Halfsies

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which support this blog at no extra cost to you. I bought the things with my own money and all opinions are my own.

Well, I always said I had too much stuff. Now that Mr. FP has moved out into his own apartment, I have half as much stuff. It has been an unusual and fascinating opportunity to reconsider my relationship with my possessions.

Sometimes, it’s been an opportunity for me to no longer own something I didn’t like that much to begin with. (I have nothing against the Kennedy brothers, but that giant poster of them got old after the first couple of years.)

No more pepper leakage.

Sometimes, it makes an excuse to buy something nicer for myself and take pleasure in its functionality. Goodbye, yucky old cheese grater. (It was a box style with no rubber on the bottom, so very hard on my cutting boards.) Farewell, pepper grinder. I ordered highly-rated replacements, which are great. This OXO Good Grips pepper mill has a clear door so I can tell if I need to refill it AND a cap on the bottom, so it doesn’t get pepper all over the cabinet. Fantastic! And the also-OXO Good Grips folding cheese grater stands up like a box grater but folds up for easier storage AND takes up less space in the dishwasher. Brilliant!

The two halves come apart, so you can wash just the part you used.


Sometimes, it means re-evaluating what something is worth. There was only one Vitamix. He took it. (I got other stuff.) Should we ever have bought a three hundred dollar blender? Will I save up for another one? Well, probably not, but let’s say TBD. In the meantime, since I have ten pounds of frozen fruit in the freezer, I am making sorbet in the food processor instead of smoothies in the blender I no longer own.

Sometimes, it means losing something I liked and can’t replace. Two of the four creepy New Orleans coasters my aunt gave us, for instance, and the framed still life of the wine bottle that looked nice with the wine-themed curtain we got at Goodwill (which I still have). Yes, they are Just Things, but I feel a sense of loss.

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I still have enough coasters to terrify myself and one select guest.

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Not actually a red Swingline as in Office Space, but a maroon one at least.

Conversely, a strange feeling of victory attaches itself to the few favorite things I kept, even though I do not consider myself an acquisitive person. The nice heavy can opener, the new vegetable peeler, the Crock Pot. Mine! And I had that stapler before we were married! Mine, I tell you!

And then there is a poignancy to this process with its empty spaces and its absurdities. I now have a hammer but no nails, and he has nails but no hammer. He has an almost-empty toolbox. I have a Whole Foods bag full of the wrenches and screwdrivers that I owned before we were married.

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Possibly not an ideal long-term tool storage solution.

It both is and is not a question of “just things.” It’s the dismantling of a shared life, represented in the things we used to share but will no longer be sharing.

Keep some, give some away. Do without some, replace some. Rebuild.

Well, This Will Be Different

Many of you either know me in real life or follow me in the Mr. Money Mustache forums, so you already know my sad news. For those just joining in: After 15 years of marriage (that’s ages 20–yes, 20–to 35), Mr. FP and I are divorcing.

It’s amicable and mostly mutual and sad and painful.

The effect on my self-concept has been swift and startling. Among my many roles–mother, professional librarian, daughter, middle sibling–was that of Respectable Wife. And I tried to be a good wife. I worked part-time and made a home. I washed my husband’s clothes and ironed his favorite shirts. I reduced the amount of onion called for in recipes by at least half, maybe two-thirds, and what onion I did include was food-processed almost to the point of puree, because that’s how he tolerates onion. I have a killer recipe for cornbread. I brought home Cadbury mini-eggs from the store every spring the very first day I saw them for sale.

If there were some sort of spouse achievement scale, I would score average to above average for sure. But none of those things made me the right wife for the man I was actually married to.

So I’ll need to cross Respectable Wife off my mental list of Roles I Play. Now, all my other roles also involve relating to and doing things for other people, so I guess I’ll take some of the time and intellectual energy I was devoting to fulfilling my role as Respectable Wife and spend it on being Myself more fully.

Aside from using larger chunks of onion, I’m not entirely sure what that means after all these years, but I’ll be interested to find out as the dust settles.

We are selling the house and I’ll be living, at least temporarily, in something like a one-bedroom apartment, and the boys will be living with me about half the time. That should add up to much less cooking, cleaning, laundry, and general homemaking, so my use of time will be quite different.

Solo adulting and single parenting will present all kinds of exciting new frugality possibilities and budgetary challenges, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

I Made Another Skirt!

This post contains affiliate links for research purposes. I got both books from my public library.

Results are in for my second effort at sewing a skirt. Two highlights:

  1. I had dropped one size.
  2. I got the zipper in on the first try (see “Caught in the Zipper” for my previous travails).

I did have some snafus. When I sewed the pleats, the skirt came out a little smaller than it was supposed to. I overcompensated when I made the lining, so it was too small and had to be altered. Twice. Grandma FP said I should sew a new one from new fabric but I was too lazy to face a new set of darts, so I just sewed a strip of fabric into the side. (And then a large strip when the first one wasn’t big enough.) Probably not the approved method, but hey, it’s a skirt. The zipper space in the lining, for some reason, is not as long as the actual zipper, but I can get it on and off, so who cares?

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You can see the white fabric sticking up way past the end of the zipper. Oh, well.

Also, the darts don’t quite match up between the skirt and the lining. Well, one of them does, and the other looks like this:

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I used the “contrast pleat” pattern from the same book I used last time, The Essential A-line. I consulted a second book, Skirt-a-Day Sewing, but it seemed too complex for my current skills. Their designs feature waistbands and interfacing rather than full lining, and the suggested sewing kit is much larger. (I can’t imagine that I will ever invest in a “tailor’s ham,” for instance. It is a ham-shaped hard pillow thing used for ironing darts, apparently.)

I think next time, I will stay away from pleats altogether and try something a little simpler. I really want a black skirt and have not found a satisfactory one in stores. Note to retailers: Not everyone likes pencil skirts. Some of us look pregnant in them.

Cost for materials was under $20. I did not buy any new gadgets! I was really, really tempted to buy a real metal invisible zipper foot, but I resisted the urge and I actually found that my cheapo plastic one worked much better this time under my more-experienced hand. It did not fall apart even once! I bought new polka dot and lining fabric and used up some of the leftover houndstooth from my first skirt.

Here are some pics of the finished skirt. I’m a librarian, so I can do stuff like go to work wearing a homemade polka-dot-and-houndstooth skirt and low-top Chuck Taylors (not shown).

What are you making lately, or what new skills have you learned?

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Selfie. Arms not long enough to show whole skirt, but this one shows the color the best. The houndstooth is not really that crooked.

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Big Brother needs to work on his photograph skills.

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How to Adult: Book Roundup

Last month, after two and a half years in operation, my blog finally crossed the advertising payment threshold and I received a payment of $11.47 from Amazon. Partly in honor of this momentous occasion, here’s a book roundup. Amazon links are affiliate, of course, but your library probably has these excellent books. In fact, I only own one of them; it was given to me secondhand as a gift.

I spent most of my twenties feeling like a fake adult. In retrospect, it’s not surprising–I was working in a job (teaching) for which I was both unqualified and temperamentally unsuited, with mostly older coworkers.

This year, I am thirty-five. That’s the age my mother was when I was eight years old; it’s about the age my beloved Girl Scout leader was when I joined her troop in 1990. They seemed like real adults, and I’ve finally decided that I am, too! A flawed adult who knows more than average about some things and less than average about others, but not qualitatively different from other adults. In short, I have grown enough confidence to at least fake adulting. And here are some of the books that have helped me on my way.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey

I was assigned this classic for my library school class on management. Yes, it is a little corny in places and will seem even more so if you are not a Christian (though this comprises only a tiny part of the book). But it helped me stop whining and instead think about what I was actually trying to accomplish and how to do it, as well as how to listen first before you talk.

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich

There’s a key lesson here that anyone can benefit from: You will never convince anyone of anything by telling them that their feelings are wrong. That way madness lies.

Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott

This is a funny one to be on the list, perhaps, but I find myself thinking of it often. Part of a way of Francophile books, the premise here is a woman looking back fondly on her time spent as an exchange student in France, when her host mother was the lovely “Madame Chic.” I am not as elegant as the author, let alone Madame Chic, and never will be. But thinking of the always put-together Frenchwoman sometimes makes me put on my damned earrings before I leave the house, and has also inspired to overshare less (as one of Madame Chic’s lessons is to be a little mysterious) and apologize for myself less.

The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving & Natural Homekeeping by Erica Strauss

Another one that I think of often. (I have even sent my personal thanks to the author, who used to hang around the Mr. Money Mustache forums as something like Erica @ NW Edible.) When I read the author’s admonition to think of your evening chores as a gift to your tomorrow self, I’ll be honest: I thought it was corny. It is not corny. It is powerful. When I put the kids to bed and then have to go back in the damned kitchen to do the dishes, thinking about my husband and children wasn’t helping. What did help was thinking about how I would feel in the morning. Some nights I work late or am unusually tired, and then I think, “My tomorrow self will have to fend for herself.” More often, I stick it out the extra seven minutes or whatever to finish properly and wipe the counters with my lovely-smelling, attractively green peppermint counter spray (recipe from the book) and then I feel great.

There is, of course, a fantastic wealth of other information in this book, from advice about tidying to canning recipes to directions for airing out your mattress, and it would be an excellent addition to any home library.

What books helped you find your adulting mojo? I’m not the only one who has felt like an imposter, right?

My New Frugal Weight Training Hobby: How and Why

This post contains affiliate links. I bought my own book and my opinions are my own.

In my mid-thirties, the list of things I never thought I would do, that I have now done, just gets longer and longer. Here’s a new addition: I have taken up training with free weights. Heavy ones. More or less on a whim.

See, I used to do group classes at a YMCA, but we moved across town. The only reasonably priced, childcare-equipped option in biking distance was a public rec center. On Cyber Monday, I was able to purchase a one-year membership to Denver Parks and Recreation rec centers half-price, or for $183 dollars. Childcare is $15 for a 30-visit pass–that’s fifty cents for one kid or a dollar for two, each visit.

I had been paying seventy dollars a month for my old Y. I missed the free coffee and longer childcare limit, but the savings were immediate and huge. The problem was that while my new rec center does have classes, they are inconveniently timed. (Except for Zumba and cycling, both of which I really hate.)

Well, I thought, maybe I can figure out something I can on my own. I liked that Body Pump class, I thought, I should

This contraption now answers to me.

This contraption now answers to me.

do weight training. So I did what I always do–check out a library book. The New Rules of Lifting for Women, which I had seen recommended, had a hold list, so I checked out The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged in the meantime. It seemed pretty convincing about the benefits of using as much weight as you can handle (no, ladies, this will not give you excessive muscles) and focusing on big movements (think squats, rows, and lat pull-downs, not little things like triceps kickbacks), so next thing I knew, I was teaching myself how to operate the cable pulley machine thingy.

It was hard to walk into a part of the gym where those few women who were present appeared to be a lot fitter and, well, hotter than me. It was hard to make myself fumble with unfamiliar equipment than everyone else seemed to already know how to use. (They’re not that hard once you get up close.) So I started a little slowly, learning one or two new things at a time. My first routines, though they were shredding me at the time, didn’t use barbells at all.

This is a squat rack. I made myself walk right up to it even though I didn't know how to adjust it until I got there.

This is a squat rack. I made myself walk right up to it even though I didn’t know how to adjust it until I got there.

Friends, I have become an addict. The thing it, it is satisfying to use more and more weight every week. To learn how to handle an Olympic barbell, which is seven feet long and weighs forty-five pounds before you even put weight on it. To raise a pair of twenty-five pound dumbbells overhead. (That’s like having a toddler in each hand!) As a person who finds numbers extremely motivating, I love seeing my numbers climb a little higher and a little higher every time I go.

When I started, I could not do 10 pushups or 15 lunges with bodyweight. A few months later, I have to put my hands on medicine balls to make my pushups harder, and I can do 12 lunges with a 65-pound bar balanced on my shoulders.

I’ve gotten stronger, I’ve lost a couple of inches. Those were goals I knew I was going for. What has surprised me is good it is for my confidence. I am the kind of person who can lift a 90 pound dumbbell! I have excellent squat form! I am the kind of person who needs to put hands on medicine balls because other pushups are just too easy! When I go home, I feel exhilarated and less daunted by my little daily challenges.

With what I pay for childcare, my cost is coming in around $20 a month. I have also bought Chuck Taylors ($50) and my own copy of NROL Supercharged ($10 used). (I did eventually get my turn with NROL for Women, but Supercharged is better; it has better illustrations and more up-to-date exercises.) I wear the same clothes I already owned. I have also taken to drinking post-workout protein shakes even though I’m usually a whole-foods kinda girl; I just found that otherwise, I was simply too hangry to prepare my next meal. That’s a cost of about a dollar per shake. All in all, it’s a cheap hobby.

I was reasonably confident about my form because I had been doing Body Pump, and not only have I not been injured, my old injuries have been bothering me less. If you’ve been fairly sedentary and are really worried about injury, well, a few sessions with a personal trainer would be cheaper than winding up at the orthopedist, and you could go it alone once you had the hang of it. Seriously, weight training is fun, and you should try it.

What’s your exercise routine? How do you keep costs down?

Let’s Talk About Feminine Hygiene

No, really, this post is about feminine hygiene. If that’s something you would rather not be a part of, this is your chance to click the little X and move along.

Amazon.com links are affiliate links. I paid for my own products and my opinions are my own.

Here’s the executive summary: If you are a woman of menstruating age, you should probably get a menstrual cup even if you have never liked tampons. Here’s why:

  1. Save money over monthly purchases.
  2. Environmental benefit of not having all these disposable things manufactured and thrown away.
  3. They feel better than tampons.
  4. They also feel better than reusable pads.

If you’re not convinced yet, read on. If you just want to know how to buy one, skip to the end. (Full disclosure: reusable sea sponge tampons are another option which I have not tried.)

When I start thinking about writing this article, I realized with something of a shock that it’s been going on twenty-five years since I first peeled the backing of an adhesive maxi pad. And I can expect to be dealing with menstrual periods for another 13-20 years, according to US averages.

For most of my post-pubescent life, I dealt with this in the standard American way; I bought Kotex or Always (or the store brand if I was feeling frugal, but they were never as satisfactory) at the grocery store.

When I developed an interest in avoiding toxins in personal care products, the issue got more complicated. You can buy maxi pads that were made without chlorine bleach. There are three problems: they’re expensive, they’re hard to find in stores, and they never seem to have very good adhesive.

LunaPads (clickable Amazon image)


So one day when I sat down to order some from drugstore.com, and found my cart starting to add up ridiculously, I wondered if there was another way, and more or less on an impulse, ordered an intro kit of reusable cloth LunaPads instead. At the time, I had two children in cloth diapers, so the ick factor was simply not present and I was getting much more interested in avoiding waste as well as toxins. I liked these enough that I ordered some GladRags a few months later so that I would have enough to last a full cycle. (I had been supplementing with disposables.)

They work. They are comfortable (when clean and dry). As a few years went by, however, I began to notice problems with them:

  1. They slide around, causing minor leaks, unless safety-pinned to your underwear.
  2. The metal snaps are painful for bike riding.
  3. They are gross. Once I moved on mentally from cloth diapering, I think I noticed more having to rinse these out and soak them.
  4. On heavier use, they feel slimy.

I kept hearing about menstrual cups. Not for me, I thought. I don’t even like using tampons. (In fact, a four-pack lasted me ten years.) Finally, after hearing so many people go on about how great they were (in this MMM forum thread), I resolved to try one.

I certainly noticed some downsides:

  1. It can be uncomfortable if not positioned properly, and it’s hard to tell, when putting it in, what that means.
  2. Also if it’s not positioned properly, you can get SPECTACULAR leaks.

Those are the only disadvantages, and I expect they will resolve themselves as I get more proficient. More importantly, I noticed the advantages:

  1. I can take a bath when I have my period! I know, also true for tampon users, but I’m new to this party.
  2. I can easily bike.
  3. I do not feel gross.

The last one is huge for me. Even wearing tampons, I always felt gross. With the cup, I sometimes forget about it for hours at a time. Emptying it out can be messy, but to me, messy is somehow not the same thing as gross. Highly subjective, obviously.

I anticipate needing to replace my cup every three to five years, so just a few times in my remaining “childbearing” years. No monthly purchases!

I have a Lena small, which I like. Diva Cup seems to be the best-known and most widely available, but not necessarily the best. I made my selection after extensive perusal of this excellent Mr. Money Mustache forum thread I mentioned earlier.

It has links to various size charts and reviews. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll see me waffling over the purchase and the ladies encouraging me to try one. Lots of ladies recommend their own favorite brands and if none of them sound right for you, you can post what you are looking for and see if someone has a suggestion!

I also read the review on menstrualcups.wordpress.com. Note that there is a discount code for Amazon, which was still working when I ordered mine.

I still have my reusable pads, which I wear as cup backup and as  pantyliners. If I were starting from scratch, I would strongly consider Thinx instead. They cost more, but they look a lot more comfortable.

Have you made the leap to reusable?

More Misadventures in Appliance Repair: The Oven

I was trying to cook dinner one night and just not making much progress. The pork chops were still pink inside after what seemed like a long time. And the apples underneath them were still crunchy. I couldn’t understand why.

And then Mr. FP realized that the top heating element in our oven (it’s called the broil element, and you should remember that because it’s going to be important later in the story) was not working. The bottom element was working, so the oven felt generally hot, but it was not hot enough to cook pork chops. I finished dinner in the toaster oven.

So I needed a new heating element. No problem; I did a little Internet searching and ordered the cheapest new OEM part. In the meantime, at least I could use the toaster oven and the cooktop, right?

That was true until I blew the circuit breaker. When the new part arrived, I flipped off the circuit breaker, then I remembered I wanted to use the stove and tried to flip it back on. Except it wouldn’t go back. It was stuck in the middle, tripped position.

Also, I had ordered the wrong part. I had ordered the BAKE element; I needed the BROIL element. Silly me, thinking they would be interchangeable.

Well, I know my limits. The thing about electricity is that if you do it wrong, you burn your house down. So I called an electrician to replace the circuit breaker. It wasn’t done quite right before and neither was the one for the dryer, so he fixed, that, too. This repair totalled a princely $311. Evidently my circuit breakers are manufactured by unicorns.

The electrician informs me it is not uncommon for a bad oven heating element to take the circuit breaker with it. I am told that in the future, immediately cutting power and not using any part of the range until it is repaired may spare the breaker.

A few days later, the correct part arrived. (The part was $40 and it cost me $12 to ship back the one that was wrong, for a total cost of $52.) I flipped off my brand-new circuit breaker and removed the old element. Here, I hit a snag. See, here’s the number one rule of replacing oven heating elements: Do not let the wires fall back inside the oven.

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Close-up of the hole that the wire had fallen through, seen from the back. The little metal doodad you see hanging down is what connects to the element.

You see where this is going, right? Well, when pulling out the old element caused the wires to snap back inside the oven, I nearly despaired and called a repair person. Then I thought, well, how would the repair person get those wires out? I asked Google. Turns out all I had to do was pull the oven out from the wall and remove the back. Now, I could tell this wasn’t going to be hard because it came off with a regular screwdriver. I have a theory that when a manufacturer wants to keep you from messing with something, they use oddly shaped screws. (Like the star-shaped screwdrivers I needed to take my dishwasher apart.)

Once the back was off, I easily located the wires. It actually made installing the new element easier, because I could attach the wires from behind the oven rather than inserting the top half of my person inside the oven. My arms aren’t long enough, anyway. Several more minutes with the screwdriver and we were back in business.

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Re-assembled back of oven. Sorry for bad photo quality–as you can imagine, it was dark behind my oven. And kinda filthy.

I don’t know how much money we saved, paying for the circuit breaker but fixing the oven myself. But I had a plumber at my house a few months ago and I asked him how much it would cost if, in addition to the job for which I had hired him, he also tightened my loose faucet. To tighten this screw, he said, he would charge $179. So I’m guessing I saved three figures.

And equally importantly, it was extremely satisfying. I would like it noted that at no point did I ask for or receive any assistance from Mr. FP. This was my show.

What home repair successes or debacles have you experienced recently?

Well, That Could Have Been Worse: I Screwed Up Our Withholding

I have been in charge of taxes at Casa FP ever since we were married in 2001. (Prior to that, my parents’ accountant did my taxes, and Mr. FP did his by hand, on paper.) In the early years, I used to take them to H&R Block or some other tax place, but these days I do them with tax software.

Some years we’ve owed several hundred dollars, depending on my self-employment income (which has been as high as about $10K). One memorable year, we got a large refund. In fact, we got back more than we paid–when Mr. FP was teaching at a boarding school, we qualified for the EITC. (Since we were getting free housing, we were actually doing pretty well, but the IRS didn’t ask if we had to pay rent.)

I thought this year would be pretty neutral. Maybe a small refund. I made just a few thousand on the side and we have kids.

Then I found out I made a mistake. A big one. See, we both have dependent care FSAs. I thought that we could withhold, pre-tax, five thousand dollars each in those accounts. So… that’s what I did. Our child care expenses were about $9370, so that’s what I had withheld.

Turns out, that five thousand dollar limit is per family. Not per person. That means we had about $4730 on which we owed taxes, but had not had taxes withheld.

See that line that says "Taxable Benefit"? That's where the wheels came off.

See line 26 that says “Taxable Benefit”? That’s where the wheels came off.

Why didn’t I know that? I have no idea. You’d think I would have noticed. Or researched it. Or something. But neither employer’s paperwork mentioned it and I didn’t think to look it up. Oops. Friends, learn from my example. You gotta Google this stuff. You can find all kinds of reasonably clearly worded explanations of tax stuff online*.

TaxAct keeps a little running tally of how much it thinks you owe, and at one time, this was close to two thousand dollars for federal and state, including a federal penalty as federal owed was over a grand. I began to panic. I contemplated freezing all purchases even though I have been wearing the same sweat pants since 1998.

Happily, I had two more pieces of info to put in. The first was one last IRA contribution of $500. That actually tipped us under a thousand owed and did away with the penalty. The second was Mr. FP’s tuition paid. He learned that with a few easy classes, he could up his paycheck (by getting to “master’s plus 15” on the pay scale). He did that, and spent around $1500 in the process. That was good enough for a $300 Lifetime Learning tax credit.

Total owed, federal and state, came to $1499. No penalties. It’s money we were always going to owe, it’s just that instead of paying it throughout the year, we’re paying it now. It sucks. It stings. But it could have been worse. And while it’s going to eat up a lot of our cash savings, it’s not going to clean us out. We’ll still have enough left for, say, one major car repair after we pay. I decided I was not so destitute that I had to mend 18-year-old sweatpants and bought sleek new exercise pants with some belated birthday gift money. (Thanks again, Auntie B.)

How did your tax season go? Do you DIY?

*Obligatory disclaimer that if in doubt, you should talk to a CPA. I am obviously not one and have, as evidenced here, absolutely no expertise in this area.

What a Preschool Birthday Party Doesn’t Need

When Christmas ends, there’s no rest for the weary in the FP household. Big Brother had the unfortunate luck to come into the world on January 21st, when many of us find ourselves sunk in celebration fatigue. And with his turning five this year, he is starting to have expectations of what a birthday should be. Last year, I just baked a cake, hung up a banner and told him it was a party; this year, he wanted guests.

Still, I don’t believe, as a general rule, in exceeding kids’ expectations. We invited guests, sure, but we kept it low, and I mean low, key, reducing both the expenditure and the stress level. It’s a good thing, too, because when I went to pick up Little Brother at preschool at 11 am on the day of the party (which was an after-school affair), I was told that Big Brother was in the office and needed to be taken home. Sick, I thought? Nope. He had gashed his head and needed to be taken to Urgent Care for stitches.* The party, I was assured, could proceed as planned, but my time to prepare was suddenly cut in half.

Here are some aspects of throwing a birthday that we consider optional and decided to forego:

 

  • Inviting the entire class. Some people do this, and I can only assume that these people are masochists. Or trying to make up for some kind of party-deprived childhood. More sensible parents limit their child to one guest per year of age. I didn’t even go that far–I allowed him to invite the neighbor girl (age 7) and three kids from his class, two of whom RSVP’ed yes but only one of whom attended.

 

  • Restaurant pizza. There’s a Little Caesar’s not too far away, so this would not have been a major expense. But English muffin pizzas were even cheaper and more fun for the kids, who enjoyed putting on the sauce and cheese and pepperoni. And healthier.
  • Ice cream. I know, it’s tradition. But there is plenty of sugar in the cake. No one complained about the lack of ice cream.
  • Fancy cake. I tried to bake a cake from scratch, but it collapsed in the oven. Duncan Hines to the rescue, and I had to buy jarred frosting as well after the head vs. gate incident. Know how I decorated it? I stuck candles in it. A “5” that I had bought back in December for a friend’s 35th and four plain ones. Complaints? Zero.
  • Treat bags. I hate these. Hate, hate, hate when my kids get them. They’re full of candy they don’t need and trashy toys–so much waste. I was going to send each kid home with a helium balloon, but then I didn’t have time to buy them. (I sent Mr. FP, who brought home uninflated balloons instead.) No one complained.
  • A venue. I suppose if your house is very small, and it is winter, you might need a venue. Our living room was fine.
  • Formal entertainment. I asked Big Brother if he wanted to play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but he said he would rather just do Play-Doh. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. The other key entertainment was batting around balloons (laboriously inflated by Mr. FP and myself), which was a massive hit.

Lest you think this party was some sort of barely glorified playdate, we did have juice pouches and disposable Ninja Turtle cake plates, both of which are, by my standards, wildly extravagant. I trust my own children with our usual chipped Pfaltzgraff plates and open cups, but I wasn’t sure about the guests.

Here’s one thing that I think all preschool birthday parties should include: wine. I had previously attended only one children’s birthday party, and wine was served. The hosts were pot-smoking hippie types, so I have no idea if wine is a typical offering at these affairs, but I liked the idea and I ran with it. I kind of thing it might not be standard, judging by the way my guest’s face sort of lit up with surprised delight when I offered her a glass.

For the adults, I also offered Trader Joe’s spinach dip and veggies with store bought hummus. I did not keep exact figures, but I believe the total cost for the party came in around $20-$25.

And it was fun. Big Brother had fun. His guests had fun. I had fun drinking wine with the other mother (neighbor parents couldn’t stay, which is fine as their seven-year-old is easy to supervise). And by having it on a school afternoon, I did not have to block out a whole precious weekend day.

How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?

*He’s fine now, although if he goes bald, a scar on his forehead will probably be visible. The PA who put in the stitches told me to remove them myself–from his head. This is apparently nonstandard medical advice, but since it saved me a fifty-dollar copay, I gave it a shot using thread snips and the tweezers from the Swiss Army knife while Grandma FP, who was visiting, distracted the patient. It was surprisingly easy and highly satisfying.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Autonomy: Parenting Book Roundup

This post contains Amazon affiliate links for research purposes. Your library probably has these books and you should check there first!

I have come to believe that the best way to parent “wrong” is to try to parent some way that is not natural to you and your kids. Personally, for the first few years there, I really struggled with finding my way to the kind of parent I wanted to be. I lacked confidence so much that I never wanted to parent in front of an audience.

Time passed, I got better at it. Being, well, me, books were naturally part of how I found my feet. I read plenty that were useless or just didn’t suit me, but here are some of the best.

Alyson Schafer, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and Ain’t Misbehavin’

I actually read the later book first, but it mostly works either way. Schafer is an Adlerian psychologist who urges parents to practice “democratic parenting,” which essentially consists of treating your children like people. You don’t use rewards or punishments, because those don’t work anyway, and you don’t engage in power struggles with your child. Instead, you always offer your child a choice, and you do it evenly, with no drama or vindictiveness. You definitely don’t use shame. If your child doesn’t brush his teeth, you might explain that means he is choosing not to have sweets, since sweets are bad for your teeth, but you don’t go on and on about how his teeth are going to fall out of his head. And when it’s lunch time and he can’t have jelly on his sandwich, you remind him of the reason calmly, but not smugly. You shouldn’t enjoy it.

This is the author that has helped me the most, hands-down. For instance, we had meltdowns every time we turned off the television until I started asking the kids, “Do you want to turn off the TV, or should I?” (Fortunately, turning off the TV is a three-remote process, so I have plenty of buttons for both of them.) I taught them to push the right buttons, so now they get to practice a fun skill every time we turn off the TV, and it has cut down on meltdowns dramatically.

More authoritative parenting books like 1-2-3 Magic and Parenting With Love And Logic weren’t that helpful for me. Trying to give time-outs just made us all agitated; I would start counting or warning or whatever and then not want to follow through. While I still have to find a way to follow through, at least it’s not via trying to get a kid to stay on the naughty step. Some people swear by them; they just weren’t for me.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Not actually a parenting book, but pairs nicely with Alyson Schafer. Just like sticker charts won’t really motivate your kid to go potty, paying people to solve a problem won’t inspire creativity. The authors agree that the research shows people are more strongly motivated by internal forces, like the desire for autonomy, belonging, and a sense of purpose.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Also not actually a parenting book, but the chapter on communication (“Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”) is crucial for learning to relate to people of any age, even toddlers, with empathy. This one also helped with two areas I’m still struggling with: constantly operating in crisis mode, and complaining instead of solving.

The Gesell Institute, Your [X]-Year-Old series.

These books are old now, but don’t discount them–they’re still in print for a reason. They are often laugh-out-loud funny and bursting with positivity even about the most trying ages and behaviors. Besides which, they are a fascinating glimpse into a time when parenting expectations were a touch more reasonable. 
Do you find parenting books helpful or useless? What are your favorites?

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