Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Reading, Part 2

I’ve been enjoying several books over the last month, thanks to a little more reading time on vacation and in the evening, and thanks to my friend Elizabeth for loaning me several of her favorites.  (Here is Summer Reading, Part 1 if you missed it.)


Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full by Gloria Furman

I would highly recommend this book.  The author takes the Gospel—doctrines we know in our minds to be true, but what can sometimes seem so ethereal and out of reach—and connects it to the daily mess of life as a mom.

This is a book to read slowly.  It’s not light or easy.  A lot of the paragraphs are direct paraphrases of Paul’s epistles, applied to Mom life.  Each chapter is packed with lots of Bible references.  So though it could maybe be a criticism that it’s not easily accessible, I found that if I read about ten or fifteen minutes a day, slowly and thoughtfully, with pen in hand to underline, I got a lot out of it.  It was like water to my thirsty soul.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

The feminist in me has never liked The Taming of the Shrew, but this retelling of the story I actually enjoyed.  It is humorous, light reading, with a thoughtful undercurrent, exploring how “the shrew” got to be how she is, and how she changes through an improbable marriage.

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

I enjoyed Fall of Marigolds a few months ago, and once again, Susan Meissner does not disappoint.  This is a WWII novel about two sisters separated during the London Blitz.  I felt like a couple of the plot twists were a little unrealistic, but all in all, this is an engaging story.  She has rich character development—you really feel like you get to know a nuanced cast of characters.  And she draws you into the historical setting so that it seems real and current.  I read this one over our camping trip and was so engrossed I couldn’t nap despite how tired I was!

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

G. K. Chesterton meets Jane Austen?  Yes, please!  This novel is both pleasant light reading and intensely thought-provoking.  I’m wanting to re-read it and copy over my favorite quotations.

That said, it reminded me a little of Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, a novel that I felt was heavier on the philosophy than it was on the story.  This was definitely a story that was trying to make a point—and though I agreed with the point, I found myself a little skeptical of the storyline at times.

I also couldn’t quite get over a character named Prudencia Prim.  Still, this is a book I would highly recommend.

Windfallen by JoJo Moyes

This is one of JoJo Moyes’s earlier novels, and not my favorite by her, but I still enjoyed it and was happily surprised by an ending that was more pro-marriage than I had anticipated.  I think JoJo Moyes specializes in creating relatable, sympathetic characters and putting them in interesting predicaments.

I also always connect my memories of a book with my circumstances while reading it, and I can’t help but remember that I read this book mostly in the bathtub with Epsom salts and a calming essential blends, soaking the pain and the stress of the day away … so really, what’s not to love?

After You by JoJo Moyes

This is the sequel to Me Before You.  I appreciated that novel and am cautiously looking forward to the movie, and hoping they don’t make it into a political statement that the book never was.

The sequel was okay.  It showed the messy aftermath of Me Before You and the eventual character growth.  I felt a little impatient with the protagonist and at times my sympathy for her was a bit stretched.  But she goes through a dark cloud and comes out the other side, even though it takes her awhile getting there.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This is another richly detailed novel highlighting the plight of slaves in the antebellum South.  What is unique about this book is that it also captures the story of an indentured Irish servant girl, who is equal to the slaves except for the distinction of her whiteness, which ultimately makes all the difference in her future.  Her life story bridges the gap between the plantation owner’s family and the slaves who serve them.

This is the author’s first novel after a significant amount of research, and it seems just as authentic as if you are reading from a history book.  I was struck by the amount of loss the female characters of both races endured, as the men who owned them made decisions with little thought to the personal consequences.

This book begins during George Washington’s Presidency, and it reminds me once again that the era of the Founding Fathers was not as beautiful as it sometimes appears through the rosy glasses of hindsight.  I’d rather live in 2016 Virginia than in 1816 Virginia, despite how troubling our times are.

So that’s been my reading over the last several weeks—what about you?  Any titles you would recommend?

Friday, July 8, 2016

When Stress Calls Your Name: Sanity Tips for Mommas, Part 2

In part 1 of this blog post, I wrote about my struggle a few years ago with insomnia and anxiety, a rough season that showed me my need to create healthy habits in my life, essentially to keep myself from falling to pieces.

And I’ll be honest with you that right now is another rough season in my life, when I’m fighting Lyme and facing health challenges I would not have imagined a year ago.  I have a seven-year-old tender-hearted, Minecraft-playing, Bionicle-building, Ninja-weapon-constructing voracious book learner, currently sitting on the couch deep in the Geronimo Stilton series.  I have a four-year-old impassioned princess-loving wild child, who I currently hear clattering her Cinderella Duplos around in her bedroom.  I have a 1-year-old toilet-opening, cupboard-emptying, stair-climbing, always hungry, rarely quiet explorer, who is napping and that’s the only reason I’m sitting down typing.

This time around I want to talk about the habits I’ve built into my daily life routine.

Rest in the evening

A lot of my decision to pursue sanity and wellness as a mom has to do with how I spend my time after my kids go to bed.  Insomnia taught me that I can’t flat-out work until bedtime and expect to fall right to sleep.  I also can’t sit endlessly surfing Netflix or Facebook because it’s more comfortable than getting up and getting in bed.  I need time to unwind, and I need to get to bed on time.

So right now, I try not to work after my kids go to bed.  That’s time for me to read or to spend time with my husband.  I try to deliberately choose activities that help me unwind.  Surfing the Internet or scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed or answering emails doesn’t count.  So I try to plan ahead so that I can shut down my computer when my kids go to bed.

(If this would be an unrealistic goal for you, I would encourage you to at least set a computer shut-down time so you’re not glued to the screen later than you intended.)

It’s also my goal to get eight hours of sleep a night.  Of course there are seasons, like with a newborn, when getting a good sleep may be impossible.  I’ve done my fair share of middle-of-the-night breastfeeding.  I’ve been woken by children screaming and peeing and throwing up.  I’ve been woken by apnea monitors alerting me that a vulnerable child in my care may have stopped breathing.  So I get it.  Everyone has a bad night here and there.  And there are whole seasons when it’s all about surviving on the little sleep you do get.

But all in all, on a regular basis, Moms should not be underslept.

Yes, I did just write that.  Hear me out.  Your children should be sleeping at least eight hours a night, right?  So sleep when they sleep! A lot of this is just having the discipline to turn in at the right time, and not stay up late trying to do all . the . things, or stay glued to your computer or television screen because it’s so much more comfortable than getting up and walking to bed.

If your sleep is interrupted, aim for more than eight hours.  There was one season in my life when I was pregnant and caring for a premature baby.  All the kids fell asleep around 8:30, and I went to bed immediately.  I slept from 8:30 to 6:30.  That’s ten hours.  That affords me two hours of baby care and still a good night’s sleep.

You do not have to be running around exhausted as a general rule.  You can make sleep a priority.

Get a good start

This goes hand in hand with getting to bed at a good time—waking up before your kids.  I hate starting the day feeling like I’m already behind.  My goal is to wake up 90 minutes before my kids do.  That gives me 30 minutes to take my medicine and exercise, 30 minutes to shower, 30 minutes to read my Bible.  That’s my goal.

Of course it doesn’t always happen; this is real life we’re talking about.  Right now I’m probably at a 50% rate of success.

I try to have a two-fold approach: 1) have a good plan, and 2) smile and try to be okay with it when the good plan is turned upside-down.  I’m feeling a little conspicuous right now because my husband is going to read this and smile because he knows how often my mornings fall apart, and he also knows how indebted I am to him for his help!

Don't you love our awkward, post-swimming-lesson selfies?

Keep quiet hours

Being a mom of little ones can feel like working 12 or 16 hour shifts (maybe more, if you have middle-of-the-night duty), seven days a week.  That is exhausting.

One of my survival strategies is to aim for one or two hours of quiet time in the early afternoon.  Again, that’s my ideal.  There was the season when it seemed like my baby was napping at every time except the early afternoon.  These days I often have physical therapist appointments in the early afternoon.

But whenever I can, after lunch means we all get a rest.  My youngest naps, and my older two either watch a movie or have quiet play time with audio books (separately, because quiet doesn’t happen together these days).

This is healthy for my children.  It’s also what I need to recharge from a crazy morning and be ready to jump into the late afternoon and evening.  I’m a huge fan of twenty-minute power naps.  Quiet time is also when I make grocery lists, plan the schedule, write blog posts, do teaching work, read books.  So I’m not necessarily resting—I get a lot done—but it is quiet, focusing work, and it restores me.

So these are my sanity safeguards, the routines I put in place to help me try to stay emotionally healthy in a demanding season of life.  Resting in the evening and getting to bed on time.  Waking up in the morning and getting a good start before my kids.  Keeping afternoon quiet hours.

And speaking of quiet hours, the ones today are ending and it’s back to the craziness!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When Stress Calls Your Name: Sanity Tips for Mommas, Part 1

I remember lying in bed, staring at the wall, wondering, Am I going insane?

It wasn’t just a frustrated moment of throwing up my hands and yelling at the kids, “I am going to lose my mind!”  It was a quietly creeping fear that from here I was just going to circle the drain into further confusion and chaos.

My second child was a baby, and for several months I had debilitating insomnia.  I was stuck in an awful cycle where my anxiety and OCD were keeping me awake, and my mind-numbing exhaustion was aggravating my anxiety.  I was hardly functioning.  Life seemed hopelessly shallow, and I was going through the motions just trying to survive.

Up until that season, I didn’t have a category in my life for self-care.  I wanted to please people.  I knew how to work hard.  I tended to pack my schedule full, and when life got hard, I just pushed harder.

But that season was, literally and figuratively, my wake-up call.  Pushing harder and doing more, more, more was no longer an option for me.  If I was going to stay sane as a mom, and be there for my family the way I wanted to be, I needed to make changes in my life to minimize and better deal with stress.

That was a little over three years ago.  Since then I’ve developed practices that have helped me be in a healthier place.  These practices aren’t for everyone.  I know I’m vulnerable in areas where some people are not, so I need to put up safeguards for myself.  You may be perfectly okay burning the candle at both ends, whereas I would be a hot mess, wax melting all over the place, house on fire, kind of mess.

But I think all of us, to more or less extent, need practices in our lives to help us deal with stress.  These are mine.

White space on the calendar

I used to pack my schedule full.  I remember one day when my oldest was a toddler, and I had a social event in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening.  This might have been okay except that I’m an introvert (an introvert caring for a toddler, no less) and I had given myself no downtime to recharge.  I remember prepping for the evening event when I just wanted to go to bed.  Looking back, I think, why was I doing that to myself?  And to the people I was hanging out with?  What was the point of going through life exhausted and dreading the next event?

I once invited over a mother of several young children, who responded, “We can’t come that morning because we have something scheduled for the evening.”

What? I thought.  I’m not inviting you for the evening.  I’m asking about the morning.  Then I realized that she knew her limits, and in the stressful season she was already in with multiple young children, she was only scheduling one thing per day.  She was perfectly comfortable saying no to whatever wasn’t best for her and her kids.

I’ve learned that some of my favorite moments in life are when we have nothing going on and are just resting at home as a family.  Moments when we pull out a board game on the dining room table, when I sit on the deck reading a novel, when I get down on the floor to play with my kids, when we spontaneously take a walk together.

If these are my favorite moments, why am I frenetically filling the schedule so that we hardly ever have them?  What is this game—whoever has the busiest schedule wins?  I quit!

I’ve been learning to make white space on the calendar, and to plan each thing in the context of everything else—meaning that if we already have plans for Friday morning, maybe I shouldn’t make plans for Friday afternoon.  If all our weekday evenings are busy, we absolutely must be home on Saturday.

You might be in a season of life where you can fill your calendar to the max and it’s pure joy.  If so, that’s great!  But if you’re in a season similar to mine—an introvert, I’m dealing with some health issues, and I have little children in difficult seasons—practice saying no.  Protect your calendar.  Create some space to for you and your family to breathe.

What are your triggers?

What causes stress in your life?  You may already know.  Or you may need to make a list and ask for input from those who know you well.  Then look through your list of triggers, and find a way to either manage or eliminate each one.

The idea is this—if you are already in a stressful season doing what God has called you to (whether that’s building your marriage, raising young children, working your job)—your plate is already full.  Don’t pile on stresses that you don’t need to handle and that keep you from the essential things only you can do.

Which stresses can you eliminate?  For instance, if watching the news causes you stress, stop.  No one is paying you to do it, right?  The world doesn’t need you to do it.  If it’s not helping you help people, stop.

I’ll make it personal—I keep returning to the point where I need to stop, at least for now and maybe forever, reading articles about Trump.  I’m just done.  I’ve already made up my mind I’m not going to vote for him, and reading the recent news about him never makes me think, Wow, I’m so refreshed right now!  I really feel ready to deal with my kids after reading that.

The same applies for reading about crime and other violent news stories. There is a delicate balance here—I don’t want to have my head in the sand.  I paid some attention to what happened in Orlando.  I want to be aware of what’s going on in the world so that I can respond with wisdom and compassion.  At the same time, we live in a time of greater global awareness than ever before, where we can read up on the atrocities of ISIS, for instance, yet at the same time it’s easy to ignore the difference we can make in the sphere of influence we do have.

Secondary traumatic stress occurs when you experience stress by hearing about the firsthand trauma experienced by another.  I was recently at a foster care event, sitting in a room filled with foster parents who are pouring out their lives to help neglected and abused children.  The speaker asked how many of us daily watch the news, and the response was startling.  Hardly any hands went up.  The people in that room were so busy with the ministry right in front of their faces, that they were already in as much stress as they could handle.  Any triggers they could eliminate had to go.

Some triggers you can’t eliminate and you just have to manage—for instance, the screaming tantrums of your toddler.  There’s no way you can run from it, and you just have to have a game plan for how you’re going to deal with it in the moment.  How are you going to keep your cool?  How are you going to help your child get through this?  How are you going to plan times when you can get a break so you can jump back into parenting with a new perspective?

What feeds your soul?

This is the flip side of the coin—after you have a plan to eliminate or manage the stress in your life, think through the things that feed you, that make you feel alive, that refresh you and fill you up.

Here’s my partial list:

  • Reading the Bible and praying
  • Reading other good books
  •  Having meaningful conversation with friends (1-on-1 or in small groups—I’m an introvert!)
  •  Sitting quietly on the deck
  •  Listening to worship music
  • Writing blog posts
  • Teaching

Staying sane in my life right now means prioritizing these things.  Sometimes it’s a simple choice that after the kids go to bed, I’m going to turn off Facebook (potentially a trigger) and go sit on the deck, and for ten minutes breathe deeply and watch the sunset.  Sometimes the only way to prioritize these things is to have a strategy—to plan ahead and to ask for help from my husband or others so I can make time to be emotionally healthy.

There’s a balance—the hard truth is, what feeds my soul often (though not always) happens away from my kids.  Of course I don’t want to be the absent mom too busy pursuing my own dreams to be available for my children.  But it’s also true that I’m a better mom to them when I take the time and space to nourish myself.

That’s part 1 of my healthy practices and I’m going to cut it off there—part 2 will follow Lord willing in a few days.  What are your strategies for staying sane in the middle of whatever craziness is your life?  Please share!