Everything was fine with our system…

Little Bear and his daddyOur new, back-to-work schedule is hectic. I think M and I are both feeling a little white-knuckled on the steering wheel of life lately. Even Little Bear is under the weather. He has been delightfully congested at night, so he and I are getting increasingly disrupted. It’s funny how I adjust, though. At 2 a.m., I’m struggling. But when the alarm goes off, I pretty gamely get going. I just make sure to caffeinate adequately.

I also try to let it go once in awhile. Sometimes this means ordering takeout so we can catch up on dishes. But sometimes it’s like last night and I need to prioritize the meal. I’m tired, and I eat my lunch one-handed in my office while pumping, so that’s not exactly relaxing. I have been dreaming of soba noodles and vegetables and things that feel healthy.

I also needed to let go mentally. Since we cooked a nourishing meal, I decided I was allowed to find a way to ignore the never-ending task list that occupies my busy brain space of late. M’s suggestion of Ghostbusters hit the mark. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy that movie. Maybe this will become our Halloween tradition. We have to try again next year, at least, because LB didn’t make it to the end.

End of Ghostbusters

Soba with Sweet Potatoes and Spinach

Soba with Daigaku Imo and Spinach

I wanted noodles with the spinach and sweet potatoes I had on hand. I originally planned to steam the sweet potatoes, but my bamboo steamer was woefully tiny. I had no desire to cook six batches of sweet potato chunks. A Google search for “Japanese caramelized sweet potatoes” consistently led me to daigaku imo, a sweet-salty comfort dish originally favored by university students. I definitely wasn’t aiming for sweet and deep-fried with this nourishing meal, but they looked so good. Happily, it turns out I’d stashed a recipe that was more steam-fried than deep-fried. I threw the spinach in so we weren’t just having candied sweet potatoes. When I took leftovers for lunch the next day, I added a dab of ginger paste, and it was great. I imagine garlic would also work well.

Sweet potato portion adapted from Elizabeth Andoh’s KanshaI even cut them rangiri style, as she recommends.

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 large sweet potatoes (at least 1 pound total weight), peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1½ tablespoons black sesame seeds, toasted
  • 3 bundles soba noodles (roughly 10 ounces dry)
  • 2 pounds baby spinach, rinsed and mostly dried (a little water helps it cook)
  • 3 bunches green onions, cleaned and chopped
  • toasted sesame oil (optional)

Cut a circle of parchment to just fit inside a large skillet.

Mix the oil, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, and water in the skillet. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the sweet potato chunks, in as close to a single layer as possible. Lay the parchment over the top (this essentially steams the surface of the potatoes). Reduce heat to maintain a low simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Cover the pan (parchment, too) with a lid and cook for a few more minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. If needed, add a little more water. Don’t let the sugar burn.

Once the potatoes are tender, remove the lid and parchment. Stir gently to coat the potatoes in the glaze, which will reduce as the water evaporates. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until most of the water is gone. Scoop out the potatoes with a strainer and set aside in a single layer on a platter or cutting board. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a large pot. Add the soba and cook until al dente. Drain.

Pour off most of the oil from the skillet, then add the scallions and cook until fragrant and golden. Add the spinach in handfuls and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed (some of the flavor goes with the oil).

Divide the noodles among four plates (these are slightly generous portions). Add the spinach, then place sweet potatoes on top. As you can see in the picture, I was out of black sesame seeds. I sorely missed them, so I drizzled a little sesame oil over the top. I probably would’ve done so even with the seeds, as I like a pronounced sesame flavor. The dish looks pretty layered, but give it a little mix as you eat, to coat the noodles.

The Dangerous Season

flame tree against blue sky

I had a moment the other day. It probably started with Facebook, as these things often do. I see a friend’s status trumpeting some amazing thing they’re doing in some amazing place. Or not! Sometimes it’s enough just to know that they’re living and working and running errands in some other place, some place I could only get to if several of my circumstances changed.

Anyway, whatever the spur, I felt a sudden, very pure moment of wishing I was alone. Not even just wishing I wasn’t a parent, but wishing I wasn’t married. It was a first, and it passed as quickly as it arrived, but it did leave an impression.

No matter how far removed I am from school, autumn, for me, remains a season of beginnings. I feel a deep, almost primal impulse to buy new things, start new projects, and even embark on Major Life Changes. Oddly enough, now that I have the dual ties of marriage and family, the big changes are even more tempting. Since those things are locked down, it makes the uncertainties I feel in other areas more acute. When the leaves start turning and sweaters are required, I start getting restless. I wonder what could be different.

Now that Little Bear is in our lives, almost every day brings a discussion of potential change, from the mundane (we should rearrange some kitchen cabinets) to the monumental (is the seriously high cost of daycare worth it when measured against my relatively low salary?). What this ambiguity means for a person like me, who lives more in the future, is that I am pretty constantly questioning. Sometimes I ponder my career, and I dream daily of living in the UK, but mostly I just look at tasks.

I have always loved an ambitious to-do list, even if I don’t accomplish much of it. Nowadays, that list is incredibly long, complicatedly hierarchical, and mostly mental. Just walking around the apartment triggers list-making. My mind applies an augmented reality-like layer of labels to almost everything at home: move that furniture, wrangle those cables, plant the crocuses, read that library book before it’s due, put away the laundry, buy more diapers in a few days. And running quietly in the corner of this imaginary interface is a little ticker of the very meager free time I have in which to accomplish any of these things.

So when I say that I had a moment the other day, I don’t mean that I wished to be without my matrimonial and familial bonds and all the benefits they bring. I just longed, for a moment, for that time when, instead of mulling over everything from overhauling my closet to upending my career, the only thing I had on my mind as the weather turned crisp was buying new colored pencils and tennis shoes.

Sigh.

Being an adult, amirite?

Miscellany: Into Autumn

The season has decidedly changed, and my mind has shifted with it. Here are the new things I’m mulling.

The costs of daycare, both financial and familial. I love working, and I need it intellectually. But in what form? Maybe there are more options than I think. It is really difficult to leave Little Bear every day, partly because I spent so much of the last twelve weeks with him, and partly because I have a sort of fundamental issue with daycare. This stems from my own mother staying at home, but it’s surely almost impossible to look at a little baby and be okay with them spending more waking hours with strangers than with their own family. So I want some time apart for working, and I hate being apart. It’s complicated.

Fall foods are my favorites, and certain flavors embody that love. I’ll take honey any time, but combined with pumpkin, it’s perfect right now.

We’ve been catching up on The Legend of Korra, and I am enjoying it. I have minor beefs with both this series and its predecessor, but overall, it is such good entertainment. I like that the creators put serious thought into a kids’ show. I’m not hugely fond of the overly-similar-to-Book-1 political storyline they have going in Book 2, but I am looking forward to the spirit world thread.

Scandinavian things. Though I’m really only one-quarter Swedish, that ancestry has loomed large in my family’s collective psyche. Mostly that meant decorating with a few tomten at Christmas and enjoying rice pudding and attending family reunions with lots of blue-eyed, blond relatives. Increasingly for me, particularly as I explore genealogy, it means traditional foods, design, and way of living. This year, that means making lussekatter for the second time. And possibly (gasp!) attempting a trip to IKEA with the young lad. And happily hanging my beloved straw ornaments on the Christmas tree…

In keeping with my yearning for all things Nordic, I’m also feeling winter already. It seems I can never really enjoy a season. As soon as it starts, I start longing for the next one. This year, I want winter especially because these are a possibility.

This necklace from Madewell. I just can’t quite justify the cost. Come on, sale…

We’ve had a few gorgeously crisp, foggy autumn days lately, at least in the morning. Now it’s in the mid-70s, but I am still stuck on cool and rainy. Since our honeymoon, that weather evokes the memory of our visit to Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. We traipsed the length of the Royal Mile despite some gloomy skies, and it was great. We had lunch in the cafe there, and I especially remember drinking a Fentimans dandelion and burdock soda. After that, I tried Fentimans whenever I came across it. Now I really want to track some down here.

My new Fitbit One, courtesy of M. I really wanted a tracker for my return to work. So far, I’m doing about half my goal each day, with no extra effort. Now I need to find ways to add more steps, like taking the baby son for a walk. And hey, at least I’m not parked on the couch for hours anymore. Though I suspect I’ll start to miss the “lazy” sweatpants days of maternity leave soon…

Virtues

Theo, sheep, sleep

It is the eve of my return to work, and I figured a little reflection might be in order, before life gets very fast. Time to review some of the things I’ve learned during the first twelve weeks with a new baby.

How to multitask

Nursing means spending a fair amount of time on the couch with at least one arm full. Little Bear is still a tiny baby in our eyes, but he’s never really been small. And he has never liked being wrapped up in my sling carrier. So I sit for a significant (though lessening) portion of each day, unable to accomplish anything that cannot be done with one hand, while stationary. Happily, that encompasses a fair number of tasks. Sure, they’re mostly computer-based, but that doesn’t make them less important. Digital de-cluttering, blogging (obviously), keeping in touch with friends and family, research on the many things that interest me and some new ones besides… Away from the laptop, it’s surprising how quickly one can become deft at doing small day-to-day tasks with only one hand. Sometimes it makes me feel off-kilter, but I am building up decent arm muscles.

As Bear’s become more self-aware, he doesn’t mind spending time in his bouncy chair or on his baby gym mat, but that leads to a different kind of multitasking – the division of attention. Even though he’s increasingly happy to discover his hands or chew on his stuffed sheep, I am pretty constantly aware of the finite nature of my precious hands-free time. I attack dishwashing like it’s a sprint. I keep a running mental list of tasks and where I interrupted them. The non-mother me would’ve been frustrated by this. As a parent, my time-management skills have taken a dramatic leap forward, and I am pretty proud.

How not to multitask

That being said, there are limits. One morning, aching after a long stretch of sleep, I attempted to feed LB and pump at the same time. Needless to say, it quickly descended into a milky farce. I scrambled for a towel while Bear spluttered, and I humbly told him I would not try that again.

Sometimes I leave tasks for later. Sometimes I plop LB in his crib or bouncy chair for a minute, even if he’s crying. He seems to enjoy being in the kitchen while I cook, especially (or so I tell myself) if I narrate my actions. But I know that sometimes I simply have to drop what I am doing, let the pasta water boil down, and cuddle my son. And really, I cannot complain. Those simple moments take on increasing poignance now that they’ll occur with less frequency. And somehow, when we were apart on his first day of daycare, I missed his crumpled, crying face the most.

Embracing and enduring change

This might be the biggest and best lesson of my maternity leave. I am not a terribly patient person by nature. I like having a schedule and to-do list, and I prefer to be the only one who derails them. I am aware that that expectation is unrealistic, but it wasn’t until LB that I finally began to accept that. I knew that life with a newborn would be more challenging than I realized, but I naively hoped to have at least an hour or two a day when I could chip away at the backlog of housekeeping. I had to work to get over my disappointment at not even having that sliver of time for awhile.

I’ve come to terms (though not completely) with the fact that most things take time. Since childhood, I have preferred to jump straight past any phase of adjustment or learning. You can imagine how that worldview clashes with newborn life. In the first few exhausting weeks, it was too easy to feel like Little Bear would never evolve. I envisioned long years of round-the-clock fussing, an endless cycle of eating and sleeping and crying. But then LB started staying awake a bit longer. And smiling at us. And cooing when we spoke to him. And playing quietly by himself. When I look back over the last three months, I realize how incredibly far he’s come. I also realize that we survived, and by a wide margin, not by the skin of our teeth. I think back to those early days, remembering how miserable I occasionally felt, and I’m pleasantly surprised to realize that it really has turned out okay so far. All we had to do was ride it out.

Our baby is bright, expressive, (mostly) cheerful, and an absolute joy. Like I said, I melt even when he’s wailing, his tiny voice at its peak, his little hands kneading at me like a kitten’s paws. After a relatively easy pregnancy and hazily-remembered labor and delivery, early parenthood is also turning out to be better than I expected. Hey, there’s another lesson learned: take an optimistic approach. Life will probably follow suit.

UPDATE, 15 October 2013 5:30 a.m.: Bear decided I needed reminding on the third lesson and opted to suspend his former pattern of sleeping through the night. Consequently, I had four hours’ sleep and shall spend the day gulping coffee and insistently telling coworkers “No, really, he usually sleeps eight hours!” It is ironic that after being pleased and proud that I could sail back to work well-rested and relaxed, I’m slumping back as the stereotypically exhausted new mother. But this does perfectly enforce the lesson…