Mrs. Sandburg, bring me a dream…

Stubborn, pushy, aggressive, know-it-all, bossy. Our culture uses these words to describe girls’ behavior more than boys’, according to Sheryl Sandburg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. We prize leadership qualities in boys, but in the same breath we admonish girls for bossing their peers around. Sandburg argues bossiness is a trait we should cherish in a young girl who could grow up to become a CEO.

I know what you’re probably thinking. This story came out in March, so it’s old news, right? Well, not for everyone; if you’ve got a Girl Scout, the beat goes on. But I’m not here to rehash all the #BanBossy criticism or lay out a new argument against or for it. Plenty of eloquent writers have done so already (my personal fave is Ann Friedman for NY Mag). I would, however, like to dish on what it’s been making me think about lately. Be warned, I have more questions than answers. If you find such a scenario off-putting, skip down to “tl;dr.”

Here goes. While I don’t agree with all aspects of Ban Bossy, some elements ring true in my life. With a natural leader as a child, I do wonder how much I should be controlling her bossy behavior. Am I stamping out what I should be cultivating?

If I had to sum up last year’s kindergarten classroom using a fire metaphor, I would say the girls were stoking their leadership bonfires all on their own. They were on top of their game. Meanwhile, the boys didn’t do much of anything discernibly constructive at all. Rather, they seemed content to start tiny chaotic fires (yes, we’re still speaking in metaphors, thankfully), follow behind the girls adding randomly sized sticks and logs to their carefully-constructed fires, or ignore the girls completely and return to their discussion of which is the best shark (not a metaphor; that’s literally what they did 50% of the time). Perhaps it would be a good idea to consider using a different word than “bossy,” but I’m confident these girls won’t be easily deterred; if anything, they could stand to learn a thing or two about fire safety being gracious.

Go ahead, call me old-fashioned, but I have some science on my side. Evidence shows women’s unique contributions in the boardroom—like empathy and a view of the big picture—are positive to the team. Thus, it stands to reason we should promote women in the boardroom to act like themselves, not like men. Assuming the data holds water, shouldn’t we continue with our womanly ways? Why must we encourage women to adopt the qualities of men? Wouldn’t we create a generation of women and men who both lack those unique and necessary qualities?

Ban Bossy also misses the point when it focuses on removing a word from the conversation instead of starting a new conversation. Telling people what they can and can’t say seems, dare I say, bossy? I do give the campaign credit for trying to start some new conversations, such as their suggestions not to interrupt girls as much and to encourage them to raise their hands more.

Here’s what I wonder, in a nutshell. Is there a way to encourage our daughters to lead and boost their self-esteem while still teaching them qualities like empathy and grace? Or am I just programmed to think of Sheryl Sandburg’s own leadership as bossy because she’s a woman and lean away from her because of it? If a man were the champion of this cause of improving girls’ self-esteem, would I be more likely to listen to him?

Letter from my kindergartner this summer. I submit it as Ex. A, evidence of a potential future role as the diplomat who gets the job done.



thinking outside the playground

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
View from one of the local playgrounds in the woods

I live in a dense suburban neighborhood named “The Heights,” so called for its perch on a gigantic granite slab. The primary boast of this area is its unparalleled view overlooking Boston. Our small sloping back yard, virtually no front yard, and lack of personal space result in frequent excursions to local playgrounds.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering

With an occasional rare exception, our town has standardized and regulated the equipment located at these spaces to a sterilized state. The town recently chose to dismantle one of the last of the old-school metal playgrounds, complete with too-high monkey bars and boiling-hot slide. It is currently being renovated.

That I would complain about such an upgrade probably says something about my spoiled nature, but hear me out. The primary reason for my dismay is I had noticed the teens congregating there. You know, these kids could use more places away from grown-ups to loiter and discuss the opposite sex. I wrote about this playground not long after we moved here (see here), and it seems even then I had a hunch it wouldn’t be  long for this world:

I’m actually quite surprised the powers that be haven’t swung by to collect it all. The monkey bars are one giant cage that rises about 20 feet in the air, and the slide is a rickety, dinged up, old metal contraption that heats to an ungodly temperature in the summer. It makes me nostalgic for the playgrounds of my youth, back when we had seesaws and merry-go-rounds of death. Those were the days.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom MotheringI suppose I could look on the bright side. Removal of the type of playgrounds I grew up with does afford me a certain “Back in my day” rant that I already seem to love so much. And hey, perhaps this banality is a blessing in disguise, for it forces my girls to think outside the playground to encounter new experiences.

When we arrive at the park, they run over to their favorite slide or swing and play on it for a short while. But then after a few minutes, they’ll hightail it to the woods surrounding the playground to find the perfect stick and rock for their collection or to play hide and seek. Their unbridled glee in exploring their surroundings makes my heart sing from my distant post on a bench or rock. I’ll close my eyes and be whisked back to my own childhood by the familiar smells and sounds of dirt and adventure.

Yesterday we went to a local swimming hole. But instead of swimming, the girls ran right over to a playground and stayed there the entire visit. They tested themselves on the two relic structures left, the highest of monkey bars and the rickety swings, and we were able to ignore them and have a few hours of peace.

I wandered over once to remind them of the boundaries. As usual, on my walk back to our spot farther down the beach, I could see the helicopter moms who were right up in their kids’ business side-eyeing me. I smiled silently and continued on to our blanket, knowing what they were thinking but just not caring. I mean, it’s a fenced-in playground at a swimming hole teeming with lifeguards and parents. I can barely imagine a safer spot, and yet parents still chase after their kids here. What gives?

Back in June, I shared my concerns about our parenting culture’s current obsession with risk aversion. I’m reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids with the hope that delving into the topic in more depth will give me something to do about it.  So far it’s both interesting and maddening, just as I’d imagined it’d be. I’ve also joined the Children & Nature Network, a movement focused on getting kids playing outside.

My curiosity took me online in search of what the federal government identifies as an acceptable level of risk. A quick lit review didn’t turn up much; while there are standards for families who have been afflicted with substance abuse and domestic violence, it’s more difficult to find an intentional guide to making childhood not more safe, but less safe.

One such place doing this difficult work is a country whose goal is to become “the best place to grow up,” the United Kingdom. Their risk assessment implementation guide gives pointers on how to “strike the right balance between protecting our children from harm and allowing them the freedom to develop independence.”

That’s what parenting is all about, right? Striking a balance between protection and independence. When it comes to play, I steer toward independence as much as I can.

After all, “to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say,” notes Christina Schwartz in an article by The Atlantic urging us to leave our kids alone (not that article by the Atlantic, another older one). “Children,” she says, “have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain.”

Amen, sister.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
The kids, riding away from me. In 10 years, they’ll be riding away from me again, only in bigger vehicles.
thinking outside the playground - heirloom mothering
Hey Ma, look how high I can climb!

Update (9-8-14): I am going to have to eat my words this time. We have been to the renovated playground several times, and it is beyond any of my possible expectations. There are even somewhat dangerous elements (I overheard one mom bemoan to her husband, “There are REAL rocks!” in reference to hear fears for her child’s safety. Really, lady?), like a (fake) boulder wall that includes spider-like rope webbing to another boulder. There’s also a track that runs around the perimeter, on which I have already seen one child practicing biking without training wheels. It’s adorable, it’s fantastic, and I was wrong. I love my town for being able to see the potential I could not. 

counter culture

Counter Culture - Heirloom Mothering
Blueberry picking at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH

We’re at the farmer’s market. My kindergartner is already looking for a place to spit out the pit of the plum she just consumed in  nanoseconds, but my preschooler is still deciding what to purchase. I kneel down in front of her for a better look. She’s holding a sweaty, crumpled dollar bill in her chubby hand and frowning slightly. I see the wheels turning in her mind. Will it be the peach or apple today?

“Aw, here. Let her have both. On the house! I hate to see her have to choose,” the farmer suggests.

“You’re not helping!” I reply, smiling. “She needs to learn the value of money.”

“Not today she doesn’t. Here you go, little lady,” he leans over the wooden table and hands her a free apple. I buy a few pickling cucumbers, shaking my head in mock rebuke as she grins at her prize.

As we walk away, I ponder how positive our experiences have been with farmers since we first started eating locally. Selecting food from the source gives us a chance to converse with farmers about their day-to-day difficulties and joys and contrast them with my own. I am grateful for their stories and for building a personal relationship. The farmers know they have our support and are thus able to afford keeping their animals, and I feel great comfort in knowing we have a healthy meat source. I feel lucky for this symbiosis.

These interactions slow my life down in measurable ways. Rather than selecting a recipe at random and then heading to a grocery store for the meat, I get meat our farmer chooses to give us based on season and availability. She even offers recipes she knows compliment the particular cuts of meat and incorporate seasonal vegetables. Our conversations have opened up a new way of eating. Our kitchen counter brims with what is plentiful and tasty.

This newfound joy radiates to other aspects of family life. We enjoy the seasonal pleasures of picking our own fruit and watching the newborn lambs learn to walk. We’ve entered a rhythm with our farmer and with the local land. Knowing a farmer also eliminates a product of consumerism I’ve always hated. Buying meaningless products we’re told to buy leads to a “devastating cycle of prescribed and disembodied consuming, processing, and production” (a favorite line from this beautifully written memoir). Eating local connects me to other people in an intrinsically powerful and satisfying way.

Charlie observes the newborn lambs at a local farm
My preschooler observes the newborn lambs at a local farm.

It occurs to me this special connection is not a new concept; instead, I’m reincarnating an ages-old relationship between farmer and eater. It was a bond my great grandparents had with farmers eighty years ago. My grandmother remembers her mother and father driving past the outskirts of town to pick live chickens that would then be killed and plucked as they waited. They took the chickens home and ate them within hours of the slaughter.

Why had I never had this kind of affiliation prior to moving to Boston? Why have we been in search of new and different ways when the tried-and-true methods worked better all along? Why is the culture of my kitchen counter so…counterculture?

Perhaps it won’t be for long. Every day I hear more people beating the sustainability drum (yes, I do believe a hippy metaphor is apropos here). My goal is to transplant the lesson I learned from supporting local agriculture to more of my daily interactions. I choose to slow down my interfaces with others, to make my relationships more meaningful and pleasurable. To sit and chat, to sip tea on front porches.

The girls blow bubbles on a recent trip to Asheville while Nate & I dream about the future
The girls blow bubbles while adults chat and play cards


Author’s Note: I acknowledge the privilege happening in this post. I am a white, middle-class wife and mother who can afford to buy whole foods (in Whole Foods, even). I can afford to stay home with my children, to sit back and navel-gaze at my own habits on my own website.

In effect, I am allowed to slow down.

I realize that to many others–whether they are single moms or are struggling to find work and make ends meet–my reality, and this post in particular, will drip with advantages not available to all people. Perhaps you’ll view my world as a fantasyland of smug swagger. I hope it won’t be quite that bad.

My purpose in writing about the friendships I’ve made with farmers is to demonstrate the power of local purchases and to show that as a culture, we can go back to living as our great grandmothers did. As Alice Waters noted in the Wall Street Journal last month, we can teach our children the importance of supporting sustainable and locally-sourced agriculture. Thanks to the grassroots sustainable food movement, there are programs to engage the broader community in the effort to bring healthy, local food to institutions such as prisons and schools and urban food deserts. If you can afford time or funds to the cause, I encourage you to support one of these fine organizations (Sustainable Table is one example).

a breakfast dream deferred {+ spiced granola}

I weave recipes into stories of life and motherhood because, in my family, food is what living is about. My own mother will readily proclaim that my grandmother didn’t cook well— “the bottom of a rubber-soled shoe” is how she likes to put it. Yet when describing her childhood memories, Mom never fails to mention the delicious brown bread, the cream cheese-and-walnut, and peanut butter-banana-butter sandwiches her mother made with love.

I could make jokes about my vegetarian mom’s cooking too, like the blood-raw steaks coated in salt and just barely warmed up in the toaster oven or the brown sugar-coated refried beans. But in the same breath, I would tell you that the most prominent smell in my childhood home was bread, and my mother was famous within my family for her big salads. Most days, there is nothing I’d rather eat than bread and butter and a big salad.

When I ask my paternal grandmother about her mother’s cooking, she has similarly ambivalent memories of the quality of the food. But listen to her describe standing on her tippy toes to sop up her mother’s potlikker with a piece of bread, and you’re whisked away to a lifetime ago, smelling the sauce and feeling the love in that room.

If I were to go back in time to when I was a child and tell my relatives that I would go on to write about my love of food, they would be confused to say the least. I didn’t start out loving a variety of foods. My grandma likes to joke that little Elijah Wood in this scene in the film Avalon was me as a child–“I hate when food touches!” But what I have loved as long as I can remember is the ritual of food. When I was young, baking was a skill I observed and enjoyed playing pretend with obsessive zeal. Even so, somehow I didn’t develop baking skills to take with me in my adult-esence phase of life. My mother, the aforementioned expert bread baker, and my paternal grandmother, whose pies were legendary, both invited me to learn from them. It just didn’t take.

Mom & Me, 1984ish, Texas
Mom & Me, 1984ish, Texas. I am pretend-baking and cleaning, my typical play activities at four-years-old.

In my thirties, I have rediscovered a love of baking, especially and perhaps even solely breakfast goodies. Ain’t life grand. My repertoire of homemade breakfast foods extends from the healthier yogurt and granola to the more hedonist biscuit or scone with jam. Nate and I happen to share a weirdly specific desire to learn to ferment, so I imagine someday my breakfast treats will involve drinks like kefir and kombucha. Nate hopes to learn how to smoke and cure meats, which in my dream culminates in adding homemade lox and hickory-smoked bacon to the menu.

The menu for what? you might reasonably ask. For as long as we’ve been together, the hubs and I have harbored hopes of opening our own business. In recent years, the business is coming more clearly into focus to becoming a bed & breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I would love to grow most of our own food and trade wares with the locals, Kingsolver-like.

Going on ten years of marriage this October, we haven’t yet put down a deposit on that B&B. But I don’t consider it a dream unrealized. It’s just been deferred for some unspecified time down the road. Meanwhile, I consider this time spent tinkering with recipes to be great preparation for my second career. For now, I rely mostly on others to provide my food, but I’ve learned to seek local ingredients when possible and practice patience when learning to bake.

To that end, I’m sharing a recipe for grown-up spiced granola, which is not quick, but it is easy and so satisfying to gather, stir, smell, and taste. And with minimal natural sugars and oils, I daresay it’s healthy too. I was inspired to make it because I grew tired of saccharine-sweet, oily granola that was nearly all oats.

If you’re looking to slow down and hoping to add something to your breakfast repertoire or create a unique thank-you gift, perhaps you’ll give it a try. I call it “grown-up granola” both because it involves whole toasted nuts, a no-no in my preschooler’s eyes, and because it isn’t as sweet as the recipe I make for them. I also believe that food as fussy as this granola should be shared with those who appreciate it most. Won’t you come eat it at my bed & breakfast in twenty years?

spiced granola for grown-ups - Heirloom Mothering


grown-up spiced granola

makes 20 cups, if I added correctly


10 c. old-fashioned rolled oats

5 c. nuts, whole or coarsely chopped (whatever you like: almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts)

3 c. coconut flakes, unsweetened

2 c. dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, cherries)

1/4 c. olive oil

1/4 c. coconut oil

1/4 c. maple syrup

1/4 c. honey (note: as is, this granola is not very sweet. Add another 1/2 c. honey to sweeten it)

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt

1 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cloves


1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Toast nuts on baking sheets covered in parchment paper, rotating every few minutes, for approximately 10 minutes or until nicely browned. Transfer them to the largest bowl you have.

2. Toast coconut, rotating at least once per minute for about five minutes until lightly browned. DO not leave the oven during this step! The coconut will burn quickly if not monitored closely. Add it to the big bowl.

3. In a medium bowl, toss oats with spices and salt. Mix oils, syrup, and honey in a glass measuring cup and heat in the microwave quickly to loosen the honey. Whisk together, pour over oats, and stir to combine.

4. Cook oats on two baking sheets (again, lined in paper) for approximately 30 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so, until browned. Add to the nut mixture and stir together. Let cool for an hour so the mixture dries before storing it. I keep mine in the freezer and sprinkle it on yogurt, and I also love the giant glass canister for the counter ‘cuz this here granola is perty. To guild the lily, I like to top it with some bubbly meyer marmalade.