Monday, June 20, 2011

Always, In Flux (Or: The Current State of My Fifteen-Month Old’s Napping, Diet, Language Acquisition, Growth and Development)

Babies are constantly changing. Everyone knows that. It’s one of those basic tenets of baby-rearing that becomes almost cliché. Just like the adage that goes, “Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they switch it up on you.” True but, to most moms anyway, a cliché.

Babies are constantly changing, but there are definitely periods where the changes seem to come quicker, more suddenly. Skills that have been slowly coming along for months suddenly come together and voila! Suddenly, one day, you realize you are in the presence of a different baby. Not so different than yesterday, but definitely different than two weeks ago. Sometimes it’s the people who only see your baby every so often that are most able to articulate the marked change.

Cedar seems to be in one of those periods now. For one thing, he’s about to make that big leap from two naps to just one. Sigh. For the longest time he has napped around 10:00 and 3:00. We have had a three hour chunk in the middle of the day to eat lunch and then go on a long walk or excursion, meet up with a friend, or run errands. I’ve come to depend on this routine and appreciate its consistency. But as Cedar’s afternoon nap has continued to get pushed later, and consequently so has his bedtime, I’ve wondered lately if I should enforce the transition to one nap and get it over with. But then I’ve reconsidered; why force it? It should become obvious when he is ready.

Now, it’s looking more and more like we have reached the time to switch him over. Last week for three days in a row Cedar resisted going down for his first nap. I’d try, then give up, then try again, then give up, and finally he’d go down sometime between 11 and 12. But then the last couple days he’s been back to two naps, so this is all to say that we are no longer on a predictable schedule.

I know I just need to go with the flow for a while until he settles into a new routine, but it’s unsettling to me to have to play each day by ear and feel unsure about what we’re doing, when is bedtime, whether I can commit to plans with friends, or sign him up for that upcoming swim class. I know, I know, big friggin’ deal, right?  These are the kinds of deliberations that probably aren’t very interesting to others, unless you are a parent like me who is slightly obsessed with sleep and who really likes to have a routine. I am by no means someone who likes to over-schedule my day, but I sure do like to know when naps, bedtime and wake up time are. These are hard-earned badges of a tired parent. It unnerves me to have it change every day now in a seesaw pattern. And it can’t be that great for Cedar either. His little body has an internal clock too, and a transition like this no doubt will throw him off for a while--although I suspect he’s more resilient than I am.

It’s probably no coincidence that this switch to a new schedule coincides with a period where Cedar is really exploring the reaches of his body and environment. Cedar didn’t learn to crawl and cruise around on furniture until he was over a year old, and since then it’s still taken him a while to realize that he is free to roam at will through the entire house. He isn’t one of those babies who just took off and was everywhere once they learned to crawl. It’s only now, at fifteen months, where I can truly say he is into everything; every day he discovers a new (un-childproofed) corner full of plants or lamps, a new dubiously supportive chair to pull up on, a new shelf to pull things off of. Only now is he of that age where he will take off with a devious grin as you come after him, playing a game of hard to get. I’ve also been teaching him how to safely get off our bed (mattress) by getting on his belly and sliding his feet off first, and although he still hasn’t mastered the whole maneuver, he sure looks satisfied when he manages a close approximation.

My baby is becoming a toddler. He says, “Hiii…” in a sweet call and response with me, and he understands so much of what we say now—in both English and Chinese. My mom watches him five or six hours a week and speaks to him solely in Chinese. I reinforce what he learns with her by scattering in words and phrases throughout our day when I’m in the mood, and to my delight, this has been enough for him to understand the language! Gei wo, chuan wazi, xiezi, kai deng, kan  feiji… Give it to me, put on your socks, shoes, turn on the light, look at the airplane… he knows these, and plenty more. My baby is bilingual! It’s amazing how they soak things up and learn.

He also knows now what ‘no’ means, and he’s old enough to erupt in a tantrum of an arching back and screaming protest when prevented from doing something he wants. I’m seeing more of his stubborn will every day. It’s both exciting and daunting to think about this coming (nearly here, already here?) stage of toddlerhood. Perhaps I will soon long for the “easy days of old” when he was a baby, as much as I’ve longed for the “easier days to come” when I’m no longer nursing and can eat whatever I want again, not to mention leave him for a whole evening or (hard to even imagine now)— a whole week!

Quick diet update: I am still not eating any dairy, soy, garlic, onions, tomatoes, citrus, coffee or chocolate. When you can’t eat garlic, it’s near impossible to eat out (unless I want to just special order a plain piece of meat, after first ascertaining that they don’t cook with soy oil, so why bother when I can make something much tastier at home?). Soy, of course, is everywhere—in most store-bought breads, crackers, chips, spreads, you name it—so that is a big one I need to watch out for. Both soy and garlic still give Cedar terrible gas pains (last time I tested), which leads to a terrible nights of sleep for all of us. I’ve learned from experience many times that it is not worth it for me to eat soy in any quantity. I will eventually test these main off-limit foods again, but there’s plenty of other stuff to test and retest in the meantime.

With his other restrictions, I’ve started to allow a little here and there. Dairy gives Cedar a rash, but it’s not too bad if I just have a little on rare occasion. I will occasionally now allow some organic ketchup on a burger, or some canola mayo (that has lemon in it) on my sandwiches, because being able to eat those two condiments goes a long way in the flavor diversity department. I will also occasionally allow a rare, beautiful cup of coffee, which doesn’t seem to affect Cedar unless I start to have it multiple days in a row. And I will eat a few pieces of certain brands of salami or other items that contain the ambiguous ingredient “spices” which no doubt means a little onion or garlic powder, but which I can get away with in small quantities. I still stay away from cabbage and broccoli, especially raw. Beans, which I’ve tried a bit more of recently, seem okay.

It has gotten way easier, this diet, but we are far from being out of the woods. In the meantime, I’m still constantly trying out new foods directly with Cedar, and since it is a rare day when he doesn’t have some slight rash on his cheeks still, then it can be hard to gauge whether he is having a subtle reaction to something or not. I never want to feed a huge quantity of something to him before I’ve given him just a little the first time, and so inevitably there are many foods I have to give him several times before I can truly say (or guess) that they are okay.

So far (besides the aforementioned things that I’m not eating and so by extension am definitely not giving Cedar until he can first tolerate my eating them), he has also proved sensitive to: bananas, strawberries, possibly potatoes and corn, and also plums, apricots, and peaches. I plan to retest the latter-mentioned fruits because I so hope he can enjoy with us the summer harvest, but I’ll hold off on the other stuff in the time being because my suspicion is great enough, and because there’s plenty of other new stuff I can introduce to him first.

This is such a slow process because I don’t want to test stuff on him if he’s already got a rash, and I also don’t want to test stuff on him if I’ve eaten something questionable myself within the last couple days. For the longest time I was also following the ‘wait three days after trying something new’ rule, but lately I’ve grown impatient and sometimes only wait a day or two if we are trying foods that I’m not that worried about. I’ve tried both egg yolk and whites on him separately, but he didn’t eat much of them, and his ensuing rash the next few days was not obvious enough for me to be able to say definitively if it was from the eggs or not. I haven’t gotten around to trying any nuts or shellfish on Cedar yet, but I have given him tuna and salmon which seem okay, thankfully. Wheat and gluten are fine too (thank god—it wouldn’t be fair for one kid to have so many restrictions!), as are all the meats he’s tried—chicken, turkey, beef, and a tiny bit of pork.

Because of our slow progression in trying new foods, and also because he is somewhat of a picky eater (well, who wouldn’t be when you have only been allowed so few things), Cedar’s diet right now consists mostly of a few key foods: oatmeal, bread, pasta, and puffs; blueberries (his favorite), apples, pears, and peas; a bit of the aforementioned meats (he’s not so hot on plain meat- who can blame him- but LOVED the bbq smoked chicken); carrots he can take or leave, and the same goes for green beans, beets, or squash. I’m constantly trying to strategize what else I can give him, as this diet seems rather boring and often vegetable deficient (usually all he’ll eat are peas and avocados) and protein deficient. It’s hard to make things more enticing when there are still so many foods and spices he hasn’t tried. His main source of protein is still breast milk, and since he can’t have any other kinds of milk, this means it’s important for me to keep nursing for some time—especially until he’s outgrown some of his allergies.

I’ve thought about sharing some of the ways we’ve learned to make food taste good during this period with so many restrictions, although I doubt that many people out there with food sensitivities would match our particular list of what’s okay or not okay. (People always assume that I can’t have gluten when I mention ‘food sensitivities,’ because that’s the allergy that has become more common and thus recognized in our culture. Restaurant people also often don’t realize that soy is in everything, and that vegetable oil = soy oil. And I’m not vegan; I eat eggs and meat, but I can’t do dairy.) I know, it’s a lot to keep track of. But personal gripes aside, I doubt that there are many out there who have to avoid the combo of dairy, garlic, onions, tomatoes and citrus. How do you cook a tasty pasta without these things?! Think lots of olives, capers, mushrooms, peppers, or artichoke hearts; plenty of herbs, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For other flavor punches, also think bacon, roasted root veggies, and lots of avocados. And think spices like celery salt, paprika, and cumin. Not curry powder though, because that has garlic in it usually, and nothing too spicy either.

Anyway, this blog post is all over the place. I guess it’s just my personal taking stock of where we’re at now during this period of solstice and change. We’re growing up, we’re letting go, we’re stuck in old ways, we’re holding on. We’re trying to remember to appreciate each day, each stage, and each small new success along the way. We’re not walking yet, but we’re getting closer every day, and not that much in a hurry. (I was relieved, however when Cedar finally started crawling because it is such a useful skill for him to have in the interim before walking, even if it is not an essential milestone.)

What else? We’re packing up the 12 months, well into the 18s, already wearing some of the 2T tops, and soon, believe it or not, even 3Ts will be on the radar. (Our collection of hand-me-downs are in constant rotation between the too big or too small boxes in the attic, the “holding drawers” for the next size on the horizon, and then the one big drawer for current mainstays.) One month, one age, one size bleeds into the next, and before I know it, I’m signing my baby up for co-op preschool (starting next fall! Just one morning a week, though).

Some days I think that my life is incredibly tedious and boring. Other days I feel incredibly thankful and blessed. Some days I can’t wait for Cedar to get older and start going to school so I can claim back more time to write and work. Other days I just want to savor these days when he’s still a baby, my constant companion, sidekick, boob man, snugglebug nestled into my chest. I want it to faster, I want it to go slower. Always this push and pull, push and pull. Always, we finally reach out only when someone is about to leave. Always, something to praise, something to disdain. Always, in flux. Always, the norm. Always, surprises. Always, this moment to anchor my fly-away thoughts, to anchor my being in what is.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Boob Salutations, Co-sleeping with my Toddler, and Trust

“I finally figured out what my breasts are for,” I said to my husband the other night. For feeding my little suckling pig, of course! Sometimes these days the way my son lunges for them and sucks reminds me of a little animal. And no longer will I ever look upon my breasts as some sensual, yet essentially “useless” fleshy, doughy appendage. When my son nurses it is utterly obvious now why they were created—not for my partner’s pleasure, much less for the ogling eyes of men on the street, and not even for my own enjoyment. Breasts, hands down, are for babies.

When Cedar was first born they grew huge, hard, and sometimes clogged with milk. For six months—or more like nine—I wore nursing bras religiously, accepting their less than flattering support for the convenience of being able to whip out the breast at a moment’s request. Eventually, though, I realized that they’d shrunken back down to my pregnancy size and that I could fit back into a couple of my nicer bras. Cedar also wasn’t nursing as much by then, so I could usually just nurse him at home and there’d be no emergency need to feed in public—which exposes more flesh than I’d prefer, especially when not wearing a nursing bra.

It’s been a relief to not have to nurse quite as much in public, simply because it’s a hassle to have to stop what you are doing and find a comfortable, clean place to sit down yet still be discreet. That said, I don’t plan to stop nursing anytime soon. I still love nursing--and as my baby undeniably makes the transition to toddlerhood, I appreciate this ritual that much more.

Nursing has changed since when Cedar was a baby. Long gone are the days when he’d just lie there inert for over an hour sometimes, and gone are the days when he’ll easily fall asleep at the boob. Now, at times, nursing can feel more like an acrobatic sport. We still mostly nurse lying down on the bed, only now Cedar will stick his butt up in the air and nurse in a “downward dog” position. Or, he’ll want both breasts to be out and accessible so he can switch back and forth as he pleases. He’ll let me know this by signing for milk, tugging at my bra, or simply grunting in his all-encompassing language, “Uh.” (Amazingly, I almost always know what “uh” means.) I indulge his requests, as long as he is actually nursing and not say, patting at my other boob, biting, or pinching my other nipple. That’s where I draw the line. Mostly though, his antics amuse me. He can be a goofy kid, and I am more prone to indulge silliness than stifle it.

Cedar nurses the most in the morning when he wakes around 6:30. I am usually still half-asleep, so I’m not sure how long exactly he nurses for, but it feels like a long time—half an hour, sometimes more? On both boobs. Lying down, draped across me, downward dog, moving through all the positions—call it “Boob Salutations.” Then during the day he usually only nurses for five minutes or so at a time, before or after his two naps. Before bedtime, he nurses for another 10-30 minutes depending on whether he’s in the mood to fall asleep that way or not. And although I’ve tried not to nurse him every time he wakes up at night, I’ve recently gone back to just wanting him to fall back asleep as quickly as possible (in order to gain back more of my evening with Matthew or to go back to sleep myself), so that means that I usually nurse for about 5-10 minutes every 2-3 hours throughout the night.

For those who co-sleep, this may not come as a big surprise—a fourteen month old who still wakes and nurses through the night. For others, it probably sounds like hell and you are probably quietly thanking your own wisdom in choosing not to co-sleep. For me, by now, I’ve pretty much accepted this situation. I went through a few periods of “we’ve got to change this night waking problem!” resolve, but Elizabeth Pantley’s ‘”no-cry sleep solution” nipple removal techniques didn’t seem to reduce his waking, and nor did my husband’s intervention (we’ve been having him go to Cedar when he wakes before we’ve gone to bed ourselves, and although this has helped Cedar learn to go to sleep better without me and the boob, it can also take forever and has not helped him wake any less).

I know I would sleep better (duh) if Cedar wasn’t waking so much still, but that said, I am mostly only half-waking when he half-wakes, and unconsciously putting the boob in his mouth for a quick fix before we’re both snoozing quietly again. I know Cedar isn’t hungry. I know that this is now a firmly entrenched habit (or call it ritual if you want it to sound better). I know that it could potentially be broken with “only” a couple weeks (or more) of night weaning torture (especially since we are not planning to stop co-sleeping any day soon), but frankly I’m not ready to put us through that yet.

I am all for doing what’s easiest, as long as it’s still working for us. There were periods when Cedar was waking even more than he is now when I wasn’t so sure it was “working” anymore. But now, it’s been several months with no real complaints from me, aside from the occasional off night. Cedar no longer wakes from gas at night, unless I happen to have been testing eating or feeding him some new food that doesn’t settle well. Mostly now, I think Cedar’s waking now just comes with the territory of co-sleeping.

When Matthew and I were trying to decide whether or not to co-sleep, I read all kinds of literature that proclaimed how mama and baby both sleep better when co-sleeping-- yet I also read things that said they both sleep lighter and wake more. Contradictory? Perhaps. I don’t want to fully debate the merits versus shortcomings of co-sleeping here, but suffice it to say that since we didn’t and don’t plan to switch to a crib, we’ll never really know if Cedar would have slept better that way. Sometimes I think he would, because sometimes me and Matthew’s movements or sounds (when first coming to bed at night, for instance) wake him. Also, even though we have a king-sized bed, sometimes Cedar rolls over virtually on top of me, and then I have to move him and then he stirs, nearly wakes, and so I nurse him quickly so that he won’t wake for real.

And yet, despite all this, I’m still tempted to believe that co-sleeping was the best choice for us all. Not only was it a practical choice since we have a tiny house, but I also can only imagine what it would have been like to have to get up each time he woke during the many hard months when his intestinal issues would cause him to wake crying in pain in the middle of the night, and how long it might have taken for both of us to fall back asleep. And now, even without his gas problems, I can’t really imagine giving up co-sleeping. Ultimately we chose to go this route because we wanted to. And now, I’m as attached to it as Cedar is.

For those who choose to co-sleep, there is undeniably something we love about it, something we grow close to, something that ingrains itself in us over the many months we do it. When you grow used to being so close to the soft breath of your baby upon drifting to sleep, it feels strange and wrong to have him elsewhere. When you grow used to those morning snuggles and nursing sessions and the “wolf pack” feeling of all being in one bed, it seems like it’d be hard to arbitrarily pick an age when the baby is moved into a separate space. Of course, if you didn’t enjoy anything about co-sleeping in the first place, it’d be a no-brainer to boot the baby, for you’d gain back luxurious space to stretch your limbs and freedom to make love or read or whatever else you do for pleasure at night in your bed.

It’s not a black and white issue for me. There are definite pros and cons. I don’t know if we would do it differently if we were to have another one. A part of me says, yes, definitely, we would move that baby into a crib after that initial, intense newborn stage of constant nursing-- by four months perhaps… or maybe six. But then I wonder if I’d really be able to. Perhaps if turns out to be a really hard transition getting Cedar out of our bed and if he goes on to have trouble sleeping alone, I will rethink this strategy. And yet, I’m not really that worried about this transition; beyond the initial getting used to, I think that most kids who co-slept as babies and toddlers end up doing just fine on their own. Mostly, it’s just hard to imagine doing things differently than whatever you and your partner have chosen. We gravitate to what we know. It’s easier to go with the status quo than to tempt the unpredictable results of executing change.

Some might be surprised to learn that even the most stringent sleep-training experts (think Weisblaum and Ferber) now both have sections in their books that allow for co-sleeping as a viable, healthy option. Weisblaum talks about how if a mom chooses to nurse immediately upon demand at night and the baby consequently doesn’t wake all the way, then the baby’s sleep cycles are not disturbed and so there is no “sleep problem.” Along these lines, I feel Cedar is well-rested (except for the occasional off night). And hands down, he’s got a secure attachment to me, to us. Hands down, he’s got a cozy bed.

But what about you, you say? What about my sleep cycles, I say? Well, most days I feel fine. I have plenty of energy, and only drink a couple cups of tea a day—not coffee, but tea! Of course, I’m not required to use my brain that much or sit in meetings or talk to other adults, so it is entirely likely that if I had a different “day job” I might discover that my mental capacity is sub par—but that’s what coffee’s for, right? I go to sleep at 10:30 or 11 most nights and I get up around seven. I get a decent night’s rest, even if you should probably subtract an hour or so for the nightly interruptions of my sleep cycle (even if I am not technically even awake for an hour).

True, I admit I am also excited for the day when Cedar moves to his own bed and when I am not waking (briefly) every two or three hours. But I also know I’ll miss co-sleeping. Just like I’ll miss nursing when Cedar is eventually weaned. I’ll miss that snuggly feeling of fitting inside each other’s bodies. I’ll miss the way he throws his foot on top of my belly and leg, I’ll miss the way he rests a hand on my breast. I’ll miss the perfect way in which we fit together within this act of nourishment.

My body makes the perfect nutrients for you, my little one. Nutrients that have kept you healthy, with only one cold the entire fourteen months of your life, not to mention providing a major source of your daily diet that is free. I don’t have to worry about you not getting enough to eat, because I know you will make up for it when you nurse. And although it has no doubt been challenging to have to restrict my diet because of your sensitivities (I’m still not eating dairy, soy, garlic, onions, citrus, tomatoes, coffee and chocolate—with an occasional exception), I choose this any day over having you wake in pain or get a red itchy rash on your face.

I’ve never considered not nursing you. First of all, there’s no easy solution since you couldn’t even have dairy- or soy-based formulas to supplement. But mostly, breastfeeding just seems like the most natural, bonding act for me. You came into this world with the instinct to root and nurse, and despite all the ways in which you are growing and changing from a little baby into a little boy (oh my!), nursing is this seamless link that we have, this way of connection and love. You’ll have your whole life to be more “independent” and weaned. What’s another year at the breast?

I know plenty of moms who are still nursing and co-sleeping with their toddlers. In our Seattle culture, it is not so strange; even the World Health Organization recommends nursing until at least two. But I know that the older my son gets, the more strange our choices may seem to others—and I admit, I don’t really want to have my son run up to me on the playground for a quick nip. So the older he gets, the more seldom we will nurse, until eventually one of us will decide that it’s time to stop altogether.

Which will come first—weaning from the breast or weaning from co-sleeping? Hard to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen close together. Maybe not at the exact same time, so as to ease the transition. But they are tied together for us. It would be hard to wean while still co-sleeping, though not impossible. And it would similarly be hard to move Cedar to his own bed and simultaneously deny him this great source of comfort he’s known since birth. So we’ll see, keep taking it day by day. Keep making the choices that feel right for us.

At a certain point, I just stopped caring what the books said—whether they were of the mainstream variety or in the attachment parenting vein. I found that all the reading, questioning and plotting based on someone else’s recommendations just made me feel stressed out or guilty about my own choices that diverged from the norm. I found that once I accepted that I was doing things the way I was because they felt right, and not because I could rationalize them into being right, then the arguments for pros and cons dropped away.

I am learning to accept that in parenting there is no “perfect” way to do things. There is only the one winding, messy, and unique path that you and your family carve out for yourself. And this path is based on way too many variables—both the seen and the unseen—to follow any one singular guide but your own.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Words for the Children

My son, Cedar, loves to read. Or rather, he loves to look at books. And sometimes he likes to listen to them, too. Sometimes not. Sometimes he’d rather just turn the pages really fast. But, in any case, books are his favorite “toy.” We can pass some good chunks of time sprawled out on our king-sized mattress on the floor, reading.
Cedar is fourteen months old, but with many of the books he likes, I don’t think age really matters. In fact, I think that’s what distinguishes a good book from a great one. The great ones, anyone can enjoy. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the ones that I like, my son likes too. I’m sure it affects how often I reach for said book and with what level of enthusiasm I might read it. But that said Cedar most definitely expresses his own preferences, too.
I thought I’d share with you some of our favorites.

  1. Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss: We read this one from the beginning for many, many months. No matter how many times I’ve repeated the silly rhymes, I can still get into it. (Disclaimer: I enjoy making weird noises). Cedar especially loved the “BOOM BOOM BOOM! Mr. Brown is a wonder!” page-- mouth opening, eyes widening, and hands quivering with excitement, something he’s done since he was an infant. That said, I’m also glad we finally moved on—and so was Cedar. I was starting to have to read it with an English accent or sing it with impromptu melodies or read it super fast to entertain myself.
  2. Hug by Jez Alborough: Cedar’s torn this one apart. For a while, he’d just turn back and forth between a few key pages. There are no words in this book except for the cry of “Hug” which is uttered by a little monkey in search of his mother, wandering through the jungle observing all the animals hugging. I like narrating this one in slightly different ways each time, sometimes just reading the word hug, sometimes asking “Where is his mama?” with a sad voice as the monkey travels along, and sometimes pointing out the different names of animals. Cedar is always so excited when they find each other at the end-- and the other animals hug in celebration too. It makes me wonder how much he understands.
  3. Mud by Mary Lyn Ray: This is a lush and beautiful picture book with vivid, abstract paintings of mud and toes and green. It’ simple and poetic, a pleasure to ingest, invoking the thawing of Winter and coming of Spring. Cedar had a love affair with it (with due quivering and gaping), but now it’s on the ‘rest’ cycle of our rotation.
  4. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox: “Little one, whoever you are, wherever you are, there are little ones just like you all over the world…” this book begins, with colorful, intricate (yet not too intricate for a baby to take in) and whimsical paintings of people from all different cultures doing things differently and the same (i.e. crying, laughing, going to school). It’s got a wonderful message about diversity and our shared inner humanity, but not in a preachy or annoying way. (A little man in a blue sombrero also floats around in the sky with a bunch of kids.)
  5. The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson is Cedar’s current favorite. Up until a couple months ago, he didn’t take much interest in this book’s wonderfully detailed black and white line etchings, highlighted with splashes of yellow (a sun and moon, a key, a bird, a light). This Caldecott medal winner has a wonderfully poetic rhythm and circular, chant-like story invoking the innerconnectedness between everything. It starts with the picture of a child being handed a key, “Here is the key to the house.” And on the next page, “In the house burns a light…”.

Cedar has plenty of other board books he likes, but I save these special, favorite ones for bedtime. That way we will not easily tire of them, and it makes bedtime that much more sacred. (Yes, it is a sacred hour when my child goes to sleep!) These books have messages for both of us-- whether it’s silliness, wonder, open-heartedness, or magic. They are messages that are meant for anyone of any age. Thank you to our dear friends who gifted them to us!

What books do you and your child love to read together?

Please share your list!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To Remodel or Not to Remodel?

Right now my husband and I are trying to figure out whether we can afford to take on a major remodel project in the next year or so. We need more space. Our house is 810 square feet, with only one small bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a three-quarter bath. We consciously chose from the get-go to sleep with our son in our bed, so this helps out with the lack of a space for a crib much less a proper “nursery,” but we don’t want to sleep with him forever (obviously). He’ll need his own room.

We live in a cedar cabin in the midst of Meadowbrook, a residential neighborhood in Northeast Seattle. The cabin has one large ‘great room’ with an A-frame ceiling which houses our dining area on one side, living area in the middle, and desks, shelves, dresser, changing table, and piles of laundry on the other side. Lots of built-in shelving helps us utilize our space, but nevertheless, space is tight. Cedar’s outgrown clothes, along with sleeping bags, Christmas ornaments, bedding, and all kinds of artifacts from Els and Frank are stored up in the attic. We have more storage space in an unfinished basement area too, but only for things that won’t grow moldy from the dampness.

Ideally, we’d like to add on two more bedrooms—one for Cedar and one which I could use as my office or a guest room. We’d like a large bedroom for us, along with a master bath, and we’d love a nice big kitchen with an island and shiny new appliances (our current appliances all date to the seventies). We’d love to put in a couple skylights in the living room which is always so dark due to all the tall cedars and maples surrounding our property. We’d also love a nice deck, and a two-car garage or carport.

What we want isn’t exactly extravagant, but it also isn’t going to be cheap. And we are not exactly rich. But eventually, whether we do it now or five years from now, we are going to need more room—at very least an extra bedroom for Cedar. But since it wouldn’t be architecturally that feasible or practical to just tack on one room, we might as well do more while we’re tearing down walls. So the question is, do we take the plunge, commit to a tight budget and do it now, or do we wait until we feel a little more financially sound?

Over the last couple months we’ve been doing the preliminary research. We went to our credit union and learned about interest rates for a variable rate line of credit versus a fixed rate loan. We got an estimate of what our monthly payments might be for a $100,000 loan versus a $150,000 one. We talked to a couple architects and a contractor about our ideas, and got a better sense of our possibilities. Namely, we surmised that we were not going to be able to come close to doing what we want for $100,000, and even $150,000 on the low end. Better to shoot for the $150,000-$200,000 range, because remodeling always costs more than you think, and because we’d better have some wiggle room or else we will end up very very stressed out or very very screwed—or both.  

The only problem is, we are not sure we can afford even the monthly payment for the $150,000 loan. On paper, perhaps, we can make it work. But in reality, we are not very good at sticking to a budget. Do we eat beans and rice when there’s no more money in checking to buy groceries at the end of the month? Of course not! We transfer money over from savings (or we overdraft, and our bank kindly transfers it for us, yet with no fees so we are never ‘punished’ for our carelessness). And we are not talking about a very big savings to begin with. So do we really want to take such a plunge where we will be so tight every month that there is no money to go on trips, to spend on treats, to hire a babysitter, or to stray at all from our budget?

It’s not as if we live lavishly right now by any means. Do we really want to be slaves to a monthly payment for the next 20 or 30 years? We have been blessed by the huge gift of owning a house, but not having a mortgage. I’m not sure we quite realize yet how huge this gift is. I think we might miss the freedom it affords us very quickly once this is no longer our reality. I think we might no longer care so much about the extra bedroom, the bathtub, the counter space, or even a basement free of mold. After all, I reminded my husband, we used to live not long ago in a cabin with a woodstove for heat, a compostible toilet on the porch, and no shower to speak of. When we first moved to our house (also a  cabin) in Seattle, it felt like a luxury just to have instant hot water flowing from the faucets and heat to turn on with the flick of a knob.

But of course, we quickly adapted. And of course, the older we get, the more we want, and the less tolerant we are of shitty cars and outdoor toilets. Backpacking for weeks on end in primitive conditions sounds less and less appealing, whereas having things like a nice garden, energy efficient appliances, good sharp knives, and soft down comforters become more important.

I’m pretty sure we will eventually build an addition; it seems unavoidable. And yet… if I had to choose between the freedom to still be able to write and care for Cedar versus working full-time to help us meet our payments, I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe if we wait a couple years we’ll get some of our other debt paid off and maybe Matthew will be making a bit more then and a big loan will feel more feasible and comfortable. But then, maybe by then interest rates will shoot up, Matthew’s job security will be on shaky ground, and Cedar’s school costs will start to kick in.

I know at some point we will just have to decide to do it, take the plunge and commit. I’m just not sure that time is now. I’m starting to wonder if sticking a bed in the corner of our living room for a couple years—or else just continuing to co-sleep with Cedar—might be preferable to being stuck with a huge payment that we are stretched each month to pay.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have embarked on big remodeling projects—what you’ve learned, what you’d do differently, how having the new space has improved your life, or not. What kind of stresses has the process put on your relationships?

Matthew and I have had some tense conversations just trying to get ourselves this far in the process—and we haven’t even decided to do it yet! I can only imagine how the pressure of being displaced from our home for several months, closely tracking expenses and bills, and basically living and breathing the remodel project from start to finish (which will no doubt squeeze out time for writing, for fun, for anything else)—how all of this will tax us.

It will be worth it, I think, if we can stay on a budget we are comfortable with and if we are happy with the end result-- in particular, a vision that doesn't quash the character of the cabin. But we need to really think this through first and know what we’re doing before we start. There's a time for trusting in the Universe and there’s a time for trusting in your own detailed planning. In this case, I vote for the latter.


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