On Becoming More Decisive

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We live in a world surrounded by choices. Though this seems to be a positive thing, we tend to be overwhelmed, exhausted, and discouraged due to so many options.

I think of the times I’ve tried to host something. Instead of getting a clear “yes” or “no,” it seems like people are more likely to say, “Maybe” or add a caveat to their “yes.” The day of the event, I get multiple cancellations via text. The event ends up being much smaller. I was happy to have people who were trying to make it work, but for planning purposes, a simple “no” might have been easier.

Then I’ve also been on the other end—the one trying to decide if she can come. So often it really is true that those of us who grew up in the texting generation say “maybe” just in case something better comes along or (as I’ve found) because we’re afraid of all the things that could happen—kids getting sick, trying to find a babysitter, whether a complicated work schedule will work out.

But usually I feel so much lighter if I just give an answer—a committed “yes” or “no.” Then it frees me to begin planning either way.

I’ve noticed that I tend to want reassurance from someone else for making a decision. I want someone to say, “That ’s a good idea.” I want reassurance that I am making the right choice or the best one. But the thing is, usually I can decide myself, and there’s often not a right answer.

I found this recently when trying to decide about what meal to make for a new mom in our church. I texted two people for their input and kept weighing the pros and cons. But then I realized: I need to choose something and just go for it. So I did. And I felt so much freedom as I planned when I would go to the store and what I would buy. Rather than stressing about the “best” option, I made a decision and freed up brain space.

I’ve mentioned that I have really struggled with meal planning. It overwhelms me. But recently I read Lindsey’s post and realized that I, too, needed to establish a rhythm. It has freed me incredibly in the last couple of weeks. I no longer dread those seven open days because I have already limited myself (what The Nester calls “lovely limitations”). Now I don’t ask, “Should we do Mexican again on Sunday or just make soup?” I know that Sunday is breakfast for dinner night and I plan accordingly. It’s life-changing!

I also find this to be true of any thing we are trying to plan—a weekend getaway, a fun outing. It’s better just to go ahead and decide.

It’s like the old story about kids playing better on a playground with a fence. (And in the Montessori tradition, I’ve found the same to be true with a rug or tray provided for a child’s activity). The boundaries bring a sense of peace that enables us to be productive and enjoy life.

Part of this is a mental exercise in letting go. Once I’ve committed, even if it was my choice, I tell myself that it is set in stone. Then I don’t waste time lamenting or questioning. I just go with the plan. I find a way to operate within the parameters rather than rebelling against them. (I could probably insert something about November 8 in here).

Recently there was a lot of political discourse (which may be too generous a term for what was happening) in my newsfeed (I’m sure yours was the same!). In addition to the general disorientation I felt after the election and the angst I felt as I saw anger or gloating everywhere, I finally realized I was feeling indecisive about responding. I kept thinking of responses in my head.

But I don’t believe Facebook is a good place for political debate. It usually just turns sour, and except for possibly making the poster and those in agreement with the poster feel better, it usually doesn’t change minds. Knowing this, I still kept waffling about adding my thoughts to the discussion.

When I finally made the decision that I would not post, I felt freedom. Even when those posts popped up (and I unfollowed a few people temporarily), I knew I had already committed to not respond. It was a limitation I placed on my life. This limit worked well for me and went along with my values. And I stopped writing semi-angry posts in my head and started living again—thinking about other things.

I sometimes feel this when I get emails from companies I love. I start to ask, “Should I take advantage of this promotion?”

It’s easier to keep those emails out of my inbox until I actually need to purchase new jeans or kids’ shoes. It makes it easier when it doesn’t seem like it should be an option to buy shoes now. I find the same to be true with grocery shopping. I tend to think of all the places I could go and all the ways I should save money. But I’ve found such freedom in committing to just one or two places, even if it may mean spending a little more (although generally I actually end up spending less).

We’ve also found eliminating too many options to be very helpful with our kids’ toys. It is incredible how much longer they will play when they aren’t surrounded by so many toys.

What ways does making a decision free you? Have you found too many choices to be overwhelming?

Living Room Visits

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I just finished reading “The Playground Trap,” an article that I found myself agreeing with though I didn't necessarily want to. (It's a fascinating article and well worth your time!)

In “The Playground Trap,” the author writes about America’s diverse spaces for children and adults and how this can lead to profound loneliness. We are either with our children, in spaces that are designed with children in mind or without them in spaces where they are not welcome. Our lives are very divided, and generally the child-friendly places are not inherently friendly to people without children.

I keep wondering if there is an easy solution. We’re so busy, trying to maximize our time and be as efficient as possible. This is probably why we tell ourselves that playgrounds are furthering the gross motor development of our children when in reality, we just want a safe place for them to run off their energy. This is why I feel such an urgency to use my time well when I have a few hours child-free. We worship efficiency.

What if part of the solution is relinquishing efficiency itself?

When I was a little girl, we spent time visiting relatives. In the rural Appalachian mountains where my mom grew up, she had tons of scattered relatives. To be honest, I still don’t know how some of the people we visited were related to us.

What I do remember is riding in my grandmother’s blue car to houses that always felt a little stuffy, a little brown. We would sit while my grandmother visited. I’m not really sure what we did. Sometimes we were offered ice pops, and my brother would use his youngest child wiles to get more while my sister and I gave him disapproving looks. Maybe we took our books and read. Other times, the older relative would have something that fascinated children. Sometimes they just told us stories.

Do people still visit in living rooms? Do children still spend much time with the elderly?

What do we lose by keeping our kids out of these living rooms—these places where time may stop, stories will get told, and it may feel boring but in an important way??

These older adults shaped how I thought about myself. In a way only older people can be, they were inherently approving of children and told us so. They wanted to befriend us. Even during my most awkward phases, these adults and their approval assured me that I was normal with compliments I still remember over a decade later. This adoration of children was not merited--we didn't do anything to deserve it--it was just a natural outpouring of a culture that valued children as people. It continues to shape and humble me.

Old age can seem boring. Sitting in the too-warm living rooms of the older people while they tell a repetitive story can feel stifling. But I would hate for our children to miss out on this sort of visiting, the lost art of storytelling, the lost art of friendship with people so different from ourselves.

With the Internet, has come the feeling of being in a virtual living room all the time with conversation you can control with a click away. Each word is currency because space is valuable. There aren’t the same long pauses, unnecessary anecdotes. You can just click away from such things.

And this does make us more efficient—at least at first. Sometimes it allows us to digest hundreds of opinions in a short amount of time. It may encourage us to be tolerant as we see multiple viewpoints and can seemingly walk in several people’s shoes within minutes.

But what’s often missing is the feeling of kinship that can be cultivated only in physical presence. We especially miss a whole group of people that are often absent from the online debate—the elderly. And when they’re missing, we’ve lost collective knowledge that is hard to quantify.

But these living room visits may be part of the answer to our culture’s loneliness—the  divide between children and adults. Maybe those occasional moments of boredom are a small price to pay for a friend, a story, a reassurance that though you are but a child, you are a human, too.

I saw this when my husband’s grandparents came to meet our kids for the first time this year. There was a beautiful mix of adult conversation peppered with comments on what our little boys were doing. There was a slowness—a lack of urgency, which often seems to bring out the best in children. We weren’t necessarily playing with them, but we also weren’t ignoring them—a blend that seems to result in enjoyable playtime for them. Plus there were a few little gifts—some old-fashioned books, a couple of stuffed-animals, and some new trucks.

Sometimes we’re so busy just talking to our kids or trying to have adult conversations with them around, and it can feel equally frustrating and mind-numbing. But during agenda-less visits that include them, we’re teaching our kids how to relate.

We talk about socializing our preschoolers, and this usually means some library story time or a few days a week at a program. And these programs are wonderful. They are also focused solely on activities for children.

So what about socializing them to be part of real conversations? What about visits to our own older relatives or people down the street—times to learn how adults interact with one another and with children in places that aren’t exclusively child-friendly?

I have tended to hesitate in taking my children to visit. But when we do go to visit, I’m always so filled up. I see that they can behave well, I feel that same warm, unabashed adoration of older adults, and I feel profoundly grateful for living room spaces where loneliness is truly abated for a short time.

How Blogging Changes the Story

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I've been reading Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversationwhich presents a hopeful view for more responsibly incorporating technology into our lives and relationships. 

In the book, Turkle talks about how people now rely on social media instead of older, more private ways of reflecting. For example, some people consider Facebook or a blog their journal. However, Turkle points out that it’s different to write for an audience than it is to just be writing for oneself. She writes,

"In theory, you know the difference between yourself and your Facebook self. But the lines blur and it can be hard to keep them straight. It's like telling very small lies over time. You forget the truth because it is so close to the lies."

I've been thinking about how blog posts fit into this concept. We all have an online persona, but how could I make sure that my real life and online life match up in an appropriate way. More importantly, how does blogging about something change the way I think about it and therefore the way I act? 

There are several reasons I like blogging.

I blog to write our family story—so often I read back through previous posts and love the glimpse into forgotten aspects of our family life. But I make a family album each year that does a much better job of the memory-keeping and is more private.

I blog to record what I’m learning—to capture the insights I gather from the books I read and the people I talk to. But I write privately when I need to really grapple. 

I blog to share--to have a place where others can read, hopefully relate, and comment. But of course, there are good in-person conversations in my life, too. 

So what’s the benefit of posting to a blog? Why does it make me feel like I’ve accomplished something? Why do I find it so helpful? 

I think the answer lies in the process/product concept of writing. Through the actual process of writing, we gain as humans. We learn as we write because it helps us think and clarify. This process is as important as what we finally create. But we also learn through the final product, not only sharing it but the response that it encourages from others.

I think there are three reasons I find blogging beneficial for me:

1. I blog because I need to finish. I need to complete the thoughts that run around in my head. I often have ten post ideas going at once because I can’t stop thinking about certain things. Sometimes I have to take a break from public writing to turn this off.

But more often than not, a blog post is what finally stops the ceaseless bouncing around in my head (and the obsessive conversations with my husband and friends). I get it out on paper and try to find some closure for the thought--at least for now.. Why does it need to be blogged? The blog gives me the incentive to polish it, to complete it because I’ll be sharing it. Not every thought is ready for this completion, but some are. I close one line of thought and open myself up to new ideas on the topic. 

2. I also love finishing posts because it gives some form of accountability. When I finally write a post on rest or dealing with tantrums, I have come face to face with what’s going on. I am more aware of my behavior and line of thought afterwards. 

3. The last thing I really love is that blogging often gives me some measure of optimism. Though there are plenty of incomplete things in my life and a number of truly hard things, when I finally write about something for a public space, I end up being more optimistic (I started writing my thoughts as prayers instead of "Dear Diary" journaling during high school for this very reason).

Hope is an important part of who I am as a Christian, and though I may be temporarily in a hard spot, I know that I am called to be joyful even in affliction and to place my hope in God.  

Again, not every idea or situation is ready for a public space. But I do think that blogging has value.

It does change my story though. Once I’ve written about not criticizing my husband or our attempts to preschool—I feel more determined to keep these up. Sometimes I’m fearful that I’ll close a line of thought too soon—that I’ll try to tie up something with a neat bow that isn't ready. But I try to find a balance of finding mini-closure while leaving myself open to new ideas. 

Online writing and sharing is important. I think it can even be beneficial. But I also think I have to be clear with myself about what I share and why and how it might change the way I think or act. Unlike the conversations I have in real life, there's no instant feedback to each sentence I say. But I think there's value in working through an idea, finishing it (for now), and then sharing it in its entirety. I benefit when others do this, too.

What do you think about the value of blogging? Do you find that posting (or reading) a blog post changes the way you think/act? 

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On Avoiding People in the Grocery Store

photo (18) I was generally on the fringe growing up, and that gave me a lot of time to observe. I was also a reader and loved to write, so I enjoyed watching. This meant that I knew people's names, though they often did not know mine. I still tend to remember people's names and conversations with them. If I see a name written, I can usually spell it correctly from then on. And faces stick with me.

In highschool, I channeled this into fearless friendliness. I went from being a shy avoider to participating fully, in part because our youth pastor remembered my name and shook my hand every week. I decided to be like that. I wanted everyone I met to feel valued. I stopped being quiet and started seeking out the people who were quiet. I struck up conversations with anyone and loved knowing so many people. It didn't matter if the person didn't remember me or didn't want to continue the conversation. I still made the first move.

But over time, I think I just grew weary of it all. I was tired of saying "hi" to people who didn't remember me. I gave the enthusiastic-though-unacknowledged wave far too often (why does it make me feel so awkward when someone doesn't see me wave to them?!). I grew cynical about small talk and short conversations and just wanted to get through my errands as quickly as possible. I started treating other people more like mannequins, just a part of the landscape, acknowledged only if I bumped into them or they got into my way (yes, I do realize how awful this is).

I became the awkward one in the grocery store who struck up an animated conversation with my infant to avoid eye contact. My "hellos" became polite, noncommittal. I am a terrible avoider, but I still do it all the time. I live in fear of awkward encounters and feel it takes too much energy to make the first move.

Here's the thing: I don't really mind small talk. I like knowing people, and I like seeing them when I'm out and about. Why have I trained myself to be an avoider?

There's this one woman who always greets me by name. She's the mom of a family my sister babysat for, and I've had her kids in nursery. It's still one of those situations where she could easily pretend to barely know me and look the other way, but she doesn't. And it made me realize this: I need to be more like her.

I'm tired of being an avoider and pretending like I don't know people. I'm tired of being scared of Awkward and holding back. I'm tired of being rude and selfish. I've committed to being friendlier.

I wish I had an amazing story about how this has changed my life--or someone else's. But really, I'm just sharing it because my new commitment hasn't killed me yet. It hasn't drained me. Writing about it here gives me some accountability too, so I won't go back to being the creepy avoider.

Recently, we walked over and introduced ourselves to new neighbors. I stop and converse with the dog-walkers who chat with my son. I'm not too afraid of being creepy to reference prior conversations and let people know I listened. I try to greet people by name when I see them or wave, even if there's a good chance my wave will go unnoticed. It never hurts to be extra friendly, right?

I see this as part of my year of abundance. I am trying to live from fullness rather than emptiness. This means realizing I'm not always depleted. I'm not too tired to make small talk or acknowledge an aquaintance. It's recognizing that I can give--even if it's just a smile and a name and the confidence to make eye contact. Life is not about me, my tasks, and my comfort zone.

I can't just grow tired--or too cynical--to participate in society. I need other people--even the small talk with a mom at the playground I may never see again. I need to step out of myself. As much as these things feel like they take all my initiative and energy, really they give back far more. People give back far more. People are generally far kinder and friendlier and more fascinating than I expect.

At the heart of it, I want people not just to feel important to me but to be important to me. Ultimately, I need their smiles and encouragement far more than they need mine.

All the Things You Should Be Doing

IMG_0738 We were standing in the card aisle of a drugstore when the conversation happened. I knew my friend's mom fairly well. We were talking about health concerns, and she said something along the lines of, "The hard thing about getting older is realizing you won't have time for all you planned to do."

My optimistic high school mind struggled to believe her. It seemed too hopeless to accept. Years later, I'm starting to understand. Even if you have total control over your life and time, you can't do everything. Time on this earth is ultimately limited. There will be books I don't get to read, careers I never take (thousands of them!), and opportunities that are not in the cards for me. So what should I focus on? How do I know what's best? And how can I come to terms with the fact that I can't do everything?

I was having a conversation with a fellow-mom recently, and she talked about something she could be doing with her child, concluding, "I should probably work on that." It could have been said about more consistent sleep, potty training, handling tantrums better, or making time for family devotions. I hear all of that, and I think it too. Most women I talk to can immediately list ten things they should be doing--or should be doing better. We need to be more faithful about exercise and incorporate more vegetables and go to bed earlier and read more. The list goes on and on. But I tell myself what I told my friend, 'I think things come when they should."

I've written before about how I thought we would never have family dinners and thus my child would be terrible at school, lack compassion, and be generally disconnected (note to moms of six-month-olds: give yourselves a break!). It was so hard with my son's fussiness in the evenings; though I cooked most of our dinners, we never sat at the table. Then one day, these dinners just started happening.

It's really the story of my life as a mother; so much of life seems to be this way. I remember reading a business article earlier this year. It was about business decisions and listening to customers. The advice was, "What comes up repeatedly--that's what you need to focus on. The things that come up and you forget probably weren't that important."

I find this to be true. I'm not saying that we should do no planning or improving. What I am saying is that if you have a guiding life vision and remain aware, I think that what needs to happen will come at the right time. Most of the time, when something needs to happen, I've been motivated to make it happen. This may be a vague sense of "rightness" or born out of necessity. But I can't muster up the motivation before it needs to happen. And in the end, it happens at just the right time. You never get to do all the reading on the syllabus, but you will complete the assignments that need to be completed.

There are specific, beautiful paths for each one of us. There's no need to feel the weight of overwhelm or comparison. And that nightly list of "ways I should be living differently" isn't what motivates change; it's just a needless stress. When a bedtime routine needs to be developed, you will feel led to do it. When potty training should happen, you (and your child!) will make it happen. If you need to be more involved, you will find the hours and opportunity. I feel very much that our yearly family photo albums are worth the time investment that they take, but not everyone should be doing them or doing them the way I do. We spend our time differently, and that is good. Not everything I could be doing is something I should be doing. And I don't want to fritter my life away on things that are just checking off some perfectionistic list in my head.

I'm convinced that the things that need to get done will get done if we are living in trust and awareness. And usually they will happen without a fuss. You'll suddenly start walking multiple times a week rather than feeling badly every night because you don't exercise. You'll find time to do the things you love--even for just minutes a day. You'll see that family dinners happen, and family devotions can slide into place just as easily. You'll realize you're meeting the objectives of you life vision without the stress of beating yourself into submission.

As I realize the truth of those words in the card aisle, I am still tempted to feel depressed and hopeless. I realize all the things I am saying "no" to. Staying home with my son right now means a less impressive work history on my resume. It means I'm not focusing on my career, and there's no going back and adding in those years. Writing means I'm not pursuing other options as intently--potentially great options. What I didn't realize in high school is that there is not a neverending supply of hours and opportunities. In the end, my life will be one clear road, and all the "almost" paths won't be there.

And that's okay. Maybe it's how we learn to actually focus and to deeply appreciate. Maybe it's what gives us the push to accomplish at all. And maybe in heaven, I'll also be a painter, a ballerina, and really good at sports. Oh, and maybe I'll get a chance to read all those books I didn't get to.

I mean, good grief! I just have one kid!

IMG_2248 That was the line I wrote in my journal today as I thought through my life. How can life be so hard with one kid?!

For many months, we had a demanding, colicky baby. It felt like survival--though not unmanageable--for the first 12-13 months, but since then, we've found our groove. He has grown into a normal, happy--even easy!--toddler (as easy as toddlers can be if you ignore his constant night-wakings). We can manage grocery-store trips without nursing or potty breaks, and he can play by himself for short stretches of time. And language-skills make life so much easier!

What's hard is figuring out why I can't do more and feeling like I should do more. What's hard is the feeling that I'm doing something wrong if it takes this much of my time and energy to have just one child. 

Don't misunderstand me. Our days go relatively smoothly. This week I implemented Morning Writing Time for fifteen minutes and twenty minutes of yoga in the afternoon (the latter of which has involved teaching my son that I'm not a jungle gym during Down Dog or a tower he can knock over during Warrior Pose). I cook dinner most nights and keep the house in a general state of cleanliness. I don't feel totally overwhelmed or even exhausted as long as I nap.

But many mothers can pull off a job and full-time mothering. A great many are expecting--or even have--a second child by the time the first is nineteen months old. I'm outside of survival mode but still close--feeling as though one little thing will push me into it. And I hate survival mode.

But maybe I need to test the limits more. I had a professor who said that you don't know how far you can go until you go too far, and I see the truth in that. I keep thinking I should be more involved at church or do in-home childcare, or at the very least, not feel overwhelmed at the prospect of taking a meal to new parents.

Life with just one child seemed like it would be smooth and simple with plenty of time to finish decorating the house and painting the baseboards, leading a small group or doing Bible studies at church. At the minimum, I pictured time to write my heart out. But fifteen minutes at a time is a luxury.

I don't want to live in the land of never enough. I don't want to live in the land of comparison. But I also don't want to live in the land of laziness and selfishness or "can't-get-it-togetherness."

I have several friends who nanny full-time, all college graduates. They love it and seem to excel. Everyone considers this a legitimate choice for a post-college job (and I do, too). They even get nights and weekends to themselves, and from what I can tell, they don't feel guilty if they watch Netflix while the baby sleeps while I feel that every second needs to be productive. So I don't know why I'm so hard on myself.

I know I have a privileged place though. I don't have to work right now, and though we aren't free from difficulty entirely (who is?) we are comfortable enough. And I want to be generous with my time and energy. Is taking care of this one sacred little soul enough? And am I enough for him right now?

I feel guilt when I'm not stressed, and this is one of the first times in recent years that I'm not. Being around those who are stressed and exhausted amplifies this. Is it okay to not push myself to the brink, or am I just taking the easy way out? I don't want to be totally wiped out all the time--I hate the critical, victimized person that comes out of me, but I also don't want to be overly cautious.

I don't want to be trying to maintain selfish standards as though the house has to be perfect before I can entertain guests or that I have to successfully implement a certain routine before I can take on more responsibility. Maybe the desire to complete my own tasks--this blog, family memory-keeping, writing--is fruitless. I fear I could fritter my life away. And maybe the sleep deprivation still affects me more than I let on. Life doesn't feel mundane; keeping ahead of a toddler, teaching him, and watching him grow fascinate me endlessly. I do want to be available for family and friends, making life better for my husband and growing our marriage. But shouldn't I stretch myself more?

And maybe the question I'm really asking is not "Shouldn't it be easier?" but "I just have one child; shouldn't I make life harder?"