self-improvement


See? Facebook is good for something. These three recent articles — all found linked on Facebook — have all encouraged me and made me think.

1. My Mother Practiced the Piano — from StoryWarren. This is a great article about creativity and motherhood. I especially liked this passage:

You can tell a child a thousand times to go make the world beautiful, but I don’t know how he is to believe you without watching it done. Whether your art takes a traditional form like music or painting, or whether you are an artist in chemistry, cooking, gardening, politics, or befriending the lonely, that part of you still matters. It matters for your children to see that it matters, too.

This is a helpful way to frame thinking about pursuing your own hobbies and passions as a parent. Modern-day motherhood is fraught with the expectation that we need to be all things to our children, and provide them with precious memories and enriching, entertaining activities every day of the year. A good mother is one who martyrs herself for the sake of her children. But there’s a backlash against that attitude nowadays, which I’m glad to see, and this article is the latest (and least hysterical) one I’ve seen. It’s worth a read.

2. The Moral Bucket List — by David Brooks in the New York Times. This article has been all over the place recently, and for good reason.

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

It’s my goal in life to be like the person David Brooks describes above, but I often get caught up in how that person looks and acts on the outside, rather than allowing myself to grow into compassion and wisdom on the inside. It’s not cute.

In his article, Brooks brings up the concept of a person’s “core sin” — your primary weakness — and in the interest of completing my own moral bucket list, I’ve been thinking about how I too can defeat my own weaknesses. (See my previous post, on not making the perfect the enemy of the good.) The lesson here, too, is that this is a lifelong learning process, not necessarily something I will master in a week, but that that’s the point. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

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(illustration from the article)

(PS —

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

Another point for homeschooling?)

3. Your Predisposition is Not Your Future — from Becoming Minimalist. This article is in response to Brooks’s article, but it gets into the concept of self-defeat on a deeper level. I especially liked this suggestion:

Intentionally pursue the opposing behavior. Even for just a short while, cultivate the exact opposite behavior [of the behavior you want to change]. When I decided I wanted to become an early-riser, I challenged myself to wake up at 5 am for 29 days straight. And you know what? It worked.

I … might need to do this in some areas of my life. Just as a temporary experiment. Maybe one a month? Early rising one month, cutting out sugar the next, striving to be early for everything the month after that … Eek. But I do love a good personal challenge.

Anyway: happy reading! And if you’ve read anything good lately (or anything deeply stupid), share the links!

I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time and mental energy focused on what’s not working. Things I want to change, updates I’m planning, what I need to improve. (I think it’s the INFJ in me; I am pretty much the model for that portrait.) Just look at the last month or so of this blog: all kinds of things I need to do differently. I need to get up earlier, I need to dry my hair, I need to create a better rhythm. And yeah, I think I need to do all of those things, but I also think I need to take a minute to focus on what is working. So:

Meal planning. I’ve been meal planning for a while now (since the summer?) and it makes life so much easier. Grocery shopping, dinners and cooking are all much more streamlined. I plan the week’s meals on Sundays and do my shopping that night (alone!) after the kids are in bed. I make a soup or crock pot meal every Monday and eggs every Thursday, so I have some structure to work around. I am planning meals that are easy but also enjoyable to prepare, since I love to cook. It’s been great. (Tonight? pasta with chicken, pesto and roasted tomatoes. Done.)

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A favorite: tomato soup and tuna melts. We keep it simple these days.

Preschool. I wavered a lot on whether or not to feel guilty or weird about enrolling Will in preschool at 2. He goes two mornings a week and after the first week I was so, so glad we did it. For him, because he has a speech delay (had? he might be caught up) and because he loves to play with other kids. For me, because I was having a new baby and felt overwhelmed already. And now because it gives me one or two quiet mornings a week to take a shower, do some writing, and in general just take it easy with said new baby. I will sing the praises of two-year-old preschool from the hilltops for time immemorial.

Daniel Tiger Hour. Will stopped napping literally two weeks after Anna was born. This didn’t come as a surprise because he started dropping naps more and more frequently over the summer, but the last time he took an afternoon nap was the first day I was at home on my own with both kids. About two weeks after that, after trying and failing multiple times to enforce an afternoon “quiet time”, he and I were both frustrated and upset, and most afternoons had us both in tears. Steve and I made the executive decision: no more quiet times, no more naps. It was the best thing we could have done. However, Will does still need some down time during the day, so after lunch he lays down on the couch for an hour and watches Daniel Tiger or another PBS kids show. I have mixed feelings about using screen time in general at his age (I honestly regret letting him watch so much TV when he was young), but I’ve been thinking about media in a different way lately: if he’s watching TV, what is he not doing? Running, jumping, playing, reading, learning, everything. And he’s laying down because he needs a break from that. So I have made peace with an hour of Daniel Tiger every afternoon. It’s working right now, and that’s what counts.

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Afternoon coffee. Almost every day this winter I have brewed a second pot of coffee after lunch to enjoy during Daniel Tiger Hour. It’s restorative. (Today I brewed mine early; it’s late-morning coffee instead. I’ll try to resist also having afternoon coffee too.)

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Relaxing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since becoming a mom is a pretty obvious one. Life is different now and that’s okay. Maybe someday I’ll have the energy to pick up all the Duplos off the floor at the end of the day. Maybe someday I’ll manage to get all the laundry folded on the same day it’s washed. Right now, though, I don’t do those things, and I’m learning to accept that and be okay with it. I do what I can, when I can, and I know that right now is a unique time in my life, so I’m learning to savor it more and more, while letting the little things go. I’ll catch up with them later.

There. That felt weird but good. That’s what’s working. Now back to my regularly programmed quest for constant self-improvement.

I took a shower and blow-dried my hair today.

This shouldn’t be a noteworthy achievement, really, but it does signify one more step away from our winter hibernation and toward engaging with the world again. My habit these last few months has been 1. shower only when necessary, 2. ugh, blow-drying is the worst, and 3. expend as little energy on personal appearance as can get away with and still be seen in public. But this week I took it up a notch, and I’m glad I did.

The last few weeks I’ve been trying to be more intentional about getting out of the house more — going to the gym, mostly — and branching out ever so slightly from my personal uniform. I have been sticking to just the essentials in regards to most of my life since Anna was born, and I think that was absolutely appropriate and necessary (and I would do it again a million times) BUT she is now five months old, spring is on its way, and it’s probably time to open the windows again, figuratively speaking. I’ve reached the point where if I don’t do it now, I’m pretty much just letting myself go, and that’s not an option.

When I was in my 20s I partied hard by watching What Not to Wear every Friday night with a bowl of popcorn. One recurring theme on the show (God rest its soul) was the Frumpy SAHM. Moms who had gotten overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood and coped by shrugging off the attention they had once paid to their appearance. Moms who wore sweats all day, every day, who never styled their hair or wore makeup, who thought they were invisible, who had just stopped caring. “That will never be me!” I declared, week after week. And you know what? IT STILL WON’T BE. Even though the above description sounds eerily familiar.

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I own these pants. I love them.

I feel like I am veering precariously close to frumpitude. I haven’t had a haircut since before Anna was born, meaning my grown-out bob is now aimless and flat. None of my actual clothes fit (still), and I’m not about to spend money on a pair or two of well-fitting jeans only five months postpartum, so I’m still wearing the same two outfits over and over again. I’m honestly too tired to spend a lot of time on my appearance, but time isn’t really the issue — it’s effort. My makeup routine takes about three minutes, if that, but lifting the mascara to my lashes sometimes feels like more work than it’s worth.

So, I’m trying to do something about it, tired or not. The first thing I did was schedule a haircut. It’s next month. Having short hair again will protect me from Endless Messy Ponytail Purgatory. The second thing I did was wear makeup on a day when I didn’t have to see anyone besides the moms at preschool drop-off. I also elected to wear “people clothes” that day when all I was doing was bumming around at home. The third thing I did was blow dry my hair this morning so I look a little more presentable — even though we’re snowbound, I am tired of looking so … desperate. I’m tired of looking like I don’t care, like I’ve given up. I’m tired of feeling that way, too.

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The magic hoodie. No regrets, but I think we need to break up.

Yesterday I wrote about establishing rhythm in our days — the rhythm of making the bed when I get up, of reading books together on the couch in the morning, watching Daniel Tiger under a blanket after lunch, baking during Anna’s naps. Along with adding early-morning writing and yoga into my daily rhythm, I also need (need) to incorporate better self-care, even though it’s easy to write off things like hair and makeup as unnecessary time-sucks when I have so many more important things to do. I now understand just how easy it is for a SAHM of young children to inadvertently let herself go, as well as just how gradually that happens.

My next task is to figure out a warm-weather personal uniform. I am not giving that up! I love having a closely-defined personal style (I call it “Goes With Leggings” or “Secretly Comfortable” or “Shh, I Just Had A Baby”), but I do need a few more options. I’m thinking maxi skirt, nursing-appropriate t-shirt and a lightweight infinity scarf. Or leggings and nursing-appropriate tunic. The only obstacle here is that I don’t want to spend money on clothes until I’ve started to approach a more long-term body shape, and I have to wear clothes I can nurse in, so no Boden for me just yet and (sadly) no skinny jeans to pair with all those plaid flannel button-ups waiting in my closet. I don’t have a ton of options, but I’m determined to look put-together this spring and summer, capsule wardrobe and all. Stacy and Clinton, I’m going to make you proud.

I skipped yoga today.

I skipped yoga today for the second week in a row. I’m bummed about it. Last week was because we were all recovering from varying levels of illness, but this week? I was just too tired. I’ve been sitting here wanting to write, but unable to pin the thoughts down because I’m too tired to reach up and grab at them.

Being really tired messes with the way I think, I’m finding. It’s messing with a lot of things, not just my energy levels. I’m starting to forget what it’s like to not be tired. I (really) love the baby stage, but now I’m remembering why I didn’t miss it when it was over last time. This isn’t lack-of-energy tiredness — it’s just plain old I-need-more-sleep.

Here are some ways I’m trying to combat my fatigue:

  • tea, not wine. This isn’t always easy for me, since I love both cabernet and indulgence, but drinking a cup of hot tea at night is better for my sleep than a glass of wine.
  • lavender oil. On the same note, I find that a few drops of lavender essential oil on my temples in the evening relaxes me and helps me fall asleep easier. It could be a placebo effect, but who cares? It’s the ritual of applying it that matters. It allows for a mental shift from day to evening to night.
  • water, water, water. When I’m forced out of my bed by an energetic toddler every morning, I reach for a giant glass of water to get me going. (Then I reach for coffee.) The exhaustion makes me crave sugar, too, and reaching for a glass of water first helps to blunt those edges. I still eat more chocolate than I really should, but life is short, so I don’t mind.
  • screen time curfew. Okay, this is new to me. I read a lot of books on my iPad’s kindle app, but it’s backlit, so reading at night can actually often have the opposite effect on me than I want it to. I’m cutting myself off from the iPad and computer after 9 p.m. I get a second wind of energy most nights, and I’m hoping that without screens in front of me, I can avoid that and talk myself into going to bed a little earlier. (This is why I also always have a physical book to read, too.)
  • accepting it. It’s a season. I’m tired right now. It’s all right. This is the yogi in me, breathing through the discomfort. This isn’t a permanent state, and accepting it instead of fighting it is the best way for me to keep my sanity. I’m letting things go (like organizing my closet), I’m being really slow about others (like folding laundry), and I’m accepting that some things just need to wait a while (like reading — and implementing — the Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up). And in the meantime, the yoga studio isn’t going anywhere.

I’m pretty confident that I won’t always be so tired, so really my aim here is to just make it through these months with as much sleep as possible and as many coping mechanisms as I can get. If you have any more suggestions, send them my way!

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This was my view today. Not bad for a sleepy stay-at-home Saturday!

… has been taken down by the stomach flu this week.

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Indulging in lots of popsicles and screen time.

Coupled with Anna’s four-month shots, this was kind of a long week. Not a bad one, necessarily, but tough. But I am starting to think most weeks these days are going to be just … tough. I told Steve tonight that despite the fact that Will is almost three, I still don’t think I’ve gotten the hang of this whole toddler thing.

Am I the only one who oftentimes finds herself engulfed in a tsunami of toddler emotion? I have to take an objective step back a lot of the time and remind myself that I don’t have to get sucked in to the toddler drama. It’s hard. I am also getting to know more and more of who Will is as a little person, not just as A Toddler. Of course, this is great, but like everything else it requires me to up my parenting game more and more to match his strengths and weaknesses. And I’m finding it’s hard to always be the role model I want to be. (For instance, screen time: I like to put limits on Will’s TV time. But it’s hard for me to model that when I’m always checking my phone!)

In other news, I’m still thinking a lot about writing. I am going to try to build in time every day to write, and it’ll have to be first thing in the morning before the kids are up, because 1. I can’t write while they’re awake, and 2. I’m generally too tired at night to write regularly. I’m not sure I’ll actually get much writing done every day, but I am going to at least start trying to prioritize it and see if I can get a regular writing practice off the ground again — one I can keep up indefinitely and weave back in to the fabric of my life. I’d reread Bird by Bird and On Writing, but I feel like they might just make me feel paralyzed by guilt. So I’ll just dive in and read them later this year once I’m actually, you know, really writing again.

And in other other news: I can tell I haven’t been to the gym in two months. My back is starting to hurt at the end of the day, what with all the baby-lugging and toddler-wrangling. My core is so weak! I go to a yoga class once a week, but obviously that’s not going to build my strength back. Thankfully flu season is on its way out (and we have already been visited by the stomach flu) so I’ll be able to drag the babies there more often going forward, and maybe do something about this mom pooch I’m sporting around my midsection. My reward will be a pair or two of Madewell jeans. I’m currently pining for these:

Yes, high rise flares. Be still my heart. These might be the jeans to break my new year’s resolution.

I’ve been thinking about writing a lot these days. Writing is something that comes so naturally to me that I don’t remember a time when I didn’t do it; of course, I often go through long periods of time when I don’t write at all. And I think I suffer for it. I go through my days with essays half-formed in my mind, lines of dialogue with no one to speak them, and long, tangled strings of thought that can’t be unraveled without grammar, so they stay tangled up for far too long. I started writing as soon as I could hold a crayon and I sometimes cringe thinking of what Stephen King (not to mention my seventeen-year-old self!) would think if they knew how I squander my gift.

I’ve realized what the problem is, what it has been for a very long time. It’s this: writing is a very time-consuming hobby and I don’t prioritize it. I don’t prioritize it because it is time-consuming, and I also don’t prioritize it because deep down I wonder if it’s worth the time I need to spend on it.

So let’s unpack that some:

1. Writing is time-consuming. It is for me, anyway. When I was in high school my grades suffered because all I wanted to do was write novels. When I was in college I spent an entire semester barely scraping by in my classes and seeing friends only when I really needed to, because all I wanted to do was write. (It was my happiest semester, by the way.) When I write, especially when I write fiction, it is all-consuming. It was okay for me to eschew “real life” when I was 22; it’s less okay for me to do it at 35, now that I have a job, a home, two children, and a marriage. I truly don’t know how to balance writing with the rest of my life, and it’s why I haven’t taken my writing seriously in the last five or ten years. I don’t know how to write like a grown-up.

2. I feel like I can’t justify it. Isn’t that weird? I just realized this. The reason I don’t actually sit down and make writing a priority in my life is that I feel like I can’t justify doing so, spending so much time and effort on a hobby that … what, isn’t lucrative? Is pointless? What? I highly doubt I will ever publish (if statistics are to be believed), so … what’s the point of writing a novel, then? That’s the heart of the matter: is the joy of writing enough?

When I had that realization I thought of that Eric Liddell quote: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Well, I believe that God also made me for a purpose, but he also made me a good writer. And when I write I feel his pleasure. (she said a little indignantly.)

It’s true. When I write I get into a flow state that I can’t achieve anywhere else in my life. Believe me, I’ve tried. Yoga and baking are the only other things that even come close to competing with how much I love to write, and they are a distant, distant second and third. Time falls away in great chunks and I am utterly transported and transfixed.

But I have this mental roadblock of feeling like because it will never get me anywhere, so to speak, the time I spend on writing is ultimately pointless. How awful that is! But I can’t disregard how hard it is for me to achieve balance in my life when I write. When I’m working on something that I really love, it is my whole world. My whole, happy world. It feels weird and irresponsible to prioritize something that takes me away from the world to the extent that writing does, but at the same time, not writing makes me feel like I am missing a limb, or more accurately, one of my senses.

I have been walking around missing my sense of writing for a really long time. So long that I can almost convince myself that it was never really there to begin with.

I want to arrange my life so that I can prioritize writing again, but to organize my whole life around a hobby feels so self-indulgent. That is where I keep getting stuck. But I know I don’t want to live without my sense of writing for the rest of my life. What a waste.

An ongoing goal of mine over the last few years has been the hoary old cliche of getting organized. I am not by nature a particularly organized person, but I’ve come to learn that I value (and really, need) order and structure in order to feel relaxed. It’s kind of a tough combination to need organization but to actually be clueless about (and, to be honest, pretty bad at) real organization. But anyway, one inadvertent side effect of these ongoing efforts has been to reduce my decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is basically the stress one feels at having too many choices. (As an aside, I try to reduce the amount decision fatigue Will experiences by … not always giving him choices. I know that is antithetical to a lot of modern parenting advice, but I think it helps. More on that another time.) Where I used to stress about what to make for dinner, I now can relax, because I meal plan. Where I used to feel paralysis shopping for makeup and personal care products, I can now just go in and out of the store with what I need, because I buy (or make!) the same things every time. I’m trying to automate things. Now it’s happening to my wardrobe.

Every day I wear one of two outfits. They consist of “home clothes” and “people clothes”.

Home clothes: Old Navy yoga pants, a nursing tank, and a Lululemon scuba hoodie. (Yes, I spent like $100 on a hoodie, and I felt kind of ridiculous doing it, but it was worth every single penny. It’s in the wash right now and I miss it.) I put this on when I get up in the morning and I am dressed for the day. Stacy London might be a little horrified, but I wear this grocery shopping, to the library, or to take Will to preschool. I actually am a little horrified by that myself, but look, they’re not pajamas.

People clothes: leggings, a nursing tank, a long flowy cardigan, a circle scarf, and boots. I wear this 90% of the time when I’m out in public or at church. Next time you see me, make note. I will be wearing some version of this outfit.

My personal uniform didn’t come about because I was tired of choosing something to wear every day, per se; it started out of necessity. After having Anna, I became so discouraged and frustrated not being able to wear “real clothes” that it really started to get me down. I found I was a lot more comfortable (physically and mentally) when I wore leggings and flowy cardigans instead of trying to force myself into the biggest pair of jeans I own. So one day I decided to just wear the same thing every day, more or less. It was a decision borne out of desperation, but it made me feel kind of empowered.

Empowered how? Well, I feel good in what I wear. So that’s a plus. I don’t have to spend a lot of time deciding what to put on every day. The biggest decision is which scarf to wear. Plus, I feel like myself. I actually really like clothes and fashion, but there’s something to be said for knowing what works for you and having a signature look.

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The ultimate sweater. You can’t see my surroundings here, but this is also the ultimate bathroom.

Another bonus is that when I can fit back into my real clothes again, I can toss all of the things that don’t fit into this paradigm. When I go shopping I can do the same thing. It’s made life so much easier, and frees me up to be able to focus on and think about other things. I facetiously said that my new year’s resolution was to wear leggings or yoga pants every day, but I was only half facetious. Now my only problem is to figure out a warm weather equivalent! Bring on the maxi dresses!