Sunday Supper Lessons (or, guest post at Joel + Kitty)


Hello, friends!

Today it’s my privilege to send you over to Kitty Hurdle’s blog, where I spill all of my feelings and thoughts about my growth in the area of hospitality. It’s a fitting place, since she’s rather like my online hospitality sansei.

Kitty married a friend of mine from high school, and though I think we’ve seen each other in person two times—my wedding, and a serendipitous run-in at a Chick-fil-A in Nashville—I feel I know her well through her writing, which at times is raw, hilarious, encouraging, practical, and full of the on fleek (??) things that kids say these days.

Something tells me that Kitty’s always been a natural, gracious hostess. But also she’s had years of hosting college students and organizing events; and so her blog is full of ideas to make cooking and planning for all sizes of gatherings easier and better.

My guest post will take you through the ins and outs of our year hosting Sunday Suppers, including a few recipe links and practical tips I picked up.

I hope you’ll find a useful tidbit, whether you’re wanting to have people over more, or maybe you feel kids have thrown a kink in your style, or maybe you find yourself in what I’m beginning to suspect is a near-universal dilemma: you’re an adult and you want to get some friends.

Read it here, and then do me a favor. Today is Sunday: pour a glass of wine, turn on Otis Redding, enjoy some chili (or whatever; it’s still cold here) and raise a toast to friendship, family, to the security and freedom we have to take risks and feel foolish.

Carry Me Back to Virginia

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It’s blog-official: we moved again.

I’m over at Latin Business Today, talking about strategies to survive moving with young children: Four Ways to Make Moving with Little Kids (Relatively) Stress-Free.

Even before kids, I needed strategies to survive moving because it’s truly one of my most hated activities. (See here and here, and of course the famous Beer on the Head Story.) But as you see, we’ve moved a lot and I think maybe I’ve gotten a little better at it. I basically used the Latin Business Today post to armchair-psychologist myself, and the advice boils down to, Get on board, you’re moving, deal with it.

It’s a little bit funny to read now, since I know how badly I handled things after packing, driving from Nashville to Alexandria with three kids, and arriving to a house I’d never seen in person. I was in a dark mood as we waited in an empty house for our furniture to arrive. But it all falls under tip #4: Anticipate bumps in the road.

So what are your moving tips (and/or tragedies)? I start way in advance with grand intentions of packing two boxes per day, and I very intentionally go through items as I pack, organizing, purging, and cleaning. At the beginning. In theory. But of course it doesn’t really happen, and by the end we’re piling everything haphazardly into boxes labeled Miscellaneous.

I didn’t include that in the LBT piece, nor did I recount my breakdown when, at the height of the chaos—the morning before movers were coming, boxes and kids’ toys everywhere—we spotted our moving truck driving down the street, a day early. I lost it, and pulled Israel out of the shower. He ran down the street in his pajamas, waving our contract to prove the agree-upon date.

It all worked out in the end.

P.S. Great song, linking Nash to VA:

Las Posadas, or Making Room

Inez just hanging out with a couple of her closest buds! #nativityscene

A photo posted by izzyortega (@izzyortega) on

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Above: Inez this year; Mary Tobin last year.

Every December our church celebrates Las Posadas, an Advent tradition that migrated from Spain to Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

The church we attend in Nashville, St. George’s, is approximately five thousand times whiter than our old one, Gracia y Paz. So I was not expecting to see a Las Posadas sign-up sheet last year. But since I recognized that Las Posadas was a Mexican thing, I felt like it was our duty, as the representative Mexican family in the parish, to volunteer for hosting Mary and Joseph for a night.

Afterward I panicked momentarily that I’d agreed to throw a huge party. In Mexico, Las Posadas begins nine days before Christmas, and there’s a party at a different house each night. In Tomie de Paola’s book set in Santa Fe, the event is a procession with singers, paper lanterns lining the square, and a procession led by Mary and Joseph (actually: María y José), knocking on doors, sometimes rejected, sometimes ignored, hindered by devils (Boo! Hiss! says the crowd). Another sweet book about this tradition is Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico. Whatever the specifics of a locality’s Las Posadas—posada means hotel or inn— it ends with Mary and Joseph finally finding a place at the stable in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I had not signed up to serve tequila and hot chocolate to the entire congregation. St. George’s Las Posadas is more “flat stanley” than fiesta. It’s a tradition where a family hosts Mary and Joseph—essentially yard art statues—for a night, then passes them along on their journey to the next family, and then they’re ultimately delivered to the church to process down the aisle to the creche on Christmas Eve.

We had our turn hosting the Holy Family on an early December weekend. A couple friends came by the house and I had to explain right away why we had outrageously out-of-proportion nativity figures. We literally had to make room for a place for the Holy Family (JC still in Mary’s belly, I had to explain to Mary Tobin). This got me thinking about the idea of making room during Advent. Sister Angie, in De Paola’s The Night of Las Posadas, talks about “Making room in my heart so the Christ Child can be born.”

How did I make room in my life this December? Some ideas and attempts:

  • Make room in my house
  • Make room in my schedule and my plans. In a word: MARGIN.
  • Make room for . . .
    • people,
    • maybe last minute plans,
    • maybe a need to be filled.
    • Maybe silence that I need.
    • Maybe ABC Family’s new classic The 12 Dates of Christmas.
  • Make room for mystery.

I love that last one. Mystery. The incarnation is history’s greatest mystery, worth pondering every single year. In our Sunday school teacher training for the sweet little [wild] 3 to 6 year olds, we were encouraged to get Socratic on them (my words, and I might not grasp the proper usage). Rather than cleanly tying up a story by issuing the final, correct answers to all questions—as if we could!—instead, we wonder together. I wonder how the shepherds felt? I wonder why God chose Mary, chose Bethlehem? Why did he want to tell the shepherds about it? How did the wisemen know to follow the star? This must have been a very special baby.

I want to get comfortable with the discomfort, the mystery, the not knowing. I want to let go of control and loosen expectations. I want not to be embarrassed by the slightly tacky Marys and Josephs sitting in the living room. I want to clean out the mess and make room for something new to be revealed in the old stories.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

27 Shopping Ideas

Christmas gifts

What’s your gift giving philosophy? Do you have a budget? Do you draw names for a present exchange with the fam? Did I tell you about the time my brother Ben got punched in the face by the trunk of a wooden elephant statue during our family’s Dirty Santa gift exchange?

For kids, I like the idea of three gifts for Christmas (since that’s what JC got). Or four gifts: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”

If you’re one of those people who has all her holiday shopping finished before Thanksgiving, I salute you. If you grow cotton in the backyard and weave sweaters for all your extended family members and mailman, I salute you. And if you stick to a budget, I heartily salute you.

These days, if I buy gifts from an Etsy shop or another handmade seller, I feel like I’m not spending anything. And if it’s from someone I know (or let’s be honest, kind of know), I feel like I’m making money. Amiright?!

So in the spirit of shopping small and local, I’ve compiled a list of small and not-so-small shops whose proprietors I know, or have met once, or are a friend of a friend. I like the idea of supporting a real person. [Although, corporations are people. True or false? Sound off in the comments.]

Check these folks out if you’re stuck for gift ideas!

For babes and kiddos:
Sweet P Embroidery: Custom monograms and appliqué (AKA preciousness overload).
NOLA Onesie: Festive baby clothes.
Rain for Roots: My girls love these Nashville songwriters’ album “Big Stories for Little Ones” (plus it’s not obnoxious for parents!).
storieChild: Create an easy baby book or a story book featuring your kid.

Tasty treats (or, How to be the Office Hero):
Sweet LaLa’s Bakery
 partners with a juvenile intervention program in Memphis to bake de-lish cookies for pickup or delivery.
Whimsy Cookie Company: We get these for pretty much every birthday and special occasion. Impressive designs, and so tasty.
A Signature Welcome: Gourmet food boxes (+ other great gifts like turkish towels!)
District Doughnut (DC): Because they support Little Lights!

For the art lover:
Maltby Rote: Commission something wonderful, like this.
Hillary Butler Fine Art, as seen on Nashville, and here.
Steve Keene: Fun!
Saw & Mitre Frame Co.: Print your pics, frame your story.
St. Frank: “Home luxury for the modern bohemian.” Love that. (I posted about Saw & Mitre and St. Frank here.)
Joanna Hope Art: Beauty. Watch her amazing process videos.

For a lovely lady:
Stella & Dot: Katherine is selling jewelry (and tons of other great gifts) to underwrite her pro bono counseling.
Lydali and Umba both support handmade artists and small batch producers. Beautiful stuff.
Tara Montgomery Jewelry and Erin McDermott Jewelry: ::swooning::
LaLa Land NYC, because stationery = life.
BeautyCounter: safe skincare and makeup.
FashionABLE: Gorgeous products made by “women who have overcome.”

For a dashing dude:
(Some of these could be girl things, but I’m trying to round out my categories.)
Tucker Blair: Needlepoint belts, flasks, and preppiness galore. “When in doubt, prep out.” -Israel Ortega
Nashville Fit Factory: My cousin Zach coaches here, where they’re known for a community/family feel. The first class is free.
Bring It Food Hub (Memphis): Share some CSA love! They’ve also got coffee and other local goodies.
Pork Barrel BBQ: Lots of good pork-centric options, including cologne—“an intoxicating bouquet of spices, smoke, meat, and sweet summer sweat.”
Bonobos: So his rear will look good.

For Fido:
Haha, just kidding. I don’t have any animal suggestions.

Please comment if you have any friends’ shops we might want to patronize!

Update with new additions:
Lebelle Soaps: Artisan tallow shaving soap and aftershave = perfect guy stocking stuffer.
Maggie Russell: another great Memphis artist. Don’t miss her funny, quirky greeting cards.

None of the above are sponsored links. But if you’re into supporting one another, here’s your [pre-Black Friday/Cyber Monday] reminder that I’m an Amazon affiliate. So if you click over there from one of my links then order something—anything, not only whatever I linked—I’ll receive a teensy commission, no change in price for you. Thanks in advance for helping a sister out!

Bring us a meal.

"Cranberry Pie Eating Champ"

1948 — Six-year-old Richard Baranski caresses a full belly after being crowned Cranberry Pie Eating Champion, upon eating a 10-inch cranberry pie in 15 seconds flat.. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

It may seem a bit old-fashioned, and in the past I haven’t been great at it, but from this day forward I resolve to be ready. When a friend or acquaintance experiences a major life event or a time of stress, I will take that family a meal.

Having dinners delivered has been muy, mucho helpful to us during the last several weeks. We set up a calendar on ( is a similar option) so that when friends expressed interest in helping out, Israel could easily send the link, where they could claim a date and find our address and other pertinent information.

Meal planning remains one of my . . . areas for improvement, shall we say. When faced with the upcoming week’s menu and shopping list, I inevitably develop mental paralysis. So not thinking about dinner has been a special, sweet gift enhancing the flavor of all the food we’ve received.

Based on our experience in the past month or so, I’ll try to remember a few things when I make dinner for someone in the future:

  • Breakfast items instead of or in addition to dinner are wonderful. One friend brought quiche. Nice touch.
  • Skip the salad greens. After the first couple days, we had several bags languishing in the fridge. I’ll have to think of an easy alternative side dish.
  • YES to disposable plates, napkins, utensils; which are also useful as props and costumes.
  • Related: use disposable pans or tupperware you don’t want back. Unless you’re a pretty close friend and willing to swing by to pick up your dishes. And possibly clean them yourself.
  • Take-out is more than FINE, and likely delicious. I won’t feel guilty if I don’t have time to whip up something homemade. When our friend brought Peruvian chicken with all the sides, it was one of the best meals we got. (Even if it wasn’t, bottom line, I didn’t have to think about dinner!)
  • Tell the recipient: No thank you note. Though I love thank you notes, friends, I’ve made peace with texting a heartfelt thank you that includes a picture of Jack. Note writing somewhat defeats the purpose of taking something off the mama’s plate. (Taking something off her plate by putting something on her plate! Get it? Nice.)
  • Several weeks after the event? Never too late. We are still in receive-every-form-and-offer-of-help mode. (Sarah brought us dinner tonight, which allows me to finish this post. The internet groans a hearty thank you, I’m sure!)
  • Bottle of wine? Absolutely.

What else would you add?

Really, the above are side issues. To state the main problem, I need a go-to dinner I can pull out of my back pocket that’s relatively easy and universally yummy.

And we may have a winner. My friend Katherine brought a crock pot dish using a recipe she got from our friend Megan. I might’ve been especially hungry that night, but it hit the spot, like whoa. Here’s the recipe, direct from Megan’s email:

Cilantro Lime Chicken

Just throw some boneless chx breasts, a jar of salsa, a package of taco seasoning, lime juice and cilantro into a slow cooker for 6 hours. It’s amazing. You can shred and put on tortillas or serve over rice.

Ease McCheese. Katherine served this over a mixture of rice and black beans, along with a yummy salad (that she’d premixed instead of leaving in the bag, which made a difference). Ugh. So good. And so were the chocolate chip cookies that we—literally—devoured.

What’s your best dinner to deliver? I’d love to know.

Newborn Prayers and Pictures

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John Jacob Ortega—“Jack”—joined us October 12! We’re doing well, and thanks to Mama Rote, Israel, and other family, I’ve been enjoying a kind of maternity leave from my regular job. Even so, newborn life is quite a thrill ride. Yesterday I was thinking to myself that Jack is really starting to even out, really maturing; the next thing I know he decided to party hard all through the night. So nothing’s predictable at this point, which I should know very well.

Two or three days after he was born, one of our pastors came over and did a short blessing for Jack and our family. (The mini-service is in the Book of Common Prayer, page 439: “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child”). It was beautiful! I’ve loved being part of a more liturgical church here in Nashville, one that uses these time-tested resources. First of all, I tend to like anything that’s old. Secondly, in this stage of life, I don’t have much excess energy to speak of, so I like having prayers written for me, a church with a Bible reading plan already in place. I find it restful; and I feel no need to re-invent the wheel or to show off by getting really creative. Finally, the prayers are so beautifully expressed:

O God, you have taught us through your blessed Son that whoever receives a little child in the name of Christ receives Christ himself: We give you thanks for the blessing you have bestowed upon this family in giving them a child. Confirm their joy by a lively sense of your presence with them, and give them calm strength and patient wisdom as they seek to bring this child to love all that is true and noble, just and pure, lovable and gracious, excellent and admirable, following the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Calm strength! Patient wisdom! Yes, exactly. That’s what I crave as a parent.

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“Confirm their joy by a lively sense of your presence . . .”

And if anyone’s having a difficult time remember their work at home matters:

May God the Father, who by Baptism adopts us as his children, grant you grace.

May God the Son, who sanctified a home at Nazareth, fill you with love.

May God the Holy Spirit, who has made the Church one family, keep you in peace. Amen.

 photo 9E9741D6-D578-44BD-98FF-7868757419D5_zpskkizfw9j.jpgAnd as I flipped around more in the ol’ BCP, several of the prayers “for use by a Sick Person” (p. 461) felt appropriate for me and this postpartum time. (I don’t think we should treat pregnancy and childbirth as a sickness, by the way. Still, a body needs to heal, plus anyone can use the prayers!)

For Trust in God

O God, the source of all health: So fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 photo 88C1CF0C-028D-4E79-993D-2C42BB19CA54_zps6wbsywb7.jpg For Sleep (hahaha)

O heavenly Father, you give your children sleep for the refreshing of soul and body: Grant me this gift, I pray; keep me in that perfect peace which you have promised to those whose minds are fixed on you; and give me such a sense of your presence, that in the hours of silence I may enjoy the blessed assurance of your love; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

In the Morning

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

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Hope you’re well, internet friends. If you need me, I’ll be here, endeavoring to lie low, to gallantly do nothing!

P.S. For fun! Three weeks with Mary Tobin (we were all babies!), and Oh, Man. (six weeks after adding #2 into the mix!). I’m posting earlier in a baby’s life than I ever have before. That’s a good sign, right?

Nursery Update!

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Friends, I want so badly to be a good blogger and not leave you hanging after a post like this nursery inspiration one.

 photo 20150923_085700_zps9ju595hi.jpg  photo 20150923_090004_zps741i7tad.jpg So, here’s your update! This room’s transformation from home office/junk room to nursery/home office was astounding! Dramatic! Shocking! It really was. Let me encourage you not to put off whatever project you’re considering, or all those repairs and things you might do if you were trying to sell your house, or host a party. Add the extra strand of twinkle lights so you can enjoy it now! Baby boy is not here yet, but already I’ve enjoyed the room so much—my own personal sanctuary and yoga studio—now that it’s brighter and lighter and has furniture that’s appropriate in scale.
 photo 30FA09E2-9B4F-4F97-94C3-85F8A1F2A69F_zpsrh8a43xn.jpgBefore. The room was dark blue. I don’t mind a manly dark den. (Our kitchen is navy!) But the shade wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t the feel we wanted for the nursery in any case. There was a large desk table, as well as a large, very comfortable sofa. Both of those were practical; they served their purpose. But really they were too big for the size of the room and together prevented the room from functioning its best, even though I’m glad the sofa served as a guest bed many times. Rounding out the chaos were a couple random bookshelves that we sold at the neighborhood yard sale. And I sent the large desk table back to Mama Rote’s emporium of household goods and sundries, exchanging it for a smaller wooden desk. But let’s not jump ahead!

One transformational weekend this summer, a group of laborers converged on Nashville (parents, cousins, uncle and aunt), and we/they cleared the heavy pieces from the room, painted, and picked up industrial shelves that I found on Craigslist. It’s all happening. (Name that movie.) photo 7725EDE7-5E07-4BF3-8038-4CA26980B801_zpsucduptsf.jpg

Paint. Thanks to this Emily Henderson advice—Design Mistake #3: Painting a small, dark room white—we chose an off-white neutral. We tested several different paint samples on the wall, and ultimately went with the one that Mom’s friend Beth had suggested. I know you’re supposed to paint samples on the walls to see how different colors actually look in your room, with different light at different times of day, but in the future we’d probably save ourselves grief by immediately going with whatever Beth recommends. I love the way it turned out. (The color is Pearly Gates by United Paint, but they’re out of business. Sherwin Williams looked it up and matched it for us.)

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Those wooden boxes, one that says EVERYTHING, are leftover from my grandaddy’s upholstery shop. 

Shelves. If you want to feel like all the possibilities in the world are open to you, do a Marie Kondo-style purging of books, etc. and buy some big industrial shelves. Gazing at the empty shelves will make your soul feel open and roomy. Mine did. Of course, several weeks later, the shelves are entirely full.

In my initial plan for the room, I wanted some tall shelves, like these from Ikea, fancied up with gold or another metallic. (By the way, as my cousin Nate would point out, painting something is not a “hack.” It’s painting something.) But I put it off, and Ikea shipping is outrageous, and I started looking at other options with a lot of vertical storage and an industrial feel. Lots of good possibilities. Then I lucked into some old school lockers on Craigslist. They looked pretty nasty and I figured we’d need to sand and varnish and paint or something. But when we got our hands on them, we discovered that they were pretty much just dirty. So I hired a crack team of cleaners.
 photo EAC7559A-6C55-441B-A485-C0D60760EBD6_zpspholclls.jpg photo 6D8A2D84-04AA-4B00-9991-730D1D1E65CD_zpscpdwimi5.jpg photo 83C8ADFB-CEC0-4430-907E-09838BB7C081_zpso9n3wej6.jpgThey discovered this pretty color underneath.
 photo 1A63E953-2D23-4BCF-8F86-51E7CE75CB6A_zpswerlwgxe.jpg Isn’t it killer? The color is fairly similar to what we did on these shelves a few years ago, so now it’s like we have masculine and feminine versions. I feel like we’ll use them forever in some capacity. (Check out this inspo from Pinterest!!)

After that major transformation weekend, we’ve been in a slower process of filling out the room, which in technical terms means looting and pillaging the rest of the house. Which means a domino effect of new random house projects. (Long story short, we got a new dining room table!)

 photo 54a90c59-1425-4de1-b894-31f1b1c0a1fc_zpsadxwp8zz.jpgWe’re using the same dresser that served as the girls’ changing pad, and brought the blue rocker from their room (replaced by another chair from my parents’ house) and my favorite pillow from the living room. Please note how the colors going on with this chair look like the one in one of my inspiration images! I like what I like.

I’ve done a good bit of musical chairs with art, too.
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 photo 20150923_085609_zpsrxhvla0k.jpgYou know, I’m one who doesn’t put a lot of stock into worrying about diaper cream and adequate baby supplies. The kid will need a solid sense of self, via the proper placement of a John Wayne poster (stolen from his Uncle John): totally masculine, but black and white and minimal so it’s artsy and not overly-themed.

The rug. You may remember that I wanted something with a lot of character. We were keeping an eye out for something colorful and old and just right, preferably made of wool or other natural fibers. But as the shelves were filled out with books and other items, my penchant for color was already manifesting itself and I conceded that something more neutral could be good. We continued to keep an eye out and I spent way too much time browsing these sites. Patience paid off when Beth (to the rescue! Again!) texted from one of Memphis’ best kept secrets, the Pottery Barn Outlet. She found a steal of a deal on a rug for the girls’ room, so we moved their white wool rug to the nursery.

Again, I’m so happy with the way it turned out.
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Once more. Before:

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After (from the same angle, because I’m keeping it profesh):
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And keeping the styling professional by featuring the chocolate croissant on the desk.

Fun! Thank you to all my design team and work crew!!! (And, oh yes. Come on, baby!)

P.S. I loved all these inspiration images on District of Chic: Southwestern Inspired Nursery Design.

Hi, baby. (or, Nessie’s Birth Story!)

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Haha, well, it turns out that part of my nesting process for baby #3 is to reflect a little bit on baby #2— and finally finish writing up the dang birth story. I’ve felt relatively good throughout this pregnancy, and I’m feeling somewhat ready. But now that we’re getting down to it, the circumstances are bringing back a lot of my anxious feelings surrounding Inez’ birth. Though she was perfectly healthy, I, as my friend Mijin put it, was feeling a lot of feelings. I was disappointed in myself for not feeling more ready for her; I was upset at not being mentally tough and letting everything get to me during labor; I was stressed and upset with Israel during that generally uncertain and stressful time in the life of our family (new baby, work changes, potential move coming up, etc. etc.). So maybe that’s why it’s taken so long to process by writing down the words. I don’t want to resist those feelings, but walk through them (keep on truckin’) and try to let this time around be a healing process . . .

I have a sense of not wanting to betray Inez by admitting all of this (By the way, I am obsessed with her right now. She’s at such a cute stage.) . . . as if my negative feelings mean that Inez was born into strife. I mean, everyone is born into strife—it’s a tough world, a tough life. But it’s a beautiful world, and life is worth fighting for. Somehow, writing the story is my way of affirming that life is beautiful, that though something may be done imperfectly it’s still worth doing. That what happened is what happened and it’s OK to tell the truth about it. The truth wasn’t all bad—it’s just what happened, and we got through it and got our beautiful result!

The labor was difficult on several levels, but of course, labor is difficult! It’s labor! That’s not news. And it delivered Inez to us, so it was worthwhile and beautiful if only for that. Anyway, for all my emotional wordiness, on paper the birth went really well! I was just dog-tired by the end and felt like I’d been run over by a truck (despite all my mental toughness training during high school volleyball and basketball preseason practice).

[WARNING: This is a birth story, in which I tell you about the time a baby came out of my body. So. There’s that. Feeble male readers, turn back now.]

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In December it will be two years since we went to the birth center too early, grabbed sandwiches from Taylor Gourmet, returned home dejected, did some exercises the midwife suggested, popped a Tylenol PM to try to get some sleep and hope for better progress the next day. Hope does not disappoint: the next morning, Inez was born at 10:05, in the water, purple, healthy. Received with much enthusiasm and much relief. I was freezing. There are no pictures.

I am such a believer in celebrating the beauty and amazing-ness, the empowerment of giving birth, whatever the details end up being. It’s truly a miracle. At the same time, I have self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress from delivering both my daughters, even though, again, on paper the births went spectacularly well. In my pleasant, comfortable, air-conditioned, centrally heated world of lattes, ballet flats, and infinity scarves, birth presents a stark contrast. It’s just INTENSE, primal, and yes, painful.

In that spirit of contradiction, sacred and profane (because, yes, there was profanity), I’ll share some of the best and worst moments from my experience welcoming Inez into the world.

Best moment that could’ve been the worst:
Since we used a birth center, we brought Inez home the day she was born. (In case you’re interested, the rationale was that we’d be more comfortable recovering at home. I was OK with that with baby #2, but I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it with Mary Tobin. My mom was there, and the midwife made followup house calls. Also, the birth center has limited space, so you’ve got to skedaddle to make way for any other future babies who’d like to present themselves.)

For me, one of the best benefits of natural childbirth is the zero recovery time. So, the afternoon of her birthday, Israel carried Inez in the carseat, and Mom and I walked down the hall from the elevator to our apartment, where Mary Tobin was napping and my dad and sister-in-law were waiting. They’d taken MT to her ballet class that morning, and barely had any time to feed her candy and watch any banned movies! Dad, always incredibly supportive and encouraging to his kids for even minor accomplishments, was enthused that we were back so soon. I believe that he was in awe of childbirth purely as an athletic event. If you know him well, you know his thinly veiled competitive nature, so I imagine he was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t take a shot at natural birth to see if he could break my record. (By the way, I don’t think the athletic event metaphor applies to childbirth perfectly, at all. I’m just giving you some insight into Dad to set up what happened next.)

So, as we walked down the hall toward our door, Dad got down on his knees and did the “we’re not worthy” bowing to me. I grinned, and as I made my way past him, he gave me a thump on the rear, as if I was a pitcher running into the dugout or a quarterback coming back to the sidelines after a beautiful touchdown pass. We all turned to him, jaws dropped. Probably the worst thing you could do to a woman who just gave birth would be to hit her bottom. After Mary Tobin was born it was uncomfortable to sit down for quite awhile. Fortunately, Dad’s bro butt slap hit either my lower back or upper thigh, not dead center of its target. For that reason, it will remain in the funny/happy column of memories from that day. (Welcome to the crazy wide world of sports, Inez!)

But let’s go back to the beginning . . .

Failed labor strategy:
Inez was due December 28, but my parents arrived in town early to at least celebrate Christmas with us, though we all felt that she might be early. Her big sister Mary Tobin debuted three days ahead of schedule. (I’m perennially late in life and find it surprising that both of my girls were born early.) On Saturday evening, December 21, Israel and I opted to go for one last date night, while my parents were around to babysit but before other family members arrived in town for Christmas. We walked to a concert at the Folger Shakespeare Library called “Christmas in New Spain.” (It was a great production with instrumentalists and singers performing 15th and 16th century holiday songs by Latin American composers—a unique blend blend of European and native American styles. The percussionist played all kinds of items including seashells and was particularly memorable.) But throughout the show I was shifting in my seat, trying to get comfortable and not sketch out the man next to me too much. By the time it was over, I was exhausted and asked Israel if we could skip dinner (we’d planned to try Rose’s Luxury) and go home to eat the tacos that my mom had made. We had a mini-argument and I cried. That evening lying on the couch I felt what I thought could be first contractions.

I didn’t sleep too well and continued having mini- possible- contractions, and I let Israel know the next morning. We told Mom and I told her not to get too excited—advice I should’ve taken to heart myself!

I thought about the timeline with Mary Tobin, and calculated that Inez would probably be with us that night. Mild contractions continued through the day and I was a bit nervous about the timing of when to call the midwife. I called in the afternoon to check in and give a heads up that I was in early labor. Contractions were regular, probably 5-10 minutes apart and not increasing too much in intensity, despite my wishful thinking. When I called, the answering service took my information and asked if I was in pain. I answered Yes, and I do believe the contractions were painful at that point, though manageable. But, they were nothing next to those that were to come! But it was enough to bring back the sensations of labor to my memory, and I was scared! I just didn’t feel up to it.

Around 4pm, Karen the midwife called back to check on how I was doing. Nothing had changed too much, but I told her I wanted to go in to the birth center at 5pm to check in. I didn’t want to wait until the intense part like we had with Mary Tobin, because I thought the laborious check in process at the hospital slowed things down, plus the birth center would be a more comfortable place for labor than the hospital anyway. We packed up our bags and left instructions with Dad for Mary Tobin’s bedtime and for meeting Israel’s sister Raquel who was arriving that night at Union Station to visit for Christmas.

We met Karen, whose attitude was, Let’s just see how things are going. Clearly I was not in active, intense labor at that point. It almost felt like when you’re a kid and a little bit sick, and you want to be sick enough to stay home from school, so you’re milking it a tad. Later I read somewhere that if you take smiling pictures before you head to the hospital, it’s not time to go yet. That was us!

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Karen asked how dilated I thought I was . . . I didn’t have a guess. Israel said 3cm. She said, If I’m generous I can say 3 cm. I laid there and wanted to cry. Karen told us it’s common with second births to have annoying contractions that continue for a couple days before things really get going. Also, Inez was head down with her back on my right side. Babies always turn clockwise to get into position on the left side before descending, so she still needed to rotate almost full circle (as opposed to a simple quick quarter turn—blurgh!), which Karen said is the reason for many long labors. She printed some exercises—called The Miles Circuit—for me to do to help get Inez in the right spot and move things along. She recommended doing those, then taking Tylenol PM, or Tylenol and Benadryl (I learned that that’s what Tylenol PM is. Fun fact!), so I could try to get some sleep, since with any luck we could be back in the middle of the night or in the morning.

Gah! I was so bummed and discouraged that we weren’t there for the long haul! And I probably felt embarrassed and dumb for being so off on the timing. Plus I was annoyed when Karen mentioned that lots of people were having the same trouble about the baby rotating, so she and another midwife had been talking about giving those exercises to people ahead of time—yes, that would’ve been a good idea! Well. We went to Taylor Gourmet to pick up salads and sandwiches to take back to the apartment for supper. I remember the girls working there were super friendly and happy to see a very pregnant lady. But I sat there in a dark cloud.

Successful labor strategies:
We ate back at our place and, since I was so tired and wanted to begin so I could try to sleep, I started the Miles Circuit exercises: half an hour lying in something like child’s pose, with pillows stuffed all around to support me. Contractions continued, it seemed, less frequently and more mildly in that position. Then, half an hour of side relaxation position. My instructions were to relax, and if I fell asleep, fine. Israel struck up the birth play list he’d curated for me (mostly consisting of my very specific requests): some classical, some soft Avett Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and my personal anthem for this pregnancy: “Just Breathe,” with versions by Pearl Jam and Willie Nelson. I didn’t fall asleep, but during this time with the nice music in our dark room, I relaxed and some sense of peace returned. Inez would be born; I wasn’t scared. And, while lying on my left side, I could feel some movement. Maybe it was working and Inez was rotating! Then onto half an hour of stair climbing. Then to bed with the help of Tylenol PM, some of the only drugs of my pregnancy.

[Side note: I’ve sent the Miles Circuit site to several people at the end of their pregnancies, who are either trying to get labor started, or are in frustrating early labor for awhile, like I was. For at least a couple of them it helped a lot, and it certainly hasn’t hurt. Bookmark it for later! Send it to your friends who are great with child!]

Good turns bad:
Hooray! I got some sleep, and when I woke up in the morning on December 23, I could tell that the contractions were more serious and this would be it. Still keeping our cool, we made a plan for the morning. I’d take a shower while Israel took Mary Tobin to my parents who were staying at our neighbor’s. They could get up and start getting ready. Then Israel would shower, and we’d make our way over to the birth center to meet the other midwife Dorothy when the center opened at 8:30 or 9. (Is Dorothy a perfect midwife name? Yes. She also looks the part, with long white hippy hair and glasses.) The shower felt great; I was handling the contractions and had a good rhythm. In fact, I should’ve realized, the shower probably sped things up. While Israel was getting himself ready, I sat in front of the couch, knees on the floor, head resting on the seat of the couch, surviving. My parents arrived and Israel, to his credit, knew we needed to hurry. He also knew that he needed nourishment to face what was coming, so he asked my dad to make him an egg sandwich while he finished getting ready.

I’m laughing as I recall this absurd scene. But at the time: I am dying inside. Actually, literally, my insides are ripping themselves open (maybe not ripping, but a lot of crazy stuff is happening). I am intensely focused, but still aware of what’s going on with the family around me. Please understand: Dad only makes eggs for himself on a special blue nonstick pan he keeps at home. He hates our pans (which are really nice, by the way), and he does not know his way around our kitchen. So he’s not your go-to egg sandwich guy when your wife is dying. So Israel’s trying to give instructions, while he’s putting on his hair gel, I guess, or getting our bags or something. Not sure where my mom is; probably getting Mary Tobin ready for the day and prepping her that we’re about to leave. On the inside, I am FURIOUS that Israel is so concerned with his breakfast while I am in active labor. But it’s become active so suddenly, that I can’t convey the urgency to him. It’s such an odd situation: my mind is racing and I’m having these thoughts, but my body will not allow me to say them out loud.

Sweetest moment:
During the egg sandwich debacle, while my mind and body were in turmoil, Mary Tobin brought two of her stuffed animals—orange bear and panda—to me on the couch. It was such a kind little gesture and actually did help me feel better.

Here comes the profanity:
Once we got it together, Israel, Mom, and I went down to the car. As I climbed in, Israel helpfully said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to wear the seat belt.” Friends. At this point there was no way my body would have allowed me to sit in the seat normally with a seatbelt. Even if I could sit like that, what was going to happen? Was he going to pull the dad move of not starting the car until we were all buckled? I—equally helpfully—replied, “No f*cking kidding.” Only F-bomb of the day, as far as I recall.

When we got to the birth center, Dorothy met us and asked, “Are we crying?” Oh yes.

I had wanted to use the bathtub they had (not like a big birthing tub, just looks like a normal bathroom), since hot water had been so helpful with pain relief in labor with Mary Tobin. In hindsight perhaps it wasn’t so helpful in this situation, but once I got in I did not want to move. At some point during this time, the nurse kept encouraging my mom to take pictures, which I wrote about here. I got to a point where I wanted to quit and somehow crawl out of my body. It felt like it wouldn’t end.

Dorothy told me that I could start pushing. (I guess I was experiencing an urge to push like I’ve heard others describe, but I didn’t recognize it as such? Not sure. With both girls, I found the transition from trying to relax through contractions to pushing to be tricky and unclear.) I don’t think I pushed very long. I remember wanting to stop and give up, but Karen (the other midwife from the night before) said, No, she’s almost here! I remember thinking, “Oh, why didn’t y’all tell me that we’re almost done?!” I had no idea and couldn’t tell on my own. I reached down and touched Inez’ head. Though we hadn’t planned a water birth, that’s what happened. (Sorry if that freaks y’all out! Like Jim Gaffigan’s wife, I just did this to make you uncomfortable.) When she was placed on my chest, I kept repeating, “Hi baby. Hi baby.” Israel cut the cord.

When I stood up, I remember saying, “Wow, I feel so skinny”—which made everyone laugh. (For the record, that feeling didn’t last too long.)

Also for the record, some interesting birth facts, if you’re into that kind of thing: my water didn’t break until close to the end, when we were in the tub, and I wasn’t aware of it (very different from Mary Tobin’s birth). One of Nessie’s feet was slightly turned in, having been smushed in the uterus, which we kept an eye on and has since straightened itself out. She had hair, but not as much as Mary Tobin, and she immediately looked different to me from her sister. They weighed close to the same: 7 pounds 5.5 ounces for Inez (7.7 for MT). We’d arrived at the birth center a few minutes before 9, and Inez was born at 10:05 AM.

Best Christmas gift ever:
 photo 3B4B0DD1-6980-4206-83A9-E05FD4473D0E_zpsa7qocuo8.jpg[After JC.]

We really had the most pleasant Christmas with our sweet Nessie girl and a lot of family able to come visit. That part was such a dream, despite the fact that I’d been run over by a truck.

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And, one final note for the record: Israel is the best dad ever. This account is merely an attempt to convey faithfully the events as I experienced them, with all the feelings. Over and out.

Easy Kindergarten Prep. AKA, scissors!

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File this one under: scared, weak, hovering, helicopter modern parenting.

Here’s a practical early childhood idea, courtesy of my great aunt Jeaneine, who taught first grade for, well, longer than I’ve lived, probably.

She told me one of the best things to do to help Mary Tobin get ready for writing is to give her scissors.

[Aunt Jeaneine laughs at danger!]

Working with scissors strengthens those small hand muscles she’ll need to form the letters. At first just let her cut cut cut. Then the next thing will be following a line, previewing the eye-hand coordination needed to copy or trace letters.

I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t really let Mary Tobin play work with scissors yet, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with keeping them away from little sister. I’d seen Montessori materials lists and stuff about art for kids, etc. But lazy parenting is the name of my game.

In fact, though, the scissors have encouraged lazy parenting by keeping MT incredibly focused and entertained in the couple of weeks since we saw Aunt Jeaneine in Chattanooga. Mary Tobin has been happily cut, cutting away, shredding my old health insurance statements and creating her own little projects. (Usually this happens during their room time when Inez is not around to interfere. And on the two hour drive home from Chattanooga—forget about it. Best car ride we’ve ever had.) She’s following lines—proof that I waited way too long to let her do this.

Danger? So far, no. Cleanup? Yes. (I imagine that Maria Montessori and Aunt Jeaneine have plenty to say on that subject too.)

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P.S. Pics at the top from the girls’ first day of “school” earlier this week! They’re both going two days a week to a little Spanish immersion Mother’s Day Out!

P.P.S. Pics from Mary Tobin’s first day last year!

Mama Camp in Charlottesville (+ packing lists)

 photo 65B5C4AB-786B-4191-B502-3C45BC07FDC3_zpsz7cg0did.jpg photo 673D12FC-9C11-4730-9E96-00629D3357E1_zps6k4j92ca.jpg photo BAA43F63-1F8F-4533-A4D6-360947972A4D_zpsbgerduog.jpg  photo C838B2AB-C302-44C3-AAD6-00702C072B68_zpsajjg9xkb.jpgAt the start of the month, I joined three of my best friends from college in our college town, Charlottesville—AKA the best city in America—because we hadn’t seen one another in way too long. The most effective way that I explained it to Mary Tobin was that it would be camp for mamas.

And I highly recommend Mama Camp! Should you find yourself packing for something similar, here are some ideas for what you might need:

    • Your cutest shirts and dresses to show off for your fashionable friends (i.e. the only two cute tops you like right now, and in my case: muumuus).
    • A selection from the huge basket of beanie babies at your mom’s house, to send home with your friends for their kids. (Side note: the new beanie babies with huge eyes are terrifying.)
    • Comfy jammies for lounging and chatting.
    • The most outrageous rental car you can find, to embarrass your friends.
    • Some ideas about what you’d like to accomplish. Our to-do list included:
      • Coffee
      • Bodo’s (the bagel place)
      • The Lawn
      • Take It Away (the sandwich place)
      • Wine
      • Chatting
      • Basil gimlet from Mas Tapas

As you see, the three essential factors we considered were food, drink, and shady, lovely spots to sit and chat. The weather was glorious. We ate two delectable dinners at Zocalo (on Charlottesville’s downtown mall) and Tavola (in Belmont), and spent a beautiful afternoon at King Family Vineyards.

We discussed:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • How disgusting our dorm rooms were and how we’ve grown in the area of cleanliness.
  • Using regular clothes as maternity clothes and maternity clothes as regular clothes.
  • Birkenstocks
  • Flare jeans
  • Shows on Netflix and Amazon. My pick is Catastrophe. So so funny.
  • Beauty products
  • Schools, work, career paths, health, and many items and details that will remain in the circle of trust.

We always find our friend Anna Kate, though she often doesn’t realize it, to be a source of great recommendations: cute clothes, pajamas, Madewell jeans, dry shampoo, chic diaper bags, something to put in the carseat or stroller to keep it cool in the deathly heat (AK or SB, give us the deets on that, please!).

Our friend Ansley gets the trooper award, since she had some kind of stomach bug and was not feeling 100% all weekend. You could hardly tell since she remained her bright cheerful self, but we gave her a hard time for drinking less wine than the pregnant lady (if you lost track: that’s me).

Our friend Elizabeth is the encouraging one who will always tell you how great and cute and smart you are, and that you should write a book. She’s the one who told me to share on the blog my quick tip for packing up the family, which is simply this: I typed up our master Packing List on Evernote (but it could just be in Word on your computer) that I print out for every trip and modify for the occasion.
 photo C098993B-5792-44F5-A628-BEFD8CC22215_zpsvrdtxgmi.jpg photo 09632844-3B58-479B-A2B1-8711F1714327_zpsy3eo1f80.jpgI’m not yet a professional packer, but this way I don’t have to think through all the randomness every time we go somewhere. Some of our essentials, for example, are the girls’ special pillow cases, the noise phone, and cuddle guys. (What’s on your list?)

I think that’s all. I am a professional mama and this was an excellent professional development trip. Write it off!