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.