Drawing a Line in the Sand

This Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for all the advocates in my life, and for a being a better parent today than I was exactly one year ago because of them.

Throughout our 6-year old son’s life, he has had a series of physical and emotional delays. He was a late walker, suffered from continuous colds and fevers, and at age two narrowly survived a life-threatening bone infection. On the flipside, he was playful, smart, happy and creative. He spent hours building intricate Lego structures and writing funny, imaginative story books. But simple things, like putting on socks, often seemed insurmountable for him.

As he got older, his physical setbacks became more pronounced; he refused to sleep, refused to potty train, refused to go anywhere without the stroller. His obstinacy became more explosive, and even the smallest change in his routine would set him off. Soon we were the parents fireman-carrying our kicking and screaming child home after family outings, and were too scared to go to restaurants for fear of his outbursts. At first we blamed it on the terrible twos, then the terrible threes, but as he got older and the outbursts became more erratic and unmanageable, we became fraught.

One particularly rough morning after he started kindergarten at the age of 5, he punched me in the face then ran straight through heavy street traffic. I had just taken him on his first train ride to school and somehow he had convinced himself that we were going the wrong direction by looking at the train map. I had to restrain his body as he screamed “STUPID MOMMY!” while hitting me until we finally reached our stop and he ran from the turnstiles right into rush hour traffic. As I chased him in my high heels juggling a cup of coffee, heavy laptop bag, school backpack, and purse, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the severity and danger of this situation.

The least helpful thing people did at the time was label. He’s LAZY because he won’t play. He’s BAD because he won’t listen. He’s SPOILED because you had a nanny. He’s autistic because he’s different. And the worst label of all was in my own voice: BAD MOTHER. I travel for work and leave my husband alone with the children. Is it really worth it??

I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I felt the lonely distress of a parent with a child with some kind of diasibility over these years. How many times we’ve woken up in the middle of the night wondering what people are thinking, feeling a sense of loss, alone, the unknown, or worse a loss of control. Years of psychological evaluations, possible diagnoses, therapists, babysitters, and doctors. Years of being a constant watchdog, apologizing. My heart was breaking. What values are we imparting on our son, and how are we still keeping our marriage together??

If you share these distresses of a difficult child, then you know that you cannot punish or discipline problems away. But as the parent, you will be shamed. Blamed. There will be long uncomfortable silences. Everybody will tell you to be better disciplinarians.

But what these outsiders don’t see are the many humbled moments we experienced as a parent in these desperate moments. The moments that told us what kind of discipline worked, and more importantly what didn’t. When we put him into his room, turned off the lights, shut the door and left him screaming in darkness for hours until he passed out on the floor, only to awake an hour later with night terrors that lasted 30 petrifying minutes. They didn’t see his room laid bare after we confiscated every Lego and removed his bed sheets, demanding an apology. But they also didn’t see the piles of sticker charts for good behavior that we had worked on over many, many months.

Exactly one year ago today, a school administrator sent me an email coolly stating that he had screamed so hard that he wet his pants and they had to have him sit on the bench in the hall alone for 15 minutes. We had a meeting with the principal and were informed that he had been kicked out of after care, indefinitely. His behavior would not be tolerated. My husband and I were devastated. They had drawn a line in the sand. What more could we do??

Fortunately, we did have some advocates during this difficult time. People who told us we had done everything right. That we were good parents. To keep going. That Asher was bright and wonderful and worth fighting for. And for those of you – I am ever so grateful. I tell this story because we listened to those voices and our lives are different today because of you.

This year, we made a drastic decision to move to a new neighborhood, buy/sell our house, enroll in a new public school, re-enroll in Kindergarten and have a fresh start with the fall. It’s now been one year since that very low moment labeling myself a bad mother, six months since we moved, and four months at his new school. And in these few months, his progress has been nothing short of astonishing.

He is inspired. His art teacher has inspired him to create intricate story books filled with rich color and text long into the night instead of watching TV.

He is confident. While he used to be aloof and uncomfortable climbing playground structures, now he gathers all his friends around him to learn a new “leaf game” that he has invented. He is popular.

He is proud. This morning, for the first time, he was able to put on a pair of winter gloves. Historically, we had resolved to just let his hands be cold to save the effort from another fight. But when his fingers easily slipped into place without any frustrations, he literally jumped for joy and chased me around the room with hands outstretched screaming “Freezer Boy!!”

He celebrates. Last month he had lunch with his school principal which he earned by being a star student. He talked about it for days and days and days. He felt special.

He is in control. His new school has given him tools to meet his sensory needs in the classroom to help regulate his own body. He has wobble chairs, weighted shoulder pads, snack time on demand. They allow him time to take preventative measures. Nobody is labeling him.

We still have our problems. He still needs a lot of coaxing to do little things like putting on socks. His first response to anything contrary is still anger, but his more deep-rooted frustrations have become more clearly defined so that we are now able to appropriately tackle the problems in a more positive, productive way. He puts himself to bed. MILESTONE!! He has excellent bathroom manners. It’s no longer daunting to pick him up from school because parents talk to me about parties and play dates. I realize, for the first time, he is happy. We are happy. That is a milestone.

Years of setbacks are slowly being erased. The truth is, he’s just a different boy. And he was born this way. Recently he was diagnosed with dyspraxia – a neurological disorder that results in impaired motor, memory, judgment, processing, and other cognitive skills. There is an enormous disparity with his intellectual abilities and his cognitive and motor skills which has been the root of all his frustrations. But to me it’s not a label. I know that both of my children will grow up to be attentive, clever, compassionate, empathetic, creative, confident contributors to society. We are going to give our two boys the tools they need to succeed like compassion and patience by demonstrating those behaviors in the home. Because we are good parents. 

And so, this year, I am grateful for patience, time, humor, and wine wine wine. I am grateful for the people who reminded me that I am a good parent, and for them I hope to do the same. Compassion and respect are universal truths. In fact they are the moral foregrounds by which our little enclave exists. And that is where I draw MY line in the sand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Kung Pao Lentils

 When my 5 year old son is sleep-deprived and hungry, he turns into Wild Child. You know, like that case of the child that was raised by wolves in the 70’s? Only thing is, he was raised in a civilized home with all the teachings, love and amenities that any 5 year old would dream of. 
Getting punched enough times by your son while waiting for a train during morning rush hour that a Chicago Transit Authority officer actually intervenes is not how I wanted to start my week last week. Watching your definitely-too-old-to-crawl-child crawl on hands and knees through a group of gawking construction workers as I juggle my awkward laptop case, purse,  lunch and hot coffee cup is kind of what nightmares are made of. Yet squatting obstinately in the middle of oncoming traffic are his normal responses to exhaustion. Thankfully, they are not mine.
After a traumatic hour of walking alongside this mobile war zone, I finally got him across the threshold of school. And like magic, he’s happy. We manically hug, kiss and high five until the teacher practically peels him off my body. And I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I want to scream. I go home. I take a personal day. I cry. Because let’s face it, kindergarten is hard. And I never wanted to be the mom who couldn’t function because of the stress of momhood. But it was one of those days. 
Luckily I had this week’s heart-warming Lentil Kung Pao from Vegan Richa to cheer me up. It’s sweet and sour, with a hearty bite of crunch that is kind of an outrageous way to enjoy my favorite legume! I think especially great about this recipe is how adaptable it is with other proteins and vegetables. I’m just going to go ahead and copy and paste the recipe because it’s perfect.
KUNG PAO LENTILS
Ingredients: Serves 3 to 4
For the Lentils: 
1/2 cup dry brown lentils, washed and drained
1.5 cups water

For the Sauce:
2 to 3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp dry sherry or rice wine
1 tsp hoisin sauce (or use more soy sauce)
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
2 to 3 tsp raw sugar (or use 1 to 2 Tbsp maple syrup or other sweetener)
a generous dash of lime zest (1/4 tsp)
2 tsp cornstarch
3 Tbsp water

For the vegetables:
2 tsp grapeseed oil or other neutral oil
1/2 cup chopped white or red onion
4 dried red chilies like arbol or red chinese, broken into halfs (or use red pepper flakes to taste)
3 Tbsp cashews or peanuts
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 inch knob of ginger minced
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 green bell pepper chopped
3/4 cup chopped celery
Method:

Combine the lentils water and salt in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce heat to medium and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Drain excess water. Combine all the sauce ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix well to combine and set aside. Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add onion and chilies and cook for 3 minutes. Add the cashews and mix for a few seconds. Add garlic and ginger and mix in. Add the peppers and celery and mix well. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add in sauce and cooked lentils and mix well. Reduce heat to low and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the sauce thickens and is absorbed by the lentils. Serve with cooked rice of choice.

Baked Falafel

This week my son Asher graduated from preschool and turned 5. FIVE YEARS OLD! When did my baby boy become this independent, spirited, young adult?! As is a typical habit if mine when life becomes complicated, I turn to the kitchen…

I have been craving a healthy, homemade falafel and this little dish did not let me down. The coriander and lemon juice add a nice kick to the freshness of the puréed onion and parsley, and balances nicely with a cool tzatziki sauce or tossed cucumber and tomato salad. It is very simple to prepare and holds up surprisingly well as a baked version of this typically fried food.
  
BAKED FALAFEL
1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, drained 
1 onion, chopped 
1/2 cup fresh parsley 
2 cloves garlic, chopped 
1 egg
2 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon ground coriander 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 dash pepper 
1 pinch cayenne pepper 
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup dry bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl mash chickpeas until thick and pasty; don’t use a blender, as the consistency will be too thin. In a blender, process onion, parsley and garlic until smooth. Stir into mashed chickpeas. Add egg, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, lemon juice and baking powder and stir into chickpea mixture along with olive oil. Slowly add bread crumbs until mixture is not sticky but will hold together; add more or less bread crumbs, as needed. Form 10 balls (I doubled the recipe and made smaller bites in the photo above) and then flatten into patties. Evenly space on baking sheet and bake each side for 10 minutes. Then broil each side for 2 minutes.

   
 

Peanut Udon Lettuce Wrap

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My children are very different animals. Everett, the 2-year old early riser, consumes most of his calories between the hours of 5:00am and 8:00am. The rest of the day he loves irrational hard labor. Like picking up chairs, pushing tables, and gathering armfuls of heavy toy supplies. He would volunteer for decathlon training if he could. He’s disciplined, dedicated, and mild-tempered, and demands to”GOOOOOOOO!” pretty much all the time, which is frustrating at 6:00am when the rest of the house is still asleep and school isn’t even open yet. Oddly, he also prefers a largely vegan diet. He eats fruit, nuts, more fruit, pasta, fruit again, and sometimes beans.

Asher, the 4-year old late riser, consumes most of his calories between the hours of 5:00pm – 8:00pm. He happily sits on the couch reading Lego manuals all day and relatively sedentary. But where Asher lacks in physical interest, he is very cerebral and a true master negotiator. I lose every time. In fact he’s been speaking full sentences since he was 1 and we had to use words to explain to him HOW TO WALK. Yup. Unlike Everett, Asher loves second dinner, and is usually the last kid up from the table at birthday parties. But Legos is Asher’s one true passion and ALL he thinks about. He has amassed a collection large enough to make any grown nerd jealous.

Anyway, what I’m saying is one child is always happy while the other one is always crying. I know this is the universal story of having two kids. So my sanity break is to escape to the kitchen and cook up something wonderful. This week it was Peanut Udon Lettuce Wraps.

PEANUT UDON LETTUCE WRAPS
1 package udon noodles
1 bunch green onions, trimmed and chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, diced
1 red pepper, julienned
1 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
1 head butter lettuce

PEANUT SAUCE
3 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
1 garlic clove, finely diced

Mix peanut sauce ingredients until smooth and creamy. Set aside. Boil udon noodles 5 minutes. Remove and rinse under cool water in colander to immediately cool. Combine peanut sauce with noodles thoroughly. Fold in the peppers, cilantro and green onions. Serve in one butter leaf as a tasty lettuce wrap! Or, chop lettuce with ranch dressing and hand to 4-year old as seen below.

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Parents are Liars

When a parent is asked how their weekend was and they say “GREAT!” they are lying half the time. I know this because I did it this morning. Unless you are the patron saint of patience and kids screaming “NOOOOOO you DON’T say that to ME” and swiping punches in the air and throwing sharp objects at you then slamming doors for three days doesn’t bother you, and sleeping in is no longer a wish and dream, and meals aren’t avoided simply because you don’t want to clean up afterwards, then congratulations you are a parent.  Even the best of us with the best intentions get lost in a big way sometimes.

Last Friday my husband and I took a vacation day from work to take the kids to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We wanted to expose them to something new and exciting; tigers getting their belly scratched, clowns falling off ladders, eating salty popcorn, sitting in a big amphitheater watching motorcycles weave around each other in the metal sphere of doom. We had every intention of enjoying our big day off! We bought three tickets for the circus assuming Everett would happily sit on our lap. Five elephants came out on stage and then just as quickly disappeared before a ring leader in sequins sang a terrible song that didn’t stop for 10 minutes. Everett got antsy, and was happier running down the ramp in the abandoned concessions area away from the crowd while mommy pretended to be a tiger. Never mind that there were real tigers not 100 feet away that we had paid $50 to see. Asher was over-stimulated and thrown off by the lack of focus of the show. He wanted to sit in my lap and talk gibberish. He acted like he hadn’t slept in days, and it was only 10:00am. The popcorn made him insatiably thirty. A bottle of water cost $5 and the straw wasn’t long enough to stick out the bottle mouth. In the end we got use out of one ticket. For half the show. They both screamed at intermission that they were starving but they didn’t want to eat anything. As my husband left the theater carrying a screaming Asher in a fireman’s hold, I distracted Everett with airplanes in the sky as though that were part of the big show. And that was only Friday.

We recently signed up for Sitter City in search of a babysitter for sanity breaks and had scheduled the whole day on Saturday to be home for interviews. Two were a no-call no-show, and one cancelled at the last minute. By 2:00pm the house was a mess and I felt a vague sense of panic. We went out for an early dinner thinking getting out of the house would be key. A walk in the dark to a restaurant would be fun! Asher does not understand Daylight Savings. He’s 4. He was scared. “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHIIIIING!!” At dinner, everything was thrown on the ground; toys, food, crayons, my phone. We smiled embarrassedly at restaurant customers, but not too much so because we spend enough money at this restaurant for family date night. I chugged a martini, Robby choked down dinner, and we rushed home for another two painful hours of alternating moments of sheer joy followed by welting tears of unhappiness with two zombie children. At bedtime, we were speechless.

On Sunday, we actually spent a lovely morning with my husband’s family. The kids were flirty, joyful, conversational and sweet. They ate lunch nicely at the table, they engaged with the adults. We thought this was a good sign. We thought we would let them nap in the car while I did grocery shopping. That was a mistake. By the time 4:00pm rolled around and I started my cooking for the week, these two no-nap children and a husband who has been complaining of stomach pain for 2 weeks now were just gearing up for 4 hours of hell. Asher wanted every baby toy, Everett wanted to cling on my leg while I poured a steaming hot pot of water down the sink, no television show would satiate both children, the chocolate ice cream had melted in the box because it got left out of the freezer for too long since grocery shopping, so mommy had made an empty promise. I pulled a lasagna out of the oven while Everett ran for the open oven door with extended arms. The joint screaming of the kids got louder to a pitch range that I did not know existed to human ears.

In moments like this, you are lost. You wish you could just walk away. That you could hand a bad situation over to someone and scream HELP ME. But you can’t. There is no one. You have to push through. And then at 9:00pm when the house is finally quiet, you get your husband who fell asleep in your child’s room out of sheer desperation and exhaustion and you just go to bed. You are defeated. There is nothing left to say. In the morning, the kids will wake up refreshed and happy and clueless to reality. And you tell the teachers you had a great time at the circus and Asher proudly says he saw dinosaurs. Because that’s what you do.

You know how sometimes small tasks make you feel better because you can cross them off a list? This morning after I dropped off the kids at school I threw away a few boxes of garbage, I cut off  tags from new clothes, and I cleaned out the coat closet. And you know what? I am feeling better. I have my lunches ready for the week. And I actually can’t wait to see those damn kids again when I pick them up from school at 5:30pm. I love them so much, I lie. But only half the time.

the hug

Spaghetti with Lemon and Toasted Walnuts

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My worst nightmare? The kids going to bed happy and early. Why? Because it’s too good to be true. Zonking out dazed and speaking tongues inevitably means that someone will be jarred awake with night terrors in two hours. And that they’ll be up at 4:00am ready to start the day. Let’s go! But I guess I’m willing to take that risk tonight because my husband and I would like one hour together. Without children. One wondrous hour watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine so we can mock the overacting and the spectacularly absurd plot twists. Like Major Kira having O’Brien’s baby because it got zapped from Keiko’s body in some interstellar battle. Whatever.

Tonight we enjoyed this cold zesty zippy pasta dish with whole wheat spaghetti, spicy fresh chopped garlic and a fresh lemon, parsley olive oil marinade. It comes from Vegetarian Times and could easily be made vegan without the Parmesan cheese. This dish paired with a side salad will last us the work week and only cost about $10 – not bad for a healthy dish that even my 4 year old enjoyed!

SPAGHETTI WITH LEMON AND TOASTED WALNUTS
1 cup walnut halves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tsp. grated organic lemon zest
1 clove garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. spaghetti
1 cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F. Toast walnuts on baking sheet 10 minutes. Cool, and coarsely chop. Whisk together cheese, oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic, and pepper in large bowl. Cook pasta according to package directions. Add drained pasta to cheese mixture, and toss to combine. Stir in parsley and walnuts, and season with salt and more pepper.

Cowboy Caviar

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A few weeks ago I found out about Cowboy Caviar after I had made a simple bean salad that was reminiscent to someone of this recipe which they shared with me. Not only do I love the name, but I also love it’s simplicity and subtle different flavors that really make this recipe shine. The spicy base of black-eyed peas, avocado, corn and tomatoes combined with the red wine vinegar hot sauce is simply dynamite on a bed of romaine lettuce with crumbled tortilla chips on top – and it didn’t even need additional dressing.

The good news is that black-eyed peas are cheap, high in protein, and low in calories, cholesterol and saturated fat. They also have a good amount of potassium and iron. If you are concerned about iron intake on a vegetarian diet, beans and dried fruit (such as raisins and apricots) will more than compensate what you don’t get from red meat. Additionally, eating foods high in vitamin C will actually increase iron absorption in the body. So enjoy this salad with a handful of dried fruit for a healthy, nutritious meal!

COWBOY CAVIAR
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons hot sauce
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 firm-ripe avocado (about 10 oz.)
1 can (15 oz.) black-eyed peas
1 can (11 oz.) corn kernels
2/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 pound Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt

In a large bowl, mix vinegar, hot sauce, oil, garlic, and pepper. Cut avocado into 1/2-inch cubes. Add to vinegar mixture and mix gently to coat.
Drain and rinse peas and corn. Add peas, corn, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes to avocado; mix gently to coat. Add salt to taste.