Homesick: Choosing Mindfulness While My Kids are Little

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Hours before the autumn sunrise, my husband wakes. I stir, recalling the reason for his early departure. I close my eyes as he pads out of the room to set up booth 308 at a large juried craft festival in a nearby town.

An hour later, I wake again, still torn about whether to go to the festival. My kids are asleep, and I know better than to wake them. As I shower, I consider the effort required to get all of us there– the long drive, the parking, the required packing of diaper bags and coolers. I doubt my own physical stamina to keep up with three little boys who will require snacks, lunch, naps, potty breaks, and diaper changes. I picture myself trying to navigate a stroller alongside a five-year-old who stops often to pull up his socks and a seven-year-old who people-watches so intensely, he forgets to look where he’s walking. Throngs of people would be out enjoying the cooler temperatures today after weeks suspended in the 90s. I find myself longing for home and the support of family. Maybe it would be manageable if I could meet up with my family and do this together.

As much as I would have loved to visit my husband’s booth today, I finally accepted it would be too much by myself. Visiting all the different booths would require corralling three bulls through a china shop so I could inspect ceramics and delicate jewelry. I came up with a compromise for my torn thoughts. The boys built forts for most of the morning, and after lunch and naptime, I packed the stroller, but not for crowds. My kids grabbed their helmets, scooters, and water bottles. We drove to a nearby lake with no agenda other than to satisfy a craving for the outdoors, for pink cheeks and the smell of leaves burning in the distance, for the sensation of fallen sticks crunching under our sneakers and for conquering the forest with only the occasional passerby. 

I can’t always keep up with my friends these days. Their kids are getting older, and I’m still pausing for naps, nursing sessions, and diaper changes, still wrestling my two-year-old into his car seat. I feel defeated even as I embrace this season, longing for it to go on forever, for my kids to stay frozen at this magical age of childhood and wonder. They jump out of trees and run back to the stroller, “base,” for quick sips from Paw Patrol water bottles: one learning to read, one learning to tie his shoes, and one on the cusp of potty-training. I know I’ll miss it someday; everyone tells me: 

“Don’t blink, they’ll be off to college.” 

“One day you’ll miss this.”

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

“It goes by so fast.”

I wonder what my life would be like if I lived in my hometown, closer to family. Would I be more stressed, or less stressed? Would these early years of parenting have been more flexible? Would I be bored without the mountains I’ve come to love here, returning to streets I know like the back of my hand with memories saturating every place? What if my kids could have the childhood experiences I had, like working at Colonial Williamsburg? My mind slips into a complicated place as I imagine unraveling everything we’ve worked so hard for here to set up a life somewhere else. We’d need to find new schools, doctors, friends, church, jobs, and probably a hundred other things I’d only realize once we got there. 

Each day I work the carpool line at school, full of grandparents shouldering some of the burden. The extended family members who show up at school events or to bring cupcakes all live locally. I cannot even fathom what it would be like to live near family. The past seven years of juggling naps and diaper changes and snacks and lunches and strollers and nursing remind me of my own strength, even as I marvel at what I’ve learned so far during some of the most physically demanding years of parenting while living so far away from family. I’m that much more grateful for the times I have been able to lean on my family for help, especially when we travel or celebrate birthdays. I never take them for granted.

As I push the stroller over the gravel trail, I reflect on the milestones we’ve crossed three times now, one per child, and which milestones are still to come for my youngest. This time today in nature while my boys zoom ahead of me on their scooters is giving me the quiet backdrop I need to process my racing thoughts, from longing for things I’ll never have to experiences I’ll never have again. Will I ever be pregnant again? When was the last time I wore my baby carrier? Was it the last time, and I didn’t know it? Will I ever run another marathon, or even just a half? Which cloth diaper will be the last one I change?

A group of teenagers laughs in the gazebo up ahead, girls in Homecoming dresses taking selfies before heading over to their dance. I try not to let my mind wander to a dangerous place, a longing for a daughter, but the sting comes too quickly. My thoughts are conflicted between feeling maxed out with three children and still longing for a daughter, and suddenly both options feel impossible. If I didn’t feel capable of going to a craft show today with three kids, why am I even wondering what it would be like to have a baby girl?

I remember Jesus’ words in Matthew: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34, NIV).” My mind is like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, playing out all the different scenarios, before I am snapped back to the present. The boys are getting restless, throwing sticks and arguing about which way to go, my cue to switch up activities. We backtrack to the car and head over to the library, then top off our evening with ice cream before dinner and a stroll through the local thrift shop.

I recall a passage in Ecclesiastes, one that falls just before a passage I sewed onto a sampler when I was ten and working as a costumed interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil– this is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3: 11-13, NIV).” 

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A healthy dose of mindfulness and contentment is helping me embrace the life we have spent years cultivating lately. Instead of browsing Zillow for new homes, we are pouring into the one we have, hanging framed pictures that have been sitting on the floor for over a year and rearranging our bedroom to make room for a new reading chair. We painted over the suffocating yellow walls in my son’s bedroom and switched out his yellow bedding for beautiful grays and whites. I’ve let up on my TBR list of self-development books and have been enjoying novels again. I let up on my side business and haven’t noticed any change in sales, even while replacing striving with peacefulness. 

Lately I’ve seen just how easily life can change on a dime, whole worlds turning upside down, and I am all the more grateful for what we have cultivated here in this place.

 

Racing the Storm: Spiritual Self-Care for Motherhood

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My back was to the storm cloud when I heard the initial thunder. I should have been more aware; my husband had mentioned we wouldn’t have much time on the kayaks before the storm rolled in. I was distracted between the three little bodies who needed sunscreen and the custom-order life jacket that we needed to exchange on the way to the reservoir. By the time we dipped our kayaks into the water, it was nearly lunchtime and consequently, almost naptime. 

Our leisurely pace on the water and my concentration on being present in the moment with my boys, pointing out dragonflies and honeysuckle, distracted me. When the thunder offered its first warning, I used every ounce of strength to abruptly turn my vessel 180 degrees toward shore. I struggled to maintain momentum of the long, heavy kayak, weighed down with an additional passenger who did not understand our rush.

“What does it feel like to be electrocuted?” he wondered aloud.

I didn’t want to find out as my husband and I raced our kayaks across the reservoir. Suddenly, I felt like a novice at what appears to be a leisurely, uncomplicated sport. It was then that I noticed all the other kayaks were nowhere in sight; their owners had all heeded the storm’s early cues and headed back sooner. Or maybe their timing was just lucky, and they were all now eating lunch.

Regardless, the five of us in our two kayaks were the only ones still out. My arms were exhausted even as I rejoiced that yesterday’s trampoline park excursion left only my legs sore.

We closed in on the shore, glancing back at the black clouds, an unspoken race against Mother Nature.

I believed my kayak could beat the clouds, but their fury was mounting as they arrived above us. I saw the raindrops on the glassy surface of the water long before I felt them, thousands of tiny droplets creating concentric circles. Next, I heard the wall of rain. A thin white running cap was the only barrier between me and those clouds. Despite managing to remain dry during our outing on the water, I was drenched in seconds, just minutes from shore. There was a small queue of other canoes, boats, kayaks, and paddleboards at the loading dock, but everyone was in a rush to get to shore, to solid ground and into their vehicles, so we didn’t wait long. We kept our life jackets on in lieu of the raincoats we had left behind in the truck. 

The summer rain was invigorating, breathing a sudden sense of urgency into our leisurely outing. We huddled around our kayaks as my husband left to retrieve the truck. I contemplated taking shelter under a tree but feared lightning strike. The truck arrived shortly after, and we hoisted three dripping boys into the truck. They squealed with delight in its shelter while scrambling for their towels and dry clothes. The air had gotten cooler and we still needed to load the kayaks and paddles. We divvied out belated lunches. The planner in me knew we were pushing our luck, cutting into naptime. Sure enough, one of our kids threw a tantrum over what we had packed for him. His exaggerated meltdown warranted pulling over, rain and all, and necessitated a long talk on the side of the road, only a few hundred yards from the reservoir’s entrance. Finally, we resumed the drive home.

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I love kayaking, I love rainy days and my birthday and storms and my boys, but somehow the combination of all of it overwhelmed me and I exploded. My words crushed. Even worse, they had little effect on the intended four-year-old recipient, who response was to spit on me (quite a feat from the backseat!). We pulled over again.  I stayed in the truck, my fuse too short in the heat of the moment, while my husband talked to him once again.

I wish, for the sake of closure, that this is where I’d now offer a tidy lesson I learned from all of this, the parenting changes I made, the self-perspective I gained. But I was still at a loss for how to handle my tongue and his, when they clash constantly, all day every day, despite my own best school counselor parenting advice. We’ve tried it all — routines, consistency, individual time and attention, special “helper” jobs, a designated calm-down area, dietary changes, sports, his own room, trips to work with daddy, and heart-to-hearts. 

I prayed fervently over this delicate stage of his life and started over with incorporating the Jesus Storybook Bible in our nightly routines. Initially, bedtime remained chaotic, the boys vying for our attention and crawling over each other on my son’s queen-sized sheets as my husband read from the Bible. Consistency in this daily habit was the only way to create the quiet family time I envisioned. 

I turn to my own Bible for answers. For reassurance. For a reset. I read throughout Proverbs about the tongue and its life-giving tendencies.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit (Proverbs 18:21, NIV).”

I think about the discontent I sometimes feel in my own home, the place where I should be able to recharge. I wonder if I am placing my energies into the wrong places, searching for distractions in fleeting ideas: a new dog, a new home, a new career path, when really what refills me lies written across the thin pages of my leather-bound Bible, its truths sustaining through all time and certainly through thousands of weary, exasperated mothers before me. 

I seesaw between taking action, making plans to restore order at home, but I know that’s not what I need. I need to be listening more, grounding myself and my family in the reassurances of Jesus, His promises of life and truth. His calming presence. His unconditional love. Jesus wants my time and attention even more than my four-year-old craves mine. 

For all the energy I exert analyzing how I spend my time, I sometimes neglect to recognize its place in my walk with God. Doesn’t He crave my time and attention, too? Shouldn’t I be pursuing His? He’s rolling out all the stops for me if I’d just open my heart to notice it. He comes in the fog rolling in, and I shouldn’t be running away. 

Long after bedtime on his seventh birthday, my oldest son padded downstairs and caught me writing him a birthday letter in his baby book. He asked to sit with me, and he poured over each page. I read my letters aloud to him. He asked me to record his height on his growth chart ruler. All these simple mile-markers I established back when I had all the time in the world, those things that hold meaning and our memories and milestones, the moments I noticed, bits and pieces of ourselves and of our past and what we are made of. These moments are always there, if I could just take the time to look up and really notice. And to think, if I had said no when he came downstairs that night, I would have missed that precious time together. What else have I missed, then, when I say no to God and raced onward with my own plans for my time? How do I begin to say yes when the path ahead is hazy at best? 

What thunderclouds am I trying to outrace, when I could be dancing in the rain?

 

Summer Routines with Kids After Vacation

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Photo credit: The Joyful Life Magazine

We are home for the first time this month after a wonderful vacation to Ireland, where we rented a car and drove clockwise around almost the entire country. My husband adjusted to driving manual on the left side of the road (on the right side of the car) through harrowing narrow lanes, 2-lane roundabouts, and one-way city streets.

Bringing my oldest son along at the last minute was the best decision we could have made. I loved getting to know him so much better one-on-one and seeing a foreign country through his eyes. He asked thoughtful questions and noticed every quirky difference (like paying coins to use public bathrooms!) and even made a few friends. Of course everyone thought he was a local.

I cannot thank my parents enough for keeping our youngest 2 entertained with several trips to Busch Gardens and playtime with cousins and aunts and uncles and filling their home with boys and noise for 16 days. I still remember getting to do this with my grandparents when I was little while my parents traveled. It was truly a win-win for everyone.

Part of the reason I wanted this trip was to see places in Ireland I didn’t see during my last visit, but the main reason was because I just needed a physical break. I have been pregnant/nursing/miscarrying babies (many times, 2 of these at once) for 8 straight years without a one single day’s break, and I wanted to feel like myself again. This trip gave me a clear head and an open mind and a chance to just feel like myself again. I pumped milk the entire trip and joined a few Irish mums groups to donate it while traveling (sadly with no luck), but having a clear head to be grounded and mindful and experience another country with all 5 senses was such a gift. I’m still pinching myself that we made it happen.

Coming back to the States has been a little culture-shock, not only for the subtle differences in everyday life between the two cultures and the 5-hour time difference, but also because I’m back to juggling all 3 boys again for the summer. It was amazing to have undivided time with my oldest without the sibling rivalry, the stopping for naptime, or the constant begging for snacks. For 16 days, I didn’t feel like I was herding cats and failing at staying a step ahead of my kids. We could go seamlessly from one activity to another for an entire day without stopping for naps or to change diapers and clean up messes. Just now, for example, I cleaned a yellow substance dripping down my 2-year-old’s legs and it took several minutes to realize that it wasn’t from his diaper but in fact from PEANUT BUTTER HE HAD BLOWN INTO A BALLOON AND THEN DRIPPED OUT IN LIQUID FORM ALL OVER HIMSELF AND THE CARPET. I had almost forgotten how much they keep me on my toes, so it’s an adjustment for all of us to get back into our normal routines. I am so grateful for all of these little and big moments, but it’s still an adjustment nevertheless.

Back in January when I was planning our Ireland trip, I was also writing some suggestions to myself (and other moms) about ideas for device-free summer activities for kids. I am taking my own advice now that it’s out in print in the June 2019 Surrender issue of The Joyful Life Magazine. I am so grateful that I wrote this list because I am using it now to stay one step ahead of my kids this summer with creative ideas and activities (and plenty of room for down time and imagination).

Have you ordered your copy of The Joyful Life Magazine’s June 2019 Surrender issue yet?

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Photo credit: The Joyful Life Magazine

I’d be honored if you check it out — this issue is gorgeous!

 

Vulnerability on Mother’s Day

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May 8, 2016 – It was Mothers Day, and I was in tears. For the fourth year in a row, I found myself in a vulnerable place. I texted five mom friends that night and realized we all found ourselves in difficult places on what was supposed to be our holiday.

These sorts of holidays set a standard of expectation that seem to bring to light some of our greatest insecurities, the ones we especially try to squelch on these special days, the same way in which Valentines Day often and brutally singles out singles.

I was desperate for alone time.

In my wallowing, I began to doubt myself: How does my husband put up with me? Am I worthy of God’s love? Do the terrible twos reflect my worth as a mom?  

As mothers, we may feel as if we fall short in all areas of life, despite our best efforts. We feel invisible, insignificant. We want to regain control even as we’re spread thinner and thinner across our roles. When I am barely scraping by on two hours of sleep, I fear the place of irritability and irrational thoughts  my doubts carry me. Why do I maintain a facade of confidence as if I have any inkling of what I’m doing trying to wrangle a few toddlers?

I dread asking for help and get frustrated when I’m misunderstood. I’m not even striving for perfection; I would just like to function on all cylinders like I did before having kids, when my bar was set much higher because it could be.

Where am I? What is missing? What might God be using to reveal to me?

In “Making a World of Difference Right Where We Are,” Deidra Riggs wrote, “The seeds of our gifts were planted in us as young children…I can use them to grow into my ministry.” Writing is my best form of worship. It is God’s gift for me to steward, and He also wants me to give it back to Him in my own quiet times. Writing has always focused my attention on God as I pray–it’s much harder to be distracted if I am writing my prayers. Although not everything has to be formally published, I have become more confident in sharing my words, especially since granting myself permission to call myself a writer. I have slowly and intentionally learned each “next right thing,” as Emily P. Freeman calls it, by allowing myself permission to admit to not knowing, but commit to finding out each new step of the writing process as it began to unfold. It wasn’t not long after that I became pregnant with my third son. That pregnancy would lead me on a 19-month journey that eventually brought me right back to this statement again.

If I knew what all I still have left to learn in my calling, I’d be drowning, discouraged at the work before me. But God’s glorious fog hides all of that, leading us forward to see only the very next steps, encouraging us to follow Him, to see the next step, and the next, and the next. That in-and-of-itself is a gift. Curiosity drives me forward each time, until I learn that step and move onto the next. And in the meantime, I’m learning to practice mindfulness and gratitude to be content right where I am.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV). 

Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

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Mindlessly, I flip through my most-frequented apps. I check to see what new kids’ clothes I’ve sold on Kidizen. I pop between my Zillow and Trulia real estate apps just for fun — are any good properties for sale in our town? We’d love to downsize and simplify a few things. I check my monthly sales total on my Teachers Pay Teachers app and calculate my goal progress for the month, right on track to surpass my April goals. I open Instagram to whichever of my accounts is logged in and then toggle between the three of them. Without thinking, I open TpT again, only to realize that I just checked that app a minute before. I set my phone down and exhale. My toddler picks it up and hands it back to me, as if it should be a permanent extension of my left hand. He’s so accustomed to seeing it there. I place my phone under the cushion of the outdoor patio furniture behind me and reach for the other things I brought outside with me on this gorgeous spring day — my leather-bound journal, my Bible, and a book, “Not the Boss of Us.”

I read a few paragraphs from Kay Wills Wyma’s newest book and look up, pausing to really take in my own backyard. We’ve lived here two years now and are reaping the benefits of the landscaping put in by the prior owners. The first thing I noticed was the wide-open sky. It reminded me of my honeymoon in Montana, aptly-named “Big Sky Country.”

I’m praying about a lot of things these days. God has been placed a calling on my heart that I can’t quite comprehend without having to unravel a lot of other things. I’m not sure what to do. I want to be obedient, and I’ve been praying for over a year now. It’s hard to not wonder, worry, and try to take control.  I take a break from my futile attempts to play out every possible scenario in my head.

I look around my backyard, practicing a mindfulness exercise I teach my elementary students regularly: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

It’s an exercise in grounding oneself when thoughts are racing, whether from anxiety or the general overwhelm life so often seems to spiral within us.

I record a few of my observations in my notebook. Later, I’d transfer them to Instagram to steward my words in case they can bless someone else.

  • I see: my toddler eating a lollipop and playing with his fairy garden, my breastmilk ring and all that it symbolizes to me, my neighbor’s dogwood tree, and tall grasses waving in the wind way up on the hill behind my house.
  • I hear: songbirds, trees rustling, far-off train, wind chimes.
  • I smell: familiar scents of springtime and new mulch that remind me of childhood and home.

I also note what I would have missed by staying inside today, on this gorgeous 70-degree spring day: my new neighbor painting a canvas on her patio, wind chimes, the baby figuring out the swing, the way our trees throw twinkling shadows on freshly-cut grass.

My gratitude list:
1. The baby all to myself this weekend while the big kids are camping with daddy
2. Pink dogwood in bloom
3. A fragrant backyard
4. Gentle breeze
5. Everything we need
6. Vacation one month away
7. Chorus of birds outside
8. Good friends
9. Summer within reach

Recently I spent several nights away from home, traveling solo to a conference. I knew, going into it, I would have a chance to meet one of the most famous authors in my profession and ask her my questions about the next steps in publishing my first children’s book. I didn’t know, though, that her keynote would resonate so much with me that I’d spend the next several weeks contemplating hope and its role in combating anxiety and depression. I wondered how I could use the information to help my families at school.

During her keynote, we watched this powerful video by Nature Valley. I’m glad I grew up in a generation when playing outside and interacting with the world around me was natural and expected. Now it seems like going outside has to be intentional. Meanwhile, our fixation with technology seems to be stripping us of hope.

I watch my toddler playing in the fairy garden. “Fade-ees! Fade-ees!” he squeals in delight as he moves the small plastic fairies around the miniature garden we made last summer in a large ceramic planter on our deck. Without his brothers here, he has his pick of any fairy he wants, and he clutches all of them in his tiny fists. He drops one, and it rolls under the woven ottoman. He points up to the playground we built up on our hill and asks, in his words, to go play in the mud kitchen.

“You can go up there,” I encourage him, easing back onto the couch and reaching for my Bible and notebook.

“No. Mommy come,” he demands. I put my books down, thinking longingly of the quiet time I’m so desperate for, but I follow him up the hill and watch as giddily he transfers measuring cups’ full of muddy water back and forth from the 99-cent Goodwill cupcake pans to the matching pans in the sink. A little mulch drips down the front of his striped romper and he is concerned for just a moment, then returns his attention to the cakes he is making me. I notice the blue handprint painted near the sink, the pink dogwood blossoms near the swings and peer through the lilac bush, its blossoms already dropping in the short-lived Virginia spring. If it hadn’t come up here, I might have missed them entirely. I watch my neighbor mow her lawn, amazed at the checkerboard pattern she seems to so effortlessly create every single time. I appreciate whoever hung wind chimes far enough away that I can enjoy them without interrupting sleep over them.

These grounding exercises lead me to a conversation with our Creator that only He can orchestrate. The feels of the breeze against my face slows my own racing thoughts of what I could be doing right now to prepare for the workweek ahead and the rest of my family’s return from their camping trip. The scent of lilac brings me back to the present moment. God has called me to notice this very scene before me. “Truth,” Wyma writes, “Truth that tomorrow’s worries and yesterday’s happenings don’t get to overinform or steal from today.” My two-year-old has not a care in the world as he enjoys his red lollipop and sloshes water around the mud kitchen we fashioned from a yard sale kitchen sink, old wooden pallets, some extra boards, and a corrugated steel roof. It is their favorite activity, and all three of my boys still fit side-by-side in front of the sink. Just as spring will segue silently into summer, there will come a time when they won’t be able to all fit across, forming and serving mud cakes together. And so I’ll soak it up now, instead of looking ahead to the next thing, the next house, the big picture. God is calling me to see this very moment before me before my littlest toddles back inside the house to snuggle against me for a nap. Laundry and packing lunches and Friday folders from school can wait a little longer.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NIV).

Great references for getting outside with kids:

  • “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McQurk
  • “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy
  • “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv 

More of my thoughts on mindfulness: