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I only got a quick glance at winery-laden Woodinville as we headed into Chateau Ste. Michelle for a wine tasting dinner, but the scenery was lush. The grapes are all grown in eastern Washington, but this area 30 minutes outside Seattle is where many of Washington’s hundreds of wineries make the wine.

The view inside at our dinner was fabulous—or at least the food and wine was! It was the perfect end to my trip.

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After that I was off to the airport for a miserable red-eye home. But these two faces that greeted my sleep-deprived face made me grin more than any sweeping sight from the previous days.

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It was good to be gone and it’s good to be home.

*Side rant: WordPress really degrades the image quality once I hit publish!

Eight years ago today

Eight years ago was one of the happiest days of my life.

August 30, 2008, I married Peter.

The day was a celebration of our love. We were two youngsters unprepared and immature, but committing to life side by side.

The day was also a celebration of all the love in our lives from family and friends. The atmosphere felt magical. It was the perfect party.

So permit me a little trip down memory lane as I look back on photos from our wedding day. We’ve changed and grown in so many ways over the past eight years, but these pictures bring me right back to day one.

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On eulogizing

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Last year on this day I flipped my planner open to a new week and was overcome with an unexpected wave of sadness. I had put Nana’s photo sticker on her birthday immediately after receiving the planner for Christmas, not realizing she wouldn’t live to see her 92nd birthday. In fact, she died little more than a week after I placed that sticker there.

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My last hug goodbye from Nana, Christmas Day a week before she died.

Her death marked the end of a generation on my mom’s side. After her funeral, I visited the house she and my grandfather had shared for 57 years—the house my mom grew up in and I spent much of my childhood at—and just walked the rooms and cried.

That part of my life now feels like another era, encased in gold and far away from the world I live in now. It’s an emotional moment to realize a huge, unchanging part of your life is now a closed chapter, never to be visited again.

That’s not to say losing her wasn’t a great loss on its own. She was a special woman, the kindest person I’ve ever known. I miss her dearly.

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I had the privilege of giving her eulogy. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I knew I could and I should, so I did.

I was a ball of nerves writing it (fact-checking, trying to sharpen fuzzy memories) and wasn’t sure how I would manage to deliver it coherently. But I’m glad I stretched myself and went through with it. Preparing for the eulogy helped me grieve by reminding me of all the joy Nana and I shared and what a full and happy life she led. It actually gave me a great sense of comfort during that sad time.

One thing that helped was that for her 90th birthday I had written Nana a letter recalling fond memories and sharing how much I loved her. I had already told her how special she was; now I just had to share those thoughts with everyone else.

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A drawing from a sketchbook I had as a kid: Nana surrounded by things I associated with her (the bottom left is a jar of Flinstones vitamins, ha!)

So two takeaways here: if you’re in a position to give a eulogy for someone you love, you’ll have to push through the discomfort and the feeling that your words will be inadequate (they will be, but that’s OK). It will be worth it, and may even be good for your grief.

Second, don’t wait for the eulogy to express your love and share your fond memories. Your loved ones would love to hear that from you today!

So on what would have been Claire Fredenburg’s 93rd birthday, here are a few photos of the sweet, affectionate, creative, fun woman I was blessed to call Nana.

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With her mom (Mary) and sister, Eve (right).

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Love this photo and wish I could ask her about it!

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Nana loved to write rhyming poems for any occasion (she even put clever rhyming captions  on an entire family photo album). This one was published in a Carson Pirie Scott employee book of some sort (she retired from there after a lengthy career).

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Dancing during the “who’s been married the longest” dance at our wedding.

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Killing the dance floor with me at my sister’s wedding, exactly four years ago tomorrow.

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7 reasons I love our CSA, and 2 reasons I don’t

Last year, I was torn about whether to plant a garden. I’ve successfully grown vegetables before and liked the idea of getting the kids involved with it, but like many people, I have a lot going on in my life and tending a garden isn’t my favorite way to spend my time.

So last year, I settled for potted herbs on our deck and green beans in our built-in deck planter—easy enough to water with the kids (no dragging the hose across the backyard) and I figured I’d hit up farmers markets with Corban or Mara as often as possible.

Then I started researching CSAs.

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CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The basic idea is you purchase a fixed-price weekly (or bi-weekly) share of produce from a local farm and then receive a box of whatever they have to offer each week.

Each farm works a little differently, and there are a lot of options in the Milwaukee area. Making a decision can be overwhelming—I was nervous about getting too much food, not getting enough food (it’s not the cheapest way to shop), receiving produce we wouldn’t want to eat, the pick-up being inconvenient…

When I saw that one farm had a pick-up site located within walking distance of our house, we decided to go for it (LotFotL Community Farm in Elkhorn).

Writing the check at the beginning of the summer was a little bit scary, but it was a great decision. Here’s what I loved about being a member of a CSA:

  1. We ate a ton of vegetables! You have to in order to keep up with the weekly boxes, but with a steady diet of fresh, local produce—raw, roasted, grilled, pureed into hummus, etc.—our small share box was just right for our family of four (one veggie-loving adult, one good-sport-veggie-eating-when-asked adult and two kids whose appetites are still negligible).
  2. It was fun to be surprised by what’s in the box each week. (They do give you a rough idea—and recipe links—via an email newsletter two days before pickup.)
  3. We ate seasonably. Everything is freshly picked, so you know it’s in season right here right now.
  4. We discovered new produce—celtuce, anyone? Can’t get that at the grocery store, or even at the farmers market.
  5. Our grocery list was always really short (and quick—who likes spending time in the grocery store in summer?).
  6. We were almost always stocked with enough produce to throw together a good, healthy meal.
  7. We branched out from our go-to vegetables and found new loves, like sautéed Swiss chard and roasted beets.

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So that was all great, but there were two downsides: the price (it ended up being roughly $20 a week, which is more than I would normally spend on veggies alone) and the fact that the constant stream of veggies, while great for our diets, also sometimes felt like a lot of work (washing, storing, meal planning, prepping, not letting it go to waste).

Despite all of the things I loved about our CSA, because of those two factors I was hesitant to join again this summer.

Then I got the email that I had won a free 2016 share (thanks to my diligent entries into their weekly trivia contest). Um… yeah, not going to turn that down!

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The share we won is bi-weekly, so that actually solved both problems (price and the overwhelming task of keeping up with a weekly box). Bi-weekly has been perfect; I don’t know how I kept up with it weekly last year (must have done a lot more cooking).

I guess next year will be the true test of whether I’m committed to CSA… there is no trivia contest this year so no shot at winning a free share!

Any other CSA members out there? What do you see as the pros and cons?

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Just sauteeing a little chard.