November 26, 2014

4 Ways to Find Joy & Balance at the Holidays

How can it possibly be December next week?! Didn't November just begin? This fall I've felt like I'm in one of those movie scenes where you see the pages of the calendar turning in fast motion. Each morning I wake up, notice the date on my bedside clock, and think to myself, No way! It can't possibly be Sept. 15...or Oct. 29...or Nov. 23!

It hasn't been a bad thing though. Such is life when things are busy, in a good way, humming along at the pace of parenthood, where the days occur in real-time but months and weeks seem to happen in fast-forward.

And now here we are, on the cusp of Christmas season. Last year we hit the holiday sweet spot and really, truly enjoyed the season as a family. So I've been thinking about how I can make sure that happens again. How do we ensure that this time of year, which has a tendency to get so chaotic and possibly stressful, is one of slowing down and taking the time to really enjoy traditions and time together? How do we ensure our time and energy during the holiday season goes into things that fill us up rather than leave us feeling depleted?

With that in mind, I've come up with a few ideas for simplifying and focusing our family's attention on what is important.  None of this is revolutionary, but sometimes it helps to remind ourselves (by which I mean, it helps to remind myself).

1.  It sometimes helps to get the "work" out of the way early. 

One year, almost by accident, I had all of my holiday cards addressed and gifts ordered before Thanksgiving. It was awesome. When December rolled around, I had the time and energy to really enjoy myself. By doing things ahead of time, the stress of last-minute "deadlines" is avoided.

I'm thinking of ways to  maximize spare time when I have it and can actually enjoy getting things done, rather than hastily rushing through. For instance, last year I made Christmas cookies early in the month, on days when I was home with Bee and we wanted something fun to do. Then I froze them to have on hand. It was much more pleasant than trying to find time to bake the night before an event. At the same time...

2. Let it go. 

It's the year of Frozen and I just couldn't resist! What I mean is, I've realized many of the things I label as "necessary" parts of the holidays really are not necessary at all. Is it the end of the world if cards don't get sent this year? No. Is it okay to say No to an invitation for yet another holiday get-together and curl up at home watching Rudolph with the kids instead? Abso-freakin'-lutely.

I'm trying really hard not to overextend myself. I've been wanting to host a happy hour for the women in my neighborhood for a while, as a way to getting to know them better, and I had this grand vision of hosting a "Cookies and Cocktails" party in December. Then I realized that coordinating a holiday party for a group of people I don't know very well was just going to stress me out, even if I had come up with the perfect name for it. The neighborhood happy hour can wait until spring. Instead, I think I'll invite a few of my very favorite friends to drink wine by the Christmas tree one evening, which will be way more low-key. I'm keeping a close eye on our December calendar and working hard to not overcommit our family.

3.  Limit the lists. 

'Tis better to give than to receive, right? Um, yeah. Unless you are an 8-year-old, in which case receiving is pretty darn important too. How do we keep the kids from going overboard with their wish lists? Like many families, we limit the boys to a certain number of wishes (5, in our family). The same list goes to Santa and Mommy and Daddy. In the hopes of shopping early, we ask for the lists around Thanksgiving and then that's it. This strategy has a couple of benefits. It helps the kids prioritize and get excited about what they really want. It also keeps their list from growing and growing and growing right up until December 24, which makes it easier to focus the kids' energy on other things - like spending time together and doing for others.

4.  Create simple holiday traditions. 

There are so many great things happening in December and so many inspiring ideas out there. It seems like there are more and more possibilities as the boys get older and it can be tempting to try to do everything. Instead, I've started thinking about what traditions our family enjoys the most and that are most meaningful. I want to be sure we create space for those and not worry so much about the rest.

Last year I came across this great post from Rebecca at Simple As That about a Christmas Book Countdown. It's a simple concept: Wrap up a pile of 24 holiday books (library books work just fine!) and unwrap one each evening to read together as a family. It become one of my very favorite parts of the day and did something I hadn't anticipated - it brought our family together, every evening. Extra bonus: It provided an awesome incentive for my kids to get ready for bed without a fuss. That, to me, is worth making a tradition.

5. Give to others.

The holiday season is full of opportunities to be of service to others. (Yes, of course those opportunities exist year round too!) There is a lot of joy to be found by directing our family's attention outside our immediate world and thinking about how we can bring a little extra happy into someone else's.

At bedtime last night, I asked Bee to help me think of three random acts of kindness for the holidays. He suggested giving some of the boys' clothes that don't fit them to another family, providing food to someone in need, and donating a toy, which got us talking about how we could drop off some gently used toys at the local shelter for women and children. His ideas were simple ones that we could easily do, and at the end of the day we'll have that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing we've done something meaningful.

If you could keep only 3 holiday traditions this year, which traditions would you choose? 

November 24, 2014

Diversity & Big Hero 6: One Momma's Thoughts

We don't often take the kids to see movies in the theater, but I was really eager to take them to see Big Hero 6. We caught a glimpse of the trailers over the summer and the short bits we saw had us cracking up. That alone had me interested. Then I started hearing talk of how Disney had broken new ground with a truly diverse cast of characters. I was excited by the possibility. I'm perpetually troubled by the fact that, when my boys turn on the tv, characters rarely look like them or their dad.

I wanted to see for myself but I admit I was skeptical. Would the diverse cast really be diverse? Would Big Hero 6 live up to the hype?

When a friend who saw the movie opening weekend told me, "I think the main characters were supposed to be Japanese, but they looked white to me. I'm not sure..." I felt  my hopes sinking. She tapped into the root of my skepticism: Sure, there are a decent number of kids' tv shows and movies with diverse characters, but what we see is pretty narrow in its scope. Black characters rarely have dark skin and Asian characters are identifiable only by name and a very slight change in eye shape. It often seems to me that characters are intentionally depicted as racially ambiguous (Sofia the First, anyone?) and perpetuate colorism rather than fight it.  Much like in the toy aisles.

And yes, I totally get that people of various races and ethnicities often don't look like the prototypical images in our heads. But when 99% of the African-American characters in kids' movies look a particular way, we don't have true diversity and we aren't doing justice to the darker-skinned kids out there who need to see themselves on screen too! (Yes, I pulled that statistic out of thin air...but it's probably about right.) Then there is the fact when people of color do show up in movies they are all too often the bad guys. (Rio is a great example of this - besides the little boy in the movie, the two human "good guys" are white and the black guys are smugglers.)

But enough of my ranting...back to Big Hero 6!

November 19, 2014

5 Fabulous Chapter Books for 8 to 10-Year-Olds

This post includes affiliate links.

It never fails. Every birthday and Christmas we end up giving the boys more gifts than intended - and often it comes in the form of books. Piles of books that neither Hubby or I can resist buying, which we end up putting into one big gift bag so they are technically one gift instead of ten. I'm okay with our over-giving of books though. What parent is going to look back and say, Darn, I really wish my kid hadn't had so many books?

So just in time for holiday shopping, here are five of my 8-year-old's favorite chapter books and series from the past few months - books full of adventure, fantasy, magic, and friendship. He's a pretty voracious reader, so many of these books would still be great choices for late elementary and middle school.

I wish I could tell you more about what these books are about, but now that Zip is reading independently he devoured many of them before I had a chance to flip open the cover. All I've got to go on is the book jacket synopsis and my kiddo's promise that they are really good.

November 12, 2014

Encouraging Kindness With Elf on the Shelf

This post is for the mommas and poppas feeling a bit trapped by Elf on the Shelf - wishing the little bugger had never turned up in your house, but knowing that his absence would break your kids' sweet little hearts. It is also for those of you who adore Elfie, but welcome the idea of making his presence about something more meaningful than silly pranks. Read on...

Does your family Elf?

November 7, 2014

Dear New Momma

Dear New Momma,

My stepsister and her husband welcomed their first child this week - an absolutely beautiful baby girl. (As if there any other kind!) As we texted back and forth, my stepsister sending photos of her newest love and me asking how things were going, I thought about my own first days as a a momma. I thought about how absolutely amazing they were. And how absolutely overwhelming and surreal. Then I wondered if you are feeling this way too, and whether anyone has told you yet how perfectly normal it is.

People are always saying that there is nothing that can prepare you for parenthood. We talk a lot about how amazing and beautiful it is to become a parent. And yes, we also give lip-service to how hard it is, but those words don't mean much until you've been there.

Hard? What is hard?

Hard is made up of experiences, but mostly hard is feelings. Feelings like exhaustion and worry and frustration in their rawest forms, because nothing will break you wide open like becoming a parent will. We don't hear much about those feelings, because that's not what motherhood is supposed to be about, right? Except, it is.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm by no means saying motherhood isn't an absolutely amazing experience. It is. I'm just saying that in those first months, it may feel more exhausting than amazing. More terrifying than amazing. More isolating than amazing. Or it will be all of that, jumbled up into one big beautiful mess.

I won't offer any advice. I'll just share my own story and, if just a bit of it sounds familiar, maybe you'll feel a little less alone. And that's something we all need in those first days of motherhood, to know that this is a path other women have walked before us and it's okay if it isn't paved in gold.