Thursday, December 11, 2014

10 Time-Saving Tips for the Holidays

So sorry that I've been silent for the last two months. We are in the midst of some life change (moving, possibly changing our kids' schools) and I tend to get very quiet and introspective when I'm faced with new, big ideas.  If I were a real writer that would probably make me write more often, but you get what you pay for so it's not all that unexpected. 

Anyway, I'm back with a post that is going to more than make up for my absence. I am going to remove that harried/stressed/overwhelmed feeling from your December. So, without further ado, my top ten time-saving tips for the holidays!

1. Stop making gift wrapping so ridiculously hard. There are so many ideas for how to wrap gifts and make name tags that if you Google "gift tag ideas" it gives you about 24 million results. Really. I'll wait while you check. Twenty-four million ways to put a name on something.  And they are adorable. Look at this one from Martha Stewart.

Who wouldn't want to cut out tiny little mittens and stockings and then glue rickrack onto them and tie it all to packages with attractive grosgrain ribbon? And that's great if you want to to do that. But do you know what else you can do with wrapping paper? You can write on it.  Because that's why paper was invented. So buy some paper and wrap some gifts and then write names on them in magic marker. See?  This one is for my mom.  She will know it is for her because I wrote "Mom" on it.

2. Get rid of your Elf on the Shelf.  Last year I recommended that you kill Santa and this year I am freeing you from your elvish bondage.  It's not as though this is some age-old tradition harkening back to the Old Country. This is a fairly amusing book with a really good marketing team. Tell your kids that you can't afford an elf. Tell them that the elf left to pursue other passions. Tell them that you just don't want any more creatures to take care of in your house because kids are hard enough. Tell them that if they had been your age when the movie Child's Play came out they, too, would know that this is clearly the kind of toy that tries to kill you in your sleep and you had to get rid of it for the safety of the entire family. Ta-da! No more frantic last-minute elf hijinks.

3. Create a "tradition" where your kids go get ready for bed and then come back to the family room for the Advent Calendar. Use the 5 minutes between when they walk away and before someone starts crying to put something in the Advent Calendar for that night. We rotate between handfuls of marshmallows, Hershey's kisses, notes I write on index cards that live in the kitchen, and sometimes a bunch of Pirate's Booty. Let other people have hand-crafted Advent cards strung artfully from the doorway--you have Pirate's Booty.

4. Give up on Christmas cards. Sometimes I totally nail Christmas cards.  Look at this one from two years ago.

It completely captured the essence of our family with a new baby and a bunch of other kids. See how happy my husband is? I thoroughly enjoyed sending that one out and it was not stressful at all. But this year? I don't have a family picture more recent than Easter, we are moving in January and have nowhere to live, and I still haven't shipped our gifts out to Jay's sister. So no cards. I will get to it in March when I send out new address cards instead. I'm pretty sure our friends and family will survive without seeing what we all look like this year. If I have time and enough old cards left over I may just send these out again and tell people to imagine everyone a little bigger.  My husband's boss is sending out a card with a stock photo of someone else's kids on it instead of trying to get a family picture. All good ideas and way more fun than worrying about getting that perfect family shot on that perfect card.

5. Don't bake things. You know who's good at baking? The Publix bakery by my house. And they will give me delicious baked goods made that day in exchange for money. Voila.

6. Give teachers money. Trust me, that is all they want. This also applies to anyone in your life you sometimes "buy little things for and set aside in case you need a last minute gift." No one on earth wants something that is of so little value to you that you buy extras and stick them in a closet. Give them money or nothing at all. Stop the charade. 

7. Stay home. I give you permission to stop going to every single school event your kids have. If you have a problem saying no, just take some younger kids to the next school-age kid winter party and you will never be asked to help throw the class party again. I speak from experience. 

But Sally, you say, these are all the FUN things about the holidays that I WANT to do.  If I ignore all of these things, I won't feel Christmas-y and it will be just another cold month!

You are right. And now it is time for a hard truth: Unless you have that magic thing that Hermione used in Harry Potter that allowed her to go back in time to take extra classes (what kind of school allows that, Hogwarts??!!) you will not have enough time to do all of these fun extras and all of the other things you usually do.  

Which only leaves one other option:  do a much worse job at your usual tasks.

8.  Stop mopping the floor. There is a lot of floor in my house.  Most of it is sticky. During the month of December I make myself content with sweeping up visible dirt/leaves/old food the day someone is coming over. Then, about half an hour before guests arrive, I give my kids a canister of Clorox wipes and tell them to wipe up anything not floor colored. I get to pretend that I cleaned the floor, the kids are kept out of my hair before people come over, and it is appropriate to dim the lights and use candles at this time of year. So let's make a pact--we all stop mopping the floor and no one looks down when we go to each others' houses.

9. As-needed laundry. For the next two weeks I will not do laundry until it is required. When a kid runs out of underwear, I will wash all the underwear.  When a kid runs out of pants, I will wash pants. I do 7-14 loads of laundry a week depending on how many beds need their sheets changed. Not in December. I suggest you wear a dress shirt with those sweatpants because I'm not washing anything until I have to.

10. Only make things in the crock pot. Last night I made enough chili to feed a family at least five times our size. Some of our kids don't even like chili, but we will now eat it every day for a week. Next week is roast beef and the week after is barbecue chicken. Get used to it, kids. 

So there you go. Ten ways to give yourself a little extra breathing room for the next few weeks. And if it helps, you can know that I am doing all ten simultaneously and that there is no reason for you to feel slack because you are not alone. In fact, there are quite a few other things I'm doing a worse job at right now, but even I have my pride. 

Merry Christmas! Also, go eat some chocolate. I know I will. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Happy Kids are Not My Goal

When parents get together and the conversation turns to the choices we're all making with our kids and how we might react to certain fears or frustrations, someone will usually say "I just want them to be happy."

I've even said it myself.  

As I'm growing this family and tweaking and tightening our interpretations of our convictions about how to raise our kids, I've come to the conclusion that I don't really "just want them to be happy."

I want them to be passionate and empathetic. I want them to be devoted to their families and spouses even when it doesn't feel "happy."  I want them to know purpose and meaning and be the kind of people who leverage their influence and resources for the good of the world around them.  I want them to be fulfilled.  "Happy" is a pale substitute for joy. 

Many years ago I was a cross country coach at the high school at which I taught history.  At practice one night, a few kids got into a competition about who had the biggest house. This was a very affluent area and many of my students lived in what could easily be called mansions.  The kid who "won" biggest house finally silenced everyone else with a simple question:  "Which one?"

From my observations as their coach and teacher, many of these kids had parents who were striving to make them happy.  Their parents were at every meet, they volunteered in the school, they provided nice cars and clothes and technology--these parents were trying very hard to raise happy children. That particular kid's parents (the "which one" kid) had gone through a rather contentious divorce with his mom remarrying a well-known attorney and both of the houses in which he lived were impressive. But he didn't seem all that happy.

I interrupted their conversation and told them that bragging about their houses was like bragging about being naturally fast. You didn't do anything to earn that privilege--you've just managed to not die so far. It would be impressive if you improved your time or worked to make yourselves financially independent from parents who could obviously help you out for many years to come. 

That got me some blank stares and we moved on with practice when the other coach (who knew way more about running than I ever will) showed up and started putting them through speed drills.  Bwa-ah-ah! Take that, snotty rich kids.

I didn't have any children at the time and my Honda Civic didn't compare to the rides these kids were rolling so I just assumed I would learn more about raising happy kids as I got older.  And I have.  I've learned that 20-something-year-old me was right. Trying to make kids happy usually winds up making them selfish, myopic, and hyper-competitive.

Happiness is fleeting and unpredictable. Ask any parent who has bought the perfect pediatrician-recommended plaything for their toddler's birthday only to have them play with it for 1.2 seconds and then fall in love with the box.  And also a pair of old socks.

Trying to make kids happy results in families who are over-scheduled because Junior "loves baseball."  Unfortunately, he also loves basketball, Lego robotics, and Cub Scouts so every night is spent eating in the car and every morning is spent dragging him out of bed.

Trying to raise happy kids causes parents to shift their own lives in an effort to ease the paths of their children. It sounds nice, but we are robbing kids of the opportunity to learn how to deal with pain and fear and disappointment--all necessary to become adults who have a positive impact on the people and places around them. 

Whatever benefits we think we are giving our kids by trying to provide the most enriching opportunities that offer the most stimulation and excitement, we are undoing them by failing to teach children that joy is not born out of your circumstances.  It is part of who you are, how you view the world, and what choices you make with what you are given.

I would say that my childhood was "happy", but our circumstances were not.  My father struggled with a poorly-managed mental illness from my preschool years until after my marriage.  My mother was physically ill throughout my middle school years. These factors made money incredibly tight and a constant source of stress. Yet, my parents taught me to pray. They taught me to love the moments of togetherness and the adventures we shared together. I learned, at a very deep level, that joy comes from your relationships with God and with those around you. 

There is no way we can raise adults who have learned how to be joyful in their lives if we model for our children families where the kids' activities trump the parents' interests, parent/child relationships trump marital ones, and work is done for the purpose of giving our kids "the best."

Children raised with those examples will be easily bored in their own marriages, unfulfilled and misguided about the purpose of their careers, and destined to great disappointment when they finally realize that no one thing will actually ever make them happy.

So, happy, not so much. I just want them to have joy. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why My Boys Play with Guns

Front Yard Defensive Positions
O.k., clearly I mean toy guns. I do not have small children running around with loaded firearms. Not even I'm that distracted of a parent.

No, I'm talking about how we let our boys use imaginary/toy weapons in their pretend play. When our only child was a daughter, this was a non-issue. I'm not prepared to argue nature vs. nurture on the topic, but our reality was that our girl was the princess-iest princess you ever saw at the age of 4 and each one of our boys has turned a wrapping paper roll into a sword suddenly and without warning.

I am not all that girly of a girl and my husband, while a sports fanatic, is a pretty mild-mannered software consultant. I am not traipsing around in heels and pearls and he isn't walking through the living room with a rifle thrown over a shoulder. And yet our kids, especially between the ages of 3 and 6, have been some of the most sexist people on the planet. Everything is about what "boys" or "girls" do. Even when we explain that boys can wear whatever color they want or that girls can also be President (theoretically, thus far), they are still really interested in what they perceive to be boy or girl activities. In little boy world, that includes a lot of fighting bad guys.

At first I was kind of horrified. My sweet, lovable oldest boy began shooting at random things with his fingers. We did not own any kind of toy weapons (not even water guns) and the only TV he watched was on PBS. Where in the world did finger guns come from? I still don't know, but that really didn't turn out to be the point.

I had a few fears. I was worried that if they had toy guns they might mistake a real gun for a toy somewhere (a relative or friend's house) and think that seemed like a just another toy. I was worried that all this sword fighting and shooting bad guys might lead them to be overly aggressive or angry or...I don't know, mass-murder-y. I was worried that they would get in trouble at school for pretending to shoot someone.

After a while, and the addition of a couple more boys, I began to realize some answers to my fears. Weapons are going to be interesting to little boys whether or not I have any toy ones in the house. They imagine weapons out of everything.  If you look closely at the picture above you can see that the boys are armed with binoculars, a wiffle bat, and a lavender Little Tykes golf club. I needed to talk about gun safety even if I have no intention of ever owning a weapon because things that shoot projectiles are just inherently cool to most guys. Hence potato cannon competitions.

I became a lot less worried about raising crazy anti-social leaders of a private militia when I listened to how they play. They are always going after "bad guys." They pretend to be policemen or soldiers or "good pirates" (although I have explained that there is no such thing, they are brainwashed by Jake and the Neverland Pirates). I know that there are complex geo-political issues that prevent all soldiers from doing "good" work. I know that there are bad cops and systemic socio-economic disparities that are reinforced by some current methods of police work. But my boys don't know any of that.

They believe that "good" countries fight "good" wars and that because policemen are supposed to be the good guys, they are good men who do not make mistakes.  They will learn shades of gray as they age, but for now they are playing heroes. Just like they pretend to be the Green Lantern and the Flash, they pretend to rid the world of evildoers by arresting them or invading with tanks made out of cardboard boxes. Do I really want to discourage their desire to pursue justice?

Fortunately, my school fear has, so far, turned out to be not as big of a deal as I thought. My boys have been told not to play pretend guns at school. They don't really understand why, but they don't understand a lot of grown-up rules and so they accept it.

Policeman Self Portrait
One of my guys wants to be a policeman when he grows up (doesn't really suit his temperament, but I don't have the heart to tell him). His Kindergarten art project was to make a picture of himself dressed as his future career. You can see in his picture that he has handcuffs (green blob on the left), a nightstick (brown hot-dog thing), a walkie-talkie (green rectangle with dots on the right) and a jaunty hat. He did not paint a gun because "you can't have guns at school."  You also can't have toys at school, gum at school, or flip-flops at school. He just goes with it.

I realized that the bigger deal was how I respond to the "violence" they use in their play. I don't let them shoot at me, each other, or other random bystanders. I tell them that good guys should not shoot first (obviously that's an oversimplification, but they are little). Mostly, I tell them that we only use force to protect ourselves or someone who needs our help.

That's really the key and the reason I let them play like this at all--they are always pretending that they are protecting others. I don't want them starting fights or glorifying violence, but I absolutely want them to feel a responsibility to defend the weak and take care of those who cannot do it themselves.

These little boys will be men with resources and influence in our society. While most men don't use physical force in their daily lives, they do have opportunities to be heroes with their time, money, and political motives. They will have the chance to do justice often and I want them to believe that that's what heroes fight for.

I want my boys to believe they can BE those heroes with whatever tools they have in their arsenals--their votes, their dollars, and maybe even a wiffle bat.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stay on Your Horse

My parents apparently watched a lot of Westerns growing up because their advice frequently took the form of sage wisdom you might get from a cowboy. In fact, my mother's favorite movie line is from a 1970 Western/comedy mash-up called The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It goes like this:

Reverend Joshua Sloane: Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.
Cable Hogue: Well, that's fair enough with me... just as long as he don't take too long and I can watch.

It's amazing I'm as well adjusted as I am. 

So I got advice like "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" and "if you fall off your horse, you get right back on." I have ridden a horse maybe...twice? my life. Why so many horse-related sayings?  I have no idea. I guess it worked, though, because not only do I remember them, I've been thinking a lot about this next one lately.

You can't change horses mid-stream.

Honestly, I don't know if you can change horses mid-stream or not. It seems difficult, but not totally impossible.  There might be swimming involved.  But I get the idea--if you start out on a journey with one mode of transportation it is going to be incredibly difficult to change your mind without getting really, really wet. 

I try to keep this in mind in my parenting. Sure, I have the freedom to change my mind or course-correct if I discover a particular tactic not working with my kids, but it is a lot easier to start out as I mean to go on. Excuse my dorky history self, but it reminds me of a little-known period of African history that has been all but forgotten in modern curricula.

In the 1800s, after several European nations had conquered almost all of the continent of Africa, there was a period of uprisings of native groups of people. These groups managed to re-take their land and rule themselves freely, for however brief a time. When taken together, these successful rebellions are called the "Reclamation."  People groups who had fought against each other for generations came together to throw off their English, Dutch, German, Italian, and French oppressors.  

The Reclamation was a time of increased national identity for Africans that reflected the nationalistic fervor being experienced in Europe, particularly in what would become the modern nations of Germany and Italy. So why didn't it last? It didn't last because the newly formed nations that centered themselves around a sense of national unity couldn't hold fast to that course of action. They decided, mid-stream, to separate into a loose and fragmented confederation of sorts which allowed the Europeans to reassert their dominance. You can't change your horse mid-stream.

O.k., that was a lie. That whole thing about the Reclamation. That's not a thing. It didn't happen and is totally made up. I have to give props to Dave Boyd, a former co-worker and fellow World History teacher, for that entire spurious history lesson. A decade or so ago, Dave mentioned to me that so few people knew anything about history that we could make up an entire unit of study and not only convince our students, but probably quite a few teachers as well. 

And not to sound too terribly arrogant, but Dave and I are both....let's go with "confident." If the two of us had sworn up and down that these events happened, other people would have followed our lead without doing their own research. It just sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? It could have happened that way. There were facts (fake ones, but still) and sources that seemed trustworthy.

Here's the thing: to my children, the ENTIRE WORLD sounds like that. They can be convinced of almost anything if it's said in a reasonable voice by someone whose motives are not obviously clear. That's why it is my job, even when it causes awkward conversations, to tell my kids what I actually think about things in the world. It is my job to offer real guidance and guidelines while they're still listening to me.

When I was teaching I got an invaluable opportunity to observe a variety of parenting styles on hundreds of different personality types. One thing I noticed was that the parents who said "I don't want to influence their thinking" wound up with kids who were desperate to follow someone else. I know that those parents were attempting to empower their children to have their own thoughts and to make up their own minds about controversial topics--religion, sex, drug use, and political choices, for instance.

Their unintended results, however, were kids who thought they had the experience and information needed to make very adult decisions on their own. Most teenagers will go through that phase, but the ones with parents who had a clear moral point of view at least knew that Mom and Dad would not approve of a particular behavior and therefore had a guardrail of sorts.

I don't want to brainwash my children into weird zombies who cannot think for themselves, but it is my responsibility to help them navigate a world where everything--from middle-school-aged sex to recreational crystal meth use--can be made to sound reasonable to their not-yet-developed minds. They need to know that I have a point of view, why I have that point of view, and that I am living that point of view daily.

And that brings my two ideas together. I need to get across my belief system and moral standards, but if I wait until they are faced with these decisions and then try to explain it all, I'm not going to have much credibility with them. I'm going to be trying to change horses mid-stream and we will all get very wet.

So I'm trying to be aware and ready for all those "teachable" moments in their lives. When I get asked questions about Red Ribbon Week at school, I throw in there that any drug that alters your mind can do damage. I point out that even mild ones can sort of "freeze" a kid's brain development and their future ability to make good decisions.  Maybe I'm the crazy mom giving her 4th grader too much information on the legalization of marijuana, but I'd rather be crazy than blindsided when my kid is taking hits in the bathroom at school. 

When we saw pictures of Angelina Jolie's wedding dress and my daughter wanted to know who the kids were who drew on it, we wound up talking about how big of a commitment children are and that it is much easier to raise them with a husband first. There are actual reasons we value marriage so very much and not just an outmoded sense of convention.  

These are little things, but they will matter. When I use these opportunities to share my world view, and why I hold those views, I help my children navigate future situations where the stakes may be very high indeed. I become someone trustworthy, a voice worth listening to, and the giver of advice worth internalizing and even sharing with others.

How do I know this has a chance of working? Because that's what my mom did--with humor, and grace, and a lot of stories about horses. Let's be bold, let's be intentional, and let's all stay on our horses. When it comes to parenting our sweet children, we don't really have a choice.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Never Forget

This morning, like every morning, we talked about what day it is on the way to school. Like, "today is Monday, October 5th", or whatever.

Except this morning it happens to be September 11th. Like many Americans, when I say that date out loud my voice changes just a little bit. Because I remember. Because it was scary and confusing and just plain horrible.

So this morning, when I said it is Thursday, September 11th, my voice got sad. My 9-year-old daughter sat up straighter in the car and said, "Oh, I know what happened! Can I tell everybody else?"

I told her yes and she proceeded to explain that "bad guys" stole some planes and crashed them into the "twin buildings" and maybe another plane tried to hit the Pentagon. Fairly accurate, but not quite it.

I was torn between my history teacher tendencies to tell the whole story, the fact that I didn't want to scar the kids and then shove them out of the car to school, and my belief that we should talk about our history (especially the painful and scary parts) with our younger generations.

I felt the weight of responsibility to explain this moment accurately, but with perspective little kids could understand.

On September 11, 2001 I was a 25-year-old teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina. I taught 10th grade World History, but I also taught Sociology and Psychology to two 12th grade classes. During class change, one of my seniors came up and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and she wanted to know if we could watch it on our classroom TV until the bell rang.

"Sure", I replied, thinking that this was like other times that small engine planes had hit one of the towers in New York. Interesting, but not intensely relevant.

And then, of course, the second one hit. And then Tom Brokaw told me they were passenger planes. And the towers collapsed. And the Pentagon exploded. And then I realized that we were under attack in a way that I, in my American naivete, had never even thought to fear.

I let my senior classes watch the whole thing unfold, thinking that as 18-year-old young men and women, they had a right to know what was changing in the world. One boy asked if this would mean the draft came back. One kid whose dad was flying out of Boston that day asked if I could hear the flight numbers of the aircraft.  A recent immigrant from Palestine said that she didn't see what the big deal was--buildings were bombed by terrorists all the time.

I pointed out that no where in the world did 110-story buildings collapse all the time and that, in the United States, terrorist attacks were pretty big news. I felt that same weight I felt this morning. To be accurate, to give solid information without inciting hate or backlash towards others, but to get across what was happening. Honestly, it wasn't easy in a class with a kid whose grandparents had fled the Holocaust, the jaded kid from Palestine, and a couple of other immigrants from Iran. Not to mention the kids who thought this seemed like a good reason to buy more guns.

I took copious notes during my lunch period over whatever I could find about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and why people would kill themselves to destroy office buildings.  At the start of every class period over the next few weeks we had a brief "here's what's new" time to discuss the history that was happening in that very moment. I think I did a pretty good job of conveying significance and awareness of world events without scaring them into hiding in their houses forever. But it was hard and I was uncertain.

So, how do I talk about it with my own kids now--13 years after the raw, painful moments changed our view of what war is?

My children actually already have a decent context for 9/11 because their uncle is a soldier. We have had to explain numerous times over the years why their aunt is here for Christmas or Thanksgiving, but their uncle is away "at the war." We say that there are bad people in the world who try to hurt others and that our soldiers go fight them in other countries so that they can't come here.

It is a gross oversimplification, of course, but there's not a whole lot else to say to little children when they love a soldier who is actually in the fight.

In the first deployment during which my daughter was old enough to notice, I mentioned to our pediatrician that I didn't know what to tell her. He asked, "are you a religious family?" "Yes," I said. "Then just have her pray for him."

What great advice. What an obvious solution that I already knew in my head and my heart.  My children are so blessed that they cannot understand the kind of hate that would cause someone to train for their own suicide, taking out as many civilians as possible in the process. I have had to define the word "war" on many occasions. There is no way that I can adequately explain to them what happened on that other September 11th.

But I can tell my kids that we should pray. For the families who lost loved ones in 2001. For the soldiers who are still fighting this fight on a daily basis. For the firemen and policemen who risk themselves every day for us. And even for the "bad guys" who, somewhere along the way, lost their compassion and their humanity.

As they get older we can also pray for our government's decisions in other countries, for opportunities to make the world a more peaceful place, and for understanding of people desperate and disillusioned enough to choose suicide bombing as a solution for societal problems.

I hope that I am not too forthright with my answers to their questions--I certainly don't want them to fear terrorist attacks in their beds at night. But I do want them to know that the whole world is not as wonderful as the one they live in. I want them to know that bad people exist in the midst of complex political and economic challenges--and that we can be part of the solutions. I want them to pray--and to never forget. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tip #195: More peace, less quiet

My house is not very quiet. So far this morning I have been yelled at by a toddler who demanded "lights on" at 6:30, there was a sword fight using a pool noodle and a cardboard cut-out, and a "snuggle time" that mostly involved boys shoving each other and giggling.  And this is a holiday.

So quiet, not so much. But peaceful--now that's a different topic.

The other day I was having coffee with a younger friend without children. She asked how the school year was going so far and if we had gotten back into the groove of activities and homework and such. I replied that things were going really well and that, in fact, our mornings and afternoons were...I paused here, not sure what word fit our lives in this moment.

"Peaceful?", she asked.

I laughed out loud and said, "Well, I'm not so sure about that, but our routine is going really well."

Every morning, by 7:20 am, all six of us have dressed, brushed our teeth, eaten breakfast at an actual table, packed snacks and/or lunches, put on shoes, and gotten into the car. Without yelling.

Every night, by 7:30 pm, all four of our kids have finished their homework, eaten dinner, bathed, brushed their teeth, had family prayer time, and gotten into their beds. Still no yelling.

Clearly, I am a parenting genius.

O.k, maybe that is not the most obvious conclusion, but I sometimes wish that it were that simple.

Actually, as I've had a little time to think about what we are doing differently this year I have come to the conclusion that our house is, in fact, peaceful.  When my friend suggested that word I was equating peaceful with boring or quiet or calm--none of which describe the happy chaos of four kids under 10 years old.

We are not experiencing that kind of peace. What we do have, however, is a set of expectations and routines that are making it a lot easier to get the business of home life accomplished with more room for sword fights and Lego time and the design and creation of three thousand rubber-band bracelets.

So, where is all this super-awesome peace coming from, you ask? (I totally understand if you asked that in a snotty, 12-year-old-girl kind of a voice. I'm not mad at you.)

Here's what I've come up with as the major contributing factors to our more peaceful daily life:

1. Established routine

This is not ground breaking or anything, but it matters so much. I realized that some of the biggest fights I had with my kids were because they had one plan and I had another one. So I work to make sure that our expectations match up to encourage less conflict.

Our kids know what happens next on any given school/work day. They get up, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and brush their teeth all before heading to breakfast. (I know, they would be better off brushing after breakfast, but if I let them go back upstairs I would never see them again--this is a hard-earned lesson. So I'm risking their dental health.)

They do not get food until all of these things are accomplished. I run the upstairs crew, getting everyone moving in the right direction while Jay goes downstairs and makes breakfast and gets it on the table.  They have all of their "must-dos" accomplished before they're really awake--which is good because they argue less when they're half asleep.

Our afternoons and evenings run in the reverse. They do homework and have a snack as soon as they get home. If a kid doesn't have homework I make something up so that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. When a kid finishes their work, they can go play. When everyone is finished they can play or watch a TV show (I usually reserve TV for when I'm making dinner so there is less whining and begging for food while I cook). They know well in advance if they have a practice or a lesson or something that day and no one is stunned by a sudden shift in the schedule. They just complain less that way.

2. A place for everything

We also spent a lot of time arguing about finding shoes or picking out appropriate outfits, cleaning up their toys, and getting all their school stuff ready in the morning. While I am pretty good at being organized, I do not have the time or inclination to constantly clean my house and hunt down 12 individual shoes every morning. So we have finally settled into some options that work for us as a family and that the kids can do themselves.

For instance, toys stay in their rooms or in our family room. There is a giant cabinet in the family room where any toys found there at the end of the day are stored. The kids, even the two-year-old, can pick up any toys they see and put them away in the cabinet. It is easy and they know where toys go. They have similar bin/cabinet solutions in their rooms so that they can clean up after themselves without my help. Sure, it takes for-freakin'-ever when they do it themselves, but it gets done eventually. And no one has any fun until it is all done. Honestly, this usually results in the older ones herding the younger ones into helping at this point in our family. When they were all younger it took more time and attention on my part.

All shoes go in a basket by our door. You get to keep your tennis shoes and a pair of flip-flops in there. (This is the South so flip flops are a 9-month kind of a shoe. Sometimes even 10 months if December turns out to be mild.) Other shoes are worn rarely and stay in their closets. Their instructions when they get home are to go to the bathroom and take off their shoes. Everyone, even baby Jack, knows this routine and they all do it pretty regularly. So, no more shoe hunts in the mornings.

Shoe Basket-close is good enough
Clothes are identified as either school appropriate or play clothes--if you pick a top and a bottom from the school appropriate categories then I do not argue about what you wear. Even if it doesn't match, although I will point that out. Even if you will be hot/cold, even though I will point that out as well. The kids decide pretty quickly to take my advice or leave it. No more dressing fights.

We have a bench with hooks above it where all backpacks and coats go. No backpacks or coats go anywhere else. All the kids can reach the hooks and the bench. Backpacks are put on the bench and are ready for school for the next day before dinner (or baseball practice or whatever for that night). All they have left to do in the morning is put in the snacks we hand them and pick up their lunch box if they are taking their lunch.

3. My adjusted attitude

I realized that a lot of our daily stresses were due to my expectations and the complete unrealistic nature of those expectations. I tend to think that it all has to be perfect all of the time. All beds made, all toys always picked up, all of us calmly moving toward our day filled with joy and energy. Some days are like that. But other days have a sick kid or a stressful meeting at work to look forward to or a new baby who likes to poop out of his clothes after you've buckled him into his car seat. That's what real life looks like.

I, over the last year, have really focused on being more patient with my children. I have focused on seeing my instructions through their eyes and seeing myself that way as well. I have realized that they will not remember if all the toys were picked up--they will remember that I smiled at them every morning. Sometimes, it doesn't all get done. Sometimes, if I think we've all had a particularly tiring day, I let things slide and we climb into unmade beds with visible Legos on the floor. That's o.k. We can still be peaceful and a little messy just like we can be peaceful and a lot loud.

4. Better anticipation of exceptions

I used to be totally blindsided by mornings with hiccups in them. When Jay is at work early or out of town, for instance, I used to expect to be able to get the same morning routine accomplished without him. Sometimes I can, but sometimes you get cold cereal for breakfast in the car on the way to school and you're buying your lunch. And your snack because I forgot that, too. Maybe your teacher has an extra--I'll send her two to replace her stash tomorrow.

I have one kid who wakes up hard. There could be an earthquake and a helicopter collision above our house at the same time and this kid would sleep through it. Most days it doesn't matter at all, but then there have also been days that resulted in me physically dressing the kid myself in an effort to move more quickly. It generally just made the whole situation worse and did not make anything move faster, especially not said child.

It turns out, however, that over the course of a few painful years, I noticed that these weren't totally random events sent to harass me. The kids have a harder time remembering what to do when Daddy is gone. It throws them off their game. I need to get up earlier for that so we have extra time. My slow-to-wake-up kid has a harder time the morning after baseball or soccer practice so he gets a few minutes of extra snuggling before any instructions on those days and magically returns to his sweet self.

What seemed like totally random melt-downs by irrational beings now look more like the frustrated expressions of people who were confused or surprised when they woke up.  Sometimes they still show all the rational behavior of Yosemite Sam on a bad acid trip, but most of the time I can figure out what is really wrong and course correct before it spirals out of control.

And when I can't...when I have to manhandle a toddler into a five-point harness while dragging three backpacks and a half eaten bagel smeared with dripping honey to the car, I pray.

And that's really where our more-peaceful daily lives are coming from. I am more peaceful. I am more willing to get out of the way of God's plan for my life and my family and to allow that kind of peace--the peace of love and joy and grace--to flow through me and over my sweet kiddos.

Even when they're messy. Even when they're loud. Even when they're crazy.

Hope you've had a peaceful Labor Day weekend--happy four-day week!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best Mom Tip #194: Invest in someone younger

Clearly, if you're reading this, there's a decent chance you're a parent and therefore investing in someone younger than you all the freakin' time. Keep doing that.

But, also, find someone in their teens or early 20s and invest in someone on the verge of adulthood. It's mind-blowing and hard and funny and poignant and can matter in ways that you will probably never see.

For the last four years I have been blessed and honored to volunteer with a special group of students through my church. In 2010, these girls were giggly, goofy, boy-crazy Freshmen who were far more concerned with how they were "betrayed" by "like, my best friend in the whole world" than they were about becoming decent human beings with meaningful and purposeful lives. They were loud and gross and there were, no joke, originally 42 of them on my roster because we didn't have enough adult volunteers.

Over the next four years I was challenged in so many ways and I was often totally unsure what to say. We dealt with unwanted pregnancy, emotional scars from child abuse, parental divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, and the suicide of a friend. For the first year I didn't have a fellow adult to share these burdens with and when my wonderful co-leader Courtney came into my life, I found a new friend as well as a fellow volunteer. Courtney and I did the best we could in situations where we almost always felt out of our depth.

Courtney and me totally acting like adults
What it really came down to, every single time, was just listening. Responding to texts late at night. Offering advice for what to do when one boy has asked you to prom, but you're really hoping another boy will ask. (Answer: say yes to the first boy--he gets props for having had the guts to ask first)

We went on weird trips where the carpet was always vaguely wet feeling and it turned out that the only blanket we could find was actually a mattress pad cover. Yuck. Also, we once got chiggers and then had to go be adults while scratching the heck out of our legs.

This month, the girls with whom we've become the closest started moving into their dorm rooms and heading off to their next adventure in college. As I got texts about new rooms and roommates and heard about class worries and parent stresses, it made me think back to my own college experience.

Super awesome dorm room decorating in progress
Twenty years ago I was an 18-year-old Freshman at the University of Georgia. I'm pretty outgoing so I met lots of people and was doing fine adapting to college life. Until one night I found myself the designated driver at a keg party looking around at a bunch of drunk people and thought "I'm bored. And my mama raised me better than this. I have got to find something else to do with my time."

The next week I got invited to a Bible study for freshman at the Methodist Student Center (Wesley Foundation). The boyfriend of a girl I had gone to high school with said he'd been invited by a guy in one of his classes. I grew up going to a Methodist church so that seemed like as good a place to start looking for something to do as any.

What happened next changed my life.

I met Tom and Melissa Tanner, the director and his wife, at a pig roast. Which basically grossed me out, but I went back anyway. Tom was the first preacher I'd ever heard who spoke to me-- to what I wanted to learn about God. He and Melissa were warm and open about their lives, they were honest about their struggles, and they created an environment I wanted to be in.

They fostered church without condemnation. They encouraged growth and connection with other people.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing Cori Moon sing (she's an old friend from my UGA Wesley days) and it got me thinking about how many adults can point to Tom's influence on their lives today. How many of us are more giving of our time, more passionate about our desire to spread joy and love, because of something Tom and his family taught us?

Amy Griffith and her family have spent years overseas, giving to impoverished communities. Tyler Reagin, Rodney Anderson, Joel Brooks and many others have devoted their lives to ministry and leadership.  I literally do not have enough time today to recount all of the amazing people I got to know in my college years who are inspiring me and encouraging others today.

Good grief, Jud and Carrie Thompson, Andy and Miranda Byers, and Jay and I have more than doubled Tom's influence on the six of us through sheer reproduction alone.

Most of us are not called to or gifted with the qualities that gave Tom the opportunity to matter so much to so many men and women during their formative years. But every Christian is called to investing in future generations. We are all called to teach and share and support--to build one another up according to God's word.

Tom's impact on me made it possible for an 18-year-old girl to be so excited about her new dorm room that she texted the picture above to me, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom with four kids. That girl, in turn, has chosen to spend her summers leading camps in eastern Europe that help students there learn English and learn more about their faith. What a gift. What a blessing.

If you're thinking that you might, maybe, want to be involved somehow with students or young adults, go for it. Stop wondering if you have enough knowledge or patience or child psychology know-how. All they need is faithfulness--to feel as though someone cares because they've chosen to care.

I encourage you to reach out and volunteer at your church or a community center nearby. Get a chance to tell a kid "there is nothing you can do that would make me stop caring for you" and just see how far that one statement gets you in earning the trust and the ear of someone who can still learn major life lessons before they make major life mistakes.

How beautiful is the ability to encourage someone else, just because you're there? I am certainly grateful for those who invested in me and I definitely hope for the same love for my children in the years to come.

So, Happy Sunday! Now go volunteer.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Best Mom Tip #193: Set House Rules

Write Your Own House Rules
I love back-to-school preparations. I love the anticipation and the nervousness. I even love the smell of a school building and the heat from the laminating machine. I just love school. As the daughter of teachers, a former student, a teacher in my own right, and now the parent of school-aged children my entire life has moved with the rhythm of the school calendar. Although I no longer head into the classroom to teach, I still think about setting up my classroom and how fun it was to get started with the new year.

Back when I was in teacher school, one of my professors gave me a truly solid piece of advice about making class rules. He said, "keep it simple and keep it broad. You cannot possibly anticipate what goes on in their minds." And, boy, was he right--I just didn't know it yet.

The rules I came up with for my classroom were incredibly simple:  Be Kind. Be Respectful. Be Prepared.

I found, over the course of my 10 years teaching, that I could apply just about anything a kid did into one of these three simple rules. For instance, I could have said "keep your hands to yourself." That sounded reasonably simple and reasonably broad.

Except that it wouldn't have covered the time a kid went up to my desk for hand sanitizer, carefully collected a large glob in his hands, and gingerly walked back to his desk. All in order to throw the giant mess onto his buddy's new shirt, because in 15-year-old boy world that is hilarious.  He did, in fact, keep his hands to himself-just not his hand sanitizer. I believe I told him I was giving him administrative detention for "being a doofus."

Also, boys can use farts as a weapon.  I'm not going into more detail, but trust me when I say it falls under rules against being both unkind and disrespectful.

There was the kid who put his shirttail up over his head in the middle of a presentation.  I don't know why he was possessed to do that, but I know I would never have thought of a rule to cover it.  I guess, "keep your clothes in place" might have done it. He, by the way, told me he was being "Yellow Man."  No clue what that means.

I had a girl start dancing to the music only she could hear in her head who was highly offended when I told her that it was somewhat distracting, and therefore, disrespectful. One time I had a rather well-drawn and very explicit depiction of a sexual act penciled into a textbook. The participants had no heads, which I'm sure means something from a psychological point of view, but I know I wouldn't have made a rule against headless sex drawings because, really, I wouldn't have thought I needed to.

I learned that kids will test the limits of specific rules even if they don't really disagree with the rule itself. Some kids will honestly misunderstand the rule if it is too complicated. Still other kids will have no idea that there are rules, that they are posted in 12 inch letters on the wall, or that you read them out loud every day for two weeks. Those kids are the ones most likely to dance to the music in their heads.

So when Jay and I decided to come up with a list of house rules, I knew that we needed to use the same simple approach.  Our kids are getting to the age where we start telling them "no" for things that are not as easy to explain or justify as they once were. When your kids are toddlers this is easier--no one else's parents lets them go to the grocery store naked or only eat hot dogs for every meal, either.

But explaining to our 9-year-old that she can't go to a spend-the-night party because there's something that just gives me the creeps at Katie's* house is a lot harder.  We need rules that apply to a broad range of situations, allow us to adjust the specifics depending on the age and personality of the kid, and that are easy to remember.  Here's what we've come up with:

1. Be a good teammate
     We spend a lot of time talking about being a "family team."  We want our kids to know that we are in this life together, we work together, and we support each other.  We will always be a team. This is the rule I use to cover every form of brotherly torture you can imagine.  "Hands to yourself" would just not cover sitting on your brother's head, stealing his lovey, luring him away from the sofa to steal his spot, or using him as spitting target practice.  Brothers are brutal.

This rule also includes cleaning up after yourself, helping with chores and tasks around the house, and using positive and encouraging words. A good teammate is helpful, kind, and loving. A good teammate shares the ball. A good teammate focuses on the entire team winning, not just his or her own stats.

2. Be safe and healthy
     Jay and I have been talking a lot about our rules on electronic usage, phone ownership, and internet access with our kids.  And although we have some decent guidelines (no one is allowed to personally own an electronic device of any kind except for Jay and me), we know that those guidelines will shift as kids age and have different needs or concerns.  We do not currently have any electronics in bedrooms and our kids are not allowed on the internet without our supervision.  All internet access happens in the common rooms of our house.  But I know that these are rules for younger children, so we really talked about what the purpose of the rules are: we want them to be safe and healthy.

It is our job to allow their minds to grow and flourish just as we do the same for their bodies.  So, in this rule we cover movies/TV/songs they can see or listen to, where they're allowed to play with and without us, how many vegetables they have to eat, and why they can't just sit on the couch all Saturday long. When I was teaching I realized that even when a kid didn't like a decision, they could still understand (if they really believe you care about them) that you're doing something in their own best interests. When faced with a "Can I, pleeeaase" moment about a borderline activity we ask ourselves if we have any concerns about that particular child's physical and mental safety if we say yes.

So, no, you can't watch the new Spiderman movie because I think the bad guy is scary and it would not keep your dreams safe. Feel free to be mad at me.

3. Be well-rested
     This rule may not seem as important as being a good teammate or being safe and healthy, but I think it is. Our home should be a place of peace and rest for our family. No one person gets to disrupt the joy and calm of another. Right now, this applies mostly to hours of sleep at night and that, if you want to pitch a fit, you have to do it in a room by yourself. Every parent knows how angry and miserable a tired little kid can be, but on a regular basis it becomes a bigger problem. Sometimes it's worth it--we went to a Braves game this weekend that definitely messed up bedtime for everyone, but it was fun and an exception, not the general rule. What we're really talking about is that we set up a lifestyle where every family member has a reasonable expectation of being physically and mentally rested enough to take on the outside world.

As parents, this one is our job to enforce regularly. As the kids age, it is also coming to mean limits on the number of extra-curricular activities that they can pursue. It means saying no to some birthday party invitations. This rule does not make us popular with the kids, but if we don't help them learn how to set boundaries in their lives early on they will become like the millions of adults who feel overwhelmed and squeezed by their lives before they even wake up in the morning. It's a big deal.

4. Be of good character
     The number one thing our children can do to discover the vast array of our punishments is to lie to us. More than any other behavior, this rule cannot go unpunished. Without character, without honor, nothing else our children do will have meaning or purpose. When a liar does something good, people just wonder what they're up to.

When one of our kids lies to us, we bring the hammer down. If the crime would lose you a day of TV, the lie to cover it up loses you a week. We are downright draconian about lying. I know our kids are far from perfect and that they will lie to us--out of embarrassment, or fear of retribution, or because they just feel like it. I will still love them, but my trust will be damaged. I don't want them to wander around with guilt and shame, but I do want them to know that the words they say and the actions they take have real and lasting consequences. Convicting though this is, this rule is best taught by example. Jay and I have to keep our own characters in good standing to have any credibility with our children.

This rule also covers defending those weaker than you are, being generous to those in need, and respecting your parents. We are raising adults here, not children. They already know how to be children--loud and messy and irrational are not qualities we have to teach. Faithful, responsible, honest, patient--these take more practice.

That's it.
1. Be a good teammate
2. Be safe and healthy
3. Be well-rested
4. Be of good character

These are our house rules for the foreseeable future.  They are simple and broad. They can be interpreted for a wide variety of situations and they give us four pretty easy responses to the "but why can't I..." whine that we often hear. I'd love to hear if you have house rules or are thinking about it for your family. Happy back-to-school and good luck with writing your own general rules.

*not an actual kid. I'm not dumb enough to talk about the children of people who might read this. :) 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Best Mom Tip #192: Put down the celebrity mom article

For some unknown reason I keep clicking on any article where a celebrity talks about motherhood.  O.k., I know the reason.  It's because she is pretty and has on pretty clothes and I, too, long to sit around in pretty clothes and have someone photograph me.  That is not likely to happen unless you count my daughter who went through a phase where she would sneak into our bedroom and take pictures of us sleeping with our own phones.  So, that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, I keep reading these stupid articles and then I get mad and then I am yet again annoyed that I fell into the trap one more time.  Surely this must be the goal of publishers when they write these articles anyway.

The one that got me this week had a gorgeous actress showing off her sweet little baby boy...there was breastfeeding in a designer gown and great cleavage shots due to breastfeeding mom endowments.  I didn't get mad until the question about being a working mom came up.

The actress said that she was definitely going back to work and that she wasn't going to "sacrifice any part" of herself.  Now, I'm sure she's a lovely person and I get what she most likely meant and in the context of an entire conversation it probably didn't sound like she thinks everyone who's ever sacrificed something for their kid is an idiot.  But the blurb the article printed certainly came off as though mothers who sacrifice parts of themselves are just not willing to work hard enough.  It was SO frustrating.

I'm not mad at the actress herself.  Really, what is she going to say when asked about working motherhood?  She wants to keep getting jobs and she wants to raise her kid.  She has to say something.  It's the fact that every one of these types of articles is written as though the famous person being interviewed has some sort of advice for the millions of working mothers in the world that gets me.

I know that even famous people have to figure out nannies and how much they see their kids in the daylight, but the rich and powerful have a far more flexible set of circumstances with which to work. When Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) had a baby just as she was transitioning into her executive role, much was made of her decision to return to work 4 weeks after the baby's birth.  Yes, it is hard to do anything with a 4-week-old. It is a lot easier, however, if you build a nursery onto your C-level office and have your nanny come to work with you.  If I were Marissa Mayer, I would do the exact same thing.  I don't begrudge her decision at all--I am, however, completely annoyed that this was somehow supposed to mean something to other women faced with making work/life balance decisions. Take Your Kid to Work Month is not really an actual thing.

We don't seem to like to talk about this as a culture, but most American companies are so uncomfortable with how to create a balance between home and work that they just pretend you don't have a home life.  It's totally fine to share the cute thing your kid did at lunch with your coworkers, but a sick kid should never be the reason you're late or staying home from work.

When I worked outside my home, I was a school teacher.  You would think that teaching public school would be a job that supports new and working mothers, but it has it's own problems.  In my district (a very large one in metro Atlanta) there is no actual maternity leave.  You are allowed to take days off as required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, but you use your accumulated sick leave if you want to get paid.  Men and women are given the same (rather generous) number of sick days each year and you can accumulate them from year to year.  It is absolutely the same rule for everyone, but it certainly feels unfair when you need to take maternity leave.

When my daughter was born I used up all of my sick leave to stay home with her in her first weeks of life. When I returned to work, I had no sick leave which meant that, until the next school year started and I earned more sick days, I was just docked part of my salary if I had to take the baby to the doctor.

I actually got into an argument with a male co-worker over the fact that we did, in fact, have an hourly pay rate. Of course we were salaried employees, but to determine how much pay to dock me for going to the doctor with my newborn, the county took my yearly salary, divided it by the number of days teachers were required to work that year (it varies depending on the whims of the state legislature) and then divided that number by 8 hours.  That was my hourly pay rate.  In order to get a substitute you had to take at least 4 hours off.  So, after returning from giving birth I was charged about $120 in salaried pay for taking my newborn for a well visit. And this was my job working for our government.

These are the kinds of stresses that moms face all over the nation every day.  My required time at work was at least over by about 4 p.m.  I still graded papers and other stuff, but I could leave if I needed to.  And, of course, teachers get far more time off than most professions.  For every working mom in the country there is some sort of grinding, challenging, no-win kind of situation she will face while trying to create a semblance of both motherhood and her working life.

Lots of women don't have the choice to work or not. My own mother was our primary wage earner for most of my life and it was just plain hard.  She sacrificed far more parts of herself both working and mothering than she would have doing only one or the other.

I think what really makes me angry about these celebrity articles is that, for all the talk the notion of work/family balance gets, there aren't very many actual solutions for the problems of everyday working moms.  Where can you find affordable child care?  In my community my child care literally outpaced my salary--my entire salary--by $100/month.  I could drive really far out of my way for childcare, I suppose, but anyone who's ever visited Atlanta knows we'd do almost anything to avoid traffic.  And I have the luxury of owning a car and being able to afford gas.  What would my option be otherwise?

Where can moms go to be assured of the quality of childcare?  There's no real certification process of nannies and the ones for daycare facilities vary wildly.  I don't have great answers...I'd just like to read an article that addresses the very real concerns women are faced with just because they have children.  It's not like having kids is the outlier here...lots of people have children.

Once, quite a few years ago, I was watching the Rosie O'Donnell show.  Remember that?  She used to shoot koosh balls into the audience.  Anyway, someone she was interviewing said, "I don't know how you do it with all your kids."  According to my somewhat fallible memory she responded, "Me?!?! I have a nanny, I have help.  Ask a woman with four kids working at McDonald's how she does it. That's the question."

That's still the question--a woman was recently arrested and subsequently fired from McDonald's (she was later rehired) because she let her 9-year-old play at a park while the mom was a work.  I don't know if what the woman was doing endangered her child in her community or not, but I'm pretty sure the mom was trying to do the best that she could with limited resources and her kid out of school for the summer.

We still don't have many answers and the people who need them the most, moms in the midst of building careers,  putting food on the table, and raising children, are too incredibly tired and busy to lobby for some other option.  We are losing well-educated women from the workforce, creating family tensions that are not helping our children any, and for some reason, still only asking women how they do it and ignoring dads.

Here's what I know we moms can do.

Working moms:  Stop using language like "I'm not going to sacrifice any part of myself."  It is insulting to assume that people who quit or went part-time or turned down promotions are idiots.  I can't tell you how many people have said to me, "I don't know how you stay home.  I would go crazy."  Umm, thanks?  I guess the lobotomy helped?  Don't judge them. Very few women really only want to change diapers for the rest of their lives--this is a phase and they're doing the best they can.

Stay at Home Moms:  Stop shutting the working moms out of your stay-at-home mom PTA play group.  It's mean and it makes your kids weird.  Invite a working mom's family over for dinner during the work week so she doesn't have to do it that one night.  Call your working friends and listen about their work drama--it helps them get it out before they get home. And don't judge them...they're doing the best they can.

All moms:  We are ALL doing the best we can.  Be encouraging to women you see out in the world. I saw an acquaintance at the movies the other day who is expecting her first child.  I told her motherhood was fun and she gushed, "OH, THANK YOU! I can't tell you how many horror stories I've been told lately between the birth and the newborn phase." How twisted is that?  Of course it's hard, but our constant negative dialogue about all motherhood topics is not helping anyone get through this any better.

Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go put on a silk gown and change a diaper while someone takes pictures.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Best Mom Tip #191: Don't buy groceries??!!

My beautiful friend Clare and her family of 5 have committed to living for a year without purchasing groceries. Yes, you read that right--and if you want to see what she has to say about the experience you can read her own lovely words about what they're learning here.

I read her article and was floored. How could a family of five really just live off of local, in-season foods that they traded or grew? I mean, I guess it's a possibility, but it seems so hard. How would I get pasta? Or chocolate?! For heaven's sake, think of the chocolate. So to satisfy my curiosity... I went to go see Clare.

Clare feeding our kids lunch
I totally just contacted this woman I have not seen for 10 years and asked her if my kids and I could come stare at her beautiful house and rich garden and learn from her.  Because she is Clare, she said yes.  And (because she is Clare) I knew she would say yes when I asked, so I think that makes me doubly evil.  

When we were back at the University of Georgia, where I met Clare some 20 years ago, I was jealous of how easily she seemed to march to her own drum. While I was buying XL twin sheets at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for my dorm-tastic bed, Clare was purchasing the most beautifully crafted bed made of logs that looked as though it was growing out of a living tree. I had a room with a hot plate and some Christmas lights my roommate and I taped to the wall.  Clare had a room decorated with fairy lights and nature.

So imagine how happy I was to see Clare, still dancing to her own tune, truly living out a life that is different from those around her.

The logistics of what they're trying to do are pretty interesting.  They bought some staples in bulk back in December before they started.  The idea was to live more like the pioneers Clare's son Jack had been reading about than to totally take themselves off the grid.  Community and leaning on your neighbors is actually one of the things they like most about this experiment.  They buy toilet paper and other necessities (that's for you, Allison) when they need them.  They go get medicine from the pharmacy. And Clare said that when they all caught a stomach bug they broke down and bought some real tea because they couldn't keep anything else down.

Most of us would have a much harder time committing to this lifestyle, even for a year, than Clare's family. They already owned chickens (which she slaughters for meat in addition to using the eggs) and sheep and her husband hunts.  They already had a pretty big garden that they are looking to expand--and living in the South doesn't hurt because there's such a long growing season.  These are people who built their brick home with their own hands and have carved a life out of a pretty rural area that would not go over so well in suburbia.

Don't get me wrong, they are definitely feeling the bite of this commitment.  Clare said that not eating out was one of the hardest changes.  She said she constantly just swung by Chick-fil-A before they started this. And she's not happy with the bread she makes so she tries to buy from a sweet lady whose lemon -poppy seed bread I got to taste for lunch (and it was delicious).  I learned a lot about some different ways to approach food in my own household (even though we will still be going to the grocery store). Things like, not every meal needs to be so hardy or we don't always need meat.  I'm also seriously reconsidering what I consider to be a snack.

Mostly, though, it was just really good to see Clare.  We talked almost constantly for 4 hours while our kids ran around and played toys.  My boys thought her boys' army men were amazing.  My daughter played dress-up with her daughter.  We picked blueberries in a rain shower while little children danced and giggled and I thought, "Yep, this seems about like how an afternoon spent with Clare should go."

My Jack trying to catch chickens
I thought that I was making my little trek to learn about her food experiment, but what I really learned was about freedom.  Clare said she feels kind of like a fraud for the attention she's getting about this year.  She said that there are people who really live this without it being for fun and it was surprising how much attention she's getting.  It makes her feel uncomfortable--as though she shouldn't be the face of providing your own food.  I asked Clare if she ever doubted herself--living so differently from most people. Do you ever worry that you're not doing it right or that you're swimming too hard against the stream?

Her answer was "Really, only when I look at Facebook or something and I see how everyone else is doing it." How funny is that?  This amazing woman in the middle of her own land, baking her own bread with wheat she ground herself, with her self-made home and her kids who build their own playhouses worries that she doesn't put her son in Little League.  At the same time, she worries that she isn't hard core enough to really be considered a homesteading expert.  It was an epiphany for me.

It was like when my teeny-tiny friend couldn't fit back into her pre-pregnancy clothes after the baby and I thought "oh, even if you're really skinny it still hurts if your old stuff won't fit."

Even if you're living an interesting life outside the box, you still worry that it might not be the best for your kids.  You still worry that you're not doing enough--whatever enough might be for your life and your community.

We had a great time.  I am inspired to try to grow some food that we actually eat and so I will be creating a small garden in my back yard over the next couple of weeks (I'll let you know how it goes).  I'm going to ask my neighbor for help because her garden is awesome and I loved what Clare said about connecting with their community in such a meaningful way. But mostly, I am going to try to live with more freedom.

Our afternoon with Clare showed me that I worry about things unnecessarily (although I'm still not going to let my son Harry have access to a lighter like Clare's son Jack does.  He will burn down something and it will NOT be an accident.)  I realized that all the moms I know are probably wrestling with the same fears--is this the right path for my family and my kids? and how am I viewed by the outside world?  What could we do or be or change if we let go of these two questions?

So, thanks Clare.  Thank you for lunch (especially that goat cheese--it was the best I've ever had) and for the afternoon.  Thank you for blueberry picking and the dry clothes while ours were in the dryer (yes, she has a washer and dryer). Thank you for talking about the difficulties of smart women without careers and of working parents gone from home too long.  Thank you for the strings recital from Jack and Esme and for letting my kids roam all over your house. Thank you for reminding me that it's worth trying to swim upstream because nothing feels freer, or more beautiful, than a life you've chosen yourself. Thank you.