family life

crafting guilt

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Growing up, it was understood that my dad would spend a certain amount of time in front of the television during football season. My mom supported it (he needed to relax after busy work days). The same football ritual was upheld and supported by countless females in the family. The women tended to household responsibilities and children while the men relaxed.

I'm not writing to pass judgment on sports. As my mom recognized, it is a valid way to wash away the worries of the world and engage in some fun. What I'm wondering is, does society bestow upon me, a mother of young children, the same unquestioned right to relax? Because I've noticed something lately, especially when I pick up my knitting project. It's a feeling of guilt. A “bad mom, bad housekeeper, selfish artist” kind of feeling. And I guarantee that my darling dad never felt that when he sat down to watch a game.

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This feeling is surprising to me, given that I have a very supportive partner. He willingly provides me time to knit and sew. Sewing time, for me, can be filed under the “getting stuff done for my small business” category. Knitting, though, is pure diversion. All that time I spent knitting my Find Your Fade Shawl? He jokingly said it best himself: “Each of those stitches is made possible by my Dad Skills.” Unquestionably, he has some mad Dad Skills, but I noticed a shift in my own self-consciousness when he said it. Was I overly depending on him for my leisure time? What do my extended family members think about a mother who sits down to knit an unnecessary garment? (Why would she do that when there's Target?) On and on went the grumbling, negative voice in my head.

When my partner read this, he said, “I feel the same guilt when I play the banjo.” Perhaps the gender-specific hobby guilt is shifting with the times, but it still doesn't erase the feeling that we, particularly as parents, should always be doing something else. Something immediately productive.

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As I've written before, I feel like I have a healthy relationship with my (very short) to-make list. I don't resent my children because they keep me from obsessively making. I find the process of slowly making things to be meditative and fulfilling – when I can get over that feeling that I should be making a grand dinner/doing the laundry/reading to the kids/putting together some sort of amazing science experiment. I recognize this feeling of guilt is a construct of my own mind, helped along by societal expectations. And so, I've started considering the following, in order to access the mindful, relaxed state that I seek when I craft:

  1. Knitting and sewing are my Artist's Way. Just because I am not writing in a journal or painting, it doesn't mean that what I do is not an artistic practice. I should speak of it as such – to my children, to my extended family, and to my friends. Fiber art is a productive and worthy form of artistic expression. It is good for me to show my passion to my children, and for them to see me as a real artist (even though I don't make a penny from my knitting.)

  2. A regular knitting/creating routine is in order. Just like Monday night football, I think it would be helpful for me and my family to know what to expect in my artistic practice. Perhaps I should sit down with my coffee and yarn for a predictable 30 minutes each morning? Maybe a weekend morning sewing session? I am also going to try putting on an audio book that we all enjoy while I work with my hands. I suspect that my eight year-old will also pick up his own knitting project while we listen and knit.

  3. Communicate that handwork is also a spiritual practice. Taking time to breathe, clear my thoughts, and enter the present moment with my craft ultimately helps me be a more present mother. A mother who is comfortable with slowing down, ripping out stitches, starting over again, and being at peace with the process. Because truly, that's the heart of the problem. Our society prioritizes “doing” over “being.” I have no problem “doing.” Most people don't. I can always use more practice just “being,” and my fiber art can help with that.

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“Feelings about the past and the future pass through our knitting consistently. Thoughts can be neatly filed away into the fabric, enabling the present to be less cluttered and free for more mindful knitting. Let your processed thoughts flow with the yarn into the knitting. As your rows build up, let your stories of the past and future leave the present, and find a suitable place to rest within the knitting. As the stories are knitted away, notice the sentiment behind them and, with a clear head, continue to form useful, beautiful fabric. Woes will start to evaporate into your knitting rather than reside in your body. As you knit more rows, continue to use this simple filing system, until you feel you have fully entered your peaceful, sacred knitting space, and are free of any niggling fears.”

Rachael Matthews - The Mindfulness in Knitting - Meditations on Craft and Calm

Pattern info:

Rainbow shawl - Find Your Fade Shawl, knitted with fingering-weight yarn from my stash

Cropped sweater - Tegna Sweater, knitted with yarn from Welthase in Antique Rose colorway

White, two-tiered dress under Tegna Sweater - upcoming reversible Metamorphic Dress pattern from Yours Truly. ;)


how unschooling, or "flow" learning, brings joy to our life with kids

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Certain things change when you have a child with a serious heart defect. I immediately saw through the veneer of certain societal norms : time spent staring at a screen to escape reality, time spent doing something that doesn't bring joy for the sake of getting ahead, time spent away from my kids in order to make more money. It suddenly all became just that: Time Spent. Spent and gone. That precious, precious Time. If there was any doubt in my mind that I would homeschool my kids before Lachlan's diagnosis, it was completely erased post-diagnosis. There would be no wasting of any time in school.  For kids with HLHS, childhood is often a Golden Time - their heart function often declines as they enter their later teen years and early adulthood. Why waste my son's precious life with time spent waiting in line and taking tests? I didn't know then that I would come to believe that schooling at home isn't worth our time as a family, either.

My little boy with half a heart is old enough to be in kindergarten, away from me five days a week. Instead, he is home with all of us. He wakes up in the morning and starts working on the ramps he builds for things with wheels, or he asks someone to read him a story. He helps with breakfast, and buils a boat out of cardboard. He fixes himself a snack of apples and almond butter when he's hungry. He might choose to go outside to swing, woo a neighbor cat from under the shed, or ride his bike down the neighbor's driveway. He plays with the neighbor kids in the afternoons, or enjoys a board game with me if the weather is crummy. He has become “quite the hiker,” to use his own words, and is amazingly helpful with outside chores and gardening tasks. In the moments in between, he is either playing the piano (figuring out melodies in different keys is his jam) or on the couch with a book in his lap.

Last year at this time, I was struggling with homeschooling. I didn't feel like family life was joyful. I felt pressure to help my eldest learn to read. I felt pressure to come up with a family rhythm that worked for all of us. I felt pressure to find time to get in all the “educational stuff” every day, to make sure our days were nourishing, calm, and enriching. In my head, it went like this: first, math play with Daddy. Then, violin practice, followed by family music time. Next, we would move on to read-aloud and a planned art project, followed by reading and writing practice, outside play, and quiet time. Oh my. I met with resistance from one or another of my kids at every step of the way. Even though I was trying my best to maximize our moments of enrichment, it just started to feel like Time Spent. Precious Time - wasted because I was still holding onto the belief that, if I didn't expose my children to most subjects most days, I was an unsuccessful homeschooling parent. I was doing a disservice to my kids.

Thank goodness I got over that. Because my goal is not to have children who can recite math facts at incredible speed, or whose handwriting is beyond lovely and whose spelling is pristine at age seven. My goal, quite simply, is to live joyfully with my kids. I do not homeschool in order that they may get into an Ivy League university. I homeschool so that their minds can flourish in an environment of respect, so that they can practice listening themselves and empathizing with fellow humans, so that they can explore and have time to hone their own gifts and passions. I homeschool so we can enjoy living and learning together as a family. Which is why we shifted to radical unschooling.

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I'm not writing this to convince you that unschooling is the “right” way to homeschool. There are so many different kinds of personalities, and a school-at-home method might be perfect for certain kids and families. I'm writing this for anyone who feels like I did at this time last year – that homeschooling is a slog. This is for the homeschooling parent who feels stressed out by the pressure of fitting in all of those different subjects, who might be meeting with resistance from highly self-motivated kids. That was me. Turns out, my kids can smell a “teachy mom” with an agenda from miles away. They don't want a teachy mom. They want me: a mom who listens, who empathizes, who marvels with them, who supports them, who demonstrates passion, kindness and work ethic through her way of living rather than her words and rules, and who gets out of the way when they are concentrating.

The day I accepted that my own passions and interests wax and wane, and that I learn best when given the time to focus on one thing at a time, really getting into the flow of concentration, the sky opened up and a chorus of angels started singing. Of course my kids were constantly annoyed that they didn't have enough time to work on what was important to them. (I get annoyed when told that I need to stop doing what I'm focusing on in order to work on something else, too!) Obviously, just because I don't write every day, that doesn't mean that I am not a writer. Just because I put aside my sewing design work for months at a time, that doesn't mean I won't come back to it later when the moment is right. Just because I lose interest in cooking fancy meals in order to make time for a burst of interest in painting doesn't mean I'll never cook again. The idea that learning must happen at a constant, plodding pace is just plain wrong. When I liberated myself from the idea that I had to be all things all the time, I passed along that grace to my children as well. (Notice that I don't commit to write a weekly blog post, or come out with a new sewing pattern every season. I'll do those things when I'm inspired to do them – that way, they fill me with energy rather than depleting me.) Just because my kids don't practice math daily doesn't mean they won't obsess over rubik's cube theory for two days straight. Just because they write a story one day doesn't mean that I need to worry if they put aside that work for a while after a burst of concentration and interest.

We cleared our morning schedule and allowed to allow the kids to get into interests and projects. And man, it feels SO right. We are all so happy. And learning, even the kind that can be measured by a test, has blossomed. No wonder – neurobiology has finally caught up with educational luminaries such as Jean Piaget and John Holt. It turns out that simply living joyfully, respectfully, and responsively with children provides the necessary environment for all sorts of learning to happen:

 

It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense: the brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. - Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang

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It was only when I stopped trying to teach Finn to read that he started to read on his own. When I stopped asking him to read aloud and stopped trying to institute a predetermined silent reading time, he took a mini reading vacation. He loved listening to read-alouds or audio books, but didn't pick up anything on his own. A few months into his vacation, I started displaying books that I thought might capture his interest. I put them, cover out, on the couch, which is where he first plops himself when he comes downstairs upon waking. He picked one up and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. From that point forward, he has been reading for several hours a day, nearly every day, of his own accord. All I do is “strew” books he will love in his path, and he gets lost in them.

The same has been true of Lachlan, who learned his letters in the hospital while recovering from his third surgery. Other than that, he was spared my well-meaning attempts at formal reading instruction other than following along with my finger during read-alouds, answering his direct questions, and playing some sound games. I put out books that I think might tickle his funny bone, and he happily plops himself down with them and reads book after book after book. I'm sure he isn't able to read every word in the Amulet series, but he gets most of them, and, like his older brother, he views reading as a diversion rather than a chore. Sadie is following suit, and she spends a good hour a day “reading” out loud all of the picture books she can get her hands on. Our living room floor is always covered with books.

Would I feel the same ease with unschooling if my kids hadn't embraced reading so readily? Sometimes I wonder, but the fact remains that they only started doing this once we had been curriculum- and rhythm-free for a good while. I attribute much of their rampant reading, natural interest in mathematical theory, and focused problem-solving capabilities to my graduate degree in Montessori education. Because of all of my immersion in Montessori, I understood the importance of preparing the environment to assist the child in entering into depth of flow, or concentrated effort. (For more on this theory, check out this talk TED talk by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow: The Secret of Happiness.)

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I've written before about our toys (and where we keep them) in a previous post. The gist is this: our few, open-ended toys are kept upstairs in a small play room. We spend most of our time downstairs, where they have access to myriad books, all of our musical instruments, the kitchen, and our art/tinkering space. During our “lazy” mornings, we all enjoy these activities (with some homemaking tasks thrown in for me and the occasional child.) All of these activities are set up to be welcoming and accessible for each child. We have cozy bean bags for reading, age-appropriate art materials available within reach (tempera paints aren't accessible for the 3 year-old, but markers, scissors, paper, etc. are.) We have headphones available to a child who wants to play the (electronic) piano while another is reading, so as not to disturb the reader. All of the baking supplies, as well as their cookbooks, are available to the five and seven year-olds in case they feel thus inspired. The snack drawer is nearly always stocked with a panoply of healthy options; even the toddler can serve herself whenever she is hungry.  Any Montessori teacher would feel at home in our house - the only thing missing is the expensive and space-consuming Montessori materials. Our home is designed so the kids can act safely and independently at a place where their interests are perfectly matched with just the right amount of challenge. They almost always enter this state of creative "Flow" given enough unstructured time.

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The one thing that we do differently from many radically unschooling families is screen time. Like most unschoolers, we don't restrict their time on screens and we don't waste our time or energy on arguing the value of video game vs. a good book. We just naturally don't have screen time. We don't own a television. (Since moving out of our respective homes at 18, Patrick and I have never owned a TV. It has never been our preferred way to relax.) We don't own a video game consul. Our kids don't have their own tablets or computers. Patrick is a computer programmer, and I have an online business and write on my computer, but it's clear to the kids that we don't look at screens if we aren't working. We'd rather be playing an instrument, drawing, hiking, or playing a board game. Screens just seem to suck away our precious time with each other, so we treat them as an occasional tool rather than an inevitable fixture. We are not Luddites; we use YouTube to learn a skill and watch documentaries together. We watch Spanish language kids' music videos. The boys really enjoy programming music in Sonic Pi with their dad. Finn spent a few weeks last spring putting together elaborate stop-motion videos, which required learning to use my camera and lighting equipment and gaining proficiency with the stop motion software. They watch the occasional cartoon at their grandparents' house. But they don't have their own screens and they don't do school work online.

Rather than making it a self-regulating screenapalooza or a stress-filled, parent-regulated, much-sought-after commodity, we just naturally don't have screens readily available in our house. It's a perfect fit for our family. I'm not arguing the merits or disadvantages to unrestricted screen time, but I wanted to add this screen-light option to the radically unschooled dialog. Perhaps knowing that a naturally screen-light home environment is an option will help some screen-wary families open to the possibility of unschooling. It's certainly been a positive shift for our family. Goodbye curricula, hello Flow, hello healthy connection between parents and children.


7 ways to strengthen your relationship with your child despite sibling rivalry

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There are always good moments. Moments when they are cuddled up together reading a book, times when they are helping and encouraging each other, coming up with some funny game, or giggling about an inside joke.

Then there are the other times.


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You know, sibling jealousy stuff. Little behavioral outcries for connection. Totally understandable, right? I mean, could you imagine having to share your partner, your one-and-only, with two other people who are angling for his/her affection? And can I just bemoan, for a bit, the lamentable fact that there are only TWO SIDES of my body while sitting on a couch reading a book, and TWO HANDS available while out on a hike? I know. I wish that, with the birth of my third child, I also acquired a third arm. Octopus appendages preferable.

When I consider the long view of parenting, what seems to be the most important factor (and ultimately, the only one I can control) is my individual relationship with each of my three children. As adults, they may end up good friends, they may end up living far from each other and seeing each other only occasionally, or they may be so different that they don't find much common ground. Of course, I hope that I'm building a strong sibling connection through homeschooling, family adventures, and traditions, but in the end, their relationships with each other are theirs alone. But my relationship with each of them is totally in my hands, and I strive to connect deeply with each of them.

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Going through a phase where my kids are bickering more often that usual means that I need step back and observe if  there are any needs that aren't being adequately met - unmet needs which might correlate with the uptick of feelings of jealousy.

For us, that generally means that there has been a dearth of time alone with me. Time when I can focus on each child without distractions. Totally impractical, yet totally necessary for my kids' emotional health. Some days I struggle to get food made, shuttle kids to a lesson here, write a blog post there ... let alone make time for my own self-care. But here are some ways to connect with each child individually that have worked for me in the past. Starting today, I'm going to take my own advice and implement as many of the following strategies as possible. I should note that, for my kids, stealthy "special time" is better for sibling harmony than announcing to everyone that "Mama is going to spend 15 minutes playing with Lachlan. You other two do your thing, then it will be your turn!" That only rubs vinegar in their wounds.

Here are some ways that I can sneak in moments of connectedness with each child even amidst a full day:

1.) Steal little moments: Out of eyeshot of siblings, whisper sweet words of love and appreciation into each child's ear. Look at that child with a twinkle in your eyes. If you find it helpful, keep a little tally sheet for your own use, showing the number of whispered love messages/hugs each child has received that day.

2.) Take advantage of quiet moments to have a big, juicy conversation: When the other kids are engaged in their own activities/play, sit beside the free child and start a conversation about what he/she is doing. Follow conversational tangents, be curious about what that child is thinking. Express sincere interest in his/her interest(s).

3.)Little love notes: A simple note of appreciation or something that you noticed about the child's experience that day, left under a pillow, in a lunch box, or in a book that you pick to read together.

4.) Whisper to a child who needs some extra lovin' that you'd like to share some special time with her, and ask if it's ok if you invite her siblings to listen to an audiobook together while you play/chat together. I find having a multi-headphone splitter a great tool for this. The kids are able to hear more clearly, and thus focus more easily, on their story. Each of my kids has a different version of these animal headphones.

5.) Schedule dates with each child: We are lucky in my family - we have three children, one set of grandparents who live in town, and two parents. This means that we have the freedom to set aside a morning or afternoon where each child receives some special attention - one with me, one with Patrick, and one with my parents. Ideally, we do this every few weeks, rotating kids.

6.) Focus on the positive interactions: Write down the good moments. Do a little mental tally of those moments of kindness and mention your gratitude for such moments to your child before he or she falls asleep.

7.) Every week, have a meeting with each child: Ask what their priorities are for the week - what do they want to play? Who do they want to see? What are they curious to learn? Write them down, and discuss how you might be able to fit their interests into the family calendar.

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And don't forget to take lots of pictures and videos of them having fun together. My husband thought that he and his siblings constantly fought, but was surprised to see some long-lost family videos that indicated that his memory was slightly skewed. They were all being so darling and sweet to each other! For your kids' sake, make sure they remember the positive interactions that they shared. Tell stories about those funny and kind sibling moments, watch the fun videos, and pull out the photo books often.

*This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting my writing and our family! 

 


Encourage Your Kids to Hike and Give Them a Lifelong Gift of Joyful Movement

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In the past year, we've slowly emerged from a period of time during which I couldn't take my three kids out to hike by myself. When Sadie was born, Lachlan still very much needed to be carried after a short period of walking. He can tire easily (he only has half a heart!), but sometimes he just didn't feel like walking – something he shares with most kids of preschool age, I imagine. And when a preschooler doesn't feel like walking, well … you shift your ideal to accommodate your reality.

 

My ideal is being able to enjoy multi-day backpacking trips with my kids. I grew up next to the Tahoe National Forest, and my dad and I would often head to the trail for the weekend. My dad is not an effusive guy, but during those hikes, camped beside isolated Sierra Nevada lakes, we connected. We didn't talk each other's ears off, but we did hard things together, and shared many funny moments. I want to experience that same distraction-free connection with my kids. Also, my dad's implicit confidence in my resilience as a backpacker framed so much of my self-conception as a woman today – no less capable of doing hard, adventurous, physically and mentally demanding things than my three older brothers. This is an image he cultivated in me from the time I was four, when he and I summited Mt. Lassen. Throughout my life, he told that story proudly. How the rest of the our friends' kids grumbled their way up the trail, and I kept on truckin' and singing, all the way to the top. He and I did a goofy dance in the summer snow patch at the summit. It is one of my most cherished childhood memories.

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My little guy with a congenital heart defect would not have been able to summit Mt. Lassen at age four . Instead, I adjusted my ideal and we picked hike-free natural places to explore while he grew in physical and mental resilience. We would (and still do) bring a picnic, art supplies, nets, magnifying glasses, field guides and set about exploring and simply enjoying the nature right around us. Sometimes we would go for very short hikes, but we tended to stick nearby. I wanted to cultivate positive vibes about nature. Check.

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And yet … I didn't want our experience of nature to remain sedentary. I am very aware of the benefits of moderate physical exercise for heart kids. Lachlan's heart function depends on a lifestyle of movement. His little heart is a muscle, and the more regularly he works it out, the better and longer it will serve him. He won't be able to play competitive soccer, basketball, or any organized sport like that. But as a family, we can provide him the knowledge of a physical activity that he can continue to enjoy well past the time that most adults stop participating in organized sports and start sitting in front of a computer screen for work. Hiking. Outdoor adventuring in general. A joyful gift of lifelong movement and health.

Here are the things that I'm currently doing to pass along a love of movement in nature, with a goal of going on our first family backpacking trip within the year.

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Scavenger hunt hikes

Sometimes the excitement of a scavenger hunt will get them out of the house in a jiffy. These can be “collecting” scavenger hunts, where they look for bits of nature to bring home for the nature table, but sensory scavenger hunts are my favorite. They have a list of things to see, smell, touch, or hear. Check out Pinterest for inspiration.

 

Snack bags

Have snack, will walk. It's really amazing to me how far my youngest two can go when they have bags of crackers or popcorn to dip into. While I try to keep cracker-face-stuffing to a minimum at home, on the trail they are a much-anticipated treat.

 

Gear Up the Kids 

Sometimes the gift of a special hiking backpack, hydration system, hiking boots, or trekking poles will inspire them to make some forward momentum on the trail. Lachlan is a big fan of “gear”. (Finn would go naked and barefoot into the woods, and Sadie of course prefers wearing her Halloween-princess-costume-turned-hiking-dress, but Lachlan is motivated by his backpack!)

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Gear Up the Mama

Two items have changed my ability to hike solo with my little family: my backpack with a comfortable hip belt and my ultra light-weight Boba Air baby carrier, which folds itself into a tiny zip bag when not in use. I'll start with the Boba carrier – I always stow it in my backpack. In case Lachlan or Sadie get tired, I can pop them in the carrier. In case both of them get tired at the same time, I can (as a last resort) put one in the carrier and the other on my shoulders and view it as an excellent work out! (I always anticipate this, and consider it a gift of a great work out rather than a situation to be feared and avoided at all costs.)

 

My backpack is filled with crackers, extra clothes, and water, mostly. It also provides me with the ability to facilitate a sweet little rest time, if needed. I love to pack a nature-themed story book like The Burgess Bird Book for Children, as well as some simple nature journal supplies (The boys tend to carry their own sketch books and water in their trail packs now, but I started out carrying everyone's supplies so as not to weight them down before they were ready.)

 

Sometimes a Curriculum is Helpful

I have loved some of the suggestions in Exploring Nature with Children, a Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschool curriculum. While we are radical unschoolers and don't follow curricula, I use this as a learning resource for myself, so I can be informed about seasonal details in nature. The book's suggestions are great, as are the themed nature walks. There are even some crafting ideas thrown in there! Highly recommended.

 

We've also participated in and enjoyed the Wild Explorers Club. The kids get weekly “assignments,” which vary from week to week. Some of our favorites have been making your own special walking stick and creating a map of a hike or natural area. When they complete a level (about 4 assignments), you can order them a special badge. We put our membership on hold this fall, but the boys have been asking to start up again. I should get on that.

 

Find a Hiking Community

It's no surprise that kids move more quickly, and with more gusto, when they are doing it with friends. So much more running happens on the trail when we hike with other kids! We are fortunate to have outdoor-loving friends. If you're still searching for your tribe, see if Hike It Baby or Adventure Mamas has an active community in your area.

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Go Slowly, Go Quickly

Be prepared to stop and play in water. Be prepared to marvel at small things. Be prepared to notice the feeling on dirt as it sifts from one hand to the other. Children move slowly, and we should follow their lead. Conversely, be prepared to play a game of tag. Be prepared to race to a tree. Be prepared to be playful. Children can move quickly, and we should follow that cue, as well. Nurturing a balance between fast and slow will keep everyone in balance as you hike.

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Talk it Up, Build Their Identities as Hikers

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Just like my dad did for me, talk about what amazing hikers your kids have become. Be in awe of their small triumphs, their resilience, their ability to do hard things. After a hike, talk up all of the neat things you saw, all of the fun you had. Plan hikes together - start a Pinterest board together of nearby trails you'd like to get to know. Teach them navigation skills, give them a camera to help document your nature discoveries. Let little ones take turns leading, and thank them for their help afterwards. Tell bedtime stories about them as explorers. Brag about their hiking to their grandparents in the same way you would mention how well they are learning to read.  Essentially, communicate that joyful movement in nature is an esteemed family value. In time, your children will come to self-identify as capable outdoor adventurers.

 


stress-free holiday magic with kids

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Not until I had slightly older children did I come to understand the amount of effort and love my own parents put into making the holidays sparkly and memory-worthy. There were pies. Special outfits. All the books. Crafts. Choral concerts. Epic skiing adventures. Hot chocolate. Tree cutting and decking the halls. Gingerbread houses.

I just got tired writing that.

I'm sure it helped that, by the time I was in elementary school and solidifying memories of my family's traditions, I was the only child still living at home. My brothers are older and had all gone off to college or other adventures, so my parents had but one Christmas-loving kid to fill up with holiday magic.

But I have three little ones, and organizing crafts and holiday experiences for them can be a bit of ... work. There's a fine line between finding joy in dedicating some of my time to creating memorable traditions for my young family and spending too much time, taking my attention away from their day-to-day need for connection and everything else.

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This year, I chose to focus on some super simple activities with my little wolf cubs. Activities that didn't require planning, reservations, or expenditures. I could have them on hand and do them when the moment seemed ripe.  

1.Dehydrating oranges and hanging them from the window.

I sliced the oranges while they ate some and placed some on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet. Set the oven to its lowest temperature and bake them for most of the day. Once dry, string them with white thread.

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While Finn was busy hanging the oranges from the window, Lachlan was busy learning how to tie a knot. The sewing thread proved to be too much of a challenge, but this thick thread provided him with nearly 30 minutes of concentration and a great sense of accomplishment!

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2.We made some orange (clementine) pomanders.

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 It was a bit challenging for Sadie, but she stuck with it and must have given her little pincer grip an amazing workout.

3.Have an all-out, holiday drawing binge at Art for Kids Hub.

Art for Kids Hub is a new discovery for us. My boys have been doing this literally for days. Especially Finn. Put on your favorite holiday tunes, make some hot cider, and peruse the "Winter" section. Follow along as a super fun dad draws alongside one of his four kids. The style is a bit like Ed Emberley - the dad draws a line or two, then the child draws a line or two. It's really heightened Finn's eye for scale and line shape, and his mind has been blown by the possibilities of oil pastels and using shading and perspective to add dimension to his drawings. He woke up this morning and told me "Mama! I dreamed about drawing last night!" He's back at it as I write this. And the best part? It's totally free. They do have some premium content, but most of the lessons are available for free on YouTube.

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4.Make some salt dough ornaments

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So easy. And apparently a healthy outlet for frustration, if you try rolling out the dough Lachlan-style! A quick google search will come up with the simple recipe using only flour, salt, and water. This year, we collected a few "nature stamps" while on a recent hike - twigs, winter greens, and acorns. If you press them into the dough, a subtle impression is left, which you can leave as-is, or embellish with paint after the ornament is baked.

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I have a request to make more salt dough ornaments today. I'm thinking we'll go with inspiration from The Artful Parent.

So far, so good this year. By keeping our holiday magic simple, I've managed to avoid overwhelm, and we've kept the usual space in our days for plentiful reading and nature exploration. I'm cool with leaving the more time-consuming traditions, like gingerbread houses, to my mom!


Finding Mental Space in the Morning When You Are a Co-Sleeping, Breastfeeding Mama

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    Perusing the Internet, particularly in the wellness community, you will bump into oodles of declarations about the importance of getting enough sleep. You'll also find a wealth of articles shouting out the amazing benefits of getting up early, particularly for mothers: Set your alarm, they say, for well before your children wake. Enjoy the gentle music of the birds as you sip on your cup of tea. Center your thoughts and fortify your emotional response with 20 minutes of seated meditation. Then take time for your intellectual and creative pursuits – write, draw, sew, or get some much-needed work done. Once the children wake, you will be ready to greet them with the renewed energy and satisfaction of a mother whose own cup has been lovingly and luxuriously filled!

    Then, suddenly, the chorus of soaring violins gives way to the scratching of the record, punctuated by a yearning call, “Mamaaaaa!” from down the hall. It's 5:30 AM, and the hot water you put on for your tea hasn't even started boiling yet. The resentment builds as your internal record player cues U2's “Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.” Self-care thwarted. Again.

     I remember happening upon a month-long program to encourage mothers commit to getting up early, helping them design a nourishing morning routine. I'm soooo in, I thought. This is what I need! Surely there will be tips in this program to find that much-coveted mental renewal! As I got to the bottom of the page describing the benefits of the program, and just as I was ready to type in my email address to sign up, I saw a disclaimer. **This program is not for mothers who are still breastfeeding. ** Oh. Duh. But please do tell, how am I supposed to survive and thrive as a mother if I have to put off self-care for the next, say, eight years?

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    I have always had early-to-rise children; children who either start nursing in their sleep at 5:30 a.m., or who, after weaning, leap out of bed at 6 a.m. and sprint to wherever I may be (if I had managed to wiggle out of my nursing toddler's super-glued morning latch.) Despite my nearly eight-year reality of co-sleeping with nursing babies and early risers, I have managed to come up with a few ways to fulfill my morning requirement for mental space. And yes, this is a morning requirement. I just can't put off my self-care until after my kids go to bed. (Most nights I fall asleep when they do, if I'm being honest.) As a highly sensitive introvert, I am left with few emotional resources for the day if I don't fill my cup properly in the morning. If you're like me, and need some alone time to be your most refreshed, present mama-self, here are a few tips:

    If you're nursing a little one or co-sleeping with a child who has a built-in body heat detector that sets off an alarm as soon as you (oh so gingerly) disentangle yourself from child limbs and creep out of bed, embrace your spot in that bed. Who says you have to get out of bed to have some quality time with yourself? I sleep within arm's reach of my charged phone, already attached to a pair of ear buds, and as soon as I begin to stir, I reach for it. Here's the catch – if end up checking my email or looking at social media, I don't feel refreshed. I feel like I've wasted my time. I might even end up feeling like my life is a dull gray facsimile of the vibrant, trouble-free images I see there.

    So here's what I do – the night before, I make sure I've downloaded a guided meditation or inspirational podcast (I love Squam's Morning on the Dock. I also really enjoy The Homeschool Sisters or listening to anything from Julie, my homeschooling guru.

    My morning go-to is a lovingkindness meditation that I recorded for mothers, which I've made available in my side bar. I think of it like breakfast in bed. Sure, breakfast at a table is swell, but it feels downright luxurious in bed. Same goes with meditation or alone time. Who says you have to sit with your spine perfectly aligned to experience the calming benefits of a meditation  practice? Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. I'm going to meditate while lying down as long as I can!

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Make a small play space near where you would like to have your self-care time. I work out in my bedroom (which is minimally decorated and tends to stay cleaner than the rest of the house.) We have a small house, but our bedroom had an uncharacteristically large walk-in closet (um, I've owned the same two pairs of boots for the past 15 years …). I didn't need a walk-in closet. But I did need an area where my little ones could play while I worked out in my bedroom upstairs! So I took out the IKEA shelving, attached it to a free wall in my bedroom, and set up a small play area near the dormer window. 31626922206_c3d03d3d54_z
This is where we keep all of the kids' toys. Downstairs, where we spend most of our time during the day, they have access to books, musical instruments, and all the art/tinkering supplies their little hearts could desire. So this time spent upstairs keeps their toys “fresh.” 31547900041_ff3eca7478_z

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 They don't have many toys, and our house doesn't have any storage space for toy rotation, but here's what keeps my 2, 5, and 7 year-olds happily engaged in play: Magnatiles (Best. Purchase. Ever.), a handy swoop bag filled with Lego, dolls and dollhouse, little figures, trains, cars, blocks and a marble run. **

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  • Use the morning activity trick, if you don't have the space for a small play area. If I feel on top of my game the night before (never a guarantee!) I will set up a parent-free activity on the art table. This is what they call a “provocation” in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Think loose parts, open-ended art invitations, and natural materials. I compiled a bunch of ideas on my Pinterest board. Some of these kinds of activities have kept my kids busy for a loooong time. Others fall short. But it's worth a try, knowing that you might be gifted a few un-needed morning moments in which to gather your thoughts. Alternatively, you could keep most of the toys in a closet and just bring out one or two at a time, again, to keep it interesting and fresh.

  • Lean on your partner. I'm pretty lucky in this respect. Patrick starts work at 9 AM and has a zero minute commute. I know. Decadent. I cringe when I hear about significant others who have to leave for work before the kids even get up. I just … gosh. Let me give you a hug. (( )) OK. For those of you who are lucky like me, PLEASE, don't assume you need to be available whenever the kids are awake. Even though things may be a smidge chaotic with Mama out of commission, don't let the quest for the perfect morning experience for your kids get in the way of a better morning routine for Mama. At least in my house, if I'm not on top of my game, things fall apart pretty much instantly. So let them falter. Your partner needs alone time with the kids, too. I tell myself that I can't meddle in their relationship. It's theirs to grow.

     For a good long time now, I have been saying good morning to my little loves, chatting with them while doing the laundry for about ten minutes or until Daddy wakes, then changing into my workout clothes and doing a workout video (I love Barre3). It only takes me 30-40 minutes, and sometimes I end up breastfeeding a toddler while doing core work or having three short-lived workout buddies, but most of the time they either play quietly in their upstairs play space or forget I'm upstairs and go about their morning with Daddy. When I fit in a workout first thing, I'm doing three things:

•    I'm modeling healthy living and self-love to my children.

•    I'm getting some healthy momentum going first thing – not surprisingly, when I work out, I'm much more likely to drink a big glass of water and fix myself a nutritious smoothie for breakfast than eat something heavy like pancakes or french toast. I feel better about my choices and choices I make give me more energy. Win-win.

•    I'm releasing stress and increasing oxygenation which will leave my body energized and my mind clear. I'm much more emotionally and physically equipped to handles the everyday rigors of parenting.

Do you have any other tips for carving out mental space for yourself in the morning? Please leave a comment so others can find strategies that work best for their families!

**This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for supporting my writing and our family! Also, the photos are from a lovely family photo session with my friend Jessi!

 


a philosophy of sewing

 

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Or, why I took a break from sewing, and why I'm back at it.

I worked myself raw in the years after Lachlan's birth and first two heart surgeries. I filmed my Craftsy course, came out with a ton of new patterns, and attended my first Quilt Market. Sew Liberated was our primary source of income while Patrick was in grad school, and since we had such high medical bills, it needed to grow. Sewing became work - something that took me away from my little family. But Sew Liberated wasn't cutting it. We made the decision for Patrick to teach himself programming so he could jump off the history PhD ship that was sailing to oblivion. We needed to be able to stay near Duke for Lachlan's cardiology needs, and we needed a more stable income. When he landed a programming job, I became a full-time mom, and no longer had the time to work on Sew Liberated, even if I had wanted to.

We hired Danica to run the show, and I took a deep breath. Lachlan's third open heart surgery was on the horizon, and I did a ton of mental work to prepare myself for that sickening moment when I handed my baby off to scrubbed and masked strangers. I meditated. I did yoga.  I tried to get us out into nature as much as possible. Tried to create a nurturing cocoon of a home. Tried to do anything in my power to equip my little ones with love, attention, and good memories. I birthed a sweet baby girl. I felt my ability to focus on anything other than my family slipping away into a pleasant, homey blur. My family became my creative outlet. Months went by, and I didn't touch my sewing machine. Then a year passed. I didn't miss it. It was work. I didn't want anything to do with it.

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I didn't miss that rushed feeling of trying to sew "just one more seam" before the baby awoke. I didn't miss feeling frustrated when I didn't finish a project in the allotted time frame. I didn't miss the constant stream of project ideas that would hound my thoughts when I could have been enjoying the present moment with my kids. I didn't miss the creative to-do list. I didn't miss the stacks of yet-to-be-used fabric, beckoning me from the shelf. They used to cast a shadow of resentment over my children for their incessant needs that took me away from being a more productive creative person. 

The surgery day dawned. If I hadn't focused on Sew Liberated since before Sadie was born, now I didn't even give it one thought. Facing the tender, fleeting, mortal nature of being human gives you tunnel vision. This little boy of mine had his heart mended and fit by a tailor far more skilled than I. His surgeon's skilled hands touched Lachlan's heart, stitching pieces of previously-used human cloth onto my baby's own fresh tissue. Weaving gortex with muscle, he re-designed a circulatory system that would, for the first time, provide Lachlan with near-normal blood oxygenation levels and the energy of a typical three year-old. Lachlan's heart is re-purposed. Fully functional, yet beautifully flawed, like sashiko mending. 

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Nearly six weeks later, after battling with accumulating fluid on his lungs and the subsequent dehydration of his treatment, Lachlan's little mended heart slowed and stopped. I was at home, nursing a stuffy-nosed baby and five year-old. Patrick was with him as they rushed him to the pediatric cardiac ICU, soon starting chest compressions. When I got the call, I was eating a veggie quesadilla, which I spit out while I screamed and fell to the floor. I thought he was dead. I guess, in a way, he was. Had he been at home, 30 minutes from the hospital, he wouldn't have survived. (Hence our eventual move downtown. Covering bases, you know.) 

Lachlan recovered. But what does it mean to recover? To cover again. To mend. The mending is visible. Like his heart, life for our family would never be quite the same. There is a patch that covers our physical and psychological wounds. There is stitching that holds it together. Sometimes the stitching is pristine, in other places it is knotted with fear and anger. But we are functional. And achingly, imperfectly beautiful. 

We are still mending. A well-rubbed piece of cloth will, eventually, break down. When it does, we take up a needle and thread and piece it together any way we can. In my family, the cloth is often made threadbare by sibling bickering, hidden scary medical memories, and parental stress. But it can always be mended. Re-covered. Made functional. Unique.

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At some point, perhaps when that subtle shift occurred and my toddler started to spend long stretches playing with her dollhouse, a few minutes opened up in my days. I wanted to make her clothes as a gift of love. I cut into some soft cloth. She sat on my lap and removed the pins as I sewed. It was slow. But it brought me so much joy. I didn't take pictures of it. I didn't have to market the design. It was just that, a physical manifestation of love. An expression of my creativity and a happy investment of my time. I never want to sew for any other reasons.

Sewing has an important place in my life again, along with writing. But I have a personal manifesto that I now follow.

  1. Begin each project with the intention of expressing love and gratitude for the intended recipient, be it my own body or the vibrant bodies of my children.  
  2. Breathe deeply while cutting. Breathe deeply while sewing. Sewing is slow, and the act of slowing down is a gift of mindfulness. Accept any interruption in the process as a gift to be present. Find joy in the process, and appreciation for the amount of time it takes.
  3. Buy less. Make what you need, but not more.  When clothing wears down, mend it. Bring a mindset of minimalism to the fiber arts.
  4. Sewing is an act of self-care. It is not selfish. It is practice of mindfulness mendfulness. I sew because it helps me on my journey to be a more aware, loving mother and creative person. 

If I returned to my old way of sewing - the resentment, the oppressive to-make list, the feeling of being squeezed for creative time, I would need to stop and reassess. My time with these three little children is too short. With this healthier creative mindset, I hope to mend together my creative nature with parenthood.  

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I made these Rainbow Shorts for Lachlan using the Basic Pocket Pants pattern in my book, using Kaffe Fasset's Exotic Stripe in the Earth colorway.  It took me two weeks to sew them - a seam here, a seam there. He helped me. So did Sadie. He is clothed with love. 


a reintroduction

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Hello, friends. It's been a long time. You know the fluttery nerves you feel when meeting face to face with an old high school friend after ten years of mere commenting on each other's Facebook posts? I wonder - will you notice that my stomach looks like a well-lived-in baby house? Will you sense, through my strained wit, that my sleep was disturbed at least four times last night by one or another of my sweet babies? Will you notice the rivulets of years of sorrow and immense joy etched onto the landscape of my forehead and cheeks?

That's how I feel now, writing something more substantial than a short Instagram blurb for the first time in nearly two years. I feel exposed. Raw. Real. Imperfect. Vulnerable. And that feels remarkably good.

 

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For a long time, I was waiting for the perfect moment to return to blogging. I was waiting for my life to align to my values. I was waiting to heal. I was waiting until the sibling squabbles were few and far between, until I'd implemented the most nourishing self-care regimen. Until I started waking up at five in the morning to write in silence, before the baby needed to nurse. No wonder it has been so long since I'd visited this space. The perfect, of course, never arrives.

A beautiful thing is never perfect.

 

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Perfectionism. I have an intimate rapport with it; from my own (often disappointing!) quest to be the perfect parent, to my embarrassingly self-centered drive to have my home looking well put-together when hosting guests. And then there's the obvious run-in with perfection – this whole blogging thing. I feel like I've intuitively avoided this space in the past few years because of it's link to my own perfection problem. The beautiful pictures, the brilliant and flawless kids' activity. The expectation that I have mastered this parenting thing. Let it be on the record: I have most definitely NOT mastered this parenting thing.

Despite my years of Montessori training, despite my experience in the classroom, despite surviving and sometimes thriving during Lachlan's three-month hospital stay a while back, despite practicing mindfulness both formally and informally, despite having learned innumerable “lessons,” I still wake up every morning and face what I used to call “imperfection.” Imperfection in my own will power, imperfection in my circumstances, and imperfection in my kids.

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Here's the difference between then and now – I no longer call it imperfection. I call it Reality. Now I try, to the best of my ability, (which highly depends upon how much uninterrupted sleep I got the night before!) to see the moment and my reaction to it with new eyes – eyes which gaze upon it with compassion and humor, knowing that, when next they blink, the moment will have already changed.

The moment has changed. I am no longer just a sewing pattern designer. I am no longer an early childhood expert. I am simply a mother, a woman, on a life-long spiritual journey. I make things - sewn things, mostly - as a form of self-care. I take projects one seam at a time, and am always interrupted. I consider each interruption an invitation to be present with my children. Spurred on by my three beautifully imperfect kids, I am learning the art of mothering myself so I can mother them. I am finding out how to love myself unconditionally so I can pass on that love to them. It's time for a fresh start, so here I am, in a new space, honoring where I am now. If you feel called to journey along with me as friends, fellow mothers, and creative beings, I welcome you with all my heart.  

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season of joy

Christmas 2013

Remember this? Two years have passed since I took that photo, and, thanks to a small Christmas miracle, the boys were pleased to reenact the scene. Mmmm. Love me some smilin' boys in their Snow Pixie Hats

Our advent season was one of waiting, in a different sense. Waiting for the stomach flu to work its way through all of our systems. Nothing like a family illness to keep the holidays simple! We're mostly better now, and hoping that we are out of the woods for the rest of the cold season.

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And here they are with their baby sister, who is just waiting patiently for the holiday crazies to mellow out before making her appearance. Right, baby girl? No being-born-business before the guests leave? :) 

I hear little feet upstairs. I've been downstairs, (dark) and early, starting to put away some Christmas decorations. As much as I love the festive season, and would love to honor the twelve days of Christmas, that's just not in the cards this year. Because when your baby is due shortly after Christmas, if you don't put things away, the house will still be decorated come April. So here we are, moving on to the next big thing. We'll let you know when she's here!

Wishing you much peace and relaxation as we usher in the New Year!


an early morning decision

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I woke at 5:30 this morning to the little rumble of his footsteps galloping into my bedroom. He jumped into bed with me and put his little arm right over my cheek. He played with my hair and started making what I can only describe as "boy noises" while I tried to feign sleep for a little while longer - a futile attempt to encourage him back into dreamland, as it turned out.

It was a watershed moment. I could choose to take the (albeit temporary) easier emotional reaction, which would have resulted in lots of huffy "tired mama noises" and an entitled sense of weariness and lack of patience that lasted throughout the day. (I know - oh too well - how the day would unfold, given this choice. I have chosen this path many times before. It's never pretty.)

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Instead, I chose another path today. One of less resistance. I am still tired. But I chose to enjoy those pre-dawn, warm, jumpy little fingers. I chose to breathe deeply through the sibling squabbles and smile instead of narrow my eyes. I chose to spend most of the day outside, allowing them to pursue their deep passions of climbing trees and shoveling gravel. 

I am still tired. But I chose to grab a frozen, homemade meal (oh, how I love batch cooking!) and thaw it for dinner tonight instead of cooking. Instead, I will work on measuring various items with Finn, who has just taped together three rulers, all the while "tasting" Lachlan's playdough baked goods.

It might end as a movie afternoon. I'm open to that. Anything to keep smiling.

I will, most certainly, fall asleep when they do. A day well lived.