Sunday, November 04, 2012

We're already in November!

It's November! Chilly weather has officially set in, but it's still lovely. Our family has been quite busy. There have been Halloween festivities (more than I think we've ever done in any country!). Piles of candy in the apartment right now. Lucas had a major Halloween event at school, my school had Halloween festivities that consumed all my energy on the 31st, and yesterday we participated in a Halloween party for expat families in our area which was a ton of fun.

Performing with his classmates
Lucas and Daddy with the massive bag of candy loot

My costume at school
Lucas is Iron Man War Machine! Carlos worked to make it look extra cool
Two little superheroes decorating mandarin oranges with Jack-o-Lantern faces
Demolishing the remains of the Halloween piñata
Baby - We're at 34 weeks. Time is flying. Still no name picked out, but we're getting closer to figuring something out. I'm very grateful that this has been a healthy pregnancy. Although I don't particularly enjoy being pregnant, I have no major complaints, other than the massive belly that is making overall movement difficult. Also, the daily fatigue is building and it's getting increasingly more difficult to sustain the energy I need to make it through a day of teaching middle-schoolers. If you're praying for us, please pray that I can find that stamina and the energy to still be an effective participant of my household at the end of the day, too!

Immigration - I'm not comfortable sharing the details publicly yet, but we are in the midst of a new attempt at a US visa for Carlos, and at this point we're about to embark on a brand new stage of the fight. At the same time, DHS is currently working on revising its policy for applying the false claim of citizenship ban to people who were minors at the time. This has the potential to impact us dramatically and perhaps even bring Carlos back to the US by next fall.  Again, for those who pray, pray that this policy change will include us and that the path for advancing forward will be smooth. The thought of being back in the US with friends and family (And Chicago-style food! And a family-sized apartment! And a car!!!), with Lucas and Baby getting to regularly see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousin, great-grandparents, and everyone else again is extremely exciting!

Finally, I've added a "Resources" page to the top bar of the blog. I've gotten a lot of emails from people in various situations, some battling US immigration, some contemplating moving their family to Korea, some mixing both. I've tried to address some of the questions I get by putting links and information on that page. I feel bad because I haven't been great at responding to all of those emails, but I hope that some of what I posted will help point you in the right direction until I get a chance to personally respond.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Being a pregnant foreigner in South Korea

I've been pregnant in 3 different countries (the US, Mexico, and now Korea), and I can say that by far, the experience in this one has been the best. Why is that? Let's see...

Of course, my view is skewed by the fact that the last time, we were in the middle of our first attempt at the US immigration process, I was stressed out beyond all belief, I was unsure of whether to continue in Mexico or the US, ended up bouncing between both countries, and ultimately giving birth in the US while Carlos watched on Skype.

Obviously it's much more ideal to be in one country and together full-time with my husband. During my last pregnancy, I guess I just rolled with it and survived, but now I realize how much I missed out on. For example, this time, I'll only have had to fly pregnant once (already done)! Instead of...four-plus times like I did last time. This time, I actually got to have Carlos there at the ultrasound where they checked the baby's anatomy and told us she's (probably) a girl. That was amazing. Instead of an anti-climactic attempt to reveal the gender over Skype like last time. This time, he's been there to support me through the constant morning sickness that lasted for nearly 3 months, he's been there to slowly adapt to my wildly-changing body (instead of being shocked every couple months), and he's been there to dream with and envision our lives with the baby (mostly we freak out about that, but we'll be OK).  But let's get to the actual specifics.

OK, step one, pregnancy test. Just like last time, we were pretty confident, Carlos more than I, that we were expecting, but just to be sure, I went to the pharmacy, asked for an 임신테스트 기 주세요 ("im-shin-test kit juseyo" = "Pregnancy test kit, please"), then decided to get two (never hurts to be extra positive!) and for about 8,000 won (maybe $7.20) I walked out with the kits and went home to test. The positive line showed up instantly. For both pregnancies, those test kits practically jumped out screaming "Positive!" For anyone reading this who may be contemplating or experiencing pregnancy in Korea, I've heard there are some brands that are better than others and to avoid "the green one" because of false negatives. Incidentally, the green box is the one I ended up with. Also, if you are unfamiliar with pregnancy tests in your native language, it can be slightly confusing to decipher the instructions in Korean, so see if someone can help you interpret before you test. In general, one line is the control to show it worked, a second line is the test line that only appears if positive, and no lines means either it didn't work or you haven't waited long enough. Normally you have to wait like 3 minutes before reading the test (the kit will say, so another reason to have some help or get to work with your online/smartphone dictionary before testing if you can). Probably best to wait the full amount of time before making any conclusions, unless you're like me and the positive result is immediate.

Telling the Boss!
We were a few months ahead of our planned "start trying" date, so finding out I was pregnant in April was a bit of a surprise and then fairly frightening. I knew we would be set through September when my contract at school ran out, but with a December due date, this isn't enough. I decided to tell my employer almost immediately, basically as soon as the morning sickness set in. Probably wouldn't have been able to hide it much longer anyway, as my nausea was aggravated by the smell of food; in particular soy sauce, sesame anything, rice, garlic, red pepper paste, fish, fried anything, and basically I've just described the central features of Korean cuisine, so as you can imagine, teaching in the English classroom directly above the school kitchen was madness for my stomach. It's a serious miracle I got through that whole part of pregnancy without any vomiting incidents at school.

I was prepared that they may not want to renew my contract past September because I've heard many public schools find it too much hassle to support a foreign teacher through maternity leave and all the other legal and contractual obligations that come with it. In all honesty, there are a lot of perks given to native English teachers when compared against the usual qualifications and job obligations and those of the Korean teachers in the school, so I can understand why maternity provisions really tip the balance against the teacher's favor. And yes, my principal was hesitant at first, but she was assured by the other English teachers that my work here is valued, and she was also soothed by the fact that my maternity leave will coincide almost precisely with Winter Break when there are no classes anyway. If you're a native English teacher in Korea and you're pregnant, dealing with the employment end of things is perhaps the most delicate part of the whole entire pregnancy in Korea. It's a good idea to read through your current contract, the upcoming one if you're in the public school system and can access it, and be really informed before jumping into an official discussion at work. The first person I told was a co-worker who I felt I could trust to support me (she was beside herself with glee when I made the announcement), and then she accompanied me to tell the principal.

I worked really hard during the first trimester to not let my condition affect classes. Yeah, I was exhausted, nauseated, felt terrible all the time, and wanted nothing to do with food. But I didn't want the school changing its mind for any reason, especially until I had a signed contract in hand, and 40 weeks is a long time so I had to make it clear I was up to the challenge from the start. The one modification I had to ask for was that during one particularly awful week of nausea, I moved all English classes to the students' homerooms instead of using the fabulous English Zone, just so I could be away from the kitchen smells. My fellow teachers were more than fine with this, thankfully.

Visiting the Doctor
I need to preface this with a short description of the medical system here in Korea because it's vastly different from that in the US and also from the Mexican system. In short, it's a single-payer nationalized system, legal workers pay a small percentage of our paycheck into the system and our employers pay a matching percentage. This is in exchange for broad coverage of pretty much any necessary and non-elective medical needs, and our experience with it here matches the expectation: ridiculously low costs, fast, accessible care, and overall satisfaction. My job/contract covers my dependents under the system, so Carlos and Lucas are taken care of, too. For an fascinating, more in-depth look in layperson's terms, you can see this blog.

Prior to my pregnancy care, we had one hand injury (Carlos) and one ear infection (Lucas). In Carlos' case, a consult, X-ray, and a special brace for recovery all came out under $12 as a walk-in patient who was in and out in under 45 minutes. In Lucas' case, we didn't even take him to the doctor (or, really, hospital), it was his teacher at school who ran him in during lunch time because he was complaining that his ear hurt. Another vast difference from the US - no HIPAA regulations here. Again, less than $10 got him a consult, a cough syrup and antibiotic, and he was apparently back at school in time for class to resume.

When it comes to pregnancy, things get even better. Because South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, the government is scrambling to incentivise pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. So there are even further perks which I'll get to below.

Alright, finding a doctor. My co-worker called a local OB/Gyn center in the neighborhood and checked if the doctor spoke any English. Most doctors here know at least some essentials because they have to complete a lot of their medical study in English. For my first appointment, she happily accompanied me (nearly cried upon seeing the baby on the ultrasound), but after that I've always gone by myself or with Carlos and we've been just fine. The staff doesn't really speak English but we get by just fine with minimal English/Korean and a lot of gesturing, and the doctor is able to communicate just fine in English, at least about medical matters. He strains to attempt small talk during the consults but I try to let him know it's OK, we are fine keeping it down to medical business and a lexicon he's much more familiar with, I know he's on a time crunch.

By my first appointment I was already about 10 weeks (I have a bad habit of waiting a long time to get care), so I did the usual initial testing (pap smear, blood, urine checks) and the doctor performed an ultrasound to confirm the pregnancy, get the size/estimated due date, and check that things were alright overall. I was offered a DVD for 10,000 won (less than $10) that I could bring to every appointment and get all my ultrasounds recorded on video. I agreed because for that low of a price, why not? Going home and watching the ultrasound videos again has become a favorite activity of mine.

For those interested in prenatal care in Korea, especially more sophisticated or non-conventional options and doula services, and especially for English-speakers, there are TONS of resources out there. I think I'll get into those more in a separate post because this one is long enough, but an excellent starting place is the Birthing in Korea website, which features plenty of resources targeted to pregnant foreigners in Korea.

Paying for Care
Because I waited so long, I basically had two prenatal appointments rolled into one, tons of testing and procedures, and my expense was about 80,000 won. Keep in mind this is just a lowly, humble clinic in my neighborhood, not a big huge maternity hospital or one of the centers that caters to foreigners, both of which would cost a more. After this first visit confirmed the pregnancy, I was given paperwork to take to the bank (KB, Shinhan, or Post Office bank) to apply for the GoEunMom card. This is a debit card that comes preloaded with 500,000 won (as of April 2012), about $450, which can only be used on prenatal visits in 60,000 won increments at a time, and occasionally some other baby-related expenses like diapers and such at certain locations. This card is available to anyone enrolled in the National Health Insurance system, foreigners included, and the government funds it.

The beauty of using this card and getting prenatal care at a normal little clinic like I'm doing is that since that first visit, I've never had to pay anything out of pocket. Each visit is somewhere between 30,000 won and 55,000 won or so ($25-50) always under the 60,000 total paid by the card. And I should mention that every single visit features an ultrasound, included in the cost of the visit. So at 31 weeks, I've only paid the cost of the initial consultation, and I still have about 300,000 won left on my GoEunMom card. The experience of those getting prenatal care from a pricier institution is different, but I feel like especially for a second pregnancy and no history of risk, there's no need for the fancy stuff. My doctor checks me and the baby all the same.

Kor 538
Korean citizen babies and foreign babies
For foreign moms married to Koreans, there are a whole lot of perks after the birth as well, as they are giving birth to Korean citizens. I believe such moms in certain sectors with especially low birth rates get cash rewards and tax benefits for having more than one child, and there are more benefits as the child grows, even if you only have one, including stipends for child care, preschool, and further education. However, these are not available to children born to two foreigners, because these children are not Korean citizens.

Important fact: Korea, like many major countries, bestows citizenship based exclusively on parentage (jus sanguinis), so a child born in this country is only Korean if he or she has a Korean parent. That means our child will need to obtain one or both of our citizenships, and we'll actually have to do this pretty quickly to register her with immigration authorities and get her covered under the National Health Insurance. For those who are curious, our baby is eligible for both US and Mexican citizenship at birth because both of our countries grant citizenship by parentage as well as birth inside the territory (jus soli). The process of establishing her US citizenship is done by filing a Consular Report of Birth Abroad at the US Embassy, after which we are given a certificate that acts as a US birth certificate, and we can also get her US passport once that's approved. The process for Mexico is the same in concept, although we'll see in practice how it goes. Mexican registries are usually a bit of a fiasco.

For those who are curious, here are links:
US Consular Report of Birth Abroad
US CRBA instructions specific to Seoul
Mexico - Registro de nacimiento en el extranjero (highly specific to the embassy in Seoul, this varies a lot from the process in the US or anywhere else for that matter)

Pregnant woman2
Differences at the Doctor
I didn't do much prenatal care in Mexico, but my initial prenatal visit there was about US $50 and included just a sit-down consult and a pap smear at a tiny, non-fancy clinic. I was given a prescription to go out and get the rest of the testing, including the ultrasound and blood testing, at a separate lab. It was at that point that I got overwhelmed and ended up looking at care in the US instead, so most of my frame of reference comes from experiences in suburban Chicago.

Anyway, based on the experience in the US, besides the cost factor, there are a lot of other differences. Here, I'm not expected to make appointments. I'm just supposed to walk in whenever is convenient, and I generally get seen within about 20 minutes. I usually ask my co-worker to call ahead first just to make sure it's OK but she seems kind of perplexed by this. I can't break my American-ness on that aspect.

Also, the clinic is open until 7 pm and I always see the same doctor (I think he's the only OB), so I don't have to re-arrange my work schedule around prenatal visits or anything. Generally my OB in the States could only do daytime appointments.

The prenatal care schedule matches the standard US one pretty closely - General testing and dating ultrasound first, Dual Marker testing sometime around 12-14 weeks, Quad Screening around 16-18 weeks, full anatomy ultrasound sometime after that, glucose testing (YICK!) at the start of third trimester, non-stress-tests and the like as you're monitored up to the birth. The biggest difference in the care schedule is the use of ultrasounds at every single appointment. At first this freaked me out because I imagined spending piles of money on all those ultrasounds, especially considering that in the US, insurance often refuses to cover more than two over the whole pregnancy. But no, those ultrasounds cost me nothing over the usual limit of what my GoEunMom card covers. So I have no complaints about all the extra chances to see the baby! The office staff at my clinic gave me a prenatal visit schedule at the first appointment and wrote in the approximate cost of each visit, too, which is how I felt confident from early on that I wouldn't spend much more than what my Mom card covers, if any at all.

Cultural Differences in Care
For the most part, the traditional Korean model of prenatal care matches the conventional model in the US. Generally it's focused on spotting potential health complications for mom and baby. Many would say that in Korea, there's more of a sense of the doctor as all-knowing and the mom as simply a medical subject to be worked on. Rarely does Mom get to have any input during consultations and the assumption is that the doctor knows exactly what's going on.

Another thing that most foreigners seem to experience here: most doctors are overly concerned with both the size of the baby and the weight of the mom, almost across the board for any non-Koreans. Most of us have a slightly different physical makeup from that of a typical Korean mom and thus our measurements and baby's often vary from the norm of what doctors are used to seeing here. So expecting foreign moms are often told to cut out all carbs and exercise more (regardless of whether they're already following such a lifestyle).They're also frequently told by the conventional doctors that the baby is probably too big to deliver without a C-section. Korea's C-section rate, something between 30-35%, is often cited as one of the world's highest, especially among OECD countries, so if a foreign mom with a different kind of body shows up, many doctors are going to default to their simplest option, which is surgical removal of the baby, rather than the unknown of letting the mom labor and deliver naturally.

While a lot of the Western world is slowly starting to seek more natural birthing experiences, thanks in part to contributions like The Business of Being Born and an overall cultural normalization of natural birth, these trends have really not reached Korea. Many of the families seeking these experiences in Korea are the Westerners living here who find home and/or water birth and intervention-free labors more appealing. There are a handful of midwives and OBs who favor natural approaches, mainly in and around Seoul, and a majority of them can speak English. Again, the Birthing in Korea site is a great place to start looking at these options.

Delivery and Post-Partum
This is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I've been more than happy with my local clinic's checkups along the way, and if I delivered there, the cost would be insanely low. But as a mom who prefers natural, non-intervention approaches to childbirth, and would also prefer to have practitioners comfortable in English during the delivery, I am planning to deliver elsewhere, at great additional expense. I'll try to detail all that later.

A South Korean school lunch
The lunch portions my co-workers would like me to eat

Out in Public
I've probably mentioned that foreigners generally stand out a lot in Korea, and are often the subject of lots of staring. Then add a big, pregnant belly and you've got the attention of just about everybody on the bus/train you're riding. This isn't all bad. Pregnant moms are queens here. Just like in the States, subways and buses have designated "pregnant mom" seats and unlike in the States, people actually jump up and offer these seats. At least in my experience, as a person whose pregnant belly popped out during 1st trimester and who usually is carting around a preschooler as well as a shopping bag.

At school, I'm almost daily greeted with looks of pity and inquiries of, "Tired?" from students and other teachers. Out of obligation, I sigh, "Yeah, a little," because apparently expecting moms are supposed to be VERY tired all the time, especially at this point in pregnancy. Most of my co-workers constantly compliment my energy level, which I honestly thought was par for the course. My students have a hard time believing I'm not carrying twins because my belly really sticks out like crazy nowadays. My principal did have to make a stop at my table at lunch the other day to confirm that I am, in fact, due in December and not, say, next week.

I also get lots of commentary in the lunch room over what/how much I eat. Let's just say that in general, expecting Korean moms are able to consume amazing amounts of food (rice in particular). They also manage to maintain tiny figures and tiny baby bellies, but I digress. I am no longer able to eat that much even if I wanted to because real estate in my abdomen is at a premium right now. Plus, I discovered early into my Korean experience that daily rice consumption was making me gain weight, so I usually only have about a spoonful of it with my lunch and this causes extreme concern among my coworkers. Also, if miyeok guk soup (seaweed soup) is served that day, everyone scrambles to make sure I'm eating it, as this is the prime food of early motherhood. In fact, it's the only food you get to eat for the first month after having a baby in traditional Korean households.

In summary, pregnancy in Korea has been really low-key, and so much easier. It actually feels more natural but maybe that's also because it's the second time, I generally know what's going on, and because I'm actually firmly settled in one place with my husband at my side. We've still got about 2 months until we meet the baby (maybe less?), so we'll see how I'm feeling about it in December!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Looking back III...Fall 2012!!

Here we are in fall! The bridge from August to September is filled with rain. I'm not sure if the term "monsoon season" is apt in Korea, but it rains a LOT in August. And then the typhoons start. This year we had predictions of a really powerful one at the end of August. For days, there were warnings of the incoming Typhoon Bolaven, and we were instructed to take all sorts of precautionary measures, like prepping the windows with masking tape, turning off the gas, stocking up on water reserves, etc. It was supposed to be the biggest typhoon in maybe a decade. The day of the typhoon, classes were cancelled for my students and Lucas' school closed. However, at many public schools like mine, the teachers were still expected to come in. So we did, and enjoyed a day of quiet to get tasks done in the building. We were able to leave before the winds really picked up, and I spent a cozy afternoon hunkered down in the apartment with Lucas and Carlos, making baked goods. Carlos left the news on the TV in case there was a real emergency (as if we would have actually understood any emergency instructions delivered in Korean...), but truthfully all we experienced were the high winds rattling the windows; barely any precipitation fell, we didn't lose power or water. It seems the Seoul region was mostly unaffected by the typhoon. The southern region of Korea was much harder-hit and apparently we'll soon be feeling the effects up here in Seoul as the obliterated crops from the South cause prices to rise even more at the supermarket.

Anyway, we're fortunate to have been virtually unaffected by that or any subsequent typhoon, and by the end of September, the glorious fall weather set in. Living in Chicago, I never really experienced a full fall season, as defined by a continuous period of days with temperatures peaking in the 60s-low 70s Fahrenheit. For like, weeks. It's amazing and beautiful. Chicago seems to jump from searing summer heat to chilly winter coat weather with a few temperate days thrown in the middle for good measure, and bounces back and forth a few times before making up its mind. Here in Seoul, it's this gradual easing into cooler temperatures, and the days are just perfect for getting out and exploring the city in the sun without getting baked by it. We've been taking advantage!

We've been enjoying leisure outings to different parts of the city, including the now-world famous Gangnam:

From Fall 2012

I got to enjoy my 30th birthday with Carlos and Lucas and a lovely cake from Paris Baguette:
From Fall 2012

And we've celebrated our second Chuseok in Korea. Chuseok is the harvest festival and probably biggest holiday in Korea. It's kind of like the US Thanksgiving and Mexican Día de los Muertos rolled together and celebrated with nearly the fanfare of Christmas on our home continent. Last year we went to Caribbean Bay with my recruiter and her family. This year we tried to be a little more true to the holiday itself by going to an actual Chuseok festival. We ended up going twice, since it lasted a week in downtown Seoul. Lucas also got to sample some of the traditional Korean wear that accompanies this holiday.You can click these for more photos:

From Chuseok 2012
From Chuseok 2012
From Chuseok 2012
From Sunday Afternoon in Seoul

One thing we didn't expect to find in the middle of a Korean harvest festival: A live Mexican band performing in one of the plazas!

From Chuseok 2012

It seems fall is still solidly here for awhile longer, so we intend to enjoy it as much as we can!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Looking back II...Summer 2012

So here goes Part II in my rapid-fire blogging spurt to catch up to the present...

Summer 2012 kicked off with Carlos taking part in his country's political process for the first time, sending in his absentee ballot to vote for Mexico's next president. Although there was widespread discontent and distrust in Mexico over the general management and final result of the election, at least we know Carlos did his part.

From Summer 2012 in Korea

Carlos and Lucas got to spend Father's Day together for the first time, I believe. :)
From Summer 2012 in Korea

Baby G #2 started growing and making her presence known
From Summer 2012 in Korea

Although it took another ultrasound to really confirm her gender, this one was pretty cool, if you're into ultrasounds:

In a later post, I'll write about the experience of being pregnant and getting medical care in Korea, as I have plenty of things to say on the subject (mostly positive!).

 In early August, I finally got to make my long-anticipated visit home to Chicagoland. I got to spend time with dear family members, got to meet up with tons of friends, and Lucas had a blast enjoying some of the best of the summer activities available for a kid in Chicagoland.

From Chicago2012
For example, the Popcorn Shop and Two Toots Restaurant in Downtown Wheaton and Downtown Glen Ellyn, respectively...

From Chicago2012 absolute blast at LegoLand in Schaumburg...

From Chicago2012
...splashing for hours in the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millenium Park...

From Chicago2012
...and our annual photo with the Bean.

Lucas also got to celebrate his half-birthday by throwing a proper birthday party, complete with the big cake, decorations, piñata, games, and actual friends and family (as opposed to our less-than-spectacular birthday celebration at home in Korea last December). He chose a superheroe theme and we went all out, or as all out as this mom was prepared to handle.

From Lucas' superhero birthday-ish party

We had a great time seeing everybody, and unfortunately two weeks were not enough to cross all the places, people, and foods from the must-experience list. They also were not enough to spend with dear ones, one of whom we would be seeing for the last time. :( We were grateful for that short interlude, though, and we are anxious to return next year with a new little one to meet everyone.

Speaking of returning, the summer also brought a process/procedure change in the immigration world that could, as a long-shot and in the long term, potentially help us have a chance to argue our case again. Our lawyer initiated the process again and we took the plunge and re-filed at the Seoul embassy, knowing anything could happen at this point. More updates on that situation in a later post, as there have since been even further developments on the policy landscape.

And at the end of the summer, we celebrated one year as residents of South Korea! Thank you, Republic of Korea, for the chance to live together as a family for a SECOND year! 대한민국, 감사합니다!
From Summer 2012 in Korea

Monday, October 08, 2012

Looking back...Spring 2012

I kind of dropped out of the blogging game for awhile. Lots of things have happened since my last post, virtually all of them good. But I think most importantly, I finally started to feel like life was usual. Nothing extraordinary to blog about, and that is a good sign. But I was reminded that there are lots of people thinking of and praying for us on a regular basis, people who like to check the blog, people who have reminded me that 6 months is probably a bit long to go without posting. So I'm going to try to update slowly this week, one season at a time, starting with Spring! Let's see what happened in Spring...(I had to consult Facebook Timeline to remember some of this. See! It's not such a bad concept, people!) Well, first of all, Lucas settled in at school. You can click these images to see more of that detailed in photos if you want:

From Lucas at School
The Avengers came out in theaters! It was released more than a week ahead of the US, which means Lucas can say he saw it before just about anyone else in the States. It was his first movie in the theaters, ever, and he did a fantastic job. We adults loved it, too. We had been waiting for this for months. Years?
From Spring 2012
As spring arrived, the cherry blossoms took over...

From Spring 2012

Carlos and I celebrated 5 years of marriage! After all these years of keeping a marriage alive across borders, it was extra exciting to finally be celebrating an anniversary while living together in the same country.
From Married for 5 years!

And at the top of our spring highlights?
From Spring 2012
The start of the countdown to becoming a family of 4! We're expecting a little girl in mid-December, to be born here in Korea!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bucket lists and family life: not mutually exclusive

Today's blog is about a belief that I often hear repeated in US culture, a belief that was recently re-affirmed by Honda CR-V commercials like this one.

The premise is this: Once you get married or have a baby, that's it. Your bucket list is basically dead. So make sure to pack it all in before you take the plunge. Also, buy a CR-V to help accomplish it all.

A fabulous high school friend who is a mom of two pointed out the absurdity of these commercials on Facebook and it really struck me. Nothing against the CR-V, but what a terrible message, that marriage or parenthood changes your life so much that you no longer get to do the things you dreamed of beforehand!

Add to this the recent viral video parody, "We're Not Young", which mourns the loss of the younger, vibrant days when we had goals and enthusiasm for life.

This makes me sad because I believe that marriage, or even having kids, is no death sentence for adventure or accomplishing your dreams. Of course there are many things that are easier when you're still single, and quite a few that become pretty challenging with young people in the picture. But in general, if you're passionate about certain pursuits, then hopefully you are marrying someone who shares those values, because if they do, then you'll actually be gaining a partner in accomplishing those goals. Even if they aren't 100% on board with everything, they can still support you in your desire to accomplish them. That's what marriage is, right?

And parenthood? Another awesome friend, this one from my early childhood, posted on Facebook a fascinating book review on French author Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. I haven't read the book, but the premise is apparently that in modern culture, "L'enfant Roi" has taken over, King Child. That parents are so obsessed with the well-being of their children, they sacrifice their own happiness and desires, their relationships, careers, and ambitions.  (By the way, I dislike when people comment on books they haven't read, and here I am doing this very thing, but it just happens to fit in with this post that has been sitting in my draft box for months and I'd be saying these things anyway...) I agree with a few of these allegations -- living in another country has really emphasized how aggressive typical American parents are in protecting their kids from everything and providing absolutely everything they could need or even want. But on so many other counts, I disagree with Badinter's claims.

Parenthood has not stifled my ambition; if anything it has spurred me to become more of the person I want to be, to teach my son that we have to work hard to accomplish our goals. It hasn't watered down my passions; now more than ever, it's essential for me to define my beliefs and values and live them out because all of this is on display for my son and I am leaving a legacy for him. Parenthood has helped me become more of a complete person, rather than putting the single, childless "me" on a leash. There are so many things I was before becoming a mom, so many layers that built my identity: violinist, soccer enthusiast, language-learner, teacher, traveler, then wife. Those didn't go away when I became a mom, I just got a new, very important layer. Although my biggest priority is now raising a healthy, happy, polite, inquisitive, well-adjusted little boy who loves God, this doesn't mean that I've had to put all my other interests on the back burner. Some things seem less important now (it turns out that knowing the entire current FIFA ranking is not so fulfilling anymore). So in a way, motherhood did change that, but I think it just highlighted the things that are important to me in the long term, and helped me focus my energies there.

So how have my interests flourished as a wife and mom? While a newlywed, I learned some Catalan and Italian together with Carlos, as we were both enthusiastic about these languages and the cities where they were spoken. Later, I learned French (verified by test scores!) in 6 months, when Lucas was 2 years old. Eventually he was repeating after Rosetta Stone right alongside me. My husband's soccer leagues have opened up a fascinating world of people from many different countries, Lucas loves coming to games and getting free food from other team supporters, and as a bonus, it gets us traveling all over Seoul. The violin is currently on the back burner only because I wasn't able to cram it in with all the luggage during our move to Korea. Obviously travel hasn't suffered - I traveled more once I had a husband to share the adventure with me, and Lucas had stamps in his passport from three different countries before his third birthday. Being a wife and mom has given me a built-in team to enjoy my pursuits with, or support to explore those that only interest me.

Badinter apparently feels that many increasingly common aspects of parenting, such as breastfeeding, natural birth, etc. are pressuring moms into duties that make them miserable and hinder their lives. I'll be honest: nursing an infant was not enjoyable for me and it was absolutely not compatible with teaching, especially substitute teaching, but that didn't stop me from pushing through it. Somewhere in there it became less of a duty, and more of a privilege. We ended up keeping at it until Lucas lost interest around 27 months. As much as I initially dreaded it, it was so much more convenient for a mom and baby traveling internationally, it made nights much more bearable, and around the time I finally got to stop pumping at work, it became a chance to connect and snuggle at home with my otherwise-busy toddler. Looking back, I feel like those early months of motherhood were easier to survive because of it. Yes, parenthood does involve sacrifice. But so does anything worth having. You sacrifice a lot of your prospective future salary when you take out a student loan to get through school. You sacrifice a lot of freedom and a huge chunk of the aforementioned salary when you buy a home or even a car. But all of these things make your life more meaningful. In comparison, the investments of nursing and giving birth without medication, for those who choose them, are very temporary sacrifices with lifelong memories and equally important benefits. Note: I also want to take a second to recognize that not all moms have the privilege or ability to do these things, and this in no way impacts their awesomeness as a mom!

There are some public people who are showing the world that parenting and passion for other pursuits are not mutually exclusive. Being an active mom and a politician is a very public part of Licia Ronzelli's career in the European Parliament, as evidenced by this photo and another famous one in which she wears her newborn in a sling while participating in a parliament session.

Actress Mayim Bialik of TV's Blossom (back in the day) and Big Bang Theory (now) had a baby and a child at home while obtaining her PhD in neuroscience, and recently authored a book on "Attached Parenting"  alongside her work on the show.

And there are everyday people all around us who pursue all kinds of challenging things with little ones alongside: they go back to school and finish degrees, they become lawyers and doctors, they train for 5Ks or even marathons, they start businesses. Parenthood often makes us more efficient. For those of us who spend our days working both outside the home and inside of it, we often find ourselves getting tasks done faster at outside-work, making prime use of our time there, so we can hurry back to our blessings and (often more rewarding) tasks at home.

Most of us begin our adult years with a long list of dreams and goals. This doesn't mean that to be satisfied adults, we have to cram in all those experiences before embarking on the serious business of starting a family. I argue that the freedom and adventure my family is experiencing together now, in our young and semi-sprightly years, is worth even more than an investment in a home or car.

So no thanks, Honda. I'm not buying into the idea that I missed out on so many dreams when I got married or had Lucas. My bucket list keeps getting accomplished and still growing, even without the CR-V!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Staying Sane on the Plane with Little Ones

Preparing to embark on a 14-hour flight across the ocean,
who's panicking?

Flying with a little one, especially by yourself, can strike fear in a mom. Recently, a few people have asked about my experiences flying, especially internationally, alone with a child. I flew by myself with Lucas nearly a dozen times before he reached age 3, which means I've seen some of the best and worst of it. I am by no means an expert, and there are braver moms than me who fly alone with not one, not two, but three or more children. Much of what I do when traveling I've learned from them. I figured I'd share my view and the things I do in case any one else is nervous about the prospect. I know I definitely was the first time. Bear with me here - this stuff might be obvious or well-known to you, but for the benefit of those new to flying with kids, or flying in general, I wanted to include info on everything I've been asked by other traveling moms.

Experienced travelers, what suggestions or tips do you have for moms new to flying with little ones?

Stage 1 - Buying Tickets

Well, first and foremost, I have to put in a totally un-provoked plug for KoreanAir. If you are flying through Asia, it's worth any extra price to fly this airline, especially with kids in tow. "Excellence in Flight" is their motto and it's for real. Their service, relaxing atmosphere, thoughtful provisions, great amenities, and overall attentiveness is unparalleled vs. the dozens of other airlines I've flown. All air travel should be like that. Anyway...

Lap baby tickets - children under 2 years

As you probably know, children under 2 are normally allowed to share a seat with a parent, enabling you to buy a single ticket. This is a huge relief to many parents, especially the way airfare is headed right now. Just be aware that when flying internationally, there are usually significant fees and taxes even on the accompanying baby's ticket. With some airlines, you don't find out about a lot of these fees until after booking. In one case, I even had to pay a large chunk of the fees at the ticketing counter when I checked in. So try to verify exactly what you will pay if you choose to fly with a lap baby, and don't just assume your final booking price is the end of it. In general, prices tend to be around 10% of the adult ticket. Beware of how this can work! Some airlines will tell you that there's a choice to pay the infant seat ticket upfront or wait until some other time before the travel date. If you choose not to pay upfront, check the policy on price calculation. I've been told that certain airlines (American being a notable one) will charge 10% the face value of an adult ticket on the day you pay, which means if fares rise significantly between the time you purchase your ticket and the time you pay the lap baby fees, you could pay a lot more for the baby ticket.

Also, with many online ticketing sites and services, it's not possible to reserve a lap baby ticket online; you have to call in or use some other method. So keep this in mind when searching online - you usually won't be able to get the full flight price until you talk to a real human.

One cool thing about lap baby tickets is that on many flights, you can try to reserve a bulkhead seat for yourself and the airline will attach a bassinet to the wall in front. This is great for small babies, so you can give your arms a break. Check with your airline for policies. Usually the bassinet is available for babies who can't yet sit up, and most airlines have an upper age limit for infants using this service. Just something to keep in mind and check into if it applies.

Lap baby ticket or separate ticket?

With a small infant or baby, I say it's a great idea, especially with that bassinet option. As you get into the toddler ages, perhaps not so much. When Lucas was nearing 2yrs, I flew with him on my lap and I really regretted it. We were way too squished. Personally I think after 18 months, most kids are too big to fit comfortably squished in one seat with mom, especially in the ever-shrinking economy-fare seats, and especially on flights longer than an hour or two. If you're also flying with an older child who will be in his/her own seat anyway, then doing the lap baby ticket for a under-2 child could probably work out better because you can use some of the other child's seat space to your advantage.

One big factor in favor of a separate seat ticket is if you want to bring a car seat on board for the child. Some moms with restless toddlers find that they get through the flight better when strapped into a car seat just like in auto trips. My son would never go for this, but perhaps it would work for you. Airlines allow you to bring any FAA-approved car seat on board for a child flying with a separate ticket. Some airlines will even let you bring a car seat on board for a lap baby provided there is an unoccupied seat to use it in (essentially amounting to a free seat for your baby), but this is heavily contingent on how booked the flight is, and you don't always know for sure if you can do this until check-in or even boarding.


  • For domestic flights, always bring a copy of your children's birth certificates, especially if you need to prove their ages for fare purposes. 
  • For international flights, even to Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean, each child under age 16 must have a passport. Here is the Department of State website for under-age-16 passports. If you need to get a child's passport and the other parent is outside the US, the requirements can seem daunting but it is possible! At this link, you can find out how I and many others in this situation have done it. 
  • If flying internationally without the child's other parent, it is recommendable that you carry a notarized consent letter from the other parent if you can. 90% of the time nobody even asks about it, but among countries party to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, officials are supposed to check that the other parent gives consent before you exit and/or enter the country with the kids. I am of the opinion that it's better to be safe than sorry, because sorry could mean secondary inspection at the immigration, meaning an hour or two of hassle at best, and missing a vital connection at worst. Here's one in English and Spanish that I drew up that you can print or use as an example to create your own. NOTE: If you will be in Canada at any time during your trip, you will need their specific consent letter, which can be found here, and you will need to get it notarized. Canada takes this issue very seriously. Some parents have reported getting through Canada just fine without the letter, or with one that wasn't notarized, but enough have experienced major hassles to make it very worthwhile to have one.

Which seats?

For a toddler, I like to get a window seat so I can let my son stand/play on the floor all he wants during the flight. And this way there's minimal bumping into other passengers and no limbs getting into the busy aisle. Even for our Korea trip, I chose the window and middle seats and we did just fine. Plus, it makes it easier to set up pillows/blankets for him during sleeping time.

However, if you have a recently potty-trained little one, accessibility for bathroom runs is probably even more important, so in that case the aisle seat might be better.

For more detailed seat-choosing, you can use SeatGuru, a site that has the exact layout of each kind of aircraft and gives you in-depth reviews of the best and worst seats on the plane.


If you have the luxury of choosing what time you fly, it obviously works well to have naptimes and bedtimes coincide with the flight. The longer your child sleeps on the plane, the easier it is for everyone. Even if it's off schedule by a bit, the humming of the engines and the in-flight cabin sounds seem to lull little ones to sleep, and they're able to get much more comfortable in those little seats than we adults can. My son always sleeps longer on planes than he does anywhere else. Just be sure to keep the child as active as possible before getting on the plane so that sleep can take over once you're settled and in the air. Some moms worry that their little one won't sleep enough. You might check with your child's doctor about suggested supplements or medicine if they become too restless and can't sleep onboard. We've never needed anything, but I know a lot of moms feel best having something in their arsenal.

Stage 2 - Checking In/Gear

Car Seats

At the check-in counter, you can usually check one car seat per child for free, even if you get a lap baby ticket for a child under 2 (check with the airline for free luggage policies, but this is generally the case). You can check it right alongside your luggage. This is what I've done when I've traveled with Lucas' car seat, because Lord knows there's no way I'm dragging that thing all around the airport when I'm traveling without an adult companion. As mentioned above, you can generally bring a car seat on board if you have purchased a corresponding seat. I'm not sure I'd have the sanity to manage a car seat plus stroller, carry-ons, and child, especially while going through the security checkpoint, but especially if you're flying with someone else, it could be option. As an alternative, if you don't want to lug a car seat onto the plane but do want to have the child secured beyond the floppy airplane lap belt, there are products like the CARES system that construct a secure harness and can be tossed into your carry-on. Another option, if you really just care about having a safety system when you reach your destination, is this car seat harness vest that a fellow travelling mama pointed out. It's also lightweight, packable, and can be used for children over 30 lbs. It's not FAA-approved so it can't be used on the plane, but especially in cases where you're traveling internationally to places where car seats are not commonly used, it can be a great tool once you arrive.

If you do bring a car seat and check it at the counter, I suggest wrapping it in an old sheet and then putting the whole thing into a big garbage bag for protection, if you don't have one of those fancy fabric bags. Just be sure to leave a way for airline staff to attach luggage tickets to it. Our Combi Coccoro convertible seat has traveled wonderfully with us and I usually arrange the wrapping so that tags can be looped around one of the plastic braces on the back.


You are allowed to bring a stroller all throughout the airport, right up to the gate, and check it there. They put it under the plane after you board, and it's right there at the gate when you get off the plane. As above, check with the airline for restrictions - some have requirements for folded dimensions and materials. You don't want to fly with your heavy-duty stroller; this is a time to use the most lightweight, compact, easy-to-collapse-with-tons-of-stuff-in-your-arms stroller you can find, which for me was either our trusty $25 Babies R Us umbrella stroller or our Combi lightweight stroller. Again, if you care deeply about the stroller, you may want to bring a bag or wrapping to protect it, but remember that this can be tricky to accomplish at the gate when you have limited hands, a child to attend to, carry-ons to keep track of, documents to show airline staff, etc. Also, some great airlines (ahem, KoreanAir) actually wrap the stroller for you before they put it under the plane.

If you're traveling with an infant, consider bringing no stroller at all, and just using a sling, or carrier. It can be much easier than assembling-disassembling the stroller at various points during travel. Just be sure the carrier is easy to remove if security personnel want it off during a checkpoint.
Love the umbrella stroller for being
lightweight and portable...
..but the Combi stroller is so easy to collapse,
has a seat that can lay flat,
and features a carrying strap to sling it
over my back.


Fare-paying children typically get the same luggage allowance as adults. Even lap babies usually get a free luggage allowance as well. Check with your airline, and I recommend using any free checked luggage allowance you can to avoid bringing things on board. While maximizing your carry-on luggage is great when you're an adult flying sans-enfants, it is not so great when you also have to manage a child/children, their supplies, gear, tickets, passports, documents, shoes, layers of clothing, etc. So check anything you can and only bring on board what is absolutely necessary to survive the flight or is just too valuable to check. If you have a preschooler who is big enough to wear a backpack, try to store a good bit of plane stuff in there, but other than that, I would try to stick to just one other carry-on bag if you can help it. One time I made the mistake of bringing a bit too much stuff, AND I was traveling with Lucas as a lap child, and by the time I got off the plane, I was so stressed out from trying to keep track of everything. Once you're on board, you're likely going to be reaching into your carry-on a lot for stuff to keep the kids busy or fed, so make sure it's easy to store at your feet/under the seat, and has compartments that are easy to reach into even if you can't fully see.

Waiting to check in

While some airlines have great, easy, electronic check-in screens where you just swipe your documents, punch a few buttons and you're done, others require you to wait in very long lines, especially for international flights. Also, even with airlines that use check-in screens, flying with children often kicks you out of the automated process and causes you to have to wait for employee assistance to finish the check-in due to gear or lap baby tickets. So be prepared that this is the first of many times when you might need to break into your Stay Sane Supply, which I will describe further down.

Stage 3- Security and Boarding

Security lines

One challenge is that you have to get the child out of the stroller and collapse it to scan when you go through security. Sometimes a TSA employee steps in and helps at this point, which is fantastic. Otherwise you're on your own. Be sure to check out the TSA "Flying with Children" website before you fly to prepare for what happens in the security line. That site details the security process, what you can/can't bring in your carry-on luggage, and the special rules that apply to people traveling with kids (e.g. we can bring more juice and such beyond the regular liquid limitations). One note: my child gets upset when he has to take off his shoes during the security check. I found that it was actually helpful to prepare him this last time, go through it with him verbally in the days before we flew so that he'd know what to expect and what to do. It can be a stressful moment there, when you're removing shoes, jackets, etc. I always have Lucas wear socks, at least for the security check, so his feet don't freeze on the bare floor. Again, be prepared for long lines in security, especially for flights during busy hours. Stay Sane Supply again...

Waiting to Board/Layovers

I like to try to get through security right away and then relax on the other side. The downside to this at some airports is that the terminal might be pretty limited once you get inside. O'Hare International terminal immediately comes to mind here. If your little ones like to watch planes take off, you're golden, but even this can get old. Some airports have a play area for kids to burn off energy, so check into it and plan your layover accordingly. Definitely make a bathroom trip as close to boarding time as possible. No matter where I am, I usually try to find a less-congested area, and set Lucas free for awhile to burn off any excess energy. "See that blue barrel? Run to it! OK now run back!" Also, I know a lot of people like to board as soon as the staff at the gate calls for anyone traveling with small children. I usually ignore this and wait so I can take advantage of more wiggle time, but if you fly with multiple children, you might want to take them up on this, so you can get everyone settled in and get all your stuff in place for the flight.
Proof that you can kill the better part of an 8-hr layover
just by running around empty benches in a waiting hall
When watching planes gets old,
you can move on to watching cars

Stage 4 - On Board/Carry-On/Stay Sane Supply

This is probably the most panic-inducing stage. Just try to stay calm about it. Your baby/child probably will cry at some point. Strange noises, strange smells, strange people, fluctuating temperatures, changing altitudes, it all adds up to a perfect storm for a small child. But if you're able to anticipate some of these obstacles, everyone can get through the flight with minimal stress. All of your tools for this stage are the Stay Sane Supply. You want to keep all of these things easy-to access, packaged into small sets so you can pull one thing out at a time without causing a breakdown when your child sees something that wasn't supposed to come out until the fifth hour of flight time. For longer flights, you may end up rotating through it all.

Infant to small toddler age

  • Fun, colorful toys are great. Chewable, tactile stuff. If you can get a new one to pull out on the plane, awesome. No matter what, it's good if you can find a way to tether any toys to the seatback pocket or tray hook in front of you so that every time baby drops a toy, it's not hitting the icky floor and disappearing under fellow passengers' seats. Use those plastic linky things, or just a ribbon connected to a clothespin. 
  • Unless your little one is entertained for long periods of time by particular board books, don't bother bringing them - they add bulk and weight that aren't worth it. Instead, consider fun paper, stickers, sticky notes, and things that can be moved around while sitting in your seat. 
  • Make sure to pack teething remedies, just in case your baby's mouth decides to start erupting on the day you travel or during your trip. 
  • Also make sure your diaper supply is well-stocked, with a backup change of clothes (possibly also one for you if you have a blowout-prone infant), a light blanket to use as a changing pad if necessary, and some plastic bags in case you need to do a diaper change without a garbage can nearby.

Toddler to Preschooler

  • iPad/tablet/smartphone loaded with kids books and fun apps is an obvious choice if available. 
  • I used to raid that bargain zone at Target and get cheap little books and random small stuff to pack as surprises into my carry-on. 
  • Another thing you might find at Target or Wal-Mart are travel games, like this Take N Play Robot Construction Set that Lucas adores. 
  • I also bring Wikki Stix. They're waxy so they stick to each other and onto the backseat trays or walls, but don't leave any residue or mess. Lucas spent one entire flight playing with those, I didn't even need to get out any of the other stuff.

  • One entertaining use for Wikki Stix

  • Finally, we love this Melissa & Doug Magnetic Pattern Blocks set. Sometimes we travel with the magnetic board and entire case, sometimes we just bring the blocks and the pattern sheets, but for our most recent flight, we did just fine with only the pattern blocks in a baggie, and we took out a few at a time to arrange into designs on the tray. 
Almost all of the above are things I only take out for flights and special trips. Otherwise they stay out of the toy rotation, so they can be new and exciting when we travel.

All ages

  • One trick I've often read about and used to a certain extent is the "surprise present" idea. You get some small, basic toys, old or new, and wrap them in colorful wrapping paper. Every now and then you pull one out and let your little one have a blast opening a surprise to find out what it is. 
  • Snacks - if they're on solid foods, pulling out small baggies of surprise snacks at various intervals during the flight can break up the boredom. As previously mentioned, you may need to dip into this stash even before you board the plane. Check-in and security lines sometimes are madness, and so are the immigration lines if you fly internationally, particularly if you arrive mid-day. Just be mindful that sugary snacks, especially early in the flight, could have pretty maddening repercussions. Also, like many moms, I believe artificial flavors and colors enhance any hyper or moody phases my son might go through, so I try as hard as possible to avoid these, especially while flying. 
  • Particularly for a non-nursing child, it's a good idea to pack some kind of chewy snack and/or a drink for takeoff and landing so you can try to keep them chewing and swallowing and prevent their little ears from popping. 
  • Also, my child falls asleep on airplanes, all airplanes (fights to sleep normally, but put the kid on a plane and he's out). This can be such a blessing, but it's also horrible when I'm forced to wake him up mid-nap so I can sit him upright during landing as requested by flight attendants. So I started bringing some ridiculous snack (like chewing gum) that he never gets to eat and only pulling it out during landing, so that he can be chewing and bribed into happiness even though I woke him up from a peaceful nap. 
  • If your little one is nursing, prepare yourself however you need to so you can nurse without hesitation on the plane. This is your single greatest weapon when they get bored, uncomfortable, scared, hungry, teething, ears popping, whatever. In fact, if you're considering weaning soon but have a flight in the near future, consider postponing at least until the trip is over. Breastfeeding made all of our infant and toddler-age flights so much more bearable. And if you're sheepish about nursing elbow-to-elbow around strangers, keep in mind that they'd be more angry to hear your hungry/uncomfortable baby screaming. I've sat next to businessmen who suddenly felt comfortable to talk about their own children and families once I started nursing Lucas. You just never know. 
  • Layered clothing for everybody to wear onboard. Even in summer, or maybe especially in summer. Those planes get cold after awhile, but sometimes while dashing through airport terminals or waiting to take off with the climate controls off, the temps rise pretty uncomfortably. So have everyone prepared for both extremes.
  • Wet wipes. No matter what age, they always come in handy during air travel!

Stage 5 - Post-flight

Try to do a bathroom stop before hitting the baggage claim and immigration lines if you can find one. Depending on the airport, it's often right there after you get off the plane and I tend to miss the opportunity. But better to take it. This way, you're not only avoiding the massive crush of people in the line from your plane, but you also don't run the risk of having to forfeit your place in the long crazy line if someone does have to go all the sudden.

Baggage claim - if possible, try to have someone pick you up from inside the airport if you're traveling with kids and luggage. Even just one extra hand to push a luggage cart or stroller can make all the difference. If you're flying internationally and have to drag your stuff through customs before exiting into the real world, airport staff should be able to help you if you're struggling. Don't be a hero, seek help for this part. You'll likely be tired, a bit ragged, and in need of any assistance you can get by that point.

And from there, you should be at your destination, ready to go take a really long nap.

Good luck and happy travels!

For more travel tips and advice from other traveling parents, check out this link at SuitcasesandSippycups, where lots of other bloggers weigh in.