Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Post: Becoming a Biking Family

“We spend how much on the car?” My wife asked in disbelief at the figure I had presented to her during a discussion of our family’s budget. She had already been bike commuting to work most days and the kids and I were doing the lion’s share of our errands around town by bike. Our car sat unused for a week or more at a time. When we added all the car expenses up (purchase price, insurance, maintenance, registration, and gas) it averaged out to over $500 per month. Car expenses had always been something we accepted. They were just something we took as part of life. We paid them and never questioned if they were necessary... until now. 

Let me back up-- about a year after our first child was born, I thought it would be fun to go biking with kiddo. I bought a $50 mountain bike and $30 kid trailer off craigslist. After a tune-up at the local bike shop, the bike ended up costing closer to $200, but that’s another story. A neighbor gave us a kid-sized helmet and we began using the bike/trailer for fair-weather errands around the neighborhood.

Almost immediately I realized, or more accurately, I remembered that I love to ride bikes. 

As youth my buddies and I rode our bikes all over our suburban southern California neighborhood. In high school we all got driver’s licenses and cars became our primary mode of transportation. I never disliked bikes, I just moved on to cars. I was suddenly re-discovering the joys I experienced as a kid riding my bike. As a kid I never thought about what I liked about riding the bike, but the adult me was instantly aware of all sorts of differences.

I like seeing my neighborhood at a slower pace. I like the feeling of being outside. I like being able to stop and chat with my neighbors. I like not looking for parking. I like finding the hidden little passageways that are only passable on foot or bike. I like having exercise built into my day. I like becoming familiar with the subtle variations in topography.

I especially liked that my daughter enjoyed riding in the trailer. If it was hot out, I’d leave the cover open so she got fresh air. If it was cool out I’d bundle her in a blanket. If the ride was going to be long (relatively speaking) I’d give her a toy or a snack. Mostly she just enjoyed looking out the window.

Over time the bike/trailer got used for more and more trips. Our second child being born put us back in the car until he was about a year old, but through that year we still did bike/trailer trips with kiddo #1 as often as possible. Once kiddo #2 was old enough to ride in the trailer, bicycling really got hold of our family. My wife bought a bike so she could ride with us. She also started to bike to work most days. One piece at a time we got outfitted with fenders, lights, and rain jackets. We never had any sort of goals to increase our riding. It happened naturally. Biking was/is more fun than driving. Our two cars sat in the driveway more and more.

I had seen a couple cargo bikes around, but had written them off as some sort of specialty thing... like recumbents... those bikes that the rider sits reclined with the pedals in front. My perspective changed when I saw a cargo bike set up as a family bike. Dad was pedaling and 2 kids were riding on the skateboard-sized platform on the back. Something inside of me clicked. That night at dinner I told my wife what I had seen and proposed that instead of repairing our car (one of our cars was facing a couple grand of maintenance if it was going to be on the road much longer) we could replace it with a cargo bike. 

The suggestion was met with hesitance at first but not resistance. We had noticed over the last couple years that we were filling up the gas tank less and less from all the biking. After a bit of discussion, it seemed reasonable that our family could get by with one car, so we did it. We got rid of the second car and bought a cargo bike.

For about 2 years pretty much all of our around town errands were done by bike. When weather was really ugly, we drove. When our destination was outside of town, we drove. The rest of the time we pedaled.  Then came that fateful day when we realized that even though we hardly ever drove, we were still sinking hundreds of dollars every month (on average) into our car. The car was getting up in mileage and was going to need significant maintenance in the foreseeable future.

Our family had evolved to not depending on the car for our daily transportation needs and we were at a crossroads. Do we commit to maintaining an aging car? Do we replace the car? Do we sell it while it still has resale value? Was the convenience of having a car waiting in the driveway worth the expense? Would that money be more useful to our family if put to a different use? Ultimately we decided that our family would benefit more if our “car money” were put toward other things. We sold the car and bought a second cargo bike... one with a rain cover. 


It’s been over a year since our family has owned a car. Our day-to-day world has gotten geographically smaller, but within that smaller circle we've bicycled thousands of miles together and have become intimately familiar with tiny details of our city that previously went unnoticed. Life isn't always day-to-day though. Every once in a while we take a vacation.

We could rent a car and drive somewhere, but we haven’t done that yet. We took the Greyhound halfway across the country. It was an adventure full of characters. The train was somewhat less “interesting” but an adventure in it’s own way. Perhaps our favorite family trips lately have been bike camping. The details are enough to fill their own article, but I can testify that pedaling 2 kids to a campground and spending the night is possible and is a lot of fun.

Being car-free has its downsides and may not last forever for us, but for now, when we’re out on the family bike, we are experiencing the world together. We see, hear, smell and feel things that we’d miss if we were in a car and our lives are richer for it. I wouldn't trade our family biking experiences for anything.

People occasionally ask me about my bikes. Most common are questions about how expensive a cargo bike must be or about how tired I must be from hauling the kids. If the cargo bike were a toy, I would consider it expensive, but it’s our primary mode of transportation and it’s significantly cheaper to buy, maintain, and operate than a car. I don’t know any parent who isn’t tired some of the time. I don’t think that I am any less or more tired than other parents I know.  

I suppose reading the tale of how someone else’s family went from two cars to two cargo bikes is nice and all, but what can you, the reader, get out of it? Have I learned anything that I can pass along to other families who are interested to get out on bikes? Yes. 

A few bits of family bike wisdom: 

  • Start with the basics. Make sure that everyone in the family has an appropriately sized and adjusted bike, trailer, or bike-mounted child seat. Having equipment that fits and is set-up correctly will help everyone to have a good time.
  • I never had a handlebar mounted child seat, but everyone I know who has or has had one says that they’re the bees knees. Kiddo is right there so you can communicate without shouting and you can see them... see what they’re looking at, how they’re doing, etc. If I could do it all over again, I would absolutely get a handlebar mounted child seat.
  • Gears and front+rear brakes are mandatory if you’re going to be towing kiddo in a trailer.
  • Find low speed + low traffic routes. MUPs (Multi-Use Paths) are nice but sometimes weekend warrior racer types treat them as a freeway, so quiet neighborhood streets might be better if kiddo is still learning how to keep right and ride a straight line.
  • Patience is paramount when teaching kiddos to ride. Once the teacher starts to get frustrated, find something else to do.  
  • Include destinations that are exciting for kiddos... park, ice cream shop, berry picking, etc. These can be sprinkled in between “real” stops at the places mom/dad needs to go.
  • Don’t be afraid to make impromptu stops. One of our favorites is stopping to look off the side of a bridge or overpass. I often ride onto the sidewalk if a bridge is coming so that we can stop mid-span. Even if it’s just watching the river flow under the bridge, it can be fun. Seeing a train or a interesting boat is top notch.
  • Let kiddo bring a favorite toy. Toys that can be tethered on are nice so young ones don’t lose them.
  • Give kiddo their own bike bell (assuming it won’t be too much of a distraction if they’re riding their own bike).
  • Give kiddo a small handlebar bag for their own bike. They can carry their own toy, gloves, treat, whatever fits. My kids like to collect pine cones and rocks in their handlebar bags.
  • Gloves or mittens for everyone. Never underestimate the comfort of gloves even on a kind-of-cool-but-not-really-cold day. Wind resistance is a key feature to look for.  
  • Join a family oriented group ride. Often rides are family friendly but they’re not really family oriented. There is Kidical Mass and similar groups in many cities across the country. The rides are designed specifically with children in mind. These are great places to meet other families who bike and see their set-ups.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Nursing Story that Doesn't Suck

Unfortunately, I mean that title literally.  My baby couldn't suck.  

I always planned to breastfeed. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me that breastfeeding could be a struggle or that there was a possibility it wouldn’t work out. After all, my mom breastfed all 6 of us until we were old enough say, “Breast milk, please, Mama”.

I was so confident in my inherent ability to breastfeed that when my dear husband suggested we take a breastfeeding class, I laughed at him. Child birth class, yes. Infant CPR, of course. But breastfeeding? People have breastfed since the dawn of time. How hard could it be?

As it turned out, pretty hard. M., although a practically perfect baby in every other way, did not know how to suck. Not only that, but she had zero interest in nursing. The nurses were pretty laid back about it at first. However, when hours went by and she still had no interest in food, they pulled out the pump.

Our hospital was very supportive of nursing, so no one suggested a bottle but they did have me give M. the colostrum through a syringe. The next day, the lactation specialist came to help but she couldn’t get M. to latch on either.

Finally, out of desperation, they gave me a nursing shield (a little silicone nipple that goes over your actual nipple). M. still wasn’t interested and still couldn’t latch. If we dripped some of the colostrum on the nipple shield, she would nibble a little bit but that was it.  "Just keep pumping and waiting for your milk to come in, " said my doctor.  So home we went.  

Well, my milk came in in abundance. But M. still wasn’t interested in eating. And (big surprise here) she wasn’t gaining weight. We went back to the hospital and the nurse showed us how to hold this tiny tube hooked to a syringe full of milk next to the nipple shield so that M. was getting milk while she was nibbling. The idea was that the supplemented milk would get her sucking. S. and I got pretty good at this system (although it took both of us to do it) and I was feeling more successful.  It seemed like she was getting it.  

At our next doctor’s appointment, M. was diagnosed with Failure to Thrive (heartbreaking) and still wasn’t gaining enough weight. The doctor told us that we needed to start giving M. a bottle and that we needed to feed her every 2 hours around the clock. I did ask about using a cup or a syringe but both my doctor and lactation consultants felt that M. needed the practice sucking only a bottle could provide.  The first time I gave Miss M. a bottle I burst into tears.  She gobbled it down so fast, she was gasping for breath.  It turns out she wasn't just a fussy baby, she was starving.  I felt awful.  I felt awful that I hadn't realized she wasn't getting enough milk and I felt awful that I had to give her a bottle.  I was a failure on two counts.  

My life became feeding. It consisted of an endless cycle of attempting to nurse M using the tube and syringe, bottle feeding, soothing, and pumping.  If I was LUCKY, I would finish the cycle in 90 minutes, leaving me 30 minutes of "down time" before I had to wake Miss M. for the next feeding.  I was so stressed about her weight gain that I even set the alarm to ring every two hours through the night.  We were all living in crazy town.   Somewhere I had read that the first 6 weeks were the most crucial for breastfeeding (who knows if that is even true?), so I was determined to last that long. But, after that, if it wasn’t getting easier, I gave myself permission to give up.

Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, we also paid nearly $200.00 out-of-pocket for a fancy lactation specialist to come to our house.  And although, she certainly tried to leave the impression that it was just me and everyone can nurse, the fact that she couldn't get Mad to latch on either undermined her point (and completely validated mine).   

After 3 weeks of living in bizarro feeding world (nurse, bottle, soothe, pump, repeat), M. actually started to get milk without the tube/syringe system.  By 5 1/2 weeks she would latch without the nipple shield and by 8 weeks, we stopped supplementing with a bottle.  

I was so thrilled. We ended up nursing until she was 18 months (and I was 3 months pregnant) and I loved every minute of it (except when she went through that biting phase). But, here’s the interesting thing. Although I am glad I fought the battle, when I hear of other mothers in similar situations, all I want to do is give them a big hug and tell them it's okay to stop and that they probably should stop and don't be bullied into doing something that isn't working for your family.  

There are so many other factors to consider besides the litany of “breast is best” research. For example, if I had had any other kids; there is no way I would have had the time to dedicate to feeding. Or, if I had had any postpartum depression. Or, if my milk supply hadn’t been so abundant. Basically, I feel lucky that it worked out for me and have nothing but love and admiration for women in similar situations who weren't so lucky.

When I was pregnant with my second baby, I didn’t plan to breastfeed. I was too aware of the possibility that it might not work out. I hoped to breastfeed.

*the orginal verson was posted over at The Motley Mom

Saturday, February 9, 2013

AND THEY KNEW IT WAS MUCH MORE THAN A HUNCH… Step-Parenting Advice from a Step-Parent Novice

Along this road of adulthood I've trodden nearly twenty years now, I've managed to pick up some useful skills. I have learned to balance a checkbook, drive a stick shift, apply make up at stoplights on the way to work, bake a Thanksgiving turkey, unclog a garbage disposal with the toilet plunger, and know the difference between universal and term life insurance.

But I never learned how to step parent.

Heck! I’m surprised I even learned to regular parent, as set as I was in my youth on moving to Europe to take up with some sleek-haired German and write poetry in coffee shops along the Siene. But once the doctor placed that dark haired, wide-eyed baby boy in my arms after seventeen hours of hard labor, a baby who looked at me with all the love in the world then cried like a tiny donkey, it was as if the assortment of emotional gizmos and gadgets inside me finally lined up and got flipped on. I was complete. I was made to be a mother. My head knew it. My heart knew it.

Of course, mothering didn't—and still doesn't—come easily, even being at it fifteen years now and repeating that love at first sight scenario with three more children, there was a lot to learn. I've never come across a stick shift mini-van. My checkbook balancing didn't impress an infant with a dirty diaper. And my handy life insurance knowledge didn't come in handy when one of my sons came home from school with a ripped jacket, courtesy of the school bully. (Although on a side note, that toilet-plunger-fixes-the-disposal-thing…that gets utilized monthly.)

After my thirteen year marriage came to an end, I spent the next four and a half years single mothering my four boys while attending school then graduating to working five jobs.

 Finally, I met the man of my dreams (take two). He was kind, he was funny, he was talented, he was an amazing father, he was take-my-breath-away handsome. He was also in California. I was in Idaho. We were just friends for a year before deciding to take the plunge, slough off our fears about long distance romances, and start a serious relationship. It didn't take long for us to figure out we were meant to get married, helped along by the fact that even our kids were working to get us to the altar. We were miserable apart. We were joyous together. We met about 95% of one another’s “this is what I want” checklists. It was a no-brainer.

So, we got married this last November in a small ceremony, and I packed up my four boys and moved to California into my new husband’s home where he lived with his two girls, and his mom. Are you counting? That makes nine of us here in this house aged 6 to 64. Four boys, three adults, two girls, one dog…and a partridge in a pear tree.

“Oh, you’re just like the Brady Bunch!” we often hear on those occasions we wrangle everyone to go somewhere at the same time. Which is true, except my husband is an artist not an architect, I’m way more punk rock than Florence Henderson, my mother-in-law would not want to be called our housekeeper, and we have never, ever dressed our kids in matching costumes and made them sing together. Yet.

For as crazy as things are sometimes—most times—we are making it work. Just like the Brady’s did. And we are really, really happy.  In the same way all my gizmos lined up the first time I held my baby, they’ve lined up again. I feel made to step parent. Though I will be the first to admit I have a lot yet to learn, I’m committed to the learning. I’m committed to this family.

I think that’s one of the most important elements of step parenting: Committing to it. Preparing yourself to erase the barriers of “yours” and “mine” and plunge into the “ours.”  Not that you can’t maintain some of your own family traditions, and even keep spending regular one on one time with your own children (in fact, those are both important!) but it means giving every kid as equal treatment and love as possible, and being willing to create something different than what you were used to but which can be every bit as, or even more, awesome. Like any goal you want to meet and maintain (running a marathon, quitting smoking, or learning to play the ukulele), commitment is the key.

Another thing I've learned about step parenting is the power of the family meeting. We use ours to address every issue from putting the toilet seat down to who is going to confess to using Grandma’s expensive eyeliner to draw moustaches on everyone. In addition, a regular family meeting (and the necessary emergency one) is the perfect place for kids to discuss, in a safe environment with adult referees, things that are bothering them and where solutions can be formed together. Plus, for a glorious fifteen minutes, everyone shuts off their i-whatevers and looks at each other. Score!

When it comes to disciplining in a blended family, I've learned this: Stand behind the rule. No one wants to be the step parent with the kid yelling, “You’re not my REAL mom/dad!” Moments like that largely come when a step parent tries to move into the disciplinary role too soon. Kids take time to win over, to learn to trust and respect you to the point they will take correction from you. My advice is to make a concise list of family rules with clear and easily enforced consequences, make sure everyone knows them, and then-- when there is a time you have to discipline your spouse’s child—let the rule, not you, do the punishing. No yelling. No off the cuff grounding.  No creatively tying them together with ace bandages until they stop fighting-- Just applying the agreed upon reaction to the action. If it requires more than this (and doesn't involve kids in any immediate danger), save it for the child’s parent to deal with. Not that you can’t stand by your spouse as a unified partner who also loves the child, but you decrease your chances of being the evil step parent when you let the one the child is accustomed to taking punishment from be the primary punisher for a while.

Finally, the best piece of advice I can offer based on my short sojourn in step-parenting is: Expect the best. Nearly half of marriages end in divorce and an even higher percentage of second marriages do. But it doesn't have to be yours. Remember that. Find other blended families you respect, ones who have been at it for years, and let them mentor you directly or by observation. There is a lot of inspiration available out there. Though you may never take the place of a child’s “real” Mom or Dad, you can be pretty darn close. Whatever got you to the situation you’re in that required step-parenting in the first place--be it divorce, widowhood, or marrying for the first time a person who already had children, you can survive and thrive as individuals and families.

And if you can also manage to work in matching costumes and group singing, more power to you, my friend.

See more of Jennifer's writing at her blog theboysquad