Potty Training vs. Elimination Communication (or dealing with more crap than I can handle)

Spring has arrived, as has that time in our household.  I’m not talking about spring cleaning, although there will be a lot of that in the coming weeks.  It is time to buckle down, stay focused on the goal, and….potty-train.

I feel like I just went through this yesterday, but it was exactly one year ago that I was potty-training my son.  He was one-month shy of his 3rd birthday, and I ignored all the advice around me to wait until my temperamental toddler was ready.  I figured if I put all my energy and focus to getting my son potty-trained, it will happen.  I armed myself with two types of potty seats, M&Ms as reward, and Thomas the Train underwear that I thought my son would be thrilled to wear.  I knew that if I went all in, eventually he would get it.

Three weeks of potty training later, with almost daily accidents, I was chasing my son to get him to use the potty before we left the house.  I was frustrated that he wasn’t cooperating with me fully on this potty-training thing.  As I nagged him one more time to pee in the potty before we left, he stopped in the hallway, looked at me with an evil grin on his face, and peed right there on the floor.  I so wanted to smack him at that moment.  Instead, I admitted defeat.  I gave up on the potty training.

I tried again about a month later, just a week after he turned 3.  After one day, he was potty-trained.  It was a miracle!  No nagging, no chasing, no bribing.  There were only a handful of accidents from there, but within 3 months he was even out of nighttime diapers.  He was officially potty-trained and it was the easiest thing (that time around).

My daughter turned 2 a couple of months ago, and now it’s time for her to get on the potty train.  I heard that girls train earlier than boys do, and I know some of my mom friends who trained their daughters by the time they were two.  I think my daughter will be much easier to train than my son since she’s already pooping in the potty 4 times out of 5 and is generally good at following directions.

People may think 2 or even 3 is too early an age to potty-train, with perhaps the exception of EC’ing parents.  EC, or Elimination Communication (aka Diaper-Free Baby, potty whispering or natural infant hygiene), is potty-training for babies before the age of 18 months. I saw a video of the method when I considered it briefly after having my daughter.   EC requires a lot of attention to your baby’s expressions, holding the baby over the bathtub or toilet, and cueing.  A lot of people are skeptical about this practice or may think it’s reserved for hippie-types in order to avoid using diapers.  However, this method is used by several different cultures around the world (just without the fancy name for it), and in developing countries most babies are trained by the time they turn 1.

I know that this practice is not a crock, because I’ve seen it in action.  When I worked in the refugee camps in Thailand, one of our community health educators had a baby under a year old (she couldn’t walk yet).  The mother held her baby over a basin and made the noise, Shhhh shhhh, to signal her to pee.  And she peed.  I saw accidents as well, but the mothers never seemed bothered by it.  Perhaps because their floors are made of dirt (where it can be covered up) or bamboo slats (where it can fall through or be evaporated quickly) so clean-up is minimal.  Once the babies become mobile, they just go pantless and learn to relieve themselves in the ditch or to squat in the latrine.  It was the same way in Sudan, where the kids are taught early to go “into the bush” to do their business.  It just makes sense for them since they live in places where they spend most of their time outdoors and don’t have disposable (or even decent cloth) diapers available to them.

For us, however, in the typical American world of overly-clean-and-sanitized indoor spaces, this method just isn’t practical.  It makes more sense to wait until our children are ready (around 3 years old), so that we as parents aren’t terribly inconvenienced.  We set aside a block of time to stay close to home and mentally prepare ourselves to deal with all the crap (pun intended) involved in potty training.  Potty-training becomes a battle as we deal with uncooperative children and messy clean-ups.  We constantly ask our kids if they have to use the potty and then rush them to the bathroom so they don’t have accidents on the living room rug.  When they do have accidents, we scream in exasperation (at least I do).  It’s no wonder that some parents put it off and put it off, until one day their kid is 4 years old and still in diapers.  Plus, with a billion-dollar diaper industry making disposable diapers easily accessible and relatively cheap, it’s easy to keep kids in diapers for as long as possible.   Those diapers (and Pull-Ups) are just so darn convenient, especially when leaving the house to any overly-clean-and-sanitized public place where it would be an embarrassment for our kid to have an accident.

In theory, Elimination Communication is an ideal solution to get kids potty-trained early and avoid diapers altogether.  Believe me, I hate using disposable diapers and feel guilty every time I throw away a bag of dirty, heavy diapers that I know will sit in the landfill for years and years.  I admire the American parents who choose to EC their babies as I’m sure it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and patience.  However, in most cases it’s just not practical or convenient for us.

Okay, now I’m off to potty-train my daughter…tomorrow.

Scary Food – Arsenic in Rice

In light of the last entry (“Simple Go-To Fried Rice“), I felt the need to write about a recent news story revealing that arsenic was found in over 200 rice and rice products sold at grocery stores in the U.S.  A study by Consumer Reports showed that rice produced in the U.S. had “worrisome” levels of arsenic, and the FDA followed suit with another study which showed similar results.  Arsenic, in inorganic form, is a “level one carcinogenic and linked to lung and bladder cancer.”

I normally would take any Consumer Reports study with a grain of… well, rice.  After all, they recommended a certain vacuum cleaner and washing machine that I ended up buying because of their glowing reviews, and they both kind of suck.  But since this involves the health of children, it’s not so easy to bypass this story with ambivalence.  After all, parents are encouraged to feed infants rice cereal as one of their first foods.  Baby & Toddler mum-mums are passed around the playground, and rice milk is given as a substitute to children who are allergic to dairy and soy.  And for those families in which rice is a staple in their diet, such as Asian families (like ours) and Latin American families (the rest of Tucson), these findings are very much a concern.

According to an article I read in the newspaper, there are some things you can do to limit the arsenic levels in your rice.  Some of them are totally impractical like cooking rice the way you cook pasta – in a ton of water which you then drain.  Yuck.  I mean, who wants to end up with porridge?  But for the more practical suggestions:

  1. Limit brown rice consumption.  Although brown rice is generally healthier than white rice (it has higher fiber content because the outer husk is still intact), it also has higher levels of arsenic.  This won’t be a hard one for me since I don’t like brown rice anyway, unless it’s cooked in chicken broth, butter, and lots of garlic.
  2. Try aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine.  These rices are imported so they don’t have the level of arsenic that American rices do.  By the way, have you tried Thai jasmine rice?  It is so fragrant and delicious.  I remember one time in Thailand, my colleague brought some Thai jasmine rice to the refugee camps for a special event.  The children just ate the rice plain and said it was so good compared to the rice they received in their handouts (broken, substandard rice).  It really is good enough to eat by itself.
  3. Wash your rice.  Supposedly washing the rice 4-6 times (filling up with water, swishing the rice around, draining the water, and filling it back up again) removes 25-30% of the arsenic.
  4. Check where your rice comes from.  California rice was found to have the least amount of arsenic, while southern states along the Bible belt (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri) had the highest amounts.  And like I said, rice imported from other countries has miniscule amounts of arsenic.

It seems like there’s a lot of stuff we’re eating that’s not so good for us, from genetically modified corn to factory-farmed meat to chemical-laden processed foods.  Even as we speak, there’s a recall on peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s (due to salmonella), and earlier this year there was a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes.  Although avoiding every single scary food out there would be impossible, I think it’s important to listen to these reports and make changes that you are comfortable making.  In our household we eat rice about 3 times a week, so I’ll probably reduce it by one and replace it with another grain (barley, quinoa, buckwheat – there are lots of options).  And when we do eat rice, I’ll stick to Thai jasmine and the California short-grain that we’re used to eating.  But I’m not going to eliminate rice from our diet altogether.   That would just be too hard for us.  Fried rice, anyone?


Simple Go-to Fried Rice Recipe

I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about myself since I started this blog.  That’s precisely the point of a blog though, right?  However, since a lot of my readers are fellow moms, I thought that perhaps I could be a bit more helpful in some of my entries.   With that said, I want to share my go-to recipe; “go-to” meaning that I make this when 1) the fridge is looking rather bare, 2) I have no idea what to cook, and 3) I want to feed the family fast.  I learned this recipe in Thailand when I took a 1-day cooking course in Chiang Mai and have been using it ever since.  It’s easy, fast, and delicious enough to please everyone in the family (even my picky 3-year old).

But first, a story (sorry, old habits die hard):
It was Christmas Eve 2007 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.  A handful of us expats had the misfortune of staying in our organization’s compound over the holidays.  In order to attain some celebratory spirit of Christmas (and make light of the fact that we were stuck in Juba), we decided to have a gift exchange and a decadent meal (very rare in South Sudan).  Marie, the Food Security Program Manager from France, volunteered to make coq au vin for dinner, in addition to having a cheese and meat plate, fresh bread, chocolate truffles, and free-flowing wine.  She made a list of food and supplies we needed, had one of our colleagues purchase them in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (she had just left South Sudan so she felt sorry for us), and had another colleague who flew into Juba the day before deliver the goods to us (there was no way we could pull this dinner off with what was available in Juba).

On Christmas Eve, the morning of the big feast, Marie went to the market to purchase two chickens for the coq au vin. The chickens were freshly killed, with heads and feathers intact, which meant that Marie had the unpleasant task of removing them.  She spent hours plucking the feathers off the two chickens as I helped cut up onions and peel potatoes (the easy job).  Since we let the compound’s cook off for the day, we were responsible for making our own lunch as well.  Marie had planned on making a rice salad, but as 1pm rolled around, she still had her hands full plucking, beheading, and draining the blood from the chickens (unfortunately I witnessed all of it). There was a compound full of hungry expats, and since I was the only other one in the kitchen, I volunteered to make lunch.

As soon as I saw the leftover rice in the fridge, I immediately thought of making fried rice.  At that point in my cooking career, it was the only thing I could make spontaneously (i.e. without looking at a recipe).  Fortunately, there was soy sauce, onions, garlic, sugar in the pantry, as well as some leftover meat and vegetables from last night’s dinner. By 1:30pm, I put out a big pot of fried rice on the table.  My coworkers devoured it, and they appreciated the fact that I made something so quick, not to mention different from the other foods they were used to eating (meat or stews).  Okay, it was a small thing feeding a bunch of people, but I felt like a hero.

So all you really need for this recipe is some leftover rice (has to be chilled so that the dish won’t end up being a big mushy mess).  In our household, the rice cooker is permanently affixed to our countertop, and I always make extra rice so I can stash a few cups of cooked rice in the fridge or freezer.  The other ingredients you need are probably already in your kitchen – onions, garlic, soy sauce and sugar.  Just throw in some protein, whether it’s beef, pork, chicken, tofu, shrimp, or eggs, as well as some vegetables (I always have a bag of mixed vegetables in my freezer), and voila, you have a simple and filling meal.  If your kids balk at the sight of vegetables (like mine do), you can always grate in some carrots or chop up tiny pieces of broccoli florets and throw that in.  The point is, this recipe is super-flexible, and once you get the hang of making it, you will be able to  throw in whatever suits your family. I usually serve it as a stand-alone meal a couple times per month, or sometimes I’ll make soup or an appetizer to go with it.  That’s all.  Now you can be a hero at your house too!

Simple Go-To Fried Rice (adapted from Gap’s cookbook)
Serves 4 (2 adults & 2 small children)

3 c. leftover, chilled cooked rice
2 T. high-heat cooking oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 c. cooked meat (beef, chicken, pork, shrimp), cut into small pieces OR fried tofu, cubed
1 c. frozen peas and carrots or mixed vegetables, defrosted
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. sugar

1.  Set a wok or large, deep pan (be careful when using a frying pan.  The rice may fly all over the place!) over medium-high heat.  When the wok is very hot, swirl the cooking oil around the edge so the oil spreads down and coats the wok.  Add the onions, saute for two minutes, and then add the garlic and saute for one minute.
2.  Add the rice, making sure the rice grains are separated (if using previously frozen rice, do not add the big block of rice-ice to the pan!  Defrost it first and separate the rice grains).  Use a spatula to scoop up the oil and onion/garlic over the rice, so that the rice touches the bottom of the pan.
3.  Add soy sauce and sugar, mix up rice, and then spread out rice over surface of wok and let cook for 1 minute (this gives the rice a chance to crisp up and cook.  Don’t toss around the rice constantly or the texture of the rice will get mushy).
4.  Add the meat or tofu and vegetables, mix it up with the rice, spread out the rice in the wok and cook for another minute.
5.  Push the rice to one side, add some oil to the other side and spread the egg out over the oil.  Let cook for a minute or so, then mix with the rice (if you don’t have a wok, you can cook the egg in a separate frying pan).
6. Taste the rice, and add more soy sauce or sugar as needed.  Enjoy!

Adventures in Cooking

I didn’t start cooking until I was 30 years old.  For some reason, I never cooked with my mom growing up (I guess she wanted me to concentrate on my studies so I wouldn’t end up being a stay-at-home mom…go figure), and all throughout college I lived in dorms or other housing where meals were provided for me.  I remember the first time I cut up a chicken breast – it was after I graduated from college, when I lived in an apartment in Brighton, MA (outside of Boston) with three roommates.  I was totally grossed out as I handled the raw flesh, trying to cut away the fat and skin.  I kept muttering “gross” “yuck” and “what the …?” My roommate Risha looked on, completely amused (and trying not to laugh, I’m sure).  Then she said “Oh Linda, you’re so cute.”

A few years later, I lived alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in Chicago.  My kitchen, though relatively big, had approximately 1 square foot of counter space.  I didn’t have any interest in cooking, and with a full-time job, I was too tired to do anything after work except zone out in front of the t.v.  My typical dinner was a piece of salmon I cooked on the George Forman grill, frozen brussel sprouts I steamed in an electronic steamer, and rice that I made in a rice cooker. (Suffice it to say, I’m a slave to my kitchen appliances.  This started freshman year when I illegally had a hot pot and toaster oven in my dorm room.  Never started any fires but it did make me pretty popular on my floor.)  I went out to dinner with friends 2-3 times a week, and every other weekend I went to my parents’ house to get free meals there.

This lack of cooking skills kind of screwed me by the time I joined the Peace Corps.  It wasn’t a problem the first year that I lived with a host family, but when I lived alone in an apartment in my 2nd year, it was just me against frying pan (and a pressure cooker I acquired from another PC volunteer.  Again with me and the appliances).  It was quite a challenge for me to make rice without a rice cooker, cook beans that weren’t from a can, and prepare chicken that wasn’t cut up cleanly and pre-packaged.  There were no frozen convenience foods available, plus my freezer was the same temperature as my refrigerator, which wasn’t very cold in the first place.  The only thing that saved me from having to cook all my meals was the plethora of cafes in my town.  For about $1, I could get laghman (Kazakh noodles), plov (Uzbek fried rice), or a variety of Russian dishes (all with sour cream and dill on top).  However, the food in Kazakhstan wasn’t very healthy (I gained 10 lbs. my first year) – it was heavy on meat and all the dishes seemed to have a layer of orange oil floating on top.  I decided to cook in my apartment more to change up my diet.  Thus my adventures in cooking began.

I went to the open market a few times a week to get produce, grains, meat, and cheese to cook with.  I guess I wasn’t too adventurous at first, because starting from that year in Peace Corps and continuing on for the next 5 or so years, I had to follow a recipe exactly.  I had a Peace Corps cookbook that became my bible (by the end of my service, it became so beat up with food and water stains that I couldn’t bring it back with me  to the U.S.  I still regret that now).  I was so stringent in following the recipes that if I couldn’t find even one ingredient at the market, I wouldn’t cook the dish.  That’s how inexperienced and unknowledgeable I was about cooking.

When I returned from the Peace Corps, my college friends from Boston introduced me to the Food Network.  I started watching it a lot (along with Fear Factor and other “reality” shows that ruled the networks when I came back to the U.S. in 2004).  I began to gain some knowledge about cooking as I cooked more and more.  By the time I moved to Thailand two and a half years later, I had a bit more confidence so that I didn’t have to follow a recipe exactly every time.  I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai which taught me about a critical cooking device that I had never used until then and is now always by my side in the kitchen – “the tasting spoon.”  You taste your food and add what’s needed, whether it’s salt, sugar, fish sauce, lime, etc.  Seriously, before then I never thought to taste the food before sitting down and eating it.

Cooking became an adventure I started to enjoy, and my fellow colleagues enjoyed my dishes as a change-up to their usual Thai fare (which is delicious, but gets monotonous after a while).  Sometimes my colleagues in would bring me back ingredients they picked up on their vacations (like vanilla beans from Bali) or in Bangkok so I could drum up a dish.  I would scour the markets for familiar ingredients and try to whip something up, whether it was a Thai dish or an American one.  I still ate at cafes a lot, but I also had more practice in the kitchen (and sometimes with very little to work with – not many appliances available to me there).

I knew that cooking officially became a hobby for me when I moved next to South Sudan.  We had cooks who prepared our meals three times a day.  Although it was nice not having to worry about food, I sometimes felt the urge to cook or bake, because it was a good way for me to relieve stress.  It was impossible, though, because I didn’t have any ingredients, couldn’t find anything to cook with in the kitchen (which was even more barebones than in Thailand), and didn’t have electricity.  I looked forward to going back to the U.S. so I could cook again.

Now cooking is still an adventure for me, but more of a tedious and time-consuming one.  I have to prepare meals to accommodate four people in the family, including a vegan-ish husband and a picky preschooler with food allergies (on the other hand, my toddler eats almost everything. Like mother, like daughter).  We eat out at restaurants twice a week at most, but for health and money reasons, we have most of our meals at home.  And with a husband with zero cooking skills (unless you count pushing buttons on a microwave), all of the cooking falls to me.  I still enjoy it, but I would more if I cooked occasionally rather than ALL THE TIME.

At least I’m better off now than before I left for the Peace Corps.  I can’t imagine having children with the cooking skills I had back then.  I would probably be serving my kids Kraft mac n cheese, Chef Boyardee, or McDonald’s everyday (I still do occasionally).  I look forward to the day when my kids are a little bit older (and their palates a little more refined) so I can introduce them to dishes from around the world.  But for now I look forward to Mother’s Day, because that is my self-proclaimed no-cook day.

My Facebook posts were a lot more interesting before I became a mom

I first heard about Facebook while living in Thailand, by a Canadian girl who worked in the refugee camps with me.  I was nearing the end of my contract and Amy, who also lived across the street (it was a very small town), introduced me to the site as a way to keep in touch after I left the country.  She had asked me “Are you on Facebook?”  to which I replied “What the heck is Facebook?”

That was in 2007.  Now it seems that everyone and their father (including mine) is on Facebook.  When I joined, I “friended” family members, old friends, and classmates, as well as my coworkers at ARC and colleagues in Thailand working for other organizations that helped Burmese refugees.  I even became Facebook friends with people I met at a two-week training in Paris before leaving for my mission in South Sudan.  Although we had just met, an immediate bond forms when working for the same non-profit organization, and even among humanitarian aid workers in general.  Facebook was a convenient way to keep in touch with these colleagues, not only to be updated with their whereabouts and the projects they were involved in, but also for the likelihood that we could run into each other in the field (happens quite a bit).  Facebook was also a good way to offer a glimpse of our lives without a lengthy mass e-mail.  Some of my posts while working and living in South Sudan:

“I’m afraid a rat will crawl onto my bed while I’m sleeping, gnaw its way through my mosquito net, and eat my face off.”

“Had to dump a bucket of water over my head at 2:30 in the morning in order to get to sleep last night”


“Back in Malakal, where men marry goats and donkeys commit suicide!”

*I have to thank Facebook’s new timeline format for the ease in accessing these past posts!

Since I’ve settled back in the U.S. and had kids, my life and Facebook status updates have become pretty mundane.  When my kids were just babies, I often posted about their sleep issues while complaining about my lack of sleep.  Later on, I talked about their eating habits (as well as mine).  I posted about trips we took as a family.  On rare occasions I would mention a child-free outing (like an anniversary dinner, baseball game or rock concert), and once in a great while I’d comment about sports (New Orleans Saints winning the Superbowl) or politics (Obama winning the ’08 presidential election).

I am still in touch with my humanitarian aid friends via Facebook, and I love reading updates about their new missions, projects they are involved in, and cultural differences in their host countries.  I can live vicariously through their work and travels while I stay put in Arizona.  And even though the time we actually spent together was brief, I will always feel connected with them through the intense and unique experiences we shared abroad.  Also, having these friends all over the world makes me realize how small it really is, and I hold on to the hope that I will see them again (perhaps when I go back to the field someday?).  On the other hand, I have met a lot of wonderful people since moving to Tucson, most of them new moms with kids the same ages as mine.  Like in the humanitarian field, there is an instant bond that develops when you discover that you have one major thing in common.  It’s reassuring to know that there are others going through the same things as you, and Facebook has been a great way to share stories, tips, advice, or just plain sympathy with these other new moms.

Yes, the life of a humanitarian aid worker is more exciting and the Facebook status updates are more interesting to read (sorry moms).  And although working in the humanitarian field is meaningful and rewarding (sometimes), being a mom is even more so.  Sure, my day-to-day isn’t quite as exciting and my posts have become downright boring at times.  That’s my life right now.  And I’m okay with that.

From international aid worker to stay-at-home mom

I still can’t believe I’m a mom sometimes. Just last night I was sitting on the couch with my 2-year old next to me and my 2-month old in my arms. I looked down at them and it suddenly hit me – holy crap, I have two kids! It’s not so strange considering that I’ve always wanted children and thought that eventually I would. It’s strange considering that three years ago I was living quite a different life than the one I have now – single with no kids and working as a development/aid worker in Africa (the two usually go hand-in-hand). At the time, having children seemed like a far-off and intangible dream that I preferred to keep in the back of my mind. I was 35, though, and I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was not yet married or had children. However, doing so set alarm bells ringing, a panicky knot in my gut and the big question looming in my head “WILL IT HAPPEN FOR ME?”

Well, a lot can happen in three years (even in one year!). Looking at my life now – with two kids, a husband, and a house outside the city – my stint as an international aid worker seems like a lifetime ago. And even though the lifestyle of an aid worker is dichotomous with the one I have now, I enjoyed it immensely at the time. I was living my dream (one of them, at least). Sure, the living and working conditions were horrid at times. I was living in developing (i.e. poor) countries, staying in tents or compounds with my colleagues, taking bucket baths, using pit latrines, battling the elements (no a/c) and working 60 plus hour weeks.  However, I was doing something that was truly meaningful to me, and I never once had to question or quantify my life or career.

Now that I’m a mom, it’s easy for me to live in the sheltered and isolated bubble of stay-at-home motherhood. I definitely have been guilty of it since my son was born two years ago (and it’s even worse now since my daughter was born earlier this year). Whereas three years ago my main concerns were whether Sudan would break out in a civil war or how to convince the locals not to drink water directly from the river, my main concerns now are my toddler’s food allergies or getting my baby to sleep through the night. Although as each day passes and I get further and further away from my former life, it’s never too far away from my mind. I am constantly thinking about my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan or development worker in Thailand and South Sudan. I guess the point in writing this blog is to take those experiences and somehow connect them to my life now. I’m not sure if I’ll have anything worldly or wise to say, but it’s a chance for me to reflect on my experiences and perhaps open my eyes back up to global issues and impart some life lessons to my children. For now, though, I’ll see if I can actually get a blog going (even that seems impossible to do with two young kids!).