Wednesday, April 15, 2015

9 Parenting Books Worth Reading...

I'm not the biggest believer in parenting books.  Maybe I should be...but I often find a lot of them repetitive or overwhelming and usually I have good intentions, but don't get around to reading them.  Oh and do I need to add that most of them conflict each other too?

But there have been a few that I've read and not only enjoyed, but bookmarked and earmarked for good, salient pieces of advice, especially as we entered into some of the transitional phases of toddlerhood, and adjusting to having a new sibling.  Turns out that sometimes a little advice can be handy.  And simply reading an actual book, if nothing else, makes me sit down and actually reflect on what I'm doing as a parent and whether I want be doing it that way.  It's almost as if taking the time to read something is also giving me the time to think and process a bit without the distraction of my phone or a bazillion internet pages.  In the end, parenting really comes down to how you practice, not what you read.  But each of these books has given me something helpful to practice with.  Sharing my list here today but always all ears for any other good recommendations out there -  I could definitely use more practice!

1. Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby's First Year : I loved having this guide as a go-to for when I thought something might be wrong, or when I had questions about development.  Mayo Clinic also has a similar guide for pregnancy as well (Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy) and both were helpful when you have questions but are afraid to ask "the internet".  Just straightforward advice from straightforward medical authorities that help you feel like you know what's going on without always rushing towards the worst.  It doesn't replace a doctor of course, but it's a handy reference, especially if you often live far away from home and have language or cultural barriers with  - this is a handy first place to check out whatever problem you think you might be having.

2. The Happiest Baby on the Block : If you only read one baby book, this one has to be it.  Swaddling, shushing, rocking....this will give you the whole lowdown on what to do those first couple of months as a parent when your biggest fear is breaking the baby.  Even though our oldest is now four, and this book is really meant for "the fourth trimester", I find that I still will use some the same concepts to console our diplo-tot, and to remind myself that kids are really just trying to make sense of the world around them.  The author also did companion books on sleeping  and toddlers but I didn't find them to be quite as helpful as this first one, which is truly worth its weight in gold.

3. Bright from the Start :  This is one to pick up once your child hits six months old, and you start wondering whether you're doing enough to get them into the right college for a successful future.  And that's because this book will reassure you, based on science, that great intelligence and skills later in life don't have to come from an overload of baby genius regimens (although there are some exercises in the book), but rather from making the most of the time you have with your child, regardless of whether you're a working parent or not, from connecting with them, from encouraging them to explore and from just holding them.  A lot of how kids end up "performing" so to speak, ends up being tied to whether or not they feel secure, not on how many play groups you exhausted yourself shuttling them around to.  I think most parents will breathe a sigh of relief after reading this one.

4. Jo Frost's Toddler Rules : Reached for this one when the tantrums started, and with some skepticism I might add (as I approach anyone who was "seen on TV").  But this writing style is great - and again, reassuring.  When you're in the throws of receiving a toddler tantrum, it's easy to forget that probably 80% of them we can prevent as parents if we make sure that our littles are sleeping... and eating...and getting some attention from us.  The rest are the ones to work through, but this was helpful in just getting back to basics when we were caught by surprise.

5. No-Drama Discipline  : Once we got our bearings on the above, I found that this book was helpful in really understanding how behavior is directed by brain development. (the authors also wrote The Whole-Brain Child as an overall primer on childrens' developing brains). It made me realize sometimes I had to realign my expectations for someone who was still really just learning how to connect behavior and outcomes.  It's not really necessary to read both books, but No-Drama Discipline helps you connect some of the latest findings to little changes you can make in your own behavior to help smooth the way, so that you don't exhaust yourself with actions that are effortless.  Instead you can focus on things that really teach your child coping and empathy and process for later in life.  Also, the best part of this book is the reassurance that as your child's brain develops, you'll win some certainly, but even if you do everything right, you'll lose some.  And that doesn't make us bad parents - though we might certainly feel that just makes just parents.

6. The Happy Sleeper : When our first child was born, she slept through the night like a champ after a few months.  Then we moved back to the US from Europe and everything fell apart...and still can fall apart sometimes.  I read this one on Oh Joy's recommendation, and this book is great.  I previously read a few sleeping books and none really had anything workable to actually solve the problem in my opinion, or they advocated letting your child scream it out...The only one from that set I enjoyed was The No-Cry Sleep Solution  because it helps assure you that most people are dealing with a sleep issue at some point or other and as long as everyone is actually getting enough sleep, then just do what works for you.  The only problem was that there was no actual no-cry solution in the book (from what I recall).  Happy Sleeper though seems to combine best of all worlds with reassurance and actually helpful strategies based on the child's age and development.  They are routines but not overly right.   We saw a lot of improvement with the first one, and seem to be in a good spot much sooner with our second.

7. Free to Learn : For some reason, as our babies turn into tots the pressure comes back to constantly be doing more for our kids - lessons, groups, mozart in mandarin camps... I feel it more and more and I bet I would really feel it if we were back in the US.  But this book helps reinforce that kids really learn to thrive when they have time to play and time to work things out for themselves.  Giving them some of those pockets of unstructured time, which are increasingly harder and harder to come by, aren't just fun for them, they're useful in the long run and are tied to skills you need later in life.  For awhile, I worried about the lack of structure when we sent our daughter here to forest school, but this helped me see those long bouts without structure as a good thing for her in the long run.

8. Parenting from the Inside Out  : At some point, although it's obvious, you realize that parenting is a two way relationship.  Sometimes we focus - or these books focus - so much on our child and why they're doing what they're doing, that we forget to ask ourselves why we are doing what we're doing as parents, why our reactions are what they are and where that might be coming from.  So this is one for you, parents.  We can't always control what our children choose to do, but we can certainly try to figure out what to learn from our own responses.

9. Your Baby in Pictures: Okay, so this one isn't a parenting advice book per se, but I'm closing the list out with this one since I constantly go back to it and have given probably over 15 copies of it away.  I just love this book for the list of concise photos it presents to capture across the first year (and the accompanying volumes for Your Child and Your Family follow a similar concept).  Each of the photos on the list has a "recipe" for it, so if you've ever wondered how to actually make use of the buttons on your camera, this will get you there without inundating you with technical details.  It walks the line between making sure you get the really formative shots while mitigating the pressure to document every single footstep of your child.  For your first, it helps you narrow down to the big things so that your child doesn't think a camera is permanently attached to your face; and for subsequent children, it helps remind you to get out the camera and make sure you have the key shots for them too.  It helps me bring together both hobby and family in a fun way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Blossom Time...

This is definitely the time of year I miss Washington most.   Cherry blossom season is hands down the prettiest time of year, even if the population of the city must multiply a hundred fold.  Last year I was lucky enough to be in town (see snaps here, or the year's before from sunrise walks across the basin).  I've been spying on those cherry blossoms across blogs and instagram feeds like a sakura-voyeur (voyeuse?) across the weekend.

We've had some great sunny days here in Denmark and just when I'm sure the trees (not cherry) in my yard are going to bloom, we get a dark rainy day.  Maybe more water is in order.  But this weekend while out and about, I caught these pretty blooms.  Not cherry and not sure what they actually are but I'll take it!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

5 Myths About Foreign Service Life...

The diplomatic life...all you thought it would be? I get a lot of emails from students and aspiring diplomats and those getting ready to move their families abroad, all with a lot of genuine questions about how to prepare for the life or how to keep their career, and above all, a lot of enthusiasm for the adventures to come.  But at the same time, each time we go to a dinner or function or even the grocery store, there's often someone who wants to know what the life is "really" like.  Hopefully this blog as a whole sheds some light on that, but I also wanted to address the things I come across most often that are just flat out misconceptions. And if there's anything you've ever wanted to know about being a diplomat, just go ahead and ask  -after, one thing that is not a myth is that the job is really all about sharing what we do.
For some reason, this is probably the number one thing I'm asked about.  All the time.  No, we can't park where we want.  And yes, we have to pay parking tickets.  At least, that's the US policy, and I should know since I amass parking tickets like they're going out of style, and in fact just got one the other day to the tune of $150 for a 10 minute infraction (I just can't remember to correctly set those Danish timer clocks!).  I can't speak for other countries services but generally speaking, we try to operate within whatever the local laws are, and if we break them and incur fines, we pay them.  In some posts, having a car with diplomatic plates still means you might get a little leeway (for example, in Salzburg we were allowed to drive all the way up to the entrance of the music festival) but generally speaking, if you're not the ambassador headed to a special event with an official car, you can park with the meter just like everyone else.  

Sadly, no we don't go to parties all day.  And since I love a good party, no one is more bummed about that than I.  There can certainly be some events to go to but we don't really go to that many, and we don't host that many either.  For us, we tend to host quite a bit privately but that all comes out of our own pocket, i.e. we have friends over just like we would have friends over at home.  Diplomatic invitations are getting harder and harder to come by - budgets are constrained across the board and so often not everyone gets invited.  And when you do, they tend to be less than glamorous affairs with everyone crowding around a small hummus bowl.  You don't need that many party dresses, if any depending on post, and national day parties require business attire anyway.  From time to time there might be a really fun or lavish party if your Ambassador is an entertainer (and again, you'll be surprised to know that many of those functions are out of their own pocket), but I think compared to earlier years when functions were the primary way to meet people, there just aren't that many, and when there are events, they compete with a million other things that are going on anyway.

We most certainly do not make piles of money.  If someone has a lot of it, they had it before they took up this job because diplomacy definitely does not pay big bucks.  There are benefits that come with it - like getting your housing provided or some cost of living adjustments or education for school aged children and those can certainly be significant, but the pay itself may not quite be what you think it is.  Like everything related to pay, it's all relative but it can certainly be less than the private sector for some jobs, so many people take a significant pay cut when they come in from other jobs.  And while the benefits help, you also spend quite a bit each time you move, your spouse often has to give up or scale back work so you forfeit a second salary, etc.  At the end of the day, while there is certainly enough to go around, people don't do this for the money.  People do this job because they love it and they believe in it.

I think the biggest misconception is that if you're a diplomatic spouse, you are somehow riding the easy train, spending the above money that we don't actually get to host those parties we don't actually have.  The truth of the matter is that if you have a family, moving for foreign service life really is a two person job.  The whole system is really built on the assumption that there is another person organizing the myriad tons of paperwork that go along with moving, that there is always someone at home to open up for maintenance and movers and security companies and what not, that there is someone who will go and view and interview schools and pick up kids and come to briefings at 10am.  All of this has to be done while your spouse is actually doing their diplomatic work, which usually starts right away after a move.  But if you've ever moved, even if its across the street, let alone across the world, you know that there is a slew of things that go along with moving in terms of set up and take down and for us, this happens about every two years.  We're perpetually in a state of coming or going and getting all that organized, and especially once you have kids or pets or more family members,  it really does become a team effort.  And while we don't entertain officially a ton, we still do some and that most certainly falls on the spouse to prepare, set a plan, do the shopping, do the cooking, and do the cleaning.  This used to be a more official requirement of the spouse, which they can't really do anymore (do you know you used to get evaluated on your spouse?), but de facto, it still usually falls to the spouse.  I'm always sensitive about this one because I don't want to complain - the foreign service life has been good to me and I love the adventure that I have because of it, but I do want to point out that even if you are not actually the one working for the Foreign Service, you're still working on everything that goes along with it behind the scenes.

Ha! This is always my favorite one only because life would certainly be more glamorous if we all were.  But no, as it turns out, most diplomats are just that, bureaucrats who are out there trying to make a difference in international cooperation and understanding which pushing around a lot of paper and looking for a good party or two to attend.  That doesn't make for as good a movie or folklore but it does make for a really interesting intersection of adventure and career.

PS - The image above came from this source - its' actually from a publication that was done in Tanzania about the "good life" of diplomats...looks like they're having a lovely time, but no, that's not quite what we look like day in and day out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Introducing A Toddler in the Trees...

I've been working on a little project behind the scenes, and after a few starts, I'm excited to introduce you to A Toddler in the Trees.  It's a new home for all things related to our experience with the Danish forest school.

The forest school and diplo-tot's experience there has been so formative to our stay in Denmark and it's by far and away one the most significant things we'll take away from here.  We get questions all the time about how it works, what she does there and what it's really like, but sharing those stories here didn't quite seem like the right place.  So I created a home of its own...

This blog will still remain our main place to capture our adventures and photos and such, but for all things related to the particular experience,  as well as a few sprinkles of children and educaiton and parenting, you'll be able to find them over on the new blog (and Facebook page and Instagram too).  Won't you pop over and have a look?

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