Friday, December 30, 2011

Our Year in Ornaments

Malya's Laughter, 2009, Deborah

 I’ve mentioned before that Jeff and I, upon our marriage, joined with his mother and her husband’s family in their tradition of an annual Christmas Ornament Competition. Here’s how it works: each member of the family picks an ornament that represents his or her year, then presents it to the group. The three judges (chosen by the patriarch, my mother-in-law’s husband) then come to a consensus on who had the best ornament, which often means who had the best story. Ornaments can be purchased or made, usually with extra points from the judges for homemade ornaments. Jeff won the competition the first year we participated with his U. S. Constitution, representing why he works for the U. S. Government; I won the third year with my home-made pyramid that represented our move to Egypt, with each side containing a picture of a different significant event in that year. This year, Jeff won again.

Cairo Traffic, 2008, Jeff
I have to admit, my competitive nature does ensure my interest in the results of the competition. But my main interest in this tradition is the memories. At the beginning of the year, I rarely have any idea what the year will bring or what ornament possibly could represent an entire year of my life. But the knowledge of the ornament competition prompts me to pay attention to the year, to look for repeated themes, to be more present in my own life. By late summer, I usually have an idea of the theme that I want the ornament to represent. Then, just as soon as Hallmark and American Greetings start to bring out their ornaments, I’m online, searching away for that perfect one that will capture my year. I love the idea of having these ornaments years from now, looking back and saying “That one’s from the year I volunteered at the orphanage! The first time I heard Malya laugh, she was standing behind me pulling my hair, just like the little bear is standing behind the big one” or “That’s the one Jeff got to commemorate the traffic he put up with every day in Cairo!” I view these ornaments as memory keepers, and each of them is special. I even try hard to pick one for Alexa that represents my best guess of what the year was like for her—although next year, probably she’ll want to pick her own, and it will be “The horse represents my year because I want a pony!” *sigh*

Anyway, without further ado, I present the ornaments that best represent Jeff’s, Alexa’s, and my life this year …

Jeff's 2011 Ornament
Jeff’s ornament is a saddle. That’s right—a saddle, like what you put on a horse when you ride it. He said it’s because this year has been the wildest ride of his life. All things considered, that’s saying something. It started back in January. On 25 January, to be precise. When the Egyptian people began the protests that turned into the uprising that turned into the Revolution that toppled Mubarak from power. The Revolution that caused the American embassy in Cairo to do what we never, in a million years, would have thought we’d have to do: evacuate. Jeff was the only member of our family, one of the few members of the embassy community, who did not evacuate. He spent three months at the embassy with his officemates, the security personnel, and a very few other embassy employees, with much of the time spent under severe movement restrictions because of security concerns. Once that stressful time was ended, he had a month of me frantically trying to get ready for our packout. Then a month of constantly going all over the place, introducing his replacement—his best friend—and his wife to all our favorite places. Then a week in a 1-bedroom hotel suite in the Washington, DC, area, with his wife, his child, two cats, and six huge suitcases’ worth of stuff. Then the summer with all of that, plus a little more stuff, in a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house, with two short side trips. Then a month in a 2-bedroom hotel suite (we learned our lesson!) in the DC area, while our departure was delayed time after time. Then, finally, a trans-American, trans-Pacific flight to his new home, with the last three months or so spent adapting to new coworkers, a new language, a new culture, and a wife who couldn’t seem to remember how to cook. A wild ride, indeed! It’s no wonder Jeff won this year’s competition.

Deborah's 2011 Ornament

My ornament is an airplane made out of Legos. At first glance, you’d think: “Oh, well, she did fly from Egypt to the States alone with an almost-seven-month-old, then from the States back to Egypt alone with an almost-ten-month-old. Then she flew with her husband, an almost-one-year-old, and two cats back to the States. While in the States, there were road trips and a flight to Arizona and back. Then she flew from Baltimore to California to Japan to Bangkok to Phnom Penh. An airplane fits her year pretty well!” But you’d only have half the story. The truth is, I was looking for an ornament to represent homelessness. Because that’s how I felt this year. I was in my home in Egypt, when suddenly I wasn’t. Then I was in my home (my mother’s home, the one in which I grew up) in South Carolina, except that it wasn’t my home anymore. I was in exile from my home, the home I shared with my husband. Then I was in my home, the one I shared with my husband, except that it was painfully clear that it wasn’t really my home because I couldn’t stay there—I had to get ready to leave. Then I was in a series of temporary homes—a hotel, my mom’s house (I am grateful for the hospitality, Mom, and I hope you realize that it doesn’t reflect on you that it just isn’t my home anymore!), a second hotel during a road trip, a third hotel during the same trip, a friend’s house, back to my mom’s house, my mother-in-law’s house, my mom’s house, then back to the first hotel. Finally I was in my new home … except that it in no way felt like home yet. Other than the first month of this year, I’ve felt like a homeless vagabond, a wanderer, with no place that was really mine. But I could find no ornaments that depicted homeless people. So I started looking for one that had something to do with homelessness, maybe one that would benefit homeless people. That’s when I found my ornament. I purchased it online from a family that makes and sells Lego ornaments every year and uses the proceeds to benefit their local homeless population. This year’s profits were going to buy blankets for a local homeless shelter. That’s the full story of my ornament—homelessness plus endless travel equals a Lego airplane.

Alexa's 2011 Ornament

Alexa’s ornament was purchased from either American Greetings or Hallmark. It’s a silver key, with the words “New Home” inscribed on the handle. Like mine, it makes sense at first glance: “Oh, she just moved to Cambodia, so she has a new home.” But that doesn’t represent the entire year. You have to remember, infants are not so much aware of the concept of “future.”  For them, there’s right now, and maybe, just maybe, some inkling that there used to be something different. But whatever there is right now is, in their minds, what always will be. So Alexa did not, and maybe still does not, fully comprehend the concept of “temporary.” Every time we moved, even though Jeff and I knew it was temporary, it was a new home for her. She had a home in Egypt with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then she had a home in South Carolina with Mama, Grandma, Uncle Mike-Mike, and Aunt Kay-Kay, with other family members nearby, but Daddy was just a face and voice on the computer screen, and the kitties were gone. Then she had a home in Egypt again with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then in a cramped hotel suite. Then at Grandma’s house, with Mike-Mike, Kay-Kay, and her other relatives again. Then in a hotel with just Mama and Daddy, but near Great Dee. Then a hotel with just Mama and Daddy. Then at Daddy’s friends’ house, but she didn’t like that home, because she was sick there. Then back to Grandma’s. Then she had another home at her other Grandma’s house. But then she was back to the South Carolina Grandma. And then she had a home in a hotel again, with Mama and Daddy and the cats. And then there was the long trip, in airplanes so similar that she could be forgiven for thinking that it was just one plane, and that it was her home now. And finally, she had a home in a big house with Mama, Daddy, and the kitties, and then her new friend Miing (the polite form of address for children to use with Khmer adults, referring in this case to our housekeeper) started coming over a lot. So how many new homes is that? I lost count! Her entire year was a series of new homes, so a “New Home” ornament seemed perfect for her.

There you have it—our year in ornaments. I think others who were in Cairo at the start of the Revolution will agree that the experiences we all had there and during the evacuation shaped our experience of the year 2011 in ways we did not anticipate. Even now, as I communicate with others who were in Cairo then but who are not there now, a pattern is emerging: many of us seem to be having an especially difficult time settling into our new lives, wherever in the world we are, and the difficulty seems to be positively correlated with how much we enjoyed our time in Cairo and negatively correlated with the amount of time we had in Cairo after the evacuation. In our family, our Christmas ornaments certainly reflect the reality of the Revolution, the evacuation, and a scheduled departure from post that prevented us from settling back into our lives in Egypt and, in our case, prevented us from settling anywhere until the year was almost over. These ornaments perfectly represent our chaotic lives in 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia

Our Nativity
I really did not intend for it to be a full month between posts … but this is what happens when life gets busy, and my life—just like everyone else’s—has gotten very busy in the last month. First our shipment arrived, so my house was crammed with boxes that needed to be unpacked. Then, we still had boxes, but I’d unearthed the Christmas decorations and wanted to put up at least a few. And there was the menu planning, gift ordering, shopping, and finally cooking. But this post is not about the crazy busy month of December—it’s about our first Christmas in Cambodia.

Christmas was much better than Thanksgiving! When Thanksgiving approached, I was so overwhelmed with just getting through general life here that I didn’t have the energy to plan for Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving, I made Christmas planning a priority (although there were a couple of weeks when I was focused mostly on ridding my house of as many boxes as possible!).

Our stockings--the cats' are on the other side
In the past, we've done a very simple Christmas dinner--meatloaf and mac'n'cheese, Jeff's favorite meal. But I actually make that fairly often, at least I did before we moved here, and the beef available here isn't that good. I think I've found a new source that should have better beef, so maybe it'll get good again, but so far, my experience has been that Cambodia ruins meatloaf. So I asked Jeff if he preferred meatloaf or a more traditional Christmas menu, and we decided to go with traditional. I planned the menu for Christmas dinner within just a few days of Thanksgiving, then made the ingredient list. 

Our cat-proof tree

Based on the recommendations of several people, I ordered a smoked ham from Dan Meats, which imports meat from Australia and is the go-to place for cooked hams and turkeys. Most of the other ingredients looked to be available here or were already in my kitchen (a big thanks to my friend who read the Thanksgiving post, realized that canned pumpkin can be shipped APO, and sent me some!), with the exception of sweetened condensed milk, which I could not find in any of the three supermarkets I tried. That was very strange, as Jeff reported that Cambodians actually use the stuff to sweeten their coffee, but I looked high and low and everywhere in between, and I must have just missed it. In all three stores. (Let me just add here ... I miss the commissary!) I found a substitution recipe online and thought that I had everything I needed for that, but it turns out that I didn’t have baking powder. On Christmas Eve, as I was ready to make the pumpkin pie but realized that I was missing the one ingredient (either sweetened condensed milk, or the baking powder for the substitute), Jeff offered to go to the corner store near our house to see if they had it. Sure enough, they did—not the baking powder, either; they had the sweetened condensed milk! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Earlier this month, we took time out to take Alexa to the children’s Christmas breakfast, thrown by the embassy and hosted at the Ambassador’s residence. It was a good morning. There was a large garden where Alexa and the other children could run and play with several toys that had been put out for them, and a large driveway where they could ride the wagons and scooters that also were provided. We feasted on pancakes, French toast, fruit, chocolate chip muffins, and other goodies (including, of course, the coffee that the adults required and the juice that the kids preferred). After breakfast, Santa arrived—in his very own tuk-tuk, painted with an American Pride motif. All the kids were excited ... all except for Alexa and another child or two around her age. We tried to get her
Santa's "American Pride" Tuk-Tuk
 to sit on Santa’s lap, but that was a no-go. So we tried to get her to sit on Mama’s lap beside Santa. We got a picture of her adorable, heartbroken, “Mama, how could you do this to me?” tear-stained face. We decided she doesn’t need to see Santa this year.

Later we went to the Christmas party hosted at the embassy. It was nice, with lots of people, some food and drinks, and a show—the “Embassy Singers” sang Christmas songs and threw in the Hanukkah song, too, just for fun. We left before it got dark enough to turn on the huge display of Christmas lights; Alexa needed to go to bed.

Then we got to Christmas Eve at our place. I’d made the pie crust (from scratch!) the day before, so it was ready to be filled and baked. On Christmas Eve, I finished the pie and made the carrot pineapple salad, a gelatin recipe I’d found online. I also started the Parker House rolls, so they could rise overnight in the fridge.

That night, Jeff and I set out the presents for Alexa. We’d gotten her three gifts: a ride-on train, a toddler-sized armchair, and a new baby doll. Our extended families mailed gifts, but only one made it here in time—a large wrapped box for Alexa from her Grandma Linda. We decided not to wrap any of the gifts from us, because she’s so young. So Jeff assembled the train and got it started charging while I assembled the arm chair and took the new doll out of the box. I placed her in the chair so Alexa could discover them both. We put the wrapped gift off to the side to be opened after Alexa discovered the unwrapped gifts.

On Christmas morning, Alexa woke us up shortly after 6. Not from excitement; she’s not even 18 months yet! She’s just used to waking up early. We tried to get her back to sleep, to no avail. So we got up, and Jeff kept her in the bedroom while I came out to the living room with the video camera. I recorded her walk all the way from the bedroom through the playroom … and then she turned right, toward the kitchen. We usually go to the kitchen for breakfast right after we get up and change her diaper. I wanted her to come straight into the living room to see her presents, which were hiding just around the corner.

Alexa's new baby, Sherry, waiting in her big-girl chair
“Alexa, come look at the tree!” I called out. She changed course, toddled on over, and reached out to touch the tree, completely ignoring the chair and doll right beside it. “Alexa, what’s that beside the tree?” At that point, she noticed the two gifts and walked over to them. She picked up the doll, sat in the chair, and generally acted happy. Then Jeff called her over to where the train was still plugged into the wall, charging.

She’s been wanting us to read The Little Engine that Could quite a bit lately, which may help account for why she seemed so pleased to see the train, even though she didn't seem to know what to do with it. She got excited when Jeff pushed one button to make it choo-choo, and another for the sound of the train crossing. She didn’t even seem to realize that she could ride it, which was just as well because the charging cord goes under the seat and you really shouldn’t sit on it while it’s charging. But she wanted her doll to ride the train, so we got pictures of the new baby sitting on it.

Alexa's new train
Finally, we pulled out the box from Grandma. With a little help, the paper was torn off, the lid was opened, and a teddy bear—about the same size as Alexa—was revealed. Lexa pulled it out of the box, hugged on it, and then took it right over to the train and patted the seat. We got the point: the bear rode the train, with the baby sitting in front of him. Eventually Alexa got to ride it, too, although she much prefers making it make noise while her toys ride it, rather than actually riding it herself. She’s figured out how to work it, but I think it scares her a little.

Papaya from our garden
After Alexa had opened her gifts, it was time to cook. I spent the rest of the morning in the kitchen, not even pausing my dinner preparations when Jeff’s mom called us on Skype—Jeff brought the phone into the kitchen and showed his mom images of Alexa zooming around doing her “I’m not sleepy!” race while we talked over the speakerphone. While I cooked, Jeff watched Alexa. When she got hungry, we strapped her into her booster seat in the kitchen and let her start on the rolls while Jeff cut into the papaya our gardener had presented to us—apparently we have a pepper tree and a papaya tree in our yard! After eating two or three rolls and several slices of papaya, Alexa was ready for a nap, while Jeff and I were just about ready for dinner!

Alexa slept for a while. I finished the dinner preparations and got everything on the table. Jeff and I ate our Christmas dinner with our phones set to the baby monitor app, showing us a live feed from a webcam in Alexa’s room. She woke up before we finished eating, so she came out and ate some ham and other Christmas goodies. She seemed to love everything. Jeff and I thought it was pretty good, too. The pineapple carrot salad hadn’t gelled, probably because I erred in my substitutions, and the rolls were burned on bottom but great everywhere
Our Christmas Dinner
else. The green beans may have been significantly a tad undercooked, but they had a nice flavor. The ham was delicious. The potatoes were yummy. And the pumpkin pie. Oh my word, the pumpkin pie. I will never look at pumpkin pie the same way again—who knew that pumpkin pie could be SO good, without even a hint of the bitter aftertaste that you get with the frozen ones? NOW I understand Jeff’s obsession with pumpkin pie.

After dinner, we cleaned up, then went to a dessert party hosted by an embassy friend. We had a nice time, chatting and gorging ourselves on cookies, cakes, and cobblers. Then we came home, got Alexa in bed for the night, and just relaxed. We kept relaxing for the next several days—Jeff took Tuesday and Wednesday off work, as well as the Monday that was the observed holiday.

There are things I intend to do differently next year. We may find ourselves in a position to go back to the States for R&R around that time. If we don’t, I think I’ll ask my housekeeper to work on Christmas Day. It isn’t a day of significance to her, and she can help with the cooking and keeping the dishes washed, or watch Alexa if Jeff and I both need to do something else. And I’ll try to plan a menu where more of the preparation can be done on Christmas Eve, or even before. If I use a gelatin recipe, I’ll make sure to do a test run. I want next Christmas Day to be less scurrying around the kitchen and more enjoying time with my family. But overall, this Christmas was good.

We're settling in here. I'm figuring out how to make things work. I've found a supermarket I like better than Lucky, even though it's a bit farther away. Alexa adores our housekeeper, and our house isn't big enough to require her to clean the entire time she's here, so she plays with Alexa in the late afternoons, and I get some down time. I've met a few ladies that I'm friendly with, although there isn't yet anyone I'd truly consider a friend--that takes time. We still have boxes in the house, but very few in the main rooms. We have guests coming in less than two months, so we have motivation to clear out the rest quickly! And if we don't do it before, we'll definitely get out and do the tourist stuff while our guests are here. We even intend to visit Siem Reap with them. So we're settling, and Christmas felt much more natural than Thanksgiving did.

I hope each of you also had a good Christmas, wherever in the world you are.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in Cambodia

Our first Thanksgiving in Cambodia has come and gone now. There were highs and lows, and I’ve learned a few things that will help make this Christmas and next Thanksgiving feel more like home. It’s all part of adjusting to life outside the United States …

In Egypt, I knew I was spoiled, but only now am I realizing just how greatly I was spoiled. With the commissary, there was no worry about whether familiar foods would be available. I picked up a frozen turkey, canned cranberry sauce, and all the ingredients I would need for my cornbread dressing, Mom’s sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, crescent rolls, and other sides and desserts. I spent many hours in the kitchen preparing most of the dishes from scratch, never even considering the use of a dressing mix or a gravy packet. Here, this year … well, it was different.

I’ve been exhausted lately, and a little emotional, and I’m pretty sure it has to do with the adjustment to all the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of a new country after experiencing such a tumultuous and stressful year that depleted my emotional reserves. The thought of preparing a huge Thanksgiving meal was overwhelming, even more overwhelming than the first year I hosted a Thanksgiving gathering, roasted my first turkey, or prepared most of the meal myself from scratch (the milestones from each of my three years in Egypt). The shopping alone was daunting, as I haven’t visited all the grocery stores yet and am not certain of what tends to be available and what isn’t. But this is the first Thanksgiving that Alexa has a decent chance of remembering (although I’m betting on next year being the one), and so when friends invited us to share Thanksgiving with them at their home, Jeff hesitated, and I went along with his preference to decline. (The first Jeff knows of my reluctance will be when he reads this blog, so don’t think badly of him!)

I’m not sure why I didn’t start planning for Thanksgiving earlier. I knew it was coming—I prepared for the annual Thanksgiving Day Christmas ornament competition with his mom and stepfather weeks ago. We had ordered a frozen turkey, a frozen pumpkin pie, and cool whip from the commissary in Bangkok, which was due to arrive early Thanksgiving week. But the rest of the dishes … I just didn’t think about them until Tuesday, when the commissary shipment arrived, minus the pumpkin pie (apparently they’d sold out). Maybe it was Jeff’s disappointment at the absence of the pie that made me get in gear and start planning, in hopes of finding a frozen pumpkin pie or at least the ingredients to make one from scratch. So I made my plans for a simplified Thanksgiving meal and wrote out my shopping list.

When I say “simplified Thanksgiving meal,” I really mean it. My plans were to have turkey, dressing, green beans, and some kind of bread for the main meal, and pumpkin pie for dessert. That’s it. With only two adult mouths and one toddler mouth to feed, I figured it would be plenty. The problem arose when I went to the supermarket on Wednesday evening.

As soon as I walked in the door, I saw a couple of ladies that I know from the embassy. I asked them about the two items at the top of my shopping list: dressing mix and pumpkin pie. They responded that dressing mix and frozen pumpkin pies absolutely are not available here. Dressing is made from scratch—which would have been fine, except that I didn’t recall the ingredients mine calls for, and I wasn’t sure if cornmeal was available anyway (it is), and the recipe makes enough to feed an army and is difficult to reduce enough to make sense for a gathering of three. So it became apparent pretty quickly that dressing was off the menu, and I had no idea what to have in its place. Moving on to the pumpkin pie, no problem, I had written down the ingredients to make one just in case. But then … one of the ladies said “Don’t use the pumpkin from the produce section, it’s weird and doesn’t taste good.” And the other followed up with “You can’t get canned here. I get mine and the stuffing mix in my consumables shipment from the States.” Thus began a conversation, the gist of which is that one grocery store that I’d never heard of had canned pumpkin at some point in the past and may or may not have it now but probably not because it is, after all, the day before American Thanksgiving. So pumpkin pie is off the menu … and my heart broke. I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, although I like it okay. But Jeff is. It’s the one dish he eagerly anticipates, and I wasn’t going to be able to provide it for him.

The rest of the shopping is a blur. I couldn’t get the two things I really needed for Thanksgiving, so I just picked up the other, more usual, items. And three boxes of cookies. And four beers. And a cake mix, and chocolate icing to accompany it. And the ingredients for “chocolate crack,” Jeff’s favorite sweet, except that there was no vanilla extract, so I’m not sure how that will turn out when I get around to making it. Anything that struck me as potential comfort food, I grabbed. My Thanksgiving meal was down to turkey, green beans, and whatever improvisation I could manage. I needed comfort food.

On Thursday morning, I put the turkey in the oven and left it for three hours, finally taking it out before the timer popped because it had been in 15 minutes longer than it was “supposed” to need. (It turned out great; the timer popped while it was resting, and the turkey was delicious and juicy.) While it cooked, I settled on mashed potatoes as my third dish, hoping against hope that the potatoes in my fridge were still good, were big enough, and that I had whatever else was required to make mashed potatoes from scratch (I’ve always used a mix). I was thrilled to discover that it required only potatoes, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. I set about peeling, quartering, and boiling the potatoes—I had just enough, after I cut out the brown spots. When they were done, I realized a glaring absence … my potato masher is in a box somewhere at sea. I mashed my potatoes with a spoon and a wire whisk—I think I need a new whisk, and the potatoes were extra chunky, but it worked. After the potatoes were done, Jeff carved the turkey while I popped the canned green beans in the microwave and whipped up the cake mix. Alexa woke from a nap just in time to devour way more than I thought her little tummy could hold (the way she’s been eating, she must be coming up on a growth spurt).

As we sat around the wobbly little table in our kitchen (three people around an 8-person formal dining table just feels lonely), eating our sparse-by-our-standards “feast,” my emotions were conflicted. I missed my childhood home and the large, loud gathering and the 7-plus-dish meal (not counting the three or more desserts!) that I assume happened there yesterday. I felt inadequate because I hadn’t provided that for my husband or for my daughter. But, at the same time, I was and am incredibly thankful for my family, for the food that we eat, for the roof over our head, and for the opportunity to live this crazy nomadic life, even though we do sacrifice some of the wonderful things about life in America that we always took for granted before.

I realized—again!—that it all comes down to choice and compromise. We want this, so we can’t have that. We decide to go here, so we can’t be there. And I decided, again, and probably not for the last time, that I’m okay with the choices we’ve made. This Thanksgiving felt a little out of whack, a little lonely, a little overwhelming in its demands and a little underwhelming in its results. But when we were in Egypt, we didn’t have a Thanksgiving until we’d been there for over six months, made tons of friends, and gotten comfortable in our lives there. Here, it was just too soon, and I was unprepared. Christmas will be better—I’m starting on that menu tomorrow!—and next Thanksgiving will be even better. We’ll settle in, we’ll make more friends, and we’ll feel comfortable in our lives here.

And above all, I won’t stress so much about making it the traditional holiday that I neglect the reason behind the holiday, like I did with Thanksgiving this year. It shouldn’t have been about the meal. It should have been about being thankful. Christmas won’t be about the meal, or the presents, or the decorations that we may not even have yet if our stuff takes a while to clear customs once it finally arrives in-country. It will be about celebrating the birth of our Savior and the Love that sent Him to us. It will be about celebrating faith and love and life with my family.

And so my belated Thanksgiving “I am thankful for” statement is this: I am thankful for lessons learned (again and again, when necessary), for second chances to remember and focus on the important things, and for a God who is willing to teach me and remind me and show me over and over just how greatly He’s blessed me. Even when I feel exhausted, emotional, and overwhelmed.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Take on Cloth Diapers

Bum Genius One-Size Pocket Diapers

A friend of mine, knowing that Jeff and I use cloth diapers on Alexa, sent me an email not too long ago. It was relatively long, and quite humorous to someone who’s “been there/done that,” but it really all boiled down to the first two sentences:

Okay, so I just spent HOURS reading through sites about cloth diapers.  I took pages of notes and am basically just as confused and uncertain as I was when I started.
After I finished laughing at her—and at myself, because I remembered feeling exactly the same way—I typed a long response. I didn’t really answer her underlying question (“Which diapers should I buy?”), because no one can answer that question for someone else, especially when the baby hasn’t yet arrived. But I told her about my experiences, and I think she found it helpful.

I do not by any means claim to be an expert in cloth diapering—those of you who truly are experts will laugh at the limited wisdom I have to share—but it’s possible that my experiences may provide a useful starting point for someone else who is considering cloth but who feels a bit overwhelmed by all the options. For that potential someone out there, I present my response to my friend. Here is my take on cloth diapering.


I'm sorry but when I read this email ... I just had to laugh! I remember feeling the same way.

There are so many different opinions out there because no one system works well for every mom, or for every baby. For some moms, the convenience of all-in-ones (AIOs) outweighs the price; for others, the flexibility of prefolds and covers trumps the less-bulkiness of pocket diapers. And for some babies, one-size (OS) diapers work great, but for others, the leg openings just can't be adjusted quite right. It's trial and error, definitely with each mom, and to some degree, with each baby.
Diapers drying

I would suggest that to get started, you do one of two things:

(1) Based on your research, make a list of different options that you want to try. Then get on eBay, Craigslist, wherever, and find them used (lots of new-diaper stores also sell used). Buy one of each at really good prices, and try them.

(2) Buy a pre-packaged "trial" set that includes a variety; you don't usually get to pick what's in it. The one from Jillian's Drawers is the one that I would have tried had I not ended up buying a bunch of used Bum Geniuses (BGs), because it's the only one I've seen that will let you return what you don’t like. You can order up to 3 months before the due date so you have time for prewashing, and you can keep them for 21 days after the birth--or, in case of adoption, presumably 21 days after the baby comes home. If you like them, you keep them. If you don't, you send them back and get a refund, minus shipping costs and a $10 fee. The link is for the newborn pack, but they have a similar package with larger sizes. Jillians Drawers also has a sample pack of diaper covers if you decide to go with prefolds and covers, and a trial pack of 2 or 3 detergents—we like Charlie's Soap; it's cheaper than the other one we tried (Allenby's, I think), and the only complaint is that it causes some babies to get a rash, but not Alexa, so we're fine with it. (FYI, it is possible to find better prices elsewhere, but I think Jillians Drawers is particularly good for the "don't know what I'm doing, need samplers" phase.)

A third option (not recommended) is what I did: pick something, buy a bunch of them, and hope and pray it works!

Because I went with option #3, I can't tell you much about most of the brands you've looked at. What I can tell you is my experience:

We bought several used Bum Genius (BG) one-size (OS) pocket diapers before Alexa was born. We also bought a lot of unbleached Indian prefolds and the newborn diaper cover sampler from Jillians Drawers, because so many people said that the BGs didn't fit newborns well. Alexa came early; nothing was ready, and nothing was washed. We put her in disposables. By the time we switched to cloth, she'd outgrown all but one of the diaper covers. The BGs didn't fit her well—I thought it was because of her body shape; I realized later that the elastic needed to be replaced.

Imse Vimse Cover: Jungle print
So we ordered the cover sampler pack in the next larger size. It included a Prowrap Classic, an Imse Vimse organic cotton cover, a Thirsties cover, and a Bummis Super Whisper Wrap. At that stage, I liked all of them except the Prowrap. It just didn't fit her well. The Imse Vimse was great because (1) it fit the largest weight
range and (2) it had a huge velcro section on the front, so you could adjust it the same way you can a disposable, by simply putting the tabs wherever they need to go to make it fit well. The others had just a strip of velcro across the front, so they weren't as adjustable. But the Imse Vimse (not 100% organic cotton, BTW, because it has a PUL—polyurethane laminate—waterproof layer in between two cotton layers) was really thick, and a really thick cover on top of a really thick prefold ... way bulky. And urine tended to wick through more than in the others. The Thirsties was great (it eventually became our favorite) because it was a single, thin layer of PUL that didn't add much bulk but that did the job of keeping the mess in. The Bummis also was great, a single thin layer, but less flexible and it didn't have the double leg gussets that the Thirsties had, which for us meant that it was a little more likely to leak ... especially the runny newborn poop. Yuck.

When Alexa outgrew those, we ordered a bunch of Thirsties covers in the next size up, and the next larger size of prefolds.

Throughout most of this, we used disposables at night, because the prefolds and covers just didn't seem
absorbent enough for nighttime use. At some point, I figured out that the elastic on the used BGs was the problem with those and not the BGs themselves, so we ordered two new BGs, and we used those as night
diapers--using the regular insert and the newborn insert as a doubler. They worked great. (Later, when she started wetting more at night, that wasn't enough. We switched to disposables at night again; I still haven’t figured out the best nighttime solution for us, but I’m considering trying a wool diaper—those are very expensive but are supposed to be excellent.)

Around that time, I got really tired of dealing with prefolds. With prefolds, you have to decide how you're going to fold them (there are approximately 1.3 gazillion options), get it on the baby, and then get the cover on too. With a wiggly baby, it can be difficult. I just got tired of it and wanted something simpler. So we ordered more BG OS pocket diapers, and I started using them full time, doing laundry every day. During the evacuation, my mom replaced the elastic on my used ones, so now I have enough to wash them only every other day.

I love my BGs. They fit well, they aren't too bulky, they're simple to use, and they’re easy to wash.

I also have a few BG AIOs that came with the used set. I can use them but don't prefer them. The newer ones may be different, but mine do not have a soft, wick-the-moisture-away-from-the-baby inner lining like the pocket diapers, so they’re less comfortable. They also take approximately ten years to line dry. The pocket diapers have inserts that can go in the dryer, and the covers line dry overnight ... actually less time than that, at least in dry climates.

Bottom line pros and cons of what I've used:
BG4.0 pocket diapers, and an extra insert

Prefolds and covers—PROS: least expensive; most flexible; easy to launder and dry. Although prefolds are sized, so you'll have to buy more, there's a big range that they'll fit. Covers can be sized or OS. CONS: no moisture-wicking layer against baby's skin, annoying to use, especially for babysitters.

Pocket diapers—PROS: super easy to use because they're put on like disposables; the BGs and probably most others have a moisture-wicking layer; dry relatively quickly. Middle price range. Can be sized or OS. CONS: ... let me think ... oh, yeah, don't always fit newborns well, and you’ll have to remember to remove the insert before it goes in the diaper pail, unless you use something like the GoGreen model that has slits in both ends so that the insert agitates out in the wash. (Never used those but read a glowing review here.)
All in ones—PROS: easiest to use; no remembering anything about inserts other than putting a doubler in for nighttime use or if baby's a heavy wetter. Can be sized or OS. CONS: most expensive option; they take approximately ten years to
dry—seriously, overnight didn't cut it, not even in dry-as-dust Egypt, although two nights on the line usually worked. But it felt like ten years when I didn't do laundry frequently enough and I was running low on diapers!

BG All-in-Ones
I understand wanting to get one kind and stick with it, so as not to confuse yourself. That's pretty well what we've done, with the exception of using both prefolds/covers and pockets. (The AIOs function so similarly to the pockets, and are the same brand and everything, that I don't really count them as "different" for learning curve purposes.) I'm really tempted, though, constantly, to buy others. For some reason, I always read the reviews that Mary Grace posts on Books and Bairns. Don't know why, because it always triggers the "grass is greener" response--I really want some of those diapers she's reviewed!  And I think that both Jeff and I could keep a lot of different diapering systems straight ... except that I know Jeff doesn't want to. So I'm sticking with BGs, since that's what we're used to. BUT, I'd say make that your goal for after you've decided what type of diaper you like best. You may even find multiple brands that function similarly enough to be interchangeable—from what I've read, I bet there's little difference between BG and FuzziBunz, for example. It'll be confusing at first. That's just how it is.

But if it's too overwhelming, especially at first, remember that it really won't kill you, baby, or the planet to use disposables for overnight or to give yourself a break to figure things out. Give yourself permission not to be a purist; it's a real sanity-saver!
I think that's everything for now ... probably information overload :) Take your time; digest; if you have questions, ask. Many communities have groups that meet regularly where you can learn about cloth diapers from moms who use different systems. Some doulas, although their primary function is to help moms during birth, also offer classes on cloth diapering. So, if you feel the need, schedule meetings or classes ... but for before baby's born; you won't have time or energy after.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Potpourri II

Baby Bites. When we first arrived here, our sponsor’s daughters filled a bag with items specifically for Alexa. It included a couple of packs of Kraft Easy Mac, some jam, and a few other items. The easy mac benefitted all of us, as it became my backup side dish when I messed up the rice the first time I tried to cook dinner here. But by far, the jewel of the bunch was a snack I’d never heard of, designed for infants aged 6 months and up: Baby Bites. To me, they have no taste at all. Alexa, however, loves them. She eats these thin, oblong, rice husk wafers like I’d eat M&Ms. She recognizes the packaging, both the box and the 2-wafers-inside plastic, and when she sees them, she starts whining and pointing, and if she doesn’t get one immediately, she goes into full tantrum mode. I’m just glad she’s chosen to obsess over a relatively inexpensive semi-local option rather than deciding on the Gerber snacks that also are available, or insisting on her Cheerios, which I haven’t seen here at all.

Damage. My mugs weren’t the only things that arrived damaged. By far, the most heartbreaking was the mugs. The most expensive was a metal trash can, which was dented up something awful, and the foot pedal wasn’t just broken but was missing altogether, not even in the box. The most annoying on a daily basis was the coffee maker, on which a small plastic piece is broken. The piece is one of two that can be used to lift the lid, and it just so happens that it’s the one I naturally try to use most often. Also damaged was a wood cutting board frame, the kind that has a shallow indentation in the top for a plastic interchangeable cutting surface, with a slot underneath to hold several plastic surfaces so you can have one for beef, one for fish, one for veggies, one for bread, and so on. Jeff had to push and press the frame back out so that the plastic pieces would fit into their slot. And the digital food scale apparently endured more than its tolerated 5lb of pressure for too long and won’t work at all anymore; maybe I should have taken the battery out of that before we shipped it. All in all, about half of the things in that box that could be broken were broken. (It’s hard to damage clothing, and the shoes were okay, too, although the boxes were torn up. The small TV, the alabaster piece, the knife set, the ceramic trash can, and the Tupperware-type containers all were unharmed.) I know it’s just stuff, and it doesn’t matter in the big picture. But it does make me angry, and it makes me worry about the rest of our stuff—most especially the rest of the alabaster and the framed papyrus paintings. I’ve been praying for peace, for a relief from the anxiety, but it’s hard. Apparently my stuff means a lot more to me than it really should.

Stripping my diapers. Many of you know that we use cloth diapers with Alexa. One thing that often happens with cloth diapers is that detergent builds up in them, causing them to develop a really nasty smell as soon as they’re soiled—even with urine, not just with poop, although normally I barely smell even a poopy diaper when she’s in cloth—and, in the worst cases, causing them to wick moisture away from the absorbent layer altogether, keeping it trapped against the baby’s skin until it starts to leak. When this problem happens, you strip the diapers. The most common method I’ve heard of involves washing them with a small amount of original Dawn dish detergent, then rinsing them thoroughly. In a year of using them, I’ve never had to strip them. So it didn’t even occur to me to bring some Dawn with me when we moved to Cambodia. Now, apparently the water is harder here or something, because my nose is alerting me that we have a problem with Alexa’s diapers. And Dawn is not available here. I can’t even get it through the APO, because it’s liquid. I can order it from the commissary in Bangkok, but the next shipment from them won’t arrive until late November. If we make a trip to Bangkok for any reason, we can pick some up, but we have no plans to go there. If it comes down to it, a missionary I met—the sister of an awesome doula whose blog I read—has some, and she’s offered to give me what I need. But I hate to take something from her that can’t be replaced, especially when I do have access to it that she doesn’t have, through the Bangkok commissary (it’s against the rules even to give away their products, so I couldn’t even replace what I’d used). So I think I’m going to try the least efficient method first, which is just rinsing them, without any detergent, in cycle after cycle of hot water. It’s going to be a multiday project, and it may not even work. I’ll probably keep Alexa in disposables until I do it, though, because she’s been getting fairly severe diaper rash, presumably from the cloth diapers needing to be stripped. And I don’t want to keep her in disposables, especially not since they’re so expensive here. So I need to get those diapers done … I guess I can always start today, now that my other laundry is out of the wash and in the dryer.

Alexa is becoming a girly girl. She’s always loved for me to brush her hair, even when she didn’t have any. Now she enjoys brushing her own hair—and mine, too!—although she doesn’t always understand which side of the hairbrush she should be using. The icing on the cake is what I discovered just today:  how to get her to sit still for fingernail trimming: tell her that I’m giving her a manicure and making her fingernails “pretty.” At least it worked this time; we’ll see if it works next time. I’ve also started letting her pick out her clothes most days—I have her clothes folded together in matching sets, with short and pant sets (along with the one-piece outfits) in one drawer, dresses in another drawer, and separates in a third. I just open the drawer that contains whatever type of clothes I want her to wear and let her point at her choice. (If we’re doing separates, I pick the pants and then hold up two shirts for her to choose between.) How is that relevant to the girly girl idea? Three-quarters of the time that the choice is available, she chooses one of her very few pink options. Jeff and I are not fans of pink, to put it mildly, so almost all of her pink clothes are gifts* or hand-me-downs. And she chooses them. Instead of the nice greens, blues, and purples we prefer. Sigh. Maybe she’ll grow out of it, in about ten years? *Note to our families: No, this information should not be taken as a reason to buy her more pink clothes! We’ll buy them for her when she asks/points during the shopping.