Boon potty Bench (c) Boon Inc.

I think that potty-training was Amie’s first real challenge. It’s not like “learning” to walk and talk, is it? Those come naturally and very gradually – for both the kid and the parents. Going on the potty is the first fully learned skill, one that requires physical training, and patience and a resilience to failure for all concerned.

There seem to be two general schools of potty training. Each is a combination of two approaches to the child’s access to the new (the potty) and to the old (the diaper).

With regard to the potty:

  • 1. the let’s-first-get-acquainted school: introduce the potty very (too) early on, very gradually; once she is ready, she will know what it is for and will naturally go to it.
  • 2. the wow-look-what’s-this! one: once you know she’s ready, make a big deal about buying and placing the potty and start right away.

You can combine this with two types of access to the diaper:

  • A. the safe-and-easy approach: keep the diaper on, let the child go to the potty by herself, or practice a routine of visiting the potty regularly.
  • B. the what-the heck-is-going-on?! school: once they’re ready, take away the diapers and make them experience the discomfort of wet underpants.

We started out by following a combination of schools 1 and A. We got this fancy Boon potty (*) when Amie was around 1 1/2 and it stood in our bathroom for months before she was really ready. She would sometimes sit on it, but for fun and play, which is exactly what school 1. encourages. More often she would sit on top of the lid and read books.

The time came. She seemed ready, announcing that she was peeing and even going to pee, complaining about a wet diaper, etc. Preschool was in the nearer future and family members were noticing the continued presence of diapers.

But Amie had lost all interest. We could not entice her to sit on that potty, not even as a game – while keeping our fingers crossed that we would strike lucky. Even when she was clearly ready, she refused. Not even our repeated observations about big girls going on the potty helped. She’d cleverly point out that she was “a little bit big and a little bit small.” Even the model of Boo – her favorite Boo, from Monsters, Inc – going on the potty wouldn’t make her try.

That potty just wasn’t fun anymore! The novelty and adventure of it had simply worn off.

Still sticking with school 1. we switched to approach B. We put her in underpants when she was at home. She didn’t like that at all! She often asked for a diaper, but I would talk her out of it. Still, it didn’t feel right because I could see she wasn’t sure of herself, and couldn’t relax. We would have 50% success, but she would go to the potty reluctantly and renew her requests for a diaper. Just as often she would relax and have an accident, and then she would cry, heartbroken. This was undermining her confidence: not good!

Exit schools 1. and B. We put the diapers back on and tried to break the curse of the boring potty by introducing an adaptor for the adult potty, but she didn’t feel comfortable on such a wobbly contraption, which required the added fuss of a stepstool.

I thought it best we take a break: we stopped our efforts and I hid the potty for over two months.

When I reintroduced it – a la school 2. – she finally got on track. We placed it in a different place: our common bedroom, put lots of books next to it, and made a big ado about her own roll of toilet paper. We mixed approaches A. and B., letting her decide. Sometimes she asked for panties, sometimes she preferred the safety-net of a diaper or pull-up – it doesn’t seem to matter, because she can open her diaper herself now (**). We had some accidents, but her reaction was now one of u-oh, not of help!-I-can’t-do-this! I introduced the reward of an “M&M” (an organic chocolate covered raisin).

It has taken about four months now, and – when at home – she is fully potty-trained during the day. More than often she wakes up with a dry diaper too. She is even going on the potty at daycare (contrary to many other kids, the peer-pressure of her friends going on the potty there didn’t help much). And she hardly ever asks for her reward anymore!

“I’m a big girl now!” she will say with conviction.

Next challenge: going on the potty in public restrooms and public spaces like parks, and holding it in when we’re in the car!

(*) We like it a lot. It’s rather expensive ($35) , but it is comfortable (as far as I know), has storage bins on either side, one with a rod to put the toilet paper roll, and it can be closed to lok totally inconspicuous as a sturdy step stool that will lift your toddler up to the sink. And it looks neat too.

(**) Seventh Generation has made the tabs on their largest diapers bigger: very handy, and they no longer tear off.

dead bird (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I’m reading an interesting book called Talking with Children about loss, written by “Good Grief” counselor Maria Trozzi and co-authored by Kathy Massimini.

cover of Maria Trozzi, Talking with Children about Loss (c) Perigee Books, 1999

I’m always picking up books like those. I read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters, for instance, when I was pregnant, and got many comments, mostly in the vein of “how can you read that now?”. But I am unashamed, because I’m a writer. It gives me the license to “imagine things” without having to be embarrassed about it. So, yes, I’ve imagined the worst for Amie: what if she died, what if I died, what if her father died? I’ve “lived” through these scenarios, and would like to, one day, write a novel about one of them and really explore such an event.

But I read these books first of all because, as any mother, I want to know what to do, or I want DH to know what to do, if Amie experiences a loss. I want to be prepared. Being a bookish person I naturally reach for texts, and find there my knowledge and my hope.

One of the first tasks of mourning, writes Trozzi, is understanding: understanding what death is. Not “going to sleep”, “passing away,” “going to heaven” or “being lost. Death is a physical process that ends everything that we call “human” that attaches to a person’s body. A child needs to understand that, and we need to stop using euphemisms. If a child doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of death, he or she will never be able to deal with loss, will never be able to mourn.

As I read that, I realized I had already started this task with Amie. For one, as I wrote earlier, I don’t want her to be ignorant of where her food comes from: that beef was a cow, that sausage was a pig, the wood in the hearth was a tree, etc.

But it has gone further. Many months ago Amie had repeated nightmares about a dinosaur. She woke up screaming and often would refuse to close her eyes again, because there was a dinosaur in the room, or it was coming. The way we helped her through this fearful time was by simply telling her that the dinosaurs are dead.

“What’s ‘dead’?”

“Dead means the dinosaur can’t move, can’t walk. Dead means he can’t talk, or listen, or look. Dead means his body is lying in the ground somewhere, buried, often even crushed to pieces. So he can’t get up and come here.”

She was quite resourceful. She said:

“But this dinosaur isn’t dead.”

“That’s not possible. All dinosaurs are dead. That’s why we call them a special word: ‘extinct’. ‘Extinct’ means that all the dinosaurs, without exception, are dead. So no dinosaur can come here.”

Sure, she was the only 2,5-year-old who knew the meaning of (and could pronounce) ‘extinct’. But hey, I believe in the power of words (and of their definitions, and of their correct application to the things in the world). And this was one clear-cut example of that power. Amie’s nightmares stopped.

Bird in Birdfeeder at RSL, May 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten


  1. Chickadee
  2. Northern Cardinal (male and female)
  3. Blue Jay
  4. American Robin (male and female – one sitting on her nest in our carport)
  5. Hummingbird (probably the Ruby-throated hummingbird, not because I identified it as such, but because my books tells me it’s the only one that visits Mass. in summer, and it was green)
  6. Yellow-throated Vireo (in the photo), or might this be the Yellow Warbler?
  7. Pileated Woodpecker (it’s big!)

… And many others I won’t even attempt to identify. I was especially thrilled to see the hummingbird. I wasn’t sure they hung out in our neighborhood.

Other animals:

  1. Raccoon
  2. Fox
  3. Squirrels and chipmunks
  4. Lots of dogs of all sorts
  5. Insects of all kind

There are also supposed to be wild turkeys, deer and rabbits and – while we’re on the topic of veggie-eating varmints – woodchucks.

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Ay! I am hurting. My whole body is aching this morning and it feels good.

Yesterday we sanded the floors some more (1200 sq. f. of beautiful red oak), vacuumed, tack-cloth-d, smashed a heavy storm window, sanded the dents in the floor, vacuumed and tackcloth-d again, then put on the first layer of polyurethane (water based = less vocs). We didn’t stain, the floor is so beautifully blond. Then, waited, sanded again, vacuumed and tack-cloth-d again, and put on the second layer.

Today: sand, clean, third layer, sand clean, fourth and hopefully final layer. Also pick up a table saw that DH found on Craigslist and maybe we’ll also have time to visit nearby Walden Pond. Or a visit to Home Depot (yeay!) to choose the colors for the walls (we’re going to try FreshAire = no vocs).

Often while taking a break I stand looking at the garden to survey all the work that will be necessary there, this summer and next spring. The septic leach field is still a disaster: not yet ready for a cover crop. The subsoil stones the contractor brought to the surface all over the property are sore on my eyes. There is poison ivy in the future vegetable patch. We have too many trees, affording only a 4 hour of sun, yet I couldn’t part with any of them… And then I catch myself smiling. One thing at a time.

Next week, during some stolen afternoons and evenings, we’ll finalize the paint choices, and next weekend we’ll start painting. Then a big cleanup. Then: move in! maybe we should do a major yard sale first! We’re moving into a bigger space but I would rather it were an emptier, cleaner and clearer one…

Amie gave up her nap when we were on holiday in Toronto. We like it because it no longer takes 2 hours to get her to sleep in the evening (sometimes she would lay awake till midnight!). On the other hand, I no longer have that 1 1/2 hour nap to quickly do some more work.


My “work” is writing this novel. I’ve been working on the first 12 1/2 chapters, over 400 pages, for over a year now, at the rate of about 20 hours a week. Those 20 hours consist of the four mornings Amie is at daycare and napping.

I’ve been working on the thirteenth chapter – the second-last chapter – for over two months now. No, not at 20 hours per week. In those two months Amie has been home sick for three weeks, her daycare took a week off, and I was out of commission myself (“on a holiday”) for a week. We also bought a house, of course, which involved a lot of work, research and stress.

So I haven’t worked in weeks. And I’m frustrated.

I have been spending a minimum $800 a month on daycare – many months for two weeks of nursing a sick child at home. I write “I” because I consider that to be the income I bring in, not DH. Or rather, my “non-income”, as my friend Shari calls it, because I haven’t as yet brought in a dime. It’s my investment into the novel, which I hope will at least break even in the most modest sense of paying for the daycare. My time, and even the potential income I gave up for writing the story, I will consider repaid simply by the fun of having written.

But the main frustration is with how my “work” gets perceived, even by those closest to me, those who know how much I love it, how much I have riding on it, and how much I put into it. It isn’t considered “work”, because it earns no income. Or it isn’t considered hard work, again because there’s no income and perhaps even because I enjoy it so much! Which just indicates the sorry state of the concept of work…

And so also I don’t have the right to be tired, because what I do do when I don’t “work” – namely mothering – isn’t “work” either (and it will never be considered as such as long as mothering isn’t paid). Because staying inside all day wiping a snotty nose and soothing a sad little whining child couldn’t be tiring. Because stealing hopeless glances at my laptop, feeling my story’s momentum and inspiration seep away along with the hope of making it pay off couldn’t be heartbreaking and stressful…

Should mothering be paid? At least we could consider the tax break for a “dependent” as payment for the work of the stay-at-home mom, not as repayment for what the working dad has put into daycare or diapers (though obviously it is a tax break on his income).

But forget about the money.

That I drop my work (at home or not, paying or not) at the sniff of a nose to do the most difficult kind of mothering, that of taking care of a sick child, doesn’t mean that writing wasn’t “hard work” to begin with. And that, when the child is recovered, I return to my work as if I was starved of it, doesn’t mean that mothering isn’t important to me either. Far from it, each should underscore the importance of the other. Both are what I do best, and what I need to do to be the best person I can be.

Okay, end of rant.

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We’re back from a week in Toronto, mostly recuperating at my Aunt and Uncle’s place. Soon, I promise, there will be news about Amie’s now incessant “why?” question, her need for getting naked to go “swimming” at the most inopurtune moments, potty-training (almost complete), and more puzzling (with 24 pieces) and drawing (clothes are now in the picture as well!). And maybe I’ll reveal some about my novel (been getting requests)…

But first, a question to my readers (well, some of them, the farmers and gardeners in particular)…

One of our first priorities at the house is sowing a cover crop on the soil that was disturbed and left bare by the installation of the septic system. A lot of that beautiful dark humus-like topsoil – years if not decades of leaves had been allowed to stay and degrade where they fell – has unfortunately been turned under, and in many places what is at the surface now is light brown subsoil.

So: what should I sow to protect that bare soil from washing or blowing away, and to prime it with new organic matter and nitrogen for growing vegetables, herbs, berry bushes and fruit trees come next spring?

Crimson clover, hairy vetch? Rye? A combination of any or all of these? I don’t mind resowing as the seasons change from warm to cold. I’ll be cutting it down with a scythe and turning it under with a fork, but we’re only talking 0.4 or so acres.

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We closed yesterday. It was pouring outside. The lawyers and the agents sat with us at that big “conference table”: witnessing. At the end we made out a check to the seller for the leftover oil in the tank: $1600! How ironic. We are planing all kinds of alternative energy sources to avoid oil consumption, but apparently it comes with the house! Let’s just say that, once we’re done with our work, that amount of oil will have to last us two if not three years.

Then we drove to our house, opened our door with our key, and turned on the water. Played with the taps – it was a way of appropriating it, of making it “appropriate”: our own. We walked through, chatting, noticing new things, planning. We kept an eye on the time, the $15/hour for the babysitter time…

We finally felt how exhausted we were, from the stress of this whirlwind, needlessly complicated buying process, as well as from the bug that Amie brought home several weeks ago. She’s still fighting it, but is frustrated by the cough that wrecks her sleep. I “adopted” it a week ago, and DH was coming down with right at that moment.

It was strange, finally leaving the house, knowing that it will be two weeks before we return. This week is crazy busy at DH’s job and next week we’re off to Toronto for nine days. Then we’ll begin. Then… Seems like we’ve been waiting (postponing?) for decades.

The novel is on hold while I recover and while Amie is home from daycare for the second week in a row. I am so close. I almost finished chapter 13, after which I was going to send it out to my trial readers. That’ll have to wait as well.

But we’re not waiting, really, are we. We’re planning, dreaming, knowing, now, that it won’t be long.

Photograph of small farm on river bend

We’re closing on Monday. We’re going to do this! And even before it begins, I feel the urgent need to document it all. Hopefully I’ll have the time to write here more often again.

Last week a new septic system was put in, which tore up the entire front and back yard. We knew about this of course, and welcomed it – it allows for the 2 bedroom to become a 3 bedroom if we wish. The result saved us some work: it made the sloping front yard a little more gradual, got rid of lots of scrawny trees (we requested the wood was left), so cleared space (and light) for the garden. Psychologically, with “the woods” removed, it is now easier for me to see the garden.

But the place looks so violated: all that bare earth! It’s not my own yet and I feel for it already. Also, the leach field we now realize is humongous (looks it, in any case), and as I balk from growing veggies on it, my first reaction was to lament the loss of space. I know it’s only a small loss, really, only a small area in the grand scheme of our almost-an-acre. I know my perplexity has more to do with my reaction to all that space and the question: what to do with it. Or rather, where to do it all?

The space as it exists now overwhelms any kind of vision for the future.

As for the space that exists… With all that emptiness after the construction of the septic system, the garden in front is one, large, amorphous space, with a dense cluster of trees (some mature, some not) to the left and a path of destruction all the way up to the house.

In the back and to the sides, there are unrelated pockets of space, segmented by little stone walls and trees and most obviously by ugly, metal fences. They cut the space apart and even exclude land that turns out to belongs to the property too.

Add to that the contents: so many trees we’d like to keep, so many types of soil and microclimates, most of which are unknowns as yet.

I approach this torn-up, fragmented, schizophrenic space with my equally fragmented vision.

There are so many functions that we want our garden to fulfill: vegetable garden, herb garden, bird garden, insect garden, orchard, hedges and paths, play space, discovery space, wild space, calm space…

And so many elements to incorporate. Things that are already there: the huge masonry BBQ (make it into an oven?), the old stone ring, which we’d like to keep. Structures to be built: a root cellar, Amie’s play structures (swing, seesaw, jungle gym), a little house for her (cob?), fences, and walls to train fruit trees on, a green house, a composting place, a woodcutting and curing area, maybe a tiny pond…

But standing there today, among the budding trees and the birdsong and the rustling of all those fall leaves that were left there (leaf mould!), and surveying the front from the house on the hill, I had a vision that clicked into place! And that’s exactly what we need: to make space into place, then to make that place into home.

It began with a path, a wall and a gate. Exactly the three main spatial elements that aren’t spatial themselves at all, but that divide and integrate and open space.

It’s a single meandering path that runs down the slope. It meets a small wooden gate in a thick and a low, curving wall.

The path is terraced by wooden dividers and covered with stones, all found on the property (oh many stones!). Over it at intervals are trellises and arbors, and along it (invading the garden space), benches, a birdbath. The wall is made of cob and the larger stones, painted a deep, warm brown. Along it on the inside grow the fruit trees. On the other side is the street. It is not meant for privacy: any person of average height can look over it. It is meant as an invitation.

The gate does the inviting. It sits in a higher, thicker part of the wall, with space above it for a cob sculpture, and generous chinks for preliminary glimpses of what lies behind it. It is a wooden, painted gate, rounded on top. There is perhaps a bell – with a clapper, maybe a chain (and a notice to the effect of “bell is optional”). There’s a niche for the mailbox next to it, and some flowers or a little object. Maybe a bench, on the outside, for weary passers-by.

It says: home. We live here, we are native here. And you are welcome.

Maybe I’ll draw it for you sometime. Maybe I’ll even get to build it!