How to get downtime without a naptime

The other day @parenthacks retweeted a desperate plea from @coquemont, mom of a 2-year-old: “Someone please write Top 10 Ways to Get Downtime With a Tot That Does Not Nap. @parenting @parenthacks I am going crazy.”

Been there.  So here’s my response to her, and to every mom pulling her hair out, desperate for a moment to herself.  Rather than a Top 10 list, I’m going to break it down into strategies (ways to build downtime into your day so that your child is more cooperative with it) and activities (things for her to do independently during downtime).  And yes, there are options other than TV!

Strategies to make downtime happen:

  1. Incentives
    Using an incentive is good for when you need a moment to make phone calls, tend to a sibling, drink a cup of coffee, etc.  Tell your kid, “If you play quietly until the timer rings, then we will [insert favorite activity here].”  Incentives could be anything that will keep her motivated: blow bubbles outside, give her a piggyback ride, go out for ice cream, or even watch TV (if she earns it with good behavior, it’s a reward, not a vice, right??).  Use a kitchen timer or spring for a cool hourglass.
  2. Scheduled quiet time
    OK, she doesn’t nap, but you can put her in her room for 30 minutes of “quiet time” at the same time every afternoon.  It might be a challenge for her to stay there at first, but treat it like a routine (not punishment).  Eventually she’ll get used to playing or reading by herself, which is a valuable skill anyway.  And when all else fails….
  3. Driving
    If you just need some space, not necessarily time to get stuff done, this can be a welcome break.  Sure, driving isn’t exactly downtime, but when your kid is strapped into the car seat, at least he can’t poke at you or make (much of) a mess!  With gas at $4 a gallon this is an expensive strategy, but sometimes a few minutes of peace comes at a cost.  (My favorite driving downtime destination is the drive-through Starbucks a town away.  While you and the kiddo enjoy your drinks, you can sit in the parking lot with a magazine or use Starbucks’ free wi-fi to sneak a little surfing in.)

Your chances of success with incentives or scheduled quiet time are much greater if your kid has an activity that they can do alone and enjoy.  Every child is different, with different interests and capacity for independent play, but here are some ideas you can customize.  I suggest keeping these activities in reserve and ONLY offering them when you need the downtime.

Activities to make downtime last:

  1. Reading
    Even a 2-year-old can flip through books alone for a while, particularly “special” books like flap books and foam puzzle books.  (Costco often carries such items at a big discount.)  If only this worked 100% of the time.
  2. Old-school technology
    Before they even start walking, kids want to be like their parents: they steal our keys, press the buttons on the remote, and pretend to talk on the phone.  If you’re encouraging her to play independently, why not give her an activity that makes her feel more empowered and grown up?  Give her an old tape deck or record player!  Even toddlers can learn that the triangle means play and the square means stop, and the spinning parts are much more interesting than pressing buttons on an MP3 player.  If you don’t have one, check garage sales or your parents’ attic.  Bonus: hearing old records and tapes might bring back some fond memories. (Just don’t give her a one-of-a-kind mix tape from your high school best friend; any media could be destroyed as part of your kid’s “learning process.”)
  3. Smart phone/tablet games
    There’s a reason there are so many iPhone and iPad apps out there for toddlers: they love the touch screen, and it’s a surefire way to keep a kid sitting quietly for a while.  Plenty of sites have “the best apps for toddlers” lists (like Babble or Common Sense Media), or just start with the most popular free apps to test out what kind of activities appeal to your child.  If you don’t have such a device (or don’t want to share your beloved iPhone with your kid), you could consider buying a used iPod Touch on eBay.  In any case, make sure you set your restrictions and disallow in-app purchases.
  4. Kids’ websites and computer games
    Check out Common Sense for ratings of age-appropriate and educational websites.  My favorites are for younger kids — there are themed educational video playlists as well as simple toddler-targeted games — and for preschoolers.  Yes, it’s screen time, but in small doses and with the right content, screen time can be educational (and it doesn’t hurt for today’s kids to learn to use a keyboard and mouse/trackpad).  Tip: if you can’t stand to hear Elmo singing “Wheels on the Bus” one more time, consider purchasing a pair of children’s headphones, and spin them as a special treat you only break out for downtime.  And when all else fails…
  5. Television
    @coquemont seemed frustrated that the only suggestion she received was to plunk her kid in front of the tube.  It’s not your only option, but it’s a strategy that’s worked for generations.  Personally, I doubt there’s much harm in allowing TV occasionally and mindfully.  In our house, we save movies for a rare treat, allowing education-focused programs more often.  Sesame Street is still my favorite for 2-year-olds; Super Why! is a current favorite for my preschooler.

(Yes, most of the suggestions rely on electronics of some kind; I assume that you’ve already exhausted all your toy and craft project options.  For other activities with little ones, check out the great suggestions offered by the Rookie Moms.)

One final thought: as with most difficult childhood phases, it gets better!  Now excuse me, I have to tell my son it’s time to put away the iPad.

Do you have ideas for other ways to create downtime with your little one?  Please leave a comment.

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On anonymity

Be aware that anyone and everyone can read your words. The last person you would ever want reading your website will eventually find and read your website.

This advice from Heather Armstrong of Dooce appeared in a article on the best blogging tips for mom bloggers.  And it sums up why I identify myself only by the pseudonym decafmom.  I believe that to be a good blogger, you need to create a sense of intimacy by sharing personal anecdotes and telling an honest, authentic story. (Incidentally, this paraphrases several bits of advice appearing in the Babble feature. Many others warn against saying too much about your kids.)  I am acutely aware that my husband’s boss, my mother-in-law, and someday, my kids (and their friends!) could read my blog. That awareness breeds paranoia that personal anecdotes could be misconstrued — or worse, resented — by the people who mean the most to me. If my name were attached, that paranoia would completely paralyze my ability to blog anything. So, I’m just decafmom.

If you know me in real life, welcome! I’m glad you’re here, and I’d be happy to talk about this project in person. But please, don’t tell the internets who I am. I’d like to see where this blog goes.

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Easy Recipe: Instant Healthy Ice Cream

If you were to ask me my worst food vice – the thing I indulge in with minimal health benefits (so red wine and dark chocolate wouldn’t qualify, of course!) – it would be ICE CREAM, hands down.   Nothing caps off a day for me like a little dish of ice cream after dinner.  I used to keep a carton in the freezer at all times; I started stocking single-serve portions and ice cream sandwiches because I just can’t resist sneaking an extra spoonful or two, but the extra calories always set me back on my weight-watching efforts.  Only this instant healthy ice cream has helped me break the habit.

So in a way, this recipe has changed my life.  It is creamy and flavorful, and satisfyingly reminiscent of soft serve ice cream.   It’s ready instantly, without an ice cream maker, and I can easily keep the ingredients on hand.  And as a bonus, it’s a great use for ripe bananas that doesn’t involve a (delicious but dangerous) loaf of banana bread!

Of course, because this doesn’t contain the sugar and fat of real ice cream, you can indulge in a little topping as well, like honey or Trader Joe’s Midnight Moo Chocolate Syrup.  My son loves this treat with a little real maple syrup, just like in the book Sugar on Snow!

Instant Healthy “Ice Cream” (Vanilla)
1 1/2 ripe bananas, peeled and frozen
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup milk (any kind), plus more if needed

Roughly chop frozen bananas.  Place in a blender or food processor (I use a Mini Prep Plus) with the vanilla and milk.  Pulse the mixture, pushing down once or twice with a spoon. Process until smooth, adding more milk if it’s too thick.  Spoon into bowls and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.  You can easily add or subtract half a banana, but a Mini Prep won’t do well with more than 2 bananas.

The Vanilla is simple and wonderful, but I’ve been experimenting with some delicious and easy variations, too…

Dark Chocolate “Ice Cream”
Add before blending:
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (highest quality you can afford – I like Ghirardelli)
tiny pinch of kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon finely ground or instant coffee

The coffee is totally optional, but it really enhances the dark chocolate flavor!

Stracciatella (Italian Chocolate Chip) “Ice Cream”
Melt a small handful of chocolate in the microwave for about a minute, stirring every 20 seconds.  (Guittard chocolate chips or a square of a Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bar will work great.)

Once the ice cream mixture is smooth, drizzle the melted chocolate into the food processor and pulse.  The chocolate hardens into fine strands of delicate crunchy bits, just like in Italian Stracciatella gelato.

Espresso-Cinnamon “Ice Cream”
Add before blending:
1/2 teaspoon finely ground or instant coffee (more or less to taste)
sprinkle of cinnamon
tiny pinch of kosher salt

The coffee I use for my espresso machine (ground on 2 at Starbucks) is fine enough to make a smooth, speckled ice cream.  If you don’t use instant or Starbucks Via, make sure your coffee is finely ground and powdery, or you’ll end up chewing on coffee bean bits.

Pumpkin Spice “Ice Cream”
Add before blending:
1/4 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or cinnamon/nutmeg/ginger/whatever you like)
Reduce milk to 2 tablespoons, depending on moisture content of the pumpkin

Any other suggestions for fun variations and toppings?  Please leave a comment!

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Preschool Snack Guidelines

My son’s preschool held a picnic last week, and each family brought a snack to share with the other kids.  Of the seven snacks offered, four were from the cookie/cracker family, and one was kettle corn; the other two snacks were strawberries and sliced cheese.  I told myself I was overreacting when I silently balked at the array of high-sugar, low-fiber, highly processed carbs (animal crackers, Teddy Grahams, Wheat Thins) and lack of filling foods.  But then two things happened: 1) a teacher opened a container of baby carrots for herself, and half the kids clamored for them! and 2) after eating 2 slices of cheese and a plateful of everything else, my son returned to the table, hungry again, 30 minutes later. I felt vindicated… then worried.  Did the other parents realize the impact of these “empty” snacks?

As an avid (compulsive? rabid?) label-reader, I’m very thoughtful about what I feed my family.  And maybe spending time at Fed Up With Lunch, and reading about the nutritional travesties our children are fed as early as preschool, has made me extra-sensitive to children’s nutrition lately.  Do other parents get this riled up about their kids’ food?  I believe most parents care about what their kids eat.  But I bet many parents aren’t aware of the ill effects that certain choices can have. So what kind of food will my son be eating when the parents take turns providing snacks for preschool this year?

This is an awareness issue, and we have to get the word out. I’m no nutritionist, but I’ve put a lot of research and thought into a food policy; I want to share it to help parents think about snacks in a new way!  My philosophy employs two simple principles: avoid ingredients that are unnecessary or potentially harmful, and strive for balance.  Here are my guidelines, and because education is key, I’ve included why each one is so important.

  1. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. This recent Princeton study concludes that HFCS promotes more weight gain than sugar, and plenty of articles contend that it prevents us from feeling satisfied so we eat more.  (Of course there’s some debate about these accusations, but I’ve seen enough to convince me that it’s not worth the risk.)
  2. Avoid artificial colors and flavors. They are linked to ADHD and behavior problems in children, not to mention cancer.  The CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) has called on the FDA to ban several common dyes for those reasons.
  3. Limit hydrogenated oils. An item that has “0g” of trans fat can actually have up to 0.5g of trans fat per serving. Trans fats are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues; this WebMD article states that consumption should be strictly limited.
  4. Limit excessive sugar and fat. Treats should be a treat, ideally offered at the discretion of the parents, not a mainstay of preschool snack time.  (I’m not going to be a stickler about birthday cupcakes, though.  A few celebratory cupcakes over the course of the year is fine with me!)  And of course, sweetened foods should be avoided when an appealing unsweetened variety is available, as with peanut butter and applesauce.
  5. “Grains” or “carbs” (bread, crackers, pasta) should have fiber. Otherwise they are just an insulin spike — and sugar crash — waiting to happen, and they aren’t filling at all.
  6. Go organic for “dirty dozen” produce. The dirty dozen are the twelve fruits and vegetables with the worst pesticide contamination, which carries a host of health risks.
  7. Strive for balance. A snack isn’t a pile of crackers.  It might be a few crackers with a slice of cheese or a protein, plus some veggies or fruit.  [Note: Veggie Straws are not veggies, and juice is not a fruit.]  Though obsolete, the four food groups (fruit/veg, protein, grain, dairy) come in handy when ensuring a balanced meal or snack; this blog post has some great suggestions for achieving balance in a kid’s lunch.

Of course every family is different.  Most families have budget considerations.  Some only have access to one grocery store with limited options.  Some kids might require extra calories, so their parents would rather have them eating “junk” than nothing; other kids are “problem feeders.”  But even applying a few of these guidelines can create more wholesome and satisfying preschool snacktimes, and begin to teach our kids (and parents) to make healthier choices.

The scary and most frustrating thing to me is the number of popular, mass-market foods that violate these guidelines.  Many parents seem to trust these national brands, but they are actually the worst culprits!  A few examples of common preschool snacks:

So what’s a parent to do?  Start by reading labels: for example, Dannon Danimals yogurt is made with all natural ingredients, whereas Yoplait’s Go-Gurt has HFCS and artificial flavors (though sugar content is still an issue with both).  If possible, shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, stores that are committed to products with only natural ingredients.  If cost or availability is an issue, walk down your supermarket’s “organic” or “natural” aisle to check for specials; even Target carries brands like Kashi and frequently has sales and coupons for it.  Ultimately, parents have to make the decision about what’s best for their families; I just want it to be an informed one.  Especially if those parents are feeding my kid at school this year.

Please comment and let me know what you think of these guidelines!  Are they realistic or too stringent?  Nutritionists, I’d love your feedback, too!

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Product pick: Hard-boiled Egg Molds

Plenty of parenting blogs are talking about ways to make school lunches more fun.*  A friend told me about this one, which may be my favorite idea so far: egg molds!  Who knew that you could turn a hard-boiled egg into a car, a star, or even a fish?!

Here’s how it works.  Peel a freshly hard-boiled (still hot) egg, pop it into the egg mold, and stick the mold into an ice-water bath.  Once the egg cools, it comes out of the mold in an adorable, cartoony shape.

My friend notes that it’s easier to peel the hot egg under warm water.  And according to a reviewer on Amazon, you can even add food coloring to the ice water to impart some color to the egg.  (When I try that, I’ll use beet juice or turmeric rather than the artificial stuff.)

I got my car and fish egg molds as a set on Amazon for around $5.  They also have star/heart and rabbit/bear sets.  How’s that for a fun addition to a kid’s bento lunch?

*A few other posts about packing a fun lunch are listed in my recipe for Lunch Pancakes. I’m also excited to participate in the blog party over at Fed Up With Lunch!

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Report: Activities from the Rookie Moms

Last week, I confessed that I hate the park.  I also challenged myself to try three activities suggested at to break out of a rut of same-old everyday activities with my 3-year-old son.  Here’s what I tried and how it went.

1. Activity #580: String up straws for a preschooler’s necklace
This seemed like a sure win for us, since BB loves straws.  I called him over to his Learning Tower to watch me chop them up, then I set him loose with a bowl of “beads” and some giftwrap cord.

Result: Turns out, my son isn’t quite patient enough to thread these by himself, nor is he excited enough about dress-up to be motivated by the promise of a cool necklace.  So, this was not an activity to start him on while trying to prepare dinner.  However, once I had the time to help him, he finished a complete necklace. He was excited to show it to his dad and then bedeck his stuffed triceratops with it.  I’ll definitely keep the rest of the “beads” to try this again if we need a quiet activity while LB is sleeping.

Surprise twist: BB decided that he was building not a necklace but a train, even noting which bead was the caboose.  I could probably get some mileage out of that next time.

2. Activity #589: Tape up a train track for your toddler
Given BB’s interest in trains these days, a “life size” train seemed like a great idea.  Alas, I lacked tape.  However, inspired by the post, we built a train using a kid-size chair, a laundry basket, several folded blankets, a baby playmat (so LB could ride on the train too), and an ottoman.

Result: The train is still set up in our dining room, and we make regular trips to make-believe destinations.  Awesome.

Surprise twist: Having all the blankets out inspired us to build a fort, too!

3. Activity #240: Make a little video
After summer preschool, BB ended up with about a dozen ocean animals he’d made out of paper plates, brown bags, and googly eyes.  The animals are adorable, but there is no way I can justify the space to store these things.  So I decided to make a video of them instead.  We set up a blue blanket as an “ocean” backdrop, and BB was to show off each of the animals.

Result: We had some fun producing the video, though it is hard to get a 3-year-old to stay on topic — and he wanted to watch the movie rather than record it. Still, we managed to capture his craft projects for posterity, and we enjoyed watching it back on the computer (over and over again).

Thanks to the Rookie Moms for providing the inspiration to break us out of our rut.  We still need to find ways to get out-and-about and exercise without visiting the dreaded park.  But for days in, and during LB’s naps, it’ll be easier to resist the TV temptation knowing that there are plenty of clever activities to try.

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Easy Recipe: Lunch Pancakes

My son loves pancakes.  On lazy Saturday mornings, we’ll sometimes whip up a batch using Trader Joe’s multi-grain pancake mix, and he’ll eat more than my husband.  On the rare occasion that we go out to breakfast, he’ll devour the Mickey Mouse pancake off the kids’ menu and then start in on mine.  His grandmother gave him the book Curious George Makes Pancakes, and he adores it.  Of course, even though I avoid the just-add-water mixes (which are often full of trans fats and who knows what else), traditional pancakes are still a carb-heavy, imbalanced meal.  So, as much as we love them, they are a rare treat around here.

However, I recently discovered that BB loves pancakes even if they aren’t cakes, per se.  If they are round and flat and cooked in a frying pan, he is a fan.  And that’s how I developed my formula for “lunch pancakes” — made with eggs and little more than leftovers!  The eggs bind everything together, providing protein while serving as a vehicle for healthy ingredients like sweet potato, whole-wheat pasta, and even spinach.  They are quick to make and easy to customize for what you have on hand and what your kid likes.  (And I personally think they are quite tasty; I’ve even made them for dinner for adults!)

Lunch Pancakes: the basic formula (amounts are estimated)
2 eggs
1/2-3/4 cup pre-cooked starch such as potato, sweet potato, or spaghetti
1/4 cup chopped vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, or spinach), pre-cooked fresh or thawed-out frozen, optional
2 tablespoons cheese, optional
pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients and mix well; batter should be thick.  Heat a frying pan to medium-high and coat lightly with cooking spray or melted butter.  Pour dollops of batter onto hot pan, spreading with the back of a spoon to desired size and thickness.  When bottoms are golden and tops are partially cooked, flip and finish cooking as you would pancakes.

Sweet Potato Pancakes
2 eggs
1 small or 1/2 large cooked sweet potato, mashed
Savory variation: grated parmesan cheese, ground sage
Sweet variation: ground cinnamon/nutmeg, dash of real maple syrup, sprinkle of mini chocolate chips
Dipping sauce: applesauce or real maple syrup

Baked Potato Pancakes
2 eggs
1/2 large baked potato, mashed
chopped cooked broccoli and/or cauliflower
cheddar cheese
Dipping sauce: ketchup, sour cream, or even applesauce

Spaghetti Pancakes
2 eggs
1/2 cup cooked whole-wheat spaghetti, chopped in varying lengths
frozen chopped spinach, thawed
grated parmesan cheese
basil or other herbs, optional
Dipping sauce: marinara

For dinner the other day we had whole-wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce (which contained spinach and crumbled garlic-herb chicken sausage).  The next day I chopped up the leftovers and added eggs and some grated parm, and cooked it as pancakes.  It totally worked, even with the sauce.  BB ate every bit from his preschool lunchbox.

And speaking of lunchboxes… with back-to-school season upon us, everyone* seems to be writing about healthy school lunches that kids will actually eat.  Turns out these egg-based lunch pancakes are delicious cold, and there are easy ways to make them even more fun:

  • Cut circles into “pancake sticks” and provide dipping sauces
  • Use pancake molds for fun shapes; I use egg rings to get a perfectly circular, slightly thicker pancake
  • Allow kids to sprinkle toppings onto the batter in the pan: chocolate chips, tomatoes, shredded cheese…

Give it a try and let me know what you think.  Can you come up with other winning variations?

*Just a few I’ve come across recently: Bento Box Basics for Back-to-School How Do YOU Pack a “Hip” Lunch? How to pack a kickass preschool lunchbox What to pack in your child’s lunchbox?

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I hate the park.

There, I said it.  I’m a stay-at-home mom to an almost 3-year-old boy, and I hate going to the park.  It could be that this germophobic mom can’t handle the dirt… or that the trouble to slather sunscreen on this fair-skinned family isn’t worth the struggle… or that splintery “tan bark” invariably ends up as make-believe spaghetti or cookies to fake-eat (yuck)… or that it’s unfathomable to keep up with my adventurous preschooler on the playground while keeping the 4-month-old safe (ding! ding! ding!).  Whatever the reason, when we need a quick cost-effective outing, going to the park is at the bottom of my list.

Without the park as a standby, we need to be creative about other cheap (free) outings that are close to home and require a minimum of preparation.  The outing should allow us to get the wiggles out, keep both kids safe and happy — and ideally educated and germ-free — and still be home in time for dinner.  And let’s be honest, it should not make me want to scream or cry of frustration or boredom; I scream and cry enough as it is.

I wrote down a list of my favorite quick-outing destinations:

  • Public library
  • Starbucks
  • Target (clearly I really dislike the park if I’d rather wrangle two kids in Target)
  • Downtown (bookstore/local bakery/ice cream shop)
  • Grandma & Grandpa’s house

Is that all?  Really?  My poor kids.

Then I wrote down a few more ideas that might be farther afield or require a bit of advance planning:

  • Zoo
  • IKEA
  • Gymboree/My Gym/Little Gym free-play time
  • Local beach

These would have been great when BB was an only child, but I get a little twitchy thinking about trying these with LB along.  No wonder I’m having trouble keeping BB entertained.

Then last week I stumbled across  Moms who have a book and a website about what to do with your kids to keep everyone from going stir-crazy!  What a revelation!  What’s sad is that I own The Rookie Mom’s Handbook, even met the authors at a local baby boutique!, but I haven’t once used them as a resource.  So, here’s my goal this week: try 3 activity suggestions from the Rookie Moms and report back on how it went.

Have any parents out there figured out how to entertain a preschooler with an infant in tow?  Without going to the park?!  Please chime in!

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The Decaf Mom phase

It was my first outing with the new baby, our first child. We strolled to our neighborhood Starbucks, where we introduced our son to our favorite barista and the store manager. In an adorable gesture of congratulations, they wrote “Mom” and “Dad” on our cups instead of our names.  I love the crummy cameraphone pic of that moment.

There are lots of ways, some more trivial than others, to mark the eras in your life: what color your hair was, or where you were living, or whom you were dating.  For me, I can basically sum it up with coffee.  For example, there’s the Gloria Jean’s Ice Cap phase (bought at the mall in junior high, of course); the midnight French press phase (I get the shakes just thinking about how caffeinated I was in college); the espresso-before-I-could-get-out-of-bed phase (thanks in large part to the espresso machine wedding gift, and my husband who fired it up at sunrise every day, this marked both my newlywed and my serious career era).

And since starting TTC in 2006, it’s been the decaf phase.  I made an effort to taper from regular to decaf, trying to avoid the debilitating caffeine withdrawal headaches.  Then once I was off caffeine, that was it; now, a barista forgetting to mark the “X” in the decaf box can send me spinning miserably for the rest of the day.  This decaf phase is a permanent arrangement.

But who measures out her life with coffee spoons?*  Well, I do.  I build memories, experiences, relationships around coffee. And to me, struggling every day as a harried stay-at-home mom, a simple pleasure like coffee is especially meaningful. Starbucks is my refuge; sitting down with a cup of coffee is my respite.

So I’m a decaf mom.  I gave up the buzz for my babies, and I’m glad I did… but making the switch has, I’ll admit, caused more headaches that I’d expected.  Here’s hoping that sharing a virtual cuppa with some kindred spirits will help me get through, and maybe I’ll even be a better mom for it.

*With apologies to Prufrock and TS Eliot.

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