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On Childhood Holiday Traditions, and a Classic Canadian Recipe

family life, motherhood No Comments

There weren’t any holidays growing up that my family made a big deal of.  Not that we didn’t celebrate – we just didn’t have the same fervor and protocol and fanciness that some may have.  I didn’t really even know how intense people got about the holidays until I married my husband and met his family… and christmas exploded in my face.

We got to celebrate every few birthdays growing up (10 kids, people – that means hiring a full time party planner if you’re gonna do the annual circuit).  Sometimes we got to invite friends, but just a few.  There weren’t that many to choose from, let’s be honest, and who needs friends when you have 9 adoring siblings just dying to make a day all about you??

Birthday celebrations really meant just one thing – choosing your favorite meal to be served.  Since we lived on a farm and mostly ate the same rotating, fully farm-sourced menu every week, we would naturally choose things like – you guessed it – boxed mac n’ cheese (called Kraft Dinner in Canada, because no one knows how to turn a box (or 12) of mac n’ cheese into a coma like a Canadian).

Christmas was low key and the highlight was usually smuggling the conference room TV out of my dad’s work and binge-watching Star Trek for a week.  Happiness is in the little things, like the comforting sound of a dozen people fisting potato chips into their mouths in serial fashion, knowing that potato chips won’t be around again for awhile.  This, and stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, and washing dishes all day long in shifts, and playing games until 3 am and bleary eyed mean Christmas to me.

Clearly, these are traditions of their own, just not very alike those of culture at large.  There were no plate chargers or dinner courses, no perfectly coiffed tree and no trips to bowling alleys or ski lodges for birthday celebrations.

I dare say that there was a lot of love, in most of the ways that count.  Gift giving, always meager but heartfelt, truly taught us that giving was better than receiving.  The time it took to hand-make an elaborate Star Trek Clue game for dad on the back of a Cornflakes box, complete with my sisters’ careful renditions of the cast from the original series, was better spent than all of the times we played it.  And to this day, the best gift given may be the deck of cards (representative of so much in our family) made by my sister which features photos of each of us in character during one of our epic games of Mafia.

We might not have fancy cocktails but my God we know how to execute an innocent townsperson with unanimity and moral impunity on Christmas Eve, drunk on the kind of tribalism only generated by a small village or a family resembling one.

I do also love the new traditions I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, but I would say that most of them that I have latched onto have to do with the sharing of food.  I love to set a beautiful table, and the art of a perfectly coursed and plated meal, but only because of who I’ll share it with.  And mostly, I love to bake.

We did love to bake growing up.  Simple things, usually, that didn’t require a lot of precision or perfection, considering that measuring cups and spoons were profoundly prone to disappearance.  This did gift us with a handy ability to “eyeball” ingredients and come out (mostly) ahead, something that still serves me to this day.  If I text my mother to ask how much of something to put in a recipe, I am not looking for an exact measurement but instead rough approval of the deviation or assumption I’ve already considered.  And that’s just what I’ll get.

I can’t exactly recreate the formative chaos of my childhood for my son, nor the specific experiences that became tradition (or lack thereof).  My husband can’t do that either – and neither of us would want to pass every bit of it on.  But there’s a lot to pass on, still.  Now, with a 7.5 year old, there is suddenly so much opportunity.  Nostalgia, you guys.  He’s capable of it now.  He talks wistfully of memories and experiences, and can start to sense the connection between the people you love and the things you share again and again.

He wants to bake with me, and doesn’t bail after the first batter tasting opportunity.

He asks Gramma if she can make him “eggie in a hole” when she comes to visit.

He only plays Speed with Grammy.

He wants to build a fire every night with Chase.

He’s forming his own sense of what tradition is, and what the feelings are that come with it.  It’s amazing how tradition just becomes something we do (even if we enjoy it), without really thinking about what the purpose of it is.  Watching a child form their relationship to tradition really shows you how it’s about those connections.  With people.  He feels something in each of those moments, with these specific people, and is starting to realize that those feelings are desirable.  Pursuable.  Repeatable.

This year, he asked me back at the beginning of December, “are we gonna make those things again, the ones with the raisins?  What are those called?”

Oh hell yes, son.  We are going to make butter tarts.  We are going to make so many butter tarts you will be sick of them.  Until next December, of course.

Butter tarts are a traditional Canadian pastry – and my family recipe is the best.  Yes, they have raisins in them but trust me that you just don’t know yet why this is what you’ve been missing your whole life.  This is one of my families only translatable traditions – and if you are still wondering what to make for that holiday party or christmas day treat, then all I have to say is do not pass go.  Do not collect 200 dollars.

Make these butter tarts.  Aside from them being the most delicious thing you’ve ever had (let alone easy to make! and bite-size! and totally glutinous! with a recipe to follow!), perchance you will better imagine a small glimpse of the chaos of a farm table set with mismatched dishes and crowing youngsters backlit by mostly burnt out christmas tree lights and the blue glow of the TV in between The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home.  They don’t know it, but they are about to have the best feast of their lives.

 

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Butter Tarts (my family recipe, or so I am told)  

makes 24 mini tarts

Pastry Dough
I hands down recommend using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  All butter, extremely flaky, and impossible to mess up.  Make sure to refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling!  I use a water glass about 2.5 inches across to get the perfect sized circle for mini muffin tins.

Butter Tart Filling

1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 TBSP vanilla
2 TBSP cream
pinch of salt
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat your oven to 375.  Now, here’s the best part.  You literally put all of these ingredients into a medium sized saucepan (I am usually doubling the recipe) and on LOW heat, mix together until butter has melted and all ingredients haveIMG_3191 come together, stirring constantly.  This is important so that the egg white doesn’t cook and separate from the mixture.  Once everything has come together, turn up the heat to MEDIUM, and continuing to stir, bring to a gentle boil for about 1 minute.   The mixture will thicken an
d darken and become like caramel.  I will take this opportunity to instruct you that you will be basically be eating caramel.  Inside of flaky, buttery pastry.  Remove from heat.

Place your pastry rounds into un-greased, non-stick mini muffin tins.  Using a small spoon, fill each pastry round with filling between 1/2 and 3/4 full.   The filling will bubble while cooking and likely spill over the edges, but this only improves the caramelized bits, in my opinion.

Bake for 14 minutes or until filling has bubbled and you can see that the pastry rim is slightly golden.  After cooling for 5-10 minutes, remove from tin and let cool on a cooling rack.  These will “last” for about 2 days at peak deliciousness, but can be frozen for later if you’re Canadian.

Finally, try to share with friends but if that just doesn’t happen don’t be too hard on yourself.

Happy holidays to each of you!

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Healing at Home: When The World Is In Pain

family life, motherhood 2 Comments

If you have kids of an age to comprehend, on some level, what is going on in our nation, you know how it adds an extra degree of complexity to the processing.  You don’t have the luxury of just feeling your emotions, whatever they may be, and displaying them without thought.  My son, 7.5, has been thrashing all week.  I wish I could say that he spent that first day signing petitions and committing random acts of kindness.  While he has asked a lot of good questions, his main reaction has been one of angst and he has acted out a lot, pushing all of the boundaries and being very aggressive.

My own first instinct is to “batten down the hatches” – no more TV, thank you very much.  Nerf guns, in the goodwill basket.  Playdates with that rude kid down the street, forget about it.

And some of these might be necessary.  But as we both thrash our way through finding an authentic and effective way of responding, I realize that consequences aren’t going to highlight any of the right things.  What we need right now is connection.

I’ve been craving more mindfulness as a mother lately as it is – being pregnant and getting closer to my due date comes with so many uncertainties, not the least of which is knowing that my relationship with my son is about to change forever, no matter how intentional I am.  I do not know what it will look like; I cannot know.  And while we have been very connected during this pregnancy, lately I feel his drifting interest in the novelty of this change, and my shift to focusing on preparation for her arrival.  We cannot always see each other.

Then, this last week – it feels like a hurtling, like something viral, out of control.  We feel divided, sometimes within our own homes or inner circles, and it is painful.  We can’t always see the good in others.  I have struggled to see the good in my own son amidst calls from school and conversations slipping towards fear and anger.  Who we are in a time like this, especially for children, starts at home.  How do we come together as a family?

I watch his wanton strafe-bombing of citizens in another lego war of epic proportions.  I want to tell him that this is not how humans grow and find peace.  We have had these conversations before, but this week it feels like too much.  I want him to see, to get it.  I want him to piece it all together.  

He learns and connects with his hands.  I know this.  I am reminded when his nanny mentions something his teacher said this last week, how he learns through his body, how we can work with that.  I am easily disconnected from my body, one of the reasons I’ve been craving more mindfulness lately, and also why I so often forget who he is and how to connect with him.  It has always been a struggle for me to get down on the ground with him, to use my hands alongside his.  But I know the life we both find in this together when we do; how connected we become.  How much more we both see.

He is working it all out in the legos, his own language that no one else is bothering to learn.  His hands have a lot to say, but no one is listening.

I want to listen.

On my way home from some appointments I stop at the toy store.  I buy a puzzle.  That night, after dinner, I surprise him.  We begin this puzzle together, learning something new with our hands together.  Compromise, cooperation, patience.  Feeling the momentum of progress as the borders come together, then the castle, waiting, waiting for the dragon to take shape.

We take up knitting.  He’s been learning at school but doesn’t know how to keep adding rows, and I can’t remember.  We watch YouTube videos together, getting so frustrated but reminding each other equally that everything takes practice.  Magically, we both get it.  We take turns, talking about all the things we’ll make for baby sister, how we can stop wasting money and make all our own clothes and christmas presents, how it’s so strange that more people can’t knit.  Does Uncle Johnny know how to knit?

Our hands bring us back to each other, back away from the edge of anger and despair.  We don’t need many words to explain ourselves to each other, to see each other.  What we ask of each other is readily given.  Lego wars and Facebook feeds become pleasantly distant.  

He invites me into “family time” for the first time ever.  “Family time” is part of the bedtime routine he and Chase have where they role play with his stuffed animals, each having it’s own character.  He has always been hesitant to let me participate.  Now, he asks, not me.  He is expansive and generous – I can do whatever voices I want for the animals, he says.  He roars with laughter at the questionable east coast accent I affect for Giraffe, and tells me some of his secrets.

We bake, we play games, we snuggle extra hard.  We use our hands every way we can think of, finding and demonstrating peace, connection.  Here at home, where it always starts.  The conversations move towards hope.

This mindful connection we are creating with each other brings me great comfort.  It extends into other parts of my world, sometimes resembling routine, sometimes spaciousness.  Listening to my body again, adding new layers I haven’t experienced before.  Holding the events of the last week with less fear.  Seeing so much more of each other.

Healing just takes connection.

We are all tired.  We are angry.  We are confused, trying to sort through the myriad responses to what is happening in our nation and land on what feels the best, what feels right.  Where do we go from here?  Who do we become, what do we fight for?

The truth is I really have no idea.  I have no idea where to put my energy.  I have no idea how to really show up for the world right now, how to engage the children so that this time matters, isn’t forgotten.  But if we want to help heal the world, we might have to help heal each other first.

Dear Pregnant Mom Whose Older Child Is Being an A**hole

family life, motherhood, pregnancy No Comments

Dear pregnant mom whose older child is being an asshole,

Little girl with pout that looks at her pregnant mom in her bedroom.

You are worried.

When you agreed to sign up for the obvious madness of having another child, you’d held some naive hope that you’d done this before and it would be crazy for awhile but then you’d find your groove.  And now, your toddler has reached whole new levels of asshole-ness.  Perfect timing, asshole kid.  You are exhausted, probably puking as a not-so-side gig, and concerned about how much more quickly your body is expanding this time around than the first.  You don’t have enough emotional bandwidth to email a friend, let alone deal with the raging psychosis of a 4 year old.

You are also embarrassed.  Your family life has never been instagram-perfect but you haven’t considered complete quarantine a potential option until now.  Maybe it’s potty training regression, maybe it’s massive tantrums, maybe it’s sudden reports of escalating aggression at daycare.  Whatever it is, this isn’t how you envisioned your family, and you can’t imagine what people must think of you at school, at the grocery store, at playdates, at church.  It’s humiliating.

And the scary part is, you really believe this is your new forever.  Parenting a young child has an interminable quality to it to already – like a comedian trying to fill an hour, you chase your child around the living room or read them a story and – DON’T YOU DARE DENY IT – when you’re done you’re like, “that was probably about 3 minutes”.  But you don’t have to fill an hour.  YOU HAVE TO FILL A WHOLE DAY THAT STARTED AT 4 AM.  Not to mention all of the rest of the days for eternity.

Of course, your rational brain is capable of reassuring you that this, too, shall pass.  But when you have a young child and things are rough, you actually believe on a cellular level that you’re stuck here, in this horror, forever.  There is no listening to reason.  And if you happen to be pregnant and today has you wondering who should be institutionalized first; HALP.

So, you’re worried.  You’re worried that you’re raising a sociopath, you’re worried that all this stress is going to negatively affect your pregnancy, you’re worried that it’s really only going to get worse when the baby arrives and how will you cope then if you’re barely coping now, you’re worried that maybe you didn’t get the timing right after all.  Your spouse doesn’t really get it – he’s unconcerned, or checked out, or amused, or not around enough to know how bad it really is.

You’ve got your imperfect tools and you try it all – time outs, time ins, positive reinforcement, yelling at the top of your lungs, ignoring the behavior, redirection, the removal of privileges.

(as a side note, have you tried pretending to be asleep?)

When I was pregnant with our second, the first was 3.  We’d finally decided there was no use in stretching it out any further, we didn’t want kids too far apart – and suddenly, mysteriously, our 3 year old was facing some complicated and very stressful (non-life threatening) health issues.  This primarily affected his sleep/mood/behavior (need I say more?) and he was too young and I was too pregnant to meet each other where we were at.  It was a traumatic 9 months – anxiety bloomed like a virus inside of me and he and I spent that season locked in a battle of will and emotion that took a serious toll.

It wasn’t until I learned how to truly let go – of my agenda, of my assumptions about the future, of my fear – that we began to heal and find each other again.  Now, I am 20 weeks pregnant again and this time with a 7 year old – yes, he’s older and more reasonable and he and I have WAY more practice at being human to each other, but guess what?  He’s being an asshole again.

If we were having coffee and telling stories that made us laugh and cry, these are the only things I would want you to know, dear mama:

 

What you’re experiencing is normal.  So normal, in fact, that it’d be abnormal if you weren’t.  Somewhere, some mother on instagram can’t relate and is posting photos of a luminous child kissing her pregnant belly accompanied by anecdotes of breakfast in bed.  She’s either lying or she’s one of the unicorns who actually has a child that doesn’t struggle through transition.  Either way, you should pay no attention to her.  The rest of us?  We’re not sure if everyone’s going to survive today either.

You are going to have days where you do great and days where everything falls apart (mostly you).  You will fail miserably and be certain you’ve made everything worse.  Accept where you’re at.  You are hormonal and tired, your child really is being an asshole, and nobody else has to live with it the way you do.

What if your child isn’t broken?  They are going through something real, just like you are, and if you see your child as something that needs to be fixed you will spend your whole life trying to fix them.  Let go of what people think.  Let go of trying to figure out how to “handle the situation” perfectly.  Let go of the idea that any of this has anything to do with how this child is going to turn out.  Just let go.

Our children know when we need something from them that they can’t give.  They know when we feel like the stakes are unimaginably high, like everything is riding on this situation that they are clearly at the center of.

But what if your child isn’t broken – what if they are just waiting for you to really see them?   What if they just need to know that you believe things are going to be ok, that THEY are going to be ok, that this hard day/week/season isn’t anything other than just that?

I don’t believe we’re only “given as much as we can handle”.  The truth is that sometimes you get broken wide open and spilled everywhere.  You will crack and you will break.  On the other side of this, someday sooner than you think, you’ll laugh and drink wine excessively and face some new challenge with just an ounce more belief that it’s not going to last forever.

Hold onto that ounce fiercely when you get it.

Some Days You Just Can’t Be Cool (or, A Guide to Losing It)

anxiety, family life, motherhood 7 Comments

momyellingSome days you just can’t be cool.  Some days you have to scream and kick and throw your own tantrum.  Maybe slam a door or two.  Utter a few ominous threats in a gutteral tone.  Let people know you are not cool.

I’d even say go so far as to deliver some outrageous ultimatums to your self-absorbed partner and ungrateful children.  Make sure they know you are serious.  They will be easy to convince and will take you totally seriously.

Refuse to make dinner, or make it in a hateful hurry and throw it on the table to drive home the obvious point that nobody around here appreciates you.

Don’t do anything that would actually help you unwind or reconnect.  Avoid a walk around the block or a quick bath at all costs. If some
bastard gently suggests calling a girlfriend for a chat, snarl at them so they know how much of an idiot they are for suggesting such a thing.

Do not, whatever you do, agree to a civil conversation with any member of your family.dirtydishes

Clean something you don’t care about vigorously.  Curse the mountain of dishes, the long flight of stairs down to the laundry room, your genes, the stack of unsorted mail.  Definitely curse that effing Lego piece you just stepped on and the fruit flies you can’t get rid of to save your life.

If you feel the tension start to loosen a little bit, don’t let it go.  Not yet.  You deserve to be mad.  Nobody appreciates you.  Nobody knows what you deal with, what you put up with.

Hear your husband start to put the kids to bed and feel a fresh wave of rage as you hear giggling and wrestling.

How dare they have fun after what they’ve put you through.  How dare Dad rile them up before bed.  God, he sucks at this.

Scroll Facebook detachedly for awhile.  Keep scrolling, long past when you’ve caught up on the few things you might actually care about.  Look at pictures of other families and imagine their perfect lives, their clean houses and appreciated mothers.

Ignore your husband when he comes downstairs from putting the kids to bed.  When he asks if you want to watch an episode of Downton Abbey,
look at him like he is the worst decision you ever made and say you are going to bed.  Go upstairs.

Regret not saying yes to an episode of Downton Abbey.

Haul two armfuls of unfolded laundry from your bed and stuff them onto the chair in the corner.

Catch your sons favorite torn up jeans out of the corner of your eye and remember the adorable conversation a few days ago where he legitimately talked you out of throwing them away.  Finally do what you should have done hours ago – let it all come apart and have a good ol’ cry.

Cry for awhile, mostly feeling sorry for yourself at first.  Then, cry for another while as you feel guilty about some of the things you said today and how permanently damaged your kids are going to be because of it.

Inevitably wander down the hall to the kids room and open the door, letting the hall light sneak in just enough to show their faces.
Tiptoe over to the bed and remember why we don’t eat our young like some mammals.  Stare at their angelic faces and let all of the anger and crazy from the day just melt away.

Lean over and kiss their foreheads so gently, making sure you don’t awaken the beasts and destroy this memory forever.

Climb into your bed.  Try to remember the reasons you were so mad, why all of the hard things of the week got to be such a big deal.

When your husband comes to bed, sleepily whisper “I’m sorry”.  He will be smart and say your actions were totally understandable and you are obviously beautiful.

The next morning, make breakfast and apologies.

Some days you just can’t be cool.  And everyone is going to be just fine.

Anxiety, Motherhood & Healing

anxiety, family life, motherhood 2 Comments

anxiety

My journey as a mother hasn’t been an easy one.  Some of it has been circumstantial, but a lot of it is what I came into it with…  and I know I’m not the only one who unpacked a whole new world of baggage when they became a mother.

In fact, I have come to believe that there are certain aspects of our baggage that we may not even be able to fully engage outside of the context of motherhood.  It would be kind of like expecting someone to realize that they have a fear of commitment without having had the opportunity to be in a relationship – that awareness wouldn’t be very likely.