Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mama Musings: Keeping Christmas joyful, meaningful, and uncomplicated

Charlotte is four and a half, and for her the holidays are at the height of their magical glory. She remembers some of the traditions we've started, like our book advent and attending the family Christmas Eve service at church (which we missed last year because of vomit Christmas). She asked if we were going to go see the Nutcracker again (we took her last year to a shorter version put on by a local ballet studio). She's excited to bake Christmas cookies and start hanging the advent ornaments on the little tree. Tessa was a mere babe in arms last year, barely even mobile. Now she's off and running with a bubbly personality, a stubborn will, and the persistent desire to do whatever her sister is doing (decorating the Christmas tree with two helpers was rather challenging this weekend).
I knew the holidays would be more fun than ever this year, but I didn't expect to suddenly feel such incredible pressure. I got on Zulily just to get some ideas, and accidentally fell down a rabbit hole of clothes and toys, adding hundreds of dollars to my cart before I came to my senses (fortunately before I hit purchase). I felt this overwhelming need to buy all the things that would delight and excite my daughters, while outfitting them in every frilly, ruffled twirly dress I could find (#girlmomproblems).
I'm not sure where this impulse came from, especially since it was completely contradictory to all the efforts we have been making to pair down our belongings and simplify our lives. All I know is that I struggled for several days with this desire to buy ALL THE THINGS before I finally brought it to God and asked for help getting my priorities straight again. In His delightfully unexpected way He pointed me to a Kindle deal for a book called Unstuffed by Ruth Soukup. I read the first half in one sitting, completely mesmerized with Soukup's struggle with too much stuff and how she and her family eventually dug themselves out. Their story hit a deep cord in my heart, and was the perfect antidote to my stressed-out spirit.
With a deep breath and a prayer for wisdom I stepped away from my (virtual) shopping cart and just watched my girls play with the toys they already have. Charlotte was acting out an elaborate story with the farm animals from her sensory bin, her Duplo blocks, and a bird cage ornament. Tessa was climbing from her little chair to the recliner, sliding down, and climbing up again (she did this more than a dozen times). Over the course of a day the things the girls played with the most were the Duplos, throw blankets, stuffed animals and plastic figurines, and empty bins and boxes. Clearly they had no need for more plastic gizmos or big play sets.
So  I went back to their Amazon wish lists and deleted everything except the most open-ended of toys and some books. Then I cleaned out C's closet (again) and boxed up the toys and games she hadn't played with for months. I put the bin in the attic just in case she asks for something, but if a month goes by and she doesn't miss anything it will all be donated to the Samaritan Center.
We are trying to keep our Christmas schedule un-stuffed too, saying no to the winter princess ball, the holiday train trip, the Christmas parade, the Christmas plays and programs. There is just way more to do than we possibly can, at least in this stage when Tessa is still so young. I still struggle with guilt over saying no to things I know C would enjoy because her little sister won't, but this is just a season and someday we will be able to do more. Instead, we are focused on the things we can do, that everyone enjoys and finds special.
When I feel myself tempted to buy more or do more I'm trying to remind myself that my family wants a joyful, engaged mama, not a distracted, cranky one. C's favorite thing is to bake with me, or sit down together and make crafts. I can do that. T wants me to sit on the floor and read books to her (or just one book over and over). I can do that. Both girls love it when I turn on Christmas music and have a dance party. I can do that too.
The world seems to be a cacophony of competing voices, compelling me to buy this or do that to make this the perfect holiday season. It's enough to make a hardcore Christmas lover turn tail and head back to bed. So I'm going to do my level best to turn off those voices, to delete the apps and unsubscribe to the email lists, and to avoid social media when I'm feeling weak and worn down, easy prey to be captured by fomo (fear of missing out). I'm going to turn on my favorite Christmas songs, new and old, the ones that point me back to Christ's  birth. I'm going to be present with my girls and my hubby, putting down my phone to play a game, watch a classic Christmas movie, or just listen to the elaborate story C is trying to tell me. Most of all I'm going to watch with joyful anticipation for the Holy Spirit to show me His heart and to point me to the needs around me that I can fill.
We had our first Advent service at church this weekend where our pastor spoke about hope. He challenged us to take ten minutes every day during Advent to meditate on God's promises fulfilled by Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. I can't think of a better way to turn away from the world's chaos to hear the whisper of God instead.
Are you struggling with stress and overwhelm this season? What strategies do you have for staying focused and joyful this holiday? Please share!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Picks: Books to curl up with

Here we are in mid-November. Fall is nearing its end and winter is approaching, which means shorter days and colder weather. Theoretically anyway. Today it's nearing 80 degrees again, but hope springs eternal right? Anyway, I'm ignoring the current temperatures and looking forward to spending many an afternoon and evening curled up on the couch with a cozy throw and a good book. I had fallen into the bad habit of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook whenever I had some downtime. But I've found that I reaching for a book instead is a soul-filling rather than mind-numbing experience. If it's been a while since you read an actual book here are a few of my favorites to inspire you:

1. One Plus One by JoJo Moyes
This story brings together a single mother raising two unconventional kids and a wealthy but lonely businessman who has just made the biggest mistake of his career. These unlikely characters end up banding together to drive the woman's daughter to a maths competition that will change the course of her academic career and ultimately her life (yes, maths. It's set in Great Britain). The characters are quirky and loveable, the love story is predictable but engaging, and the ending wraps up with a nice bow and leaves you satisfied and happy. There are some deep themes explored here but in a matter-of-fact, breezy way that never drags down the story.
Note: Moyes made a name for herself with the huge best-seller Me Before You, which I haven't read (I'm not a fan of gut-wrenching, tragic endings) but I promise this story will warm your heart, not break it in pieces. ;)

2. Street of the Five Moons (Vicki Bliss series) by Elizabeth Peters
This book is perfect for the armchair traveler. It starts in picturesque Munich, Germany but the action quickly moves to Italy. Vicki Bliss is an art historian and amateur sleuth who stumbles upon an art forgery ring and a suave, unprincipled but engaging master thief named "John Smith." Vicki's sheer audacity and propensity to rush in where angels fear to tread make this a fast-paced page turner filled with interesting yet dangerous characters and just the right amount of unwilling attraction between her and John, which is explored further in the rest of the series. The third book, Trojan Gold, is a fun winter read set in the Alps around Christmastime.

3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This story isn't exactly lighthearted like the first two picks, but it's such a fantastic story. It tells of Ove, a stereotypical grumpy old man who strikes up a reluctant friendship with his new neighbors, a young couple and their children. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks to Ove's past where we learn the hardships he's faced and the downright tragedies that have shaped him into the cantankerous curmudgeon he is now. This book would be a total downer if it weren't for the hope and light he finds in the unlikeliest of places...his neighbors. The author is an expert at weaving together the past and the present and the ending, while not exactly happy, is extremely satisfying.

4. Wicked Fix (Home Repair Mysteries series) by Sarah Graves
I love a good cozy mystery series, and this is a great one. You don't necessarily have to read them in order, and this third book is one of my favorites. Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree took her son and left an extremely lucrative but destructive career (along with her very successful but philandering husband) in New York for a tiny town in "down-east" Maine, where she bought a huge, dilapidated old mansion and set about learning how to restore it herself. She finds a true friend in Ellie, a native of the town, and together they solve mysteries and murders in between home improvement projects. The characters are rich and interesting, and the setting is absolutely idyllic (I could never survive winters in Maine, but I love visiting in these books). The later books take a darker turn, but the first few won't curl your toes too much.

5. The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris
I could write a whole post about this book, and I'm only halfway through. Part memoir, part essay, this short but thought-provoking read addresses our everyday routines and suggests that simple, daily rhythms and chores like cooking dinner and doing laundry are actually pathways to a deeper walk with God and a richer spiritual life. She references modern monks, poetry, and her own experiences, and leaves the reader feeling hopeful and empowered. The ideas in this book are feeding my soul. If you ever struggle with the mundane, repetitive tasks that make up our days this book is definitely a must-read!

Your turn. Do you have any books that would be the perfect companion to a warm blanket and a cup of tea on a dreary afternoon? Please share!

Friday, November 4, 2016

I'm Loving...Fall Edition

Fall is absolutely my favorite season. Even though the weather hasn't exactly cooperated this year (we've averaged highs in the 80s way more often than the 60s) it's still cooled off enough to make outdoor adventures enjoyable rather than miserable. Which brings me to the first thing I'm loving right now:
1. Family Outings
Tessa was just a baby last fall and still needed a morning nap, so it was hard to go anywhere as a family for more than an hour or two. This year she's old enough to participate (actually she thinks she's the same age as my four year old, which brings a whole different set of challenges).
We had some really great family day trips, including visiting an apple festival,
exploring a new (to us) park that featured a castle,
and experiencing a local spot called Farmland Adventures. The girls had an incredible time climbing a haystack, going on a tractor ride, feeding goats and sheep, and finding our way through a mini corn maze.
Tessa even had her first pony ride, to her utter delight. It's been such fun to fit in all these outdoor adventures before the cold weather arrives, and I'm trying to soak up every second.

2. Halloween
Lots of people have understandable reservations about this holiday, and yes it certainly has its dark side (pun intended?) but when we focus on the innocent delight of dressing up and celebrating with family and friends it's pretty great.
Charlotte got to pick our family costumes again this year (next year it will be Tessa's turn) and she chose characters from her favorite movie Rio. She wanted us all to be blue macaws, but I decided I only had it in me to make two bird costumes (no luck buying them online). So C was Jewel, T was a baby blue macaw, and Chris and I were Tulio and Linda, the human sidekicks who run the bird preserve in Brazil. Between celebrating at our church's annual Streetfest carnival, reverse trick-or-treating at the local hospital, and actual T or T through our friends' neighborhood we got some good wear out of these costumes!

3. Early Voting
Don't worry, I'm not about to make a political pitch, but I will say that early voting is absolutely the best idea ever. I went by our local chamber of commerce after dropping C off at preschool, and was in and out in under ten minutes.
My voting assistant
I've heard the lines are much longer around lunchtime (obviously) but it will still take much less time than waiting until election day. If you have the opportunity to vote early it's pretty much a no-brainer (I know not all states offer early voting...I'm so sorry if you don't have this option). The right to vote is such an important responsibility and privilege,  but being able doing it quickly definitely makes exercising this right more enjoyable!

4. Bible Study
I just wrapped up an eight week women's Bible study, and it was such a growing experience. I debated whether it was worth adding to our already busy schedule, but it was definitely the right decision to participate. We studied feminine design from a biblical perspective, and it was so eye-opening, encouraging, and affirming. Even better than just the content of the study was the chance to get to know and connect with women from my church on a deeper level. Our church is very big (we actually have four separate congregations, ours meets on Saturday night) and since we have a community group model rather than Sunday school it can be hard to get to know people. The small group discussion we had as part of the study gave me the chance to go deeper with women from all walks of life, which was such a blessing. The girls had a great time with all their friends in childcare too, which was a huge plus.

5. Cinnamon Apple Tea
I am a huge fan of apple cider (I actually prefer it to hot chocolate) but since I started Trim Healthy Mama I needed a new, sugar free alternative. I discovered Cinnamon Apple Spice tea from Celestial Seasonings (you can find it at Walmart) and started tweaking it until I figured out the perfect concoction to satisfy that apple cider craving. I add two tea bags to just off the boil hot water and let them steep for five minutes. Then I stick the tea in a blender along with some sweetener (I use stevia but you could do sugar or honey), a tablespoon or two of half and half, and a teaspoon of protein powder (makes it foam) and blend it up for a few minutes. It smells heavenly, and tastes just as good!

Your turn! What adventures, celebrations, and flavors of fall are you loving right now? Despite the Christmas decorations that have appeared in all the stores we actually still have at least a month of autumn left, so let's savor it!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Mama Musings: Giving my girls more than just a magical childhood

When I was a brand new mama I quit teaching in order to care for my baby girl full-time. Once the newborn fog wore off and C stopped screaming after every meal and sleeping consistently, I found myself with lots of empty time on my hands. Like any first time mom I was determined to be the best stay-at-home-mom I could be, and make my daughter's childhood happy and magical. So I dove head first into Pinterest and made myself a list of projects. During Charlotte's first year I learned how to sew pillowcase dresses and applique bibs and tops. I decorated her nursery with projects and artwork I made myself. I designed and sewed her Halloween costume. I started planning her first birthday party in February, and spent months developing a party plan and making hand-crafted decorations. I made four photo albums of her first year, in addition to her baby book. We took family trips to the beach, Colorado, and Disney World (twice). Oh, and naturally I blogged about it all.

I knew baby number two would change things, but I had no idea of the extent. I still managed to keep up Tessa's baby book because I promised myself I would, but I certainly didn't make her baby clothes and I bought her Halloween costume at Target. When I did try to do a project I was interrupted so many times it became an exercise in futility and frustration. Charlotte stopped napping when Tessa was three months old, and once T became mobile my craft projects truly became a thing of the past.

I gotta admit they look just as cute in store-bought costumes as they do in homemade ones
Far from the over-achieving crafty mom I had attempted to be the first time around, after baby two the pendulum swung the other way and I found myself glued to my phone while Charlotte watched shows every afternoon, waiting desperately for Chris to come home so we could have dinner and then send the girls to bed. When I found myself snapping at my preschooler when she wanted me to play with her and getting annoyed with my baby for fussing while I was trying to read an article on Facebook, I realized this was not the mom I wanted to be. It was time for a change, but how? The mere thought of coming up with creative crafts to do with C and games to play together was overwhelming. I knew I didn't have the time or energy to be "super-creativity mom" again, but I could do better than this.
I was unable to find Charlotte her requested "blue macaw" costume on Amazon, so this year I went back to DIY.
I decided that I needed to start by eliminating my distractions. I deleted Facebook off my phone, and designated 4-8pm to be "screen free" for both me and the girls. It's not always easy, and there are certainly times when I reach unthinkingly for my phone to kill some time during the infamous "witching hour" before dinner, but we really do have so much less conflict and whining (the girls) and irritation (me) when I intentionally engage with them during this time. I also find myself praying for patience. A lot.
Second, I decided to try some very simple celebrations and activities. We had a fall party with a super easy "pumpkin snack" (I colored a paper bowl orange and filled it with cheddar Chex mix) and a leaf hunt using some fake leaves from my decorations stash. For the girls' half birthdays I made cupcakes and served them on a special plate. We went on a nature hike at the local park and collected items in the shape of letters to spell Charlotte's name (totally stole this idea from Pinterest). Instead of preparing a craft ahead of time I ask C what she wants to make and we figure out how to do it together. Afterwards she always tells me that making art together is her favorite thing to do.

I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to give my children a happy and magical childhood, but I'm learning that goal is much too shortsighted. Worse, it sets me up for trying to live an impossible standard of the "perfect mom" I have in my head. I want to win my girls' hearts and make sure they know they are loved, valued, and cherished, not just by me and their dad, but most importantly by their God and Creator. So if making a blue macaw costume for Charlotte will make her feel special and beautiful, then I'll do it. But I need to be careful not to let any project become more important than spending time actually interacting with my girls.
I've been mulling over some big thoughts on distractions, sanctification, priorities, and dying to self, but I'll save that post for another day. Bottom line is my job as a mom is to love my girls well and point them to Jesus while teaching and modeling a servant's heart. The cute outfits, fun parties, and special outings are fluff and fun, but I have to carefully guard against letting them distract me from actually being the mom God called me to be.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Capsule Wardrobe: Part 3 - Mix and match outfits

One of my favorite things about my capsule wardrobe is the number of outfits I can create with just a few pieces. I thought I'd show you some examples using a "mini capsule," three tops, three bottoms, and two completers (along with shoes and accessories). This was a fun challenge for me, and I ended up putting some outfits together that I never would have tried otherwise. Here's what I had to work with:
  • tops: gray flowy tunic, burgandy striped top, pink short-sleeved tee
  • bottoms: distressed skinny jeans, black leggings, dark boot-cut jeans
  • completers: brown jacket, cream cardigan
  • shoes: gray converse, brown riding boots, gold toms
  • accessories: turquoise beads, long gold necklace, plaid scarf

This outfit is both super comfy (the top is whisper-soft cotton jersey) and polished enough for a MOPS meeting or Bible study.

I love how versatile this tunic is. Dressed down with some distressed skinnies it works for a trip to the library or a park playdate. 
Paired with leggings, riding boots, and this (faux) leather jacket and it's the perfect outfit for a girls' night out.
This striped burgundy top is super comfy (noticing a theme yet?) I paired it with this chunky knit cardigan from Gap that I've had forever, with distressed jeans and sneakers for a trip to the library.
Worn by itself you can see the fun raglan sleeve detail on the top, and the scarf and boots give it a definite fallish vibe (this is pretty much the exact outfit I just wore for our family pictures).
This caramel colored motorcycle jacket was a total impulse buy at Target a couple weeks ago. I broke my "no clothes shopping until December" rule, and I couldn't be happier I did. It's taken my wardrobe in a whole new direction, and proves that sometimes rules were meant to be broken. :) 
This slouchy dusty-rose tee has been a great, versatile piece for transitioning from late summer to early fall weather (it's super cute with a pair of distressed jean shorts too).
Just throw on a jacket in the morning when the air is still crisp, then take it off in the afternoon when the air conditioner kicks on again.
I'm still waiting for all-day cool weather when this cardigan/leggings combo will be perfect for curling up with a book during nap time. 

Hopefully this gives you some new ideas for changing up your favorite pieces and pulling together fresh outfits from your favorite clothes. It really doesn't take that much effort (I usually decide on my outfit either the night before when I put on my jammies or in the morning while I'm in the shower). It make such a huge difference in my outlook when I feel pulled together and ready for my day. Of course to be completely honest there are still days when I do my grocery shopping in workout gear or spend the day in my favorite sweatpants and ratty t-shirt, but at least I know when I want to look nice with minimal effort, I can! :) 
What are your favorite go-to outfits for fall? Do you like to wear the same basic uniform every day, or do you prefer to mix and match? I'm thinking of adding a pair of colored jeans this winter for more versatility, but I'm not sure I would end up wearing them very often. Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Kid Lit: Fall Picture books and board books

Charlotte is at that age (four and a half) where she is really starting to understand seasons and months of the year. She's very excited about fall and watching the leaves change, although she is also struggling with the end of summer (she had a twenty-minute meltdown when I told her I'd packed away her sundresses because she was so sad summer is over). I decided it would be fun and hopefully educational to celebrate the changing of seasons with some new autumn-themed books. I bought a few used on Amazon, and filled in with a few more from the library. Here are some of our favorite fall stories:

Picture Books

1. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Leaves by Lucille Colandro
This book follows the pattern of the "Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" song, but in this story she eats a random assortment of fall-related items and sneezes out a scarecrow at the end. C thinks this story is hilarious and wants to hear it over and over.

2. Let it Fall by Maryann Cocca-Leffler
This sweet story highlights the best things about autumn, and also acknowledges some of the not-so-fun parts. It touches on the transition to winter too, which is helpful. There is a series of these, one for each season. We have summer (Let it Shine) and I am planning on getting Let is Snow and Let it Rain too.

3. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson
This is a poignant story about a little fox who is worried about his favorite tree when its leaves start falling. I love the illustrations, and I think the story does a great job of dealing with the sad feelings we have when a season is coming to an end (C has big feelings about everything, so I'm always looking for resources to help her deal with them).

4. It's Pumpkin Day, Mouse! by Laura Numeroff
This cute story features the mouse from the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series, and celebrates painting pumpkins to show different emotions (happy, sad, scary, etc.). It's a nice, quick read for a young toddler/preschooler that my four year old still loves to hear.

5. The Year at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen
This is book is not just about fall, but is instead kind of a seasons primer that shows what farm life is like during each month of the year. It's beautifully illustrated and gives a concrete description of work and play in connection to nature, something that we don't see very tangibly any more (at least not in my suburban neighborhood) but is very important to me for my children to learn about.

6. P is for Pumpkin by Kathy-jo Wargin
I adore this alphabet book that lists fall favorites from A to Z, but points out how each one is a gift from God. It's such a great, easy way to teach our children about how the Lord created the seasons and gives us every good thing.

Board Books

1. Baby at the Farm by Karen Katz
We love books by Karen Katz in our house. This isn't strictly a fall book, but it does talk about farm animals which always makes me think of fall. It's a touch and feel book, when I ask Tessa if she want to read a book this is always the one she brings me.

2. Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin by Tad Hills
Another simple story with pretty illustrations, this book is a quick enough read to keep my one year old's attention with short, repetitive sentences.

3. The Busy Little Squirrel by Nancy Tafuri
I love this sweet story about a squirrel who is too busy storing food for the winter to stop and play with all the other animals. The illustrations are precious.

Do you have any seasonal favorites you like to read with your kiddos? Is your toddler like mine, insisting on reading the same story over and over again until you don't even have to look at the words? ;)