Homesick: Choosing Mindfulness While My Kids are Little

IMG_8390

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).” 

IMG_8298

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

IMG_6422

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.

image1 (5)

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?

 

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

The kitchen clock approached 2 A.M. as I pulled my orange Williams Sonoma apron over my head and scrubbed flour and gingerbread remnants from my fingers. Cooling racks covered every surface with the walls and roofs of identical A-frame gingerbread houses, enough for each child to decorate his own at our party the following evening.

With the gingerbread finished, I ran through the remaining tasks. I skimmed a new recipe for the homemade gingerbread roll I’d attempt in the morning. I lined the candy bowls along our dining table. Soon I’d make the icing that would frame and set the gingerbread walls together. And I still needed to make sausage dip for the adults.

Five families came over to join the festivities with us that first year, each bringing their favorite candies for decorating and arriving in their favorite holiday pajamas. The Polar Express soundtrack welcomed them into our home. My then-two-year-old and eight-week-old wore matching organic cotton Christmas pajamas.

My husband ran out to grab peppermint coffee for me before the party and returned, musing, “Oh, they had those gingerbread roll things in the checkout line at the gas station,” pointing at my homemade effort, which had consumed literally my entire morning. Never one to enjoy baking, especially last-minute, I threw up my hands.

“Of course they did!”

Four years later, our gingerbread pajama party has evolved into one of my family’s most anticipated and treasured holiday traditions. But now that I’m a seasoned mom with three young boys underfoot, I set more-realistic expectations for myself, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I just can’t pull off the same dedication anymore, one that requires hours of focused planning, when I’m juggling so many other responsibilities in this season of my life.

I defined my expectations for throwing a party, and the subsequent parties got easier as I granted myself permission to simplify. That ridiculous homemade gingerbread roll was the first to go. What began as a last-minute touch had taken painstaking hours. 

I also took the pressure off myself to make the gingerbread from scratch. The next year, I purchased gingerbread train kits at our local craft store. The following year, I waited too far into the holiday season and sent my husband out for some kits, and he returned with pink Shopkins candy houses, the gingerbread section completely wiped out. Lesson learned: simplify, but don’t procrastinate.

Last year, we dropped the houses altogether and decorated homemade gingerbread people. In fact, a dear friend baked the gingerbread herself (from scratch!) and brought it over with her, because she enjoys baking. Other dear friends brought toppings and yummy Grinch fruit skewers. Sharing the responsibilities made the event more enjoyable. I even had time to do something I truly enjoyed – sewing tiny gingerbread man ornaments monogrammed with the date for each guest. My husband loves to make delicious wassail, another favorite from my hometown.

Jen Wilkin said, “Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.” When I began to identify my purpose behind this tradition – the desire to get together with close friends – I left behind those elements of the party that were too stressful for me to undertake alone. Other people might let go of other tasks, depending on what they value and what they find to be stressful. Kendra Adachi of The Lazy Genius says it best with her wisdom: “Be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t.”

The gingerbread houses that first year were stunning, and that first party was so much fun, but I also remember the overwhelm that came with trying to curate the perfect holiday party. And the overwhelm is not what I want to remember. In such a busy holiday season, I wanted my party to be worthy of my friends’ time. 

As the holidays approach year after year, it’s still one of the first dates I block off on my calendar. The tradition matters. The friends matter. But for me, the presentation was never what it was all about for me. (It might be for some, and that’s totally fine — you do you!) Once I was able to identify the part of the tradition that I valued most, I was able to let go of the pressure to entertain in favor of bringing my friends together for a festive, cozy evening spent together.

And the sweet Christmas pajama group pictures we take? They long-outlast those perfect, made-from-scratch A-frame gingerbread houses, anyway.

Being Mindful in Simple Family Moments

One day they_ll realize we intentionally carved out that time for each other and guarded it fiercely against our bulging calendars.

Captivated in a moment of complete mindfulness, I scanned my backyard on Saturday night at the imperfectly-perfect happenings all around me. My older boys were deep in imaginative play in their mud kitchen, scurrying around filling orders from fictional customers while singing something unintelligible.  My toddler, safely gated in on the back patio, was happily splashing away at the water table, seemingly-carefree despite his now-sopping play clothes. Just living his best life. The large ceramic water feature behind me, installed by previous owners, mimicked the sounds of a serene brook. As I flipped a glossy page of the large hardcover in my lap, my husband used a poker to put the screen on our family’s fire pit as we waited for the flames to diminish so that we could gather to make s’mores. It was 9:38 PM, long after my kids should have been in bed, but we were taking advantage of the dwindling daylight and the brief gap in storms to carry on a relatively-new tradition.

I took it all in — all of it — as I thought about this simple family tradition we committed to at the end of last summer. The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of smoke and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while drawing my family closer together.

The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of campfire and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while threading my family closer together.

Today, I’m so honored that Emily Sue Allen chose my essay to feature on her site, Kindred Mom. I hope that my family’s simple tradition will both inspire you to spend quality time with those closest to you while granting you the permission you need to make room for moments such as these.

You can read my essay here at Kindred Mom. If you are a new reader, welcome. Thank you for stopping by. I’ll hope you’ll find what you need.

Ashley