When I was a kid, I loved book reports. Reading a book and getting to tell someone all about it was my jam. So that's why my goal for 2019 is to read one book a month and tell you all about it. I hope my nerdosity helps you find a great book to read, or simply take something useful away from one of my posts.
I knew something had to change when my six-year-old told me she didn't want to be a mommy "because it looks like too much work."
When I heard about How to Be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell'Antonia, the former editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog, I was like, "Yes, please!"
It's not that I'm an unhappy parent. I love being a mom. It's just that there's so much of it all the time. If I don't occasionally take a step back, I find myself doing more nagging than hugging, and I reach the end of the day wondering where the joy went. And according to my daughter's comment, I don't get to have grandchildren unless I can make motherhood look a bit more joyful.
I generally avoid reading parenting books, and when I do read them, I take them with a healthy dose of skepticism. I once read a book that said I should repeat all my toddler's words back to him like a caveman. And then there's the sleep chapter in What to Expect the First Year, which will make you want to set the book on fire and throw it in front of a speeding UPS truck.
How to Be a Happier Parent was the most helpful, empathetic, and accessible parenting book I have ever read.
Why? Two reasons.
First, her content and delivery are phenomenal. This is not a researcher talking about lab rats. This is a real mom in the real world. She comes from a compassionate, nonjudgmental place. And she's one of those skilled writers who makes it look easy.
Her examples are self-deprecating and authentic. Example: "This morning two of my children argued for ten minutes over whether their school was closed for Rosh Hashanah in 2015." My children tend to fight over pieces of garbage they find in the backseat, but I still relate to this example and love her for sharing it.
Second, she gets us. Rather than hitting us over the head with statistics and impossibly complex action items, she gives us the problem and follows it with a handful of solutions. Then we get to pick the solution that works best for us.
KJ starts the book by giving us Ten Mantras for Happier Parents. I LOVE THESE SO MUCH I have to share them with you:
1. What you want now isn't always what you want later
Taking the easy way out now means your kids won't have the stuff they need to be functional or happy adults. (i.e. Make them put their own dishes in the dishwasher.)
2. There is nothing wrong
"Fundamentally, nearly always, things are still okay." Even when you're surrounded by squabbles, unfolded laundry, and that damn norovirus.
3. People, including children - especially children - change
Let your kids change and grow; don't assume they will stay lazy, messy, stubborn, picky, obsessed with hornets (that last one might be particular to my child).
4. You don't have to go in there
This is my favorite. This is life-changing: I don't have to be infected by my family's moods. I can just...not go in there.
5. If you see something, don't always say something
This is another big one for me. I don't have to intervene in every squabble or make a thing out of every single item left on the floor.
6. You do you
I know my limits and I know what will work for my family. Some people are campers. We are not. Some people take pictures of their babies with adorable signs announcing how many months old they are. I was lucky if I even knew how many months old my second baby was. And that's OK. I don't have to be exactly as energetic, productive, and sociable as the most energetic, productive, or sociable mom in my Instagram feed. I gotta be me.
7. You can be happy when your children aren't
"Sympathy and empathy don't have to mean that our worlds come crashing down around us when that's how it feels to our kids." In fact, it's way better for our children when we can stay calm in the midst of their perceived crises.
8. Decide what to do, then do it
As a mom, I don't have to make that many decisions. Just about two million per day. It helps to remember that most of these decisions are not life-altering. Just decide, then stick to it, and move on to the next decision, which will be coming up in one and a half seconds.
9. You don't have to get it right every time
It's the intention and the effort that matter. "You will bring the wrong child to the dentist, you will buy dinner from a vending machine, and you will realize that there isn't always a "right" choice anyway."
10. Soak up the good
Our brains want to remember the negative, in order to protect us in the future. But we don't have mammoths lurking outside our cave doors anymore, so we have to train our brains to soak up the good.
I try to ask myself, "What is good in this situation?" when I need a mental reset. And there's always an answer to this question. Except during homework time. Homework time can suck it.
Speaking of homework, that's one of the issues KJ delves into later in the book. My next post will cover her tips for being a happier parents while dealing with things like homework, sibling squabbles, screen time, discipline, and meal time.
Please share which mantra blew your mind the most!
I knew I had a problem when I took my kids to see The Grinch and it was like looking in a mirror. I recognized myself in his anti-Christmas antics. I related to his desire to just be left alone in his (awesome, in my opinion) cave lair. I sunk down in my movie seat when he freaked out about having to go to the grocery store the week before Christmas because it would be too crowded. I've done that. A lot.
I don't tolerate the retail experience well under the best circumstances. I'm such a grumpy bugger that I don't even go to Target or Walmart...like, ever. So when December rolls around, and all the fair-weather Trader Joe's shoppers turn my happy place into amateur hour, and all the parking spots vanish, I get crabby and kind of stay that way for the rest of the year.
Couple this with the other rituals of December, and my patience bucket empties out right quick. The Sign Up Genius emails bombard my inbox with their baked good demands, the germ parade starts marching around the neighborhood school, the days get shorter while my list of obligations gets longer, and I turn from Grinchy to Grinchier.
For me, December represents too much of everything. I long for the clean slate of January, when there's nothing to do except make goals and schedules and all that nerdy stuff that I like. Everyone goes back into their own lane, puts their heads down, and carries on.
So...yeah. I'm super fun to be around in December. Just ask my family.
Which brings up the number one (and only) reason I try, every year, to figure out a way to find the joy in the chaos: my family. Every year, I approach the holiday season determined to mitigate the struggle just a little more than last year. I make an honest effort to find a way to be a smidge more pleasant for the people who have to put up with me.
In 2016 I actually typed up and printed out a list called Things I Learned in December and pinned it to the December page of my 2017 calendar. The first item on that list? Don't be Class Mom. I'm in my kids' classrooms at least once a week. I put my name on every Sign Up Genius that comes my way. I try to help wherever I can. I have been Class Mom at least three times, and my oldest is only in second grade. But I know myself well enough to admit that being Class Mom during the holidays makes me less enjoyable to be around, and that's not fair to my People. So it's a Christmas Don't.
Want to know what else is on my list? I doubt any of you are as Grinchy as me, but I hope some of these things are helpful. I know I'm not the only one who struggles during this time of year.
1. Practice Saying No
This year marked the first time I ever put my name on a Sign Up Genius and then...didn't bring the thing I signed up for. It was a batch of baked goods for the service club my kids belong to. They were singing at the local police department. I love our local police. I love the fact that my kids got to sing Christmas carols for them. And I love all the other moms for bringing their homemade treats, because it made my lack of participation inconspicuous. You have to pick and choose what you bow out of, but I highly recommend you practice bowing out when it's harmless.
Homework: Look at these five research-based ways to say no during the holidays. They're practical and doable, even for all of us people pleasers. Pick one and use it before December 31.
2. Choose a Motto
Did I mention how much I hate winter weather? And I live in North Carolina. I have no right to complain. But here I am complaining. I won't run outside if it's colder than 45 degrees. But I also have to run or else I will get so irritable that my family will make me find a new house to live in. So, I've been using the treadmill, and listening to podcasts to counteract the crushing monotony.
On a recent episode of the Happier podcast, Gretchen Rubin and her co-host (and sister) Elizabeth Craft talked about choosing a holiday motto. The motto serves as a mantra to keep you focused on what you love about the holidays. It's also a way to decide which parts of the holidays matter to you, and which ones you can let go of.
My motto this Christmas is Comfort and Joy. I am such a task-driven person that I have to consciously remind myself that comfort and joy matter. Having the motto helps.
Homework: Choose a motto and use it to stay focused on what matters to you. You can also use your motto as a theme around your holiday activities and gift giving. Here are some examples from the podcast: Let it snow, let your heart be light, 'tis the season to be jolly.
3. Plan and Prevent
Every year we get up early on December 26 and drive ten hours to New Jersey to spend time with our family. It is SO worth making the trip to see with the people we had to say goodbye to when we moved to North Carolina.
We do a post-Christmas get together, catch up with each other, annoy the teenagers by talking about how much they've grown, and reconnect with the place we called home for eight years.
This will be our third year making the trek, and by now I've learned how important it is to plan and prevent, so we can focus on enjoying our visit.
Ain't no packing list as detailed as my December Road Trip packing list. Don't forget the Yankee Swap gifts. Make sure we bring the gift cards for the cousins. Pack some plastic bags for our road trip garbage. Do the final Highway 78 pit stop before we get past Harrisburg unless we want to use public bathrooms that require HAZMAT suits.
One aspect of being a grumpy bugger is not sleeping well when you're away from home. So I prevent sleep deprivation by bringing my "special" pillow (because I'm a five year old), my melatonin, my chamomile tea, and all my other fussy sleeping supplies.
No one wants to be sick on a road trip, so I try to prevent germ infestation by stocking up on Zicam for noses, antibacterial wipes, and my Aunt La's famous Elderberry Elixir.
Homework: This is actually homework for me but you're welcome to join. My goal is to plan for a simplified holiday season next year by getting all my shopping done by December 1, 2019. I hope this will prevent me from going full Grinch by the time Christmas rolls around.
Christmas is four days away, all the shopping is done, everyone has agreed to go with the easy option of Spaghetti Bolognese for Christmas dinner, and I got my annual meltdown out of the way yesterday, so things are looking up for the rest of 2018.
Therefore, I am currently being sincere when I say: Merry Christmas. May your holiday be filled with comfort and joy.
I wrote this little ditty for my friend Joanna, who is a talented business owner and proof that you can do what you love.
“I turned a compulsion into a career.” That’s how Joanna Clausen of NEST Organizing describes her path to small business ownership. NEST (short for Neaten, Energize, Simplify, Transform) came about when Joanna was transitioning from working full-time for the Charlotte Public Library to being a stay-at-home mom with her second son. “I realized I love being a mommy, but I also had a drive to work outside the home,” says Joanna.
She thought about how she could turn something she loved into a business, and it hit her: she was a natural when it came to organizing and de-cluttering her home, and she enjoyed helping her friends do the same.
The organizing service that started four years ago with a few client/friends has quickly grown into a thriving business that has allowed Joanna to find that elusive work-life balance.
Finding that balance is not easy. As NEST Organizing has grown, so has Joanna’s family. She welcomed her third son, Henry, in 2016.
“Being a mom, wife, daughter, and business owner is tough,” says Joanna. “By the time I get to a client’s house each day, I’ve been up for three hours and dropped off three children at three different places. But having my own business means I can set my schedule and I get to be home with my kids in the afternoon.”
Word of mouth has been the biggest factor in NEST’s growth, but Joanna does appreciate the value of having an online presence. “People want to check you out and get a feel for your business through your website and social media,” says Joanna. “But nothing beats friends and happy clients spreading the word!”
Four years of professional organizing have yielded some memorable experiences, including the time she found a pretzel in a box of Christmas ornaments. What seemed like garbage accidentally put in a bin turned out to be a memento from her client’s first Christmas as a newlywed, when they couldn’t afford ornaments and decorated their tree with pretzels.
“I will never forget the lesson that taught me,” recalls Joanna. “Never assume you know more about a person’s belongings than they do.”
By turning her organizing “compulsion” into a satisfying career, Joanna Clausen has found a way to gracefully juggle the moving parts of working motherhood. Her advice to any woman seeking small business ownership: “Find something you are passionate about and go for it! The fulfillment you get from doing what you love makes you better in all the other areas of your life.”
Visit nestorganizing.com to learn more about Joanna and her services. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram. Her before and after pics are kind of addictive!
Here is a list of actual, word-for-word questions my children have asked me. Read at your own risk...
Who invented life?
Is Cupid real? Do people be mysteriously waking up and getting in love?
How did God get so popular?
Does space ever end?
Can you repeat time?
What controls the sun?
How did God become God?
How old was I when I met my childhood?
Is the future real?
Can the future happen to you?
What's the opposite of New York City?
Is Mother Nature God's wife?
Do bad guys have to learn how to swim?
Do girls have armpits?
Is there such a thing as hedgehogs?
Special section for questions whose innocence broke my heart:
What's a bullet?
What's a spanking?
And, my all-time favorite question, and one that I honestly will never have an answer for:
What is the point of golf?
Words fail me. If you followed Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing, I bet you’re right here with me.
I know how I feel about aspects of the hearing, but there is no word for the overall feeling this situation elicits. I feel awe for the unimaginable strength of the 156 women who read Victim Impact Statements just feet away from the man who tried to ruin their lives. Disgust for the monster in the prison uniform. Disbelief that he was able to get away with so much for so long. Grief as I watch a rage-filled father lunge at Nassar. Hope that this hideous situation will serve as a moment of reckoning for all of us.
So here’s what I’m reckoning with at the moment: Niceness.
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
“Is that a nice thing to say?”
As a lifelong people pleaser, I’ve said all of these things to my children, many times. Being nice is important to me. I can’t stand it when people are mean or dismissive for no reason. I love those adorable shirts that little girls wear, decorated with messages like “Choose Kindness” in shimmery, curlicue script. I’ll be damned if my own children are going to act like entitled jerkwads who treat waitresses and customer service people like disposable doormats.
What do we do with niceness in a world where a human garbage bag like Larry Nassar gets to prey on girls who were taught to be nice to adults? What do we do with manners in a world where a whole assortment of coaches, friends, and colleagues turned a blind eye to Nassar’s crimes because they were taught to never rock the boat, never be the squeaky wheel, never burn bridges?
As a mother, how do I balance #choosekindness with #reality?
It’s important for my son and daughter to know that they are no more special than anyone else. It’s important for their actions to reflect this belief. Before they step on anyone to get ahead, they had better reach down and help their teammates stand beside them.
It’s equally important for them to know that they deserve as much love, respect, safety, and kindness as everyone else. It’s just as important for them to ask for what they need and feel confident that they deserve it when they get it.
It’s my job to teach them how to speak up when someone crosses a line. It’s crucial that they know these lines exist, that they keep these lines strong and clear.
How do we raise children with suits of armor and open hearts? What kind of life do you end up with if you surround yourself with impenetrable walls? But what do you invite into your life if you have no walls at all?
How do I raise my children to be respectful, but also to know that respect goes out the window as soon as their gut says something is off?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions. Just like I don’t have a word for how I feel as I follow the Nassar situation.
I will probably never find the balance between nice and fierce, but I will never stop looking for it, either.
Maybe we can start small. Maybe, on the back of those adorable “Choose Kindness” shirts our daughters wear, we can add a message to balance it out: “Don’t EVER mistake my kindness for weakness.”
Two weeks ago I called a carpet cleaning company to deal with some rooms that needed professional help. The owner of the company launched into a list of things I would have to do to get the carpets ready to for the cleaning.
“Make sure there’s no little toys or things on the carpets, move smaller pieces of furniture out of the way, and vacuum the entire room. Vacuum those carpets like you mean it,” he said.
“Most people vacuum like their house is on fire,” he explained. “I don’t know why they’re in such a hurry. You want to vacuum like you mean it. Start with an empty vacuum canister and vacuum nice and slow. Slower than you’ve ever vacuumed before.”
Being a rule follower, I obediently did everything the carpet man asked me to do, while my spouse wondered out loud why I was working so hard when they were the ones getting paid. I picked up all the diabolical toys that hide under the couch: the Shopkins, K’nex, and other tiny plastic shapes in primary colors with jacked-up names that have no meaning in the English language.
Then I vacuumed like I frigging meant it. It took forever. My brain and body were itching to vacuum like I’m used to doing it, like the house is on fire. About halfway through the living room, something unexpected happened. The white noise of the vacuum engine, combined with the repetitive back and forth movement, started to feel soothing. The monkey in my mind stopped clanging her giant cymbals. I was spending so long vacuuming that I was actually running out of stuff to ruminate on. My river of thoughts slowed from whitewater rapids to babbling brook.
In this mentally and physically relaxed state I realized that this was the first time I had vacuumed while I was vacuuming. As opposed to ordering my kids around, or writing a strongly worded letter in my head to the neighborhood HOA about people driving too fast, or berating myself for not writing my son’s preschool teacher a thank you note three years ago…all while vacuuming.
Then I began to wonder when I last did anything like I meant it, which is to say: am I ever simply doing the thing I am doing while I am doing it? The answer is, not really. And that’s a disservice to myself, my loved ones, and the world. How am I honoring the unimaginably improbable privilege of being alive today if I am wandering through my life blinded by distraction?
So then I decided to do all my mundane tasks that day like I meant it. I heard the sound of the water while I did the dishes. I noticed how the dish soap smelled like a fruit that hasn’t been invented yet. I looked at the trees arching over the road while I drove to CVS. I heard my children playing I Spy in the backseat. I stopped in the middle of an afternoon dog walk to watch a mother and father cardinal teach their baby to fly.
All of these things gave me joy. They were simple everyday things, and they made me happy. And all it took was some concentration and intention courtesy of the carpet cleaner man.
Of course the best intentions tend to get waylaid by life. I continue to live in my head most of the time, taking myself on silent journeys of distraction through old wounds, resentments, struggles, and questions I will never find the answers to.
Sometimes I remember the carpet cleaning guy telling me to vacuum like I mean it. Sometimes I try to do that. Sometimes I am able to let my mind rest for twenty minutes while I fold the clothes like I mean it. To let my children see that I am eating dinner with them like I mean it. To talk to my husband about his day at work like I mean it.
Learning how to live life like I mean it? It’s a work in progress. But it helps to know that if I ever feel like I’ve gone too far into the maze of my own endless stream of thoughts, all I have to do is vacuum the living room.
Last night my husband was trying to watch some television, and all hell nearly broke loose.
He had just gotten home from a long day back to work after traveling for the holidays. All he wanted was a little brain vacation, but what he got instead was a blank, ominously brackish television screen that was unresponsive to all four of our remote controls. (Um, yeah. we haven’t joined the world of the universal remote yet.)
So my loving husband did what anyone would do in his situation. He called his wife over for help.
I am the official IT person in my household, which is, honestly, pretty sad. But I have this one trick that works about 95% of the time. I learned it from the person who answers the phone at the cable company. I just turn off whatever is malfunctioning, and turn it back on. It works on Kindles, iPhones, Rokus, and many other devices with names that were invented by kindergarteners.
We all held our breath as I attempted my magic trick by unplugging and replugging the television, and…it worked! Crisis averted, my husband got to watch ESPN and my family continues to worship me for the technological genius that I am.
Which got me thinking…could my magic trick work on a human? What if I just CTRL+ALT+DELETE myself when I’m so stuck on something that I can’t move forward? What would a restart look like on a day that gets so sideways, I don’t know which way is up?
For example, yesterday was our first full day back from our holiday travels. I mostly wandered around the house, overwhelmed by the magnitude of tasks before me and therefore unable to focus on finishing anything. I got three loads of laundry done and not much else. (And when I say “done” I mean “clean.” I certainly do not mean “folded and put away.” I’m not a laundry-based cyborg, jeez.)
About 756 things got started yesterday, but nothing really got done.
I should have used my magic trick on myself. I should have stopped everything, taken a power nap, and tried again. Someone once said when their days go haywire, or they have completely had it with their kids, they stop everything, make a batch of cookies, and try again. (If you are this person, please identify yourself in the comments, and also, you are brilliant.)
What would be your version of a restart button? Taking a walk? Meditating? Playing guitar? Watching Mexico: One Plate at a Time on PBS and then making the featured meal in your kitchen? (This one is very specific but I can think of at least one person in my life who would do this.)
In 2018 I resolve to try the restart trick whenever my day starts getting all janky. I think this is a friendly, doable resolution. Much more doable than, say, getting a universal remote. I mean, I may be a technological genius but I’m not Steve Jobs.
My friends are absolutely killing it with this Elf on the Shelf thing.
My social media feeds are full of elves doing creatively mischievous elf things. The Elf is riding in a Fisher-Price school bus with a Barbie on each arm. The Elf is pooping chocolate chips into a wine glass and reading a tiny newspaper. Elves are swinging from chandeliers, hiding in fridge drawers, wearing a Trump wig made out of yellow yarn and standing in front of a podium with a handmade "Make Christmas Great Again" sign. Next-level stuff.
Meanwhile, our elf spent the first half of Advent in a beat-up cardboard box in my son’s closet. When I finally remembered to get the elf out, I immediately delegated the nightly moving of the elf to my husband.
Our elf situation got pretty sad while my husband was out of town for work. My kids began to wonder if our elf (whose name I forgot two years ago) had gotten fired by Santa and was now just loafing around our house in the same spot all day and night.
The truth is, my kids have a mom who goes into survival mode on December 1st and stays there until January. Doing creative things with the Elf on the Shelf is not part of survival mode. End of elf story.
It’s taken me seven years of motherhood to accept my limitations when it comes to the holidays. When my son was a toddler I bedecked our mantle with a sparkly, homemade Advent calendar with a different holiday activity for each day. We made cookies, visited Santa, did Christmas crafts…basically turned into Pinterest People for the month of December.
I know it sounds lovely, but that everloving Advent calendar almost took me over the edge that year. I turned into an overwhelmed, cranky woman who was one Advent activity away from becoming Mrs. Scrooge.
Part of being an authentic person is giving yourself the grace of acceptance. That is never harder than during the holidays, when expectations take steroids and descend upon us in a hailstorm of Sign Up Geniuses, cookie exchanges, and Secret Santa gifts.
When I scroll through Facebook and that elf starts to push my guilt buttons, I consciously remind myself that I have limitations, and that’s okay. For me, the grace of acceptance means being okay with the fact that I suck at Elf on the Shelf, I totally forgot to buy my kids an Advent calendar this year, and my cookie exchange contributions were no-bake and no-frills.
As long as I have some realm of motherhood that I feel pretty good about, I’m okay with phoning in my holiday obligations. For me, that realm is going to the library, reading to my kids as much as possible, and having lots of books all over our house. Someone else's realm of confidence might be cooking wholesome organic meals for their families (this is not my realm, btw).
And I am so sincerely glad that some of my friends are rock stars when it comes to putting smiles on their kids' faces every morning through elvish creativity. They are all amazing moms who still find the energy at the end of the day to pose the elf in a Barbie bathtub full of cotton balls.
We each have our thing that we rock at. I think it's our job to stay in our lane, keep rocking, and appreciate the many ways other people rock. Especially during the holidays.
Elf Moms of the world, I tip my Santa hat to you...from over here on my Survival Mode couch, with my sauvignon blanc and my Netflix.
...was the name of my column in Phillips' Finest, my middle school newspaper. If it was good enough for seventh grade, it's good enough for "adulthood."