I’m ever interested in what mothers and fathers of the world have to say about how they do what they do. We already know the why part of the equation: it’s all about them babies. We all want raise balanced, kind, engaging human beings who others simply enjoy being around.
So when I read about a new book by author and freelance journalist (now associate professor of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University) Mei-Ling Hopgood called How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, you know I was alll over it.
Born in Taiwan and raised in metro Detroit with the parents who adopted her and her two Korean brothers, Mei-Ling knows diversity. She has lived in St. Louis, DC, Hawaii and most recently (before a big move two weeks ago) Buenos Aires for seven years. Both of Mei-Ling’s daughters, Sofia and Violet, were born in Argentina.
In the middle of her international moving madness, she was gracious enough to chat with me about, well, how Eskimos keep those wee ones warm … and a few other burning questions.
Q: What made you write this book?
Mei-Ling Hopgood: I became a mom living abroad, which opens your eyes to different ways of thinking and parenting. Argentines had a pretty laid-back view of bedtimes, never used baby food out of a jar and treated pregnant women like queens. Argentine men had a much more comfortable and close proximate relationship with babies. It all made me reflect on my own background and the places I’d traveled to.
Q: What was the big lesson for you after researching and writing the book? Was there a particular country that proved the most surprising eye-opener for you?
MLH: The biggest overarching lesson was that while there are universals in good parenting — providing enough food, sleep, love etc. — there are many ways in the world to be a good parent. We need not deem anyone “superior” rather we can learn from each other on the dos and don’ts of parenting.
There were tons of big and small surprises for me, but one of the most important was that children could be effective teachers of children, and that they could be trusted with some pretty big responsibilities. (Little ones in cultures such as the Mayans in Mexico expect their kids to participate in the care of siblings, cousins, etc., from very young, and are also expected to work.)
Q: Has this book changed how you parent?
MLH: Yes, in many ways. For example, I potty trained my first daughter pretty early compared to most parents I know and plan to do the same with the next child. Also, I am more open to letting the kids break routines for family social occassions and have no qualms about them falling asleep in social settings (though with two, I greatly value routines).
Plus, I try not to intervene as much in kid skirmishes, or at least not as quickly, and see how they will play out.
Q: After talking to parents and experts from around the globe, is it fair to say that American parents may be a tad too fearful and anxious (maybe even neurotic!) regarding parenthood and issues around parenting? A case of being almost cautious to a fault?
MLH: I think that is true. I think we often treat our children as if they’ll break if one bad thing happens or we make one bad choice. But kids and parents are amazingly resilient and have thrived in situations that some of us would find impossible.
Q: I chuckled reading the “How Buenos Aires Children Go To Bed Late” chapter. I’m Canadian, raised by West Indian parents, and I remember all too well being put on the “coats bed” to sleep during weekend grown-folk parties. We slept soundly despite the thumping calypso and loud laughter just outside the room. Do you think that some American parents could benefit from loosening up the rules sometimes? What can our kids learn from seeing some flexibility?
MLH: It depends on the family. But I think for me the flexibilty was a good thing, both for the kids and my own mental state. They got to know other families and kids, and learned how to behave in an adult social setting, which I think is important. That said, again, with my baby now, I’m pretty selective about breaking routines these days, but I do think it’s important that she learn to be flexible.
Q: Your chapter on Tibet was wonderful. I, too, suffered a miscarriage. I know the depths of devastation and the incredible need to regroup and feel like “you” again. Would you explain a little about the Tibetans’ emphasis on the mom-to-be’s mental and spiritual wellness — especially the importance of stillness?
MLH: The Tibetan view (particularly Buddhist) is that stillness, or peace, is important for a mother and baby’s wellbeing. We spend a lot of time talking about the physical prep for pregnancy in the U.S., when it’s also valuable to think about one’s mental and spiritual health as well. It just makes logical sense: our bodies and minds do better when we are less stressed, more relaxed.
Q: Journalist Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé has been getting a bit of press lately [We talked about it on MMM last week]. It proposes that French children are essentially better behaved largely because their parents are more relaxed and “less neurotic” about child-rearing. What are you thoughts on that? And did you come across similar findings within the different cultures/countries you researched?
MLH: I get what she is saying, and I think I saw that in a lot of other cultures — such as Argentina. Moms and dads are more relaxed about the regular challenges involved with parenting. For example, we all would gripe about our babies and their erratic sleep habits. But the moms there wer emore matter-of-fact about it. In fact, my pediatrician (with both of my daughters) listened to me complain about sleep issues, and then said, “Ya va a pasar.” It’ll be over soon. In the U.S., we kill ourselves to try to “fix” those things.
That said, I really have issues with the trend in parenting discourse to claim French or Chinese parenting “superior.” I know that’s mostly the media, rather than the authors. But I believe that is a pat, oversimplified way of looking at parenting globally. We sincerely have a lot to learn from each other.
Q: In the book you talked about how globalization and the “commercialization of parenthood and childhood” are changing the way we parent. We seem to be — for good or bad — collapsing all of colorful differences into one “monotone” way to parent. Do you think there’s anything parents can do to preserve our delightful differences?
MLH: I hope people all over the world really think about whether the sweeping subscriptions we read in parenting literature is good for everyone. I think we need also to move away from saying there’s one perfect way of doing anything. That may sell, but it’s destructive.
Q: What do you hope other parents who read your book will take away from it?
MLH: I hope that they will take tips that might make them meet the challenges of parenting, and I hope they will take heart in knowing that there are many ways in the world to raise a happy and healthy child.
Do you have a watch on? Might want to check it, because IT’S GIVEAWAY TIME, Y’ALL! You know the accent is always on “fab” in The Confab.
Thanks to Mei-Ling — lovely as she is wise — and the kind people over at Algonquin Books, we are giving away FIVE copies of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm. All you have to do is leave a comment below or mosey over to the MMM Facebook page (by the way, have you “Liked” us on FB yet? Ahem.) and tell us one parenting tip you’ve picked up from another culture or country. As, Mei-Ling rightly said, we have so much to learn for each other. So … do tell!
We’re excited. Yes, we’re always pretty gassed about the wise minds who visit The Confab, so today really isn’t any different. Except that it is! We’ve got the fabulous Jamyla Bennu in the house.
I “met” Jamyla, well … I can’t really say. She’s part of that secret group I mentioned some time ago. Trust me, she’s the business. Proof, check out the bio she sent me:
Jamyla Bennu is a generally crafty chick and creator/mixtress of oyin handmade, a family-owned line of delicious and nutritious handmade hair and body care goodies. She likes pesto and sunshine, apples and dancing. She has two boychildren — an infant and a preschooler — and she is married to the best guy in the entire world FOR HER: artist and filmmaker Pierre Bennu. She encourages you to find your own perfect.
See? Just delightful.
Read on to get you some more Jamyla. Plus! You know our style … there is, of course, a giveaway. Details at the end of the post.
Q: As a mother of two with a buzzing business, how do you find that integral balance between work + life, wife + mom, Jamyla + expectations others have of Jamyla? Maybe it’s better to ask, how do you create it?
Jamyla Bennu: This is a great question. I want to hear the answer to this question! I suppose the short answer is, “Surround yourself with people who have your back.” For instance, I can’t answer this question without talking about Pierre because there is No. Way. I could maintain even a semblance of balance without the full and enthusiastic participation and support and planning and inspiration from my partner. He helps pull me back when I threaten to go over the edge, and is constantly watchful for me taking on too much, which is a tendency/threat for each of us.
So we have to constantly check each other. One of our affirmations is, The work is not going anywhere. After you take five minutes in the morning to sit on the porch with tea; after you take three minutes to do a quick yoga sun salutation; after you take a minute to play a turn in Words with Friends; or after a brisk walk around the block … the work will still be there, ready for you to pick up where you left off. It’s not necessary to burn yourself out EVERY minute of the day. You have to give yourself permission to be human and to answer a few needs for yourself once in a while. Even if it means taking an L in another aspect of life. Sometimes that may mean Chipotle for dinner more often than one might strictly aspire to if given a choice. Sometimes it may mean taking roughly 100 years to answer some awesomely thought-provoking interview questions. :)
Q: In this O Magazine piece, you and your husband Pierre mentioned waiting a good decade before starting a family. How would you say that impacted your relationship with your husband? And how did it influence your perception of yourself as a mother?
JB: We were lucky enough to agree on some very vital points from the start. Firstly, that our family started the minute we committed to each other. We were having a great time, felt that being child-free was a completely valid state of being, and didn’t feel like our union was incomplete. Secondly, we were also relatively young and had that whole immortal, life spinning out in front of you feeling going for us. We really did feel, for almost ten years, that the question of children was something we could decide on later.
But during that first decade of our marriage we had been broke, learned to deal with that. Been abundant, learned to deal with that. Moved many times. Dealt with both triumph and disappointment. “Bootstrapped” a business with many long nights and a complete investment of our time and energy. We developed a shorthand and a method of working together that has served us very well in creating a stronger union, and in navigating the guerrilla minefields of early parenthood.
As far as my self-perception as a mother … i actually had never imagined myself as a mother or knew what kind of mother I’d be. If I thought of it, it was with a bit of fear that I’d be too distracted or goofy to be a good mom. Then i found myself married to a man with a stunning level of emotional intelligence and ability to nurture and challenge not only me, but almost everyone he met. I began to think, “Well, maybe with him as my partner, I might not mess this up too badly.” LOL! Basically, the ten years gave me a chance to warm up to the idea.
Q: In that article, you spoke about not hiding your joy. And, moreover, you encouraged people to find their own, tailor-made happiness. Not as easy as it sounds. Folks tend to see what others have — or appear to have — and crave that. Why is it important to seek your own thing?
JB: I believe that there are as many different kinds of relationships as there are possible combinations of people. I used to think I wanted a relationship with lots of space and alone time and perhaps even separate living arrangements … but am blissful in mutual hermit-ude for 13 years (and counting!), spent hip-to-hip with an optimistic/cynical black nerd. Either of those extremes might send another woman screaming for the hills, but it totally works/worked for me at different times in my life.
We learn about the way a relationship is “supposed” to look like from our parents or other adults around us when we’re growing up, from television and movies, from cultural osmosis. But we have to be careful not to let our expectations get in the way of the uniqueness that is possible when you and another person create your own society together. You get to build your world together from scratch! Don’t squander that opportunity to create your own perfectness! Be honest about what makes you feel good, be open and communicative with each other, and the evolving shape of the relationship over time may surprise you.
Q: My younger sister and I recently started talking about this habit too many women have: we call it shoulding all over yourself. It’s that thing we do … “I should be exercising more. I should be much further along towards my goal. I should have done what she did, etc.” What’s your take on The Shoulds?
JB: We all battle The Shoulds .. and I love your term. A play-aunt I grew up with used to say, ‘Shoulda shot a duck don’t make soup.” I love that too, although it’s focused more on the past-tense shoulds (“I should have finished my homework. I should have packed my lunch today.”) rather than the wistful, future tense, beating-up-on-yourself shoulds.
What if there was no such word? Maybe we’d have to just make concrete, affirmative statements about our future plans. “I will exercise more in the future, because it makes me feel healthy.” “If I want to achieve X, i will take the following steps!”
Q: It’s easy to complain. Life is full and busy, and often moves quicker than we’d like. How can one honestly dig through all of that grey cloud to start seeing some of the bright spots coming through?
JB: I often hear that happiness is a choice, and I do believe that, to a certain extent. The world presents you with stimuli, and how you react to those stimuli determines your happiness. There are spiritual and meditative teachings that encourage you to release yourself from expectation, to remove the judgement of good/bad from your experiences and just let them flow through you, etc.
But I think this is easier for some people than for others, and part of that, I think, has to do with how we are “wired.” A friend who works with mental health awareness and advocacy has opened my eyes to the very real struggles many people have with seeing the brighter side of life sometimes. I may just have happy chemistry, but it’s usually relatively simple for me to focus on the positive, the fun, the sunny things in my world at a given time. When I get overwhelmed or feel downtrodden or sad about a personal failure, I can generally find my way out of that funk with relative ease .. or distract myself with a game or song or dance class or call to my mom or something like that.
If it is honestly difficult to see the bright side of your life, GET. HELP. Period.
Otherwise, take a cue from (a paraphrased) Shug Avery in The Color Purple: Don’t walk past the beauty in your life without noticing and appreciating it. It pisses God off.
Q: How has motherhood/parenting influenced or changed the way you approach challenges in your business, relationships and life overall?
JB: Motherhood has been extremely humbling for me. I’m a DIY, do it all, do it all at once kind of chick, and parenting two children under three has been a rude awakening that there are simply some factors of my life that are going to be outside of my control for a while. Having to schedule your workday around the nap schedule of a screaming little tyrant who doesn’t speak your language is a humbling set of circumstances for a big/bad entrepreneur chick who is (at least in her head) taking the world by storm.
My priorities have completely shifted. Work is still vital to me, but prior to the kidlings, I would prioritize work and let myself take a beating in terms of personal health, my need for sleep, the regularity of my meals, etc. I would never dream of allowing those things slip by the wayside for my children. So in a sense, motherhood has taught me about the importance of prioritizing myself … in a roundabout way. It has returned my sense of importance to the most basic and primal.
I’ve learned a lot about maintaining flexibility, thinking on my feet and, again, giving myself permission to do things in a different way than I may have originally planned. Lots of stuff gets done after midnight around here; lots of things get typed with one hand while nursing; a small sliver of things may not get done at all, or might get delegated.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve heard about finding balance and getting closer to living your best life?
JB: A mentor once encouraged me to keep a paper To-Do list, and when you do something that’s not on your list, write it on there and cross it off.
Invariably, things come up that aren’t on your list. There are fires to put out and every day has its tiny emergencies. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself responding to these daily emergencies and feeling ridiculous and unaccomplished at the end of the day when the things you thought you’d be doing with your day haven’t gone as planned. But a chronicle of what you’ve actually done can be a sanity-saver (and an ego-saver!). This little tip has saved my sanity more than once when my unintentional flexibility rears its head.
Giveaway time! The Bennus are graciously offer up some honey money (oyin handmade’s online gift voucher program). One lucky reader will nab $30 worth of honey money to spend on oyin’s wonderful products online. Full disclosure: I use several oyin hair products. Every morning it’s a struggle not to eat them joints. The smell … delicious.
All you have to do? Leave a comment below. Add your valuable two cents to this conversation: Talk about the secret sauce to your happiness or how you’re moving closer to finding some balance. Or share the best advice you’ve heard on upgraded to joyful living. We just want to hear what you have to say!
I first read about Julie Cole, co-founder of the successful company Mabel’s Labels, while flipping through a Canadian magazine some time ago. Of course I did a mental earmark because not only is Julie a smart, successful woman from my homeland, but she is also the mother of — ready? — six children under the age of 11. Wanting to find out much more about this Canuck Wonder Woman, I reached out to Julie through that helpful little blue bird, and she happily agreed to spend some time in The Confab.
And we’re glad that we quickly got in line to chat with her because People magazine just featured her in its celebrity baby blog this week! In that post, Julie offers 5 Tips to Help Keep School Mornings Sane.
Here, we talk to the working mama about making the impressive leap from lawyer to entrepreneur and how she keeps her busy bee life buzzing. Plus! You know how we do … there is, of course, a giveaway. Details at the end of the post.
Q: How did the idea for Mabel’s Labels come to mind and then to its fruition?
Julie Cole: My business partners and I noticed a product missing from the market. People were labeling their children’s belongings with masking tape and permanent marker. We knew that we could do better than that. We went to work in hopes of creating a durable and incredibly cute line of labels. Our labels are dishwasher, microwave and laundry safe.
Q: What led you to actually start a business? Was there a moment in your life as a lawyer that made you look towards the entrepreneurial path?
JC: We had the product idea, but the catalyst was when my eldest child was diagnosed with autism. I knew that in order to set up his ABA program and advocate for him, I would need a more flexible work life. The traditional workforce was left behind, and started my way down that entrepreneurial path!
Q: You’re a mom of — let me catch my breath before I say this — SIX children. Was there a point where you thought you couldn’t pull this off — this being a business woman, an entrepreneur and an involved mother?
JC: Strangely, not really. I’ve always been the kind of person who functions best with a whole lot on my plate. I’m the perfect example of “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.” I work hard to strike some balance in life, and when things seem a bit off, I make some adjustments. I try not to complain about things, but rather fix them.
Q: For so many of us, attempting to take on something as big as launching our own business leaves us feeling intimidated, petrified and like we’re putting our families in second place. What words of wisdom would you offer to other mothers who are considering a big life/career shift, but cannot move past the “it’ll never work” voice in their heads to take the first step?
JC: That first step is a biggie — no question. Entrepreneurs have to be risk-takers, so if you are risk-averse, this might not be the path for you. But we all get scared and worry about balancing our work and family lives. What has worked for me is the flexibility that comes with owning my own business. However, flexibility doesn’t get my work done for me. I may be able to go on an afternoon playdate or attend a school play, but I will be on my laptop at midnight — and that is exactly how I want it. I chose this path because I’ll happily be on my laptop at midnight if it means I greet my kids as they get off the school bus.
Q: We’ve spoken here before about what Tina Fey called the rudest question to ask a working mother: “How do you juggle it all?” But I find the question more insightful than insolent. It helps others to hear what you’re doing — how you’re doing it — as you walk that tightrope between work and life. So … how do you do it? And what are some of your tips for keeping things moving forward at home and with the business?
JC: In the early days, I was slow to get extra help. It seemed counter-intuitive that I should have someone help me with the kids, since I started this business to be with the kids. I finally got a full-time nanny when my fifth child was a baby. I always say that I was about three kids too late making that decision!
Getting help is a sanity saver, and it means that when you’re with your kids, you can really be with them. I am now more productive at work and at home. The lesson there is: Don’t be afraid to get help.
My other tip is having great perspective. If my kids don’t have veggies at dinner, I don’t beat myself up over it or feel guilty. No one has had scurvy yet! My legacy will not be that my house is the tidiest, and I’m good with that. So, actually, my advice to other mothers is to lower your standards.
Q: How has motherhood influenced or changed the way you approach challenges in your business, relationships and life overall?
JC: Being a parent is the very reason my business got started. I’m not entirely sure how it has changed my daily interactions and my approach, except for the fact that all day long I’m smiling inside because of my six awesome little people!
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve developed for finding balance and getting closer to living your best life?
JC: Know your own needs. If you need “me time,” take it. You also have to know what amount of time at home versus work makes you happiest. Some women are better moms when they are away from their kids during the day, and some moms shine when they are home with their kids all the time. Know yourself and how you function best, and that will make you a better mom and a happier person.
Giveaway time! Most of you have been deep in Back-to-School shopping for a good few weeks now. So, thanks to Julie and Mabel’s Labels, we’re helping things along. One lucky MMM reader will receive this –> Ultimate Back-to-School Combo! The combo is valued at $42. This giveaway is open to residents of Canada and the US. And to be entered to win, all you have to do is leave a comment below. Tell us the story about the one thing you most regret losing . (See? Now, if you had a Mabel’s Label on that thing … )
Leave your comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. We will announce the winner (and post their story) in two weeks — September 20.
Parents. We’re one busy lot. Seems like something’s always going on or about to start all over again. As a result, some regular home care things get pushed to the side and soon starts stacking up to the point where we’re living in our own secret mess pile. Granted, it’s not as bad as Hoarders, but a mini-intervention wouldn’t hurt.
Many parents can’t even figure you how they inherited the clutter. It’s all about toys and diaper boxes strewn about. There’s just a lot of stuff shoved into already-packed closets and stacked on nearly every flat, hard surface. To get some answers — and non-finger-wagging help — we deferred to the experts …
Meet Jen M.R. Doman, founder and president of Get It Together!, a home, office and estate organization company out of Brooklyn, NY. She knows the way to a cleaner tomorrow. [Plus! You know how we do here in The Confab. Be sure to read to the end of the post for a fun surprise. Indeed … a giveaway!]
Q: There’s a lot of shame and judgment when it comes to folks trying to get their homes in order. What’s the first step towards getting a handle on the clutter?
Jen M.R. Doman: Pick a day of the week to handle the tough stuff. Everyone has a day of the week they like the least. Use that day to go through just one stack of papers. You don’t have to move mountains –but molehills, you can do! Initially spend no more than 30 minutes going through these items, deciding what should be filed and what should be tossed. After a few 30-minute sessions, start spending one hour of one day going through one stack. This is very manageable.
If you’re a parent of slightly older children:
- Have a conversation with your children about why you think your home will be more harmonious if it was organized.
- Ask your children for their organizational suggestions. This will help them to start thinking differently about their relationship to their things.
Other good ideas for parents:
- Remove bedroom carpeting. With a bare floor, the kids can be more responsible by sweeping the room themselves which is a lot easier than pushing a vacuum around.
- Use dressers in closets. For younger children, the majority of their clothes do not need to be hung. A dresser will allow for more storage and will free up floor space in the bedroom area.
- Consider replacing closet doors with curtains. If the door is too heavy or the knob too high, children will become less independent re: accessing their things.
- Artistically label drawers and bins. This will help your children become more organized.
- Compliment your children when they’ve done a good job.
Also, create a central landing zone in one area of your home for all family members. Keys, incoming mail, stamps, gloves and hats, dog leashes … these are items that at some point every member of the family will need to use. It will save time if everyone knows where exactly to go to get these items versus searching in a general for where they “think” the items may be.
Q: Someone might read all of this from you and think that you were simply born this way — neat, organized, on point. Is that true? What’s your advice for the Messy Martha, the woman who can’t seem to get her stuff together no matter how many issues of Real Simple she collects?
JD: I am actually very organized, but — trust me — this is not rocket science. A anyone can learn to be organized. What’s the first step? Strategize like an athlete. Using a stop watch or by setting the kitchen stove clock, time how long it takes you to get your children prepped for school, make dinner or complete an ongoing monthly project at work. Are you satisfied with the timing or is there a way to shave some valuable time off of these tasks?
Step two: Create an organizational timeline. Be specific about what must be done, and give yourself dates by which each task will be completed. Check off each completed duty. Over time you will see your progress.
Q: If you had to pick one, which room of the home should be at the top of the “Get it Together” list? Why?
The first room of the home that should be organized is the kitchen. A disorganized kitchen effects everything else. In a chaotic kitchen your nutritional intake is compromised, which means your health is compromised which means your daily behavior is compromised. Get the kitchen together first!
Q: What’s the first thing to do when trying to organize and de-clutter the kitchen?
JD: Declare your intention to get your space organized. Be clear with yourself about what you want to accomplish and why. Write a list outlining each task that must be fulfilled — from re-organizing your kitchen to transforming your desk area. Don’t consider any task too small to list. Create an organizational timeline. Be specific about what must be done, and give yourself dates by which each task will be completed. Check off each completed duty.
Q: Is there a way to fake it ’til you make it when it comes to home organization?
JD: In a word … no. I’m not into faking anything.
Q: What are your five Dos for de-cluttering, clearing out and cleaning up?
JD: Do realize that your space did not become disorganized overnight, so unless you call in a professional, it’s going to take some time to get it organized.
Do know that your space is going to look worse before it will look better.
Do have an in box and an out box for incoming and outgoing mail. All junk mail and catalogues you don’t need/want should immediately make their way to the recycling bin.
Do stay focused on one area and work in that area for 20 minutes and then stop for a short break.
Do not go out to purchase bins upon bins and tons of “supplies” until you’re done with the organizational process and can accurately access exactly what you need in terms of storage.
Q: So, basically, back away from the local Container Store?
JD: I’d strongly suggest that we all stay away from buying items until after the organizational process is over. Most Americans already have what they need, sometimes they have duplicates! The problem is that the items are in excess or they’re not being used properly.
There are just three things that you need to get organized: time, garbage bags and a label maker. That’s it! Really.
Remember, you wouldn’t run a marathon without first seeing if you could handle a run around your block. So don’t overwhelm yourselves with the task when you start the organizational process. You will get it together.
Definitely holler at Jen M.R. Doman, over at Get It Together! for more tips to help you get organized.
Giveaway! This time you’ve got a choice. One reader will win either a one-year subscription to Real Simple magazine OR a $25 gift card for The Container Store (just make sure, as Jen recommends, you hit the store after the organizational process is over). And all you have to do is share your best cleaning tip or trick.
I’ll start: Consider using vinegar and water as a general household cleaner. It saves you moola and it’s greener than any Mr. Clean product you’ll find on the shelves. Now, it’s your turn! Tell us what you know in the comments below and you’ll be entered to win a Container Store gift card or a Real Simple subscription. Pretty neat deal, yes?