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We celebrate Hanukkah *and* Christmas—in our own way

The cheer of the holiday season—the music, the food, the decorations—comes with a lot of stress, especially if you're hosting your friends or extended family. But if you're like me, part of a blended family with step kids, exes and the rest? Forget it.

The stress can feel almost crippling at times. Family holiday traditions run deep, and feelings are easily hurt this time of year. Especially mine, as I learned.

I love to go all out for the holidays—cooking, decorating and shopping for presents. Christmas has always been a big deal for my family, so I was especially excited last year to celebrate my first as a stepmother.

My husband and his daughters are Jewish and my family is Catholic, so we decided to celebrate both holidays together at our house, which I hoped would be a slam dunk for the girls—two sets of presents and lots of great holiday food! I assumed they'd be as excited as I was. What's not to like?

I wanted to honor both of our traditions, so I consulted my husband on his family's Hanukkah rituals and incorporated my own Christmas customs that meant so much to me growing up—all to create a memorable holiday celebration for my stepdaughters.

I went to work preparing our Hanukkah/Christmas dinner. I was determined to make the best latkes ever, not to mention my favorite Christmas cookies using my grandmother's old recipes. I wanted everything to be special not only for the girls, but for my in-laws and my own relatives.

I hung the personalized stockings my mother had sewn for my stepdaughters on the mantle and decorated the tree with ornaments from my childhood.

I placed the candles on the menorah and arranged my sister-in-law's handmade dreidels as the centerpiece for our dining room table.

The house looked beautiful. I could not have been more pleased. A Judeo-Christian masterpiece, or at least that's what I thought.

But my excitement quickly faded as dinner with our blended family got underway. My stepdaughters half-heartedly picked at their food, anxious to watch TV, text their friends or retreat to their laptops. They hadn't even noticed the decorations.

"These latkes taste funny to me," said the younger one. "Not like my Mom's." I looked down at my plate, remembering my struggle just to make sure they held together when I'd cooked them—forget about taste. "Would you like some applesauce with your latkes?" I asked, passing the bowl to my mother-in-law and forcing a smile, hoping she wouldn't notice.

Then my older stepdaughter put down her fork and asked, "Is it okay if I go now? I promised to meet Rachel for a movie in like half an hour." She got up from the table without waiting for an answer to search for her phone.

My mom and brother looked at me with confused expressions, wondering why she'd leave a holiday dinner (which for my family could last hours with all the turkey, wine and coffee to be consumed). We hadn't even served dessert.

The presents I'd spent so much time and energy choosing and wrapping were a bust, too.

"I think these earrings are broken," said my older stepdaughter, handing me a box with a single stud holding a beautiful peacock feather, while next to it the feather of its twin was torn in half. How had I not noticed it was damaged?

"I don't think this fits me," said the younger one, trying on a jacket I gave her and attempting to pull the sleeves down over her fingers. "No, that's the style!" I insisted, trying to revive my waning enthusiasm and cuffing the sleeves instead. "There...see?" She nodded but I knew she wouldn't wear it.

I wanted to cry. The evening felt like a failure. Why couldn't anything go as planned? I wanted to create a special holiday celebration for everyone to enjoy together. But now the girls were just anxious for the evening to end. What had I done wrong?

My stepdaughters later told me about the Hanukkah celebration at their mother's house which included their friends and how much fun they had eating pasta and watching movies together. At first, it really bothered me because I'd gone to so much trouble for our dinner. I could have just served pizza and called it a night.

But I realized that I was expecting them to like my version of how the holiday should be, instead of creating a new one that better suited their idea of a good time.

And now, it's that time of year again. I'm faced with the possibility of yet another season of disappointment. Should I hold back my holiday enthusiasm this year so I won't be so hurt?

The conclusion I've come to is: no.

Last year, I wanted to prove myself as a stepmother, that I could create a memorable family experience. I wanted everything to work out as I envisioned, and I wanted the girls to have an instant positive reaction to all of my efforts. But, because of my high expectations, of course the evening didn't go as planned.

As a new blended family, I realize we make our own traditions up as we go along.

Now I know that the girls see the holidays as a chance to be with friends and forget about school, not as a big interfaith family celebration. They are entitled to their own feelings, and to be honest, the holidays aren't a big deal to them. They never have been. And that's okay.


When I let go of my expectations, all of us have a much better experience.

This year, I have the same holiday enthusiasm. I still love the traditions I grew up with. But the difference is, I'm not going to try to impress anyone, or try to gain approval about my still-new place in the family, or try to make anyone else feel as excited as I do.

There's enough stress in the season without trying to put on some kind of performance. So instead, I'm doing the things I enjoy because I enjoy doing them. And this means another Hanukkah/Christmas dinner—only this time the girls will invite their friends over and I'll try a new latke recipe. We'll probably watch some movies, too.

Originally posted on HuffPost.


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One of the hardest areas to declutter can be your children's toy closet. Does that beeping, singing firetruck spark joy for you? Well no, in fact, it might be the most frustrating toy, but then again, having an occupied, entertained child sparks more joy than all of your household items combined.

So do more toys really mean a more engaged child? Studies say no. Having fewer toys leads to a more ordered home and encourages your child to develop creativity, concentration and a sense of responsibility for taking care of their belongings. But how do you go about reducing the number of toys your child has when there are so many "must haves" on the market? Perhaps more importantly, how do you ensure you don't bring any more toys that will be quickly forgotten into your home?

The secret: Look for toys that are open-ended, toys that will last for years, toys that encourage creativity, and toys that benefit development.

Here are some of our favorite Montessori-inspired toys.

Open-ended construction


Toys that are open-ended, rather than have just one use, empower your child to be an active participant in their own play. An example of an open-ended toy is a set of blocks, while a more limited use toy might be a talking toy robot. Blocks are only fun if your child applies their own creative thinking skills to make them fun, while the robot is a much more passive type of entertainment.

Open-ended toys also tend to keep children's interest for much longer, as they grow with your child—as their skills develop, they can build increasingly complex structures and scenarios.

There are so many beautiful sets of blocks available, but here are a few good choices.

1. Wooden Blocks

2. Duplo Lego

3. Magnatiles

Pretend play


Beginning in early toddlerhood, many children begin to incorporate pretend play into their repertoire. They do this all on their own, without the aid of toys, turning mud into pies and sticks into hammers.

Still, these toys will encourage their budding imaginations and also allow them to process things they experience in their own lives through role-playing and pretend play.

4. Doll

5. Farm

6. People figures

7. Train set

Music


Music provides a great deal of joy to most children, and can also aid in brain development.

Providing regular opportunities for your young child to both create and listen to music will encourage him to develop an appreciation for music, an understanding of rhythm, and an outlet for creative expression.

8. Musical instrument set

9. Simple music player with headphones

Movement


Giving young children opportunities for movement is so important, both for their gross motor development and for giving them a daily outlet for their boundless energy. Children who spend plenty of time running around generally sleep better and are often better able to concentrate on quieter activities like reading.

Encouraging plenty of unstructured time outside is the best way to ensure your child gets enough daily movement. These toys though can help your child develop muscle coordination and strength, while also providing plenty of fun.

10. Balance bike

11. Pedal bike

12. Climbing structure

13. Wagon

14. Balls

Puzzles


Puzzles are wonderful toys for helping children develop spatial understanding, problem-solving skills, resilience and new vocabulary. Bonus, they also provide a quiet activity that can engage even young children for an extended period of time!

15. Peg puzzles

16. Jigsawpuzzles

17. Layered puzzles

Games



Games encourage your child to develop social skills such as taking turns and winning and losing gracefully.

Many games for young children also have educational benefits such as building memory or practicing counting.

18. Memory game

19. Bingo

20. Simple board game

Taking the plunge and reducing your children's toy collection can be scary. If you're uncertain whether your child will miss a certain toy, try putting it away in a closet for a month to see if they notice. Take some time to observe your child with their reduced toy collection and notice how their play changes.

Once you commit to fewer toys, you'll find you can truly be intentional with what you provide your child and can also choose higher quality toys when you're only purchasing a few. There will also be far fewer little objects strewn around the house to trip over, which is a huge bonus!

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For so many parents, finding and funding childcare is a constant struggle. How would your life change if you didn't have to worry about finding and paying for quality childcare? Would you go back to work? Work more hours? Or just take the four figures you'd save each month and pay off your student loans faster?

These hypothetical scenarios have been playing in the minds of many American parents this week as presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan for free or affordable "high-quality child care and early education for every child in America."

Universal childcare will be a cornerstone of Warren's campaign for 2020. It's a lofty goal, and one many parents can get behind, but is it doable?

Supporters note it's been done in other countries for decades. In Finland, for example, every child has had access to free universal day care since the early 1990s. Sweden, too, has been building its universal childcare system for decades.

Critics of Warren's plan worry about the price tag and potential for ballooning bureaucracy, and some are concerned that subsidizing childcare could actually make it more expensive for those who have a government-funded spot, as it could result in fewer private childcare providers.

But subsidized childcare had lowered prices in other places. In Sweden, parents pay less than $140 USD to send children to preschool. In Finland, the cost per child varies by municipality, household income and family size. A parent on the lower end of the income spectrum might pay as little as the equivalent of $30 USD, and the maximum fee is about $330 a month.

But Finland's population is on par with Minnesota's. Sweden is comparable to Michigan.

So could the Nordic model scale to serve the hundreds of millions of families in America?

As Eeva Penttila, speaking as the head of international relations for Helsinki, Finland's education department once told The Globe and Mail, "you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation."

Right now America spends less on early childhood education than most other developed countries (only Turkey, Latvia, and Croatia spend less), but that wasn't always the case. This nation does have a history of investing in childcare, if we look back far enough.

Back in World War II, when women needed to step into the workforce as men fought overseas, America invested in a network of childcare to the tune of $1 billion (adjusted to today's money) and served hundreds of thousands of families in almost every state through center-based care. Parents paid between $0.50 and $0.75 per child per day (the equivalent of about $10 in today's money).

So America does have a historical and cultural precedent, not to mention a current model of universal preschool that is working, right now, in the nation's capital. In D.C. In Washington, D.C., 90% of 4-year-olds attend a full-day preschool program for free, according to the Center for American Progress. Seventy percent of 3-year-old are going too, and the program has increased the city's maternal workforce participation rate by more than 10%.

It won't happen overnight

While some American parents might be daydreaming of a life without a four-figure day care bill in 2020, the road to true universal childcare for all children in America would be a long one. Peter Moss, a researcher at the University of London's Institute of Education, previously told The Globe and Mail it took Sweden "many years to get it right."

Indeed, the 1990s saw long wait lists at Swedish day cares, but the growing pains of the '90s paved the way for the enviable system Swedes enjoy today.

According to Moss, governments in other countries look at the Nordic model and "tend to say, 'We can't do that.' But what they really mean is 'We can't suddenly do that.' In other countries, they just don't get to grips with what needs doing and actually plot a course."

Maybe America's starting point is found in its history books, or in the modern day preschools of the nation's capital, or in the conversations happening between now and 2020. It doesn't have to be Warren's plan, but America does need a plan for safer, more affordable childcare.

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It's so unfortunate that in the working world there are still those who believe mothers are more distracted and less productive than people without children.

Research proves that just isn't true—working moms are actually more engaged than working dads and fathers and equally committed—and plenty of working mothers will say that parenthood has actually made them more productive.

Ayesha Curry counts herself among those moms who become more efficient at work after becoming parents. The entrepreneurial mom of three seems unstoppable when it comes to expanding her career, which she launched as a lifestyle blog back when the oldest of her three children was still a baby.

"You don't realize how much you can get done in a day until you become a parent and you're like, 'what was I doing with my time before'?" she recently old Cheddar's Nora Ali.

Now less than seven years later she's built her own empire as a mom, not in spite of being one.


Now a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur, Curry has also got her own brand, Homemade, and you can find her products bearing her name in places like Target and JC Penny. She's been promoting a partnership with GoDaddy and she's an ambassador for the Honest Company, too.

Curry says motherhood taught her how to multitask and manage her time.

"I have three children, so I've had to grow four invisible arms," she explains. "I've definitely learned efficiency through being a parent. It's helped me in my business tenfold."

As a celebrity, Curry's life experience is kind of unique, but her experience of becoming better at work because of motherhood isn't, according to experts.

Career coach Eileen Chadnick previously told Motherly that motherhood is an asset in the workplace, in part because it trains women to be both empathetic and assertive at the same time, a combo that makes for great leaders. "There are incredibly nice, compassionate women who are very strong and know how to take a stand," Chadmick said. "And they're trusted and admired by others even if they need to say 'no' to their employees."

That's something Curry agrees with. Because it's her name on that frying pan, cookbook or bedspread, she doesn't shy away from saying 'no' when she doesn't like something. "I'm really good about being forceful and putting my foot down," she explains.

It's easier to put your foot down when you've already grown four invisible arms. That's the balancing act of motherhood, and it's what makes this mama so good at business.

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It may seem like there are more recalls than ever these days, but that's actually a good thing for parents. It means fewer potentially dangerous products are making it to our dinner tables and medicine cabinets.

According to food safety experts, the spike in recall notices for everything from broccoli to baby toys in recent years suggests companies are doing a better job of self-reporting, and we're actually safer than we were in the days when recalls were rare.

"It reflects a food industry that takes contamination and foodborne illnesses seriously. Increasingly companies are willing to recall their products rather than expose customers to potential harm," Dr. William Hallman, professor and chair of Rutgers Department of Human Ecology, said in an interview with Food Drive."So more companies are taking a cautionary approach."

Here are the recalls parents need to know about this month:

Dollar General Baby Gripe Water

The FDA issued a recall notice for "DC Baby Gripe Water herbal supplement with organic ginger and fennel extracts" after the company received one report of a one-week old baby who had difficulty swallowing the product, and there were three other complaints "attributed to the undissolved citrus flavonoid."

The FDA says "the product should not be considered hazardous but could result in difficulty when swallowing the product for sensitive individuals."

Basically, it's not harmful if swallowed but the undissolved flavonoid makes it a choking hazard.

The gripe water was sold at Dollar General stores in four ounce bottles with the UPC code 8 5495400246 3.

Nature's Path Envirokidz gluten free cereals

If you've got a kiddo with celiac disease you're probably familiar with the EnviroKidz kine of gluten free cereals sold at Trader Joe's and other grocery stores. Unfortunately, Nature's Path, the maker of the cereals, is recalling more than 400,000 boxes of Envirokidz cereals in the U.S. and Canada due to potential gluten contamination.

Choco Chimp, Gorilla Munch and Jungle Munch are all impacted. The best before dates are: 08/01/2019, 08/24/2019, 08/27/2019, and 09/21/2019. The UPC codes are: 0 58449 86002 0, 0 5844987023 4, 0 5844987027 2, 0 5844987024 1 and 0 5844987028 9.

If you can handle gluten they are safe, but Nature's Path says "people who have a wheat allergy, celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten and wheat should not consume the cereals."

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