Plan ahead

The most important thing to do when you suddenly find yourself in a situation like mine, alone and raising two small children, is to ALWAYS BE PREPARED. If you can do anything in advance, do it. If you can have your bases covered, cover them. Let me explain.

Whether or not you are grieving a recently deceased spouse as I am or have just divorced your previous partner, if you are the sole remaining parent, you will do double duty on everything. No one else is going to get the kids ready in the morning for school. So what can be done the night before, after the kids are in bed?

What I do is make their lunches, or at least half of one, so that in the mornings all that’s left to do is add crackers or something. Get the juice bottles ready and put them in the fridge. Before the kids go down, pull out clothes you want them to wear the next day and set them aside. This is obviously easier if you have small children like mine who have no sense of personal fashion or the like. The nice thing about South Africa is that, as they grow, they’ll go into one of the schools here locally, and all of them require strict adherence to uniforms. So there’s no question what they’ll be wearing the next day, and personal expression plays no part in the decision.

Pack bags the night before. Spare clothes, any school supplies, all of it, in the bags and place them by the door so all that needs to be done is to scoop them up on the way out to the car.

Also, allow plenty of time in the mornings to do whatever you have to do. It’s easier with my kids being small, because they wake up at the crack of dawn anyway. We usually have everything set and ready to go at around 7am, and I just coast until I load the kids in the car and head out.

This last point will be hard if you are bereaved. The grief and sorrow make getting up in the morning extremely hard. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’ll have the kids crawling all over me if I try to sleep in later, so staying in bed is not always an option. I have one night off a week when the kids sleep over at mom and dad Spence’s. This is a personal choice as I know they would have the kids more nights per week, but I feel compelled to giving them a sense of stability here at our home. You may or may not need more time off depending on the circumstances surrounding your situation that has landed you as a single parent, your personality, career, etc. Use your judgment and follow your instincts. Janie always told me to “go with your gut,” and it is coming handy at a time like this.

Another thing that will consume time like mad is cooking. I’ve taken to making a big casserole or something on a Saturday and freezing it in different containers, so I can bust one out when I just don’t have the energy to cook. I love cooking and will do it if I have the energy, but at times the situation wears the soul down! In times like this, a readymade meal is the way to go.

Bath time can either be awesome or hell. I think that if you’re a single parent, you need to align the pieces as much as possible so as to make bath time fun. There is a ritual that we enact every night, no matter what, that the kids love and gets them in the mood to hop in the bath. It’s called “naked baby.” The gist is simple: I pull all their clothes off, and once they are down to their birthday suit, I yell “naked baby!” At this point, the kids run off into the garden and I chase them for however long. Eventually I herd them into the bathroom, and they hop in the bathtub giggling and happy. I always make sure the water is warm and deep, with plenty of bubbles and toys to keep them occupied while I pull out their jammies and pick the stories to be read at bedtime (as you’ve read in previous posts, two are now on constant rotation, so it’s all about finding that third one that will be the cherry on the sundae).

The bathing itself can be a challenge, but I find that doing it as quickly as possible is the way to go. Protests are often loud (Seanie hates having his hair washed), but I just grit my teeth and plow through it. Normally, they are squeaky clean within five minutes, and then it’s time to towel them off and do “naked baby” again. Once herded back indoors, I throw clothes on as quickly as possible (thankfully, Seanie is a big boy now and wants to dress himself at every opportunity), and then that’s done.

On the subject of television, let me say this: as a single parent, it’s nice to have a built-in babysitter. TV has been demonized by legions of parents and concerned citizens with too much time on their hands (obviously they’re not single parents). I allow an hour in the morning and an hour at night (unless it’s raining), and I do this so I can do things like get breakfast and supper ready for the kids. The TV stays on for breakfast, but not for supper. Sometimes, you just need something to keep the little ones at bay while you do the other things that need doing and won’t wait. So put on Teletubbies and do what you gotta do.

Planning ahead can become exhausting, and this is especially true in my situation where I am grieving my wife’s death and raising Seanie and Sophie. As you have read in previous posts, I am not the only one feeling her loss. Seanie especially is struggling with missing his mother. The day after his last night terror, he asked me if mommy is sad. She is on his mind all the time. So he’s not always the happy go lucky kid I know so well. Sometimes he seems to be clingy and sad for no reason at all, and his constant complaints about sore elbows, knees, tummy and head can often wear on my nerves. When I’m trying to get the next thing done and he comes into the kitchen or bedroom whining about a sore, it can set me on edge.

And this is perhaps the greatest challenge with regard to parenting on my own during this time: grief often throws on the blinders. I don’t always think about him or Sophie and what they feel. I’m either struggling through a sad patch during the day and forgetting the things that need to get done or just not paying the kind of attention Seanie needs.

In times like this, it is so very important to have someone to speak truth into your life. The folks at my grief group do this, as do friends like Ben Aldous, who just yesterday sat and cried with me as I explained my fears about where I am dropping the ball with the kids.

I guess what I’m getting at is to try to be kind to yourself. If you’re a single parent reading this, your job is really tough. You’ve been dealt a bad hand. Planning ahead can help for several things, but it’s not a universal panacea. It might free you up to be more present at crucial times with the kids, but so much depends on your emotional availability at any given time. If your emotional resources are depleted, no amount of planning ahead is going to help you be the best version of yourself when your child or children need you.

So perhaps the most important thing you can do as a single parent is to make sure you have the kind of network that will allow you time to recover some, replenish your emotional reserves and be just on your own for a while. Also, you need to have people in your life that can supply you with perspective, because believe me, you will often not have any of it or at least not much. You need someone to remind you that you are, in fact, doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt. You need someone or a group of people that will just allow you to cry and get the frustration, grief, sorrow and pain off your chest, because this aspect of your experience is often shoved aside by the constant need to be a parent, to get things done, to stay on the ball. Having people in your life that can do this is a vital aspect of planning ahead. Give yourself the gift of allowing regular opportunity to allow someone you love and trust to speak truth into your life. I know in my experience, I have definitely needed to hear what I am doing right, because all I see is what I do wrong.

I am learning that kids are hard work. They are wonderful and completely worth it, but they can quickly exhaust what reserves you might have, because they need so much of you, all the time. And they don’t know any different. Very small children have no idea they’re not the center of the universe. Furthermore, they used to receive attention and affection from the other parent. Now it’s just you. They have lost an enormous chunk of their developmental resource supply chain, if I can state it like that. It’s important to make sure that you have enough in you to not allow the shortfall to cripple them.

I write this as much for myself as anyone else in a similar situation. If you’re happily married and know of someone who is in my situation or is recently divorced, then I encourage you to share this post with them. Folks like me in a situation like this sometimes feel very much on our own. It’s an emotional reaction and it is often difficult in the midst of exhaustion, grief, whatever to remember that the network is in place. Some folks don’t have networks at all, and I can imagine that is a terrifying place to be. I think it is good to know that there are others in my situation out there, and if that’s you, then while I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, I have some idea.

And you can do this. Don’t close yourself off.

This blog has gone a long way already to reminding me of just how many people love our little family and are motivated to be a support, either in person or in prayer. No matter who you are or what your situation might be, having emotional, physical and spiritual support in times of extreme difficulty is the difference between having the strength to carry on and utter hopelessness and despair. I have learned through this blog that so long as I reach out, someone else will reach back.

So reach out. My email is on this blog. Shoot me a note if you don’t want to post a reply. I’m no expert at this. I’m a rookie, just like you. But I am not alone, and no one needs to be alone. We do it to ourselves.

Anyway, this is Friday’s post. The weekend beckons. Thank you all for comments, prayers and all the love you shower me and babies with. Every little bit of it helps us carry on. Thank you. See y’all Monday.

Originally published August 19, 2011


Feed the babies

Yesterday’s post was on the heavy side, so this one will deal with a topic I hope to return to many more times on this blog: food. I love food. I love it so much I learned to cook just so I could eat exactly what I want, when I want it. During the early days of our marriage, Janie used to do quite a bit of the cooking. She could do it, but it wasn’t really her favorite thing. Over time, I elbowed her out the kitchen and made that my zone of the house, and she seemed happy enough to oblige.

Over the years, Janie became my main audience, the one for whom I cooked. I needed her opinions and input. She helped me with suggestions, ideas and honest feedback. Not everything I’ve ever made was good. A recent calamari tempura springs to mind (think of rubber bands dipped in wallpaper paste). But other things were uproarious successes, like her 30th birthday lobster feast. We had some epic times eating what I made, it was a daily expression of my creative interests and she took it as a little token of my love for her. We had fun.

Since her death, cooking has changed a little. That audience is now gone. Now my audience consists of two blonde babies with somewhat different tastes. This is a challenge, as the food now not only must be closer to their tastes but must have the necessary energy in it to keep these little monkeys growing. However, I am proud to say that the kids eat what I make for them, and I don’t make mac and cheese every night. Even the mac and cheese itself is not plain ol’ mac n’ cheese. It’s daddy’s mac n’cheese.

What you see to the left there is zucchini leaves stuffed with prosciutto and blue cheese that are dipped in batter and fried. They are accompanied with homemade pasta and red sauce. As the caption implies, this is not your average meal here at our house, in fact this one was made before Janie passed away. I add it because I served this rather fussy meal to the kids, who ate EVERY scrap of it and bayed for more. There was no complaining, no whining, just happy babies housing mad quantities of deep fried veg gie happiness.

I mentioned the calamari tempura above. On that same night, we also had tempura veggies. Again, something about that particular procedure suddenly makes veggies an all time favorite. Makes ya wonder.

These are beans. Beans feature frequently on the menu for two reasons: they’re loaded with good stuff like fiber, folic acid and protein, and they’re dirt cheap. Black beans are sometimes hard to source here in South Africa, but there are other varieties such as kidney, butter and cannelloni beans that are available in both dried and canned varieties. If I make one of these (usually the cannelloni), I’ll fry some garlic in olive oil and pancetta, add diced onions, a sprig of rosemary and toss in the beans until they start to simmer. Make some rice to go with it, and bam, perfect accompaniment to any braai (translation of braai to my American friends: like a barbecue, but better).

Did I just say braai? Yes, this is something that even in the post Janie era is done with an almost weekly regularity here at casa de Jones. Those are chicken hearts in the photo. To all my friends with high blood pressure and cholesterol problems, this Bud is not for you. However, if you feel adventurous enough to try them, here’s what I do: blitz up half of an onion, three or four cloves of garlic and a whole bunch of dhania (coriander, cilantro) in a food processor or blender. Take this mixture, decant into a large bowl and add about three tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and the juice of two limes (or one lemon, but lime is better). Give it a mix, add a punnet of chicken hearts, cover with cling wrap and leave it in the fridge to marinate for at least two hours, no more than five. Skewer them on soaked bamboo sticks and throw them on the braai. Yumminess. Seanie eats these by the fistful at a time. He nearly gagged himself the one time, it was a bit scary. Sophie loves these too, screeching “chicken!” as she noshes one after other.

The kids aren’t wild about chicken livers peri-peri (a very common dish here in South Africa), but I don’t think it’s the livers part of it. I made fegatini a finanzieri (translation: banker’s chicken livers) with a wicked risotto once, and Sean ate them as if it were his last meal. So there is something about the preparation. Liver, even chicken livers, have a somewhat metallic undertone that needs to balanced out with a bit of sweetness to appeal to a child’s palette, I think. The fegatini is made with a fat dose of marsala wine, which provides ample sweetness that is tempered through a longer cooking process. So you pick up the sweetness, but it’s not cloying.

Now, it’s not all fancy shmancy here either. There are the old standbys, like good ol’ pizza. And of course there’s daddy’s mac n’ cheese. I like mac n’ cheese as much as the next guy, but I figure my mac n’ cheese is more like a pasta bake, really. I like to toss in onions, garlic (lots of it), ham, bacon, green peppers, shallots, whatever, and make the white sauce with one of Chrissy the Cheese Lady’s wonderfully bizarre cheeses (find her at the Shongweni Farmers Market. If you live too far away from here to go, then move out this way. It’s simple, folks).

But there is a point to what I am writing here, and it’s not only to make you hungry: as a parent, don’t end up being your child’s short order cook. The kids eat what I eat. Sometimes I make them something fun like chicken goujons (basically chicken strips, but it sounds cooler to say the other), but if I’m making fish in a parcel with lemongrass and loads of garlic, then that’s what’s for dinner. And if they don’t eat it, awesome, more for me. But I won’t get up and make them something else. Kids need to know that they are expected to eat what’s in front of them, and hopefully be grateful for it.

But there is also an ulterior motive for this approach. My hope is to frustrate them to such a degree that they’ll take up cooking themselves, and that in perhaps ten years or so, I can retire from the kitchen and just let them make me yummy things. See folks, you gotta plan for the future.

But I’m not going to push their palettes too hard. I might add a little spicy goodness to a meal, but I’m not going to feed the kids atomic curry, although I’ve made a few of those in my day. I’m not going to ask them to try sushi just yet, although they’ve eaten a little in the past. The trick is to do things in stages, get them used to something others might find unusual, and then not tell them it is. If they don’t know the difference, then why inform them of it? If they develop adventurous little palettes now, it will stand them in good stead later in life.

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” stated that his goal was to always be the perfect guest. No matter if someone slapped down yak tongue boiled in the beast’s uncleaned entrails and served with a tall glass of pitxo, he was going to clean his plate and have seconds. For one, things that seem unappetizing to us are so because of our cultural limitations. Some folks coming to the West would find a McDonald’s burger to be pretty hard to stomach. So when at the house of a friend, neighbor or total stranger, be grateful for what’s in front of you and chow down. You never know if the weird thing in front of you might just be delicious. Try things.

I want those kinds of kids. So we eat interesting stuff, as often as humanly possible.

This is my first official parenting post. I picked food because I passionately love to cook and eat, but also because you might bathe your kids once a day, you hopefully only dress them once a day, you’ll only take them to the park perhaps once a week, but you’ll feed them every day, three times a day if you live in the West. Something done so often ought to be given precedence in any talk about child rearing, in my estimation.

What’s for dinner at your house tonight?

Originally published August 18, 2011