Love

My 2015 Recap

A year ago, I focused on how my glass was half full. I was – and am – thankful to be a mom and an educator. Nonetheless, as 2014 drew to a close, there were still a lot of loose ends in my life:

  • Was my breast cyst benign or malignant?
  • Could I physically handle my job? (I only had six days between my lumpectomy and the start of the semester. I had three new classes to teach and 30 more students than the previous semester. And, I still had my usual two migraines a week.) Assuming that I could handle the added responsibilities and that the cyst was benign, would my full-time contract be renewed?
  • Was I really at peace with no longer being in a relationship with The Man? Or, would I return to my old pattern of going back to an ex-boyfriend?
  • How would I fare at being a single mom?
  • Where would Roya get into preschool? (The DC preschool hustle is an interesting process with applications, recommendations and interviews.)

Today, I can reflect on all of those questions and stressors with a huge sigh of relief.

Most importantly, surgery in January revealed that the cyst was benign. My November MRI showed no evidence of cancer. According to my oncologist, I now have the same risk of anyone else my age of getting breast cancer. Breast cancer thus becomes a disease I had, not a disease from which I’m in remission. That matters clinically and psychologically.

On the work front, I’ve been able to handle all of my responsibilities effectively. My contract has been renewed through May 2017, and I get excited every time I head to campus. I recently was asked what I liked best about my students. I paused as I tried not to shed any tears and replied, “How much time do you have?” I know how lucky I am to truly love what I do.

I also appreciate where I am professionally. If an opportunity as a panelist or expert doesn’t benefit my continued role as an instructor, I have the ability to respectfully decline. Choosing what’s been the right fit has led to some amazing opportunities, though. A few highlights:

  • Speaking about The Hunger Games to a sold-out audience at The Smithsonian;
  • Being interviewed by Associated Press about drone technology;
  • Filming a short video for WebMD about what to expect when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer; and
  • Talking about selfies for American Magazine.

With respect to The Man, I do not doubt that we were meant to meet and fall in love. I also do not question that we are no longer meant to be a couple. He was put in my life so that Roya would be born. He was a love in my life, and there will be another in the future. She is the love of my life.

As far as being a single mom, I don’t view that term — or my reality — as a negative. Roya is a great kid, and I’m thankful to be in control of every day and every decision in her life. And, I can exhale, knowing that she ended up in the right preschool for her.

Is our life utopic? Of course not.

Parenting is joyously exhausting (or exhaustingly joyful?). Between Roya’s sleep patterns, grading and curriculum development, a five-hour stretch of sleep is a good night for me. And, it would be nice to have time to see my friends, work out and write. But, I know how privileged I am to say that the toughest parts of my year were lack of sleep, missed brunches, and wanting to fit into my skinny jeans.

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As we change the calendar to 2016, I pray that the new year brings Roya and me more of the same. I am truly content with my relationships, my family and my job. I go into 2016 without any loose ends. Roya and I are blessed to be happy and (knock on wood) healthy. I hope the same for you and your loved ones, too. xoxo

A Relationship Update

Three years ago, I posted this picture on Facebook. By this point, I had written about my relationship with The Man and had introduced him to my close friends and family. But, the picture below was our first public “Facebook official” shot.

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At the US Open 2012

I met The Man at my end-of-treatment fundraising celebration, and our relationship was on the fast track soon thereafter. Just how fast?

  • February 2012: We started dating.
  • April 2012: I had a double mastectomy.
  • June 2012: We moved in together.
  • October 2012: I learned I was pregnant.

He was my rock and my love. And, then, he wasn’t. Somewhere between the two points, our daughter, Roya, was born.

It might seem simplistic to condense a relationship of several years into three sentences, but it really is that simple. Trying to navigate whether The Man and I had a future together was complicated and emotion filled. Accepting that our relationship had run its course wasn’t.

For years, my blog was devoted to relationship drama and over-analyzing every minute detail. (Or, was that my life?!?) It was difficult for me to ever have a clean break with someone I loved. I was the Queen of On-Again, Off-Again Relationships!

By contrast, the end of this relationship was a clean break. Once I made the decision, there wasn’t the need to talk about it ad nauseam or seek others’ validation, as I had previously done. My mom always said, “Closure is a female notion. When a relationship is over, it just is. “ She was right.

A dear friend commented that since cancer, I’ve had zero tolerance for nonsense. (I think her exact words were, “You no longer put up with any bullshit.”) Roya has raised the bar even higher. I now know my worth and my purpose. I’m thankful that The Man loves Roya, and Roya loves him. But, that wasn’t and isn’t a reason for me to be in the wrong relationship.

My life and my priorities are far more focused now than they were before I was diagnosed and before I became a mom. I no longer define myself or gauge my worth based on my relationships with men. And, I won’t devote energy to anything – personally or professionally – that doesn’t make me happy and send the right message to Roya.

Three years ago, we were in love, and Roya was conceived. I needed to be in a relationship with The Man so that I could meet her, the love of my life. There is nothing complicated about that.

stef woods, city girl blogs

Roya, Age 2

It Takes a Village

In a recent conversation with a friend, I explained to her that I had a creative approach to child care.

Friend: Of course, you do. It would surprise me if you did anything in a conventional way.

For the first year of Roya’s life, I didn’t know what my child care needs would be. How would I fare after a c-section? How much would I be teaching? Would Roya sleep well? How would unknown variables like teething, vaccines, colds, and growth spurts impact her routine?

I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. One month before Roya arrived, I posted an advertisement on Care.com. (I’m including the ad in its entirety since I’ve forwarded the text to six new mom friends. There’s no definitive guidebook for searching for child care!)

Looking for an experienced nanny or babysitter for a newborn girl approximately 20 hours a week in Foggy Bottom, starting in June. (I’ll be recouping from a c-section and need all the help I can get with bottle feeding and changing!)

Looking for a commitment at least through the summer for three days a week (exact days and hours can be flexible, if needed). CPR training and references required. Willingness to assist with baby’s laundry and light household chores a plus.

Apartment is within walking distance of the Metro. We have a small, very shy, hypoallergenic dog and request a non smoker. Hope to hear from you!

Within 72 hours, I had received 75 responses! I narrowed the field via email exchanges to my top seven applicants and interviewed them at Starbucks. All seven would have been good, but three stood out as potentially great. I decided to hire two students and then referred the third candidate to a neighbor. Our first nannies started the day after we arrived home from the hospital, caring for a tiny, five-day-old.

For the next year, the two nannies and I shared responsibilities. In that time, we all experienced a lot – individually, collectively, and as those closest to Roya. Somewhere along the way, we went from having a nanny/employer relationship to being family. (And, no, I’m not using that term lightly or loosely.) These two young women haven’t just enriched Roya’s life. They’ve enriched mine immeasurably.

Knowing that our first nannies wouldn’t be available after a year, I had planned to put Roya in day care. I quickly realized, though, that wasn’t the best fit for us. I also needed more help than I had the first year since I would be teaching more classes.

I posted another ad on Care.com, but saw that the majority of student nannies and babysitters were now using UrbanSitter.com. I revised the above posting to include taking Roya to age-appropriate activities for a young, active toddler.

I spent two weeks interviewing nannies and figured out a schedule that seemed to work for three students. That is, until the student who had committed to doing the most hours decided not to return to DC. The two remaining nannies pitched in so that I could get through the start of the semester and helped me find two other students to help.

It took some effort to coordinate the schedules of four nannies in the fall and two in the spring, but it was worth it. Our community has broadened in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. Roya has not only grown close with her caregivers, but also their family, sorority sisters, roommates and friends! In addition, each nanny has brought her own talents, interests and expressions into Roya’s life.

Over the past two years, we’ve had eight nannies, and we regularly see seven out of eight! When people asked me why I chose this arrangement, I’ve typically responded:

I can’t miss a class unless it’s an emergency. Having a broader network allows for back up and extra care during grading!

That’s true, but my job isn’t rocket science. And, full-time professional nannies don’t tend to miss work since there’s a contract involved.

In thinking about why I chose a unique child care arrangement, the following Hillary Clinton quote comes to mind:

It takes a village to raise a child.

Back when I set up this arrangement, I didn’t understand what I do now. I was building our village. I’m an only child without any relatives in the area. My village consisted of my parents and my nana. I lost my nana at age 10 and my mom at age 24. There is so much about life that we can’t control. But, I want my daughter to know that she is surrounded by love and not just from her immediate family.  Thankfully, because of our village, she does!

6th Blog Anniversary

In 6th grade, my English teacher tasked the students in my class with writing their own autobiographies. I couldn’t think of a title for mine and asked my mom for help. She didn’t need more than a second to respond:

Doing It Stef’s Way.

Yes, I marched to the beat of my own drum even as a child. When I started this blog six years ago with a post about whether or not I could date a much younger man, I didn’t know where this online path would lead.

I rarely blog anymore, and yet, I don’t see shutting this site down anytime soon. These are my words…my journey…my successes…and my mistakes. I’m proud of the good and the bad experiences in my life since they led me to where I am today.

A recent comment from a reader noted how much my life and blog have changed since my earlier posts. Yes, it’s true that I no longer write about my sex life and the guys who wronged me. But, if I had never dated the guys I did, I would have never met The Man and Roya wouldn’t be here. And, if I had never had such an eventful dating life, my professional path might have been very different, too.

When I started blogging, I wrote only for me. One year later, I had received enough sexual health and relationship questions from readers that I decided to join the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists as a supporting member. I began to blend more advice posts with my own dating tales and write about sexual health for two websites.

Several students at American University were regularly reading my blog, and I was invited to speak at the Social Learning Summit in 2011. That led to my idea to teach a class on Sexuality and Social Media on that campus. In 2014, after three years as an adjunct professor, American University offered me a full-time contract as an instructor.

In many ways, my life is so different than it was six years ago. 3am texts from whomever I was seeing at the time have been replaced by 3am feedings. My club attire and fancy dresses are in a closet, collecting dust. Date nights now happen at cocktail parties organized by the parents in Roya’s playgroup.

Even though my daily routine has changed profoundly, I’m still the same. I continue to march to the beat of my own drum. My blog tagline is “Educate, Advocate, Titillate.” As a professor, I focus on the first two words in that phrase. I still talk a lot about feminism, branding, sexuality, relationships, health, and double standards in the work force. My discussions just occur in the classroom, rather than on this site.

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Back when I blogged regularly, I didn’t write about my dating life in real time. I enjoyed crafting a story with the benefit of hindsight and doing things differently. As a teacher, I’m thankfully allowed the creativity to develop classes that find academic merit in popular culture. In three years, I’ve created the curriculum for seven courses from scratch. I proud of what I’ve accomplished and know how fortunate I am to love my job!

Shortly after I began blogging, I shared with my readers that I wanted to adopt a little girl. A few comments were highly critical of of that decision, stating that I wasn’t capable of being a mom and that I wouldn’t be able to prioritize motherhood in the midst of such an active social life. I didn’t know that my journey would lead me to have a biological daughter, rather than adopt. But, I knew then that I was ready to be a mom and how much my life would change. I was fully prepared to hang up my stilettos, and I have. I don’t have much of a social life or time to write for pleasure anymore, but that’s not atypical for moms of young toddlers.

Even as a mom, though, I’m still the same me. Roya is the most important and amazing thing in my life, but I know that she’s not perfect. I set boundaries, and I say, “No!” when I need to. I don’t coddle her when she isn’t hurt or sick. I don’t throw fancy parties for her or care if another child does something earlier or better than she does. And, I don’t feel guilty when I say that motherhood is both the best job and the most exhausting job there is.

When I started this blog six years ago, I didn’t know where the journey would lead me. I sit here today in front of my laptop with happy tears in my eyes. Because of my blog, I’m blessed to be where I am today — at American and with Roya. For those who have supported me along the way, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It warms my heart to know that the doors to my home in the blogosphere are always open. xoxo

Isn’t Motherhood Amazing?

Since I’ve had Roya, moms or moms-to-be often ask me the following question:

Isn’t it amazing?

I always respond in the same way:

She’s amazing. It – motherhood – is exhausting.

Motherhood is the toughest job there is. It is 24/7. There are no holidays, vacation days, sick days or snow days.

I teach about feminism in several of my classes, and yet, I find it difficult to inspire when it comes to gender roles within a heterosexual family unit. We continue to live in a culture that assumes that the mom will handle an overwhelming majority of all matters related to children.

When The Man asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I responded:

I want to be the dad for a day.

What did I mean by that?

I don’t want to handle night care for a toddler who is going through yet another sleep regression.

I don’t want to purchase any milk or diapers.

I don’t want to coordinate Roya’s schedule or childcare.

I don’t want to conduct research online about preschool, vaccines or anything developmentally appropriate.

I don’t want to have my ability to work or shower contingent on childcare.

I want to go to the bathroom without Roya attached to my leg the whole time.

I don’t want to have the pediatrician’s number memorized.

I don’t want to be the disciplinarian and enforcer of rules and schedules.

I want to have someone thank me for spending one-on-one time with Roya.

I want to live in a society that values a mom’s work outside of the home as much as a man’s work outside of the home.  (This infuriates me even more so when the woman in a given couple earns more than the man. And, if I can add a dream to this thought, I’d love to live in a country where women’s work inside the home is valued similarly to men’s work outside of the home!)

I wish that mothers felt able to openly vent about the difficulties of motherhood without feeling as though they’re bad mothers, guilty or ungrateful. (I’m the first to acknowledge how blessed I am to have Roya. I’m thankful for our health and having The Man in our lives. I just don’t feel as though complaining about how exhausted or overworked I am is mutually exclusive from any of that!)

So, I never got my birthday wish. That wasn’t in the cards for me. I’m the mom. This is my journey.

But, lucky for me, Roya is amazing!

roya, stef woods, moshe zusman

How do these gender roles impact you?

My Chemo-versary v4.0

I tasked my students in my Body in American Culture course with examining their thoughts about the body, beauty ideals and body image. The basic guidelines for this Body Genogram are as follows:

Connect your early life experiences with your current understanding of your body and beauty in general. How do they or do they not impact you today? Throughout the paper, ask yourself, “How did my culture, religion, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, friends and family affect my own views? How do these factors impact my current attitudes about my body and beauty ideals? What role, if any, did television, magazines, advertisements and social media play in influencing my views?” Your genogram will be graded on a pass/fail basis.

It’s ironic that I’m reading my students’ genograms today of all days. On September 21, 2010, I walked into my oncologist’s office. I was scheduled to begin treatment for breast cancer with a “lighter” form of chemotherapy and only had a 15% of losing my hair.

Once inside my doctor’s office, though, I learned that was no longer the plan. I needed a stronger chemotherapy cocktail because I had an aggressive strain of HER2 positive breast cancer. My hair would likely be all gone by mid-October.

I knew that losing my hair would change me, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much. I also had no way of knowing then how poorly my body would react to chemotherapy. Steroids caused me to gain 23 pounds and develop insomnia and an eye twitch. I forgot conversations and plans. My migraines increased to three times a week. And, after hemorrhaging following my second round of chemo, I was thrown into menopause.

Four years later, my hair has grown back, and although my weight isn’t what I would like, it’s in a healthy range. I’m also proud of all that my body has done from the minute (being able to walk three miles a day) to the miraculous (getting pregnant and giving birth to Roya despite being post-menopausal).

Nonetheless, I’m not the same woman that I was four years ago. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time in my life when my body looked its best. My metabolism was stable, and the age of 37, I was able to eat what I wanted, rarely exercise beyond walking and physical therapy, and not worry about the scale moving. (After suffering from an eating disorder in my late teens-early 20s, I was in a much-improved place emotionally and physically.) I looked in the mirror and felt attractive. My priorities at the time were my blog, increasing my experience as a sex educator, charity and social events, and boys. I also was considering taking a local modeling agent up on her offer to book me and had met with an adoption agency to begin the lengthy process to adopt a little girl.

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Shoot with Patrick Onofre February 2010

I had waited to submit my adoption application and to schedule the meeting with the agent until after I had my mammogram. The mammogram led to biopsies which in turn led to a diagnosis. My plans to adopt and my chance to do some local modeling were put on hold. Four years later, I doubt that I’ll adopt now and I objectively wouldn’t have a shot at modeling. I look at the photograph above, and I’m no longer that girl anymore.

Most days, I relish the roles I now play and the directions that my life took. I love being a professor, an advocate, and a partner. And, I don’t doubt for a second that God had a plan for me to be Roya’s mom. Cancer forced me to reprioritize my life, my views on women’s bodies in general and my body in particular, and my relationships. That was all meant to happen.

However, there are times like today when I can’t help but wonder, “What if?” Where would my life have taken me if I hadn’t gotten cancer? How would I feel about my body, if I had never gone through chemotherapy and a double mastectomy? What would it be like to watch a movie or read a magazine and not be so uncomfortable with how women are portrayed, and their bodies sexualized and commodified? Will there be a September 21st in the future when I don’t question these things?

I’m left with more questions than answers, but that’s my reality. I’m beyond thankful to be cancer free, but my life isn’t free of cancer.

What factor or experience has played an influential role in your views about your body and beauty ideals? 

Getting Competitive about a High-Five?

At Gymboree, a then 10-month-old Roya was playing with two 15-month-old boys. One of the moms approached me and said, “She’s very cute.” I thanked her. She then moved over to Roya, extended her hand, and said, “High-five.”

Roya just stared at the woman so I interjected, “She doesn’t know how to ‘high-five’ yet.”

The woman’s eyes opened widely. She took her hand away and commented with a twinge of discomfort, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No worries!” I replied. “She’ll learn eventually.”

The woman looked at the other mother in a manner that conveyed a blend of pity and disapproval.

The three babies continued to play together before the boys walked in one direction and Roya crawled in the other.

Seeing Roya crawl, the woman realized that she had guessed Roya’s age incorrectly.

“How old is she?” she asked me.

“She just turned 10 months,” I answered as the two moms expressed their surprise.

“We thought she was older since she’s so tall!” one exclaimed.

“It was great how well they played together,” the other commented.

As I smiled and headed off toward Roya, I chose not to state the obvious: That in just a few minutes, Roya went from “slow” to “gifted” in their eyes.

Since I had never seen these women before, I restrained myself from saying the following:

Stop with the competition. It’s not a race.

We do not need to measure ourselves against each other as parents, and we definitely don’t need to compare our children to each other. As any adult knows, there is always someone out there who is able to do something better, faster or easier than we are. That has been and will continue to be the case at any age and stage!

My daughter’s ability – or lack thereof – to give you a high-five will have no bearing on her future. No one includes when they said their first word on their LinkedIn profile or mentions on a college application how old they were when they took their first step. The parents at Gymboree thankfully have healthy children who will reach all the milestones soon enough. Not every parent is so lucky!

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I can high-five with the best of ’em now ;)!

A child’s milestones should be celebrated with joy and gratitude, not serve as a point of comparison to determine who is advanced and who is developmentally below the curve. I don’t feel bad or sorry for those milestones that Roya hasn’t reached. Likewise, I’m not paying tuition to Wellesley just yet because of the milestones that she reached early.

Stop the competition. It’s not worth the energy!

I wish this type of competition wasn’t so common! I’d love to hear some of the competitive moments that made you shake your head in the comments. 

 

Roya’s 1st Birthday

I didn’t throw a first birthday party for my daughter, Roya.

I write that without any guilt or shame.

Nonetheless, my decision surprised quite a few loved ones. Why didn’t I go the traditional route?

  • Roya won’t remember anything about any event at this early point in her life. As such, her first birthday will come and go without any recollection of it. All she knows is the here and now, and whether she is fed, warm, dry and loved. To her one-year-old mind, every day is a party!
  • The Man and I are both only children, and Roya is our only child. Some people turn a one-year-old birthday party into a larger family celebration. Others utilize the event as a reminder that life, joy and laughter continue in the midst of loss and illness. The former isn’t our reality, and the latter thankfully isn’t our necessity.
  • I’ve never been one to follow the pack or tradition. (Remember the amazing cocktail party that my friends threw me in lieu of a customary baby shower?) I didn’t want this occasion to be the exception.
  • Party planning stresses me out. Birthday parties for one year olds are typically for the adults. Why should I add something to my plate, if it doesn’t make me happy?
  • To me, smash cakes are an exercise in messiness and forced responses. Some babies love having their faces covered in frosting, while onlookers applaud. Others don’t.
  • Roya has been and will continue to be celebrated every day in small and big ways by her loved ones. I envisioned her birthday to be intimate and special to those of us who have raised her over the past year. And, it was just that!
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All smiles on her birthday!

  • Roya was feted at brunch by her parents and nannies at one of our favorite restaurants, Peacock Café. We showered her with snuggles and kisses, rather than presents. For her birthday dessert, I picked up a vanilla cupcake from Sprinkles. In typical baby fashion, though, Roya fell asleep before she could taste it! We finished out the day enjoying the beautiful weather and having Campono pizza at home.
It's my (non) party, and I can sleep if I want to!

It’s my (non) party, and I can sleep if I want to!

  • There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the birthday of a one-year-old. If having a large party makes you happy, then that’s what you should do! Likewise, if you don’t want to throw a big party for your baby, don’t feel like you have to for anyone else’s sake. I have no regrets about choosing a simpler way to celebrate.

The Love of My Life

In 2010, I was on a date with a man who wanted to talk a lot about my blog.

Him: Your stories would make a great book! Each relationship could be a chapter with the last chapter about the man you decide to marry and spend the rest of your life with!

I thanked him for the compliment and then paused before responding, “You know? I don’t think a man will be the love of my life. I want to adopt and become a mom. I think that my daughter will be the love of my life.”

Prior to starting chemotherapy for breast cancer, my oncologist asked me if I planned to have children.

“I’m going to adopt a girl who is of elementary school age,” I said, matter of factly. I didn’t need any information about freezing my eggs since I never envisioned getting pregnant or giving birth.

When I was going through treatment for breast cancer, I would picture the daughter that I would adopt as a source of inspiration. I couldn’t see her face, but I visualized her black hair in pigtails with a white cardigan over her navy dress.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I wasn’t meant to adopt. I was meant to meet The Man, fall in love and astonishingly conceive.

Medical professionals don’t typically use words like, “miracle,” but with my pregnancy, they did. During my bi-monthly sonograms, four different radiology technicians commented that my daughter-to-be was gifted and sassy. I would smile and remind myself that she was just a fetus. But, a part of me realized that even as a fetus, she had already proven that she was strong!

After the doctors delivered my daughter, Roya, one of them commented that my ovaries were postmenopausal. Medically, there wasn’t an explanation for my pregnancy or her birth. And yet, in spite of all the odds and obstacles, Roya was born.

I’ve heard from quite a few people over the past year that Roya’s birth has given them hope. It’s important to believe that the seemingly impossible is in fact possible. She is living proof that miracles can happen!

Several doctors and friends have commented that Roya is destined for greatness. Well, greatness is subjective and ascribes to certain conventional benchmarks of success. I hope that whatever the future holds for Roya, she realizes that she’s great just as she is.

On the eve of Roya’s first birthday, I held her in my arms with tears in my eyes. So much of the past four years was unplanned, but I guessed one thing correctly:

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My daughter would be the love of my life.

And, she is.

Roya’s February, Part 2

Once Roya started to feel better in early February, I decided to enroll her in a Gymboree class. At eight months, she had yet to actually play or interact with other babies her age. I thought that she would like Gymboree, but didn’t expect her to love it so much! The teachers at the NW DC location are wonderful, and the infants are so cute as they laugh and play together! (I guess I was surprised at how much I enjoy it, too!)

Roya at Gymboree

Roya at Gymboree

We also picked up a play zone and foam tiles for Roya from Target. The play zone contains enough to stimulate Roya, but it’s not overwhelmingly loud or bright. (That’s a win for her and a win for me!)

With respect to the puzzle foam mats that are the norm for families with infants, I learned after purchasing the tiles that they have been banned in Europe for containing a toxic chemical. (Is there anything else other than thick carpeting that can be used in lieu of these mats? Please comment if you’ve found something that works for infants!)

Check out Roya’s moves in the play zone:

The cold and snowy weather impeded us from heading to the playground, but we managed to make it to weekly story time and music time at the library. I had to laugh out loud that Roya was the only one in the infant/toddler class to know what to do with a drum before the teacher showed the group.

Girl in the Hood

Girl in the Hood

We continued to try to introduce Roya to solid foods. She still wasn’t a fan, although her expressions in the high chair are priceless.

Can you blame me for being so in love with my little, funny Valentine?