Cleaning During the Little Years

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Let’s be honest: I wasn’t the best housekeeper even before we have kids. I love a clean space, I love purging and organizing, and I even love a good, thorough cleaning time. But it hasn’t always been high on my priority list. 

So when I read this essay, I thought, “Yes, that will be us one day—horrified at the state of our house.”

My kids have both been less than ideal sleepers. They both took really short, unpredictable naps until they transitioned to one nap. And they are very light sleepers. 

Plus, it’s no secret that I love naps. Naps are how I have survived this 3.5 year season of broken nighttime sleep.

All this to say, I firmly do not believe in cleaning while my kids sleep.

A caveat: perhaps if they took very long, consistent, and/or multiple naps, I might use part of a nap to clean. Another caveat: there are days when the house has felt so beyond repair that to regain sanity, I’ve used some sleep time to clean. Usually I have regretted it because it has resulted in a shorter nap or an exhausted mama. I’m all about trying to stay ahead of the kids in the well-rested department!

I wanted to look at the positive things that come from not cleaning during my kids' naptime, and then I want to share one idea that is helping me keep our house cleaner right now. 

  1. If I don't clean, they sleep longer (the best reason not to do it right there). I thought I was making this up, but they wake up sooner every time.
  2. They will better learn to clean. Because of my no-cleaning during nap time policy, my kids have been forced to tag along while I clean. My son has his own mop now, and both are fascinated by spray bottles. We have invented some fun games while I fold laundry, and they both love to stand in the learning tower and help wash dishes. This is all born out of necessity, but I love that they witness how the house gets from messy to tidy. This also means that more messes are often being made as I straighten up, but I take what I can get.
  3. My husband can step in. My husband works long hours and has a long commute. We are on the same page about house cleanliness (we’d love it if it were cleaner but it’s not always the first priority). The fact that I don't clean during naptime means that he often steps in to clean, but I don't see this as a bad thing at all. We both try to give each other lots of grace. 
  4. I am learning to let stuff go (in, what I think, is a really good way). I’ve learned not to waste gorgeous days when we’re all happiest outside to clean. I’ve also learned what’s essential (clean clothes, clean dishes, food), and that has been really helpful. In a perfect world, my baseboards and doors would be regularly wiped down. In this world, it may be another couple of years before it happens on a consistent basis. 

    I love this quote from "What we neglect when the children are young" and I think it applies to so much more than cleaning: 

    But maybe nobody tells us we will regain our vision, our clarity, because it is the blindness to whatever compromises we need to make—to our houses, our marriages, our friendships, our very senses of self—that will usher us, with sanity intact, through those stages in the first place. If we became too aware of what we weren’t seeing, of what we were neglecting, it would defeat the psychological purpose of not seeing it. Some things are best understood only in hindsight.

  5. I'm a more rested and happier mama.  I remember reading somewhere that if you start picking up and tidying, you’ll get a burst of energy and become a whirlwind. The article said that women should not clean at night or they would stay up way too late. I find the same to be true during precious quiet time. I can easily get going and stay motivated. But it’s the crashing exhaustion right when my kids need me to have energy that kills me.

So what do our days look like practically?

I squeeze in bursts of tidying when my kids are having those rare moments of independent play. I ask them to help me while we fold laundry. And I accept that we may not finish the pile. On beautiful days or fussy days or sick days, we let a lot go and catch up later. My husband helps out, and we both have bursts of cleaning when things get too out of hand. I sometimes let my kids fuss while I finish a chore. I try to keep our house free from too much stuff. These are all little things that help. I long so badly for a sparkling clean house, but for now, this is what works. We aren’t living in filth (most of the time). I try to keep the dishwasher unloaded. I keep our clothing and toys to what feels like a good minimum for us.

But when I look back on my years of motherhood so far, I don’t mentally see the laundry piles or the crumbs. In fact, even in photos, our home usually looks decent. So I’m trying to remind myself that the stuff that needs to get done will get done. And one day, there will be more time for cleaning.

Right now, I want to be a present mama, and this totally means that we use some of our days for cleaning up the house. I want my kids to learn how to tidy, and I want them to learn responsibility. But I simultaneously have to know when to turn off my cleaning frenzy and calm down.

What do I use their naptime/quiet time for? Writing or resting or reading—any activity that recharges me and that I can do quietly. I’ve never regretted not using it for cleaning, but I have regretted it when I spend it doing busy tasks.

One thing I've started this week that has helped tremendously: I read this post on Modern Mrs. Darcy in which she referred to this Apartment Therapy post. In it the authors says that maintaining a clean house involves completing the cycle—so finishing what you start. Practically this means when I make coffee I get everything out, make coffee, and then put everything away. But with little kids and their urgent needs, there are uncompleted cycles everywhere--pajama pants that don't get put away, snack stuff strewn on the counter, and crumbs on the table.

While I have to be okay with incomplete cycles to survive this season of motherhood, I'm noticing that making an effort to complete the cycle makes me feel a little less mentally frazzled. So when possible, I go ahead and throw the dirty clothes in the wash or finish folding the dishrags or put away our craft supplies. This is probably common sense to so many people, but it is helping our home stay tidier and helping me stay saner (there's nothing that will deplete my sanity like incompleteness everywhere!).

Do you think housework must suffer during the little years? 

Related: My thoughts on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up 

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When You Just Want Your Favorite Cup

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The funny thing about toddlers is how you can’t always predict what will matter to them. Just when you’re patting yourself on the back about how your kid will drink out of any old cup, he decides that he will only wear pajamas or must have his syrup in a separate dish when he has waffles.

Really, though, I’m not so different. I’ve been known to get a sinking feeling when both my favorite mugs are dirty and I have to either grab one out of the dishwasher to wash it (which I just can’t do on principle) or use a plain old mug (the horrors!). I sometimes know that the difference between a good bath and a great one is taking the time to add those scented epsom salts. Sometimes I get the feeling to wear a certain pair or shoes or a certain sweater, and the day just feels right once I do. Or I’ll decide today is a curled hair or makeup day for no reason. Embracing that always makes me so happy.

Yesterday it happened in the Chick-fil-A drive through. I was ordering a sandwich when I thought, “Maybe I should get a cup of coffee.” Let’s be honest. I was thinking about the cup of coffee all morning as we ran from store to store to get our groceries for the week. I like the coffee I make at home best, but as I saw my very awake baby in the back and my toddler (who is still in the midst of a cold) and the huge bags of groceries, I thought, “This sandwich is going to be good. But this day would be especially great if I had some hot coffee to sip on the way home.”

It turned out to be the best decision. That small coffee gave me the energy to handle two screaming kids while I put just the cold stuff in the fridge. It gave me a ride home that felt luxurious rather than ordinary.

As I’ve given in to the little things over this past year, I’ve realized that maybe our toddlers are onto something. So much of my day often feels outside of my control. In the same way, so much of my toddler’s day seems out of his control. I’m the one planning and orchestrating, and he’s still learning to manage big emotions and live with a little brother.

Maybe pouring his own milk into his coffee or wearing a jacket rather than a sweatshirt really does make a difference in his little life. Maybe, like his mom, it gives him a sense of control to have something just the way he wants it from time to time.

Like me, he gives in a lot. He accepts things the way they are. But also like me, sometimes having the right cup matters. It matters a lot. And those little moments of getting something just how you want it can give us all more fortitude to face the hard stuff. A drive-thru cup of coffee (or the very specific band-aid) can add a little sparkle to an ordinary day. 

3 Ways I Escape the Dinner Rut

I am really terrible at meal-planning. It has always overwhelmed me because there are so many moving parts—figuring out what you have, deciding which days it would be good to have leftovers, determining how to buy in such a way that your chicken doesn’t go bad before you use it. Plus you throw in trying to be healthy and inexpensive, and it just gets crazy.

I’ve definitely improved, but it’s still a struggle. If, like me, you’re a terrible meal-planner, the best advice I can give you is: just do it. You’ll figure stuff out and make mistakes and let stuff go bad, but it gets easier over time (for me, very, very slowly). 

However, lately making dinner has been hard. It’s the combination of the witching hour: a generally-fussy baby, a tired mama, and a toddler who always seems to need something I’m not able to give him at that particular time. Plus we’re just coming off of over a month of someone in our home being sick, which means having to find our groove again.

However, I enjoy making dinner. More than that, I enjoy having a plan for dinner that I know in advance and then executing that plan. I love looking forward to a particular meal and then getting it on the table.

So this week, I’m making a plan again and doing as much of our shopping as possible in advance.

When you’re in charge of your own schedule, it can be hard to know what to do and when to get it done. I’ve heard several people say that one productivity secret is becoming your own manager and then becoming the employee. When you’re the manager, you’re deciding what work to get done and delegating it. That way, when you’re the employee, you don’t have to make decisions. Rather you can just do the work.

So in this sense, I sit down and make my plan (as the manager), and then each night, I just do what it tells me. I try not to let myself question it once it is made (although if we’re in the mood for a particular meal on night, I’m fine with switching).

In addition to actually having a plan (which really does make all the difference), I also have three other things that make a huge difference in my dinner fiasco.

1. Buy exactly what you need. I am a chronic under-buyer, and I love to say, “Oh, we’ll make it work.” But then I feel so uninspired about making the recipe, or I steal the heavy cream from another recipe and throw off my whole plan.

At one point, we tried a meal subscription service, and though I didn’t love it overall, the fact that I had the ingredients I needed—from the protein down to the specific spices—made it so much more enjoyable for me to cook.

I don’t like to over-buy, but I do make sure to buy exactly what I’ll need now. Plus this keeps me from letting food go to waste in my fridge because I'm missing the other ingredients in the recipe.

2. Try a new recipe. I get really uninspired if all my recipes are tried and true. Each week, I need at least one (but probably not more than two) new recipes to try. I love flipping through cookbooks or seeing a recipe on a blog to try. I look forward to these new recipes all week, even though they take a bit more time and effort to execute (though sometimes they don’t!). This week I'm trying a Grilled Chicken and Strawberry Salad Wrap  and Peruvian chicken

3. Put butter in the skillet. Sometimes I just feel lethargy. I just don’t want to go in the kitchen and make the recipe; the effort feels too great. On these nights, I get out my plan and then turn on the stove and throw butter in the skillet. The act of starting is tremendous. It makes me think of those people who say that the secret to exercise is just to put on your shoes. That first step can feel so big, but once I’m started, I’m good to go.

We’re still in a season where making dinner is hard. It’s a bit stressful and unpredictable. But I’ve realized that I’m more stressed out by not having a plan. So here’s to a new week and a few new recipes!

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P.S. When it comes to planning, I love Plan to Eat, and they just keep making their software better. I love that all my favorite recipes are there, especially the ones I otherwise forget. I love the way the planner works, as well as the grocery list. They usually have a good sale around Thanksgiving, so I've gotten it two years in a row for 50% off.

Simple Living Tip No. 1: Empty Your Purse

I love blogs with simple, beautiful living tips. So I thought that I would occasionally share some of my favorites. IMG_8660

Tip Number One: Empty Your Purse 

I stole this tip from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up  (which I wrote about here), and I will be honest: it sounded pointless at first. After all, I use the same purse most of the time, and it seemed easier to leave it hanging in the kitchen with all my stuff. But I kept not having what I needed--I would switch bags last minute or forget that Liam didn't have a change of pants. Or I would realize too late that I left my library card out on the counter after online renewal. So I gave this tip a try, and it reduced my time getting ready for an outing significantly.

I'm already pretty minimal about what I need for an outing. I take the following: my key pouch with my cards and cash, my phone, a set of car/house keys, an extra pair of pants for Liam, and chapstick/lip gloss. Sometimes I'll also grab sunglasses or a pen. I store all of these in a little bowl in my sock drawer with my key pouch beside it, just as Kondo recommends.

The benefit of having all these in a drawer is knowing where everything is and what is in my purse. I agree with Kondo that part of the benefit of tidying is knowing that you don't have something so you don't have to search for it. I find this to be true. Because I re-stock for each outing, I know what is in my purse and what isn't. When I'm out, I don't have to dig or wonder.

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When we go out, I almost always take my little leather purse and fill it with anything we need. It is hands free and sticks right to me, so I can use it with the Ergo. I can even fit an extra pair of pants for Liam in there

For longer outings, I use the leather purse in conjunction with my red Moop bag. I used this big bag as a diaper bag because I needed lots of space for cloth diapers. It is awesome because it holds everything. I often take it in the car with me to carry anything extra we might need (water bottles, snacks, books for Liam, etc).

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When I get home, I empty the purses (it only takes a minute!). All the small items go in the bowl in my sock drawer, and I stick the purses themselves in a drawer with plenty of room to help maintain their shape. I put back any books, snacks, or clothes we took. Coins go in a drawer (and are frequently taken to the bank), and receipts are either thrown away or stored right beside the bowl in my sock drawer.

Whatever you carry, I highly recommend that you empty it when you get home. I don't feel nearly as scattered when we run errands because I know what I have. My purse never gets too heavy (a first!), and it stays clean. I empty my jacket pockets now, too, and I try to empty the car, as well. Those extra few minutes keep everything much lighter, cleaner, and simpler.

How to Stop Organizing Yet Have an Organized House

IMG_8840 When it comes to organizing a home, most of us seem to be either chronic organizers--always tidying and never finished--or those who accept things as they are and move on. The sheer number of books and articles on organizing is overwhelming. However, there is one book that has totally changed my life in this area, and I am now finished with constant organizing. My house has never been cleaner, and I've never felt more in control of it. I discovered The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up over Thanksgiving week. I couldn't put it down, and then I read it twice more over the next week as I began to work with the author, Marie Kondo's, system.

One of the most life-changing parts of this book is the relationship Marie Kondo describes with stuff. My relationship with stuff is a see-saw. Sometimes I get caught up in material things--in my stuff. I cling tightly and find myself wanting more. Other times I try to pretend like none of it matters. But this bleeds quickly into a total lack of care for my material possessions. I always wonder how much I should actually like my stuff--isn't that materialism? But I can't totally ignore my need for stuff and my love for some of it, too. Ultimately, I found a new balance after reading Kondo's book.

It turns out that the secret is gratitude--but in a way I've never thought of before.

In her book, Kondo balances a delicate respect for the stuff we own (which teeters on the edge of the spiritual) with a profound ability to get rid of things we no longer need. She encourages gentle care for and folding of our currentshirts while discarding those past their usefulness. This balance--rooted in gratitude and purpose--has freed me to discard and ultimately to have a cleaner house.

A drawer organized using Kondo's method

Gratitude seems basic, in principle, but I find that it extends further than just saying, "I'm thankful to own this stuff." Gratitude also extends to the stuff we have owned but no longer need and the lessons it taught us. 

For example, as strange as it sounded to me at first, Kondo recommends that we thank our things for serving their purpose. I've never thought about this before. She writes about the purpose of a shirt that was bought and not worn.

"If you bought it because you thought it looked cool in the shop, it has fulfilled the function of giving you a thrill when you bought it. Then why did you never wear it? Was it because you realized that it didn't suit you when you tried it on at home? If so, and if you no longer buy clothes of the same style or color, it has fulfilled another important function-it has taught you what doesn't suit you. In fact, that particular article of clothing has already completed its role in your life, and you are free to say, "Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you," or "Thank you for teaching me what doesn't suit me," and let it go..." (42).

She has the same opinion about unread books (which may also apply to those few library books that somehow do make it home but are never read or finished):

"You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven't read it by now, the book's purpose was to teach you that you didn't need it" (59).

I was finally able to get rid of things that used to bring me joy but no longer do by simply thanking them (sometimes even out loud!) for their service. While I know that my things don't have feelings, I do. And there's something about that out loud acknowledgement that helps me release my grasp and move on.

Kondo writes,

"The things we own are real. They exist here and now as a result of choices made in the past by no one other than ourselves. It is dangerous to ignore them or to discard them indiscriminately as if denying the choices we made..." (110)

Having gratitude and acknowledging the purpose of everything we own forces us to look deeply at our lives--at what motivates us and what evokes strong feelings. At one point Kondo explains the importance of knowing whether you keep things out of fear for the future, clinging to the past, or both. She shows how this self-knowledge is important in understanding one's career, potential spouse, and other big life choices.

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The main game-changer in Kondo's system is that she teaches to purge first. This lines up with much of the minimalist movement including the book, Clutterfree with Kids (which I highly recommend). Kondo doesn't allow one to start with organizing paraphernalia. Rather, we should purge methodically and only once we know what is to be kept do we decide where and how to store it. This is the first major reorganizing I've attempted without having to buy a single thing to help--no containers or fancy shelf liners or anything!

Sometimes a huge purge can seem almost wasteful. I hate looking at bags of things that must be discarded. But I see it as a preventive step because reducing helps us keep (and buy!) less stuff overall, and we generally do a better job of maintaining what we do have when we reduce. Kondo seems to agree:

"To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To get rid of what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them... Let them go, with gratitude..." (43).

It's the first time I've found balance in ruthlessly discarding what I don't need or want and yet being thankful for the tangible things that make up my life.

The best part of Kondo's method is she doesn't see tidying as something that should happen all the time. She's all about a once and done approach, which may just be the most refreshing part of the book. Her attitude and method has given me new freedom in achieving the home I want and finding a healthy relationship with my stuff.

I am about halfway through Kondo's method of sorting through everything I own; she suggests it will take about six months to fully sort through and purge things we no longer need.

I'm finding that this method of decluttering--a deep, hard look at what brings me joy and what serves a purpose in my life--has acutally been a game-changer in decluttering. Our home is staying tidier with much less effort. Interestingly, I'm more motivated to acutally tidy, too, because I know the state it can be in.

There's something luxurious about having just what I need and taking the time to put it away carefully when I am done with it. I find myself appreciating my basic, staple pieces even more. I smile when I see our room, which is moments away from tidiness even at its worst. And I no longer want to buy things all the time. In the list of things that have changed my life for the better in 2014, this is certainly one of them! (I will share the others later this week!).

What books or ideas have changed your life this past year? 

P.S. Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy has a great post on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She elaborates on some of the other aspects of Kondo's method.

Some Thoughts on Minimalism

IMG_0129 I am obsessed with minimalism.  I love getting rid of stuff and spending freezes and really thinking about how we live. I've found freedom in not buying stuff and giving away stuff we don't need. I love the idea of living in 600 square feet and spending most of our lives outside.

But I also love our home. I love that it has three bedrooms so that we have plenty of room for guests. Sometimes I love sorting through an old jewelry box I don't technically need and finding little trinkets that conjure up memories. I love finding that those paint supplies I saved (and have room for) are actually really useful now that we have a child. I love the way our home is structured so that we don't feel cramped. I was actually shocked at how much easier life with a toddler was once we moved from our apartment into a home with more space for running around and a yard.

I just don't know where to draw the line. I've read the arguments;  I understand that it is easy to go out and buy an inexpensive set of paints for your kid rather than storing your old ones for years. I get that it is incredibly freeing to limit your closet, and I found freedom in giving away bags of clothes. But I also don't want to give up clothes I love and have room for just to get down to a certain number. Yes, I have blouses I probably won't replace when they become unwearable, but I kind of want to keep them until then.

I also struggle with the gift dilemma. It's harder to buy quick, thoughtless gifts when you start to enter into a journey of less stuff. I don't want to buy my nephew a toy that I'm not sure he'll love just to buy something. Minimalism has forced me to be intentional (and it's also made me cringe at my own wastefulness, as well as the wastefulness of American society in general).

I've wanted a rug for my son's room for a while. We have a hand-me-down rug from my grandmother. It's not really girly, but the Persian pattern also doesn't fit his room exactly. I rolled it up and stuck it in the corner because it didn't fit with the new paintings my sister gave us for him. Just last week, I found the perfect rug for his room online. But it's money. And while we could afford it, it's hard right now for me to imagine spending that money on a rug. Still there's a part of me that wants to make sure his room is beautiful. Is there anything wrong with that? Where do I draw the line when examining usefulness and beauty?

We were watching home videos the other night. In one, my siblings and I run around our playroom, which was an unfinished basement when I was born. When I picture the playroom, I see a perfectly crafted room with dark wood built-ins with a fish tank. But in the video, I was shocked to see that even when I was five or six-years-old, it was very much a room-in-progress. There were plastic cubbies instead of cabinets for our toys. It was littered with the paraphernalia of childhood. Sometimes, we think we have to achieve a standard of living for our kids, but our childhood homes often looked very different than the ones we return to now. That realization gave me the freedom to unroll that rug, realizing we will build a home very slowly and over time. And that's okay.

I unrolled the rug and found it met our needs for now perfectly. My son agrees, as he immediately plopped down on it with his toy car.

But there's a part of me that feels silly for even worrying so much about creating a home. We could live with less. How far do I take this?

I'm finding that it's more about the process than the end result. Minimalism is teaching me two crucial lessons: awareness and contentment. We're all different in what we need, what we want, and how much money and time we have. We're very, very different. So there's no perfect formula. But I'm becoming more aware of what I bring into our home and what (and how!) I take out of our home. I'm becoming more aware of how we use our space. I'm more aware of how much we have.

And mostly, I'm becoming more content. I realize every time I open the fridge how amazing it is that we have food. I'm thinking about how much it costs--not just financially but ecologically--to leave a light on or raise the thermostat. I'm realizing how blessed we are to have this home and our clothes and the freedom to consider where we live and how we live. I'm realizing we have more than enough, and it has slowed down the thoughts that run through my head about what to purchase next (which are there more than I care to admit).

It's a slow but important growth for me. I don't strive anymore for the perfect house, the perfect parties, or the perfect dinners. I'm better at enjoying the here and now. I'm realizing that there's a reason I often feel unease after buying something. I love how easy it is to make do, to start to see the beauty in the ridiculous amount of stuff you already have rather than longing after something new. And I'm also finding that there's a time to buy, and when I am thoughtful about it, a purchase can bring peace rather than unease.

I wish I had clearer answers when it comes to these questions--whether I should sell or keep my son's baby clothes for now, how to better handle gifts, or when I should actually buy something. But minimalism is a journey and a mindset rather than a simple set of rules. It's about actually asking questions rather than blindly accepting that the way I live is the only way to live.

In another few years, this blog might become the story of how we moved our family into a tiny toolshed. Or I might just keep sharing pictures of the home we're living in now. Either way, I hope to be even further along in this journey of awareness and contentment, challenged to reevaluate whether I should click "purchase" by someone else's inspiring decision to live well in a dumpster.

For further reading, check out this blog on minimalism.