There are so many great family traditions that we enjoy in the autumn and early winter: apple picking and pumpkin carving, forest hikes to enjoy the changing leaves and then raking up the leaves at home. And then as we inch forward to the holiday season, there’s cookie baking and present wrapping and tree decorating. Chances are you’ve got your phone out taking pictures of the kids during a lot of these activities, right? (I know because I’ve seen them on Facebook!)

Wouldn’t it be great, though, to have a professional photographer come in and take those photos for you? A documentary photo session, also known as a “day in the life” session, is the opposite of everybody standing in a row looking at the camera and saying “cheese.” A documentary session is like having a friend with a camera in the room, taking care of documenting everything so you can have fun enjoying the activities. The photos you get will tell the perfectly imperfect story of your family at this moment in time. And when you hire me to take the photos, EVERYONE gets to be in the photos. There’s nobody hiding behind the lens except me – get the entire family in the photos. In fact, these sessions are great with extended families – bring the grandparents and get them in the photos, too!

Documentary photography sessions with Ottawa photographer Danielle Donders

The idea behind the family tradition sessions is perfectly summed up by one of my favourite literary characters, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables:

“After all,” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.”

I’ve been documenting my family at play for years, and it’s the sort of photography that makes my heart sing. Since this is a relatively new offering for me, for the rest of 2017 I’m offering an introductory special: the Family Traditions package.

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Have you heard this one? Facebook is launching a Messenger application dedicated to kids ages six to 13. Wait, what? Did you say SIX?

From their launch message, Facebook promises:

Whether it’s using video chat to talk to grandparents, staying in touch with cousins who live far away, or sending mom a decorated photo while she’s working late to say hi, Messenger Kids opens up a new world of online communication to families.

Pretty rosy, right? All warm and cuddly. And I’m here to tell you that while those things might happen, 99% of the messaging is going to be between peers, and I am not sure how happy I’d be giving even my nine year old that sort of technology.

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Let’s talk about all the things that are wrong with this.

Since kids under age 13 aren’t even supposed to have Facebook accounts, to use the app parents must download it and then authenticate it with their own account. So Facebook gets a new “customer” by way of the kid, but potentially also a way to get parents who haven’t previously heard the siren song to sign up for an account as well. And Facebook requires you to use the child’s actual name instead of a pseudonym.

Let’s just give a passing thought, too, to the potential entanglements of shared custody and parents who disagree about whether their primary school kids should have access to Facebook. But who’s to say that the person giving access to the kid is in fact the parent, or even a real person? Much as Facebook would hate to admit it, it’s not hard to fake up a Facebook account.

And then there’s the whole question of Facebook having even MORE data about my family than they already have. They’ve said they won’t serve up ads to the kids, but they haven’t said they won’t be collating the data they collect on our family relationships, or the kid connections, or just about anything else. Sketchy, to say the least.

I guess there’s an argument to be made for the fact that kids will be using iMessage or other texting apps already. I just feel like Facebook is promising a false sense of security and control, and while I love using Facebook, I do not trust their motivations.

I like how The Verge put it:

And yet at a time when I’m still struggling to understand how social media is altering my own mind, I’m hesitant to recommend it to children. The benefits of Messenger Kids to Facebook are too obvious, and too little acknowledged by its creators. And the benefits to children all but elude me.

I also think that my perspective with relation to my hypothetical six (seriously, are we really talking about SIX YEAR OLDS here?) year old and my actual thirteen year old are a little different. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have gotten my hackles up on this if it were marketed as an app for ages 10 to 13, instead of as young as six. In fact, it’s possible I bent the rules to help my then 11-year-old get an Instagram account, but you can bet I pretty tightly monitored it and that there were a LOT of conversations about responsible use. And as an aside, I find it more than a little funny that both my teens have Facebook accounts that sit idle. There are plenty of streaks happening on Instagram and SnapChat, but I’m pretty sure there are cobwebs on both Facebook accounts.

What do you think? Do you share my unease and distaste, or do you think this is a great new way for kids to be able to connect? Or maybe something in between?


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Last winter I spent a disproportionate amount of time kvetching about my boots to Tristan as we walked the dog after dinner each night. Our rural street is sidewalk-free and not a bus route, so it spends most of the winter with a hardpack of icy snow on it, and I hate, hate, hate walking on it when it’s slippery. It makes me feel like a little old lady as I totter along, focusing all my attention on ensuring that my feet are not about to go sliding out from under me. That’s no way to pursue my daily goal of 10,000 steps, with teeth clenched in anticipation of a fall.

Do you remember this article about how most winter boots fail even the most basic traction test from last winter? Of course my boots were not on the list, and I spent the whole winter idly wondering whether better boots would make for more enjoyable winter walks. It’s not the cold temperatures that keep me inside on winter evenings, it’s the fact that I just don’t feel comfortable walking on the ice — especially holding a dog prone to lurching at snowflakes and shadows.

That’s why I was particularly delighted to say “Heck yes!” when the nice folks at Mark’s invited me to a demonstration of the innovative anti-slip technologies and slip-resistant footwear they offer. I’ve always liked Mark’s for their variety of styles from work wear (whether your work is in an office, a hospital or a construction site) to casual wear. One of my family members is sporting a new Mark’s coat thanks to a Black Friday sale, and another wore his elfin-inspired Mark’s winter boots well into May last year. This is just a few of the boots they had in stock that illustrate the range of styles in men’s and women’s footwear that incorporated anti-slip technology:

Photo of boots

I learned on my visit to Mark’s that depending on the boot manufacturer, there are a couple of different types of anti-slip technology. Boots made with the Green Diamond (as seen in this Cascade model) and Vibram’s Arctic Grip (as seen in these seriously adorable Sperry boots) technologies have granules in the soles you can actually feel. They’re slightly different from a technology standpoint but the outcome is the same – improved traction on wet and dry ice.

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What was really fun is that they’d brought a giant slab of ice right into the store, so I could try out the various anti-slip technologies. I have to admit, I was impressed. First I just sort of kicked at the ice, but then I really tried hard to slide across it and it was like trying to skid across a hardwood floor with those little grippy things on your socks – I could feel the boots literally digging into the ice. You can see here where I’ve made scratches in the ice trying to skid.

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Over the years, I’ve tried a few different cleat and crampon-type solutions and have always been frustrated by them. Either they’re a hassle to use, or they fall off, or they destroy my 20m wooden porch as I traverse it from the front door to the driveway. It makes so much sense to have a gritty texture baked right into the soles of the boot, and it’s so thoroughly embedded that even as the rubber wears away through use, new bits of the grippy grit material are exposed, ensuring you many years of traction.

The article I referenced earlier was based on a study that’s put out by iDAPT, part of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network, called “Rate My Treads.” It’s a very Canadian innovation: they’ve set up a lab to test the slip-resistance of boots by having real people walk in the boots across icy surfaces in subzero temperatures with winds up to 30 km per hour. They traverse an incline and give snowflake ratings based on the boot soles’ ability to maintain traction. They found last year that more than 90% (!) of the boots they tested did not meet their minimum standard for slip resistance. Mark’s carries several of the brands that did meet that minimum threshold, though, including Merrell, Sperry, and Wind River. See the full list of boots that iDAPT tested and rated here.

Are your winter boots on the nice list or the naughty list this holiday season?

(Disclosure: I received compensation for participating in and writing about the demonstration of the technology behind Mark’s slip-resistant boots, but all opinions expressed here are fully my own.)


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You know what I love? Christmas. You know what one of my favourite things about Christmas is? Revisiting the same traditions year after year as the boys get older and watching them reinterpret the traditions for whatever age they are at.

It’s been nearly a decade since we discovered the Portable North Pole (PNP), and it has become one of the Christmas traditions my kids love best. Even now that they’re teenagers (sidebar: what? when did that happen?) they still watch their annual video message from Santa, and Lucas has already started speculating about when his video might arrive. Truth be told, I credit the Portable North Pole for keeping the magic alive – I’m sure my kids accepted Santa as real for years in no small part thanks to the arrival of their personalized video messages each year. I have loved watching their faces as they watch the videos!

Talking to Santa

So what is the Portable North Pole? At its core, it’s a wonderful little site where you can upload a few photos and select a few options and make a customized video letter from Santa for your child. There’s just enough details in the video that it truly seems that Santa has been keeping track of who has been naughty and who has been nice, and it’s all rolled together in a cute little storyline. The options change from year to year, so even after nearly a decade, the kids have never received the same video twice. And, since the kids always watch each others’ videos, I’m delighted that there are always at least three unique videos to choose from each year, so they are truly personalized for each kid.

They have added lots of other fun activities through the years on the PNP site. Now in addition to the personalized video letters from Santa, you can get bedtime stories from Santa and birthday wishes from Santa. There’s an app, and fun and games on the Santa’s Village microsite, and your kiddies can even get a telephone call from Santa. And, in a touch that I think is lovely, 5% of all funds collected through the sale of magic passes is donated to childrens’ hospitals around the world.

IMHO, though, the real magic of the Portable North Pole is the video messages. For Black Friday (now through November 27) use THIS LINK and coupon code PNP7BFD to save 30% off a Magic Pass. If you’re seeing this after November 27, feel free to use discount code PNP7BLG20 to save 20% when you purchase a video pass or a magic pass. (Here’s an article that explains the difference between the video pass and the magic pass.) There are also a small selection of free videos available. There’s a little something for everyone!

If you do use the coupon codes, be sure to come back and let me know if your kids loved it as much as my boys do!

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(Disclosure: I received a complimentary video pass in exchange for writing this post, but I’ve written before about PNP and genuinely recommend the sweet, fun videos to add a little extra sparkle to your Christmas magic!)


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Every now and then in my life, a luck bomb explodes. Circumstances happen to come crashing together in a way that makes amazing opportunities drop into my lap. One of those resulted in my amazing solo trip to Europe in 1995, and another resulted in our family trip on the Allure of the Seas back in 2012. They don’t always involve travel, but when you’re a family of five, international travel can be prohibitively expensive, and sometimes a luck-bomb is what it takes to make it feasible. In this case, I had a very short window to decide whether to cash out or lock in a severance allowance that I’ve been accumulating over my 27+ years with the government that was being phased out, and couldn’t think of a more spectacular way of investing it than planning a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Europe.

I committed to cashing out the allowance not too long before my dad died. There’s nothing like losing a parent to instill a little “carpe diem” into your outlook. Some of the last afternoons we spent together, my dad and I chatted about places to go and see, and talked about some of our favourite trips. The older I get, the more I’m beginning to value travel over things. It’s been a few months since we’ve committed to the trip, and I’m still breathless with excitement when I think about how lucky we are to be able to show the boys more of the amazing world outside the paths we usually tread.

We chose London and Paris because as much as I loved cramming five countries and 12 cities into a four week solo trip in 1995, I’m not sure my crew is up for that level of nomadic intensity in a travel schedule on an international trip. I loved my time in Paris in 1995 so much that Beloved and I spent our honeymoon there in 1999, and revisiting one of our favourite places in the world seemed like a great way to travel and yet not be completely overwhelmed by everything being new and, for lack of a better word, “foreign.” Also, because Paris!

We chose London because it’s somewhere we’ve both always wanted to go. I have to admit, I wasn’t as keen on the London part of the trip until I started getting into researching what we could see and do, and now I’m not sure how we’ll ever cram everything in, and especially how we’ll ever leave. Platform 9 3/4 and the Tower Bridge and the Thames and fish and chips and Buckingham Palace and the Tube; from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to Abbey Road to Aziraphale and Crowley feeding the ducks at St James Square, it seems like a lifetime of cultural touchstones are just waiting to be discovered.

In addition to the excitement of actual travel, I have to say that I am incredibly excited to be planning this trip. It’s like a hundred research projects to be managed, all wrapped up into one! From pricing flight options and route itineraries to comparing neighbourhoods; from AirBnBs to budget hotels; from Notre Dame to Paris Disney; there are so! many! things! to learn about. I have spreadsheets and lists and a stack of library books as long as my arm, and I am loving every minute of planning this trip. (Obsessive much?)

Admittedly, we are not the world’s most sophisticated travellers. The last time I actually purchased my own airline ticket was in 1999, for our honeymoon in Paris. And when I was planning my big European adventure in 1995, it was in a pre-internet world. I made my hotel reservations via fax machine! So, I thought sharing the planning process here might be a way to both pick your collective brains, and lay some groundwork for other newbie travellers too.

The biggest expenses will be flights and accommodations. Getting five people to London, and back from Paris, looks to cost us about $5,000, and I’ve been using Google Flights to track prices for a few months. We’re thinking of flying out of Ottawa into London, taking the Eurostar through the Chunell to Paris, and then flying home from Paris. We could drive to Montreal and increase our number of options, but at current prices we won’t actually save anything for the massive inconvenience.

tracking flight prices

Tracking flight prices on Google

I’m also debating between a daytime or an overnight flight. We can leave at 7 am local time and arrive in London at around 9 pm local time, so probably not arriving at our rental flat until nearly midnight. It won’t be too bad from a jet lag perspective, as it will feel like much earlier in the day due to the time change, but navigating a strange city in the dark with kids and suitcases does not seem appealing. What seems even less appealing, though, is the other option of flying out in the evening and cobbling together a few hours sleep on the plane, arriving early the next morning. There are some members of our family who are not at their best (cough cough) when they are tired.

So bloggy peeps, let’s talk about planning flights. Got any tips to share? Do you prefer the red-eye or a daytime flight? How do you find good deals on flights? Am I right to hope for a seat sale for high season travel, or should I just lock in our flights now? Am I crazy to look at Air Iceland flights because they have free wifi and cheaper fares, even though (okay, and because) there is a stop-over in Reykjavik and the flight is four hours longer than the non-stop from Ottawa?

Please share your best flight-planning tips!


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It has been a busy end-of-autumn run on the porch, so busy that I haven’t had time to blog about all the adorable kiddoes and their sweet families who came for portraits. Autumn is the craziest season for family portraits!

It was still quite summer-like for fall when this little fellow came to the porch for photos with his mom and dad. He really liked the apples I had picked up especially for the occasion!

Child portrait by Ottawa family photographer Danielle Donders

By the time we were done, we had a whole basket full of apples with one bite taken out of each! Seriously, can you look at this without feeling the warmth and wonder of mom and dad with their first precious baby? (And how much do you love that dad and baby are wearing matching shirts?)

Candid family portrait

This family came to visit the porch a few years ago when they were a family of two, and came back with a new baby sister this year.

Autumn family photography on the porch

It’s possible that not everybody in the family was enthusiastic about the idea of posing for family portraits.

Not everyone loves picture day

That’s the beauty of working with families, right? Authentic family moments. It took a little bit of patience and a lot of laughs on the part of the grown ups, but I got him to come around.

Children's portraits in Ottawa

Mostly. It’s real, though, you gotta admit that! 😉

Autumn families on the porch

Older kids are often a little easier to work with. They’re more self-conscious, but they listen to direction. And they give me this really patient look when I tell them my best knock-knock jokes (often while the parents are killing themselves laughing off-camera!) This brother-sister duo was delightful.

Portrait of siblings

And then we introduced the family dog to the mix. That, as you can see, went flawlessly.

Funny candid collage of kids and dog

And with that, we wrap up another fun season of portraits on the porch. The more sessions with families I do, the more I love capturing those funny in-between moments that show a family’s true personality – the candid laughter, the outtakes, the sweet snuggles and the expressive looks.

If you love candid family photography, consider booking me for one of the new “Family Traditions” documentary sessions. I can come to your home, or a location of your choosing, and tell the story of YOUR family in action – making cookies, decorating the house, reading stories, or whatever it is your family loves to do together. Read more details about the documentary photo sessions in this blog post, but book soon! There are only a few sessions left in 2017, and this price goes up considerably in 2018.


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Ho! Ho! Hooray for Holiday Parades, the 2017 edition!

7 November 2017 Ottawa Family Fun

Dust off your jingle bells, dig out your Santa hat and strap on your reindeer antlers! Welcome to one of my favourite holiday traditions, the original and most comprehensive listing of all the Christmas, Holiday and Santa Claus parades for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and West Quebec. It’s been a dozen (!!) years since our first […]

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In which she feels one million years old

26 October 2017 It IS all about me

Like many of you, I’ve been listening to The Tragically Hip all week. Radio station CHEZ-FM in Ottawa played nothing but Gord Downie songs for a week, and even rebranded as GORD-FM for the week. When they returned to regular programming, I started gathering up all the Hip music I have collected over the years […]

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Photos of the day: Autumn colours at Hogsback Falls

25 October 2017 Ah, me boys

I think the paths along Hogsback Falls in Ottawa are truly one of the city’s overlooked treasures. I see photographers crawling all over the Arboretum but am surprised that I rarely see family photos being taken at Hogsback – there’s a stunning variety of backdrops and perfect places for posing and playing. It’s been a […]

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Photos of the day: Those curls, though!

14 October 2017 Mothership Photography

I have often joked that I’m going to ban kids aged 18 month to about three years old from family photography sessions on the porch. Toddlers are willful and opinionated and challenging to reason with, they don’t generally laugh my knock-knock jokes, and they rarely want to pose nicely and smile for the camera. That’s […]

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Photos of the day: Autumn porch portraits that felt like summer

8 October 2017 Mothership Photography

When K and her family dropped by the porch for family portraits last year, it was so unseasonably cold that we wrapped the girls in my blankets originally intended for sitting on and then we couldn’t convince them to put the blankets down. When they came back this year, it was strangely summer-like for an […]

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