Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Meet a M.O.M. Tuesday: Tiffany Wacaser, world traveler and mother of six

Today, I'm excited to introduce to you one of my oldest and dearest friends, Tiffany. She and I met while expecting our first children and our friendship solidified during weekly walks with those babies to the library. Our friendship has carried us through all the experiences and ups and downs of life and motherhood. And while I stayed put in the college town where we met, Tiffany has traveled the world, first to Sweden where her husband got an advanced degree, and then to Israel, New York, and Saudi Arabia. Along the way, her family and her faith have grown. She's the mother to four boys and two girls.

I have relied often on Tiffany's wisdom, insight, and advice over my parenting years.  I'm sure you'll see why as you get to know her today.  You can check out more of her writing on her blogs.  For posts about her time in Israel and her last year in Sweden, her blog is A Stranger Here.  Her adventures in Saudi Arabia are at In a Maze of Beige, and her more recent writing can be found at These Fragments

You grew up in a small town in Wyoming and now you've lived all over.  What values stay with you from your hometown?  What has changed about your worldview after your experiences abroad?

I loved my hometown of Cody, Wyoming but I always dreamed of something more—bigger. I honestly chafed against some aspects of the conservative culture that I experienced. However, after living in so many different places, I have come to appreciate the honest and hardworking folks there. I especially appreciate the many people I knew through my ward who worked so hard in their callings and dedicated themselves to the work of the gospel. If I have come away with anything from my hometown, it is that being faithful and diligent in your church callings blesses you, your family, and others.
Fourth of July Parade in Cody, Wyoming

You and I met while teaching Special Education Seminary.  What did you learn from teaching that you've applied in your mothering?

I absolutely loved teaching Special Education Seminary. It is a hallmark experience of my time at BYU. One of the first things I learned from teaching is that children, regardless of their ability to read or comprehend the scriptures, should have access to the scriptures. I read to my kids from the scripture readers and we enjoy the videos, but we read directly from the scriptures and everyone has a copy of the scriptures when we study as a family, whether they can read or not.

Teaching Special Education Seminary has helped me patient with my own children. Two of my children struggle with severe ADHD and need medication to help them. It can be so challenging to work with them, especially when it comes to homework. They are both very bright kids, but the parts of their brains that control executive function, do not work very well. The lessons I learned from teaching to accept kids as they are, to appreciate the efforts they make, and to love them have helped me enormously.

What is the culture like for mothers in Sweden?  How did you go about making friends as an American and a SAHM? 
Sweden feels like a second home for me. I loved living there. At times though, the culture for mothers was challenging for me to cope with. We moved to Sweden from Provo, Utah, where there were many other young stay-at-home mothers with babies and toddlers. I had a built in support community for my lifestyle choices.

The culture of Sweden is very much concerned with an egalitarian approach to families. This means that about 90% of Swedish mothers work outside the home. Mothers receive about a year of maternity leave and fathers also get a significant amount of paternity leave, which I think is great. After that year though, most Swedish children enter full-time daycare. I was pressured and criticized by the doctors, nurses, and the culture for keeping my young children at home. My boys started preschool three days a week when they turned four to help with their Swedish. But I was really, really weird for staying home.

I did attend a open preschool a few times a week where I met other parents with young children at a play center. They had a great playground, a beautiful building with toys and crafts, and a singing time. At this open preschool I made friends with other Swedish mothers and fathers. We also made sure to go to the playground in the evening when we could interact with Swedish families.

The best kept secret for LDS expats is that the church is the best built-in support system you could ever imagine. We made instant friends at church who helped and supported us tremendously. I am still very close with our friends there.

When my oldest son went to kindergarten, he initially started at a Swedish school. We pulled him out of school because of bullying and a bad environment. He attended an international preschool and then elementary school. This was a great place to meet other expat families. We loved that school.

One thing I always admired about you was how you were constantly taking all your little boys all over Sweden on public transportation and bikes.  I remember feeling overwhelmed sometimes just taking my little ones to the grocery store, so imagining you hopping on buses and traveling around was impressive.  How did you get around in Sweden and what are your favorite memories of your outings there?

Gosh! I look back on that time and I remember always being cold and having to dress so carefully so I would be warm enough and have the right footwear so my feet didn’t hurt! For the first three years, we relied on bicycles, walking, and the bus and train system. I hauled groceries in our bike trailer. We shopped rather frequently because our refrigerator and freezer were half the size of a normal American-sized fridge. My boys learned to bike on a two-wheeler with training wheels when they were three and they biked to school and church. They were troopers. It was easy to bike around because bike paths were safe and convenient and often faster than the bus. I learned to navigate the bus routes and learned out to plan trips with the public transportation website. We all loved taking trains to Copenhagen and Malmo. Some days it was exhausting to use public transportation, but it built up my strength and kept me very fit.

These days, even though I love my SUV, I think I would trade it for my hot pink bicycle with a bike trailer on back. Although maybe I wouldn’t -- New York has some pretty serious hills and pedaling up a hill with a bike trailer filled with little kids is hard!

One of our favorite outings was taking a train north to Helsingborg—which was about 45 minutes away, and then riding a bus out to the ocean. Then we caught a ferry to an island called Ven. Ven was owned by Tyccho Brahe, who was a famous astronomer in the 1600’s. Once on the island, we rented bikes and explored the island pedaling around. It still makes me smile thinking about it seven years later. I really think that public transportation is a great way to explore Europe because you often discover surprising and wonderful things.

On the island of Ven with baby Brooke
Another favorite memory was biking to church. We had a lovely path to travel and it was always fun to bike, even when we were tired.

The last two years we had a vehicle, but we still relied on public transportation as much as possible because gas was so expensive.

You spent a few months in Israel with your family.  What stands out about that experience?  What surprised you most about the culture there?

Jerusalem surprised me the most. I never really thought of it as a really special place, but standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city, made me picture the Second Coming of the Savior in a way I had never imagined. We also loved visiting the Sea of Galilee. When I feel shaky or struggle with my testimony, I remember standing in the ruins of Capernaum thinking about how the people rejected the Savior and how it literally destroyed the city and people there.

The people in Israel live with an intensity I have never experienced elsewhere. Because war is often a reality for them, they try to live fully every single day. It was noisy and boisterous. They loved my kids and were generous with us as Americans. Not everyone who lives in Israel is a practicing Jew. There are many who eat and live as they wish, but they are very fierce in defending the rights of the Orthodox Jews to worship as they see fit.

Tell us about your health problems and what you've learned from them.  

I have Hashimoto’s Disease which means that my thyroid is underactive and is an autoimmune disease. I have learned that I must consistently take my medication and see a specialist regularly. If I do that, I stay healthy and feel great.

I was diagnosed with lupus ten years ago, about 8 months after my third son was born. It has been a rough road at times, but I have been remarkably healthy considering how awful of a disease lupus is and can be. I have seen how the Lord has sustained me throughout the last ten years, giving me strength many times. I have learned to be patient with myself. Most importantly, I have learned to let the Lord dictate to me what He wants me to do, instead of being bound by cultural and societal expectations of what a good mom acts like or does. There was a time in my life when I could only do five things a day. My daughter watched a lot of Nick Jr. at that time. I felt so guilty about my failures. More than one blessing reminded me that I was a good mother and that I was enough as I was.

How is your health lately?  What have you found that helps you stay as healthy as you can?

I feel great! I have learned to be very diligent about doctor’s visits and medication. I also pay attention to my body and respond accordingly. I don’t have the luxury of ignoring my health because I have six kids who need me. Last night I didn’t sleep well and awoke with a headache. I had a long list of things to do, but instead, I have spent the day resting so that I have the energy to help my kids after school. I know I will catch up with my list tomorrow.

Your most recent overseas experience was in Saudi Arabia.  Tell us a little about that.  

We lived in Riyadh for 18 months—which is hardly anything. We lived on a western compound with hundreds of western expats. It was like a little village with wonderful amenities like swimming pools, a restaurant and cafĂ©, a little grocery store, a couple playgrounds, tennis courts, soccer courts, etc. It was a very social place with lots of parties and gatherings. We had a terrific time. My kids had friends from all over the world—both on the compound and at their international school.

My husband worked in the desert with a team of Saudi engineers and scientists developing some specialized solar technology to power desalination plants. Water is a very precious resource in Saudi Arabia and desalination is the primary way water is provided for the residents.

The desert was dramatically beautiful. We had some great outings with other families driving on the dunes and exploring the area. We tried to make the most of our time there by taking tours and learning about interesting events like a Camel Beauty Contest, Janadriyah—a Saudi cultural festival, visiting the edge of the world, and we spent a week in Jeddah snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea.

What aspects of Saudi culture did you admire?  What parts did you dislike?

Saudis are a very moral, faithful people who value families and God above all else. It takes a lot of devotion to pray five times a day and abide by the many rules and practices of Islam. They are also a hospitable people who were very kind to us. I admire their devotion to family and also their great faith in God. My husband worked with scientists and engineers who were very vocal about their faith and belief in God. One woman who was a mother to five children, had a PhD in Physics from Cambridge, and was a professor at a university near Mecca, told me that everything she does is meant to glorify God. Their faith and devotion inspire me to be more faithful and think about how I am glorifying God in my actions.
Exploring a Date market in Riyadh

Mormons and Muslims have a lot in common. They have strict codes about chastity. Pornography is strictly forbidden in the Kingdom. Modesty is practiced by both men and women. Husbands are expected to provide for their families while women are responsible for nurturing and caring for the children. They value education. Muslims also follow a pretty strict health code and abstain from drugs, alcohol, and pork.

One thing I dislike about Saudi culture (which unfortunately mirrors the US culture) is the materialism and consumerism that ruled all activity and entertainment. The main entertainment was going shopping at incredibly extravagant and decadent malls. At some point, this type of thing gets old, which has pushed many young men to do dangerous things like drifting on the highways and roads. The young men simply do not have enough good activities and work to keep them out of trouble.

I also found the restrictions on women, especially on driving to be very challenging. I saw that not being able to drive really presented a real challenge for women and on their ability to manage their households. It also created a very real burden for the men who had to work and then spend hours after work driving their families around shopping and doing activities.

Let's talk about parenting as an expatriate.  What tips do you have for mothers who might be contemplating a move overseas?  What do you wish you had known before you left the states?  

The one thing you learn really fast as a mother and an expat is that you provide stability to your family. You have to create stability not out of a place, but out of the family structure, routines, and traditions. I learned that I had to be strong for my kids so they could adapt to the new experience. You also need to be sensitive to the challenges children face when coping with an international move. It is hard to leave behind friends, familiar places, and school. Kids need space to grieve about those changes. They need to know it is ok to mourn their losses-because loss is the most familiar part of being an expat.

Another thing I have learned is that our family is happiest when we have the gospel as our foundation. Knowing that we are disciples of Christ and belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints keeps my family grounded. We are firmly rooted in that identity.

But otherwise, parenting abroad is very similar to parenting at home. Your kids need structure, order, and discipline. They need love and support whether at home in New York or on a compound in Saudi Arabia.

I wish I had read the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Recken before I moved to Sweden. I read it in Saudi Arabia and it helped tremendously in understanding what we were all experiencing as expats. It gave me significant insight on the challenges my children were facing and the weaknesses and strengths they were developing as Third-Culture kids. I think it is a must-read book for anyone contemplating a move abroad. Another excellent book to read and study is Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s memoir, Global Mom. She nails the expat experience brilliantly.
The Wacaser Family in Saudi Arabia

What has been the hardest part about moving so often?  

Without a doubt, the hardest part of moving so often is the tremendous loss you experience constantly. You leave behind friends, family, community and negotiate new friends and a new community. It is very difficult learning the rules of a new culture. As an expat, you also have friends leaving you frequently. In Riyadh, it felt like there was a farewell party for a family once a month. You learn to make friends very quickly, but it also makes losing those friends very hard. I feel like the gaining of new friends is worth the pain of losing them when you say goodbye. But for some people, they can’t cope with it and shut themselves off to new experiences and friendships.

Friends of ours from Sweden recently visited NYC. We spent an afternoon with them. It was amazing, but it darn near broke my heart when we said goodbye. They were such an important part of our lives and we missed them so much. However, my friend reminded me that we live in one another’s hearts. I find that is so true. For example, I don’t get to see you, Christina, very often. We have spent the last 12 years living thousands of miles away from each other. And yet I count you as one of my dearest friends.

What has been the best part of your experiences?

I have seen so many amazing places and have discovered that our world is incredible. I have made friends from all over the world from different cultures and religions. Guess what, there are billions of good people in the world. I believe the good outweighs the bad. I feel so enormously blessed to do so much in my short lifetime.

Now that you are back in New York, can you tell us what the culture is like there?  What have you noticed about parenting in your area?  How does it differ from life out west in the Rocky Mountains?

New York is fast-paced and very academic. Schools are very good here and kids are very much immersed in a culture that values education. This is great, but it is also very demanding on the kids. The homework load is heavy. Parents are deeply invested in seeing their kids succeed so children are very involved in after-school activities.

Many families have dual-incomes—out of necessity. New York is a very expensive place to live. This means a lot of kids go to daycare or have nannies. It was kind of weird for me to arrange a playdate with a nanny instead of a parent. Also, families are small.

The church isn’t very big in New York so people never ask if I’m Mormon when I’m out with my kids—they usually ask if I’m Catholic or Jewish. Most people are shocked when they realize that not only do I NOT employ a nanny, but I also do NOT have a housekeeper. These people definitely do not boast pioneer ancestry with their hardy make-do attitudes!

Picking apples in the Hudson Valley of New York.  Winter would be born three months later

One of your children has ADHD.  What have you learned about this disorder and what advice do you have for a mother who has just had a child diagnosed?  

Three of my children have been formally diagnosed with ADHD. One does very well without medication and is doing great at home and at school. The other two take medication to manage their symptoms. It was a hard thing at first because I felt like such a failure as a mother. There is a lot of false information that bad parenting causes ADHD and the media criticism is relentless about the disorder. One thing that has helped is my pediatrician and his staff have been so supportive of my husband and I. They are very complimentary about what we do as parents. Not a visit goes by without them complimenting me or my kids. I figure they have lots of experience seeing good and bad parents, so if they see me as a good parent, I must be doing something right.

I have been carefully studying a book called, Parenting Children With ADHD by Vincent J. Monastra, PhD. A person with ADHD typically has a slowing in the rate that glucose is used in the frontal lobes. This means that the part of the brain that is responsible for executive function is underactive. This is why stimulant medications can be helpful in coping with the symptoms of ADHD. We use a combination of strict structure and routine, consistent expectations with parental follow-up, behavioral work, and medication to deal with the symptoms of ADHD. For the most part, we have had good success. It is a challenge though. One of my children still struggles a lot and constantly pushes me to learn and pray about him.

Above all, I think the best resource is Heavenly Father because my children are His children too. This summer I was at my wits end with my son and felt like I was completely blocked in helping him. A lot of prayer and study has given me new insights in reaching him, but also appreciating what a remarkable person he is.

My advice to a parent of a newly diagnosed child is to take a deep breath and ask for help. If your doctor can’t give you the information you need, go to the school psychologist for help. Request a 504 hearing—most children with an ADHD diagnosis usually qualify for a 504 plan. And read books about ADHD. My library has a lot of resources. The book I have found most helpful is Vincent Monastra’s book, Parenting Children with ADHD, which is pretty widely available at libraries and online. Be kind with yourself. You need to just as patient with yourself as your child because you are both learning. Also, don’t be dismissive about medication. It isn’t the right answer for every child, but it is possible that it will make a big difference for your child.

You are a voracious reader.  What books have you read that really touched you?

I love redemption stories because they remind me that there is always hope, especially in and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Some favorite books are: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, anything by L.M. Montgomery, Jane Eyre, Persuasion, Les Miserables, The Kite Runner, and The Poisonwood Bible. I also read a lot of non-fiction. I am very partial to essays by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reading good poetry gives me shivers of delight.

You are also quite a cook.  What are your top three go-to family recipes?

You recently gave birth to an adorable baby girl named Winter.  She's significantly younger than your other children.  How has it been to go back to the baby stage again?

I am having so much fun with my baby girl. She is seven months old and is so darn busy. She crawls and pulls herself up on everything. I spend a lot of time playing with her. She is too busy to cuddle with me, so I steal kisses and snuggles every chance I get. Since my older kids are at school, it is fun for me to focus on her. I am grateful for the joy she brings to our family. My oldest son is almost fifteen and he is just smitten with her. He is at a stage where he doesn’t want hugs and kisses from me. But he hugs and kisses his sister often. She just adores her oldest brother.

I wish that we could have had her sooner because I appreciate how important siblings are, but at the same time, I feel like I have more time and energy for her.

Now that your family ranges in age from 15 down to 0, what habits have you established that get you through your busy schedule? What does a typical day look like at your house?

I usually make dinner in the morning or early afternoon before my kids get home. I keep an organized calendar. My kids have responsibilities and pitch in with household work. I try and have the kitchen clean by the time my youngest kids leave for school at 9. For some reason that makes me day go much better. Also, this is completely weird, but making my bed every morning helps me feel on top of things.

I don’t schedule anything after 3 p.m. and make myself totally available to my kids then.

What other tips do you have for managing a large family?

In no particular order, here are some of my best tips:

*  I always keep my purse/diaper bag ready to go. In it I have a gallon size ziploc bag with a few diapers, wipes, and an extra outfit. I always keep my wallet in there so I am ready to go without having to pack a bag.

*  I gave up on strollers long ago. With a car and my current lifestyle in NY, it just doesn't fit with a smaller baby. Instead, I use my Baby Bjorn. I never, ever use the carseat to carry my baby around. We all hate it. I use my Baby Bjorn (with back support) at home too, especially when my baby gets fussy. She stays close to me, but my hands are free to help other children. You can sweep, vacuum, and clean with a baby in a front carrier.

*  I have learned that moms need to take care of themselves by eating well and at regular times. If you find yourself reaching for a candy bar or a caffeinated soda all the time, you are probably not getting enough sleep and are not eating regularly. I eat every 2 to 3 hours. We have regular meals and then I snack. Doing so keeps me going during the day and keeps me away from too many sweets. 

*  All my kids have a hook for their backpacks and coats. They also have a shelf for school papers, school books, etc. It keeps things organized and easy to find.

*  If you have a lot of small children who need help with homework and need you by their side, create a rotating schedule with 15-30 minute increments. One kid on the computer, one kid outside or on the wii, one kid doing homework. Set a timer and rotate. Make a chart so everyone knows what it going on. I have done this on different occasions and it really makes a big difference. 

*  Skip the baby food when babies get old enough to eat mixed food. There are inexpensive grinders for about $10. Throw in whatever your family is eating and serve it to your baby. Don't skip the spices either unless they have an allergy. My kids eat everything (even camel, curries, sushi, etc.) because I never fed them baby food other than bananas. My babies never complained about Italian seasoning on their spaghetti and whatever spices I happen to use. I think using baby food without seasoning makes it harder for kids to really try regular food with seasoning. 

*  Make dinner in the morning or afternoon before kids get home. It is less stressful that way. 

*  We have scripture study at night because my oldest son leaves for Seminary at 5:30 a.m. I don't want to wake everyone up before 5 a.m to squeeze in an early morning scripture study. We eat dessert while we read and call it Sweet Scripture Study. 

*  Color code towels, dishes, and even clothes. Use plastic colored cups for water cups. Kids can easily tell which cup is theirs. That way you don't have a billion cups at the end of the day, just for water. 

*  Use a calendar. If you using a calendar on your phone, set alerts to remind you of appointments and obligations.

*  Talk to your spouse before you commit yourself.

*  Listen to audiobooks (available from the library or www.audible.com), podcasts (there are many great free podcasts), and the Mormon channel while you clean and work. It will keep your mind active while you do mundane tasks. 

*  Make big batches of family favorites like chili, lasagna, soups, etc. Serve two days later with a different side to mix things up. 

*  Have a leftover day once a week to get rid of all the leftovers. This reduces waste and saves you cooking time.

*  Use a company like Groovebook to print your photos off your phone. (100 prints per month for $2.99--that includes shipping. The prints are thin and not the greatest quality. But you still end up with printed copies. Each photo has a date on the perforated edge. 

*  Shop online.

*  Have your kids help. Divide dishes by assigning tasks like unloading the top half. Each person loads 8 dishes, etc. 

For more about Tiffany, be sure to visit her blogs.  Posts about her time in Israel and her last year in Sweden are at A Stranger Here.  Her adventures in Saudi Arabia are at In a Maze of Beige, and her more recent writing can be found at These Fragments

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