Saturday, September 29, 2012

Travel: Teaching Fiscal Responsibility at (almost) Any Age

I've said it in previous posts and I'm sure I'll say it in future posts: We travel a lot. We're not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we do what we can to make travel work for us.
Here's why: My parents lived the traditional dream: They'd talk at the dinner table and before bed about all the places they wanted to visit when Dad retired. Unfortunately, dreams don't always come true. After Dad retired, he was still substitute teaching. The idea of never going back into a classroom to teach again was too much for him to take and substituting offered him a chance to slowly cut back. In 2006, 6 months into his retirement, his vision (which had always been poor) started to leave him altogether. He had cataract surgery and didn't regain his sight. He was sent for additional tests and they found a stage 4 inoperable glioma (brain tumor). Within 3 months, Dad was gone. My mother and I were crushed. He never got the chance to go back to New Zealand. He never got to take a cruise. He worked so hard to prepare for the travel he wanted to do and never got to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Together, we pledged that we would not meet the same fate. We knew that Dad would have wanted us to go on without him and to do what he was unable to do. We started with Hawaii and we haven't stopped.

 This travel-heavy mentality is not an inexpensive one. Since we aren't wealthy, we've had to prioritize and figure out how to make travel work for us. Here are some of our top tips for parents who want to travel with their kids:

1. Make Travel a Priority. Know where you're going, when you're going, and how much you need to save in order to meet that goal. Example: The latch that opens the trunk of my husband's car hasn't worked in nearly a decade. We could fix it... or we could make do and travel more. That latch isn't getting fixed any time soon. The shower in our Master Bathroom is broken. The whole thing has to be ripped out so the cracked pan beneath it can be replaced. We could pay someone else to do the demolition on the shower... or we could rip out all that old tile ourselves and save some money for travel. We've busted out over half of that tile already. We know our goals. We know that our next trip will be in October 2013, that it will include our whole family (Grandma included) as well as some friends, and that we need to save at least $450/month for the next year so that we can do everything we want to do while we're away. We know what it takes to make that happen. We may take on extra jobs for awhile. We may put a complete stop to dining out and seeing movies in theaters for a month or two. Christmas will include things that the kids will want for the trip (Pin Trading pins, Disney Gift Cards, etc). We will be having breakfast in our resort room most mornings during our travels & we have planned for that by arranging for our transportation to take us to a grocery store before our hotel. We know what we have to do to make it work for us.

2. Invest in Your Passport. This is very important: DO NOT invest in your children's passports until you're actually ready to use them. If your child is at least 16 years old, go ahead and get their passport when you get yours. Any younger than that and you'll likely be throwing money away. Passports for U.S. citizens 16 years and older are valid for 10 years. Citizens under 16 must renew their passports every 5 years. So why should you get yours before you get your children theirs? PASSPORTS ARE EXPENSIVE. For Christmas or your Anniversary this year, talk to your spouse about getting each others passports. The gift of true mobility. It's sexier than you think. Once you've got your passports taken care of, it won't seem like such a horrific cost to get the kids passports when you're ready to go. Click here for more information on obtaining your U.S. Passport.

3. Examine Your Bucket List. If you don't have a bucket list yet, you might want to think about sitting down and making a list of things you want to do and places you want to visit before you meet your end. It doesn't have to be about the length of your life! You can easily call this part of your 5 Year Plan. Once you've figured out your travel priorities, find out which ones match the travel priorities of your loved ones. If, for example, Italy shows up in everyone's Top 5 - you know where you're going!

With my friend Mobley in Costa Rica
 4. Research! Research! Research! Memorable travel doesn't have to do with how much money you spent or how long you got to play hooky from work or school. Memorable travel has everything to do with the quality of the memories you're creating. Aim to do something completely new every time you vacation. You can do this with Stay-cations, too. How many people have actually visited all the highest rated tourist attractions in their home town? Not many. Examples of our memorable travel events: Swimming with sharks (in a steel cage) off the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Bungee jumping off of the Harbour Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand. Tricking the kids into trying "Beverly" at Club Cool (EPCOT) while visiting Disney World. During my solo travels, I've also collected some great memories. I'll never forget befriending a choloepus sloth named Mobley in Costa Rica or being invited to an underground music venue by members of a folk band in Seattle because they liked my karaoke chops. These experiences are priceless! Seek out activities that take you off the beaten path. Find out what other families thought about the activities you're considering. Make sure your activities are family friendly. If there are a lot of things you want to do without the kids, research the expense of bringing along a friend or parent to help watch the kids. The more research you do before hand, the less chance you'll have a nasty shock while traveling (Did you know a 2 ltr bottle of Coke is $6 in New Zealand? Yeah... neither did we).

5. Travel During the Off Season When you're doing that research I mentioned, you need to take a little time to figure out when Off Season is at your destination and WHY it is the Off Season. If it is, say, Hurricane Season... you're better off paying the extra to go during the busy season. If it is, however, just because that's when the weather is changing or kids have just gone back to school, this may be your ticket to huge savings. You may even find that you prefer Off Season travel. We tend to. Hawaii? Yup. New Zealand? Kind of. It's cold. Swimming is no longer an option. Disney World: YES! October can't be beat.
So it just depends. If your kids are doing great in school and a week away wouldn't hurt them academically, see if your vacation can count as an Educational Leave. We were able to count a week at Disney World in 2010 as Educational Leave (which does not count against you for truancy purposes, but still counts against their attendance record for any awards given at the end of the year) because we spent multiple days learning about science and social studies at EPCOT. We brought back tiny gifts for all the kids in their classes and slightly larger gifts for all the teachers & teaching assistants. The teachers were more than happy to sign off on our Educational Leave. As for the financial side of things; The season you travel in can make a huge difference. Example: We originally planned Jaime's big trip next year for March. Spring Break. Oops. When we found out Baby was on the way and that my due date was the same date our cruise was set to depart, we started bargaining with Jaime for other trip times. She loves Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and October gives us enough time to recover from having a baby, so we started researching October. If we take our cruise and week at Disney World in October (Off Season) instead of March (Spring Break), we save $2000+ on the trip! That's even including the additional cost of adding a person (since babies need tickets on cruise ships, too). Instead of a trip for 5, we're getting a trip for 6 and we're saving buckets of cash. The cruise is cheaper in October. The hotel is cheaper in October. The flights are cheaper in October. Off Season is the way to go. 
6. Condos instead of Hotels Booking a hotel can be very stressful for a family of 5 or more. Most hotel rooms have a maximum occupancy of 4. Add one more person and you're actually adding a whole new room to your reservation. Double the rooms, double the price. This is why we often look into booking Condos and unused Timeshares when we travel. They often accommodate more people. We've found amazing deals on multiple islands in Hawaii, all around Bear Lake, Idaho, in Orlando, in upstate New York, Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming... all over. Condos may not have all of the amenities of full service hotels, but we haven't minded. Nobody is going to come in and clean your room daily, but that also means that nobody will come in and move your toddler's stuff. No worry of a potential tantrum there. Many include Pack N Plays or high chairs if you ask. Most condos include kitchens, too - which can be a life saver when all your kid wants is a sandwich or a bowl of Top Ramen. Hitting up the grocery stores & stocking a condo will save you money. I promise.

The back porch of our condo on the Big Island of Hawaii
Traditional post-nap Cheetos lunch in our condo on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii

(They'll kill me for posting that photo, but I couldn't help it. I love their tired faces!)

The next set of tips directly involve your children. 
They teach important life lessons while they're keeping your budget under control.

1. The "One Special Thing" Plan: We do a lot of theme parks. In addition to our multiple Disney visits, we live less than an hour's drive from Lagoon. While we love Lagoon, we do not love the price tag associated with all the prizes and treats. Because it's close to home, the kids know that we don't expect them to need any toys or trinkets in order to remember their time there. Because they know our expectations, they don't ask. Begging to play the carnival barker games, however, is something we've never been able to avoid. Here's our line: "Okay. I understand that you want to play that game. Keep it in mind. If, at the end of the day, that turns out to be the One Special Game that you really want to play, we'll let you play it." It's great. You're not saying no... but you're not caving in to every whim, either. It's very hard for a child to argue when you haven't actually said no. If they do start to argue, you can always follow it up with a kind-voiced, "Well, I didn't say 'no' before because you were behaving so well. I hope I don't have to change my mind." That usually does it. For bigger trips like New Zealand and Disney Parks, we've developed a similar "One Special Thing" script. Example: "Okay. I'm really happy that you found something that you want. That's great! Just keep it in mind and on the last day, if that's what you have decided you want most, we'll come back and get it. It can be your One Special Thing." Not only do we avoid an overload in our luggage, but we also save a ton of money on stuff they don't really care about. The kids learn to value the items they choose, too. It teaches patience and the ability to prioritize. Also important: Our kids know there are limits to what they can ask for. If an item is more than what we've budgeted for their "One Special Thing", they have to make up the difference with the money they've saved up for vacation.

2. Vacation Points. We've had chore lists and such, but until the Vacation Points system was introduced to our home, the kids didn't really care for the chore list prizes. Chores are now assigned Points Values that can be redeemed for travel related prizes. Example: Jaime has the worst time keeping her room clean. She can earn 30 points by spending the day cleaning all the toys, clothes, and garbage off of her bedroom floor, off of the floor in the closet, and off of the top of her dresser. It's a hard job, so it's worth a lot of points. If she keeps it clean for a week after the big clean up, that's another 20 points. If either of the kids give up all sugary drinks (opting for milk or water instead) for one week, that's worth 10 points. They can also earn 5 points every time they walk or run a mile on the treadmill without stopping. The rule there is that they have to go at a minimum speed of 2.0 and a maximum speed of 4.5 (injuries are sad). If they can do two miles without stopping, I usually give them a total of 11 points. We can add or subtract jobs as needed. A couple of weeks ago, everyone had been sick: Disinfecting all the doorknobs upstairs was worth a bonus point. Trying new foods without complaining is often worth a bonus point. Resolving an argument without yelling or tattle-telling is worth a point for each of them.

What exactly are these points worth?
It varies. Here are some of the prizes currently on our prize board:

- DJ POWER: During our next road trip, you can sit shotgun & control what we listen to for 1 hour per DJ POWER token you’ve earned! Note: Driver can still control the volume.
1 Hour Token = 15 points
Note: Our kids are both old enough to legally ride up front.

- EMAIL: Your own email address for keeping in touch with friends from school & new friends you may meet while on vacation. 40 Points
Note: This was extremely valuable to both of our kids. Zoey gave up soda and hit the treadmill hard to earn this quickly. Jaime wanted it, too, so there were days when it seemed that treadmill was on more often than it was off. We love offering prizes like this and DJ Power because they don't cost us a dime!
We have rules regarding their email addresses. We set them up (using their first initials in place of their first names) and we keep the passwords. If the kids are caught changing their passwords or if we cannot access their accounts, they lose all computer privileges for a week and they have to change the password back. They can only email people we've approved, too. So far so good. They send Grandma a lot of messages. We feel much safer giving new friends an email address that can easily be deactivated than our home address.

- $20 CASH: 100 points

- BUSINESS CARDS: A 100 pack of personalized business cards with your photo on them. If you have also earned your email address, we will add it to the cards. The cards may not include your home address, but can include your phone number.
Note: These are cool because it helps the kids stay in touch with friends from around the world that they meet while traveling. It's a great way to exchange info with kids at school, too. You can make custom cards with photos for a reasonable prize at You can use other sites like VistaPrint, but you get what you pay for. Zazzle is great for quality & price.

Add photos to your prize sheet.
- NINTENDO 3DS: 725 Points

- $50 Disney Gift Card: 100 Points
(We get kickbacks on these when we buy them through my husband's work, so it's better for us than giving them cash.)

- ARCADE BUCKS: Our cruise ship and our resort at Disney World have arcades. You can use your points to earn credits at the arcades!
4 pts = $1
18 pts = $5
30 pts = $10
60 pts = $22

- TRADING PINS: Pin trading will be available at Disney World and on our Disney Cruise!
 5 Pts = 1 Pin
15 Pts = 4 Pins
25 Pts = 7 Pins
100 Pts = 40 Pins
(Note: We've participated in Pin Trading in the past and the kids love it. It's a great incentive for them. If you buy your pins at Disney, you're going to spend a fortune. I highly recommend purchasing your pins in bulk, 6 months in advance, via eBay. Just make sure you're getting official Disney Pins.)

-THE SEAS AQUA TOUR: Guests swim on the surface of the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater tank inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion at EPCOT theme park. Guests use a supplied-air snorkel system and do not need to be scuba certified.
Valued at $140!
Points needed: 300
(Note: There are age restrictions on tours like this one. Make sure your children are eligible before offering prizes like this one. For what it's worth, the kids are super excited about this. It's the next thing Zoey's saving up her points for.)

- BEHIND THE SEEDS (EPCOT TOUR): A one-hour indoor walking tour of the greenhouses seen during the Living with the Land attraction at Epcot theme park.
60 Points per person

Other ideas we've seen include Ride Power Tokens. Ride Power Tokens work great for kids who argue about what ride you're going on next. Our kids don't do that, so the prize wouldn't mean much to them. If your kids have a hard time with taking turns, consider the Ride Power Tokens (make them out of scrapbook paper & print a cute logo from your computer to glue on top of a thick cardboard) as an addition or alternative to our DJ Power option. When we get closer to our trip, we'll allow the kids to start trading in 30 points for Ice Cream Tokens that they can trade for a Disney ice cream treat while we're in the parks.

3. Befriend Your Coffee Maker. Find out what amenities your room includes and use them to the absolute best of your ability. Figure out which of your kids' favorite foods can be prepared with just hot water. Challenge your children to brainstorm this one with you! It's great critical thinking practice! If your room includes a mini fridge and a microwave, you're sitting pretty. There's almost nothing you can't make with those two items (popcorn, easy mac, tv dinners, frozen bagged veggies, etc). If, however, you're equipped with just a coffee maker, you're going to have to get creative. Use your coffee maker to heat water. Hot water can become lots of things! We've traveled to conventions and packed along a backpack full of Top Ramen or Cup O'Noodle meals, packets of hot cocoa with bags of marshmallows, instant oatmeal packets, and more. We've been known to stash microwavable popcorn in our checked luggage when we know a microwave is available. If you want more variety, visit your local camping store. You'll find a wonderland of dehydrated meals. Just be careful: Sometimes those specialty items cost more than going out to eat. The goal here is to save time and money!
(Fun note: If you're traveling around a major holiday and a grocery store is easy to access, bring back some hot cocoa packets and seasonal Peeps to serve as festive marshmallows on your hot chocolate! The kids love it and you won't have half a bag of marshmallows left when it's time to check out of your hotel.)  

All of these options keep excursions, souvenirs, and treats valued high. They help children to understand that they can't have what they want just because they want it. They have to earn it. This lays the groundwork for fiscal responsibility as they age. The most successful adults prioritize their spending every day. What better way to teach your child to be responsible with money than to teach them the importance of working for what they receive?

EDIT: I realized that I left out a whole section that might be of interest.

Ground transportation can mean a number of things. Shuttles. Rental Cars. Subways. The all important shoelace pony (aka: walking), taxis, and… limousines? Yes. Limousines.

If your destination is the sort where a rental car is reasonable and affordable (Two different things: Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road may or may not be reasonable for you and has nothing to do with money.) then you can and should start looking into that. Get prices from various car rental locations and think outside the airport! Airport rental car shops can be $50/day more than the same brand of car rental shop just 30 miles further into the city! "But how am I going to get there?" By bus, light rail, cab, or shuttle. Seattle is a prime example of this. I will never rent a car from one of the Sea-Tac airport car rental places. I will happily take their light rail from the airport into Seattle and then take a bus up to North Shore to rent a car there. Considering what I pay to park that rental car when I'm in the city, I want to save as much as I can on everything else.

Shuttles are great… if you're not going too far. Disney World has one of the best shuttle systems I've ever seen. They have a shuttle bus called "Disney's Magical Express" that will pick you up from the airport, take you to your resort, and even handle picking up and delivering your luggage. Oh, did I forget to mention that IT'S FREE!?!? If you're going to the Orlando area exclusively for Disney World, there is absolutely no excuse for renting a car. If you're planning on venturing off Disney property however… well, that's a different story.

Busses/Subways/Light Rail: Fabulous option for budget savvy travelers. NOT a fabulous option if you don't know the language where you're going to be traveling. Remember: You must be able to read the signs to know where you're going. Getting lost saves you nothing. I personally recommend the public transportation systems in Honolulu/Waikiki, Seattle, New York City, and Salt Lake.

Walking: The best way to save money, hands down. Walking costs you virtually nothing. Before you go off planning your next trip via shoelace pony, ask yourself a few questions: Am I physically able to handle the distances required for this trip? Is my family physically able? What will the weather be like? Is it worth the amount of time it will take to walk? And probably most importantly: Do I enjoy walking? Our entire group loves to hike. We mistook how much we enjoyed hiking when we visited South Pointe in Hawaii. We started at the wrong trailhead with a water supply that did not match our 8 miles (each way) hike. The kids were miserable, everyone was sunburned, and we spent the next 3 days trying to catch up on water. The green sand beach was beautiful, but now every time we ask the kids if they want to join us on a hike we haven't been on before, they ask if it will be anything like the hike in Hawaii.

Exhausted in Hawaii. 8 miles down... now to get back to the car.

Taxis & Limousines: I saved these two for last because neither is exactly what it advertises. This is going to be counter-intuitive. Here goes: I do not take taxis with my children. If I am traveling with our normal group (Me, Abe, my Mom, and both of our daughters) I invest in a limo. It sounds crazy, yes… but when you have more than 3 or 4 people, you cannot fit everyone into a standard sized taxi. Van taxis are dirty and cost you a bundle. Add in that you're being charged for time and mileage (sitting at a stop light has never felt so long) and there's a good chance that a small limousine will save you money. Example: The shuttle offered by Disney between MCO (the Orlando airport) and Port Canaveral (where our cruise departs from) would be $70/person each way. Let's add this up: We've got the 5 of us that normally travel together plus our new baby. We've got 3 friends confirmed as travel buddies. That's a minimum of 9 people. 9 x $70 = $630 just for transportation from MCO to the Port. This doesn't even start with what we would have to pay to take a shuttle or cab after our cruise. Instead of paying $630 for a one way trip, I've invested in a limo that seats 14 people. How much am I paying for this lavish, black, Excursion SUV limousine? I'm paying $928 after taxes and fees and tip. But wait… $928 is a lot more than $630. Where are the savings? The $630 covers from MCO to the Port and nothing else. The limo is only $300 from MCO to the Port. The rest of what I'm paying the limo for is to pick us up after our cruise, take us to Disney World to drop off our luggage, then take us to Universal Studios to spend the day playing there. When we're done at Universal, the limo will pick us up, take us to a local grocery store and then drop us off back at our Disney resort. There is no cheaper way to do this than traveling by limo. If you have a small group and all of you can fit in a standard sized taxi with your luggage - awesome. Go for it. But if you don't… I highly recommend finding a limo service. We've also done this in Hawaii. It can save you hundreds of dollars and you won't have to share your leg room with your luggage. Another nice perk: Many limo companies will bring along a car seat or car seat base should any of your children require one. Most won't even charge you extra for it. On top of the money you'll be saving, this will be a memory that will stick with your kids. They'll think you're the coolest parents ever and I can almost guarantee that they will tell everyone at school or church about it as soon as they get the chance.

Grandma's birthday limo in Hawaii

Do you have any money saving tips for traveling with children? Please share in the comments below!

Peace, Love, and Hope,


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Imperfect Diet of my Pre-teenage Daughters (and why I don't feel bad about it)

The tweens in our home are not all that unlike other children their age. They attend public school, occasionally participate in sports or music outside of school, and have a list of favorite and most loathsome foods that they believe in religiously.

What separates our daughters from a good chunk of those other kids at school is that they have been a) spoiled with lavish vacations, and b) presented with a variety of opportunities to expand their palates... which they have refused to do.

When our girls were toddlers, we took them on a cruise to Catalina Island and Mexico. You know what the most ambitious thing they tasted was? Fish sticks. Yup. Fish sticks. While we were in Catalina Island, they agreed after much argument to try the fish sticks at Antonio's. Neither of them had any complaints regarding the meal, but it hasn't exactly paved the way for us to serve fish sticks at home, either. It has happened, but there's no "Fish Friday" here. We're still a long way from that.

A couple of years after that, we took the children to Hawaii for an island hopping 3-week extravaganza. They ate a lot of hotdogs and shave ice. We had to tell them that the lychee flavor they were enjoying on their shave ice was actually cherry. Consequences for telling the truth? Massive hysterical public fits.

 Zoe's "cherry" shave ice at the 2008 Ukulele Festival

If I were to hear this from another parent, I'd question their parenting outright and have plenty of silent judgements going on in my internal monologue. I'd assume the children were always obnoxious brats and I'd blame the parents. Hands down. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've done it a couple of times. I'm not proud of it, but it is something I know I'm capable of. But here's the thing: My kids are, generally speaking, amazing. They aren't brats. They come home from school, do their homework without complaining, put away their school things, help around the house... they don't even fight bedtime. Some part of me felt back then that this food aversion thing was a toddleresque phase that they just hadn't quite grown out of. I believed that if I was patient, they'd come around. Maybe if they saw how much we enjoyed real food, they'd start to show an interest on their own.  

Besides, if this was their biggest flaw, 
shouldn't I count myself incredibly lucky?

But they weren't growing out of it. When Zoe was 8 and Jaime was 6, we made our first visit to Disney World. The stubborn little food snobs came out again. I kept my cool and kept telling myself that they'd almost grown out of this little phase.

 Not a single picture exists from this trip that involves any kind of food.

6 months later, we tried Disneyland. Zoey had just had her 9th birthday and (thanks to "The Princess & the Frog") she mustered up the courage to try beignets. Miracle of miracle: She loved them. She loved them so much that she convinced her sister to try them. Confirmation miracle: Jaime liked them, too. Unfortunately, this was the only new food to come from the experience and our attempts to replicate the willingness to try new things phenomenon at home were a bust.

4 months later I had neared my breaking point and I knew it. We packed up my mother and the kids and we went back to Disney World for EPCOT's International Food & Wine Festival. Dining around the world in itty bitty portions! We made elaborate dining reservations. Fun, interactive dining reservations. This had to work!

(Remember that the only thing visible on Jaime's plate is macaroni & cheese. We'll come back to that.)

...It didn't work.

What did they eat? 

 That's actually the only photo I have from that entire trip that includes my daughters putting some kind of calorie-laden "food" item in either of their mouths. I was disappointed, but I consoled myself with the notion that in all other respects, I've got good kids.

 If atrocious eating habits are the worst I have to cope with, my lot can't really be that bad, right? 


Fast forward from October 2010 to May 2011. Our attempts to prepare the children for whatever they may encounter in airports and throughout long bouts of travel have, for the most part, paid off. Our 14 hour flight from LAX to Auckland, New Zealand is relatively uneventful - a feat that parents who have traveled for even a short time with children can appreciate is a remarkable event all by itself. Sure, we ran out of Oreos before the second half of the flight, but by that time the kids were half asleep and content to watch Disney Channel episodes on the mini TVs in the headrests in front of them.

We arrived in Auckland and haphazardly figured ourselves out. We found a hotel two blocks from the Sky Tower (If you haven't heard of the Sky Tower, just imagine the Space Needle in Seattle... except the top of it is a massive casino.) and settled in. By this time, everyone was hungry. We took the advice of our concierge and wandered down to Princes Wharf in search of sustenance. No luck whatsoever. This had nothing to do with an absence of restaurants or convenience shops. No, it had everything to do with our children and their minds being set against anything new. We wandered back up near the Sky Tower and found a DENNYS. A DENNYS IN NEW ZEALAND. We traveled thousands of miles to eat at a Denny's. Better still: The kids freaked out when the menu included items they had never seen before.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident and that the rest of the trip saw a change in the children's perspectives.

 (Can you see my husband hiding behind the Happy Meal bag? Neither of us were too happy.)
If you've seen one McDonald's Play Place, you've pretty much seen them all.

While Abe and I tried to relish the culture of New Zealand...

 (Bungee Jumping off of the Auckland Harbour Bridge)

 (Finding a new favorite soda made only in New Zealand)

(and attending amazing Maori luaus)

...the kids continued to pout. 
We spent days scouring local grocery stores hunting for Kraft Easy Mac. 
We prepared Top Ramen with our hotel coffee makers. 
We bought imported American food. We felt like rubes. 

When we got home, I had reached my breaking point. New Zealand had been Zoey's 10-Year Trip (A right of passage we've set for each of our kids. More on that in another post.) and Jaime's 10-Year Trip was just 22 months away. I was not going to do this again. 

Never, ever again.

Jaime kept talking about how she loved Zoey's 10-Year and how she wanted to pick something awesome like that... something like Paris. Horror and fear swept over me as I imagined mangling the french language as I tried in vain to hunt Kraft Easy Mac in Parisian markets. Something had to change. 

The first step was to admit that I don't care what my kids eat. I really don't. They're alive. They're relatively healthy. I'm not going to fuss over little things. So what's my problem? My problem is that I am sick of not being able to trust my children to try new things and thus, allow me and Abraham to go out and try new things. While pre-teen picky eating may be excusable, short changing my lifetime of experiences (and theirs) is not. 

We started small. We explained that once a month Mom & Dad get to pick a restaurant and they will go with us. They don't have to eat a thing if they don't want to, but they have to go, they can't complain, and if they choose not to eat, they don't get dinner or dessert. Period. It's been mildly successful, but the option to skip dinner has been taken on more than one occasion. 

After that, we stepped up our game: At least once a week, Mom & Dad get to make what we want to eat for dinner and the kids must try it. They must eat a full bite of it. If they decide they hate it, they can have something simple as a replacement. 

Now that Jaime's 10-Year Trip is booked and deposits have been made (Oct 2013: Disney Cruise to the Caribbean followed by a week at Disney World... DURING THE FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL!) we're pushing even more. They must eat small portions when we offer new foods. No more "one bite" meals. Often this is limited to pieces that can be taken down in 4 bites or less, but it's still progress. 

The kids complain. They don't like this process... 

...but you know what? They're starting to find some other things that they do like. 
Tonight they both had to sample Grandma's homemade lasagna. Jaime did okay. Zoey did not. Earlier in the week, Abe made homemade enchiladas. Zoey did fine. Jaime threw a fit and pretended she was choking to death. Last week we hosted a pot luck and they had to try various dishes. It was relatively successful. 

This is something that I'm still not happy about and I doubt the kids will be as open as I'd like them to be for quite some time, but I'm not going to stop trying. As we try new things and fail or succeed, I will be tracking the progress here on the blog. If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or things you'd like us to try out on our kids before you try them out on your kids, post in the comments! I look forward to the future. 

Peace, Love, and Hope, 


P.S. If you tell me your kids can't handle this, that they're too different, I will tell you that you are probably wrong. My oldest has Asperger's and my youngest has an eating disorder. If we can try, you can try. Believing in your kids is the very best thing you can do for them; especially if they're not what society calls "normal".

Baby T: The Nursery

Yesterday's post can be seen as a bit of a downer to say the least. Today, let's lighten things up a bit by talking about one of the happier elements of planning for a new baby: Designing the nursery.

When our daughters were babies, we were just teenagers struggling to figure out how to keep them alive. Designing a nursery wasn't a concern. The best lesson we learned from that experience? You don't need all the stuff you think you need. In fact, most of that stuff will either be destroyed or taking up valuable space by the end of Baby's first 3 years. I wish I was kidding.

With this in mind, Abe & I have chosen two themes for our nursery, but plan to keep it pretty simple. Our themes: Art by Chris Sanders (emphasis on "Lilo & Stitch" with a bit of "How to Train Your Dragon" for good measure) and Steampunk. At least no one can accuse us of being traditional.

Nursery Planning Objective 1: Identify Your Space

Only 3 of the bedrooms in our home are upstairs. We don't want our pre-teens to be in the basement, so they're going to be sharing a room. We are extremely lucky that these girls are best friends and have been asking us to let them share a room for the past couple of years. When asked which room they wanted, they chose Zoe's room. That leaves us taking Jaime's room (which is the better choice for a nursery, anyway) for the baby.

First we have to move Jaime out. Because the rest of this pregnancy will be during the school year, we will be using school breaks to our advantage. When Fall break comes, we'll be moving Jaime & Zoey out of their bedrooms and into the living room for the weekend. This gives them the chance to go through all their stuff and decide what they want to keep in their new room while we rip out the wallpaper and paint their room. So far, they seem to like the blue colors I've been looking at for the nursery, so we'll very likely paint both rooms the same color at the same time. When the paint has dried, we'll move the girls back into their new room just in time for school. This gives us November, December, January, and February to prepare the rest of the nursery for Baby's arrival in March.

In the meantime, Jaime needs to start figuring out what she'll be donating to charity and what needs to find a new home in the garbage can.


It's a zoo. The first item on the agenda is to get her to voluntarily choose items to get rid of. She knows that her new room won't have space for everything, so this shouldn't be too hard. We've spent the past month or so eliminating about a third of her wardrobe. The concept of downsizing her possessions is not new to her. While she sorts through and eliminates at least 25% of what currently lives in her room, I will be going through all of the stickers and art on her walls with my Nikon D5000. I intend to photograph everything that can't easily be moved or saved. I will then take these photos and have them printed in a small book for her. This should take away some of the sting of having her doodles & things taken down or painted over.

While we're on that subject... Do any of you have great suggestions on how to remove stickers from walls without damaging the walls? I'd love to hear them!

Nursery Planning Objective 2: Keep it Simple

My father was a history teacher and a collector of antiquities. Most of his favorites were furniture. In the past, we have found unique ways to incorporate these pieces into our decor. For example, we have an old ice box in our basement that works as a kitchen island for our roommate. My mother restored an antique buffet that had been passed down through my father's family. This buffet now serves as a dresser and TV stand in our master bedroom. These pieces of furniture will always have a place in our home. A cheap changing table, however, will not. Our last changing table was a disaster. It was such a complete disaster that by the time we had our second baby, we were using the top of a rubbermaid tote as a changing table instead of actually using our changing table.

This time around we agreed that we want to avoid spending a lot of money on temporary furniture - things we don't really need. Instead of acquiring a brand new changing table, we'll be moving the antique buffet from our bedroom into the nursery. We will use the storage space in the buffet for diapers, wipes, etc, and putting a changing table topper on top of the flat serving space. Voila: No need for a new piece of furniture that we would need to discard or sell later. 

Glider rockers are nice and, appropriately, have a rather hefty price tag. We have two beautiful antique rockers that can be used in the nursery instead. No, they're probably not equipped with the latest in anti-finger-pinching technology, but they've yet to kill anyone and the money saved can go toward baby proofing more hazardous things, like electrical outlets and kitchen cabinets.

Bassinets are among the most overrated baby items I have ever encountered. Why? Because your baby will not be using them for more than a couple of months. After those first few months, that cute little bassinet unleashes it's potential as an accident waiting to happen. A mobile baby can get out of that thing and tip it over FAST. Rather than spend a fortune on a bassinet, we found a handmade wooden cradle in great condition at a local antique shop for just $30! Normally, we would have skipped the bassinet all together, but since this pregnancy is high risk and I have no option other than a C-Section, I want a bassinet or cradle that I can put beside my bed for those first few weeks when I'm still healing. This antique shop find needs a little care (some Old English and a new pad/sheet - both of which I intend to make myself), but after everything is said and done, I'm fairly certain I can sell it for more than I paid for it.

This is what the cradle looked like when we found it in the antique shop. Here's our secret for getting items like this at the right price: Gamble. Be willing to let the piece go and find another. Trust me, there will almost always be another. When I first saw this piece, it was $65 marked down from $80. It was in a tiny corner of the store and was being used as a display for various toys (see photo). At the time, I was only a few weeks pregnant and wasn't ready to commit to anything because of my past miscarriages. I didn't want to have to look at that cradle if this pregnancy didn't work out. I also knew what many people who frequent consignment & antique shops know: If it's dropped in price once, it will likely drop in price again. Sure enough, I brought Abe into the shop just as we were entering the second trimester and it was still there... and the price was down to a very reasonable $30.

If you're local to northern Utah, I highly recommend the little shop where we found this piece. It's called Abode and it can be found at 1720 S. 900 E. in Sugarhouse. It is a very small shop and the aisles are crowded with items, but if you have the patience and the drive, you can find some real treasures here. We found a great old black military steamer trunk for $60 here a couple of years ago and we've been hooked on the place ever since. My husband's favorite find from Abode was an $8 Carrom board that just needed a little love.

Tip for saving a lot of money down the line: If there's any chance that you may have another child, consider keeping the nursery gender neutral. Our nursery will be a dark blue with grey and white accents. Though it may appear to be masculine, we can dress it up to suit either a boy or a girl. This also allows us to plan for the nursery before our next ultrasound. 

Nursery Planning Objective 3: Make it Unique

This does not have to be a bank-buster. I wanted to fully embrace our themes without spending too much money. The Disney Store's website is currently selling a beautiful Stitch Giclee starting at $120. Let me be clear about this: I love art and I love investing in art. I do not believe that Disney is asking too much for this piece. I do, however, feel that it's too much for me to spend for a single piece of wall art in a nursery. My response was to try to find something I could love just as much as the giclee for a fraction of the cost. I went to eBay and searched "Lilo & Stitch Lithograph". As a long time art collector, I've learned that lithographs are often widely available and affordable. Sure enough, with a little work, I managed to secure a set of 4 "Lilo & Stitch" lithos in a cute little folder (which will be nice to store Baby's immunization records, social security card, birth certificate, and passport) for less than $20 including the shipping! For another $20, I commissioned artist and voice actor Sonny Strait to sketch a steampunk version of Stitch for our baby's room:

(Yes, I know the image is at an angle and my thumb is in the middle of it. Part of keeping it unique is ensuring that it hasn't been plastered all over the internet to be copied before Baby is even born. Maybe it's selfish, but I paid for it and I want it to be for my baby.)

Sonny is a friend. He travels the anime convention circuit and has been a guest at some of the conventions that Abe & I have worked. Abe & I run panels and events at anime and video gaming conventions and we've been lucky enough to befriend several voice actors. Sonny is one of the nicest. He often allows fans to commission custom sketches for affordable rates on Friday nights via his Facebook page.

Until Chris Sanders' official website shop starts offering more than just adorable coffee mugs, I'll continue watching his DeviantArt page and considering which prints I want to order directly from there. In the meantime, I'll let myself feel that warm glow of pride that comes from knowing that instead of spending $120 on one piece of wall art for the nursery, I spent $40 and got 5 pieces, including one that nobody else has or will ever have.

As we get further along with the nursery, I'll post updates. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Baby T: Struggling with Risk, Miscarriage, Fertility Treatments, and High Risk Pregnancy

Disclaimer: This post is for those who want all the details. It's not a happy post and it will be one of the longest I will write this year. This is a very detailed explanation of how I stumbled, fought, and randomly wandered into my current pregnancy. It is a full account for those who may be struggling with fertility issues themselves.

In Spring of 2011, Abe and I found ourselves taking an extremely close look at our marriage. We discussed openly what we liked and what we didn't like. In the weeks surrounding our 10th Anniversary, we found that we needed to overhaul just about every aspect of our lives together. It wasn't easy. It wasn't kind. It was, however, necessary for the survival of our marriage.

The biggest revelation to come out of these dark days was that we both wanted another child. This took us both by surprise.  

We had been so mentally trapped by the idea that we couldn't have more kids that we had stopped thinking about whether or not we wanted more kids.

My pregnancies have been difficult and dangerous. Both deliveries were C-Sections. After our youngest, Jaime, was born, we were told that the risk would be far too high to ever consider having another child. In Fall 2009, I was hospitalized for 4 days with a Triple Pulmonary Embolism (3 blood clots in my lungs. It's a miracle that I'm alive) and again I was told that I would be absolutely insane to ever consider having more children.

In the darkest weeks of Spring 2011, I went through something I still can't fully explain. The stress of everything took it's toll and I neither slept nor ate in healthy amounts for a month. Food became such a foreign concept that when I finally did begin to eat again, my stomach could not tolerate solids and I had to start by having half of a Slim Fast shake for breakfast, another half for lunch, and some form of thin broth for dinner. While this may seem dangerous, my body could not handle more than that. There were several days when I couldn't even finish half a Slim Fast. Whatever this phenomenon was, it changed me physically. In addition to losing over 20 lbs, I started healing in ways I couldn't have imagined. Scar tissue from past surgeries started to dissolve and I regained feeling along the surgical lines in my stomach. A few doctors have speculated that my body went into some kind of survival mode; a "worst case scenario"/"end of the world" level of functioning. The mental anguish I went through sent a very clear message to my body: Things are bad and they're probably not going to get any better. My body reacted accordingly.

With my body suddenly healthier than it had been in years, I visited my doctor. I wanted to know exactly what had changed. A full physical and lots of extra blood tests came back with a common message: I was healthy. For those of you following along at home, I reiterate: Before the accidental body "reset": Not healthy. Afterward: Healthy. I asked my physician the one question I hadn't considered in years: Was I healthy enough to have a baby? His answer was a resounding yes. Maybe I should have been hopeful, but what I actually felt was fear.

What if he was wrong? In my fragile mental state, could I afford to let hope seep back in where it had long been banished? What if it was true, but turned out to be temporary? 

After telling Abe the results of the tests, I got online and found information on local experts. I called my insurance and found that they would cover a phenomenal Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist with experience in cases with risk factors like mine. I contacted his office and was asked a series of questions to determine whether or not I qualified to be considered for his care. It was explained that because he only treats high risk patients, they did not make it a practice to accept every patient who called. Luckily, I did meet the requirements. I was given an appointment... approximately 6 months down the line. Waiting for this appointment was difficult, but I took the opportunity to prepare myself by spending a lot of time at the gym and by improving my diet.

My appointment with Dr. Branch was short and mostly subsisted of determining which tests I should have done before trying to have another child. He ordered several blood tests which, (in addition to the results of the ones that my primary care doctor had shared) revealed that I could have another baby. At least, I could hypothetically.

Try, Try Again

After my appointment with Dr. Branch, my husband and I tried to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for another pregnancy. As physically unprepared as we had been for so many years, it was surprisingly harder to get mentally prepared. We wanted to be on the same page. We wanted to communicate openly and honestly without causing each other pain. We considered these things to be pregnancy prerequisites. My fear that this miracle window of baby-possibility could close at any moment was in direct conflict with meeting those pregnancy prerequisites. We decided to reach a sort of compromise and to start trying (though not trying with any plan or method - more as a "maybe baby" mentality) as soon as we were both seeing therapists. In September 2011, I found out I was pregnant. 3 weeks later, we lost the baby. In November 2011, I got 2 positive pregnancy tests... then nothing. In late January 2012, I miscarried yet again.

Something was wrong. I found Dr. Erica Johnstone - a reproductive endocrinologist - and made an appointment. With Dr. Johnstone's guidance, I started daily injections of Heparin (a blood thinner) and a course of Clomid and a single injection of Ovidrel in March. While ultrasounds made it look like we would conceive triplets, we ended up not conceiving at all.

At this point, I needed to keep my mind healthy. I had accepted an Artist in Residency opportunity at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica and that's where I spent April (2012).

                                                    Me and Becca, a choloepus sloth in Costa Rica.

Coming home meant getting back to work. I kicked up my photography projects to an all-time high and started editing my still yet-to-be-released book about my time in Costa Rica. (I swear, I will get it done SOON!) I had the opportunity to go back and start fertility treatments again, but the Clomid had made me very ill and I had packed on nearly 30 lbs in the month of March. I wasn't entirely sure I was ready to go back to that. Abe & I started to consider adoption and we resumed our "maybe baby" routine.

In many ways, this was exactly what we needed. Anyone who has actively tried to get (and stay) pregnant can tell tales of how difficult it can be to relax when a doctor has specifically told you to. It doesn't really work that way. Relaxing only works when you're not trying to do it. Consoling ourselves with the idea that adoption or fostering a child may be our option later on, we relaxed and just enjoyed our time with our two pre-teen daughters.

Fast forward to early July. Every member of the family came down with the flu. It was an ugly flu that landed each of us in bed. As each family member recovered, I noticed something: I wasn't recovering. In fact, I was getting worse. A quick look at the calendar revealed that while I may have had the flu, it wasn't the only thing making me feel like I was on the smallest boat on Earth. I was pregnant. Unsure and in an exaggerated state of disbelief, I threw on the least disgusting pajama pants in my closet, pulled back my hair, put on just enough lipstick to make me look not-dead, and drove to the local Target store. 2 days and 3 home pregnancy tests later, the disbelief started to wear off. I had told Abe as soon as I had completed the first test. He was ecstatic, but neither of us wanted to raise our hopes just yet. I called Dr. Johnstone's office and told them what was happening. They got me an appointment within a few days and confirmed that I was 4 weeks 3 days pregnant - 2 weeks shy of the 6 weeks my calendar had told me to expect. I didn't know what to think. I was put on Lovenox (a daily injectable blood thinner) and told to continue my prenatal vitamins (for the record: I always take prenatal vitamins. They do wonders for my hair & nails).

2 weeks later, I found myself back in Dr. Johnstone's office for a viability ultrasound. The baby was growing at the same rate as before and Dr. Johnstone said that I probably just ovulated late. She confirmed the heartbeat and gave me a grave warning: I would need to get an appointment with a high risk OB as soon as possible; there were 4 cysts growing rapidly and if they continued to grow, I would need uterine surgery during my second trimester.

I made an appointment with Dr. Silver (my current high risk OB) at the start of September and spent the majority of August praying for a miracle. Near the end of August, I woke up to a very sharp pain in my left side. I panicked. I called Dr. Johnstone's office and they got me in for an emergency ultrasound the next day. The ultrasound showed that the baby was doing fine, but they couldn't really tell what was going on with my left ovary. I was sent to a nearby hospital for a more intensive study. The intensive study was stressful and the results didn't come back until morning. The only consolation I had was that things were not bad enough for them to keep me in the hospital. The following morning I had my results and they could not have been better! Though my ovary had been damaged by the Clomid I took back in March, it was okay and the cysts had started to shrink.

Two weeks later, these results were confirmed by Dr. Silver. I do not need surgery. The prayers of so many of our friends and family have meant so much to us and it was wonderful to be able to tell them that things are going to be okay.

Now, we're 14 weeks 4 days along and things are still far from normal, but we're doing well. I had an emergency room visit a couple of weeks ago due to extreme pain in my chest, but they didn't find anything abnormal. My Lovenox shots have been changed to Heparin (per my request. The needles are smaller, but the injections have to be done every 12 hours instead of every 24.) and my Heparin dosage has been increased. Morning Sickness usually goes away after the first trimester... I've yet to see any sign of it fading, but I am hopeful.

If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask. I will always remember the stress and the pain of TTC (that's "Trying to Conceive") and I am happy to discuss what has worked and what hasn't worked for us. If you or a loved one are TTC, please know that my heart goes with you. Fertility issues have been a part of my entire life and I can honestly say that I have seen the depths of the pain that they can cause. The key reason that Abe and I came to the conclusion of adoption so quickly was that I am adopted. My parents wanted a child with such intensity that they could not let infertility stop them from having a family. Again, if there are any questions I can help with, please do not hesitate to ask.

Love, Peace, and Hope,



Over the course of the past two years, our little family has changed courses drastically.

- My husband changed jobs (twice)
- Our eldest turned 10 and had her choice of vacation anywhere in the world (New Zealand)  
- Our youngest daughter chose & started planning her 10 Year Trip
- I changed careers and completed a successful Kickstarter campaign (which sent me to Costa Rica to study & photograph sloths)
- We struggled with infertility
- We're now very happily expecting our 3rd child

Things are changing around here. It's been difficult to keep track of how everything is developing and we (read: I) often forget who we've updated with the latest and greatest regarding our many adventures.

Hopefully this blog will help our friends and family feel a little less left out of our lives. If it provides entertainment or education for others, bonus! You can expect posts on a variety of subjects bouncing around from fertility & high risk pregnancy to photography to how to cope with picky pre-teen appetites (a current challenge in our home). We're far from experts on anything, but we're learning and we're happy to share what we learn.