Five Minutes at a Time

Last year I read Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. Near the end of the book, the main character, Rabih, takes a picture: “Wanting to capture this moment, Rabih calls them to gather for a photo, then sets the camera on a rock and runs to get into the shot. He knows that perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time. This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

I was deep into a hard year of adjusting to having two small children; it was a joy-filled year, but I often had to fight for the joy. This quote resonated with me--tiny increments of perfect happiness at a time--as it might resonate with anyone who has small children.

I often found myself laughing so hard at something my children were doing and breaking up a fight in the next breath. By the time I ran to grab my coat, the joyous time we were having outside ended when someone tripped and skinned a knee. The fun preschool activity I planned lasted much less time than I had hoped. The car ride, which had such potential for being fun, was mostly listening to our little one scream and our older one complain. It felt like life was constantly disappointing me--like good and beautiful times were just outside of my grasp (and my children’s capabilities). I started to get resentful until I began turning this quote over in my mind.

A couple minutes of perfect happiness  at a time seems reasonable. And yet it bothered me: was I settling for too little? Shouldn’t I set my sights higher?

But I’ve found that accepting (not expecting!) five minute bursts of pure happiness does indeed lead to more contentment, more true joy. It’s an attitude that acknowledges that those beautiful peak moments come and go. And it’s okay--it’s necessary--to embrace them and capture them and celebrate them. But we can’t expect to live our lives in those bursts.

In a conversation recently, a friend pointed out that we tend to want all our lives to be full of those peak moments--the ones we imagine when we look at someone else’s snapshot. The whole vacation must have been as filled with joy as that beautiful moment captured by the canyon’s edge. The adjustment to two kids must have been so easy because look at the adoration in the big sister’s eyes. There were no awkward moments or bad moods at that family gathering--just look at that happy photo!

I want to get to a point where my life runs easily--where the hard things are smoothed out by my exceptional planning and lack of emotional lows. I want to control my own mood as well as the moods of all the other people in my family. I want those times with the potential for happiness--the grand trips, the long car ride, the trip to the children’s museum--to be full of near-perfection.

I want to wait to celebrate until all the ducks are cheerfully lined up in their row (they must be bright yellow, and the paint must not be chipping). I want to wait to rest until all the work is done. I want to hold myself back until I get it all together. And so I miss out on those perfectly good moments of happiness all the time because I want them to last longer or happen more.

The amazing thing is: those minute-long bursts of pure happiness blend together and stand out to make us look back fondly on a season or a trip. They’re why this year’s vacation never seems as glorious as last year’s until next year when we are looking back fondly on it.

And so, I focus on five minutes at a time and consider that a win. Was it fun to jump into the leaf pile for a few minutes? That’s an awesome blessing! Did my sons enjoy a few minutes of painting while listening to Mozart and drinking afternoon tea? That’s a special time! Did I remember to notice their own glee as they slid down the slide even if leaving the playground ended in a tantrum?

When I’m expecting things to go smoothly and be beautiful and near-perfect for a long period of time, I’m always disappointed and resentful. Our hearts long for true and lasting happiness, and one day, we will have it. But on this earth, in this beautiful but very broken world, being thankful for a few minutes of glorious happiness at a time leads to more joy than expecting everything I plan and every day to be a never-ending list of highs.

I read something last year about how the happiest families are those who celebrate not big stuff but small stuff-- who step back from their day to commemorate a lost tooth or a small promotion. These things stick and they matter because they show the people we care about that they matter. Celebrations give us something to look forward to, a time to pause and be grateful and create our own tiny increment of happiness.

So I’m trying to feel the freedom to celebrate more, not just the peak moments but the little things too. Most of our lives are lived in the mundane, and there are often incremental bursts of true happiness scattered all throughout the ordinary moments. It’s all about what I choose to focus on and accept with gratitude.

This season, I’m trying celebrate the fun we have and the memories we create without forcing it all to be perfect and free of wrinkles. I’m happily snapping pictures of these moments to remember and try to pay attention to all the details around me, to really breathe in the smells and hear the sounds and feel my feet grounded to the earth. These are all true gifts, even if they aren’t fully finished or perfect or lasting yet.


Finishing The Peaceful Preschool

We finished The Peaceful Preschool a couple of weeks ago. It is a milestone I want to document. 

This year, I had a big shift in how I structured our days. My husband and I have talked about homeschooling since before we were married (both of us were homeschooled for significant portions of our school careers).

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This year I finally realized that if we were going to homeschool, there was no “break” in sight. What I mean is that most of the moms around me put their children in preschool programs for at least two days a week and then start kindergarten not long after. So there’s a break at some point. But if we wanted to homeschool, then we were going to have to find ways to live together each day at home. This helped me see our days as not just a season to get through but rather as a season that could be preparing us for what we hope to do in the future.

When I saw The Peaceful Preschool, I was intrigued. I love that it's a joy-filled guide for all sorts of skills to cover—pre-writing, pre-math, phonics, and practical life, just to name a few. These skills are given in a fun, nurturing framework. What sold me on the program was the creator, Jennifer Pepito, and her focus on simply enjoying these years with our children. I realized she wasn’t trying to make a program full of busywork to keep kids entertained. Rather it was a guide for making memories and special time with preschool-age children. And that is exactly what it was for us. 

The Peaceful Preschool is divided into twenty-six weeks, with one letter of the alphabet designated for each week. But rather than worksheets and Pinterest-y activities, the focus is on real, meaningful, and fun activities at home. Some people take two weeks for each letter, but we generally did one week per letter.

We started in February and finished in August. When we started, my son had no real letter recognition (however, before he was eighteen months old he had been able to identify a number of letters, but somehow this disappeared over time).


As we progressed through the ABC cards, my son naturally picked up his letters, which was such a fun development to witness. By the letter M, he knew all the letters, both uppercase and lowercase. This was not my expectation or intention in doing The Peaceful Preschool, and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with readiness. But I do think that the regular routine clicked with his brain.

The structure of progressing through the alphabet did not seem artificial (as I had expected). Rather, it was a helpful framework that gave us books, activities, and tons of ideas. My son loved to point out how things we were doing connected to that particular letter, and we had so much fun doing phonics scavenger hunts and arranging the tactile ABC cards we made. We also planned field trips so that we had fun outings most weeks that connected in some way to our preschool. 

We planted a garden and painted. We went on nature walks and had bean-bag tosses and played pretend store. We re-discovered finger-knitting and counted ALL THE THINGS and cleaned house together. It was a fun six months and gave us some guidance during  a very busy, often-challenging season.

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Here are the three biggest things I learned:

1. I need to focus on the relationship for teaching to be successful. Some of my best memories are the days we spent doing preschool (his too!). He talks often about the day we spent sniffing spices during the letter A week. I introduced sewing to him during the C unit (we sewed a button like in Corduroy), and he discovered that he loves sewing. We spent time playing hopscotch or keep the balloon in the air, not to mention the chores we continued to work on. He also has his own version of finger-knitting now. Plus I have a new appreciation for the types of chores that are age-appropriate. All in all, my son saw it as really special, and we loved including my one-year-old when we could. 

This focus on the relationship means that we never worried about the academic side of things or trying to "finish" something that felt forced.


2. I was in need of a rhythm to guide our days. Our current morning time developed out of The Peaceful Preschool. Almost every day, we have tea time after afternoon quiet time. This guide helped me find natural rhythms in our days and weeks. It helped me be more intentional in including my children in chores around the house and find some sense of peace in the eternal mental debate of housework vs. time with my kids. 

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3. Learning happens within a framework. I didn’t want each activity—or each week—to seem random. I wanted it to provide a chance for us to learn new things and drink in all the richness and beauty of the world. This happened because we had a framework guiding us (the letters of the alphabet). The glitter alphabet cards shaped each week. We made our flash cards on the first day. At the end of the week (or the last day of that particular letter), we finished by making the giant letter and hanging it on our wall . The book selection is also really fabulous. Even if we did no activities in a particular day (as was often the case), we almost always had morning coffee on the couch with our Peaceful Preschool books.

I've loved watching my son's focus develop and also learning how much I don't know about the world we live in. We started doing nature walks and keeping nature journals (not super faithfully!). We have tried to spend more time outside and develop a curiosity for the world around us.

I'm surprised by how much these past six months helped our family. We have found such a better groove for our days and weeks.


So what’s next?

We plan to come back to Peaceful Preschool when my youngest is old enough. For now, we’re doing A Year of Playing Skillfully with my now-four-year-old. We are also doing some beginning phonics and a nature program. We’re having a blast! 

I'll always be glad I took the time to start and finish this program with my son. It has given us all a thirst to learn more, be curious, and structure our lives in such a way that these things become second nature. 

Guest Post: Coffee + Crumbs

  Today I'm over at Coffee + Crumbs with an essay called "Mind the Gaps." Here's an excerpt:

I often find myself parenting the little girl inside of me, trying to fix the gaps and heal the wounds of my own childhood. This is why cool, summer mornings make me feel like I should take my kids on a walk and teach them the names of trees as my mom did. It’s why I hate sending my son to his room alone when he’s upset because I remember sitting in my room after stomping off, wishing my mom would come comfort me.

If you're visiting from Coffee + Crumbs, welcome! I'm truly glad you're here. Feel free to check out this page for some of my favorite posts.


The One Belief that Made New Motherhood Excruciating

As I think back on my early years of motherhood and marriage (which mostly coincided), I think one of the beliefs that kept me most upset and in despair (and most on Google or reading the latest non-fiction book) was the belief that as you begin, so you will finish.

I do believe that this can be true. If you start out allowing something, it may be harder to take it away than never offer it in the first place.  Habits can develop rapidly, as can our children’s expectations.

But there are a lot of ways in which this is not true, too, especially with little babies. Humans are flexible and resilient, and though our basic personalities may be somewhat fixed, we are also able to change and grow and learn.

I remember being terrified about infant sleep decisions because it felt like once we started something, we could never stop it. I would scan through the questions and answers online to see when babies learned to sleep through the night and was assured that frequent nursing or too much holding would ruin my life forever.

I remember reading that if you don’t maintain a good rhythm of date nights in the first year of your baby’s life, you can kiss the romance goodbye. If you don’t let your baby cry while you make dinner, he won’t learn to self-soothe, and you can kiss a pleasant household goodbye. And on it goes.

It’s a lot of pressure. And well-meaning advice can turn quickly into fear-mongering.

Though there are times when it’s easier not to allow something in the first place than later have to take it away, you can make course corrections. Children are smart and resilient and can learn new rules and expectations, even if it takes a little more effort. And this is something I wish I had known earlier in parenting.

For example, it felt momentous to let my son watch any television. It felt like opening up a Pandora’s Box. I was sure that if we started, we would never stop.

That simply was not true. Screen-time has not been a line rising straight-up on a graph (which is what I assumed); rather it has been a squiggly line that goes up and down but stays relatively small. We've started and re-started family dinners at the table, and back in the day, we used tablets in the car yet don't anymore. We gave in to our older son's hatred for the car and just avoided driving as much as possible. Now he is a mostly-pleasant traveler; there were no long-term repercussions. There was a time when he was addicted to cereal bars, and that time disappeared as quickly as it came.

In E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, the children discover a sand fairy that makes their wishes come true. At one point, they wish the baby was grown up, and when their wish comes true, they find their baby brother is a spoiled, arrogant young man. When the wish disappears (at sunset), and their brother is once again a baby, they talk about the horrors of the day. They want to make sure that the baby does not grow up to be spoiled, and one brother insists that “as soon as ever the Lamb’s old enough to be bullied, we must jolly well begin to bully him, for his own sake—-so that he mayn’t grow up like that.”

One sister insists that rather than bullying, kindness is the only way forward, and the other brother wisely points out,

“…if he grows up in the usual way, there’ll be plenty of time to correct him as he goes along. The awful thing to-day was his growing up so suddenly. There was not time to improve him at all.”

Growth—for myself, my marriage, my children—is a process. It is meant to be a process. We aren’t meant to be complete here on this earth.

Part of me wants instant results—for one talk about kindness to result in my son being kinder to his brother, for family dinners now to mean family dinners forever—but life is a process. And most of the time, I’m thankful for that.

Family life (all of life!) goes in seasons. In some seasons it is harder to exercise or clean house or sit at the table together or attend church together. But this is not a long-term reflection of what the end result of our family will be. We are constantly growing and changing together. I'm not a bad mother because I allow something today and realize tomorrow that I should no longer allow it. 

Our babies and our families don't grow up all at once. I find that through it all, I never regret kindness and gentleness (though I often regret harshness). This is true with my sons, with my husband, and with myself.

I'm learning what it means to err on the side of kindness and simplicity.  I’m learning not to overthink every single decision and to go boldly forward. And I’m reminding myself that as long as I’m walking with God and seeking to know Him more, He’s going to complete this good work he began in me and my family. It will be day after day, a little at a time, some progress and occasionally a few steps back. And there will be time to make course corrections. 


The Unlikely Gift of Mom Brain

I was standing at a baby shower when I first heard the term “baby brain” or “mom brain.” Someone said that she kept forgetting things during her pregnancy and blamed it on her baby brain.

I was offended. I was a few months from being pregnant myself but I knew that when I became a mom, I would not lose my brain. I wouldn’t blame my forgetfulness or mental lapses on the baby or on my new role. (You probably know where this is going).

Four years later, more than my pre-baby body or pre-baby life, I miss my pre-baby brain. I feel it when I’m writing and can’t remember where I was going with an idea or when I forget a word (or even, to my husband’s infinite surprise, the end of a sentence). I feel it when I can’t remember what month it is (or find I’ve been thinking it is still March for a full week of May). I often have to ask, “Did that happen this week or last week?” And I almost always leave a conversation thinking of all the things I should have said, the questions I meant to ask, hoping I didn’t offend.

Often my mind seems incongruous with the measured world that goes on around me.

It’s sleep deprivation for sure. But it’s also the fatigue of the “always-on mind”—the fact that I’m constantly watching for danger (is that stool too high?) and planning our days (will this nap ruin bedtime?) and trying to hold a tiny world together (what IS for dinner tonight, and do I still have garlic?). My mind is constantly busy, even in the middle of the night (is it worth getting out of bed to move the clothes to the dryer?).

My mental lapses make me feel hopeless, frustrated, and out of touch. There seems to be too much to hold together, and my brain is not enough.

Typically when we are weak in one area, we are strong in another. So recently I started looking for the blessings of this mind remade.

And they are myriad.

My mom brain has allowed me to leave the rigid channels that have shaped my mind for so long and enter into the present better than I ever have before.

I may not remember where my thought was going, but suddenly I notice that the green and  purple sparkle in the bubbles we are blowing is also the sun-given sheen in my littlest’s hair. I feel startled by all that I don’t know and long (just as my baby does) to know the names of trees and flowers and birds. I notice the knowing quality of the afternoon light and wonder (with my son) where that train is going. I'm rediscovering wonder.

My mind also benefits from patches of time to think and daydream as we splash pebbles into a creek or amble to the playground. I watch my mind and where it wanders, amazed by the shape of a subconscious.

I’m more gracious and giving with others, viewing chitchat with a stranger as a gift (even if I incorrectly state how many months old my son is). Because I know the limits of my memory, I now only  make promises I can keep. Yes, I forget things (mostly what I’m doing in a room). But for some reason, I now remember birthdays all day long because those are the things that mark our rather ordinary, similar days.

Mom brain also means I’m learning to gently accept my emotions rather than pretending they don’t exist because I’m constantly helping my sons do the same. This, perhaps, takes away brain power from holding a cogent thought, but maybe cogent thoughts are not always the goal.

And I’m writing more (for how else can I remember the ideas that flit here and there). And yes, sometimes I forget where I put these scraps of paper (or what the messy handwriting means), but I find that the important ideas come back, and come back stronger and fuller.

To borrow a metaphor from Natalie Goldberg, my brain is rich compost, a constant, ongoing process. Do I sense this mom brain as a dry, barren pile of dirt (too often, the answer is "yes!"). Or do I smell the richness and see the vivid colors and the little earthworms at work?

I used to live in prose—in complete sentences and full stops, but now I’m living poetry, a word that in the Greek means, “I create.”  In many ways, I’ve traded an ordered mind for a creative one (though aren’t the two inextricably linked from the beginning of Creation anyway?).

As Mary Oliver says,

“Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers—for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.”

Maybe I’m becoming a better writer as I'm becoming more present. Mother animals are fierce and sharp due to how in-tune they are with their surroundings. Perhaps I am the same way. Though I’ve lost my laser-like focus (and the solitude it required), I’ve gained a mind that is less controlled but maybe more whole.

I’m learning to lean into this soft compost heap that my mind has become. Control and rigidity is not the answer. If I long for my mind’s previous abilities, I grow resentful. I’m learning to embrace the gift of this mom brain, to see the beauty of a mind that is trying to be always present, always “on.”

Mom Brain means I have moments where I wonder whether I forgot to pay a bill (I usually didn’t) or got the time of the event right (I usually did). Sometimes it even means forgetting how to spell a word I used to know.

But it also means a newfound ability to live a more joyful and giving life. It means novel ideas and funny quotes typed hastily into my phone. It means trying new creative exercises like watercolor or clay right alongside my sons. It means learning to accept my own imperfections and forgetfulness.

More importantly, my new, always-on mind is more in tuned to prayer—to little prayers whispered here or there.

My own limitations and forgetfulness have made me notice God’s mercies more. I’m amazed that he never slumbers or sleeps as he watches over us day and night. And I see this mom brain as another of God’s mercies—giving me a gift even in the midst of my own giving.