Protecting the Gift

In mid-November I wrote a post about my internal conflict over how to keep my kids safe without smothering them. It’s an issue that I still struggle with. It’s coming to the fore now because Hannah is not quite so shy as she used to be. I wouldn’t call her trusting, but when she likes someone she will talk and talk and talk. Other mothers at the park get her whole life story, are treated to her personal rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie, or are presented with gifts of leaves and sticks.

I’ve been wondering what I should tell Hannah about talking to strangers. I’ve seen the news magazines showing parents who swore up and down that their children would never, ever get into a stranger’s car. And then some producer shows them a picture of a ‘lost puppy’ and they jump right in to the guy’s van. Their parents had talked at length about ‘stranger danger’, and the message hadn’t sunk in. I’ve also had some personal experience seeing kids discount the messages of their parents. When I was a teenage babysitter on one occasion some old guy in the park offered my young charges a bunch of unwrapped candies. They were extremely angry when I denied them the treat – all the warnings about not accepting food from strangers paled in comparison to a handful of linty chocolates.

So here’s my quandary. I don’t want to scare my kid. I don’t want her to feel that she must be afraid of everyone. I think that it’s likely that my most dire warnings would be fairly useless anyway. But I also feel that it’s my responsibility to prepare both of my kids for the world, to let them know that not everyone has good intentions. That it’s just not necessary to tell complete strangers personal details about yourself.

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I shared my quandary with a friend, and she recommended Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. I borrowed it from the library and I just finished reading it, and it was very helpful. I would recommend the book to anyone who is struggling with these sorts of issues.

The first thing that I got from the book was that kids need to develop and hone their instincts about who is safe and who is not. I know Hannah has her own instincts, because she is very selective about who she opens up with. Rather than making blanket statements to her like, “Don’t talk to strangers,” it’s more helpful to allow her to approach people on her own terms. Then as parents we can discuss the interactions she has, and teach her some basic safety rules.

The book also discusses what sort of information kids need to have before you allow them to be outside your house without supervision. It was really practical and concrete, and helped me to develop an idea of what sort of knowledge and abilities I should be cultivating in my kids. And de Becker also confirmed what I already knew, which is that the likelihood that my child will be abducted is virtually nil.

The book includes a list of signs that indicate someone is up to no good. It was interesting to me, because I was approached on a busy sidewalk on a sunny afternoon 7 or 8 years ago by someone who was very compelling. He gave me his phone number and wanted me to call him. I told him that I had a boyfriend, and he said it didn’t matter. Dude was charming and friendly, and because of the setting I didn’t feel at all alarmed. Later, I saw a news report saying that someone who looked an awful lot like him had recently been arrested. I knew it was the same guy, but I managed to convince myself I was probably wrong. After all, he had been so nice. Reading this book, and assessing the signals he gave off, I realized unequivocally that he was Bad News. Even as an adult I still harboured a distorted idea that bad guys would somehow look ‘bad’ – it turns out that they don’t.

This book didn’t address all of my questions, and I wouldn’t say that I completely agreed with every point. I felt that portions were unnecessarily frightening. For example, the author included several stories about people being attacked by strangers, even as he said this never happens. So it isn’t perfect. On the whole, though, the information was solid and helpful.

I now feel as if I have some answers on how to teach my kids about safety, and how to protect them without keeping them indoors for the rest of their lives. I imagine that I will re-read this one more than once as my kids get older and new issues arise.

A Year of Knitting

2007 was a very crafty sort of a year for me. I learned to knit. I did a lot of sewing. I took lots of photos of my finished projects.

2008 was not so crafty for a variety of reasons. There was a brief period when I suddenly felt the need to Produce (late pregnancy hormones at play), but otherwise I more or less dragged my heels. In the past month or so, with Jacob’s acquisition of a more predictable bedtime, I’ve picked up my needles again. Right now I’m knitting the fern glade hat using some leftover yarn that I had in my stash. I won’t finish that in the next day, though, so I will save any photos for next year.

Without further ado, here are the few projects I have managed to finish in 2008. Click on the photos for the full-sized version.

Hannah's flower girl sweater

Flower girl sweater

Ambrosia Socks

Ambrosia Socks

Itty-bitty baby sweater

Itty-bitty baby sweater

Hooded baby bathrobe

Hooded baby bathrobe

Baby hat

Baby hat

Knit from hand-dyed yarn

Knit from hand-dyed yarn

Socks in 'Amber'

Socks in 'Amber'

'Unoriginal Hat'

'Unoriginal Hat'

My Resolutions

It’s Mat Leave Monday! After a few weeks of fairly weighty subjects, I’m taking a walk on the lighter side. I’m making some personal resolutions for 2009, to help make the most of what’s left of my maternity leave. I would hate to find myself sitting back at my desk at work, wishing I’d done more with my government-paid leave of absence.

Make (and keep) a budget
Jon and I are savers by nature. We keep an eye on where our money is going, and are not generally prone to impulse purchases. Every month or two we sit down and calculate how much money has come into and gone out of our various accounts. However, we’ve never really had a budget. Maybe we’ve planned for the big stuff, like renovations and vacations, but never for ordinary purchases like kid’s clothes or food. If we actually wrote out a budget, and lived within it, we could probably reduce our spending and use the savings to pay down our mortgage faster. Plus, we are living on a reduced income while I’m on maternity leave, and we want to make sure that we don’t overspend.

Exercise at least twice a week
I’m going to re-enroll in my Salsa Babies class once it starts up again in January. And I’d like to re-start my regular walks once the snow that is making my neighbourhood impassable melts. I need to keep active to keep up with my kids, and I also feel better when I’m exercising regularly. Plus, you know, I’m still carrying around some extra postpartum pounds. Fun stuff!

Do more cooking with Hannah
Hannah loves to cook, and not just chocolate chip cookies – pie, bread, pizza, chicken, you name it. When I let go of my expectations and go with the flow it’s actually lots of fun, and I know that she’s learning about food and building lifelong memories. She’s also more willing to try food she’s prepared herself. Of course we can cook together even when I’m working, but right now my attention is less divided, so I can tackle projects that I would be loathe to undertake when I’m doing the corporate thing. And cooking food from scratch is cheaper and more nutritious, which helps with the budget and the baby weight, too.

Hannah enjoys the apple that she prepped with our fantastic gadget

Hannah enjoys the apple that she prepped with our fantastic gadget

Get a haircut
My last visit to the salon was over 6 months ago, when I was around 7 months pregnant. With Jacob exclusively breastfeeding, something like a hair appointment becomes a massive logistical undertaking. But I will do it! I do love a haircut.

Manage my time more effectively
I have been spending a lot of time on the computer these days. We have no TV and we’ve been more or less snowed in for more than a week. I need to come up with a plan that allows me to visit my favourite blogs and websites, write my own posts, and not neglect my family. I recently subscribed to a whole whack of blogs via Google Reader so that I can see at a glance who’s posted recently. And I’ve also been scheduling my posts, so when inspiration hits and I have time I can pound out several entries that will show up later. Beyond that, I think I will set time limits and maybe specific computer times.

Get crafty!
When I was pregnant I was on a bit of a domestic tear, knitting, sewing, and preserving food. A lot of it was hormonally-induced nesting, but I also enjoy making things with my hands. Especially things that my kids can wear or play with. I’d like to do at least one project a month this year. Maybe I’ll set up a gallery like I did in 2007 so that you can all see what I’ve been up to.

Take a family vacation
I’m not working, Jacob is portable, and Hannah loves to sleep in new and exciting places. What better time could there possibly be to pack the whole family into the car and head for Vancouver Island? OK, maybe right now isn’t the best time, but I persist in my belief that summer will come our way again. ;-)

There you have them, my maternity leave resolutions. What are yours?

Attack of the Toxic Breastmilk

Back before Christmas I watched The Story of Stuff, after Late Bloomer recommended it. It’s a 20-minute video that talks about the environmental impact of consumption, as well as some of the health repercussions of our manufacturing processes. The thing that stood out for me, and that caused me to go back and read the script, was this quote:

Do you know what is the food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants? Human breast milk.

What? I was flabbergasted. I know a lot about breastfeeding, and I had never heard this. I have heard reports here and there about toxins in breast milk, but I’d certainly never heard that it’s the most contaminated food. I know all about the benefits offered by breastfeeding, to babies and to mothers. I know that it helps prevent cancer, obesity, and allergies. I know that virtually every public health organization in the world recommends breastfeeding as the best choice. How can human milk be toxic? Annie Leonard, the presenter, was holding a sign that said “Breast is Best”, but I still cringed a little, worried that this would dissuade mothers from nursing their babies.

So I did a little research. Basically, the long and short of it is that many toxins accumulate in fatty tissues. When we eat, we ingest and store whatever toxins are in our food. This is amplified particularly when we eat animal fat, and even more so when we eat the meat of predators such as marine animals, because animals are also storing toxins. When we’re nursing we use up our fat stores, and the accumulated toxins end up in our milk. Because babies are small and milk is fatty, they’re getting a relatively high toxic load. Higher than formula-fed babies, since the fats in formula are actually plant-based.

Of course, there’s a catch. Babies are also exposed to toxins prenatally, through the placenta. So even if you choose to formula feed, you’re not going to able to avoid exposing your baby to toxins. They’re in you, and human babies still gestate inside human women. Studies indicate that breast milk offers protection against the harmful effects of toxic chemicals. Not to mention the cases of formula contamination, which are potentially much more serious than exposure to toxins via breast milk. Unequivocally, breastfeeding is still the best choice.

Why is it that after all of my reading and research about breastfeeding, the high presence of toxic compounds in breast milk was still news to me? There are a couple of reasons. First, many breastfeeding advocates don’t want to talk about this for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t. They’re worried that mothers will choose not to breastfeed once they learn about toxins in human milk. Second, there is a general lack of awareness and little consensus about the toxins themselves, many of which continue to be in wide use. There are politics at play here, and few clear answers.

So, where does this leave us? How can we reduce the level of toxins in our bodies, and by extension our babies’ exposure? La Leche League has a great article here that outlines why breastfeeding is still far superior, and how to minimize your exposure to contaminants. And the organization Making our Milk Safe also has some great information.

I, of course, will continue to breastfeed. And I encourage others to do the same, if they can possibly manage it. I also encourage everyone to educate and inform themselves about the products we use, and the chemicals they contain. We owe it to our kids, who are bearing the brunt of our choices. After all we all want the best for them, no matter how we choose to feed them.

Photos by Hannah

Hannah has recently learned how to use the digital camera. Her sense of composition and choice of subject matter is still developing, but she’s only 3 years old. I’m, ahem, several years older and I’m still honing my own photographic style.

Anyhow, these days when I’m taking photos she’s right there, asking for her turn. Digital cameras are actually pretty good for kids, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s instant feedback. Second, with a rechargeable battery the photos are virtually free, so I’m not paying to buy and then develop film. Because electronic images by a 3-year-old = cute. Spending $20 to see a whole lot of out-of-focus snapshots of my nose hair = not so cute.

For your viewing pleasure here are a few of Hannah’s snapshots. Click on them to see the full-sized versions.

And, after promising that I would update Christmas photos and, you know, not doing that, I’ve finally gotten off of my duff. You can see the whole set here.

Holy Nights

Christmas is upon us. We’re in the thick of it, and I don’t have much time to catch my breath. I will be taking a break for a few days, so now I am taking this chance to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thanks for reading along with me this year!

Hannah and Amber, building a gingerbread house

Hannah and Amber, building a gingerbread house

By way of a Christmas offering I give you one of my favourite Unitarian readings. My thanks to this site for the words.

And so the children come.
And so they have been coming.

Always in the same way they come –
Born of the seed of man and woman.

No angels herald their beginnings,
No prophets predict their future courses,
No wise men see a star to point their way
To find a babe that may save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.

Fathers and Mothers –
Sitting beside their children’s cribs –
Feel glory in the wond’rous sight of life beginning.
They ask: “When or how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night.

~ Sophia Lyon Fahs

More Maternity Leave FAQ

It’s the special Christmas edition of Mat Leave Monday! I’ve got my Santa hat on, and I’m ready to cover some more common questions about maternity leave in Canada. If you want to brush up on what I’ve already covered you can read my previous posts here and here.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or HR professional and I do not represent the federal government. If you have questions, you should probably speak directly with your employer or Service Canada. ;-)

Are EI benefits taxable?
Yes, they are. The government will automatically deduct income tax at the source. So the amount deposited in your account will actually be less than whatever your benefits level works out to. However, unlike employment income, they do not deduct any benefits premiums, or EI and CPP premiums.

What happens if you’re laid off during maternity leave?
As I explained in my earlier post, you can’t be laid off because you’re pregnant or going on maternity or parental leave, but you can be laid off for unrelated reasons. So what happens if you get the heave-ho while you’re on leave?

I actually asked someone who works for the government about this, and I googled, and I couldn’t get a clear answer. However, I know how this was handled with friends and colleagues, and others confirmed that this is how it usually works. There may be exceptions, and even variations in labour law from province to province. If you are aware of cases that were handled differently I would be interested in hearing about it.

Anyhow, what generally happens is you are officially laid off effective your first day back at work. Until then you continue to collect your maternity and parental benefits through EI. And then any severance benefits you may get are paid out by your employer once your leave is over. However, you will likely not qualify for EI, since you probably don’t have enough insurable hours (for more on that read this post). The exception might be if you didn’t take your full year of leave.

How will a Christmas or holiday bonus affect my benefits?
Whether or not you will receive a bonus while you’re on leave depends on your employer and your contract. If you do receive a bonus of any kind (including a physical gift) it may affect your benefits. Remember that while you are on parental leave, you are allowed to earn a small amount of money before your EI is affected.

Let’s say that you’ve received some type of bonus, and its value is high enough that it affects your EI. How do they allocate it against your benefits – i.e., how much will they deduct from your EI? There is a handy chart here that tells you all about it. Basically, it depends on whether it’s a bonus paid specifically for Christmas (think holiday gift), or some other type of bonus (think annual bonus that just happens to paid at Christmas).

You can tell whether it’s a Christmas bonus or not based first on your employment contract, written or verbal. In the absence of a clear answer, the government may contact your employer to get more information.

If it’s a true Christmas bonus, then it will be allocated against the week that it’s paid. Say, for example, that you get a $3000 Christmas bonus (lucky you!). This is well in excess of the maximum weekly EI benefit plus the 40% you’re allowed to make, so in the week that you get the bonus you would receive no benefits. If it’s not a true Christmas bonus, then they would take the money and calculate how many weeks of work that represents. Let’s return to our example and say that you get a $3000 bonus, and your normal gross weekly salary is $1000. That means that they would allocate the bonus over three weeks, and so you would lose three weeks of EI benefits.

This is all very confusing and complicated, and I personally was amazed that there are different types of bonuses that are handled differently. So really, should you find yourself in the enviable position of having income to claim while you’re on leave, it’s probably best to just contact Service Canada and get their expert help. My next point tells you how to do that.

How do I report earnings while I’m on leave?
Any money that you make while you’re on EI needs to be reported to Service Canada. If you’re completing reports, you can declare your earnings that way. If you’re not, and most of us don’t since it’s not required, then you can declare your earnings by telephone. Call 1-800-206-7218, from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm (it doesn’t give a time zone, so I would assume Eastern), and press “0″ to speak to a representative. For more information on earnings and how to report them, look here.

What about non-employment income?
As this handy-dandy article explains, employment earnings are those paid by your employer, or those earned through self-employment activities. Other money that you may receive is not allocated against your EI. Tax refunds, lottery winnings, gifts from your grandmother, inheritances, and so forth need not be claimed. So, yes, ironically you could win $10 million and still collect EI as I understand it. But as always, if there is any doubt, contact Service Canada and they will help you out.

What if I get pregnant again while I’m on maternity leave?
This happens a lot – after all, a very high percentage of pregnancies are unplanned. How you handle it depends on you. If you weren’t planning on going back to work, then it won’t change your plans. However, if you were planning on returning, and you really need EI to swing another maternity leave, then you need to do some math.

You need 600 hours of insurable earnings to qualify for EI. So the first thing to do is determine roughly when you would want to go on leave with the next baby, and the second thing is to determine how many weeks you have to work to accumulate 600 insurable hours (as far as I know paid vacation time, statutory holidays, and short-term sick leave are considered insurable). Take the date when you expect to go on your next leave and count back the number of weeks you need to work, and you have a new return to work date. If the new return to work date is before the date you’d planned to go back, you will need to return sooner, or increase the number of hours you work when you do return. Keep in mind that your partner may qualify for parental leave if you end up going back sooner than expected.

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