Saturday, March 31, 2012

{Ask a Mommy:} Breast Pumps

Q: What breast pump do you use, and how often do you have to pump? A friend of mine who is soon to be a mommy (yay!) asked me a couple questions about pumping. I remember this being a really curious topic for me as well. I was so intimidated when I first started using that pump! It seemed so hard and confusing. I read the directions over so many times, so I could be sure I was doing it right. I have to admit, it was hard to be motivated to start using it. It just seemed so cold and inconvenient compared to my warm little baby. But it was such a great decision to pump so I could continue to feed November a diet of pure breastmilk, even when we are apart.

My Experience: I actually didn't do too much research. I was just drawn to the Medela Pump In Style. It looked high quality, seemed to be a popular brand, had high reviews online, and was somewhat affordable. We put it on our Target baby registry, because it seemed to be the least expensive there. And, thankfully, my generous grandma purchased it for us. I can't say enough how grateful I am for all of the wonderful shower gifts and hand-me-downs we received from our family and friends! Once I started pumping, I added the Medela BPA-free breastmilk storage bags to the mix.
I ended up putting off my first pumping for quite some time. While it would have been nice to pass some of November's near-constant night feedings off on Spencer, it just felt more convenient to just feed her myself straight from the boob, especially since Spencer had to work so early in the morning. Also, I am such a light sleeper (which is necessary for co-sleeping) that I would wake up every time November did, and would probably have remained awake until she was again back to sleep, regardless of who was feeding her! Sweet Spencer was more than willing to help out, but we just didn't end up doing things that way.

We had plans to enjoy our very first date night early December, during a friend's wedding. November was just under two months old. I think I prepared to pump about a week before this event. In retrospect, I would suggest starting to pump daily AT LEAST two weeks before you think you will need to start using the expressed milk. That will give you enough time to get used to pumping, let your supply increase to accommodate pumping, and collect a decent stash, and start experimenting with bottle feeding. If you want early help with night/day feedings, start pumping as early as you are comfortable. Keep in mind, however, that most breastfeeding specialists suggest not introducing artificial nipples any earlier than four to six weeks in order to avoid nipple confusion.

Since I had waited so long to start pumping, I was a little stressed out about creating a decent stash for November, especially since the first week of pumping produces minimal results. I only got about an ounce or two from each breast after 15 minutes of pumping. Another stressful aspect was figuring out HOW to find the time to pump! November was such a constantly-in-arms baby...how was I ever going to put her down in order to pump? At first I tried pumping at night when Spencer was home, but I had read that it is best to pump when your body is producing the most milk, which is most often in the morning. Our pediatrician suggested pumping the unused boob while Nova nursed from the other. This SOUNDED like a great idea in theory, but seemed impossible in practice. Nova would often come unlatched during feedings and needed constant handling; how was I going to hold the pump to my breast AND hold my baby at the same time?

How to pump while feeding: After a bit of trial and error, I found something that worked for me. When it was time for Nova's first post-getting-up-and-out-of-bed feeding of the morning, I would sit comfortably on the floor with the boppy nursing pillow around my waist, and the pump set up in front of me. Now here's the most important thing: make sure you are wearing a pull down bra, like a stretchy sports bra, or a pull down (not snap down) nursing tank. I used to wear just a regular stretchy tank, but I now like the pull down nursing tanks from Motherhood Maternity. I wear these every day in black or white under whatever top I'm wearing.
Pull down your sports bra or nursing top and place the pump shield over the breast your baby will not be suckling from. Pull the top of your bra or tank back up and over the bottom half of the breast shield. If your top is stretchy enough, it should support the shield, leaving your arms free! I'm sorry I don't have a picture to show you how this works. Just try it! I've even done this while wearing a regular bra. Just place the shield over the boob, and stuff the bottom of your boob/shield back into the bra! Now you can latch your baby on the opposite breast, and start the pump. During her next feeding, I would switch boobs, nursing/pumping from the opposite. That gave me two bags of breastmilk a day. I have to admit, it was uncomfortable to sit like that for 10-15 minutes, trying to balance so November doesn't kick the milk bag as I pump over her. But it was totally worth it, and got easier!

First Feedings: I thought, since I had mastered the feed-n-pump, that we were in the clear and it would be smooth sailing. Just pop in a bottle and she'll drink it right up, right? It turns out, November was not a natural bottle-suckler. We decided to have Spencer feed her once a night, leading up to our planned date night in order to get her used to bottle feeding. We had gotten a couple different bottles from our baby shower, and put them to the test. Both styles, with standard sized nipples in newborn slow flow, appeared to be too big for her! She couldn't latch her mouth around them, and most of the milk just poured out the side of her mouth and on to her clothes. I was heartbroken, and almost in tears. I panicked. What if she just can never be bottle fed? How would I ever return to work? How would I ever get a break?

Finally, on the third night, we tried the small Medela bottle with the undersized nipple that came with my pump. Success! It was just the right size for her, resulting in minimal mouth-leakage. We bought three more spare nipples, since the pump only comes with one. Lesson learned? Don't splurge on large sets of one kind of bottle/nipple. Try one of a few different styles/sizes and see which work best for YOUR specific baby. Now that she's bigger, she can use other styles, like Tommee Tippee, but in the beginning, the small nipple was a lifesaver!

Moving forward: She was now a successful bottle-suckler! I continued to pump every day leading up to our date night, which, after practice bottles, provided us with one milk bag per hour that we were gone, plus one to spare. Even though she didn't always drink every hour, I have found that to be my rule of thumb even to this day, especially since some pumpings produce less milk than others. She ended up doing really well with Spencer's sister. She didn't need all the milk, but we were glad that we had left so much; it's already hard enough being away from baby, there's no reason to add stress!

Freeze or Fridge? And how to thaw? At first, I would leave out however many milks I thought Nova would need while I was gone in the fridge, and keep the remainder in the freezer. It turned out it was just as easy to warm up a frozen bag as it was to warm up a refrigerated bag, so I just started freezing all of my milk. This also ensured I wouldn't waste any, since expressed breastmilk has an expiration date! There is a lot of info out there about how long milk lasts, and it's all different. Ask your pediatrician what he/she suggests. To thaw the milk, place the bag in a bowl of warm water, or under warm running faucet water, until the cream mixes back in and milk is warm (but not hot!) This usually takes a couple minutes. Once the bag feels warm, pour it into the bottle. Make sure to drop a little on your forearm, to make sure the temperature is correct! Never microwave your milk.

Pumping and working: I was planning on returning to work a couple weeks after our date night, so I continued to pump daily in order to build our stash. I always made sure I had that 'golden number' (one bag for every hour I wo1uld be gone, plus one or two extra) to leave for Spencer or my mom. Once I started working, I communicated to my boss and co-workers that I would be pumping every two or three hours. This meant I would be taking up one of our only two bathrooms for 10-15 minutes at a time, two to three times a shift. I chose not to pump in the car, because it seemed far more awkward to pump under my nursing shawl in a well-populated parking lot. I also wanted quick access to the faucet so I could rinse out my pump after each use, since I would be using it multiple times before returning home to clean it well. Since our bathrooms have no electric outlets, I used the battery operated power source. I have to change the batteries about every two weeks.

It is pretty annoying pumping at work! I have to remember to stop what I'm doing and spend my breaks in the bathroom, listening to customers and co-workers alike complaining about the person 'sleeping in the bathroom.' When my fellow artists are there, they kindly explain that a nursing mama is doing her business and will be out shortly. My fellow co-workers seem to understand and support what I'm doing, and don't mind me taking up the bathroom. Heck, there are tons of people taking ten minute poops in there daily; I can be granted my time to make milk for my baby (in fact I like to sing 'she works hard for the money' but with the words, 'I make milk for my baby, so much milk for my baby, I make milk for my baby, 'cuz I want to feed her right...')

Maintaining my stash: Once I started pumping at work, I found that I usually pumped the same amount or more than what she was drinking while we were apart, so I didn't need to pump at home anymore. Recently, however, my frozen milk supply has fallen short of demand! All it took was a couple extra-hungry days to wipe out our freezer! I hoped I could just continue to pump enough at work to feed her the next day we were apart, but I realized it would be better to build a bigger stash. So, for this past week, I've been pumping in the morning on my days off. Now that she's bigger and can be put down more often, I have been pumping about an hour after her first morning feeding while she plays in her bouncy saucer.

I'm so happy that I've been able to pump in order to feed November an exclusive diet of breastmilk!

Do you have a question or idea for the next Ask a Mommy? As you can see, I will answer you with agonizing detail! Thanks!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gluten and Dairy free week 2 {plus cheesecake brownie recipe}

Another successful week (well, last week only consisted of a few days) of being gluten and dairy free! I did have a few accidental slip ups, like when we went out for sushi at Blue C Sushi. The difference between soy sauce and tamari had slipped my mind, and I was thinking soy sauce was wheat free, and tamari was not. So there I was, happily gobbling up sushi smothered in (what I am now assuming was) non-gf soy sauce. Also, at that same meal, I got so excited when I saw a gluten free cupcake coming my way down the conveyor belt, that I snatched it up and relished its moist, sweet, fluffy goodness before remembering that I am also avoiding dairy, which was most likely present as butter in my now-consumed cupcake. But oh well, it's a learning curve and besides that, I did pretty well! Oh, except for the horrible detox symptoms.

Since I am no stranger to cleanses, dairy free and even gluten free diets and food products, I thought my body would handle this elimination diet like a champ without any complaints. I don't remember having any detox symptoms when I abruptly went vegan about four or five years ago, and I remember feeling amazing while on the master cleanse, and during my time as a raw foodist. But this time around, I was in for a shocker. For the first five days, while my body felt great, my emotions were in turmoil. I was on edge, easily upset and agitated, tired, having mood swings, crying spells, and had restless legs and insomnia for a few hours a night. I felt groggy, foggy, and just plain out of it. I was starting to get worried until, on a hunch, I looked up 'detox symptoms when eliminating gluten.' And there it was; ALL of the above were symptoms of a gluten detox. I read something about how gluten does something to the serotonin receptors in your brain, resulting in the mood swings and depression during those early days of elimination. It did make me feel better, knowing that I wasn't just going crazy!

Now that I am past the detox stage, I feel much better. It hasn't been too difficult, not even when meeting up with friends or going out to eat. When I know I'm going somewhere that won't have anything I can eat, I just eat beforehand. And when we need to eat while out and about, we think about the many gluten and dairy free options out there, like sushi!

What I've been eating: I've been eating much of the same as I mentioned in my last post. Here's a few new things:

Breakfast:
-On our day off together, Spencer made me a delicious egg scramble with rosemary ham and spinach with a side of rice bread smothered in vegan butter.
-Yesterday I tried out this Mochi that our pediatrician recommended for a yummy breakfast. I got the chocolate flavored mochi, cut a few small squares, toasted it in the oven according to the directions on the package, and then cut them open and filled them with peanut butter and sliced banana. I served them with more banana and Trader Joe's organic vanilla soy yogurt.
I'd previously only had the soft, sweet, squishy mochi that is either wrapped around japanese ice cream or served as a topping at frozen yogurt shops. This mochi is less sweet, heartier in texture, and made with whole grain brown rice. When it toasts, it puffs up, like a mini rice pudding muffin! I enjoyed it.

Lunch:
-For lunch, I am sometimes at work. There, I usually go to the Issaquah PCC (no, I don't often eat lunch from Trader Joe's, I like to get out for a bit!) and scan the hot bar or deli for gluten and dairy free items. This week they had delicious peanut sauce and mango curry tofu dishes! I got them with quinoa and roasted veggies. Another day, I got their Turkish garbanzo salad, and their yam and kale salad.
-One day this week, I met up with my friend, Sharon, for her birthday at Remedy Teas. She and her friend ordered the tea service. Since it came with too many things that I couldn't have, I ordered my own tea and snack. Luckily, they had a super delicious gf, df chocolate zucchini muffin! I ate it with a pot of 'creme brulee' oolong tea (doesn't actually have cream in the tea itself) with honey and soy creamer. It was my first time at Remedy Teas and I loved their selection of all organic teas in many wonderful, enticing flavors, as well as their selection of gluten and/or dairy free items.

Snacks:
-This week I had Lucy's chocolate chip cookies and Enjoy Life soft baked chocolate chip cookies. I know these are dessert items, but I ate them during snack times! The Lucy cookies were good, but on the dry, crispy side. If I were a fan of crispy cookies, I would like these, but I am more of an under-cooked-gooey-doughy-cookie kinda girl. The Enjoy Life cookies are perfect for that; they are like soft, sweet bites of cookie dough...but cooked!

Dinner:
-I mentioned my dinner at Blue C sushi. We just made sure to stay away from tempura rolls and any rolls with cream cheese or a cream sauce. Next time I will ask if they have tamari instead of soy sauce!
-Rice pasta with marinara sauce with rice bread covered in vegan butter, salt, garlic powder, and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast.
-Spencer made homemade meatballs with marinara sauce and garlic rice bread!
-I made Dreena Burton's Mac-Oh Geez! I added 2 tbsp nutritional yeast to the sauce, because I love the cheesy flavor. I used brown rice rotelle pasta and used Ener-G gluten free bread crumbs to keep it gluten free. After making it, I feel like I should have added more olive oil and salt to the breadcrumb topping, as it was a little too dry and I kept adding salt while I was eating it. I've made this recipe (non-gf) a couple times before, and have always loved it!
-Last night Spencer made beef fajitas with corn tortillas!

Dessert:
-PCC started carrying Jodee's gluten free, vegan pies. I tried the Butterscotch Caramel. It was so rich and decadent! I could only handle a few bites at a time. There was a strong coconut flavor, since it contained quite a bit coconut meat/butter to get a nice creamy texture, but it tasted great with the butterscotch flavor. When searching for a link to the brand, I realize they have a shop in Greenlake! I'll have to check it out sometime!

-Last night I made Cheesecake Swirl Brownies! I made this recipe from Smitten Kitchen last month and loved it. When I found out about this elimination diet, these brownies were one of the first things I mourned. But, after a bit of confidence-building in the kitchen of late, I decided I could de-gluten-ize and un-dairy-fy it (uh, YES those are real terms!) I wasn't quite ready to make my own gluten free flour blend, so I purchased a pre-made one at PCC. I settled on Namaste Foods Perfect Flour Blend. It claims it can be substituted for regular wheat flour 1:1 in almost any recipe. It worked perfectly! The flour was silky and fine, no gritty texture! Of course, this recipe only calls for 2/3 cups flour, so I'll have to test it out more with cookies and other desserts before I can be certain of its awesomeness, but so far, I'm impressed. For the cheesecake portion, I just swapped out Tofutti non-hydrogenated vegan cream cheese.

The end product was perfection. It was very similar to the flavor and texture of the regular version; firm on the outside, fudgy in the middle, just like I like my brownies to be! The cream cheese flavor was subtler, but the swirl effect was easier to produce this time around, since the tofutti was a little thinner than dairy cream cheese! I don't think anyone could guess these were gf/df! Spencer loved them also. And now, because I know you are salivating for it, the recipe...
Gluten and Dariy free Cheesecake Marbled Brownies (contains eggs):
Adapted from smittenkichen.com

Brownie batter
1/2 cup vegan margarine (like Earth Balance)
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup organic evaporated cane juice
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt
2/3 cup gluten free flour blend (like Namaste Foods perfect flour blend)

Cheesecake batter
8 ounces non-dairy cream cheese (like Tofutti non-hydrogenated)
1/3 cup organic evaporated cane juice
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Topping
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Brownie batter: Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan, or round pie pan. Heat butter and chocolate in a saucepan, double boiler, or just a metal mixing bowl over simmering water over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally until melted. Remove from heat (and pour into mixing bowl, if not already using it to melt) and whisk in sugar, eggs, vanilla, and salt until well combined. Whisk in gluten free flour until just combined. Pour into baking pan.

Cheesecake batter: whisk together cheesecake batter ingredients in a small bowl until smooth. Pour over brownie batter. Take a knife or spatula, and start swirling, bringing some of the brownie batter into the cheesecake batter until it starts to marbleize. Go slow, so as not to over-do it! Once you get the look you want, sprinkle on the chocolate chips.

Bake until edges are slightly puffed and center is just set, about 35 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla non-dairy ice cream, or at room temperature. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gluten and Dairy Free Elimination Diet

As I mentioned in my last post, I am embarking upon a gluten and dairy free elimination diet in order to see if it helps improve November's skin problems. The past couple days have been quite a change of pace, but not particularly difficult. While my most recent diet has been veggie-focused-yet-omnivorous, I was vegan for two years in the past and I've done all kinds of lengthy cleanses, which is making this new adjustment seem easy in comparison. In fact, I think I will enjoy it, as crazy as that sounds! I was at my most creative, confident, excited, and passionate when I was making foods with dietary restrictions. I don't know why, but there is something so challenging, yet rewarding about making something delicious while avoiding certain ingredients, and reaping the rewards.

Even if this doesn't end up curing Nova's dry skin, it certainly will be cleansing and will force me back into my formerly much-loved kitchen. It's only been a couple days, but I'm already loving it! And since embarking upon this new diet, I realize lots of other moms, friends and strangers alike, are on restricted diets too. I've been searching the web for gf/df blogs, recipes and ideas, and find these fellow mamas are doing the same! So why not share my experience along the way, and add to the mix?

My diet and goals: According to the plan laid out by our pediatrician, I will be avoiding all gluten and dairy, including goat and sheep dairy, but I CAN continue to have eggs. I generally like to eat whole, preferably organic foods, and minimizing over-processed or 'fake' foods. However, that doesn't mean I always follow those principles! I will allow myself some vegan butter, the occasional sprinkle of vegan cheese, df sour cream, etc, should I desire it, especially during the early weeks of transition. But for the most part, I would like to create wholesome, real-food meals! I do eat meat here and there, especially if Spencer makes it, but I mostly like to make vegetable-focused dishes.

What I've been eating: The items in italics will have easy recipes to follow!

Breakfast: (I usually combine two of the following for a filling meal)
-Enviro Kidz Panda Puffs or Koala Crisp cereal with soy or rice milk
-Trader Joe's brown rice bread toasted with Earth Balance Buttery Spread and a sprinkle of evaporated cane juice and cinnamon
-Trader Joe's [NEW!] organic vanilla soy yogurt, served with frozen berries
-Flying Apron lemon poppyseed muffin
-Green Smoothie

Lunch:
-Soup with Wheatless in Seattle sourdough bread
-Mixed green salad with chicken, dried cherries, candied walnuts, sprinkle of nutritional yeast, and balsamic vinaigrette and a side of W.I.S. sourdough bread smothered in prepared Simply Organic sweet basic pesto seasoning mix (contains maltodextrin, which was questionably gf, according to a quick google search), toasted in the oven.

Snacks:
-Green Smoothie
-Living Harvest chocolate hemp milk
-Toasted rice bread or corn tortilla topped with roasted red pepper hummus

Dinner: (usually with a green salad)
-Baked potato topped with Earth Balance buttery spread, Amy's chili, Daiya cheddar style cheese, scallions, and a dollop of plain soy yogurt
-Rice pasta with S.O. pesto, sprinkle of nutritional yeast and pine nuts with a side of W.I.S. sourdough bread
-Fish tacos with corn tortillas, cucumber mango salsa, avocado, and lime soy crema

Dessert:
-Wheatless in Seattle lemon cupcakes
-Rice Dream vanilla ice cream root beer floats

I was so happy to find the W.I.S brand gf/df foods! The sourdough bread had a nice crisp crust with a soft interior. When I toasted it in the oven with the pesto, the interior took on a gooey, mochi-like texture which I enjoyed. The lemon cupcakes are delightful! And the Flying Apron brand always produces wonderfully tasty vegan/gluten free products as well. I am so lucky to live in Seattle where these products and bakeries are everywhere. Working at Trader Joe's also comes in handy, since we carry a good selection of gf staples. The Daiya cheese took a bit of getting used to, but I like it enough. I think I remember liking Follow your Heart Vegan Gourmet cheese better, though. I really like a sprinkle of nutritional yeast for a subtle cheesy flavor. It takes on a shaker-can parmesan quality, especially on fresh stove-popped popcorn!

Now for some super simple recipes! Keep in mind, the following recipes contain approximate measurements, as I've just been throwing stuff together, tasting and adjusting as I go.

Chocolate Berry Green Smoothie: serves 2-4
A few handfuls of kale (enough to loosely fill the blender)
1 banana
1 cup frozen berries (I used cherry-berry blend and blueberries)
1/2 cup plain soy yogurt
1 tbsp agave nectar
1 cup Living Harvest chocolate hemp milk

Blend, adding water to desired consistency. Taste and add more of any flavor you would like to taste more of; berries, agave, yogurt, milk. Drink up! Mine made about 3 servings, so I kept the remainder in the fridge for Spencer, a snack, and breakfast!

Cucumber Mango Salsa: Serves 4 as a taco topping (Spencer showed me how to make this last night!)
-1/3 medium cucumber
-1/2 mango
-1/4 small sweet onion
-small handful fresh cilantro
-squirt of lime
-pinch of salt
-pinch of black pepper
-squirt of tapatio hot sauce (optional)

Chop the cucumber, mango, onion, and cilantro to desired texture (chunky or fine) and mix together in a bowl with the remaining ingredients. Taste, adjust flavors as necessary. Top onto fish tacos!

Lime Soy Crema: serves 4 as a taco topping
-1/4 cup plain soy yogurt
-pinch of salt
-squirt of lime

Wisk ingredients together, and drizzle on top of fish tacos, or any other mexican dish!

I'll post again next week, with more about this dietary change, more meal ideas, and more recipes!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Five Months Old

This has been such a big month! I can't believe my little baby is five months old now! She is such a big girl and has made so many amazing accomplishments. She rolled over...
She used to get so frustrated, trying with all of her might to roll, but finally she has mastered the left side back-to-tummy roll. What a pro! She has also mastered grabbing things. She reaches for toys, shoves toys and her pacifier in her mouth, touches my face, runs her hands through kitsune's soft fur, and even holds her bottle. This also brings about hair pulling, chin grabbing, swatting, flailing, and yanking of all sorts of things! She can sit up semi-propped and is even starting to sit unsupported for short periods of time.
Her hair is finally getting a little fuller. It still looks pretty dark, but sometimes it looks a little auburn (mine was golden-auburn as a baby, then golden-blonde as a toddler, then slowly darkened to brown as I got older.) Her grey eyes are becoming a brighter blue, like her daddy's.
The weather is getting nicer (by that i mean not raining all day) but my lovable cuddle bug is getting heavier, so when we go on longer walks, we use her stroller instead of the moby wrap. I was worried she would hate it, since she is not a fan of her car seat, but she loves it! I let her ride facing forward and she seems very happy about that. She loves to watch her doggy walk ahead of the stroller, and she loves to watch the waves as we walk along Alki beach. I am so happy that it is officially spring and we can spend more time in the sun! Even the crisp, cool spring air is comforting with its smells of cherry blossoms and the ocean breeze.
In less fortunate news, we have been experience sort of a regression in sleeping habits. She was sleeping through the night for a couple weeks, from about 11pm to 7am, only waking once if even that. Then, after our pediatrician warned us that her sleeping-through-the-night was probably just a break, and not something to depend on, November started waking more. For a couple weeks, she would wake about three times a night! Luckily, that has calmed. We are now at a happy medium of waking once or twice a night. We have mastered the 'nap n nurse,' where I just roll over, take out the boobie, let her nurse as we both drift back to sleep. We are still enjoying co-sleeping, but are planning on transitioning her to a crib once she seems ready.

Another unfortunate development has been dry skin and cradle cap. She started getting these skin problems around the time when her sinuses were acting up. Luckily, after getting an air purifier in our bedroom, her breathing cleared right up. Her skin, however, did not. Last month, our pediatrician recommended we bathe November daily with water only and apply an oil of choice (we use raw coconut butter) all over her body, including her scalp. It has helped (her diaper area, especially) but there are still rashy areas popping up, and her dry patches keep coming back. So this month, our pediatrician has us on a gluten free/dairy free elimination diet. I am actually looking forward to this change, and will write all about it later. Part of me hopes this diet will help her, because it would be nice to know exactly what is irritating her, and be able to do something about it without going through further testing. But a very small, selfish part hopes it doesn't...I love dairy and gluten! But I know I can do it AND enjoy it! Anything for my sweet little baby monster!
So this month we are looking forward to learning how to sit even longer, creep ('n crawl?), (maybe) roll over on the other side, and continue to babble. November is such a joy and I can see her wild, wiggly personality come through more and more every day. Love!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

{Ask a Mommy:} Finances

I've been meaning to start this 'Ask a Mommy' feature for quite some time. What is it, you ask? In short, it's a feature where I answer a question, either a specific question from one person, or a question I have heard numerous times. Why? Do I consider myself an expert? Heck no, I do not consider myself an expert! The reason I'm doing this isn't to pass on expert advice, but to share my own experiences as I experience them in order to relate with other curious people.

Throughout this new, crazy experience of pregnancy and mommyhood, I get tons of questions from my friends; questions they hadn't been comfortable enough to ask anyone else, or even questions that they never HAD anyone relate-able to ask. The thing about me that all my friends know, is that I'm pretty blunt and will share info about my boobs, personal life, and bodily functions whether anyone has asked or not. I'm just really comfortable with subjects that some people would rather ignore. I've had friends ask me things they would be too embarrassed to ask their more mature friends- wait, does that mean I'm immature? Let's call them 'boring' instead- or things that have never happened to anyone else they knew. So here it is: the first Ask a Mommy!

Q: Can I afford to have a baby?
One of the very first excuses I made for why I couldn't have a baby when I found out I was pregnant, was that we couldn't afford it. And I get a lot of questions about how much pregnancy costs, and weather or not someone on a budget can afford to have a baby.

My Experience: I remember hearing from other older, wealthier mothers how their pregnancy was $5000, and the first year with a baby was an additional $10,000 or some intimidating number like that. I grew up thinking it would be so hard to get to a financially adequate situation where I could have a baby, so when I found out I was pregnant, I panicked.

I had made a lot of financial mistakes in my early twenties and had racked up quite a sum of credit card debt that I was slowly chipping away at. So, at 27, with close to $10,000 in credit card debt, a car payment, and living paycheck to paycheck, I thought, 'How can I afford to add a new expense?' The only light at the end of the tunnel was that my car would finally be paid off in October, right around November's due date. Also, I had insurance. But even with those things, I still couldn't see how we could afford it. I imagined I would have to stop paying off my credit cards and let everything go into collections.

The only other mother I knew who was around my age was my friend Robin, who said it really wasn't that bad! Since she was in a similar financial situation as me, she gave me hope that we could really make it work without breaking the bank.I calmed down and relaxed, knowing we would find a way. I made affirmations, reminding myself that the universe has never screwed me over before. I always find a way. I've never truly struggled. I've never been homeless. I have family. I have Spencer. People poorer than me with less support have babies all the time. We could do it!

I tried not to over-think and over-analyze anything, but since I'm the type to plan the crap out of any situation (when I was younger, I would go so far as to write 'scripts' when I was about to make a phone call to someone I didn't know well!), I ended up thinking about our situation a lot. I thought about 'worst case scenarios' and what I would do if I really did find myself in a difficult situation. This was actually helpful, once I quit panicking. I realized I had insurance, so my medical bills wouldn't cost too much. And if, for some reason, I lost my benefits, I could apply for state paid medical (I later found out you can use both insurance AND DSHS medical if your income qualifies.) I knew a lot of other unmarried mothers on state benefits and I was willing to go that route, should I need to. And once I started paying my medical bills, I realized almost all of them would be willing to work out payment plans, if I wasn't able to pay in full.

I was also lucky that I had short term disability benefits. Once I went on leave, I would receive 55% of my average check until (6?) weeks after my baby's birth. Even with that, I was still worried about paying my credit card bills. I decided I could get help from Spencer or my mom if I needed it. And if they couldn't help, I would just have to fall behind. It made me sweat just imagining anything of mine going into collections. But I eventually came to terms with that worst case scenario as well. I knew tons of people who had unpaid bills fall into collections. They eventually recovered. It was a lot of work, but if it had to be done, I could do it. Nothing was more important than my baby, not even my (already failing) credit score.

Once my pregnancy progressed, and the bills began to grow, it turned out to be much smoother than I had imagined. While I was still working and making money, we were able to pay off most of our pregnancy bills as they came. $50 here, $140 there, $200 there. With Spencer paying half, it wasn't too bad. My insurance covered a lot. I didn't end up losing my benefits. We didn't need food stamps. We did end up applying for WIC, which was helpful.

Once I started working less and less, I ran into a few tough spots and borrowed (can I call it 'borrowing' if I haven't paid it back?) from my mom a time or two, and Spencer helped me pay the bills that I couldn't. Our medical bills did end up piling up, especially once November was born ('surprise, I'm three weeks early, no time to save up after daddy bought a car that very night!) And we did end up letting them go past due. In retrospect, I should have called immediately and made payment plans. The only reason I didn't was because I was planning on us paying the bills off with our tax returns, since her birth was so close to the end of the year. Our tax returns did end up coming in a little later than I had hoped, and a couple bills did get sent to collections, but in the end our returns came, and we payed off all our pregnancy bills. The new baby tax credit amounts were just enough to cover those remaining bills, about $1500. So, basically, November paid for herself!

Our total out of pocket cost: about $2000.

My current financial situation: It feels so good to have all of our pregnancy/birth bills paid off! It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. And I have been trying to get better in all other financial aspects of my life as well. I've quit piling on added debt to my credit cards, so I can actually pay them down. I recently paid off one of my credit cards completely! My minimum payment for that card was $25. Instead if enjoying that newly freed $25 as an additional much-desired spending money, I'm going to add it to the $25 minimum monthly payment of my next lowest balance credit card, bringing the payment up to $50. Once that one is paid off, I'm going to take that $50 and again add it to my NEXT lowest balance, and so on. I've been wanting to try this 'snowballing' of debt payment for years, and now I finally can! I made my first 'snowballed' payment a few days ago, and boy does it feel good! And according to my approximate calculations, I should be debt free in about three years with this method! Awesome!

So can you afford to have a baby? I would never encourage anyone in an unstable situation, or someone who just isn't ready, to have a baby. But if you dearly want a baby, or you find yourself with a treasured surprise, you can do it. There are ways. Reach out to family for emotional support. Contact your local DSHS for state benefits, if you really need financial help. Make a budget and start cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Start a gift registry with the things you need help with. Search craigslist and ebay and local consignment shops for inexpensive baby finds. Don't forget (like me) to contact your billing specialists and ask about payment plans, if you aren't able to pay a bill in full. Don't fully rely on DSHS, WIC, gifts, and an anticipated tax return to pay for everything, just know they are there if you need them. Try your best, relax, and enjoy that baby. Everything will work out. Remind yourself that!

{If you have a question or idea for an upcoming Ask a Mommy, contact me or leave a comment!}

Friday, March 16, 2012

Special Little Things- Lunch



It's funny how the littlest things can make a new mom feel special! It's easy for me to fall into a boring routine, especially on my days home with November. And while routine is good and healthy, especially when scheduling feedings and naps, it's also nice to shake it up a bit. Every day I've been so used to doing the same things: get up, feed baby, change baby, get dressed, go to living room, eat cereal, feed, change, play, repeat...

I often get stuck in my comfort zone, forgetting there are other things to do; friends to hang out with, places to go, crafts I can work on. So today, I said NO to cereal and went to Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle instead. I know, I know, not that big of a deal, considering we are West Seattle-ites (Alki) and the bakery is just a couple minutes away, but for me, it was a fun little mini-outing. I usually reserve trips to cafes for when I have a friend or Spencer to go with. But why not treat myself just for the heck of it?

So we bundled up and headed out. I ended up getting a cream cheese danish (pictured above), a soy chai latte, and a baguette. Unfortunately, the cafe was too crowded for us to sit and eat (and there were a couple fellow mommies there as well!) so we took it to go. Besides, I had November in my arms, so it would have been hard snacking with her in my lap. It was hard enough to tote my armload to the car! But before we left, we strolled the art store next door. I didn't get anything, but Northwest Art and Frame is always an inspiring place to stroll for ideas. Then I took my lil breakfast home and ate it while Nova played in her bouncy saucer.
Of course, I had to try some of the baguette for lunch! My lunches at home are usually a lack luster, or even an inconvenient event. I haven't been very good about stocking up on lunch foods so I usually just scramble whatever leftovers I can find, or maybe just snack on toast. Yesterday I managed to make a salmon melt sandwich (canned salmon, capers, dollop of sour cream, mixed, topped with cheddar on whole wheat bread) which I was impressed with. Today I sliced some baguette and topped two pieces with chocolate hazelnut butter (which would have been great with sliced strawberry or banana, if we had any!), and two with smoked cheddar and salami. I served it with cranberry juice mixed with sparkling clementine juice...in a wine glass!
I don't drink wine much, so the glass made me feel very special! Little things like this reminded me that I really need to treat myself more often. It doesn't have to be an all day shopping spree, but I should think of other things that will make me feel good, like stocking the kitchen with lunches that I'll actually enjoy, rather than scarf down; simple salad fixings, fresh fruit. I know today's splurges weren't the healthiest (no whole grains, sugars...) but sometimes you just can't deny a soft-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside, freshly baked loaf of french baguette!

My goals for future do-someting-different treats: craft days with my friends (I'd like to dye some shirts and our couch's white slipcover so we can stop sitting on an ugly sheet!), painting on the patio (when it warms up), and maybe try a zumba class! Moms: what little things do you do to treat yourself?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cloth Diapering Update



Linking up with Milk Friendly for the Cloth Diaper Link Up!



I've been inspired by the recent posts of two lovely blogs, Naturally Attached and Milk Friendly, to write about my own experiences with cloth diapering. I wrote briefly about my experiences here, but there was so much more that I didn't share. And after reading the aforementioned blog posts today, I remembered how overwhelmed I was when I first faced he idea of cloth diapering, and how for weeks I just relished every last detail I could find online about others' experiences. I also remember how my friends would look at me like I didn't know what I was getting into when I shared my excitement at using CD, and sarcastically say, "I'd like to see how much you like it after a few months!" I myself would reply, "Yeah, I imagine I just might end up getting too lazy and giving up if it's too annoying." So did I give up or do I still love CDs? Well, here it is, a long-overdue update about my experience with cloth diapers...

But first, a little backstory: Cloth diapering had always seemed to me like some rare thing only wealthy, extremely green, stay-at-home soccer moms did. Living in a third floor apartment, with only three shared coin laundry machines (located on the first floor) made me even more certain that I could never use CDs. But then my grandma sent us a bunch of cloth diapers for a gift. They looked so cute, and after reading about them online, I really wanted to use them. What I read from others was encouraging, and made me realize that CDs were not only easier than I had thought, but also much more common! However, I read mostly cases where people used their fancy HE machines with the options for extra soaks or spins. Would it be possible for us using coin laundry? We decided to give it a try.

START: Collect your stash. This part was easy (and cheap) for us, because we received our CDs as a generous gift. My grandma chose GroVia brand, all in two, one size, velcro tab system, which she purchased from amazon.com. We started with 13 outer shells in pink and purple, 24 organic snap in soaker pads, and 10 organic booster pads. She later sent us a couple more shells and soakers, plus 5 FuzziBunz one size pocket diapers in white.

STEP 1: Laundry Detergent! Before you strap these on your sweet baby's butt, you need to pre-wash them. But to do that, you need an appropriate laundry detergent! Just any old detergent WILL NOT do! But don't be intimidated! I used this list to help me decide. Since I was on a budget, I chose Planet as my first detergent, which i picked up at Whole Foods. More recently, I've been using Ecos. Both had a four star rating on the list, both worked great for me, both were affordable, and both can be found at natural markets, as well as some larger grocery store chains! When washing cloth diapers (prepping AND routine washing) use only 1/4 to 1/2 the amount you would usually use in a small load. This is hard to do, since it's easy to assume more is better when cleaning heavily soiled laundry, but less detergent means less soap build up. I try to go only halfway up to the first line of my detergent's measuring cup.

STEP 2: Prep! FuzziBunz need only be washed once before use. GroVia, on the other hand, require a little more prep-work in order to get the soakers at full absorbency! For this, I took them to my mom's house, so I wouldn't have to spend hours (and many quarters) in the coin laundry. The outer shells needed only one pre-washing, but (according to their instructions) the soakers and boosters need to go through a wash/tumble dry cycle 5 to 6 times before they are ready. My mom was very obliging in letting me leave them at her house where she could help finish the process in her spare time over the next couple days.

STEP 3: Wait...and fit! Now I was ready to use my cloth diapers. Or was I? The GroVia and Fuzzibunz diapers we use say they are one size, and fit from birth, but November was born 6lbs 15oz, and I just didn't feel like she could fit into them yet. So for the first few weeks of November's birth, we used Seventh Generation newborn disposables. This really showed us just how much we would be spending, should we abandon our hopes of using CDs! I can't remember exactly how many disposables we went through, but I'm pretty sure it was about two packages a week @ $12 a package. That meant we were spending $24 a week! Once she gained a couple pounds, we were more than happy to switch to cloth.

Using One size diapers on a newborn: FB diapers had six places to adjust the sizing in order to fit a small baby. Although they did fit perfectly, I had to admit it was annoying going through all the time and effort to find the perfect sizing and adjust all five diapers. But since we only had 5, these were to be our 'backup' diapers...as long as the GroVia would fit! With a little experimenting, we got them to fit just fine! They key was to focus on getting a snug fit around the thighs, and securing the velcro tabs low on the rise (similar to how we strap on disposables!)This is one reason why I like the velcro tabs, versus the snaps: the velcro give you freedom to secure the tabs wherever you need to, low or high on the waist rise. Another factor in fitting a newborn is avoiding rubbing the umbilical stump. Even after her stump fell off, she still remained a little red and would easily become agitated. To avoid rubbing, we would fold over the top part of the soaker pad toward the shell. This created a little bulkiness, but it left a good space in between her stump and the shell/her clothes.

STEP 4: Use! Now we really were ready! We snap in the soaker pads to the outer shell with the GV system, adding a booster pad for night time to keep her feeling dry. We change the outer shell daily or whenever it is soiled, and change her soaker about every two hours, except for at night. Now that she sleeps longer and sounder, she can sleep in her diaper through the night with the help of the booster pad! We make sure the shell covers all of the soaker (don't let the inner leg gussets poke out of the shell, or they will leak!) With the FB system, we pre-stuff the liners into the pockets, making sure the pocket opening is folded down beneath the waist band of the diaper (if the liner or pocket is poking above, they will leak!) before snapping them on. As she grows, I adjust the sizing buttons where necessary. I've only had to do this about three times...and it is still annoying. When we go out, we bring Kushies wet bags to tote any soiled diapers. They don't stink, and they don't leak! When we get home, we put the soiled diapers and wet bag into the diaper laundry bin.

WASHING: This is the part that has most first time CD users shaking in their boots! But it's not as bad as you imagine. Here's what we do: We have two diaper bins lined with a garbage bag, one for trash, and one for CDs. (We used to line the diaper bin with a large washable wet bag, but I didn't like it much: it would fill with water in the washer, and cause the machine to become unbalanced. Now we just re-use garbage bags until they get too stinky). When a diaper is soiled, we simply put it in the diaper bin; no rinsing, no soaking...we don't even rinse the poo! (At first we tried rinsing the poo, but just ended up making too much of a mess without getting much off, and we realized her runny breastmilk poop washed out of the diapers perfectly each time, regardless of rinsing.) We wash our diapers every 2 or 3 days. I try to wash the diapers whenever November goes to my mom's house while I am at work, in order to cut down on cost. We used to air dry our soakers (we still usually air dry the outer shells) until they started getting really hard and causing too much friction on Nova's sensitive, dry skin. Now we tumble dry them so they are nice and soft! And since we usually do one or two loads each week at my mom's our cost has still remained really low, usually costing no more than $4 a week! When I do wash them at home, I usually wait until Spencer comes home, so I don't have to worry about carrying an armload of baby and diapers and detergent down the stairs and back again. Yes, sometimes the washers are all full and I have to come back later, and it's annoying not having a washing machine in my apartment, but it's still totally do-able! And we are hoping to move into a first floor, W/D included home once our lease is up at the end of summer!

So do I still love CDs? A wholehearted YES! They are STIIL just as easy as disposables, STILL easy on the go, STILL worth the washing effort, STILL cheaper, STILL cuter! Our diapers come clean after a hot wash in our community coin machines, as well as my mom's machine. The poo stains bleach out naturally after a day left in front of a bright window. Nova has rarely ever leaked, and only gets occasional redness as mentioned above, which we are remedying with a daily water-only bath plus coconut butter rubdown. I read many reviews of other moms using coconut butter with CDs to no ill effect (most other diaper creams damage CDs!) and so far, the coconut butter seems to be making Nova smoother, less red, AND is washing out of our CDs just fine. Our current stash of 15 shells, (about) 26 soakers, 10 boosters, and 6 backup diapers have been more than enough. We have never run out or needed to use disposables or even our GroVia biosoakers (hybrid disposable inserts that fit into the outer shells), and we have more than enough to fill the diaper bag and to stash at my mom's house for her use.

So while I consider us incredibly lucky, considering we got these as a gift and are able to use free resources for laundry, like my mom's house, I believe ANYONE can use CDs if you truly WANT to. On a budget? Ask for some on your baby shower registry! Buy them used on craigslist or ebay! Buy gender neutral colors to use for future babies! Don't have time for laundry? Try a diaper laundry service! It's so worth it!