Thursday, September 8, 2016

How to Set the Table for a Tea Party

My daughter isn’t old enough to be trusted with a tea cup (full or empty), but I love the idea of a tea-party themed birthday party for an older girl. In fact, my niece, who just started third grade, recently had one with her friends—and I thought it was the perfect, frilly way to let little girls feel grown-up. And really, does anyone really need an excuse to sip on tea and eat dainty pastries? 

Mix & Match Your Dishes

It’s no biggie if you don’t have a full set of girly-looking dishes—you can mix and match, like I did. I chose my favorite vintage plates—Hazel Atlas Pink Crinoline—for their wavy edges and pretty pink detailing, and paired them with gold chargers (an Aldi score!) and a floral sugar bowl that a family member passed down to me. A mix of new, vintage, and antique is totally fine—as long as they all have delicate features to tie them together.

Think Outside the Tea Cup

I don’t happen to have half a dozen tea cups sitting around—but I do have a set of clear glass mugs from the 1950s with cute handles. If you don’t have something similar, check out your local thrift store, and you’ll undoubtedly find mismatched tea cups (the more patterns, the better!) or a set of mini mugs like mine. (You can also find teapots at thrift shops; in fact, I just snagged a vintage Tiffany & Co. teapot for $10 the other day.)

Go Wild with Flowers

For a girly party, you can never have enough flowers, which is why I assembled two arrangements for the table. Hint: If you want to reuse your flowers, try my trick: Buy high-quality silk stems, then mingle in a few real sprigs of baby’s breath. Trust me, no one will know the difference (unless a partygoer leans in to take a whiff, which has happened to me!). In keeping with the party’s theme, I used an antique tea kettle as a vase.

Decorate with Napkins

Napkin rings are nice, but I prefer to use pretty cloth napkins to accent my plates. I have a set of vintage napkins with pink embroidery along the edges, which I folded into triangles and placed under the tea plates. This keeps your table looking tidy, while also adding visual interest. 

Play with Metals

Gone are the days of one metal per room, so feel free to add some bling to your table with a mix of shiny stuff. For example, I used a sterling silver tea kettle, brushed gold silverware (from One Kings Lane), and a bronze tray for the sugar cup. This approach adds visual variety to your table and helps you avoid ripped-straight-from-Pier-1 matchy-matchiness. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Why Calling My Toddler a "Daddy's Girl" Is Actually Destructive

Strangers and acquaintances, can we make a deal?

I won’t ask you to stop commenting on the socks my daughter should be wearing, the hair that shouldn’t be in her face, or the words you think she should be saying. But, please, can you stop calling her a Daddy’s Girl?

I’m not jealous, I promise. I love seeing the beautiful relationship blossoming between my husband and daughter. He makes her belly-laugh, he reads to her, he gives me breaks. It’s great—for him, for her, for me. We’re a happy family.

But, the thing is, a family includes me—and when you, someone we barely know, decides my daughter really must prefer him, since he’s holding her, or you know, being a parent, I kind of want to slap you. Is that rude of me?

“Oh, she’s with her favorite person—she really loves her daddy.”

“What a Daddy’s Girl!”

These comments may seem cute, or complimentary, but when made in the presence of me, the mother—who spends 10 hours a day changing diapers, wiping snotty noses, pleading with her toddler to, please, stop crushing crackers into the cat’s fur—well, it’s just kind of insulting. I know Daddy is more fun than me. That’s because my attention is a given and his is a gift. That’s no fault of his own—someone has to make the money. All I’m really asking for is a little credit—recognition that the novelty of Daddy doesn’t negate the hours I just spent as a one-woman entertainment committee, chef, and pit crew. 

Daddies have the privilege of being roughly 70 percent fun, 30 percent parent. That ratio would lead to total anarchy when applied to a 10-hour day together—one that includes grocery shopping, folding laundry, and preparing dinner. Reverse that ratio during my time with Asa, and it makes sense why Daddy might pull ahead, if you want to make this a contest for an 18-month-old’s affection.

And let’s be real: After a toddler with a 12-second attention span has just spent all day playing with, being corrected by, and forced into a car seat by the same person, a new face is exciting—especially when that person comes armed with candy, kisses, and lots of tickles. So, yes, my daughter is excited to see her daddy. Who would’t be? After a day alone with a human hurricane, I’m pretty pumped to see him too.

I’m not trying to undermine or explain away their love for each other. There’s a reason there are daddy/daughter dances—it’s a special relationship, and one that is entirely distinct from the mother/daughter bond. So, you're right, my daughter does love her daddy, and if he’s around, she probably wants to be in his lap. But that doesn’t make me a third wheel or a second-choice parent—it makes me a happy mommy.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

4 Design Ideas for Gender-Neutral Nurseries

When I was pregnant, my due date seemed like a distant goal. But the gender reveal? That was something I could set my sights on—and so I did, religiously counting down the days until my anatomy scan. But apparently, not all parents are as gung-ho about the girl-boy question as I was: 51 percent of Americans say they think waiting until the delivery is the way to go—and shockingly, in my circle, plenty of super-patient parents are actually sticking with it: I know three pregnant ladies who aren’t finding out their little one’s gender (and one is even a first-time mom willing to wait!).  

My immediate response: If you don’t know the gender, how are you going to decorate the nursery?? (Because, clearly, deciding on a wall color is the most critical pregnancy concern.)

But the truth is, if you were to guess based on my daughter’s nursery decor, you’d probably assume I was one of the mommies who diverted her eyes during the 20-week ultrasound: Asa’s crib is yellow, her chifarobe teal, and her walls gray. As much as I love pink, I didn’t want to force my femininity on my newborn; something calming, sweet, and future-sibling-friendly seemed ideal. 

So what options are out there for the mom who can resist the 20-week gender reveal—but can’t wait to paint and pick out bedding? I put together four gender-neutral—but drastically different—potential looks for your little one’s room. 

The Look: Black & White

Black and white is known for stimulating babies’ vision. So why not deck out your nursery in the high-contrast look? Although sheepskin rugs are super-popular for kids’ rooms right now, I’ve made that mistake—and now have a dingy, matted-down rug in my daughters’ room. A zebra print cowhide rug delivers the same playful vibe, but with more durability.

The Look: Tropical Paradise

Pineapples were hot this season, cropping up on everything from pillows to dresses…to crib sheets! I love this printed sheet, because it’s cute but not kitschy, and the pair of tropical wall prints pulls together the sheets and the bright colors of the rug. 

The Look: Peaceful & Pastoral

I typically shy away from all-neutral rooms, but for a nursery, the look is more relaxing than bland. The animal accents add a whimsical touch to the otherwise understated room.

The Look: South-of-the-Border Chic

I was immediately drawn to this otomi-inspired crib quilt from Pottery Barn, which inspired me to design a chic nursery with south-of-the-border flair. The classic lines of the furniture keep the playful, bright accessories from feeling too loud. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

9 Tips for Touring Europe with a Toddler

When my husband Frank and I decided to travel to five countries—Iceland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy—in 12 days with our 18-month-old, reactions were mixed: lots of shock, a little admiration, and plenty of doubt about our sanity. Maybe we were naive to think it could work, but since the beginning of our daughter’s life, we’ve been determined not to quit enjoying our own lives—even if we are at home by 7 p.m. most nights. 
But nearly two weeks in several foreign countries with a toddler? This made our normal level of bravery—think venturing out to Taco Tuesday with Asa in tow—look like a trip to the spa. This, we realized, could be the dividing line in our vacation history: Remember when we used to, you know, go places? Well, at least we can still go to Knoebels. (Look it up.)

I’d already flown solo with Asa twice, and most recently, as a family, we’d traveled to Disney World, with disastrous results: back-arching, wailing, and writhing at 30,000 feet. By the end of the flight, I was tempted to pass Asa off to Frank and pretend I didn't know them. It was bad.
All strapped in and ready for takeoff! 
So, with this nightmare in mind, we boarded our first flight from Washington, D.C., to Reykjavik, Iceland, one of the longest legs of our trip at just over five hours, with a healthy dose of fear. Amazingly, though, Asa was a gem—but, as we learned later that night, she was just resting up for some serious screaming. In theory, our hotel’s room-darkening shades were great, except that they left about four inches of window exposed on either side. Room-dimming would have been a more accurate way to advertise these curtains—and because Iceland only gets “dark” for three hours a night during the summer, Asa slept three hours. It was a delight, truly. 

Fortunately, this first night was the peak of our collective misery. As the days passed, we settled into our groove—even when facing a 102-degree fever in Heidelberg (hers), a 103-degree fever in Rome (mine), and an intestinal battle with cheese fondue in Switzerland (I lost). (Somehow Frank always escapes unscathed, though he frequently claims he can “feel something coming on.” Let’s call this empathy, shall we?)

So how’d we wrangle a one-and-a-half-year-old in Europe? Learn from our successes—and our mistakes—for your European adventure with a pint-sized passenger:

Mistake #1: Don’t assume “room-darkening shades” means black-out shades.

I knew Iceland would be light at night, so in my hotel search, I made sure to hunt for a room with darkening shades. But, as previously mentioned, that did absolutely nothing for us, since they failed to actually fully cover the windows. My advice? Even if you’re in a country that gets dark, but your little one requires pitch-black to sleep, do extensive research: Read reviews, call the hotel, do anything you can to ensure the room will actually be dark—unless you like strolling the sidewalks at 2 a.m.

Mistake #2: Don’t experiment with snacks.

When I was grocery shopping for the trip, I found some granola bars on clearance for $.62. I can’t resist a bargain, so I bought them—and didn’t conduct a taste-test with Asa before we left. Naturally, she refused to eat them once in Europe, leaving me to ration her favorite fruit snacks (and forcing me to share my Nutella croissants with her). So stick with the snacks you know work, and stock up.

Can you sense her misery?

Mistake #3: Don’t tote your toddler in a baby carrier.

On our first day in Rome, I made the executive decision to have Frank carry Asa in her Ergo. I’m going to add here that I was suffering from a high fever at this time, which is my excuse for not realizing that a) Her carrier was black, and it was 100 degrees outside b) She’s now an avid walker, and runner, and restraint is not welcome. What seemed a smart way to navigate the Colosseum, which I figured wouldn’t be stroller friendly (but was), was actually terrible: Not only did she overheat, but she was dying to have some freedom—for her, being restricted in a shaded stroller is much more acceptable than being confined to a carrier in blazing heat. Never again.

Mistake #4: Don’t bother with the hotel cribs.

If the hotels you’re staying at offer free cribs, go ahead, ask for one. But if you have to pay, I’d suggest skipping it, since toddlers have reached the stage where they’re aware of their surroundings—i.e. they know you’re in the bed five feet from them. From night one, Asa absolutely refused to sleep in the crib, even though, at home, we’ve never coslept.

Happily chilling in her carseat, snacking on Nutella.

Success #1: Do rent a car.

I loved, loved, loved the fact that we didn’t have to deal with airport transfers, trains, subways, or taxis, which would have been a serious hassle with a carseat and all the luggage we had (there’s no such thing as traveling light with a toddler). By renting a car, we gave ourselves more freedom, and had a safe place for Asa to nap while we drove. 
A couple warnings: 
1. Driving on European roads is challenging if you’ve never done it; since my husband lived in Europe for three years, it was an obvious choice for us. 
2. European model cars are smaller than U.S. cars. (Case in point: Our friends who paid for a two-suitcase car could only fit one of their American-size bags.) So book a larger car than you anticipate needing, although you may be surprised with an upgrade: In both Iceland and Europe, the rental companies bumped us up to a roomier ride (probably after seeing our ridiculous pile of baby equipment). 
3. Keep long rides to a minimum. In our experience, three-hour stretches are the max, when, day after day, you’re subjecting your little one to long rides. Remember, you’re taking in the scenery, but your baby is staring at the back seat. 

Success #2: Do ask the airlines if there are any empty seats for your toddler.

We were cheap and didn’t buy a seat for Asa, instead opting to pay about $150 for her to fly as a lap infant. On our first flight, the attendant gave us a lap belt for her—something U.S. airlines don’t offer—to strap her to us, thereby preventing escape. We though that was amazing—until, on the next three flights, we were given free seats for her and her carseat. How? At the gate desk, Frank just asked the clerk if there were any open seats. In all three cases, there were, and the airline kindly rearranged the flight a little to accommodate us. (FYI, even though Iceland Air is super-barebones, it is very accommodating of children. Plus, for no extra cost, you can break up your trip, stopping in Iceland, then finishing your final leg to Europe a few days later, letting you avoid super-long airtime. ) It never hurts to ask! 

Success #3: Do keep breastfeeding.

I’d initially planned to wean Asa at 12 months. When that didn’t happen, I decided to stick with it until after our big trip, since I knew the nursing would help pop her ears during take-off and landing and soothe her to sleep (2.5 hours on the first flight!). Even though nursing a 20-pounder is uncomfortable in an airplane seat, it was well worth the pain (I was crying at one point, my lap was no numb from holding her). So if you’re thinking about weaning (whether from bottles or breast), but have a vacation around the corner, hold off if you can! 

A nap at 3 p.m. in Rome? Never would have happened when Frank and I were childless. But with Asa, it was essential, even though she barely naps at home. The heat is taxing!  

Success #4: Do know your limits.

Go into your trip knowing this: With a toddler in tow, you won’t see everything. My advice: Pick one or two must-sees in each city, and consider anything else a bonus, because once you factor in long lines, nap times, snack times, meal times, and, yes, tantrums, your ambitious itinerary will become torturous. If your budget allows, take any opportunity to skip the lines, whether by buying tickets online (we did this for the Colosseum and the Vatican) or hiring a tour guide (we did this in Florence to see the statue of David). That way, you’ll use up your toddler’s patience looking at exhibits, not standing outside of museums. 

Why wait in line when you could be eating gelato?

Success #5: Do book a few American-style hotels.

By American-style hotels, I mean the Crowne Plaza. I’m all for quintessentially European hotels—if I’m on a romantic getaway. But cramming a family of three into a closet-sized hotel room? No thanks. In Germany, we stayed in a Crowne Plaza and it was divine: plush robes, roomy accommodations (i.e. space for Asa to play), air conditioning, and a pastry waiting on the dresser. Call me a typical American tourist all you want, but I’ll take a cozy robe over roughing it any day. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Cult of Baby Gap

Walking into a Baby Gap doesn’t feel intimidating—there are no carefully folded stacks of nautical-themed clothing, fit for a baby yachtsman, or $90 patent leather flats, in an infant size 2. The atmosphere is neither hushed nor precious. More likely, an indie rock song is thumping in the background, the hip soundtrack for the store’s toddler-ironic tees, with sayings like, “Mermaids Have More Fun” or “Have You Hugged a Shark Today?”

The store seems mostly oblivious to its cultish status among moms. The prices are high, but not obnoxiously so; the employees don’t smirk at you if you make a beeline for the clearance rack before browsing the full-priced section. When I ask a Baby Gap clerk—a youngish guy with close-cropped hair wearing skinny jeans—about the coveted “bow-back romper,” a “HTF” (hard-to-find) item that fetches upwards of $100 online, he just looks confused. 

For some young moms, though, Baby Gap is the Mecca of Motherhood—a place not only to outfit their children stylishly, but to realize their own near-spiritual aspirations as mothers. They may not be able to control their children’s tantrums, or refusal to eat anything but Goldfish, or delay in reaching milestones. But they can control how they dress.

“We usually have one day a week where we stay comfy. Even then, I’ve got sweats from The Gap that he wears.” 

These are the words of a stay-at-home mom, a participant in a study examining the way mothers forge their identifies—an often-fraught process during the transition from childlessness to motherhood—through dressing their children. 

“Her kid wears sweats, but they’re from Gap. So they’re not really sweats,” says study author Jessica Collett, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame. “She was trying to communicate, ‘My kid isn’t just running around in sweatpants. These are Baby Gap sweatpants.’” 

Baby Gap is far from the most expensive children’s clothing store. And its parent company, Gap Inc., is struggling, with stock prices falling and sales declining, quarter after quarter. Yet, on the Internet, moms are still scrambling for certain sought-after Baby Gap outfits—namely, a white romper with a bright pink bow in the back, and a similar floral-print romper—and are willing to pay exorbitant prices for these HTF items. The aforementioned white romper is currently listed on eBay for $149; another seller recently auctioned it for $75. “Gap has not made any of these bow-back rompers in a few years,” one mom, Brook, a children’s clothing seller, explains to me. “Swing sets—the tops with bloomers—are also very popular, as well as eyelet dresses and tops.” Boys’ Baby Gap clothing, she says, rarely reaches such a frenzied level of demand.  

What makes these sought-after items so special? “1) Quick sellout 2) old and in perfect condition 3) a popular (cute) line,” such as the Paddington Bear collection at Gap, another mother of three, who resells children’s clothing online, says. “The faster it sells out in stores or online, the more in demand it becomes,” adds Brook, who notes that “vintage” Baby Gap pieces can also lead to bidding battles.

“I’ve witnessed a verbal altercation over who ‘won’ the romper on an Instagram sale,” this same mom recently commented on the Facebook page of a baby resale group. “The best part of all this silliness is that they buy the rompers and swing sets and only put their little ones in them for pictures that they can post on social media. They then turn around and sell them for the same ridiculous price they paid for them.”

And no one is negotiating, either. A friend of mine, a mother of two, was privately messaged by the administrators of an online Baby Gap resale group, informing her that she couldn’t ask a seller why the price for an item was so high. (I received no response when I reached out to eBay sellers, asking a similar question.) 

Other groups have been formed specifically to escape this kind of price-hiking—one Baby Gap resale group on Facebook, which has over 12,000 members, states in its guidelines that buyers can’t ask if an item is HTF, since “this will create a ‘buzz’ that fuels the inflation rates!” In the group description, the admins write, “Have you been wondering what ever happened to being able to buy gently used adorable baby gap items for reasonable prices? Well here’s where you can do that! Stop chasing those unicorns.” 

So what motivates moms to digitally claw each other’s eyes out over a baby outfit? Some of it, of course, is about signaling, mostly to other mothers, a certain level of status. “All kinds of consumption”—the cars we buy, the neighborhoods we choose—“are about communicating status and who we are,” says Collett. “Kids’ clothing is no exception.” It’s no surprise, then, that six-figure-income parents of children ages 0 to 2 now spend upwards of $1,000 a year on baby clothing and diapers, more than they shell out for infant health care, according to CDC data. Even lower-income families—those who make an average of about $40,000 annually—devote between $600 and $700 a year per toddler to clothing and diapers. 

This Kardashian-esque emphasis on toddler fashion wasn’t always the norm (believe it or not, babies haven’t always worn designer fur coats). It wasn’t until the 1990s that mini-me brands started to crop up in droves. “They really began to rise up in the late 1990s when there was a lot more disposable income,” notes Collett. Or as a 2003 market research report put it, “An increase in wealth fueled by a decade of economic growth from 1990s to mid-2000 together with a near record number of kids born…has enabled brand-aware, affluent parents to create expensively dressed ‘mini-me’s.’” 

Baby Gap was among the first to capitalize on this trend—it opened in 1990—and its popularity has managed to endure, even among today’s notoriously picky mothers, who aren’t just looking for comfortable play clothes, but rather, seek stylish statement pieces for their little ones. This may, in part, be an uncomplicated expression of nostalgia—in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when these mothers were in high school, Gap was a “popular kid” brand, a symbol of preppy, middle-class ambition. “Gap is thought of as solid, well-made. It really communicates an all-American ideal,” Collett says. “That was what kids aspired to wear in high school.” As Brook explains, Gap has a “genuine, all-American look,” which makes the clothing almost universally appealing to moms. 

Although Gap has lost some of its hold on high-school students, the memory of its former status remains, priming mothers to pay ridiculous prices to outfit their children in the most coveted Baby Gap items. In Collett’s study, mothers admitted that they were willing to splurge on what they considered insanely priced items—a $60 Baby Gap outfit, an $80 Tommy Hilfiger jumper—if it meant looking perfect for portraits or special events. 

Quality is certainly part of the equation—moms repeatedly referred to the durability of higher-end brands as part of their justification for spending the extra money. “I feel like the clothes hold up better than other brands,” says Cami Bangs, 33, a mother of a one-year-old girl, whose wardrobe, she estimates, is 75 percent Baby Gap.

But there may also be a more troubling explanation—one that’s being played out on Instagram feeds across America.

There are more than 600,000 Instagram posts tagged #babygap, a hashtag often accompanied by a more attention-seeking one: #babymodel. 

This trend has undoubtedly been fueled by the company itself—each year, GapKids holds a casting call for miniature models, which, according to the company’s Facebook page, receives “an astonishing response.” (If you haven’t noticed, telling a mom her child looks like a Baby Gap model is the modern equivalent of calling an infant a Gerber Baby—the highest compliment.)

Last November, the brand began encouraging moms to caption Instagram photos with the #gaplove hashtag—a source of free marketing material for Gap, and a chance for proud mothers to (potentially) see their stylish cuties on the GapKids feed. “We can take a lot of pictures as a brand but it has much more weight when people can see how other customers wear the product,” Alycia Doshi, senior director of marketing for Gap, recently told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re definitely seeing our mom customers be the most engaged.” 

This reflects a larger societal shift—one where the marketing of your child is as much a part of mothering as changing diapers and reading bedtime stories. In a 2014 study, University of Michigan researchers interviewed 22 new mothers about their social-media habits. Many of the mothers had discovered that shots of their babies were the easiest way to nab a large number of likes—but perhaps more critically, presented a chance to cultivate a certain image online, leading them to reject unflattering photos of their child, while posting the cutest ones. Although we can all appreciate an adorable infant, these pictures really aren’t about the baby: “Through sharing photos of their babies, mothers portrayed their identities as good mothers, conveying attractive children, embracing humor, and showing evidence of milestones—all indicators of a healthy and happy family,” the researchers write. 

The coveted Baby Gap outfits—strewn across social media like secondhand trophies—are one piece of this puzzle, a way mothers can signal to the world, “My child is well groomed,” or put more bluntly, “I have the means to give my child the best.” “The Instagram moms like to buy the [sought-after] outfits, photograph their children, then use various hashtags to gain followers,” Brook tells me. “I think the moms pay so much because they become so involved in the buy-sell-trade groups and Instagram shopping community that they want to feel a part by making sure their little girls have the most popular items in pictures.”

Notice she says “feel” the part—moms are often plagued by impostor syndrome, a phenomenon that Collett has studied. “It’s feeling like you’re somehow a fake—that people have assumed you are more capable than you are,” she says. “That’s something women can experience in motherhood, like ‘I’m not sure that I’m really a good mom or that I’m doing this right.’” This, she says, is the downside of the cult of Baby Gap: Moms may start to feel like they’re hiding their real selves—their flawed, human selves—behind carefully curated size 2T wardrobes. 

“So much of motherhood, especially when you have a young child, is out of your hands,” says Collett. “You never know how your child is going to behave or embarrass you.” But you can choose, at least for a time, what your child wears. And if your tot is wearing a sought-after outfit, especially on social media, in front of thousands of eyeballs, you are, the thinking goes, one step closer to that nebulous distinction: the perfect mom. As Collett explains it, “Mothers are buying the $100 romper because they think it’s going to project some image of their child—that the child is cute or somehow well cared for. And that’s going to be a reflection of their mothering. It’s not really about the child. They’re spending that money to buy a perception that they are somehow a good mother.” 

Essentially, Collett says, these mothers are using their children as props—the well-dressed child is the Birkin bag of the suburban mommy crowd, a way to display the characteristics they aspire to in their own life. This may explain why hipster moms dress their babes in concert tees and Converses, while preppy moms seek out miniature polo shirts and seersucker suits—a phenomenon researchers observed in a 2014 study of infant clothing, suggesting that children serve as extensions of their mothers, or at the very least, reflections of their own aspirations. As one mom in the study said, “It’s almost like [my daughter] has become my extended status symbol.” 

In the months after having my daughter, I felt unmoored, suddenly thrust into this new and unfamiliar world of motherhood, at what felt like the expense of my old identity as an editor, a writer, someone with ambition. I often sat on the couch feeling panicked and unproductive, even as I nurtured the tiny life in my arms, the most important assignment I’d ever been given.  

I wasn’t a terribly confident new mother, either—I’d changed maybe two diapers in my entire life. But there I was, a newly minted stay-at-home mom, struggling to unfold my trendy (and far too expensive) stroller in a parking lot, amidst the slush of a late-winter snowstorm. Every errand began to feel like a great accomplishment, a step forward as I forged my fledgling identity as a confident, capable mom. 

Eventually, I found respite from my daunting new role in thrift shops, where I’d sift through rack after rack of secondhand baby clothes, lost in thought. If nothing else, my daughter would be well-dressed, albeit in some other child’s Baby Gap or Janie and Jack leftovers. 

The mothers in Collett’s study echoed this sentiment—dressing their children, they said, is almost like playing dolls. The downside is that it’s also a way for society to judge them. When Collett asked the moms whether their kids’ clothing revealed more about them as a parent or their children’s personalities, all but one thought “the way a child looks is a better reflection of who the parent is than who the child is,” Collett writes. 

When I asked her about less intentionally styled children—using my friend’s young daughter, who I recently saw wearing a raincoat over a bathing suit over a too-small dress, as an example—she replied that even this is a reflection on my friend as a mother. “When you let your child walk out of the house like that, you’re showing, look, I’m letting my kid be creative, I’m giving my child control over her life,” she says.  (Perhaps this explains the recent wave of three-year-old Elsas strolling through public libraries and Target parking lots.)

Besides the obvious downside of all of this careful cultivating—you’re creating a digital footprint for your child before his or her second birthday—is identity-seeking through your child a dangerous game? Are the Baby Gap followers one step away from Toddlers in Tiaras? “I think $100 might be a small price to pay if that makes women feel like good mothers,” says Collett. “Mothers get a really bad rap. The only reason that mothers are so concerned about the way their children look is because audiences—people out there in the world—perceive mothers as so responsible for who their children are. If a father is out in public with a sloppily dressed kid, people are just glad that the father is with the child. If a mother is out there with a sloppily dressed kid, it’s like, why can’t she take care of her kid? Society thinks of women as the architects of their children.” 

In a recent Huffington Post editorial, mommy blogger Jennifer Lehner bemoans this unfortunate double standard, writing, “If a mother doesn’t have the kids looking like Baby Gap, with organic, whole-grain muffins in the oven, she is looked at as being sub-par. Society needs to reset their standard on what a father should be doing. Not praising them for doing what they should be doing, because apparently, if you are not a douche bag, you deserve a medal.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been criticized for my daughter’s sockless feet, which are sockless only because she promptly plucks off any socks I put on her. Each comment feels like an attack—an indictment of my mothering skills. I cried the first time Frank and I took Asa to a restaurant on his birthday, when she was about a month old. A man dining next to us congratulated Frank on the new baby, then only after Frank had taken Asa to the car, turned his attention to me, telling me I needed to be careful with such a young child, lambasting me for having her out, as if the responsibility rested solely on me. 

Modern motherhood is one big pressure cooker—and for some moms, the only release valve, the one way they can control something, even a tiny something, is through their child’s appearance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Collett stresses it shouldn’t be the only thing. “Mothers should be able to feel good about their mothering not based on some image they’e sending out there, but just on the fact that they’re getting through every day with themselves and their child intact,” says Collett. 

And make sure you cross over to the other side of the store—the adult Gap—every now and then. In her study, “sometimes, when mothers tried to outfit their kids in the best,” says Collett, “they neglected themselves.” Admits Bangs: “It’s not like when I had my daughter I let myself go. It’s just now her wardrobe trumps mine. It’s important to always have her look coordinated and put together, because that is a reflection of my parenting. It’s important to me to give her everything.” 

But Collett insists that parents take a broader view, refusing to believe their sole role is as mother or father. “There’s nothing wrong with cultivating these cute little versions of you and your partner,” she says. “But remember that there’s so much more to who both of you are.” 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The French Way to Teach Your Child Patience (It Involves Sugar!)

Baking with baby: the ultimate lesson in patience.

My daughter is 15 months old—and I can proudly (or maybe ashamedly) say I haven’t read a single parenting book. I’ve just been winging this whole raising a child thing, unless you count the semi-obsessive googling I did in the first three weeks of her life, when I was stuck on the couch and realized I knew absolutely nothing about infants. 

So I didn’t exactly seek out Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, a book best described by its cover line, “One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” It was on display at the library, and I picked it up, assuming it was a witty memoir by a mommy blogger-type. 

The non-fiction narrative is compelling—American girl moves to France, gets hitched, has a baby, and observes the unfamiliar habits of Parisian mothers with the eye of an anthropologist. But, surprisingly, what kept me turning the pages was the smattering of parenting tidbits, particularly the French emphasis on teaching patience at a very young age.

The importance of patience might sound like an obvious and unnecessary point to make to a parent—unless you’re a first-time mom who doesn’t like to hear her baby cry, creating a habit of racing toward her at every whimper. Dropped her toy? Hurry! Pick it up! Hungry? Spoon that yogurt faster, woman! 

Prompted to analyze my own parenting, it occurred to me that I’ve been treating my toddler like a newborn, someone whose demands are both immediate and necessary—crying only when hungry, wet, or tired, never to manipulate or coerce. Fifteen months in, I realized, this perspective on crying should be as far in the past as my daughter’s size 1 diapers. If she can hug, kiss, and show remorse, she can also probably work the system. Which means I need to start teaching her that gratification isn’t always immediate.

So how do the French—whose children as young as my daughter, according to Druckerman, sit quietly at restaurants—train their little ones to wait? 

One surprising way: through weekly baking sessions, which they begin at a very young age. Specifically, the little French babes bake gâteau au yaourt, or yogurt cake, says Druckerman, a simple recipe that uses a plastic yogurt cup in lieu of measuring cups. “All of this baking doesn’t just yield lots of cakes,” she writes. “It also teaches kids how to control themselves. With its orderly measuring and sequencing of ingredients, baking is a perfect lesson in patience.” 

I’m a lifelong baker, so the idea of baking with Asa appealed to me, especially if it means teaching her a hard lesson in a fun way.

Who needs a toy when you have an oven mitt? 
So how’d it pan out? 

There were, of course, some steps I had to do myself—cracking the eggs, for one. But Asa enjoyed dumping the dry ingredients into the bowl (only one cup of flour ended up on the floor), stirring, and watching the whirring of the Kenmore mixer (when her stirring proved insufficient to mix the ingredients). 

The batter is super thick!
It was an eye opener for me, too—by planning on a flour-covered kitchen, I freed myself from the normal frustration of messy activities, allowing Asa to practice her skills freely and me to enjoy the process. 

In the end, the reward was the experience of watching Asa learn—even more so than the sweet, dense treat we had at the end of it all. 

Yogurt Cake (excerpted from Bringing Up Bébé)

What you need:
2 six-ounce containers plain whole-milk yogurt (save the empty containers to measure the other ingredients)
2 eggs
2 containers sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Just under 1 container vegetable oil
4 containers flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Put it all together: 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a round 9-inch cake pan or a loaf pan.
Stir together the yogurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and oil. Combine the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl, then mix the dry and wet ingredients together, only until they’re combined (don’t over-mix!). 

Add frozen berries, chocolate chips, or any flavoring you want. 

Bake for 35 minutes, then check the center with a knife. If it’s still liquidy, continue cooking for 5 more minutes. (I actually ended up baking mine for about 45 minutes.) Let it cool, then serve.