Saturday, July 30, 2011

Blogopolis, rainbows, sunsets and all that good stuff

The Nuffnang Blogopolis conference today was wonderful, full-on and tiring. It's provided me with much food for thought and loads of things to follow up, and a few posts to come will touch on this in various ways. I had a beautiful and restful lunch at MoVida Next Door with Veronica and Kim, I caught up with a few friends and made the in-person acquaintance of people I'd only met online before, and I was part of the largest Mexican wave perpetrated by bloggers in the southern hemisphere (dubious claim to fame, but hey!)

I'm not much of a one for recap posts but I will do a round-up in a few days with links to some of the brilliant versions that I'm sure will be out there. I'll just say that it was well worthwhile, a great use of My One and Only Full Day Out (2011 Edition), and that, in common with much of the audience, I think, I found almost all the speakers incredibly knowledgeable, interesting, generous and warm. (Personal soft spot reserved for Christie and Nicole, but that's no disrespect to the others ;-)

I had to leave early - at afternoon tea - due to toddler-type iss-ews at home and a rising headache. However, I was well compensated with kisses, cuddles, and the most gorgeous sky imaginable - a double rainbow, followed by a sunset to fill you with longing and happiness all together. (The photos don't do it real justice, unfortunately).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reading Notes - Reading Aloud to Literate Children

My eldest two daughters are both proficient readers. A, at almost 8, spends long swathes of time tucked up on the couch with her pink fluffy blanket, absorbed in a novel, ignoring the world. E, 6, has just recently mastered the art of reading in her head and is obsessed with reading all the novels her big sister has read in the past and enjoyed. At the moment she's working her way through Wendy Harmer's Pearlie books, and has tagged the Magic Treehouse books as her next project. If anything, she's more of a natural reader than A in that reading is her go-to indoor leisure activity. Much like her mother, she sinks without trace into her books, becoming vague and uncommunicative while reading, and is much more contented after an extended reading session.

So, now that they are both able to read well and enjoy doing so, you might think that my days of reading aloud to them would be over. In fact, while it's certainly the case that I read more to my 2.5 year old, I still read aloud regularly to the big girls, at their enthusiastic request, and they read aloud to me and to each other, as well as taking their turn at reading picture books to the little one. We are working our way through the Trixie Belden books at the moment; I read a chapter at dinnertime and another before bed, with extra time on the weekends if we're not too frantic. They also often come clustering around if I'm reading a particularly loved picture book to the toddler.

Talking it over with other mums at school recently, it seems there is a diversity of views about the benefits of reading aloud to literate children. Some feel that it's better to get out of the light, as it were, once the kids can read to themselves, and let them interpret the stories in their own way. Others, like me, feel that kids of any age get something valuable from being read to, regardless of how "unnecessary" it is when they are literate.

The teaching website Literary Connections has this to say about older children's desire to be read to:

"Your children will probably want you to continue reading to them long after they are capable of doing it independently - because reading aloud isn't just about reading. It's a warm, loving experience that we hope that you'll continue for as long as your child desires."

Time spent together, pleasurable time, non-frenetic time, is clearly one motivation for continuing a tradition of reading aloud to literate children. There is nothing like curling up together with a story to bring the often madly rushing elements of a family to one place of stillness. Even if there was nothing more to it than this - we enjoy it, and it brings us together - no further justification would be needed.

As well than that, though, I intuit that there is an ongoing literacy and educational value in reading aloud. Brain research indicates that people are capable of understanding a higher order of language when spoken than what they only receive via reading. Having a text with higher-order concepts read aloud can help the listener make sense of and understand a text that they would otherwise struggle with, or miss the subtleties of - the intonation, body language and interpolations of the reader can fill in the gaps in a seamless way.

Jim Trelease, in his book The Read-Aloud Handbook, points out that reading aloud creates knowledge, understanding, and vocabulary, but it also is a powerful conditioner - essentially, the more we read aloud (and enjoy it), the more our children's brains associate reading with pleasure, excitement and learning. Less reading aloud, for many children, will eventually translate to less reading, full stop:

"One factor hidden in the decline of students' recreational reading is that it coincides with a decline in the amount of time adults read to them. By middle school, almost no one is reading aloud to students. If each read-aloud is a commercial for the pleasures of reading, then a decline in advertising would naturally be reflected in a decline in students recreational reading."

Reading well - that is, more than competently, more than adequately, but skillfully, swiftly, and with delight - was one of the three gifts I most wanted to give my children in the skills-transfer part of my parenting. (The other two were physical dexterity, or at least capacity, and a love of, understanding of, and capability to prepare a wide range of food). Reading is such a keynote of who *I* am that it was inevitable that I would seek to share this with my children, that my pleasure and immersion in text would communicate to them.

I've always been a true believer in Mem Fox's Ten Read-Aloud Commandments. While some of them are targeted at carers of pre-reading children, one in particular leaps out at me as encapsulating the way in which I want to continue to read to all my children:

4. Read with joy and enjoyment: real enjoyment for yourself and great joy for the listeners.

Great joy, pleasure, relaxation, togetherness, warmth, bonding, language strengthening, knowledge acquisition ... these are all pretty strong motivations, if I needed any, to keep reading aloud to my older children.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Being Coeliac

This is an updated and expanded version of post from the archives of my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. The original piece ran in July 2009. I'm reposting it here at the request of two newly-diagnosed Coeliac friends who are feeling a bit raw at the moment.

I have referred, mostly in passing, on this blog to the fact that I have Coeliac Disease (an autoimmune disease that causes an abnormal bodily reaction to the ingestion of gluten). I haven't talked much about what this means, or how it has affected my life, but I thought I would now.

Why? Well, the past couple of years have seen an increasing (and to me, worrying) number of articles, news pieces and conversations that seem to contain the underlying assertion that Coeliac Disease is a "fad" of some kind, that in fact Coeliacs aren't really harmed by gluten in small quantities, and that it's an inconvenient, even rude, expectation to ask for gluten free food. I am guessing that this is based on the increasing prevalence of diagnosis of the disease, and the fact that the issue is confused because of the number of people who are not Coeliac but are wheat allergic, or not Coeliac but avoiding gluten or wheat for general health or intolerance reasons, or not Coeliac but dieting and avoiding carbs (avoiding gluten will certainly lower one's carb intake unless you make efforts, as I do, to keep up your carb intake).

My story is typical in many ways. I was diagnosed four and a half years ago, following a period of sustained ill health and vague, weird symptoms that came about soon after the birth of my second daughter, E (who is now 6 years old). My symptoms were not "classic" Coeliac ones - I had no vomiting or nausea, no bloating, and only occasional abdominal pain. Instead, I had mild but persistent reflux, thyroid dysfunction, chronic anaemia that taking iron tablets did nothing to correct, low stores of other key vitamins and calcium due to the inability of my intestines to absorb these nutrients, and a horrid, ever-present throat swelling sensation that interfered with my sleep and drove me well-nigh batty.

After many frustrating months, I was fortunate enough to see a GP who referred me for a gastroscopy. When I awoke from that procedure, the specialist was there to greet me, witb the words, "Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is - I know what's wrong with you. The bad news is - you have Coeliac disease. Absolutely classic presentation." And so, my gluten free life began.

At first, although obviously relieved to have a diagnosis and a plan of action, I felt utterly overwhelmed and depressed at the idea of modifying my life so completely. Coeliacs cannot ingest wheat, barley, rye or spelt (or, depending where you live, oats). At all. This is not just a matter of avoiding bread, cakes, pasta and pastries - if only! There is hidden gluten in most packaged foods, sauces and marinades, some sweets, and so on. Takeaway food is well-nigh impossible. Restaurant dishes often have gluten "under the hood", as it were. And just when the first hurdle of avoiding actual gluten in foods is jumped, you come bang up against the contamination issue. There may not be gluten in the dish itself, but how was it prepared? Were there crumbs or flour around when it was being cooked? Was that tub of margarine previously used to butter someone's toast? What about the cookware - how was it cleaned? CAN you really clean wood (spoons and so on) adequately? My head started spinning, and did not stop doing so for well over a year.

Slowly, eventually, I adapted my cooking and diet so that I could eat gluten free, while still living with "normals" who wanted and needed to be able to eat regular bread. I learnt how to modify recipes and I learnt a swathe of new ones - in fact, I am now a much better cook than I was before. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Despite my diagnosis, I made compromises - I still make them. While I'd prefer to run a completely gluten free kitchen to avoid the contamination issue, I don't do so, as I believe my children and husband shouldn't have to suffer the miseries of gluten-free bread because of me. Sometimes my husband and daughters will have takeaway food, which, unless it is Chinese food from a local place that does gluten free food, or Nando's chicken, I cannot share. When we eat out - a rarity - choosing off the menu is a complicated and at times embarassing experience (unless you find somewhere that really gets gluten free food and offers a menu accordingly). We do not eat at friend's houses unless I bring dishes for myself, as I cannot risk the contamination.

This is an often complex way to live. I have to spend much more time thinking about my food and my diet than I ever did more, and sometimes it's wearying. And sometimes I slip up, and get "glutened" ... and suffer the consequences for weeks afterwards. It isn't "fun", it isn't easy, it isn't because I'm being fussy. I'm doing this because after 6 weeks eating gluten free, my symptoms went away. Entirely. I have normal mineralisation levels now. I have no throat swelling, no reflux. I had the healthiest pregnancy imaginable with C, my youngest baby, even though I was much older having her.

The thing is, Coeliac Disease is not an allergy, and it's not a diet decision. It is an autoimmune disease. The ingestion of even a tiny amount of gluten sets off the body's immune response, which then causes an inflammation of the lining of the small intestine, flattening the villi and interfering very seriously with the absorption of nutrients (which is the job of the villi). Even a few breadcrumbs are enough to set off this reaction. The villi will take 6-8 weeks to recover after each exposure. This is not an imagined thing - it is demonstrable via biopsy and blood tests. (In my case, "flamboyantly so", as the specialist told me).

Coeliacs who continue to ingest gluten suffer not only immediate effects (ranging right across the spectrum of gastrointestinal misery and into all body systems, including a charming skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis) but have a frighteningly high lifetime risk of osteoporosis, lymphoma cancers, anaemia and all its associated ills, and so forth. These are not trivial consequences. They are very potent risks, and risks that no critic of gluten-free eating would dream of assuming for themselves.

Also, Coeliac Disease is not a "modern" invention - the word comes from the work of Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a second-century physician who treated patients with the condition. It is not something that goes away with time, or you grow out of, or would be fixed if you just ate enough wheat and barley to "toughen up" or "desensitise" your system, as has been suggested to me by one well-meaning friend.

What would happen if food security faltered and Coeliacs no longer had access to gluten free prepared foods in shops? Well, I cannot speak for all Coeliacs, but I can tell you that I would simply eat more potatoes ;-) By which I mean, my Coeliac disease is not a first-world fussy luxury that I allow myself because I am, in world terms, filthy rich (although I am that, and know I am). Even if I became significantly poorer and my diet options restricted drastically, I would still avoid gluten at all reasonable costs. There would be no point, after all, in eating a bread loaf out of hunger only to induce several weeks of dysfunction that meant that every bite I ate thereafter was doing me little good. Would I eat gluten if I was actually starving? Well, yes, but people eat all kinds of things that aren't good for them in that scenario. Hopefully, for me, it will never come close to that.

So all of this leads me, at last, to my actual point. Which is this - please, please, do not mistake a Coeliac for a food pest. Yes, it may not be as easy to cook for a Coeliac. Yes, it is hard to get gluten free food right. Yes, Coeliacs may sometimes have to decline your food if they can't be sure about it. Yes, it is a MAHOOSIVE pain not be able to use the cheapest, best-behaved ingredients in your baking (nothing else bakes as well as wheat flour. It just doesn't).

But we are not doing this for fun, or to make your lives or our own difficult. Coeliacs have a hard enough time as it is without being treated as pariahs or nuisances. Treat a Coeliac's request to eat gluten free as seriously as you would treat someone's injunction to avoid peanuts due to anaphylaxis.

Because, I will speak only for myself here, but why am I doing this? I am doing this so I have the health and energy to play with my family. I am doing thus to increase the odds that I will be here to mother my children, see my grandchildren, and reach a deservedly cranky old age ;-) That's my row to hoe, but I hope that no-one feels the need to plant stones in my path, out of pique, ignorance or misunderstanding.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Things I Know

Playing along with Shae today, here are the things I know, brought to you courtesy of my very, very adorable and very, very toddlerish toddler.

I know that the early stages of toilet readiness are much more frustrating than they are exciting, and that the middle of winter when I have no functional clothes dryer is NOT the time I would have picked to start ditching nappies.

I know that sibling rivalry is a beast that never sleeps, no matter how much your children love each other and even embrace each other's company.

I know that when the toddler says "I 'ATE YOU!" she doesn't mean it or understand what's she's saying, but I also know that it hurts like hell to hear it all the same.

I know that battling wills with a toddler is a losing game, and makes for an unhappy home. (So why can't I stop doing it then?)

And oh boy, but I know, as Arwyn writes, that toddlers are triggering.

But, at the same time ...

I know that reading with a toddler who loves to listen, engage and drink in the story is a wonderful boon.

I know that bouncing on the trampoline in the winter sun with a laughing, lively toddler is both freeing and relaxing.

I know that the kisses and cuddles of a toddler are beyond sweet, accessing a tenderness and devotion that belongs to this child and all my children.

I know that being part of a toddler's day means the chance to see things through fresh eyes, to experience newness and delight in ordinary things.

I know that I want to be here with my toddler and with my older children, even when it's hard and even when it hurts, and I know that I want this for myself, not just in martyrdom because I believe it's in their interests to have me here.

Check out Yay for Home! for other things people know today.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The people in our neighbourhood

We walked to school today, as is our wont on a Monday. The big kids scooted and I wheeled C in her pushchair. It was cold, the sky was threatening rain.

Partway up the street adjoining ours, my 6-year-old skidded her scooter in the guttering of small stones with which one neighbour has decided to line his property boundary. Instantly he was out his front door, barking, "Hey! Get offa my STONES! Now I gotta sweep that UP!" and glaring at her.

"Sorry," said the 6-year-old hastily, and took off after her big sister. I gave him a cool glance and said, "I'm pretty sure it was accidental, but nonetheless, I apologise for your stones being disarranged." (If you are reading this as a classic non-apology, well, you'd be right ;-)

"Yeah, well ..." he muttered and moved off to get a broom.

A little further up, a family was saying goodbye at the doorway. My girls, waiting for the toddler and I to catch them up, were intrigued with the burqa being worn by the woman bidding farewell to a man and some kids. Entirely familiar with hijab (being at a school with a sizeable Muslim population, a goodly percentage of their friends' mums wear it, and some wear chador too), the girls have nevertheless rarely seen a full burqa being worn.

"How can she see, Mum?" asked the 6-year-old as we moved on.
"There's eyeholes, E. I saw them," interpolated the 8-year-old.
"Mmmmm," pondered E thoughtfully. Then: "Does she wear it to the shops too?"

On the road to school, the girls paused at a house where a young woman with severe intellectual disabilities lives with her elderly parents. They stopped, as they often do, to wish this woman a good day; she responded, as she always does, with a smile, stroking of my 6-year-old's hair, and pleased noises.

"Why can't she talk?" asked A, the 8-year-old, as we progressed.
"I think she is intellectually disabled, sweetheart," I said. "Her brain doesn't work in the same ways that yours does. Some things, like talking, might be very hard or impossible for her to learn."
"Is it like autism, then?" A has several peers at school and among family friends on the autism spectrum.
"No, not really ..." I said, at a bit of a loss to find the right words. "It's different to autism. Can I think a bit more about how to explain it, and get back to you?"

Passing the small shops, which includes a bottle-o, we saw a middle-aged man who's often hanging around waiting for the shop to open at around this time. We have never seen him not-drunk, and today was no exception.

"Hall-oooooooo!" he hollered at us from across the street, grinning. "'S cold a-day, innit?"
A smiled at him and E, who doesn't like being addressed by strangers, took my hand.
"Tis that," I replied, and we kept moving.

A dog barked furiously, and then tailed off as a human, behind one of the fences, launched a barrage of verbal abuse at it. My girls frowned, and the toddler whimpered.

We met up with other groups walking to school ...

the one-adult-one-child contingent;
the grandparents with multiple grandchildren;
the foster parents, shepherding a duckling chain of charges;
the mums in business suits, bestowing kisses and lunchbox checks at the gate;
the dads in reflective work gear, laughing at their kids' jokes;
the tracksuit-wearing, hair-unbrushed, WAH clump (of which I am part).

As I kissed my big girls goodbye, E commented that we always seem to meet such a lot of different people when we walk to school. She's right. When you walk a neighbourhood, you see it all, every bit of it, with all its warts and in all its glory. Cranky people, kind people, funny people, friendly people, people who have challenges, people who make bad decisions. These are the people in our neighbourhood, and they're what makes it real.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Winter at the vineyard: A post (mostly) in pictures

My aunt and uncle own and operate a small boutique vineyard in Victoria's Yarra Valley. They make summery, crisp sauvignon blanc, rich, warm merlot, and a nice peppery shiraz from their grapes. Recently they've also started making a delicious rose, which is drinking very-nicely-indeed-than-you-very-much ;-)

They also are kind enough to have us to stay sometimes, and let us make beautiful family memories in this peaceful, green and pleasant place.

On Thursday, G (my husband), C the toddler and I picked up the two older girls from my parents' house, where they'd spent two nights, and we headed off to my aunt's for a very bijoux winter vacation.

We spent just two days of the kids' winter school holidays at the vineyard, but it was enormously refreshing for all of us, despite the toddler's tendency to be her age (ahhh, 2 and a half! how I love thee!) and the tsunami of mess that we always seem to trail after us wherever we go. We always appreciate the time we can be there and hope that we don't wear out our welcome (there's a reason we only stay one night...)

It's lovely to step away sometimes, even if ever so briefly. Two days, one night. It was good for us all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An era is ending

My youngest daughter is a month shy of 2 1/2, and I think she is almost ready to wean. Other than her bedtime breastfeed, which she still looks for every evening, her nursing has tailed off to occasional and perfunctory. She rarely feeds between waking and nighttime, sometimes asking for a nursing at naptime but often only having 5 minutes or so before deciding she'd rather have a cup of milk instead. She is growing out of nursing, gradually, gently and naturally, the way I'd always intended she should be able to.

Despite the fact that this is true child-led weaning, in which I am a great believer, I feel ambivalent about this development.

On the one hand, it's lovely to see her developing and changing. Also, not nursing (mostly) during the day has provided me with some welcome relief from having to be always on tap for her. She'll now consent to nap if put down by her father, or nanna, or the carers at creche on her one day a week there. She's with me 90% of the time at least, but not having to plan everything around the need to be feeding in the middle of the day is a good thing.

She's also developed some irritating nursing habits (except in her bedtime feed, when she's placid and snuggly) - scratching / picking at my belly-button incessantly while she nurses (which has led to near-constant bleeding), poking at my eyes, kicking me. These are all uncomfortable and annoying, and certainly mean that the rare daytime feeds she now has are not enjoyable for me. Seeing them trail off into oblivion is a good thing on this score, too.

On the other hand, the changing nature of our relationship carries some sadness for me. C is, and will be, my last baby - and breastfeeding has always been a vital part of how I define and affirm my relationship with my babies, and my self as a mother of infants.

Each of my children was breastfed, for increasing lengths of time as it transpired (A, my eldest, fed to 15 months; E, the secondborn, to 21 months; and C, now 29 months, is not yet weaned). As I moved through my maternal journey and read more, experienced more, thought more, child-led weaning became a core part of how I wanted to raise my own babies.

I know I've been lucky with breastfeeding - I've had milk in abundance, no issues ever with supply. I've also been persistent (or bloodyminded) enough not to call it off when it was excrutiatingly difficult getting started with the first and second babies - I pushed through staph infections, multiple mastitis, a baby who couldn't suck, and a baby with a clampdown bite to arrive at a workable feeding relationship. I didn't need to leave my babies for extended periods for work, which meant I had the luxury of time to establish and grow the breastfeeding relationship. I have a supportive partner and supportive friends and family.

My family and partner were also (more cautiously) supportive of my decision to self-wean. A, my firstborn, who weaned herself at 15 months when I was pregnant with my second, was entirely unproblematic for their collective worldview about how long babies "should" nurse. Even E, who was under 2 when she weaned, didn't raise any eyebrows with my partner, although I found I could not feed her with certain family members and friends present by the end. I am detecting a certain impatience now with the fact that C is still nursing, especially as she is so cavalier and mischievous in her daytime feeds; still, my partner knows that I want this to be C's timing, and he'll stand behind that decision, even if he'd secretly like her to be done now.

For me, I know I feel ready for C to completely stop feeding in the daytime, and I look forward to that transition being completed soon. Giving up the bedtime nursing, though ... ahhhh. It feels like the last gasp of her babyhood being extinguished. It feels like losing something. My breasts will never fulfill a nutritive function again, once she lets go of that last feed. Entirely natural, of course; entirely as it should be, when she's ready. But still bittersweet.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Things I Know

Playing along with Yay for Home, here are the things I know this week, brought to you by My Annual Fancy-Lunch Date with My Husband ;-)

- I know that taking time out to have a meal with your partner every once in a while without any of the kids is a great benefit to both your relationship and your sense of personhood.

- I know that, as such opportunities are rare, it's a beautiful thing to be able to expend them somewhere really special.

- I know that tapas, like yum cha, is a divine way to stuff yourself silly while still tasting many different flavours.

- I know that if there was only one food left in the world, my husband would want it to be octopus.

- I know that I wouldn't ;-)

- I know that urban art can be astonishing in its beauty and complexity as well as its irreverence.

- I know that Melbourne is a wonderful city with many hidden depths, and that I am fired with enthusiasm to take the kids on the Lanes & Walkways day tour soon.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Things I Know

Playing along with the Yay for Home! meme, here are the things I know this week.

- I know that ambivalence is a part of life, and that it's normal to have mixed feelings about change and growth, but that life only moves in one direction, and that's forward.

- I know that school holidays are a blessing unmixed in the middle of the year, when everyone's fractious and tired of routine and needs to hunker down together.

- I know that it feels strange, off-kilter somehow, to be smelling a full-blown rose in full sunshine in what should be deep midwinter.

- I know that getting sibling school photos for the first time is a bittersweet pleasure, looking at the smiling faces of two of your babies together in their school uniforms.

- I know that promising party pies, popcorn and nachos for dinner on the last night of term is a surefire way to win friends, including your child-at-heart partner ;-)

- I know that true hospitality is a precious gift that we can give, and that it's best when it's given freely, sweetly, and lightly.

- I know that I am content, at a deep level, with the life that I have and the way I am living it, even when the surface gets ruffled with day-to-day nonsense.