11-month update: Springtime in Seoul

Signs of the spring season have been popping up within the Filipowski household this past month. Highlights include more visitors from the States, showers and sunshine that yielded beautiful blooms, major milestones for our sweet Sophia, and a special expat Easter celebration. Low lights include records in poor air quality resulting in some mild respiratory issues for the whole family.

Spring in her step

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Ready to conquer the world: Sophia goes off the beaten path near the Hangang in Yeouido Park in front of iconic Building 63.

Sophia has officially become a walker!

She went through a period last month when she would alternate crawling, cruising and walking. But just after turning 11 months old (two weeks ago), she has only walked to transport herself. She is more confident and surefooted in our apartment, but a bit slower and wobbly on uneven ground like grass and gravel.

She just recently has been figuring out steps: When she precariously goes down a step into our guest bathroom, she will sometimes just drop altogether into a half-slide/crawl. When going up steps on a slide at daycare and in our apartment complex’s playground, she was more adept.

Spring is in the air

It seemed to be the perfect timing for Sophia to start walking as the weather has been getting warmer and we’ve been able to visit parks/go outside so she has more room to roam and explore. Not to mention, it’s cherry blossom season so we can have beautiful scenery while we stroll!

However, springtime in Seoul is also synonymous with bad air quality.

The air traps us indoors and has caused headache and persistent cold/allergy symptoms like runny nose, sore throat and cough that will also force us into quarantine. On those days, we tend to be cooped up in our apartment and we all go a little stir crazy from the cabin fever. When the rain comes to clear all the pollution away, we bust out and take advantage.

The air quality and the weather magically aligned when we hosted our friends Tara and Scott from Chicago, who we originally know from undergrad at Michigan State. As it was their first time in Seoul (and first time traveling through Asia), we were excited to be tourists in our own town.

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On the other side of the river: Taking a stroll along the Hangang near our house on a clear day when college friends were visiting.

We enjoyed walking around the nearby circular path around Namsan (Mountain) Park and on the trail of the Hangang (River) Park. Sophia joined us on all these adventures, going from stroller to carrier. On those days, the skies were a crystal clear blue that I hadn’t seen in months, and while higher up on the mountain, it felt refreshing and invigorating to breathe in the crisp air.

Spring showers bring flowers

In the last couple weekends, Michal and I planned outings to see the cherry blossoms with Sophia. We visited another section of the circular path of Namsan and a new section of the Hangang on the other side of town – Yeouido.

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Spring flowers: At the peak of cherry blossom season in Namsan Park!

Flower petals softly fell as the wind gently blew through the trees in Yeouido, making it feel like a scene out of a romantic K-drama. Sophia enjoyed picnicking and getting some time to try out her new walking skills. After getting out all her energy, she fell asleep in the stroller during her nap time as we navigated through the crowds of people among the cherry blossoms on the main road circling Yeouido.

Out of death, comes life

To cap off springtime in Seoul, we celebrated Sophia’s first Easter the only way we knew how: With traditions from back home, enjoyed alongside some fellow expat families who could relate to our homesickness during holidays.

Easter is largely not recognized in Korea. Christmas has commercial appeal as it’s presented to be a “romantic, couple’s holiday” here so we could at least find tree decorations, wrapping paper, etc. during the winter season. There is virtually no sign of the commercial or the Christian meaning of Easter (unless when attending a church service). No Easter bunny to visit. No Easter egg hunts, nor Easter baskets full of candy.

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Babies’ first Easter baskets: Replaced the traditional candy with teething crackers.

Growing up Catholic in my big Filipino family, I have vivid memories of the Easter holiday and the entire Holy Week leading up to it. I remember washing the feet of another church goer during Holy Thursday mass like Jesus did with his disciples during the Last Supper, following the Stations of the Cross during Good Friday service, and then lighting candles at night during Easter Vigil mass on Holy Saturday. On Sunday, we would dress in our “Easter best” and attend the largest mass of the year as people overflowed into adjoining rooms and had to watch all the action on a live TV feed.

After Easter mass, we’d return home for lunch to a Filipino potluck as my parents hosted all our relatives who were based in metro Detroit and the Toronto area (four hours driving distance away). But the moment all the kids anticipated was the Easter egg hunt in which the adults (and later the older teens) would fill those classic plastic eggs with candy and hide them all over the front and backyard.

Michal grew up with strong Polish traditions associated with Easter as well. The supper was a labor love, with dishes often taking several days of preparation. One standout dish was the stuffed eggs. Think: Fancier and more tasty version of deviled eggs. After cutting the hard-boiled eggs in half, with shell in tact, one would scoop out the insides (whites and yolks). This would be chopped up and mixed with fresh herbs and stuffed back into the shells. After putting breadcrumb on top of each egg half, they would be fried.

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Filipowski family recipe: Polish Stuffed Eggs, only made for Easter. Michal made them for us!

Another intricate and time-intensive Polish tradition for Easter was egg decorating. These were not the kind dyed with a kit from the grocery store. Michal’s family’s eggs were dyed with the natural color obtained from old red onion skins steeped in water. And the designs were etched through the dye and into the shell. They are incredible works of art that actually last years.

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Bunny Ears: I’m wearing Michal’s Halloween costume from last year, bought at Target during a home leave visit, along with a recently purchased headband from the local Emart. (Fun fact- The costume is actually an elephant in the form of adult onesie pajamas.)

At any rate, Michal and I wanted to recreate these special moments for Sophia and our friends and their children in Seoul. Last Sunday, we attended mass at the international Catholic parish in our neighborhood, color-coordinated in pink. Afterward, I dressed up as an Easter bunny and passed out baskets I pieced together from fun items I found at a flower market in Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal and a nearby Daiso (similar to Dollar Tree back home), along with some baby treats I previously ordered online through iHerb (almost all children who came over were under two years old). Michal painstakingly made the stuffed eggs for guests and ordered a mouthwatering lamb dinner from nearby, foreigner-friendly High Street Market.

On that day, we were grateful for so much as we were able to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with delicious food, meaningful fellowship and some of our most treasured family traditions.

Happy Easter and Happy Spring to you and yours!

10-month Update: In Search of Sleep in Seoul

With all the blog posts drawing to attention to Sophia’s frenzied activity, I thought it was time to showcase a bit more of the opposite: her sleep patterns.

At 10 months old, our main focus with Sophia during this age has been maintaining sleep routines. A culmination of factors brought about our sustained sleep training this past month but in large part we recently read the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and it made us realize that we’ve been looking at Sophia’s sleep cycle and habits in all the wrong ways. (Disclaimer: I am by no means a sleep expert, but this is what has and has not worked for us as a family!)

Life-changing revelation #1: Daytime and nighttime sleep are connected.

We had no idea that poor napping during the daytime would affect her night’s sleep. We were always under the false impression that if she didn’t sleep much during the day, then she’d just crash at night and stay asleep because she’s so tired. The book describes how the amount of “awake time” between her naps and bedtime matters. If stretched out too long, which we tended to do between her afternoon nap and bedtime, she becomes overtired and finds it harder to settle down after gaining a second wind.

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Attempting a photo for her China visa.

Not to mention, we honestly didn’t have set nap times until maybe around six months old. That sounds impossible for most, but Michal and I weren’t big on routines as we still wanted to go everywhere with Sophia. As expats, we either traveled  or entertained/hosted a new set of visitors every month. In the earlier days, she would fall asleep naturally on-the-go while we were traipsing around Seoul or venturing out elsewhere.

It got harder around four months, but then we went back to the States and her whole schedule was flipped any way with jet lag. By the time we returned to Seoul, we hosted three sets of friends over the course of a month and then traveled again in Malaysia and Pyeongchang, Korea.

Plus, Sophia went through several stages and illnesses that interrupted her sleep cycles/schedules during that time period like her eight-month sleep regression, sprouting her first tooth at nine months, a terrible vomit-inducing stomach virus (likely from a kid’s cafe), an even worse bout of diarrhea and diaper rash/infection (likely from daycare), and a very bad cold (likely from a plane on one of our many travels).

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Ready to play! Sophia wakes up from her morning nap, still clutching her monkey crib toy.

Now, Sophia’s naps are usually 9-10 a.m. and 1-2:30 p.m. (give or take 10 minutes at the beginning or end of each nap). After this period of intense sleep training and getting her on somewhat predictable schedule, we’ve been able to drop her off for a few hours after waking from her morning nap at a local government-subsidized daycare. (Preview: Affordable childcare in Korea is a future blog post topic).

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Sophia’s discovery of tissue boxes at home = Time to find new entertainment at daycare.

The daycare has a strict “Adaptation Program” in which she started with only one hour a day and has been adding time as she adjusts to the schedule of activities and the people. She has been napping maybe 70 percent of the times she has gone, and (predictably) when she doesn’t nap or doesn’t have a long nap, she is incredibly cranky. We’re looking forward to the day she is fully adjusted! That’s a bit of advice we’d love: How do you help your baby have restful nap at daycare where there are so many distractions?

Life-changing revelation #2: We put her to bed too late.

For the past month or two, Sophia has usually fallen asleep by 6:30 p.m. and woken up for the day at 6:30 a.m. During that 12-hour period, she is a bit more unpredictable as she typically wakes once to have milk, but that one time can either be at 9:30 p.m., 1:30 a.m. or 3:30 a.m. (Of course, we prefer that 9:30 p.m. time slot as the whole family can then get in a good night’s sleep!)

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She loves sitting on daddy’s shoulders!

We’ve been considering night weaning this middle-of-the-night feeding out of our lives, but as it’s an unpredictable wake-up call with a different amount of milk each time, we haven’t figured out the best way of starting this. Any advice on night weaning is also much appreciated. 🙂

We used to designate bedtime routine duties to Michal so that he could have bonding time with Sophia and I could rest. Once we saw that late night routine was detrimental, we flipped the daddy-daughter bonding time to the morning. Michal now gets Sophia up and ready for the day, changing her and feeding her breakfast. She’s even become his morning workout buddy (AKA she replaces his kettle bell and weights some times or just curiously watches him).

Life-changing revelation #3: Our baby needed to learn how to self-soothe and put herself to sleep.

We had been applying tips from Happiest Baby on the Block way past the appropriate age. (Granted, these tips worked like a charm for Sophia when she was little!) Part of the reason we extended the following habits was due to the fact that Sophia would cough/choke a bit while breastfeeding due to my oversupply and so we felt the need to hold her upright for a while after feeding. While keeping her upright, we would rock or bounce her gently to sleep and that just became habit after time. Around five or six months, my oversupply normalized and then we would just nurse or bottle feed her to sleep.

Crying it Out (CIO) seemed so intimidating and heart-wrenching. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I knew it wasn’t right to have all these sleep crutches for her for so long. We finally gave in around nine months to do some form of “controlled crying” and found that she actually didn’t need to cry it out long.

 

Bedtimes came easiest first – Sophia usually fell asleep in less than 10 minutes of crying. Of course, I had to complete her bedtime routine before putting her in the crib. (Side note: I do bedtime routine solo during the week while Michal is still at work.) I started doing her last bottle feeding of the night before bath and story time instead of afterward, and then I would put her in bed drowsy but awake.

Nap times were a battle for a few weeks and I would sometimes give in after a while by nursing or rocking her to sleep if she surpassed 10 minutes of crying it out. But after one month of struggles, she was on the road to falling asleep on her own for all naps and bedtime. It was a game-changer as I used to sometimes take up to 30 minutes or more of trying to get Sophia to sleep.

Sleep training has probably been the hardest part of parenting (thus far) that I’ve experienced. What I’ve found is that I now do treasure the routine. I used to hate “feeling trapped” at home during nap times, but I realize how the limitations give way to freedoms as I can better predict when she’ll sleep soundly and when she’ll be in a good mood for a play date or some other event.

Sleep Suggestions Specific to Expat Parent Problems:

Jet lag-

The best piece of advice I got from fellow expat parents regarding jet lag (also applicable to adults): Expose little one to as much bright natural light as possible during the usual “awake hours.”

The sunlight is supposed to help reset theirs (and our) internal clocks. If possible, go outside for a walk in the stroller or carrier to capture the light or sit/play near sunny spots from your windows. Try to keep to the times of your routines regarding feeding, playing and napping. If LO falls asleep during an undesignated nap time, wake him or her up after a reasonable amount of time (maybe an hour or two).

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Eager to eat! Sophia’s all set up with her high chair, bib and place mat.

It was a rough go for us in the beginning but Sophia improved by the end of the week after returning to the States and later in Seoul. It actually helped that we had scheduled her baptism for the day after we arrived in the States. (Some may say that is a little extreme, but it worked out for us because we could go to sleep early while family and friends entertained/distracted her.) For the day after we returned to Seoul, we actually went to a big beer festival with freinds so we were out in the daylight and around a lot of people.

Napping on the go –

Before three months of age, anything goes! Sophia slept so well any time she was in the carrier or stroller. We’d go on walks and she’d be sound asleep in no time. Sometimes, we’d even plan a walk before going out to a restaurant or to a party so that she’d fall asleep first and then she’d amazingly stay asleep through all of the ambient noise of the crowd.

After four months, sleep patterns changed. Naps were around every two to three hours and bedtime was still relatively later like 7 or 8 p.m. Around six months, there was usually three solid naps per day. After the eight-month regression, two naps become habit – which usually called for an earlier bedtime to make up for the missing third nap, so closer to 6 or 7 p.m.

We’ve realized that while traveling, we need to emulate home sleep environment and habits as much as possible. We bring travel blackout curtains, a portable white noise maker on our Kindle, her favorite pacifier and stuffed monkey toy, bedtime stories and lullabies on our phones.

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Trying to sneak a photo in before walking around Yongsan Family Park

When it’s difficult for us to make it back to our hotel during her afternoon nap session, we’ve found some success in executing the following: We plan a few minutes to stop and feed her milk in a generally peaceful, distraction-less, shady area around her usual nap time. We then recline her in the stroller, cover with a stroller shade, turn on our portable white noise maker, and walk her in the stroller for at least an hour.

The best activities for this are when visiting a park or going around a city. (We didn’t prefer doing this in a museum because it was too quiet when she would wake. Plus, the ambient noise helps Sophia sleep!) About 90 percent of the time, she has fallen asleep and stayed asleep while we’ve walked and continued our sightseeing.

If you have any other advice for us on how to help Sophia sleep completely through the night, or sleeping while traveling, please share!

Nine-Month Update: Travel with a Toddler

Through our experiences with multiple (travel and developmental) transitions during Sophia’s beginning toddler stage, we’ve expanded our expat parenting repertoire (as well as begun to treasure the leisure of simply staying home and following routine).

While recently on vacation during Lunar New Year in Malaysia, we celebrated Sophia’s nine months! Almost directly after this hot and humid multi-city/two-week adventure, we did a road trip from Seoul to snowy and chilly Pyeongchang, Korea – home of the 2018 Winter Olympics – for a ski lodge weekend getaway with another family.

We’ll recap this month’s milestones below and describe how we managed all the changes through our travels.

Chewing and chasing

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Celebrating her first cruising session with a bottle

In Sophia’s ninth month, she went through a major teething stage and sprouted her first bottom tooth! She has also grown more voracious in her appetite and more gourmet in her palate with spice level as we had given her tastes of all the curries we ate in Malaysia.

 

With movement, she is starting to cruise (walking while holding on to something for support) as well as stand unassisted. We test her cruising ability by putting an item of interest (like a bottle of milk or a remote control) on the living room TV stand or coffee table and lure her to the other side.

She will cruise over in some moments, but other times shows impatience and just drops to a quick crawl. Now that she is even more mobile than before, we’ve had to dedicate more time for her to practice this new skill.

 

Side note on Sleep

Sleep has undergone a major makeover. With so many friends and colleagues suggesting the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, we discovered research on what makes for quality sleep as a baby and how those habits transfer with age. During her eight-month sleep regression, Sophia went from three naps per day to two. To compensate for the “missing nap,” we made her bedtime extra early (one key takeaway from the book) by moving it from 7:30/8:30 p.m. to 5:30/6:30 p.m.

Once she turned nine months old (end of Malaysia trip and during Pyeongchang trip), we had more defined nap times and bed times. She is getting used to her new ~9-10 a.m. morning nap and ~1-2:30 p.m. afternoon nap schedule with a 6:30 p.m. bedtime and 6:30 a.m. wake-up time.

And now after being home for more than a solid week, we’ve renovated our routines to help her become a more independent sleeper (employing a modified version of CIO or “controlled crying”). She used to nurse to sleep in the past but is just starting to go down (most of the time) drowsy but awake, so she is figuring out self-soothing. (She has been better at it with bedtimes but nap times can still be a struggle.)

During this month of constant travel, sleeping in a new place every three nights and napping on the go, along with having different baby sitters while mom and dad were on various date nights, made it difficult to be consistent. Hence, the joy of simply staying home in the second half of the month. Consistency in routines = consistency in sleep.

Top 10 Travel Tips

By starting travel with Sophia at around two months old, we’ve compiled some tried and true methods for packing, napping and feeding on the go, and playtime in transit. (Please note: We are by no means experts, so we value any other advice you have to share with us!)

In her nine months of life, she has been to five countries: Korea, U.S., Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia (seven if you count in utero with Vietnam and Japan). We’ve done two significant road trips with Sophia, five-hour drive between Toronto and Detroit area before crawling stage, and three-hour drive between Pyeongchang and Seoul during crawling stage. These tips encompass both her stationary infant and mobile beginning toddler stages.

 

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Sophia poops her pants and spills Michal’s beer at a street food market in Penang. Notice the juxtaposition of facial expressions in this moment.

Be prepared for wardrobe changes: Not in the glamorous sense like the Oscars – Bring extra changes of clothing for both you and baby when considering spit-up, diaper blow-outs (not fun when eating unusual solids), etc. Wear clothes that would be easy to change into and out of, as well as can mask stains and can allow for easy breastfeeding. For example, I’ve worn a black nursing dress with a lightweight jersey material.

 

 

Travel lightly: It seems contradictory to the last statement, but try as hard as you can so you have fewer bags.We’ve actually forgotten pieces of luggage more than once at the airport when in an exhausted stupor after long flights. (When this happened in Seoul, the airport contacted us and delivered it to us promptly. We have not always been so fortunate.)  Buy extra diapers, wipes, formula, baby food, etc. at your destination. Ask your home rental owner or hotel/resort management if he or she can provide a bassinet for the baby or access to laundry services.

Side note regarding the bassinet: A valuable piece of advice I got from fellow expat parents who travel often – Place the baby bassinet or Pack and Play in the bathroom of a hotel room to provide baby with his or her own “bedroom.” We all sleep terribly when we’re traveling and staying in the same room, as Sophia is used to her own space at home. Co-sleeping families will have an easier time with travel regarding this change in routine.

Decrease discomfort: Air pressure changes create pain resulting in extra fussiness so either nurse, feed with a bottle or offer a pacifier. Short flights (which we did at two months old when going from Seoul to Jeju, as well as have done between different cities within Malaysia) can actually be more tricky than long flights, as Sophia wasn’t hungry on the descent after nursing during the ascent that just happened. The pacifier was a life-saver! It helps if the paci has a clip in case it falls out. Not to mention, the paci while she was sleeping during redeye flights helped. (Although try to avoid flights that interrupt bedtime routine/night sleep schedule as this is the most difficult time to get baby back to sleep when it’s so loud and bright all around.)

Soak up the sun safely: If walking or hiking under the sun is on the agenda, make sure to bring a baby hat, a lightweight muslin blanket and/or a stroller shade to protect from UV rays. Baby sunscreen helps but I also liked having these other items to ensure maximum protection for Sophia when she was little as most stronger skincare protection products are not for babies younger than six months old.

Multi-task when possible: When creating an itinerary, consider stops for feedings, diaper changes and play time as breaks for the whole group. For instance, we all rested and gathered together for a snack, drink or meal whenever I would need to nurse. I’ve mastered eating with one hand and the nursing cover acts as a handy adult bib. 😉

We also always bring an easy-to-fold picnic blanket to spread out for her to work out her energy with crawling. (She has used this at beaches, parks, vacated gates at airports, empty restaurants, concrete expanses at various landmarks, etc.)

Furthermore, we would try to align walking/sightseeing activity with her nap times so that she would stay asleep in transit if we couldn’t make it back to the hotel for her to sleep comfortably in her bassinet. The blackout stroller shade and white noise maker on our Kindle were two life savers that ensured a restful nap while on-the-go.

Keep it simple: Speaking of itinerary, less really is more. My husband and I usually pool research from top-rated items on reviewer-generated websites like Tripadvisor and Yelp into a shared Google map or Excel sheet in order to check items off our “must-see list.”

I always find it useful to read the family friendly activity lists that Tripadvisor provides, but also to type in the search word “stroller” in a particular landmark’s reviews to see how other parents found it navigable.

Consider what activities are stroller-friendly, baby carrier-friendly and what warrants a baby sitter. Prioritize what means most and then diversify based on baby’s schedule.

House hunting: Rent a house or apartment if traveling with other family and friends. Choose a location that is most close to where you will spend the majority of your time: When we were in Jeju at two months old, we had our in-laws with us so we thought a house would be better than getting a couple hotel rooms as we wanted common space like the living room and a kitchen for cooking meals, pumping and storing milk, etc. We chose a place close to the beach as we anticipated going there often, but also rented a car for longer day trips.

While in the Toronto area for a wedding at about four months old, we shared a house with multiple family members of varying aged children. We all discussed our typical family routines so we were all aware of when certain common spaces needed to be vacated or quiet during points of the day relating to nap times and bedtimes.

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The ski resort had so many Pororo penguin cartoon toys!

When we were in Pyeongchang at nine months old with one other family with two children under 2 years old, we looked for very family friendly ski resort options. We lucked out with a resort that had little houses tucked into the mountains, tailored toward families of young children (ie. private play room with tons of toys, high chair and baby bed in the house; playground and kid’s cafe on premises).

 

 

On the road: If flying and planning to drive at your destination, it helps to bring a stroller with a detachable car seat. We were able to check both the car seat and the stroller at the gate, but it helps to have a set that interlocks because it makes for less to lug around. We did not have to pay extra for a car seat in our rental vehicle. Not to mention, we could use the car seat on the plane, which was key for small planes that couldn’t provide bulkhead seating and bassinets.

 

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A whole row to ourselves to play!

Perks on the plane: When flying, research on the carrier’s website to see what services they offer mothers with babies and take full advantage: When we checked in/got our boarding passes, we made sure to go through the list we found online. For example, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air gave us priority boarding (which I found especially helpful when Sophia was little because we had so much stuff), an additional 10-kilo piece of luggage for checking in (which ended up being our Pack and Play), ability to check in stroller and car seat for free at the gate, and priority luggage (first pieces out on the belt).

 

Always check at the gate (NOT at the check-in counter) to see if the flight is full. More often than not, we have been able to take an extra seat in our row or ask for seats to be rearranged. With the extra seat, we use Sophia’s car seat for sleeping and eating (much more secure and comfortable than a bassinet at her older age now). With the extra leg room in a row all to ourselves, we’ve been able to set up our own play space for Sophia to crawl, stand and cruise.

Making memories: We highly recommend you and travel companions to use Google Photo. This goes beyond special trips as Michal and I do this on a regular basis (starting back in B-school when we went on Spring Break with friends). When with a larger group, we all take so many pictures and videos on our phones so backing them up on Google ensures we don’t lose any and allows for easy sharing. Not to mention, the Google Photo Assistant will automatically create video montages based on location and edits images with filters.

As we anticipate travel with Sophia when she gets to walking stage, we would appreciate any other advice you have for how to manage travel!

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So happy to get off that plane!

Eight-month update: Food, fitness and friends at kid’s cafes

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Michal holds Sophia up so she can better view a show at a kid’s cafe. 

Kid’s cafes have been a blessing and a curse on our family during this stage of Sophia’s development.

Aside from most likely catching a stomach virus from a cafe (one that’s not featured in this post) that landed both Sophia and I in the hospital, we have been grateful to unleash her in these (mostly) baby-friendly environments that are plentiful in Korea so that she can have stimulation and socialization during these cold winter months.

Let’s recap Sophia’s latest milestones at eight months before reviewing the kid’s cafes, play rooms and baby groups we’ve recently tried in our neighborhood of Hannam-dong/Itaewon.

Welcome to Toddler Transitions

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Sophia falls in disbelief as she stood when holding on to the refrigerator door with one hand.

Standing room only
At this age, there is more “awake time” during the day as three naps transition into two naps per day. Sophia hasn’t struggled with staying awake as she continues to be a ball of energy. However, getting her to a quiet, calm state for napping is an almost daily fight. (Another topic for a later blog post: Dealing with those pesky sleep regressions.)

Sophia is more interested or motivated to stand and reach for items once out of her grasp. (Everything just keeps moving to higher shelves, choking hazards and such are locked away, wires are hidden, etc.) We laugh when when daddy comes home from work as she scampers quickly across the floor, mimicking a loyal puppy.

The most significant skill she has acquired this month: She has mastered standing with only one hand resting on something and is now experimenting with standing without any support! She always has an amazed look on her face when she realizes what she is doing.

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Sophia tries her first taste of pulled pork at a friend’s first birthday party at the Riverside Hotel in Apgujeong.

Future foodie
She has also eaten a lot of different food as we have made the switch from giving her pureed baby food we make based on the different stages to full-blown baby-led weaning. Some interesting tastes have included bits and pieces of gyro meat from Halal Guys, country fried chicken from Original Pancake House, and edamame from Nori Table. (Can you tell we’re fans of the international food scene of Itaewon?)

Common staples of boiled and pureed foods had been sweet potato, carrot, zucchini and broccoli. Guilty pleasure pre-packaged, no-mess snacks when on-the-go include teething crackers and freeze-dried fruits like persimmon and strawberry and freeze-dried yogurt drops.

Kid’s Places and Spaces in Hannam-dong/Itaewon

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Sophia is ready to play! We just arrived a first birthday celebration at Lilliput in Hannam-dong.

Michal and I consider ourselves fairly active people as we took Sophia on her first walk on the Han River when she was less than one week old and went hiking with her in her first month, so we’re not surprised Sophia has become equally as active.

We are also avid restaurant-goers as we’re always interested in the latest place that has opened up and we eat every type of cuisine, so we’re not surprised that Sophia is curious enough to grab at our food.

With our budding hiker / future foodie, we’ve found that the best way to cultivate her sense of adventure is through the cafe culture of Seoul. Kid’s cafes are like a more sophisticated version of the American Chuck E. Cheese or the McDonald’s Play Place. In this blog post, I’ll also mention free community center, as well as paid members-only, play rooms in our area that we frequent.

When you can’t leave the house, get creative:

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Sophia climbs on top of the “steps” we made by folding up play mats. She snags a turtle from an ottoman and brings it over to her kid couch.

With bad air quality and dropping temps, we’ve found ourselves indoors too often than we’d like. Out of cabin fever/boredom, inspiration is born.

Based on concepts from the internationally recognized Gymboree program and the book Simplicity Parenting, Michal and I try to change out certain toys (rather than dumping all of them out at once) and rearrange the living room/nursery layouts every two weeks now.

Sophia inherently works on different “skills” and has more focused “playtime” when not overwhelmed with too many options.

Lilliput (Hannam-dong branch)

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Sophia enjoys climbing up and down through the padded indoor maze and waving/looking through the windows at those passing by when at the Lilliput cafe in Hannam-dong.

Highlights

  • Gourmet food and adult beverages: Michal and I were impressed with the many restaurant-quality dishes coming out of the kitchen. We saw groups of parents not only sipping lattes and cold-pressed juices over brunch favorites like French Toast, but also enjoying beer and wine over dinner entrees like steak.
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The presentation and fresh combination of ingredients put this kid’s cafe at another level.
  • Wide selection of food and snacks for babies: One time we visited, we had a few snacks but didn’t pack enough to satisfy Sophia’s growing appetite. She tried her first prepared baby food here – organic pureed peaches with no sugar added. However, along with the food, it would have been convenient to have a bib and baby utensils. #newparentfail
  • Spotless, bright and decorated beautifully: I love the wide floor to ceiling windows that bring in lots of natural light. There is also an abundance of staff to clean (counted a handful of times I saw them vacuuming while I was there during a birthday party), greet, serve, make food and drinks – even play with the kids! One of my all-time fav kid’s cafe moments with staff was when I saw my friend’s two-year-old drove past us in a car with a staff member in the backseat.
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Sophia is ready to go after a long afternoon of playing. We just put her into her snowsuit in the lobby area.
  • Lockers for shoes and slippers are provided: I appreciate how they even have miniature chairs for the LOs so it’s easier to put on their socks and shoes.
  • Variety of toys and play areas for every age: Little pieces, like from the Lego building area, are separated so choking hazards for LOs are safely segregated.

 

 

Lowlights

  • “Nursing room” AKA re-purposed bathroom closet: Whenever I see these types of depressing hole-in-the-wall situations, I’d rather just nurse out in public no matter how faux pas it’s considered. No natural light, very little space and not much to look at.
  • Restroom is a bit difficult to use with baby: I wished there was a baby chair in the bathroom stall so it would be easy to use but they do provide a toddler toilet.
  • In need of crowd control: It’s extremely popular for a reason, but then it gets way too busy for a LO of Sophia’s age when it’s afternoon and on the weekend. Go early before it’s overrun. It feels like there should be an enforced capacity limit like how adults are bounced at the doorway of a nightclub.
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This little guy wanted to join us in playing with these magnetic toy in the upper level of the Lilliput play structure in Hannam-dong. He kind of took over while we watched.

Hours of operation
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Address
Basement 1 85 Dokseodang-ro (Hannam-dong)Seoul, Yongsan-gu
서울 용산구 독서가로 85 (한남동) 지하1층

Directions
It’s in a back alley behind the main road of Hannam-daero and across from U.N. Village. It will be about a 10-15-minute walk from Hannam subway station. There’s valet parking and it’s on the ground level with stroller ramp.

Cost

  • Free admission for children under 12 months. (Yay for us!) 1,000 won for every additional 10 minutes.
  • 12,000 won for two hours of playtime for children 1-8 years old and under 125 c.m. tall. 1,000 won for every additional 10 minutes.
  • Adults have free admission with purchase of a beverage or meal. (Trust me- You’ll be happy to drink or dine here, so not a big deal.)

Petit 5 (in the Passion 5 building)

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Sophia cautiously plays with one of the few baby-friendly toys at Petit 5 in Itaewon.

Highlights

  • Very easily accessible on Itaewon-ro, near Hangangjin subway station. Entrance is on the ground floor and there is an elevator up to the fourth floor.
  • Adorable desserts like gourmet animal crackers and cupcakes – Wouldn’t expect less from a kid’s cafe housed in the same building as the famous dessert lover’s dream of Passion 5.
  • Lots of space among the tables with some play areas interspersed among the dining area and a variety of high-chairs.
  • Nursing room is one of my all-time favs: It’s a corner area blocked off with screen doors that has a round table and chairs so mom can converse with others and eat or read while nursing – rather than being sequestered from society. There was a very high quality swing for a baby to chill in, operated by the baby’s weight. The view was of the showpiece black chandelier on the outside/middle of the circular building.

Lowlights

  • In the end, it’s mostly a showroom for expensive baby clothes.
  • Shoes are allowed which feels very unsanitary for a LO crawling on the ground and wanting to put everything in her mouth.
  • There are not many padded areas or toys for babies under one year old.
  • Desserts seemed more like the star of the show on the menu rather than substantial meal items. Kids (and adults) hopped up on sugar = unhealthy and bound for a crash.
  • Restroom is a bit difficult to use with baby: I again wished there was a baby chair in the bathroom stall so it would be easy to use, but they did provide a nice changing table, a toddler toilet and a toddler urinal (so thoughtful!) in the women’s bathroom.
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These elementary-age kids were running around in circles but took interest in Sophia when they noticed her playing on her own.

Hours of operation
All seven days of the week – 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Address
4F, 272 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu

Directions

  • If taking public transit: Go out of exit 3 of Hangangjin subway station and walk straight. The black wavy glass building will be on your left.
  • Valet parking is free for the first hour and 1,000 won per 10 minutes.
  • Garage parking is free for the first hour and 500 won per 10 minutes.

Cost
5,000 won per hour per child with a paying adult (a drink or food item). We went when it wasn’t busy – right when it opened during the week, so they said not to worry about paying for my LO.

Yongsan-gu Healthy Family Support Center (in the new Hannam-dong Community Center)

Highlights

  • Close to my house 🙂 – about five-minute walk up the hill toward Itaewon if coming from the direction of Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital
  • Free to use
  • Organized meet-up group on Mondays, which has helped to created a regular community. I’ve met and strengthened friendships with moms of babies of similar ages through this group, as I’ve known many of them already through expat mom circles that include childbirth classes, yoga classes, etc.
  • Community center is generous and thoughtful with providing free instant coffee, tea and basic snacks for moms like crackers or cookies during our meetings. Sometimes, we get other baby freebies like handkerchiefs and bibs from the community center.
  • Mini-fridge and bottle sanitizer, along with tons of books for babies and moms to read – but all are in Korean.
  • Lots of toys for varying age range and padding on floor
  • Public restroom on the floor has a nice changing table and a baby chair in the stall so it’s easy to use the toilet while keeping an eye baby, plus there are toddler toilets/stalls.

Lowlights

  • Very small so not meant for big groups or older toddlers
  • Toys are of varying quality
  • Not open on weekends or after normal office hours

Hours of operation
Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Address
용산구 이태원로 224-19 (한남동)
Yongsan-gu, Itaewon-ro 224-19 (Hannam-dong)

Directions
From Itaewon subway station, take exit 3 and walk straight on Itaewon-ro (about 10 minutes) toward Hangangjin subway station, just past the Cheil building or until you see Ganges Indian Cuisine directly in front of you.

At that point, cross toward the restaurant, but stop on that little sidewalk island in the middle of the road and take that to your right, all the way to the end. You’ll find yourself in front of the old Hannam-dong Jumin Center. If you turn to your left, you’ll see the new building.

Go into the shiny new building and take the elevator to the third floor. Look for the sign for the Yongsan-gu Healthy Family Support Center and make a right through the clear glass doors. Look for the room with a cabinet for storing shoes before going into it.

Cost

  • Free to use the room
  • There is parking available under the building, and it costs about 3,000 won per hour.

Yongan-gu Support Center for Childcare (in the Yongsan-gu District Office Building)

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Sophia discovers that these wooden blocks are actually magnetic and stick to the board. She is actually on the second level of the expansive playroom in the Yongsan District Office.

Highlights

  • Very easily accessible on Itaewon-ro near Noksapyeong subway station
  • Free to use
  • Lots of toys for all babies and toddlers up to age 5
  • Separate comfortable nursing room for moms (doubling as general eating area for BYO food) that includes feeding high chairs, changing tables, a crib, microwave and couches
  • So much variety in general with multiple “floors” and padded play structures as well as stations for building, reading, music, writing on white boards, etc.
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This area on the second level of the play structure was targeted more toward older kids with the kitchen, dress-up wardrobe, etc. but this pre-school aged pal wanted Sophia to join her playing make-believe.

Lowlights
Not open on weekends or after normal office hours

Hours of operation
Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an observed lunch break for employees from 12-1 p.m. – Must sign in with attendant before use.

Address
Level 5 of the Yongsan-gu Office, 150 Noksapyung-daero, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, 140-704

Directions
It’s a 10-minute walk going South of the Noksapyeong subway station out of Exit 3.

Make sure to go to the entrance of the larger, taller building as there are many smaller buildings within this complex.

There are two sets of elevators in the building. Depending on which set you take, you will either come out and see the playroom doors directly to your left or you will see a paper sign with a yellow arrow to the right of the elevator doors. The arrows will lead you to the playroom.

There is a parking area for strollers and storage for your shoes. The attendant will be just inside the doors.

Cost

  • Free to use the room
  • There is parking available under the building, and it should cost similarly to the other government building at about 3,000 won per hour.

Gymboree (Hannam-dong branch)

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Sophia and I stand in the middle of the indoor playground at the Gymboree in Hannam-dong on a Saturday afternoon. Although design is simple, play spaces are interactive and physical.

Please note: We have only visited during open gym time when classes aren’t in session. Sophia and I are excited to start an English-speaking class for 6- to 14-month-olds next month.

Highlights

  • Weekly classes are very intentional and educational based on cognitive developmental stages. Open gym time (usually at least one hour per day) allows members to use the indoor, padded playground space.
  • Varied themes and layout of playground as staff changes layout every two weeks.
  • More opportunity to create a community by bonding with baby and with other moms, as well as opportunity for baby to build social skills. We became fast friends with parents of babies who are similar in age as we would routinely use the open gym time and meet for lunch afterward.
  • By making it a members-only environment and limiting hours of use, it’s hardly crowded nor dangerous for crawling LOs.

Lowlights

  • Cost is expensive compared to other options
  • Open time to use the indoor playground is limited to specific hours of the day when there isn’t a class.
  • No food available but it is near many decent (although sometimes overpriced) Western-style restaurants in U.N. Village area.
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We joined other families after the open gym time for dim sum across the street from the Gymboree. These little ones are anxiously await food!

Hours of operation
approximately 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. but call ahead to double-check regarding class schedules and open gym times as they change seasonally

Address
4th floor of Hyundai Liberty House, 70, Dokseodang-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea
or 258 Hannam-dong (old address system)

Directions
You can find it easily on the corner of the main road Hannam-daero near Hannam-daegyo. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. (There is free validated parking in the basement.)

Cost

  • 420,000 won for one session of 12 classes and use of the play gym during free hours, plus 50,000 won for the membership enrollment
  • Offered 20 percent discount with the holiday season
  • Continual offering of 10 percent discount if registering for three sessions at once

Seven-month update: Shepherding season

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The best things in life come in small packages: Sophia meets Santa for the first time! Santa happened to be a fellow Darden alum from 2012.

As Sophia pushes the limits of exploration with learning how to stand and reach as well as crawling with more rapidity, we have ironically started to stay closer to home. We’ve decided to stay in town for the holidays as Michal doesn’t have time off for Christmas or New Year’s.

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Tis the Season: Browsing at the annual Christmas decorations market at Express Bus Terminal with our friend Jin whose husband is a Darden alum.

For the first time since Sophia’s arrival seven months ago, we have no visitors who can accompany us on “tourist in our town” adventures and no travel plans. With winter, daylight grows shorter and temperatures are beginning to drop. In her recent developmental stage, morning and afternoon nap times are (stubbornly) established and, with that, sleep preferences relating to lighting, sound and crib are becoming habit.

How do we manage the big leap from peaceful, easy-going infant to active, opinionated toddler?

The past month has been harder for us in different ways than the first three months were with Sophia.

Pluses of the toddler stage:

  • More independence means I can give her a cracker (a dissolve-able one she can gum), a piece of apple (in a mesh holder), or even her bottle and she can feed herself
  • More curiosity means she focuses on details and learns how objects work, entertaining herself with anything from banging pots to climbing into a box
  • More interaction means she plays with other babies as well as listens to bedtime stories, holding hands with others and trying to flip pages in a book. By the way, Sophia now only sleeps well (both with naps during daytime and her longer sleep during nighttime) if she uses up all her energy by playing a lot and has multiple opportunities to practice whatever skill she has recently mastered. I try to schedule some sort of activity or play date for her every day along with an afternoon walk, so it helps to have friends who have babies of the same close age range.
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Baby BFFs: Sophia greets a friend at a special baby exercise class. We met the parents in a childbirth class, and I have been in other groups with mom and baby (prenatal yoga, mommy and baby yoga, mommy and baby Bible study, community center play group).

Minuses of the toddler stage:

  • We can’t seem to keep up with baby-proofing as we started by padding corners and locking drawers, discovering how danger lurks literally around every corner with sharp edges and hard flooring. Therefore, we stopped putting padding on everything and have given her a helmet. (See below.)
  • We’ve stopped hyper-sanitizing and vigilantly re-washing items when in our house as everything (toys, pacifiers, spoons) seem to land on the floor, and she wants to put everything in her mouth. At least all our trash cans are locked away in a separate room. #newparenthack
  • When we’re low energy, such as when Michal and I both had colds earlier this month or when we just wanted to be lazy on a Sunday afternoon, we had no choice but to trade off who would chase around Sophia as she was on-the-go.

The status of our current household so closely mimics that of a recent devotional I read on the website She Reads Truth, which my mommy and baby Bible study group is currently reading and discussing. The devotional is part of a series relating to Advent Season and last week focused on the job of a priest, building up to Christ as our “perfect priest.”

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Gift exchange: Exchanging gifts with her pal from our Mommy and Baby Bible Study.

“A priest cares for the spiritual lives of the people.

The job of a priest in the Old Testament was to read the spiritual posture of God’s people and attend to their fears and sorrows. Priests called the people to see themselves as they really were—needy but loved, frail but protected, prone to wander but kept.”

The blogger’s metaphor really hit home as she compared a mother watching her very active twin toddlers to that of a shepherd keeping his flock:

“The truth was I’d underestimated how difficult it would be to simply keep my boys near me—to keep them in the fold, so to speak […] I felt like a lifeguard, always on duty, always scanning the room or yard or park for those two little blonde heads […] God’s priests in the Old Testament knew well the work of keeping their sheep within the fold. Shepherding was part of their job—not sheep, of course, but hearts. “

In my recent exhaustion, frustration and anxiety of guiding and watching Sophia, I see what it is like for God to watch us, His children. Just like Sophia and the blogger’s twins, I see myself having often wandered off, distracted by what the world puts in my way as obstacles in my path. Sometimes this can be the case of a time-waster like the black hole of Facebook, or it could be impatience with my husband at the end of a frazzled day, or jealousy of peers with the ability to take advantage of a night out on the town on a whim.

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Sophia stands! She learned how to stand after grabbing for a book on the couch.

As a mother, just like God our Father, I tend to let Sophia explore on her own and let her learn how to struggle a bit. (She started regularly pushing herself up to standing position on her own last week!) Similarly, the trials of life and tests of faith, whether small or big, make me a stronger person like our little Sophia has become.

This particular devotional blog post within the Bible study group I’ve recently joined, along with the preparation for and anticipation of Christmas with Advent Season, have been the reminders I’ve needed from God to “come back to the fold.” In this quiet self-reflection time paired with the scattered activity inherent of life as a new mom, I see how both Sophia and I are”needy but loved, frail but protected, prone to wander but kept.”

Wishing a happy Advent Season to all!

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Six-month update: Growing awareness of the world

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Sunday Funday for the Family: Autumn Afternoon Tea at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul

In light of the current U.S. presidential election season and results, and in tandem with our expat life, I’ve been wondering more about what it will be like for Sophia to develop her identity in America as a biracial woman, daughter to a Polish immigrant father and a second-generation Filipino mother.

I hope that at least some cultural customs will be passed down and not all will be lost as she grows up farther away from the origin of her ancestries and in what seems like will be a less accepting environment. In the times we live in now, it seems like cultivating this multi-faceted identity could be more of a challenge than how her parents managed in the past.

Flash back to almost a decade ago to a moment in my and Michal’s relationship that gives this identity a bit more context: When Michal and I were dating in undergrad, a campus tour guide was relating Johnny Appleseed to the botanical gardens at MSU. She took time to explain to me specifically, pointing out that I wouldn’t recognize this iconic American folklore because she assumed I didn’t grow up in America.

This really bothered us, especially me, as irony would have it that Michal, the white American male, is actually the one (not me!) who was born and grew up in another country, having immigrated to the Detroit area when he was 8 years old. This type of assumption of me as an unaware foreigner has taken shape in other forms in my lifetime.

For example, people will ask me where I’m from and I always reply with “metro Detroit,” and then they look at me incredulously and ask a second time, or they praise my communication skills thinking I learned English as a second language. (Again, as irony would have it, Michal did not know a word of English when he moved to the States. Whereas, my parents never even taught me their native country’s language because they feared I would get confused or speak with an accent.)

I’ve swept away these misunderstandings over time, maybe not even truly recognizing these interactions as racism or prejudice because these annoyances didn’t feel maliciously overt or didn’t seem to be life-changing experiences. And as Michal and I lived in more areas of the world, befriending a diverse group of open-minded and culturally aware people, we built a bubble around us that I didn’t quite realize existed until living as expats in Korea.

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Baby Boo Brunch: For Sophia’s first Halloween, we had a party with our expat neighbors. She was a bit cranky in this photo but had fun crawling around as a sea turtle.

As an American here, I have inherently become something of a “representative” within the numerous conversations I’ve had with expats from around the world and locals from Korea about our home country’s politics. Common questions from everyone around me including fellow moms in a play group, my house keeper, taxi drivers and my doctor are: “What do you really think of President-Elect Donald Trump? How could your country elect someone like him? How does the result affect your future plans as an expat?”

With that said, I have also found commonalities in the corruption and failings of various governmental systems among my fellow expats (e.g. controversial Brexit, president-condoned vigilante killing in the Philippines, the Korean president’s secret advisers). So the big question: “Where do we go next?” is truly on many more minds than ours. Do we all continue to flee – continue living in this expat bubble?

A friend of mine I know through the Darden Partners Association at the University of Virginia eloquently encapsulated the one action I certainly wanted to pursue no matter where we are living, even in my current disillusioned and perplexed state of our home country. Cathryn’s Facebook status struck a chord with me as a mother to a newborn daughter. She describes the following reaction, referencing First Lady Michelle Obama:

I am sick at the thought of him as not only my president, but more importantly, my daughter’s president. There isn’t anything I can do to change the results, but there is one thing I can do:

I will raise my daughter to be a kind, compassionate and loving human being. I will raise her to respect everyone, no matter what they look like, where they come from, who they love, or what religion they choose to follow (or not follow). I will teach her that our differences are what make us beautiful. I will teach her about consent. I will teach her how to use her voice.

When they go low, we will go high. I will raise her to be the antithesis of Trump. I find solace in knowing that many of my like-minded friends will do the same.

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Snuggle bunny: Sophia is ready to brave the cold fall weather with her hooded onesie.

In addition, Michal and I will raise our Sophia to understand what the “American Dream” made possible for her family. Her grandparents on both sides overcame much adversity and ultimately created new and better lives despite humble beginnings in their native countries. Her parents, both individually and as a couple, have disproved stereotypes and assumptions.

As I read social media updates from colleagues working in education, social justice and media in the United States, those who are working tirelessly in giving voice to the voiceless, I gather hope for my daughter’s and our country’s future.

In particular, this informative and inspiring blog post from my friend Kaitlyn who I met at St. John Student Parish at MSU is extremely helpful in describing how to take practical action with what to do next in reaction to the recent election results.

I envision that Sophia will also advocate for inclusiveness, with an understanding and appreciation for diversity. In turn, others will value her strength, compassion and intellect, rather than focus on her image, her gender or her race.

And on that note, here’s a quick update on Sophia’s current developmental milestones in her six month:

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Screeching at the top of her lungs!
  • She is exploring more of her voice: She has a new sound for protesting or complaining – a high-pitched, prolonged screech similar to a bird squawking.
  • She is building her arm muscles: She can push herself up to sitting position and launches herself at objects that she wants that are not quite within her reach.
  • She is more observant of what adults prefer and do: She reaches for my water bottle, grabs at Michal’s watch, wants to try food on our plate. (We give her bits and pieces that are easy to digest like mashed potato and squash.)
  • She is generally more inquisitive and interactive with the world: We’ve put her in the front-facing position in her carrier and stroller as she has mastered head control and sits up easily. She loves watching action around her – whether sitting at a restaurant, or during walks through the city’s busy streets.

Five-month update: More mobility and QT with the BFF

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Selfie at Gyeongbokgung Palace 

Highlights of Sophia’s development in her fifth month:

Sophia continued her cognitive and physical developments this month with incredible energy (ironically) as Michal and I were bleary-eyed (yet excited) due to either of us being ill and/or managing an unpredictable sleep schedule.

  • She has gone from hating being on her tummy in her fourth month to loving it in her fifth month, constantly rolling like a bottle downhill. However, she struggles with wanting to crawl as she gets on all-fours but isn’t sure how to move next.
  • She holds and grabs with more intention, especially with her pacifier and bottle.
  • She is more aware of the details in the world around her, recently growing obsessed with the tags on toys or clothes.
  • She is starting to have regular giggle fits when we tickle her tummy or toes.
  • She has shown interest in eating some solids like mashed up banana.

Having Esther, one of my best friends who I have known since high school, visit me for an extended period of time during this fifth month was such a blessing. Sophia is still not sleeping well, waking three to four times through the night with inconsistent nap times during the day. It didn’t help that we suffered from jet lag for a while after returning from the States, plus everyone in our home had some form of illness at different points throughout the past month.

Highlights of sightseeing in Seoul with Esther in October

I am so grateful Esther was willing to become a third parent to Sophia while in Seoul. She endured the 14-hour flight from Detroit to Seoul and helped me get Sophia to sleep in her bassinet, went to the hospital with me while Michal was at work and Sophia had a fever, got up early each morning to play with Sophia while I showered and ate breakfast each day, taught a mommy and baby yoga class for Sophia and our friends, and even baby sat for us while Michal and I had a date night. This was a level of loyalty and generosity I could never repay.

Michal, Sophia and I had a lot of fun exploring the city with her, and we had a whole new perspective as Esther’s knowledge of Korean really enlightened us. For example, one day two older women on the subway spoke to Esther in Korean about Sophia. I assumed they were probably chastising me that she was too cold or too small, as I had heard others tell me in the past.

In contrast, the women were gushing over Sophia’s eyes – at how they twinkle and at how looking at her made them feel happy and young, and that they wished Sophia a lifetime of joy.

Esther even added that this was a rough translation and that their sentiments sounded even more beautiful and meaningful in Korean.

All in all, we packed a lot of activity into our days and nights, being tourists in our own town and discovering so much more beyond our fav spots. Our time together generally consisted of:

On the other hand, we were also were able to just relax in our home when one or more of us in the household was sick, tired – or both. The three-week visit reminded me of the two years Esther and I had as roommates back in undergrad, complete with binge watching TV shows (now hooked on “Breaking Bad”), ordering tons of delivery and pulling those dreaded “all-nighters.”

Pressing the pause button on the present

During some downtime on her visit, we listened to a podcast of a homily from the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Michal and I used to attend before moving to Seoul while he was in business school. The pastor addressed the age-old dilemma of the need to focus on being content with the present, rather than dwell on the past or constantly yearn for more. He wisely said:

“God is here in this moment, with all its light and darkness, with all its pain and joy […] Scripture says there is an appointed time for everything […] Living in faith can be as small as living in the now.”

Esther related to this concept with her yoga practice: the act of concentrating on her breath, clearing her mind and setting an intention at the beginning of a session.

We all saw how Sophia’s current life easily adapts to this mentality, one that is so difficult for us as a adults. Having a child at infant stage is a consistent reminder of this life lesson. Babies are not thinking about the past or the future, but about the present and expressing their immediate desires: I am hungry now. I am sleepy now. I want to play now. Their constant movement and growth keeps us from lingering too much.

I’m excited to see her grow up but also cherishing her innocence and simplicity in her life at this moment. I wish to only “live in the now” just like sweet Sophia.

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On the plane from Detroit to Seoul with Auntie Esther right before take-off

Our first family home leave trip:

Living in the “in-between”

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So much history in one spot: The place where we met (2006), got engaged (2010) and got married (2011).

 

After returning from my first home leave trip since moving abroad, I’ve felt like I’m living in some “in-between” space, as I’m not sure what to call “home” anymore. For some time, especially after having my daughter, I thought I was “homesick.” But my feelings seem to be more about being “timesick” as I’ve realized how I haven’t so much missed a specific place but a specific time in my life when certain groups of people were in it.

Mixing past with the present at MSU

While home in Michigan, I met up with a former student I taught in journalism classes when she was a junior and senior in high school in the Chicago suburbs. She is now a senior at my undergrad alma mater, Michigan State.

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Cannot believe my former student is an official adult!

The meet-up was like an Inception of flashbacks mirroring several points in my life: the time I was a teacher/newspaper adviser at my first job after undergrad, the time when I turned 21 years old and could drink legally as we met at the legendary Peanut Barrel bar and restaurant in East Lansing, the time I similarly reunited with my former high school newspaper adviser at Michigan State (as she was alumna too) during a tailgate and she brought her infant daughter (as I did during my meet-up with my former student).

So many versions of myself overlapped into this one moment. I felt proud for my former student to have seen her grow up into a mature and ambitious woman especially in contrast to how immature and uncertain I was in my identity and career path when I had met up with my former high school teacher at her age.

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On the Red Cedar River: Esther and I have known each other for more than 15 years since we were on our high school newspaper together. We were college roommates, as well as co-workers at our newspaper at MSU.

While visiting MSU, Michal and I (along with Esther, my best friend from high school/college) toured around campus with Sophia in her stroller, going back to spots like our first date location at the Union and where we met/got engaged/got married at St. John Student Parish. This October, it will have been a decade since the day Michal and I started our relationship, so to return to these spots with a child and seeing current college kids around our age was surreal. How did we get so old? Ten years ago, I would have never imagined having the life that we have now!

Sophia steals the show with family and friends

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So grateful my friend Clare of more than 15 years organized a BBQ for our group of friends from high school. The next generation of our group is growing!

During our home leave, we had significant events lined up like Sophia’s baptism, a family friend’s wedding and Michal’s best friend’s wedding. Not to mention, our friends from college and high school held events like dinner parties and BBQs in honor of our short homecoming. Through all of these fun times, we saw everyone we loved from our circle in Michigan and introduced them to our sweet Sophia.

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Michal’s old college roommate, Danny, and his wife Nancy hosted a dinner party for our circle of friends from undergrad. My cousin April surprised me with a birthday cake. (Sophia was already asleep in her car seat/stroller at this point.) 

It is such a blessing to see grandparents with their grandchild. My mother especially seems to live for Sophia. Sophia’s godparents are our best friends who attended MSU and SJSP with us, my cousin April and her husband Jake, and they relished every opportunity to spend with her. Both Michal and I have strong networks of family friends in our respective ethnic communities within the Detroit area. Both of us have kept in touch with friends in metro Detroit, especially our mutual friends from church and college. With all these ties to Michigan, we have begun considering what it would be like to return to the area, after the decade we have been away.

Former and/or future home?

For a time, I didn’t think of a more long-term homecoming as a possibility. I’ve enjoyed living in and exploring new cities after college and wasn’t too keen on reliving my past. Metro Detroit and Detroit proper had changed in a lot of ways through my lifetime . I grew up in the heyday of Troy, Mich. when it used to be the headquarters of Kmart and when Detroit was proudly reaping the benefits of being Motor City. After high school, an era began when businesses lay vacant and countless homes were going unsold. In fact, my childhood home will soon be entering the market.

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Our family and friends on the Filipino side at Sophia’s baptism.

To see it empty – my former home of more than 25 years, a place that symbolized the American dream for my family as my parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines and moved from a Detroit apartment to the suburbs, conjured up feelings of the past – of possibility. When we first moved into this home, I remember dancing around the living room thinking how there was so much space to play. But like any home, there are feelings of heartache paired with those happy memories. As a 31-year-old adult who celebrated her recent birthday in this home, I am looking forward to my parents selling the house in order to let go of what has become a burden to maintain in their age, and I am glad I got to see it one more time to have some closure.

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Our family and friends on the Polish side at Sophia’s baptism.

One year ago when we moved to Seoul to begin our expat adventures, I wrote a bit about the concept of home based on the adage “Home is where the heart is.” Yet, another saying that comes to mind with this blog post is “You can ‘t go home again” because past times can never be as fulfilling as they initially were. In my recent visit to my former home after much time living in other parts of the U.S. and the world, I have discovered what you can do instead:

You can create a new home again in the same place that once was.

I have seen this happen in the continual resurgence of Detroit as it seems more and more revitalized with hip restaurants, bars, breweries and other business each time we visit. I have seen this in the hope and joy within grandparents’ eyes has they play with their grandchild for the first time. I have seen this in friendships that have not only stood the test of time but have actually thrived through distance and difference in lifestyles.

Michal and I aren’t sure what’s next for us, but we are trusting in God’s promise and plan, whether it will be the place where we came from or some place farther away.

Four-month update: Flurry of activity

Good morning: Sophia is awake and on her tummy!
Good morning: Sophia is awake and on her tummy!

True to the title: This blog post comes a few weeks late because we’ve been busy with a packed schedule of events in the U.S. and Canada! Not to mention, our little one is keeping us on our toes with her sudden bursts of action.

Michal and I had Sophia’s baptism, festivities related to two weddings (one in Detroit and one in Creemore, Ontario), three birthdays within immediate family (including my own) and several reunions with friends and family in the area as it is the first trip for me back home since moving to Seoul and obviously the first time many have met our daughter. (More on the blog later about our first home leave as a family.)

The jet lag that naturally comes with the 13-hour time zone difference, in addition to the fatigue of a 12-hour flight (Seoul to Detroit) with an infant combined for an initial exhausting adjustment period. But let’s not forget the fact that Sophia is going through her four-month sleep regression.

How do we cope with one of the most difficult sleep regressions and major developmental periods of an infant’s life?

Let me preface the rest of this blog post by saying: We have taken an alternative route that would cause anxiety for most, but it worked for us with our lifestyle as an expat family not wanting to miss out on any important event while home. (Can you say FOMO?) We went with the flow by letting baby set the feeding/sleeping schedule, while simultaneously instituting an upheaval of our daily routines.

Return to undergrad alma mater: Chilling in her car seat by the Red Cedar River in East Lansing.
Return to undergrad alma mater: Chilling in her car seat by the Red Cedar River in East Lansing.

This past month’s active travel and social schedule distracted ourselves from exhaustion as well as incorporated free baby-sitting and new stimulation for Sophia through the day. We haven’t spent more than four nights in a row in one place for the past three weeks! If this were the case with just me and Michal as primary care-givers, like our Bali vacation, the nomadic lifestyle would have been impossible. However, we’re surrounded by so many different family members and friends who have been dying to hold and play with her. Michal and I even fell asleep early at Sophia’s baptism reception/party while everyone entertained her and eventually put her to bed.

The dreaded four-month sleep regression hit us just when we were settling into a routine and feeling like we finally got a handle on parenting. We originally had split nighttime duty so that Michal bottle-fed pumped breast milk for her final feeding before longer sleep while I would go to bed early and then get up early to nurse her when she would wake up around 4 a.m. Sophia would then fall back asleep until right before Michal would leave for work and get her up and ready for the day in time for me to take over.

A lot happens at four months old to completely throw off prior routines:

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Eating her hand at a water park in Blue Mountain ski resort, Ontario.
  • Sophia has learned to roll over from back to tummy easily but going from tummy to back is still difficult, which makes sleeping through the night almost impossible now as she wakes herself up every couple hours when she finds herself in an uncomfortable position she can’t get out of. We were so surprised when waking up the next day after our flight to see her on her stomach with wide eyes looking up at us.
  • She is distracted by everything and everyone around her making it more difficult to nurse her. She will look at me with curiosity while I eat or drink (no more multi-tasking) but then she gets upset when she realizes she is hungry. I discovered the nursing cover is really more for her than me at this point!
  • She has more motor control as she grabs with more ferocity and sometimes with intention. My hair has already been falling out in clumps due to hormonal changes with breastfeeding but now I must put my hair in a ponytail any time I’m holding or playing with her. She also will take out her pacifier but hasn’t quite mastered putting it back in her mouth when she wants it.
  • She has exercised more vocal chords as she has seemed to be exploring what her voice can do. In the beginning of the fourth month, she made a funny sound by blowing through her lips. Now in the middle of the month, she seems to screech more and has started giggling at opportune times.
  • She seemed to have started teething as she is drooling a lot and putting everything in her mouth including my hand, my chin, her hands and toys.
  • She became super clingy with mom and dad for a short-lived period of time. While touring around Toronto after one wedding, we had been switching off carrying her in the Ergo. After my and Michal’s turns, our friend Pawel offered to carry her and she immediately cried when going to him. It was a definite change in behavior and temperament when just a week before she had been fine when being passed around so many times at her baptism that it was like playing hot potato. We joked that Pawel probably needed to shower more, but we’re certain Sophia just needed familiarity during the most “stormy period.” Check out the helpful Wonder Weeks app and book (suggested by my prenatal/mommy and baby yoga instructor) that describes all developmental leaps and how to interact with baby during them.
Strolling around Toronto Island, Sophia is asleep in the Ergo carrier.
Strolling around Toronto Island, Sophia is asleep in the Ergo carrier.

At this point, we’re in a more settled point of our home leave as we are residing at my parents’ house for longer and she is seeming to be less fussy. However, nighttime is still a struggle because I’m up solo with her as Michal has returned to Seoul before us for work. (More on how to handle long flights and drives with baby in a future blog post.)

If you have any advice for me on how to manage the four-month sleep regression, specifically with the tummy time troubles, please share!

Baby in Bali:

The Ups and Downs of Our First International Family Vacation

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Photo credit to Conrad resort in Bali on Nusa Dua Beach – In the lobby gardens

In the midst of our tropical paradise vacation last week, Michal and I found ourselves more stressed and exhausted than we were before leaving. Ironically, we were not overwhelmed because of our three-and-half-month-old child, but because of ourselves.

Sophia inexplicably slept the most soundly we’ve ever seen her sleep when we were on holiday in Bali, Indonesia. She fell asleep quickly – not needing any of the usual help rocking or swaying, and she slept straight through the night every night. We’re not sure if we can attribute the calm to the serene surroundings, the clean air quality, or the time in her development.

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Balcony view at the Conrad resort overlooked pool and ocean.

Her sleepiness could have been due to the over-stimulation of her senses: the persistent sounds of nature with the crashing waves and the croaking of frogs and crickets, the vivid sapphire blue of the Indian Ocean and verdant green rice terraces, the variety in textures from the grainy sand to lush grass.

Looking back on it now, Michal and I should have followed her cues from the beginning with how to handle this first big international trip as a family by simply taking in the beauty of Bali and relaxing in God’s glory. Michal and I were instead busy with taking this time of respite for granted.

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Balcony view at our resort in Ubud overlooked rice terraces.

In the time of B.B., we would tackle extensive jaunts abroad with a To-Do list that rivaled agendas we had at the office as we would research reviews and gather tips on TripAdvisor and Yelp as well as read guides like Frommer’s and Lonely Planet.  We wanted to make the long flight worth our time and money by visiting every historic landmark, trendy bar and hip restaurant. We would stay out all night and still try to get up early, as we were running on adrenaline fueled by our wanderlust.

For example, I remember one night back in 2013 when traveling Cambodia when we befriended a British bloke who had recently broken up with his girlfriend back home and was set on drinking everything in sight with me and Michal as his entourage. We ended up bar hopping all night despite having a packed schedule during the day with a reserved tour guide who would to take us around the temples. It was all about seizing the moment and not wanting to miss out on anything.

In general, logistics get complicated when keeping in mind what to do with a baby vs. without when baby stays with sitter/nanny or at daycare. During our trip, we invested a lot of time categorizing activities in either column, and then prioritizing what was most important in case we ran out of time, and then lastly making the appropriate arrangements/reservations.

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Drinks at the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak

We had planned on one day with a baby sitter while at the beach so we would do all the activities we couldn’t do with baby: Rent a scooter and venture around Seminyak area (more known for its nightlife and party atmosphere), eat dinner at a romantic restaurant, get drinks at a posh beach club.

Truth be told: After all this work, I was mentally drained and generally tired from being a new mom, so I wanted to throw it all out and just stay at our first location for the night, ordering another round of appetizers and chilling until the sun set on the beach. Michal had other expectations and a lot more energy for the day and night. Needless to say, I wasn’t very articulate in expressing my perspective and he wasn’t ready to slow down, so we both ended up disgruntled and slightly disappointed with how the day unfolded.

The best days we had on the trip were when we didn’t plan much of anything except a starting point and we just went with whatever presented itself. Sophia was miraculously pleased by our side the whole time.

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Nusa Dua Beach in front of St. Regis

Nusa Dua Beach: We had brunch at another resort for variety’s sake – the St. Regis, savoring our Luwak coffee alongside a smoked salmon sandwich and poached egg and pancetta salad. Walking around the resort, we discovered a turtle conservation area and were in awe of the many tiny baby turtles. Then, we took a dip in the most beautiful stretch of the beach with its crystal clear blue water and soft white sand. With its calm coast and shallow depth, it was very comfortable for us to hold Sophia while the gentle waves rolled over us.

 

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Trekking rice terraces in Ubud near the Puri Sebali Resort

Ubud: We trekked through nearby rice terraces surrounding our resort and then wandered through the monkey forest. We had lunch at a vegan cafe that had large sofa-like benches for Sophia to stretch out on. And then we did a hike along the Campuhan Ridge at sunset. With its moderate inclines and mostly paved path, it was manageable with Sophia.

Sophia slept through most of the walking while we wore her in the carrier. When she wasn’t sleeping, she was looking around with curiosity at all the sights. We were surprised at not only how calm she was but how alert.

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Pampered at the Conrad

Bali itself turned out to be very baby friendly. Balinese people were extra interested with her and enjoyed meeting her and even offered to carry her while we dined at certain places. Resorts are generally accommodating to families, but on another level in Bali.

For example: At the Conrad in Nusa Dua, our room was equipped with a baby bed, baby toiletries, diapers, a bottle sterilizer and a bottle warmer.

The least stressful parts of the trip were when we stopped worrying about our lists, reviews, maps and plans. It was yet another reminder of the overall theme of this blog – Proverbs 16:9. On our next journey, we will keep in mind that the point of a vacation is to relax, and that true joy is in being content with what we have rather than stress about what we could be doing or what we are missing out on.

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Photo credit to Conrad resort in Bali – View from lobby overlooking pool and ocean