Saturday, December 28, 2013

Baltimore Aquarium with a toddler

In an attempt to celebrate Natalie's final days as an only child, we've been trying to choose some activities to enjoy with her before her brother's arrival. The short list has included the Baltimore Aquarium, a place I hadn't visited in at least a decade. If you're like me and you haven't been in a while, I can say that although the entrance area has changed, probably for the better -- more aesthetically pleasing, though not necessarily any better at regulating visitor traffic flow -- the interior is mostly the same. This time, though, I got to see the popular tourist attraction through the eyes of a toddler, and that made it the most fun I've had there.

Here's what we learned:

1) Tickets -- If you're looking for a deal or you are sticking to a relatively strict schedule (as is the case with many families traveling with small children), it's probably a good idea to buy tickets in advance. Tickets are expensive -- $34.95 for adults (12 and up), $21.95 for kids (3-11), with kids under 3 free and further discounted rates for seniors. I did some searching for coupon codes and other deals, but because we're not Maryland residents I had a hard time finding much.

The best deal we could find that applied to us involved $8 off each adult admission through AAA. Because we found the deal the day before we went, we picked the tickets up at a local AAA office. A couple points to know about AAA tickets, if you go with this option:
  • The AAA website may claim that there are not enough tickets available. This is likely wrong, which is part of the reason we picked ours up at an AAA office. 
  • When we bought our tickets through AAA, they wound up being vouchers good for 9 months. This means they did not include entry for a specific date and time, meaning we were taking a bit of a gamble because we did not have standard timed-entry tickets. Instead, when we arrived we had to go to a will-call window and trade in our voucher for timed-entry tickets. The good news is our timed entry tickets were for 10 a.m., which is exactly when we got there, so we did not experience a wait.

2) Parking -- There is some metered street parking available on Pratt Street right across from the harbor, practically in front of the aquarium, and those few coveted spaces are actually valid for 4-hour stretches, as we discovered after the fact. There are also some 2-hour street spaces on Market Place, just one block past the aquarium, but we figured we'd be gone for at least 3 hours and didn't want to risk it. So, we went with the expensive, safe parking option of the Lockwood Place Garage with an entrance on Market Place. Most aquarium visitors will be parked for at least 3 hours, which means you'll be paying the highest price: $24 for 3 hours or more (up to 24 hours), with $5 off if you remember to take your parking ticket to get it validated at the aquarium's exit.

3) Timing -- Check the aquarium's website for updated hours information, but know that it will be open by 10 a.m. We went during the winter holidays, so it opened at 9 a.m. the day of our visit, though we didn't get inside the exhibits until 10 a.m. (mostly because we didn't rush ourselves leaving the house). If you're able to purchase timed-entry tickets before you arrive and you've got a toddler in tow, I'd recommend going with 10 a.m. as that's when the exhibits are the least crowded (and most toddlers I know, including my own, seem to be on their best behavior earliest in the day). Plan for 2-3 hours of visiting time for you and your toddler.

4) Strollers, lockers and coat checks -- The aquarium has a strict no-stroller policy, though I did weirdly see someone with a stroller near the shark exhibit (but maybe she had special permission based on circumstances). Strollers and coats can be checked right inside the main entrance, where there is a wall of lockers as well, though by the time we were leaving at 12:30 there were signs that said the stroller, coat check and lockers were all full and to check back later. I'm not sure what you do at that point, besides returning to your car to store your items or waiting for an indefinite period of time. So, I'd recommend leaving your stroller at home and trying to minimize how much you bring in if possible. We visited on a 50-degree day, so Matt and I skipped our coats and just brought the diaper bag, which we traded off carrying.

5) Food -- I'm glad we kept the diaper bag on us because I'd packed it with snacks for Natalie, and it's a good thing I did -- looking at fish made this child, who normally does not have a tremendous appetite, especially hungry. There are a few places to eat scattered throughout the aquarium, including one on the 4th floor near the puffins exhibit. This spot has a particularly awesome view of the inner harbor, and if I'd had better parenting instinct at the time I would have given Natalie a snack at one of the tables there that could have prevented the mini-meltdown we experienced moments later in front of the puffins. Over in the section of the aquarium known as Pier 4 (where the dolphins are located) there's a small cafeteria called Harbor Market Cafe with a large eating space where you can set up your child with food either from home or purchased there. Plus, you can enjoy the jellyfish art hanging overhead.

Getting around with a toddler
Our visit lasted exactly two and a half hours, which was the perfect length for us. Before you arrive, check out the aquarium maps to determine what makes the most sense for your child's temperament. If you follow the normal aquarium route, you'll start at Blacktip Reef, which is super cool and a big exhibit that should keep everyone's attention, but then you will hit a lot of small tanks as you move up the aquarium levels. This mostly worked well for Natalie, but it also means that she had her 4th-floor freak out in front of the puffins, which is too bad because that should have been one of the exhibits she enjoyed the most (she loves penguins, so puffins are close enough). It also means she didn't pay much attention inside the rain forest section on the 5th floor.

Cute mother-child photo? Not happening in the rain forest.

But, overall, the aquarium really held Natalie's attention, especially once she got more food in her system. She seemed most mesmerized by the sharks, and stared for many extended periods at the shark tanks, repeating, "Sharks have big teeth!"

We skipped the dolphin show, as I think it's probably still too long and advanced for our almost-two-year old, but Natalie enjoyed watching the two dolphins from the underwater viewing area.

When it came to smaller fish tanks, Natalie seemed more attracted to the bright displays with colorful tropical fish rather than some of the low-light displays. In fact, I suspect some of the low-light tanks scared her because she ran away from a few. There are ledges (or "little steps," as Natalie called them) in front of nearly all exhibits for kids to stand on to get a better view of the tanks, so she enjoyed that element of the visit as well. On a funny side note, one of Natalie's favorite things to say now is, "So pretty!" and "So beautiful!" So, she kept saying that, and Matt and I kept saying, "Yes, beautiful fish." I definitely had several people say to me, "Actually, that is a [insert highly specific, technical species name here]." I would just say, "Ohhh, thanks!" and then laugh a little inside at the absurdity of the situation and the fact that I was just trying to keep my kid smiling, not teach her Latin.

Perhaps the weirdest/coolest exhibit all three of us enjoyed is the jellyfish, also located in Pier 4 near the dolphins. I mean, come on, these guys are cray cray.

There's a small section in Pier 4 named the Children's Discovery Gallery. It was not what I was hoping it would be (I remember a place where I got to pick up starfish when I visited as a child), but Natalie thought it was amazing, so that's all that matters. The Gallery includes marine-life dress up clothes children can try on, a giant tortoise shell they can touch, a marine-life puppet show space where kids can put on their own performances, and a wall with a coral reef backdrop where kids can stick Velcro-backed sea creatures. Natalie was difficult to photograph here because she was excited and mostly jumping.

If you're hoping to get some good photos of your family at the aquarium, take advantage of the several atriums throughout the buildings. They offer great lighting, provided you keep the camera pointing away from the windows.

I'm so glad we had a chance to share this experience with our daughter!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Natalie's new room

Natalie's been in her new room for nearly three weeks, but I wasn't able to put the finishing touches on it until this morning, thanks to a Christmas Eve package delivery. She's loving it, I'm loving it, so I thought it was time to share it.

I had perhaps more fun creating this room than I did creating the nursery two years ago, simply because this time I knew I was creating a room exclusively for a little girl, rather than creating a room that could easily work for a girl or a boy. Perhaps what made this experience even more fun was knowing the little person I was designing the room for. I tried to incorporate as many of her interests into this room as possible, and I got her involved and excited in the decorating process along the way.

Bedding -- the inspiration
My vision for the room began over the summer, as many visions do, with a trip to Target, where I happened upon the Xhilaration twin quilt ($50) that ultimately became the room's inspiration piece. Even though Natalie's continuing in her crib (for as long as she'd like, which could be a while) I thought it would be wise to base this room that she'll grow into around fun bedding, so I threw in a pillow sham ($20) and slowly pieced together other items. She scored a new Mini Dot Crib Fitted Sheet in bright pink ($16 after coupon) from Pottery Barn Kids, too. Fortunately, she loves to say "polka-dot," and there are yellow polka-dots in her quilt, so there's some coordination going on, too.

My next task after tackling the bedding was to get some seriously heavy-duty curtains. Natalie's new room has two windows whereas the nursery has only one. I considered DIYing the no-sew curtains I had made for the nursery, but knowing I'd have to make twice as many curtains and knowing that the room lets in a lot more light than the nursery, I decided this time I'd be better off hiring a professional and getting real curtains made with built-in black-out liner.

It took me a while to find a well-reviewed local seamstress willing to make curtains, but I finally happened upon Young's Cleaners. I'd recommend their seamstress services. I had to do a little back and forth because of language barriers, but by working with the owner's daughter I was able to get exactly what I was hoping for. I decided to be perhaps a little unconventional with the overall curtain design and went with three panels (instead of two or four) and chose one patterned fabric for the two outside panels and one solid fuchsia material for the middle panel.

These curtains were definitely an investment, but I am happy to spend the most on curtains for a room for a child. If there's one thing we value in our house, it's sleep.

Curtain fabric -- $75 for 8 yards (16 feet of patterned fabric, 8 feet of solid fabric), Jo-Ann Fabrics
Black-out liner fabric -- $36 for 8 yards, Jo-Ann Fabrics
Seamstress labor -- $210 for three curtain panels, Young's Cleaners
Curtain rod, 48"-88", black satin finish -- $32, Bed Bath and Beyond
Curtain rings -- $18 for three packs of 7 rings each, Bed Bath and Beyond

Because we moved Natalie's crib out of the nursery and into the new room, we temporarily dodged the bullet of needing to buy another bed. We are still waiting to see if we'll need a second crib for the nursery. I'd predict yes at this point, but for now baby boy (when he arrives) will kick it in the Pack N Play and then we'll reevaluate.

The only furniture, then, we needed to consider for Natalie's new room was a bookcase and a dresser. For her bookcase, we chose the eight-box Expedit from IKEA in white ($70).

For her dresser, we decided to tackle the one real DIY project of this new room and we refinished an old dresser a friend handed down to us when we moved into our house seven years ago. This refinishing project was not a monumental task, as the dresser was in good shape aside from some water stains on the top; I just wish we hadn't waited until the coldest weather of the year kicked in during late November to take on this project inside our freezing garage. We followed the same procedure we did when Matt refinished the dresser for the nursery. Matt sanded the dresser, and then I painted it a shade called Watermelon Smoothie ($15.75 for a quart) manufactured by Glidden, but color-matched using Behr paint thanks to the recommendation from a Home Depot employee and professional painter who told me he'd always choose Behr over Glidden.

As another splurge and mini-project, I decided to line the eight dresser drawers in fancy handmade paper from Paper Source ($46 for eight sheets). I chose gold dragonflies on fuchsia, gold dragonflies on sea green, bean orange, and bean white on green. I used Modge Podge to get the paper to adhere to the drawers' interiors. It's a time-consuming task, but I love how Natalie opens her drawers and says, "Mom made art!"

Actually, Natalie likes to talk about the art all around her room. Specifically, I framed two pieces of art Natalie already had, and I purchased three new pieces of art: Reading Rainbow, 17"x 20", Society 6 ($24); Muppet Alphabet, 17"x 20", Society 6 ($25); Home is Wherever I Am With You, Etsy seller RawArtLetterpress ($20). I was super pleased with the service I received from both sellers. In the case of RawArtLetterpress, my order shipped immediately and it arrived with a few added free goodies that I plan to make into greeting cards. I was a little dismayed when I checked over the two prints I received from Society6 and discovered a couple green dots in the middle of each poster. I contacted the company, and they sent me new versions of each print, no questions asked, that very day. They even responded to my email within 15 minutes. I framed all the art in cheap-ish white frames from Michaels ($54 for four frames after various discounts).

You might notice in the picture above two pink fabric bins with an owl pattern that house some of Natalie's toys and stuffed animals. I picked those up at Home Goods in early November ($13 each).

I also decided to go with another decal, just as I'd done with the nursery. I went with Dali Decals again and opted for the Peaceful Leaning Birch Tree with Blossoms in white with pink flowers ($89 after coupon code). While not absolutely necessary, this decal rests over Natalie's crib and helps fill what had been a giant empty wall in the room. Plus, I love hearing Natalie talk about how the leaves from her tree will fall on the grass (she was pretty jazzed to talk about leaves this year).

Moving Natalie into her new room meant sacrificing some storage space. Because her new room shares a wall with the hallway bathroom, this room is actually slightly bigger than the nursery, but its closet is significantly smaller than the nursery closet. So, baby brother will be housing some extra gear in his closet. Even still, Natalie's closet has room to expand, as many of the items that are in there are either clothes she'll grow into or toys she doesn't even know she owns yet that she'll be slowly gifted during her brother's first few months of life.

Moving Natalie into this room meant breaking out her P'Kolino Little Reader Chair that I received for her at my baby shower. She didn't have space for it in the nursery, but she loves it and her stool with her name on it in her new room. She especially cracks me up when she reclines in the chair with her arms on both armrests and both of her feet propped up on the stool. She looks like a queen. It's absurd.

Overall, I didn't make a tremendous time investment in this space (we got away with not painting the walls and sticking with the original Behr Sagey we painted the room seven years ago, so that definitely helped). Still, it took me much longer to piece together this room as compared to the nursery simply because of the comparatively limited time I have at this point in my life. I am thrilled, though, that Natalie loves the room so much, and I'll share soon how we got her to transition to the new room.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Natalie sings!: Creating a toddler YouTube channel

(Note: If you're viewing this post through an RSS reader, you might have trouble with some of the embedded videos. Please visit my blog for the links!)

Yesterday our child turned 23 months old, and as I reflect back on 22 months, I think it will go down in our daughter's life story as the month she started singing. A lot. And asked us to sing for her. A lot. "Mommy sing more songs!" and "Natty sing by self" were two of the most common sentences our daughter uttered this month.

I've caught myself turning teary-eyed on many occasions this month as my daughter sings to me or sings to herself when she thinks I can't hear her. She has many songs now, but she has some all-time greatest hits. She references "Class on the Farm" (aka her pre-preschool class) where they sing "Old McDonald" while holding animal puppets, and then she proceeds to belt out a rushed "OldMcDonaldhadfarm E-I-E-I-OOOOOOOOOOO" (that last O gets really drawn out, and Old McDonald's most popular animal appears to be a's always a duck). She also runs around like an airplane while singing "The Wheels on the Bus" and manages to get through the lines about the wheels and the wipers before just looping on "All through the toooowwwwnnnnn" (again, her signature singing move appears to be drawing out that final note). And, after months of me singing "Hush-A-Bye Baby" to her while rubbing her back as she lays heavy-eyed inside her crib, Natalie has been singing all the lyrics of this song to herself, to me, and this week, to the Cabbage Patch doll of my childhood that I regifted to her as she prepares to become a big sister.

She's added new songs to her repertoire this month thanks to earning a new privilege of screen time. Up until hitting 22 months, Natalie had practically zero interest in TV. I had DVRed her an episode of Sesame Street months back, but it was way over her head and she watched for about 30 seconds before going back to coloring. Of course, her lack of interest in the screen has not bothered me, but I have thought about ways to slowly introduce her to videos without making it too much a part of our lives. Though I am not a believer in parking kids in front of the tube, I figure there might be times in the coming months when having her spend 15 minutes watching part of a show will be useful.

Creating a YouTube channel
I made Natalie a YouTube channel, and it's been the perfect way to introduce her to media while at the same time completely controlling what she watches and for how long. So far her channel is exclusively composed of Sesame Street clips, almost all of them from the official Sesame Street channel.

Making a YouTube channel is super easy. If you're signed in to your YouTube account, each time you watch a video you'll see an "Add to" option in the menu underneath the video. Simply click "Add to" and you'll get several options of ways to save your video, including "Favorite videos," "Watch later," and any personalized channel name you've created.
Our favorite videos
Sing the Alphabet Song!
This is by far my favorite video. It's catchy and fun without being annoying. Memorizing the lyrics takes no time, and it's fun to hear Natalie repeat back all the words as we run through the alphabet together.

Usher's ABC Song
This is one of Matt's favorites, and watching this enough times has caused it to literally become embedded in my dreams (plus, Usher started dancing with me at my friend's party [in my dream] and he is, not surprisingly, an incredible dance partner). How could you not find this man and this song charming and addictive?

Feist sings 1, 2, 3, 4
It took me a couple days to translate Natalie's toddler speak in reference to this song, but now it's impossible not to chuckle when she walks around singing "counting a 4" and "chickens from the shore" and "penguins at the door."

Norah Jones sings Don't Know Y
You know I love a good pun, and I fully hope to indoctrinate my child with a pun-loving philosophy. This is such a clever twist on Norah Jones' famous song. Natalie goes crazy every time the letter Y shows up in the video after being late to his playdate with Norah. "Natalie sees Y!" she shouts. Yes, we are trying to break our child of the habit of referring to herself in the third person, and no, Elmo, you're not helping, but you are cute.

Jimmy Fallon, Sesame Street and The Roots Sing "Sesame Street" theme
This one is purely for fun, but I finally figured out why my daughter runs around saying "A-OK": "Sunny day, everything's A-OK." And Jimmy Fallon is just adorable and a recently minted dad!

ABC-DEF-GHI Song (by Bird Bird)
OK, so the visual quality of this one leaves something to be desired, but that's because it's authentic vintage Sesame Street that dates back to at least the early 80s when I remember watching this frequently. Bonus points for how Big Bird teaches kids to spell "car" and "cat" at the end.

Potty Time
OK, this one is admittedly ridiculous, but it has also prompted my child to ask to go sit on the potty because Elmo sits on the potty. Adults, please notice how many ridiculous puns and other jokes the  Sesame Street geniuses embedded in this one. Oh, potty humor.

I Love Trash
Here's another throwback to my childhood (and yours too, no doubt). I just liked this song as a kid, and as an adult I can appreciate how a song like this teaches some great vocabulary by getting kids to make connections. "Anything ragged or rotten or rusty"? It's impossible for me not to laugh as Natalie runs around singing "I love traasssssshhhhhhh!" and I always have to resist saying, "Actually, remember how you hate trash and hate to get dirty?" Again, she's my daughter.

Kermit and Elmo Discuss Happy and Sad
This is one of the few non-musical clips in our queue, but Natalie loves to ask for this one, saying, "Elmo and Kermit the froggie play tag." Watching this video with her has taught me that I don't talk to her very often about emotions, so I should probably get on that. This video also helped prompt me to buy art featuring Kermit for her new room because Kermit appears to be perhaps her favorite Sesame Street character, and I fully endorse this choice.

Benefits of the YouTube channel
I am not surprised by how well the clips keep her attention, because it's no secret that toddlers and children can be mesmerized by the screen. I am surprised, though, by how much the clips have taught her. Her little brain really is a sponge, soaking up everything in front of her. The videos we've selected for her channel have helped her further memorize the alphabet, identify specific letters by site, begin to understand the sounds different letters make, identify numbers, learn opposites, spell a couple simple words, and even learn about emotions such as happy and sad. Sure, she gets reinforcement of all these concepts through books, toys and daily activities, but that's why I think the personalized YouTube channel has been a great supplement to her routine and education -- it gives her another way to make connections and learn.

Speaking of routine, Natalie wakes up each morning knowing that she'll change her diaper, go downstairs, have some milk, and watch a couple videos while I do her hair. This past month she has asked for this routine without fail. Creature of habit? Clearly my daughter. 

Something I love about the YouTube channel routine is that we only watch these clips from our desktop computer, so she still does not watch any TV on our actual TV. In a way, it feels like this option allows us to save some of the mystique of the television for when she's a bit older and better suited for slightly longer stretches of screen time. Right now, thanks to these 2-3 minute videos, our daughter only gets in about 10-15 minutes of screen time per day, and it seems like the perfect amount.

Have you made your child a YouTube channel? What are the best videos out there for toddlers? We'll eventually look to expand outside Sesame Street, so I'd love some suggestions!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

MPix cards: great quality, value

I decided this year to send out year-in-review "holiday" cards after a bit of debate. For one, we don't really celebrate winter holidays, so the design choices are limited. Then, there's the price. This year, there's also the fact that we'll likely be sending out birth announcements some time in January for our son. How much mail does anyone care to receive from us? Also, does anyone care about receiving photos of our family in the mail in general? (Thankfully, this guy was never on our distribution list.) But then I figured, life's too short; let's send a card to people who might like to receive one.

After getting bombarded by Black Friday email deals from sites such as Tiny Prints and Minted, companies which I love but are just really expensive, I settled on the significantly cheaper option of MPix. (Sidenote: I don't work for MPix, and this is not a sponsored post.) I feel like MPix is this awesome little secret card maker of the Internet. I'm a long-time customer of the site, but until last year when we sent out New Years cards I'd never realized the site offers high-quality, reasonably priced customizable cards. I don't think many people realize this, either, because of the dozens of cards we get in our mailbox each year not one appears to be from MPix.

MPix was running a 25% off special on Black Friday, so I put in our order that day. I went with the Happy Everything theme because it seemed the most fitting for our family. Plus, I love the way this design, along with so many other MPix designs, includes room for photos on the back of the card as well as the front. Here's the design with the dummy photos:
Here are the photos we used:

I ordered two sets of 25 5x7" flat cards on signature paper with no gloss and rounded corners. The rounded corners cost an extra $2.50, but I prefer the look. I love MPix's signature paper. It is so thick and the photos on it stay true to the colors that I see on my computer screen when arranging the photos on the template. Even if I hadn't placed the order on Black Friday when I paid only $46.45 for the cards and shipping, the total for 50 cards would have been just $50.50 plus $7.95 shipping using standard USPS delivery. I think this is a great deal in the world of customizable cards, considering I would have paid double at Tiny Prints and more than double at Minted (but man do I love those cards, too).

Besides the amazing price and quality of the finished product, I also like the fact that MPix does not print its name anywhere on the card. This is bad advertising on the company's part, but good for me! Also, my order was sent out within about 12 hours of placing it. Even though I chose the slowest shipping speed, I still received the package within five days from the date the cards were printed.

My only complaint about MPix is that in my limited experience with customizable cards, MPix seems to limit the number of customizable options. For example, I thought I would be able to change the greeting on the back of the card. The "wonder and magic of this season" isn't really my style of writing or expressing emotion, but I only realized I couldn't change that after about 45 minutes of playing around with photos and finalizing the card, so I said *whatever* and figured the greeting is what people pay the least attention to (until you blog about it, I guess).

Other users might complain that MPix doesn't offer nearly as many design options as its competitors do, which I think is valid, but that particular issue hasn't been a concern for me.

Oh, and something silly: I happened to choose a design with space for five horizontal photos and space for only one quasi-vertical photo. In attempting to include a photo of Natalie and me as well as one of Natalie and Matt, I discovered that in all of 2013 I managed to avoid having a single horizontal photo of myself with my daughter. Goal for 2014: get horizontal and vertical photos of me and both of my children.

If you're thinking of sending out cards this year and haven't placed an order yet, you might want to give this lesser-known site a chance.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hiring a cleaning service

Speaking of exporting out help for improving our home, we have in the last several months hired a cleaning service for the first time, and let me tell you have much it has revolutionized our lives. One day over the summer I could tell that Matt had reached his limit with the gross-out factor of our bathrooms when he, while holding a flyer that had just been placed in our front door, said, "I'm calling this service for an estimate." We get about 2-3 cleaning service flyers a week shoved into our storm door. In the past I've always immediately taken them to the recycling bin, thinking, "Who hires a cleaning service?"

The answer: many, many people hire cleaning services. Having grown up, though, with the mentality that only the very wealthy or those who are incapable of basic household tasks hire cleaning services, I always vowed I would never be one of those people...

Deciding to hire a cleaning service
...But then our bathrooms would sit uncleaned not for weeks, but for months, and the mold would build and the task of finally breaking down and cleaning them became too daunting. Like anything that's allowed to fester, the problem just compounds itself.

Although I have been and continue to be an organized person, I have to be realistic about my limitations. I entered parenthood with an idealistic cleaning schedule that actually worked for a while, but then I started working more and my baby became a toddler (and toddlers are more time-consuming than babies, or at least that's been my experience). I have an ideal partner who truly splits household tasks and errands with me 50/50, yet between our jobs, our child care, and our desire to spend time with each other and maintain social lives, there are not enough hours in a day to get our house up to our level of cleanliness without spending all our otherwise unaccounted for hours cleaning.

What helped me mentality break away from the "no cleaning services for me!" philosophy of my childhood was putting the financial costs into perspective. Yes, a cleaning service is a luxury, and I know it is one that not everyone can afford. Putting it in terms of your personal hourly rate, though, might help you make the move if you're on the fence. How much is an hour of your time worth? How many hours does it take you to clean your home, even when you split the tasks with someone else? What can you do with the time you could gain by exporting out at least some of the cleaning duties in your house?

Negotiating a rate and a plan
After a quick consultation at our house, we were able to hire a cleaning service to come to our house once every two weeks. Four ladies show up and spend between one and one-and-a-half hours at our home (which translates to 4-6 woman hours that I am not cleaning!). Because we still devote a chunk of each day to basic household maintenance, and our two giant dogs' shedding habits necessitate that Matt vacuums our house 2-3 times per week, we figured we did not need every single service offered. We asked if the cleaning service would clean our four (! ridiculous, I know) bathrooms, dust the entire house, and clean all our wood floors for $75 every two weeks. The service's owner accepted our offer. Fortunately, though, the women who come every other week do so much more than what we signed on for -- they clean all baseboards and doors, vacuum the sofas and stairs thoroughly (no easy task thanks to our dogs), and clean the interior of all windows. They do not touch the kitchen, because I do enough daily kitchen maintenance and a bi-weekly deep cleaning so it's not necessary.

Having these women come to clean our house every two weeks is amazing on so many levels, but one reason I especially like it is that it keeps me to a reasonable bi-weekly cleaning schedule of my own.

Bi-weekly kitchen cleaning
Because our cleaning ladies usually come every other Thursday, I've added a bi-weekly appointment in my Google calendar on Wednesday nights to clean the kitchen. I make this my sole duty because Matt contributes his fair share of domestic goodness with frequent house vacuuming, grocery shopping, and cooking. Of course, I wash dishes and wipe surfaces every day, but every other week I now perform a deep cleaning of the kitchen that makes me feel like a domestic rock star.

Here's my kitchen cleaning order of operations:

1) Wipe down all granite countertops. I say granite to share with you the fact that in the last year I've discovered the wonder of Method Daily Granite & Marble cleaner and I love it. I've linked to because that's the place where I find the best price (though I always stock my cart with plenty of bottles so I can earn free shipping).

2) Clean stovetop, inside toaster oven, and coffee pot.

3) Refill any canisters sitting on our countertops (cereal, sugar, coffee, flour, salt, rice) and wipe down stainless steel canisters with Method Stainless Steel Cleaner.

4) Clean out and reorganize fridge. Wipe down shelves before restocking with food. Update the Our Groceries app with any items we've run out of (or will run out of soon).

5) Reorganize pantry as needed, restock any staples (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper), and further update Our Groceries list with needed pantry items.

6) Go over our white cabinets to clean up spills and marks with a Clorox wipes and/or Scotch Brite erasers as needed.

7) Wipe down dishwasher, fridge, and faucet/sink with Method Stainless Steel Cleaner.

8) Wipe down the highchair and highchair placemat.

I was not doing nearly this kind of deep kitchen cleaning before, so I am thrilled to be able to keep our kitchen this clean. By cleaning the kitchen thoroughly the night before the cleaning ladies arrive, I get all the crumbs and dirt off the surfaces and onto the floor, where they'll be vacuumed and polished away the next morning.

Other business that's getting taken care of...
So, yeah, not only am I performing a deep cleaning of the kitchen every other week, but having a cleaning service has also freed up time for some items that were not getting done as quickly as I'd hoped they would. These include:
  • Filing -- instead of allowing a pile, or several piles, to build up before I broke out the shredder/file cabinet, I file items away at least every other day.
  • Laundry -- I've been doing a good job getting Natalie's laundry done one week and mine done the next, as I originally set out to do when she was about six months old, but doing laundry is the easy part -- folding is another story. Laundry would go unfolded often for several days. Now I make sure that I fold the laundry the day it's done.
  • Cleaning outlet covers and switch plates -- These seem to get dirty so quickly, and they are not something the cleaning ladies cover, so I try go over them every other week.
  • Changing the sheets -- We are not the kind of people who change our sheets every week. Instead, the bi-weekly cleaning schedule gives me a reminder that I should change the sheets at least within a couple days of the cleaning ladies' visit.
  • Organizing kids' clothes -- As cliche as it is, kids really do grow incredibly fast. I feel like I am constantly sorting through drawers and bins for Natalie (and now preparing for her little brother). I like to make sure that anything in Natalie's dresser and closet actually fits her so that Matt and grandparents/babysitters won't dress Nat in something embarrassingly outgrown.

Of course, our world is about to get rocked come January, so who knows if our present household maintenance routines will still work for us then, but for now we love the day once every two weeks when for one perfect moment our home is impeccably clean. This would be impossible if we did not have a cleaning service.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

House changes 2013

2013 has been the year of making updates to our house, but all of the them actually occurred well before any nesting urge kicked in, and nearly all of the bigger projects have involved exporting out our work rather than DIYing anything like we may have done in ye olden days before kids. (See the weekend we spent making our kitchen backsplash for evidence of our previous lives.)

Although we still have a couple small-ish household tasks to accomplish before baby boy arrives, such as getting our carpets cleaned, we had a lot of projects completed primarily in May and June that have made our lives a lot easier lately.

This is probably the single biggest change in our house. We decided to paint practically every open area in our house the same Dolphin Fin Behr paint color that we chose two years ago for the nursery. We love the color's soothing and versatile nature. Because the downstairs level of our house really needed to be painted after making a renovation, we decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and get all non-bedroom and non-bathroom spaces professionally painted, which meant the foyer, downstairs living space, stairwell, upstairs living room, kitchen, and upstairs hallway. The fresh paint gives our house a more streamlined look and is a major upgrade because it's so much easier to clean. After almost seven years of our own wear and tear on the walls, mostly thanks to the dogs, plus the previous owners' five years of use, the hallway and stairwell were looking particularly beat up.

Exporting out this work was a major coup. Figuring it would take us at least a month to paint all these spaces in between work and childcare, we got several estimates and settled on the cheapest bid. At $1,800, it may not have been cheap, but it was most certainly worth it. Plus, there would have been no way we -- read: Matt -- would have been able to paint our insanely tall stairwell without breaking a limb. To my amazement, the contractor rolled into our house eight men deep at 8 a.m. one day in May, and by 6 p.m. they had not only painted all the open spaces and all the trim and doors in the house, but they'd also put all our furniture and accessories back exactly where they'd found them. I am converted. 

This year also brought us some sofa changes. We decided it was time to invest in a mid-sized sectional for our main living space. We spend about 80 percent of our waking time at home on this level, so having a sofa big enough for our expanding family and for entertaining guests -- and, let's be real, to accommodate my husband's tendency to want to take an afternoon snooze without taking up the entire couch -- led us to decide it was time to invest in a real, adult sofa that we hope will last us several decades.

We really did our homework on this purchase, visiting Crate and Barrel and Arhaus and Pottery Barn, only to discover that for the same price we could get superior quality at our favorite local furniture store/megalith: Belfort Furniture outside Ashburn, Va. We chose the Drexel Heritage line that allows customers to customize nearly every aspect of the sofa from layout to arm design, seat cushions, base, and of course upholstery. Our favorite style was, fittingly, called the Natalie, and our sofa layout is ultimately a four-seat sofa with an attached two-seat love seat. We also upgraded to the eight-way hand-tied seating, which through our sofa research we discovered to be the old-fashioned way of creating the sofa base that helps ensure longevity. All in we spent close to $4,000 on this purchase, but again, I think it is very much worth it as I treat our sofa like our (soon-to-be) third child.

We also opted for the Guardsman protection plan. I'm so glad we made this decision because within one month of getting our sofa delivered, there was a chocolate mishap and a blue crayon mishap. We learned our lesson on both, though we were thrilled to see how skillfully and efficiently the Guardsman service provider worked in about 30 minutes to remove all the stains on the sofa. Thankfully, we haven't had any more incidents since then, but I am sure we have some in our future, so I'm glad we have this insurance policy on our sofa. Using it once, it was has already paid for itself.

Getting this major sofa upgrade meant that our old, much cheaper Broyhill sofa with a chaise extension got relegated to the downstairs living space. After living with the sofa downstairs for about a month, we realized that the chaise was just getting in our way, and because it was no longer really needed and it had gotten rather destroyed by dog toe nail scratches, we found a local upholsterer who was able to cut down the chaise and resew it for $150. He did an excellent job, and now the old sofa already looks a lot better and it's better suited to its new home -- though it's not nearly as comfortable as our lovely new sectional.

Rearranging middle level
The new sofa purchase helped to divide our large main-level living space into two -- or maybe even three -- sections: the sofa/TV watching area, the play area, and, depending on how you look at it, the computer area.

Although it may look a little awkward,we opted to keep the leather chair and ottoman on our main level in the play area because it offers practical seating for when adults don't want to (or can't) sit on the floor with Natalie during play time. It's functional, and while it's not my favorite design choice, it's a reality of life.
Our bookcase has also sacrificed two of its five shelves for Natalie's books and toys that don't fit in her toy box, but again, this is a reality of our new life. (Her toys have expanded since I took this photo.)

To help the computer area feel lighter, we bought a clear Tobias chair from IKEA as our new desk chair. I absolutely love the way this simple change helped open up the space.

Downstairs addition
We wanted to enclose our downstairs living space so that we could have a more private office area in our house. We love our house because it's so open, but the open floor plan can present some logistical problems when babies, toddlers and dogs are involved. Besides a bedroom (or bathroom!) there is no place to escape to for getting quiet work done.

So, we hired a contractor/designer who lives in our neighborhood to build a wall and door frame with a French door to enclose our downstairs living space as a new office area. This area still serves as a living space (and it still houses our giant TV that we use for movie nights) but 95 percent of its use is as a home office. As an added bonus, because the room includes a closet plus a window (and a door to the backyard and even a full bathroom) it counts as a fourth bedroom in our house, which will be great for resale value. We can use the space as a guestroom, provided we have guests willing to sleep on a sofa or air mattress. The new addition added tons of functionality to our house and was well worth the nearly $2,000 investment and three days of workers in our house.

To round out the space, and to account for the loss of our guestroom storage space, since that room is now becoming Natalie's new room, we purchased our very first IKEA Expedit bookcase. I totally get why people love those things -- they can hold a ton.

Not-exciting changes
Of course, home ownership means having to perform maintenance and make upgrades you can't avoid. Unfortunately, such maintenance still costs a decent amount and no one else even notices the change. This spring and fall we had to complete two such upgrades: repairing wood rot on the door frame leading to our deck, and repairing water damage from a pipe not firmly caulked on the roof.

The wood rot was painfully obvious, and I'm glad we fixed it when we did because it was not only an eye sore, but if we'd allowed it to go on much longer we might have needed to replace the entire door and frame, which would have been a major expense. I wasn't thrilled to pay about $350 to replace many pieces of wood and get the frame sanded, caulked and painted, but it was a necessity.

The roof problem I would not have noticed if I didn't have a toddler who likes to play with shoes and scarves in our master closet. One day I happened to be lying on the floor with her inside the closet when I looked up and noticed that there was noticeable water damage on the ceiling. So, we called up our favorite contractor who, upon inspection, gave us the welcome news that we would not need a new roof, as I feared, but instead told us we needed to perform a simple fix on some caulking around a pipe on the roof and then repair the damaged dry wall, which it turned out affected not only the master closet but also master bath. Again, not another $400 I wanted to drop, but absolutely necessary.

We have been busy improving our house this year, but it has been pretty stress-free because we have performed very little of the work ourselves. The reality of life with children is just that there is not enough time to DIY like we used to, and we do not have the technical expertise to perform many of these tasks anyway. Saving us headaches and giving us time together as a family is the real benefit of hiring out nearly all our work this year.