Finding Time to Read

Finding Time to Read

“When do you find the time to read?”

I don’t know how to respond to questions like this, because I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer that will work for someone else, and it would be naive to think I do. In fact, you could ask, “When do you find the time to [insert any activity here]” for any activity, and I can’t claim to know anyone’s schedule or specific season of life except my own. I have seasons when I have more flexibility than others. I’ve probably read twice as many books this year already than I did total last year, and the only thing that has changed is that each of my three kids is one year older than before. But that one year of development makes enough of a difference that I’ve been able to take better care of myself.

I don’t know your unique work hours, what time you wake up, or what time you go to bed. I don’t know what requires your time during the day, or who needs your attention throughout the day. I don’t know what your priorities are and where you choose to invest your time. So I can’t offer a magic answer.

If I’m being honest, questions like that make me feel like my time must not be important if I have time for a hobby. I have flashbacks of my first evening in a women’s Bible study. We were to go around the circle and introduce ourselves and share our hobbies. I talked about my love for reading, writing, scrapbooking, playing flute, and making jewelry as a side-business on top of my career as a school counselor. Immediately, almost every woman in that circle sneered, “Oh, you must not have any kids!”

As a mother now, I get where they were coming from, but at the time, their comments really stung and even brought me to tears. Because what they didn’t know was that at that very moment, I was already a mother. I was miscarrying my first baby even as I sat there in the circle. That lost baby was the very reason I was even sitting in that room, trying to pick up the pieces of the dreams I had been carrying. I was desperate to find hope in that circle of women and in the book of Ruth.

The miscarriage involved so much more than the months of scary medicine and blood clots the size of baseballs falling out every time I so much as moved. It was more than the painful visits to OB/GYN waiting rooms with glowing pregnant mothers. It was more than the visit to the ER with a young resident who didn’t know bedside manners yet. It was more than passing part of my miscarriage in an ancient staff bathroom as the fire alarms blared at my school, having to clean up and evacuate in case it were a real fire (I still managed to get out and give the all-clear for myself on the walkie when they called for me, a miracle in itself). It was more than volunteering at a grief camp for kids while I was grieving the baby I lost. The loss was its own unique season. (And even despite going through it, I don’t ever claim to know exactly how someone else feels going through it. We all endure experiences differently and it actually hurts me when people say, “I know EXACTLY how you feel.”)

Despite the last half-dozen years of not having much time for myself at all, I know that I have to make time for self-care, and for me, it requires quiet time to read and create. I’ve seen the hot mess I become when I’m running on an empty tank, and it’s scary. I’m not proud of what I say or do when I am exhausted. A couple weeks ago, by the time I got to Friday, I was running on a combined total of five hours of sleep from the past three nights. I was at work, and I was an absolute mess, walking through the halls and feeling like I was trying to trudge through a swimming pool and not able to be alone without crying at my desk. And yet I still had to teach and be “on” all day, because writing sub plans and going home would have required more work than just staying put.

I watched an Instastory today where someone listed the parts of her life that she CAN control. I frequently use this exercise with my students, and I totally understand her sentiment. She listed the times she wakes up and goes to bed as within her realm of control. I really wish I could say the same for myself, and maybe someday I will again, but I can’t completely control either of those right now and that boils down to my specific season of motherhood. So I also won’t attempt to tell you a magic answer for finding extra time in the 24 hours we are allotted every day.

I know that not all of those 24 hours are within my control, but I also know that as an introvert, I have to find ways to recharge after a day at work where my job relies on small-talk, problem-solving, intense conversations, and planning with coworkers.

I am literally around 750+ people all day and when I come home, the four other people in my home demand my attention as well. Not only do I need quiet time, I also recharge by creating, and so I carve out time for that through writing, designing, and other creative projects around the home and for my kids. My other favorite way to recharge is through reading, and so I have to get creative with my time. I’m going to break down how and where I do it in very practical ways.

I usually have about four to seven different books I’m reading at a time. Sometimes I even end up finishing a few of them at the very same time. I post any that I finish on Instagram using a few hashtags that archive them for me all in one place. I only post books AFTER I’ve finished them, because I abandon a LOT of books when I find that they are no longer worth my time, even if I love and respect the person who recommended them to me. My “Books to Read” note in my phone is way too long to ever get through as it is! Up until recently, I couldn’t abandon books, but I’ve learned how without feeling guilty.

In “Make it Happen,” Lara Casey describes how reading one book leads to finding another, and then another, and I have found that to be true for me as well. I’ll read a book, and that book references another title or author, and it resonates with me enough that I’ll add that one to my list. And if I love the author, I’ll look to see what else he/she has written, and it becomes a beautiful, unfocused rabbit trail of discovering new books to read.  My “Books to Read” list gets longer with each book I read, not shorter. All that to say, my list is long and I don’t finish every book I start. I finished two books this week, and so I posted about those (on my personal Instagram account), but I also abandoned two others this week.

I do like to get up before my kids. But in reality, I can’t control when my one-year-old is cutting molars all night and he decides to wake up for the day at 11:30pm and my night is shot, and my work alarm will still ring regardless of whether I’ve slept yet. Getting three kids up, dressed, and fed before we leave the house before seven is its own unique puzzle, but we come up with systems that work for us and I’m grateful for the routines in place and for my husband.

(Can I just say that he just walked into my library as I typed this, and he announced that he was going to the grocery store to do all the shopping for the week and that he was taking our one-year-old, three-year-old, and six-year-old with him. Bless him. I cried actual tears when he said that! On top of that, he’s sick, and so are they — I”m the only one who has escaped so far, probably thanks to 11 years of #teacherimmunity.)

One system that usually works for us right now is that I shower at night and have everything ready for the next day before I finally lay my head on the pillow: the boys’ clothes are picked out and put into an organizer for the whole WEEK on Sunday nights. All five lunches are packed for the next day, and I pick out my clothes and pack my school bag the night before. I’ve had to do lots of research on how to sleep on soaking wet curls so that my hair is not destroyed by the time I wake up, necessitating my CHI straightener because, hello, there’s definitely no time for that in the morning.  

So when my feet hit the floor, I escape downstairs and eat breakfast, drink coffee, and read while I eat. For breakfast, I read my Bible and a devotion, because that is the time my mind is the most open and focused all day. Whatever devotional I’m reading stays on the breakfast table until I’m finished, sometimes weeks on end, and I only read it in that setting so that I can always find it.

While my boys get dressed and I get ready for work, I listen to podcasts or something light and upbeat. Driving to his school (where I happen to work), my oldest is super quiet (like I am), and so I actually use that time to listen to a book on Hoopla (my free library app) or continue with the morning’s podcast. I can’t listen or read at all during work. Listening to a book usually only happens in the car, so that particular book stays in that context, even though it’s on my phone.

On the way home, my son is chattier and eager to unwind after his day of holding it together at school, and I turn everything off and spend that time dedicated to him. By the time we get home, I’ve picked up both of my other boys as well, and the four of us arrive home to unload the car, get a snack, work on homework, practice piano, and all of the other demands that the afternoon brings. But in this specific season, my youngest is ready to nurse right when we get home, so I make a snack for myself (usually popcorn) and we sit in the library so that he can nurse while I read on my phone — a physical book is too heavy for me to hold while I nurse, and anything audio is too loud as he settles down, so usually I’ll read a book on my phone while the other two boys eat the snack that is already out waiting for them when they get home. After their snack, they play dress-up, acting out whatever scenarios they’ve planned on the short drive home from school and daycare. Lately, it has been elves or rescue workers. I download the books free on Hoopla or OverDrive.

I try very hard to have a consistent bedtime system for the kids, but again, my baby’s nursing usually dictates how much time I get to spend with the older boys at bedtime. I love reading to them individually in their rooms and giving them much-needed one-on-one time with me, but sometimes we end up reading in one room if the baby has already begun crying for milk, or my husband will read to them while I’m with him in the nursery. We’ll usually read books they’ve recently picked out from the library, or old favorites, or longer chapter books, or, like now, seasonal fall books. In the nursery, I’m sitting in the dark by the light of the oil diffuser, so if I am reading, it’s only on the glow of my phone with no audio other than iHeartRadio that we listen to as the baby falls asleep (usually Hillsong radio).

Once all the boys are asleep, it’s a rush to get done anything that needs to be ready for the next day in a short window of time. By then, we’ve already packed lunches, but there are always cloth diapers to wash, laundry to fold, dishes to wash, school papers to sign, and those sorts of things. I also make coffee to take to work, iced, the night before, so that is sitting out to cool.

If I do end up with about 30 minutes before I fall asleep, I’ll use that time to read an actual, physical book, usually in the genre of Christian nonfiction memoir, because I can focus and annotate in the margins or take notes in my journal. That book generally stays on my nightstand so that it’s also in the right place when I need it.

If I begin a book on my phone and I absolutely know I want to annotate it as I read, I might order the physical copy so that I can finish it that way, but I also know that I can’t own every book I’ve ever read, nor do I want to, so I always check the library and Hoopla first. When I was little, I always owned a huge collection of books, but I also frequented my local library just as much, and so I try to find a balance for myself and for my kids that is affordable and offers both variation and the comfort of well-loved stories.

This is my season now, and I’ve created this system of balancing my responsibilities at work and as a mother of three little ones as best I can. To quote Myquillyn Smith quoting an old proverb, “A beautiful thing is never perfect.” My systems are imperfect, but they allow for the beautiful and messy moments that I hope to remember. They are one long learning curve! I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while these systems seem like they’ll work for a long time, I know that they’ll need to look different even next year when we’re all a little older and my kids are just a tad more independent. At this time last year, my oldest son and I would spend the afternoons after school playing on a quilt on the floor with the baby before he could crawl or walk, and it was glorious. I thought that season would last forever, but it was just a blip. And so I also want to make sure to practice mindfulness when I am spending time with the boys, which is why I don’t listen to books on the way home and I only read on my phone if the baby is sleep-nursing in my lap.

So that is where I am. Those are my current systems. Imperfect and messy and flexible, but they work. And while I’ll be happy when the seasons of teething and tantrums end, I also don’t wish them away because of all the joy that accompanies those ages and milestones. This has turned into more of a day-in-the-life post, but these are the posts I’ll treasure. I love looking back at the ones I wrote on my other blog because then it puts the days in perspective for me — they change so very much!

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

These are the verses that come right before one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and they are a valuable lens through which to view this season, and all the ones I’ve thought about as I’ve written this today. There was beauty in each of them, even if they felt messy, or even like failures and hardships. They were indescribably difficult, and those are the places where I learned and grew the most.

I hope that you find this post not as a quick fix, or a solution, because I know your day unfolds differently than mine does, but as a way to open your mind to places in your own life where you can create margin for those things that you love but get put on the backburner so often. You are doing a great job right where you are and you deserve that for yourself. You really do.

Striving for Work-life Balance

Storm clouds roll in over the hill in my backyard, pregnant with impending rain, much needed with the forest fire raging an hour away, already doubling in size despite the frontline of firefighters poised for battle. The seven-degree temperature drop and the rolling clouds blocking the sun cut the edge off the blaze of the 88-degree afternoon just hours before. My boys set buckets around their homemade outdoor mud kitchen, excited at the prospect of full buckets for tomorrow’s muddy culinary pursuits.

I love the way that even as the gray-blues of the sky darken, the grass turns a bold and vivid green. The coming storm catches my breath as I inhale the refreshing smell of spring and freshly-cut grass. Just minutes ago, my husband and his John Deere raced the storm and won. The wind gathers momentum, ferrying sweet fragrances of my neighbor’s pink dogwood across my patio.

My husband is the first to notice that the tree beside the patio, for so long bare from winter, now has tiny new translucent green leaves emerging, the first layers of shade over the outdoor wicker sofa my husband insisted on last season. I am so grateful for the sofa now, my outdoor writing and reading perch. My boys rush to get the cushions inside as the storm clouds threaten, their tiny bucket brigade passing and tossing pillows past the glass door. I count 15 more working days until summer and a much-needed respite from my counseling office and the near-daily deluge of conducting threat assessments with children born just this decade.

@TENDINGWILDASHLEYBARTLEY.COM

People often ask me why elementary school children need counselors, even as I drown in the busyness of appointments, classes, small groups, parent phone calls, drop-in meetings, and schoolwide projects. I’ve seen everything from friendship drama and separation anxiety to abuse and neglect, suicidal ideation and pacts, and parents incarcerated for drug use. In fact, I hope I’m not becoming hardened in my position–in ten years as a school counselor, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Children are not immune to their own problems and to those of their parents. I’ve had so many children lose parents through death or incarceration that I’ve run small groups so that kids can see they’re not the only ones who’ve faced significant losses. Groups offer them a safe place to learn and practice coping skills. It is a fine line in finding time for prevention activities in the classroom in the midst of putting out fires in the confidentiality of my office.

Our realms as school counselors fall into the acronym ACES – academic, career, and emotional/social. It’s up to us to prioritize the demands that come on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to make promises even as a recovering people-pleaser.

Maintaining balance between this heavy work and raising three small boys forces me to simplify routines and prioritize commitments. After nearly six years of juggling both roles, I’ve established many new habits that have just become a way of life, from the layout of our home to my carefully crafted yeses and nos. I’ve intentionally created functional spaces throughout our home, once problem-areas, to make life run more smoothly. We just changed the guest room off the kitchen into a playroom (the day my baby swallowed a screw), which corrals many of the toys and large ride-on vehicles out of sight. We also made a mudroom of sorts using a blank wall across from the garage door, where each kid has his own hook for a coat and backpack, basket for shoes, shelf, and hanging area for schoolwork. We transformed the sitting room by our front door, once lost in its purpose, into my personal library and writing space, my retreat without leaving the house.

Sometimes people assume that I’m too busy if I have to say no to a perfectly good offer. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, we’re busy, but I use my yeses and nos judiciously so that we are not overwhelmingly busy. Being available for quality time with my boys, especially after being away from them all day, is just as legitimate excuse as any. I love being able to come home and enjoy time outside, time with my boys, traditions with my family, without rushing out to one obligation or another. Being open to spontaneity in spite of being a meticulous planner by nature is rewarding in its own rite.

Sometimes I even wonder if I say no too often! But then I remember my life of yeses, the life I used to live, and how hectic and unfruitful that time was. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it all because it was so frantic. Even back then, with a baby in tow and another on the way, we were out of town most weekends running half and full marathons, pulling long hours at work, and racing to get out of the house in the mornings. We were involved in all areas of our life and were quick to say yes if someone asked a favor of us. I’ll admit that some of that hasn’t changed, but we’re much more cognizant and careful about it now.

My work as a school counselor offers a much-needed perspective of gratitude on a daily basis. I have a plaque from Hobby Lobby on my desk at work that reads, “Children only have one childhood.” The reminder is both heartbreaking and inspirational, both for my students at school and my children at home. I constantly wonder whether I’m doing the right thing (see previous post), if I’m doing enough by dividing my time and attention. Do my students know I care about them, even if I struggle to remember all 700+ of their names? Do my own boys know that I’d spend every waking minutes with them if I could? Are they aware of the sacrifices their daddy and I make for them?

There’s no right or wrong solution to this. I’m doing what I know, and I admire those who can walk boldly in whatever path they choose for their own family. But I’m also trying to keep an open mind, reevaluating each season what else I can simplify to avoid spreading myself too thin. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d burn out. That I’d lose heart in my pursuits. And sometimes I already feel that way!

Self-care comes in many forms. Unfortunately the many options that work for me happen so infrequently, but it’s up to me to recognize the importance of self-care and build it in, no matter how small. I know I’m a better person for it, as a mama to my kids and a confidant to my students. I just pray God will continue to cultivate and guide my heart in His calling, whether what that looks like changes or remains the same in all the different seasons of motherhood.

And speaking of seasons, my curly-haired five-year-old redhead just came in and asked me if he could shave his head for summer.

What does simplifying and self-care look like in your current season?