I am not a gifted sewer.  I tend to mis-measure, lose patience and treat thread like duct tape.  But, at the same time I LOVE fabrics and homemade things.  So, over the years I’ve developed decent hand sewing skills and can even work the sewing machine.  Today’s projects are easy-peasy hand sewing for the most unskilled, reluctant or inexperienced.  They are all about having fun with fabric and thread.

The biggest challenge is the age and skill differences for Big Girl and Little Girl.  We started the morning looking through Big Girl’s hoard of kits and art supplies and decided the time had come to FINALLY sew some owl pillows from a kit she had bought as a museum souvenir over a year ago.

Moments after threading the needle for Big Girl, Little Girl started her temper tantrum:  “What can I do?  You’re leaving me out!”   I was stumped but after googling “4 year old sewing project,” I found the website with tons of great ideas.  I decided to have Little Girl try her first sewing project by making a mini-banner.

I cut some strips of fabric and drew lines for triangles.  Little Girl did better cutting the felt than the cotton but both worked out ok.  I then had her color the triangles and glue sequins and beads.  We like it fancy around here!

While Big Girl stitched, stuffed and finished her owls, I threaded embroidery floss on a needle and taught Little Girl how to sew.  The first few triangles took some guidance but she quickly took off and completed her banner!  We hung it in her room for now.  She is besides herself with pride!

4yosewing banner

As for my project?  I decided to try and make mittens with the girls from a shrunken (ie: felted) sweater.  For sentimental reasons, I’ve been saving one of my husband’s old wool sweaters even though we washed it in hot and shrunk it beyond repair.  I realized some time ago that I could just consider this wool felt and make use of it but I never got farther than that… until today.  While the kids were happily sewing and gluing, I stuck the sweater in the wash on extra hot and ran it through the dryer.

Then I asked the kids if they would like matching wool mittens.  We traced each other’s hands on printer paper and then they wandered off while I cut the sweater up into mitten shaped pieces.

To do that:

I added about a quarter inch around the traced hand shape to create a seam allowance.   I lined the cuffs up along the bottom of the sweater so the mittens would have nice cuffs too.   I pinned the pattern to the sweater, being careful to make sure to cut mirror images (one from the inside of the sweater and one from the outside) so they would line up.  We decided to “fancy them up” by adding some flowers for trim.  I then placed backs to backs and sewed them up!  It took quite a while to sew them as I decided to use a whip stitch to keep them sealed tight.

I am so glad winter is just beginning because it is going to be so fun to wear our matching mittens!


We’re worn out around here.  Going to have some delicious Vegetarian Shepard’s Pie for dinner and then maybe dig that Nintendo out again for another round of Mario Cart.




For me, it’s the time of year when the house seems to be shrinking because of all the stuff we received as gifts, all the time spent inside with this endless rain, and the complete lack of time to do any major cleaning during the first half of the year.

So, our plan for this week?  To try out all those kits laying on the shelves and to have some creative fun.  We are going to do arts & crafts at home, cook, visit museums (to which we already have memberships) and spend some time with friends.

Stay tuned!

I was chatting with a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) friend the other day.  We were doing that idle mom sharing where we bond over our kids’ tendency to eat rice and spaghetti with their hands, have breakdowns on sidewalks and the aisles of Trader Joe’s after school, and the other daily glories of having young children.  Although those rants are good-natured, they are also an effort to connect with another person about the very intense fears, anxieties, joys and victories of parenting.  My friend ended her rant with a grimace as she observed, “I probably hadn’t spoken to another adult all day!”

The eating spaghetti with hands and Nutella mustaches resonate with me.  The need to connect around parenting resonated too.  I heard in my friend’s words that being a SAHM has left her feeling a little lonely and spending an inordinate amount of time doing tedious routine tasks.  For me, parenting is much less lonely then work has been.  I have fellow parent friends.  I have kids that I talk to about everything and with whom I love to play.  (I’m quick to turn a walk home from school into an expedition to a foreign magical land.)  And, my husband and I are co-parents, staying up late into the night reveling in the cuteness of our girls or working through parenting decisions.

At work, on the other hand, I am pretty isolated.  My writing days are full of talking to myself (out loud and on paper) and my teaching days are full of lecturing and instructing (which is much like talking to myself.)  In fact, one of the really big things I’ve realized about my job is that I have hated being there because I have felt socially isolated.  I’m the only one with young children.  The only one who doesn’t go out drinking at 8 pm after waking up at 8 am and starting work at 10.  (I’m in my PJs at 8 pm!)

I’ve also felt isolated intellectually.  For all the promises of creating an intellectual community, the ONLY time I’ve felt that in my job is in my graduate seminars.  My colleagues, for the most part, have always been too busy doing their own work or pressed by deadlines to hang out and talk about ideas.  Further, I have slowly learned that academic success (ie: PUBLISHING) depends upon following existing formulas and conventions; not introducing new ideas!

Thinking about both my experience and those of my friends, some of whom are so pressed for time that they stay up half the night finishing their work, others who work part time (often from home) and still others who have opted out and are giving the SAHM thing a try, two major themes emerge:  not having enough time for the kids or not having enough time for oneself.  My friends comment that they don’t have time to exercise, to cook, to sleep, to play a favorite sport or continue with a favorite hobby, with or without their kids.  This table taken from a PEW report on work-family balance backs this claim up.  About half of all moms say they don’t have enough time for friends or hobbies; this is especially true for working moms.


So, working moms are pressed for time.  But, they clearly are not the only ones feeling stressed or worried.  Although this table is from a 2012 Gallup poll, it tells a stark story: SAHMs are actually more likely to be worried, lonely and stressed.   (But, notice too that moms are more likely to non-moms to feel these negative emotions.  Moms are torn!)


The thing is, when I take this all together, I see a damned-if-you-do / damned-if-you-don’t scenario.    This is obviously not an individual problem but a more generalizable issue:  lots of parents are seriously stressed and don’t feel emotionally fulfilled.

Thinking about both my anecdotal evidence (friends) and the sociological research I’ve read, it seems to me that people who are happier (in work and/or at home) are those who are part of a collaborative community group that is focused on progressive improvement, those who are intellectually stimulated, those who have control over their own time, and, most significantly, those who are doing creative work.

I think the creativity part is the part most often overlooked.  Lots of researchers observe that people who have hobbies are happier.  Increasingly though, it seems that it’s not just the busy-ness of the hobbies but the creativity.  (Check out an awesome podcast on this topic from Note to Self for more, also see,

Ironically, we are not a culture that especially values creativity.  Art is cut from school budgets.  Wood shop is a thing of the past.  Schools focus on benchmark exams over writing.  Marketing persuades us that the purchased is better than the homemade (in food, clothes, decorations, and especially toys!).  And, for the majority of workers, decisions are made at the top and passed down the line, convention is rewarded over innovation, productivity matrices predetermine the “right” way to make a sandwich, build a machine, and even write a paper.

There are exceptions, of course, and my personal goal is to find them.  For some, this is why being a SAHM is glorious; it’s a chance to be creative and free!  For others, this is why work is wonderful; a place to think and build and create.

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With the semester finally wrapping up I was able to put some finishing touches on the kitchen this week.  The girls and I had decided at the start of the project that we wanted to make the kitchen look like the forest.  To make that happen, we painted the walls a dark green and used dark brown and copper as accent colors.  It turned out great.  The dark color on the walls makes the room seem larger, the green is soothing and welcoming, and the room is really nice to hang out in now!

But, the whole thing was lacking a bit decor.  So, we put up a print I had bought at a craft fair and never hung up and framed an illustration of a very cute chicken with a guitar.  The blackboards look super cute hanging above the table too.

The girls and I decided that we would add to the forest by creating a scene similar to the one we see out the cabin window at a favorite cabin-camping spot:  a rocky stream in the foreground, trees and fields behind. To bring in more colors and tie it in with our stained glass lamp, we decided to make it a paper mosaic.  Even though we are all really eager around here for Winter to finally fully arrive we decided to make it an early Spring scene instead.  Much more colorful!

This turned out to be collaborative art at its best.  The bickering stopped, the bragging stopped.  We ended up relaxing, joking and chatting as we covered ourselves and our project in glue.  It is so tempting when the kids are acting like brats to seperate them and remove myself.  Of course they do sometimes need more time and space but very often they actually need to work together on a project that makes us all happy!  This did the trick; it transformed several cranky dreary December afternoons into a fun and creative space where we worked together to make something pretty.

Big Girl and I sketched the scene together.  All three of us worked together to cut up paper squares and also to Modge-Podge them in place.

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It took us a few afternoons to finish the project but it turned out just as we hoped.  We’ve done a few other projects like this before, including one time when we used this technique to make homemade cards.  It’s a very straight forward process:  sketch, cut scrap paper up (including wrapping paper), cover the paper with glue, apply paper to overlap, apply a top coat of Modge Podge.

By now the idea of an “Opt-Out Revolution” has become not only old news but even partially redacted.  Yet, it has really come to resonate for me.  Lisa Belkin first published her article about the “Opt-Out Revolution” in 2003.  She described how high paid and powerful career women were finding that instead of being sustained and fulfilled by their career they actually wanted more time with their families and thus were opting out of the workplace (

Although I am a big admirer of Belkin’s writing and the Motherlode blog she founded at the NYTimes, the idea of the “Opt-Out Revolution” always infuriated me.  Only the rich, only the privileged, only the lucky could ever have the choice to “opt-out,” I argued.  Those who took the choice, I would say, must be those who chose bad careers.  It wasn’t a problem of work-family balance but just a work problem, I figured.   A different job would surely alleviate the tension for most women.  Maybe a job like being a professor (my grad student self hopefully suggested)?

My lack of sympathy for the women described in Belkin’s article was partially due to my own class biases.  But it was due more to the fact that for my whole life I have believed that the way to be a successful person and also how to be a feminist was to have a job and to be independent.  (Never mind that my husband and I are college sweethearts and have been together since we were 20!)   I have been a feminist since I could walk, talk and think.   I wore political buttons on my 3T corduroy overalls. Literally.  My favorite said, “Don’t Call Me Girl, I Am A Woman” and my mom saved it for me.  (Never mind also that someone was probably being sarcastic when they gave it to me.  I took it to heart.)

And yet, and now, I have had a major change of heart.  It didn’t happen overnight but rather it happened through hundreds of books and articles and conversations that all made me start to wonder: how can equality come about by making the workplace stronger?  (The workplace is often a sight of exploitation!) How can equality be equated with independence if it also often leads to isolation and anomie?  In focusing on fulfilling ourselves, what does that mean for our connections with others?  What does that mean for interdependence, for love, and for family?

My scorn for those women who choose not to work has eroded and over the years been replaced with sympathy and even jealousy.  After having Big Girl in 2008 and Little Girl in 2012, I started fantasizing about a life where I could just focus on being with my girls.  Where we could do art projects and read books and just be happy and be free to be ourselves.   I could even homeschool and I could raise brilliant little radicals.  That fantasy is tantalizing, intoxicating, in fact.  And, I have an easy out right now.  I am, in fact, “out” already.  I don’t need to “opt-out.”  One possible path for my future is crystal clear:  become a stay-at-home-mom.

It’s a common path.  According to a recent PEW report, almost a third of women with young children did not work outside of the home.  To learn lots about the demographics and historical changes see: .

Yet, this path doesn’t seem quite right, I’m not quite comfortable with the idea of being a stay-at-home mom (although with time I may be).  Maybe that’s a bit because I’m somewhat type-A and the idea of not being “successful” grates at my nerves…  and makes me feel a little ashamed.  Maybe it’s also that I would be worried about money.

But, that’s not the whole story.  I’m also uncomfortable with me becoming a stay-at-home-mom because if I take over the home sphere then the flip-side is that my husband will have to work more and harder.  And, at least sometimes, he will have to opt-out of family.  And, I don’t want to force that on him.  I want him to be around too.   (Although he’s terrible with art projects.)

Maybe I will decide to become a stay-at-home-mom.  At least for a little while,  but I think I will also want to work again some day too.   Like everyone else, I want the choice!  But, I also want to find better, fairer and happier choices.  It is clear to me that gender equality is not achieved by sublimating the home sphere and elevating work.  But it also can’t be actualized through a stark division of labor if that division is gendered because that, in fact, is a direct path to inequality.

The only conclusion I have so far is that cooking and crafting are only fun because they are choices, not limitations.

I am the type of teacher who loves the blackboard.  Alongside my obligatory PowerPoint slides I use the blackboard to capture brainstorms, post reminders, illustrate ideas and pose questions. The days when I end up most dusty and smeared tend to also be the days when my classes felt most successful.  The days when my students were leaning forward the whole time, actively engaged, forgetting about whether this is on the test and instead wondering how they never knew this before!

I also spent tons of time as a kid using blackboards.  We had a big one in the basement where I would play “teacher” by lecturing my little sister and drilling her on math and reading facts.  Due to my Little House on the Prairie obsession, I was enchanted with the idea of slates as well and I have had many a handheld mini-blackboard in my life.  Imagine my delight to discover chalkboard contact paper.  You can unroll it and turn anything into a chalkboard; where has thus been my whole life?

Kitchen, meet blackboards!


To create this super quick, easy and cheap craft we needed: picture frames, decorative paper (stationary, wrapping paper, patterned construction paper all would work), blackboard contact paper and modge podge.  The only thing we needed to buy were more picture frames.  We bought cheap ones at Ikea but could have found them anywhere or reused old ones if we had any laying around.

First step was to pick out the paper we wanted to use for the frames.  We used very fancy wrapping paper for ours.  Then we cut out four strips so we could use paper to cover the frame.


Before gluing I had Big Girl take the frame apart so we wouldn’t get modge podge all over the glass.  Then we went to it. Little Girl covered the frame with modge podge, I arranged the paper and trimmed when necessary.  Big Girl applied the final layer of modge podge over the paper to secure the bond and add the gloss coat.


While that dried I had Big Girl trace the glass from the frame onto the back of the contact paper, cut out the piece and attach.  She found it really hard to get the contact paper on evenly and smoothly so I ended up helping her with that.  But, the paper rolled on and off very well so there was nothing lost by redoing until we got it perfect.


We made two and used patterns that compliment the rest of the kitchen. I’m going to hang them on the wall above the table so the girls can take them off the wall to use as slates or use them on the wall for leaving messages.  These are so cute that I think we’ll use them sometime in the future as holiday gifts or presents for friends.  Maybe teacher presents at the end of the year???  They were very cheap to make and could be customized to fit any theme or decor.

What did my girls do once they were dry?  They started playing school right away.  Big Girl is trying to teach Little Girl how to read.  Sigh…  some things never change 🙂



Our kitchen ceiling fan was supposed to be white but time and dirt had their way.  I splurged on a beautiful stained glass light fixture for above the table so there was nothing left in the budget…  at all.

Hello spray paint!

Borax, hot water and a scrubby sponge made pretty quick work of the grime that had built up on the fan.

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Next I spray painted the blades a dark brown to simulate wood and match the trim color throughout the room.


painting blades

I decided to spray paint the body of the fan in the same copper paint I used on the radiator cover, cabinet handles and switch plates.


painting the base

The effect is a perfectly coordinated fan that I bet would have cost us $200 bucks to replace.

finished fan close up

finished fan in room

Time to move on the the finishing touches.  These depend heavily on kid art!

Not for my life yet.  I haven’t really gotten started on that… which I must say is oddly liberating.  Maybe all you non-planners out there are on to something?

But, here’s the rest of the plan (with pictures) for the kitchen.

We started with some minor demolition by removing an old air conditioner in the kitchen wall.  When I say we, this was totally my husband’s job.  I could cope with the fact that the thing was seriously gross but I was not going up on the two story ladder in the back of the house.  Luckily he agreed pretty quickly once I promised to do all of the plastering, patching and painting.

airconditioner removal

In addition to painting the walls green and the trim brown, refinishing the table to make it dark brown, the other major project we decided to add on was a backsplash.  I did the backsplash too.  After considering and rejecting several different tiling options, we decided that we wanted to add pressed tin as our backsplash.  Thanks to the miracle of plastic, we were able to add our “pressed tin” backsplash in a lovely copper hue to the area behind the oven, sink and cabinets.  It was very easy to work with this product.  I needed just an exacto, scissors, a sharpie and a ruler.  It looks fabulous too.  So fabulous in fact that it made everything else look lousy.


sink wall

That is where the spray paint comes in.  I really want to both limit the amount of money spent on this project and also avoid much waste by buying everything new.  So, after picking out stain with Big Girl we went to the spray paint aisle.  I’m not sure if spray paint has gone through a profound transformation in the past 10 years or if I was just giddy with the excitement of it being on the shelf instead of in a locked cabinet that required supervision to access but…  I had a great time seeing the very many colors and effects available in spray paint these days.

Big Girl and I had to work hard to try and match the backsplash tile labeled “oil rubbed bronze” that looked copperish with the various options of metallic spray paint out there in the home improvement store.  Eventually we found a “hammered copper” that matches well.  We used that to paint the radiator cover, lightswitch plates and cabinet handles.

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And now we are in business.  All that spray painting saved us lots of money (which helps to cover the cost of those too pricey backsplash tiles!) and gave us a really coordinated look.  Next up check out the super fan refinishing project.

About thirteen years ago, my husband and I bought a fabulous apartment in Jackson Heights, NY.  It was big, bright, airy, pre-war and had gorgeous details like parquet floors, high ceilings, real plaster walls, etc…  This purchase was timed well, we bought before the real estate bubble expanded and before anyone was considering Jackson Heights hip. (Before the Starbucks moved in, and before the neighborhood was the focus on several NYTimes articles.  For example, here’s a recent one:

Because of this luck in timing and some financial luck as well, we bought a two-bedroom apartment in NYC!   We couldn’t really afford any furniture though.  So, most of what we bought to fit our new, bigger and nicer place was from Ikea or Home Depot and we worked hard to transform that stuff and the older and more broken bits we had dragged from our previous apartments with paint and imagination.

One of the new pieces we did buy was a small unfinished pine kitchen table and four chairs from IKEA.  It wasn’t the fancy extendable table that I came to covet at other people’s apartments.  No, it was the cheapest they had.  (I just checked and they sell it for $69.)

After staining it with red wine, paint, markers, and tomato sauce,  I eventually stained it on purpose, adding a fancy detail with painters tape to create a two-toned effect.  Despite the fact that the stain bled slightly, making the edge a little fuzzy in a few spots, I came out pretty well.  Well enough, that moved it several hundred miles when we left NYC for my new job back in 2008, when Big Girl was a newborn and I was a newly minted PhD.

Seven years later, this same table is one of our most used pieces of furniture.  And, boy does it show it.  A couple years back the original chairs broke so we replaced them.  Equal parts optimism and frugality, we once again bought the unfinished pine ones with the intention of staining them right away.  Now they are covered in penciled names, crayon scribbles, paint splotches and food bits.  Thus, among our refinishing projects are 1 Ikea pine table and four pine chairs.  All in need of a thorough sanding and staining to fit my dreams for our new kitchen.

But do I really want to try and get kid help on this smelly and complicated task?  In fact, I can think of at least four reasons why Big Girl should not be allowed to help me sand and stain the table and chairs.

First, are kids allowed to use stain?  Think of all those toxic chemicals!  I’m not sure of the chemical make-up in stain (and I am not going to start googling it!)  but the smell is enough warning.  That stuff is clearly toxic.  And, like all “good parents” I try pretty darn hard to limit my kids’ exposure to all the toxins I can.  It is easy to start worrying about all the toxins in our environment and how important it is for children’s health to limit their exposure to them.  While I think limiting toxins is very important, I’m wary of falling into spiral of fear about all of those invisible risks.  So, for now, I’m silencing that worried voice.  I’m not talking about exposing Big Girl to those toxins all the time.  I’m talking about the two of us spending time using wood stain for a few hours.  Luckily, it’s warm enough that we can even do it outside.   I am not going to re-cast this as a “safety” issue.

Second, it’s too hard a job for a kid:  Maybe. It is hard work to sand the years of dirt and grime off the table and chairs and it’s intellectually hard too to figure out how to avoid any brush marks or fix a splatter especially since we are using stain & polyurethane combined.  But, I don’t think hard is a reason not to try.

Third, she might ruin the project.  Or, fourth, she might ruin something else… like her clothes or jacket.  Oh, well.  She might or she might not.  If she does, we’ll fix it as best we can.

Anyway, I can think of two great reasons to let her help: sharing the joy and pride of taking something ugly and making it beautiful and teaching her some skills that she can use in the future.

So we did.

First, we went and picked out the stain color.   I let Big Girl take the lead on that part.  We decided that we want the kitchen to feel like being in the forest.  So we are going to do a deep green on the walls and dark brown as accent color.  Big Girl picked out a nice dark brown stain.  Then I bought us each a new brush and sanding pads in medium and fine grit.

After we returned from the store we brought the furniture out to the driveway.  I convinced my very fancy daughter to go put on some clothes she doesn’t like to help mitigate risk four.  Then, I explained that our first job was to sand the table and chairs to make it smooth so the stain can bond.  I took over first with the medium grit to wear away at the old stain and the worst of the mess.  She did the second coat with the fine sand paper.  My arms got tired and my hands got scratched but Big Girl entertained me with her imaginings and she really helped get the job done much more quickly

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After wiping down the furniture with damp rags and taking a lunch break.  We began the staining.  It was hard to both teach her what she needed to know and also let go enough so she could make mistakes.  (Hmmm.  I think that sentence actually summarizes my entire experience as a parent.)  I decided to limit my instruction to “going with the grain” and not getting the brush too wet.  I limited my micro-managing by having us work together on each chair so I could catch drips and get the areas she missed.  We were a great team.  About an hour later, the first coat was done.  We added another coat and now we have “lovely tree stumps to sit on in our forest”!

Turns out there was another reason for having her help.  It was really fun to do it together.

refinished table

Then I realized that if I wasn’t going to get tenure then I didn’t need to revise that hopeless article yet again.  In fact, I gleefully realized, I never have to submit an article to a journal again if I don’t want to!

Letting go of all the time I’ve spent worrying, the time I’ve spent planning, and for a little while anyway, the time I’ve spent writing means that although I have lost my job,  I have found some time.

One thing this found time will allow me to do is engage in big projects! First up, it is time to renovate the kitchen.  When we first moved into our house I had a five month old baby (now Big Girl) and was starting my job as an Assistant Professor two weeks later.  Since that time, we’ve done a lot of work on the house: removing cabinets built into the living room to hold an extensive record collection, excavating the fireplace and installing a gas unit, tiling a fireplace surround, painting, wallpapering, and mending.  We also hired people to do some of the other work for us: replacing windows, installing insulation and refinishing the bathroom.

At the start of all this, the kitchen was one of the better rooms.  Off the shelf granite and cabinets that were obviously installed just before the former owners put it on the market.  Not what we would have chosen but perfectly acceptable.  It had a dishwasher and my dad helped replace the electric range with a gas one.  Nicest kitchen we had ever had!  Seven years later though, the kitchen lags behind the rest of the house.  Countless cooking and art projects had scarred the walls and that ugly builders’ off-white paint has started to look vaguely pink.

Turns out we don’t need to keep that ugly kitchen a single day longer!

As I’ve started working out the renovation plan I have also remembered something about myself.  Before I got my job—back in grad school and before—I was always working on art projects.  I painted each room.  I built mirrors from old windows.  I refinished our furniture.  I painted and collaged chairs and folding tables.  I recovered couches (using duct tape and safety pins the first few times) and I created art.   While I haven’t completely given up that part of my life in the past bunch of years, I have certainly sequestered it into limited projects conducted in short bursts… and almost always with the kids

Now, I have the time to go back and do something I used to love: making our kitchen look fabulous with paint and creativity.  And, I’m going to combine it with something else I love to do: teaching my kids practical skills, empowering them to try out new things, and helping them take on big projects so they know both the pride of success and how to fix things when we (temporarily) fail. (For some inspiration on that idea, check out K.J. Dell’Antonia’s blog post on Motherlode a few months back: .)

My girls are 7 and 4.  We have spent hours and hours coloring, painting, playing with clay, tie-dying and gluing.  It is time to introduce them to stain, spray paint and the idea that an entire room can be a canvas.

First up, refinishing that old, battered kitchen table.