More is Not More

 

3.30.16

It’s easy to believe that more is more…bigger is better… I spent my 20s and early 30s in a perpetual state of delayed gratification, focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel.

If I could travel back in time about 15 years, I’d tell myself to stop looking ahead and to enjoy the abundance of today. Enjoy the challenge of clipping coupons, shopping at consignment sales and the thrill of keeping your checkbook out of the red each month. Enjoy your cozy house, with your sweet little family snuggled up on your old, broken-in couch. Treasure your friends who share your struggles and make you laugh (sometimes through your tears). Daydream about the future, but know that you are living your dream.

I spent last week on Spring Break, skiing with my family in Steamboat, Colorado; this is my husband’s and oldest son’s “happy place.” It made me consider if our lives would be happier if we lived there year-round? Would the laid-back, Colorado lifestyle benefit my type-a, hard-charging husband? Would my son be happier if he could ski all winter, rather than a few days a year? Would my husband be happier if he could fly fish and hike on his days off rather than once a year? Would more be more?

To date, my life experiences have taught me that more is not more:

Stuff. I’ve just finished hauling loads of my kids’ outgrown clothes and toys to our school’s annual garage sale. While collecting our donation, I stood in my own closet and realized that I have worn the same five tops and two pairs of jeans over and over, while my closet is full of dusty clothes that date back to college. I rounded up boxes of holiday decorations that my mom gave me because she no longer wanted them; I’ve moved them from our apartment in Kansas to our house in North Carolina to our house in Nebraska and never displayed them… There is something incredibly liberating about defining what is essential and eliminating everything else.

Attention. When I decided to stay home with my kids, I approached motherhood as a full-time job. I worked everyday to provide enrichment activities for my first two children (19 months apart), taking them to book babies at the library and the local children’s museum regularly, playing with them on the floor and reading to them for hours on end. Consequently, my kids always looked to me to be their entertainer. When my youngest son was born 4 ½ years later, our family’s full schedule did not allow me to give him the same level of focus. And guess what? He learned to entertain himself. He has an incredible imagination and an easy-going personality. You can argue about nature vs. nurture, but I believe that he’s thrived under my non-intentional “less attention is more” approach to motherhood the third time around.

Kids’ activities. With three kids, it’s easy to let you family’s calendar get totally out of control with various lessons, practices and games. Initially, it takes time to expose your kids to all of the extracurricular activities out there. Eleven years into this parenting thing, I firmly believe that you can’t do everything and do it all well. Now, I challenge my kids to follow their interests and to make choices. It’s so easy to overschedule; it really benefits no one.

Volunteer commitments. I am a “yes” person and always up for a new challenge. These traits have made me a target for lots of opportunities requiring free labor. My volunteer work has served as a positive outlet in my life; it’s allowed me to get outside of the house and to use my professional skills to raise money for non-profits that enrich my community. It can be stressful and time-consuming in the days and weeks leading up to a big event, which can be annoying to my family. Experience has taught me to limit my “yeses.” Defining my focus keeps me from spreading myself too thin and allows me to better balance my needs with those of my family.

I guess that my conclusion is simple: life is a balancing act. More of one thing can mean less of another. Moving to your “happy place” seems like it would make your life happier. But, it would also mean moving away from all of the things that currently bring you joy: family, friends, teachers, coaches, neighbors and church (to name a few). Happiness is about focusing on your abundant blessings, which if you stop to count often multiply.

 

Rattlesnake Tails & Other Gifts From My Grandma

3.17.16

When I was a kindergartener, I brought a little baggie full of dried rattlesnake tails to “show and tell” at school. Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the shocked expression on sweet Mrs. Blackwell’s face as I stood in front of my class (with my big bow and perfectly curled hair, wearing a little dress with white knee-high socks and black mary janes) and explained that my grandma had killed all of these rattlesnakes with an ax on her ranch in Montana. I told my classmates that she had a large glass jar full of rattlesnake tails on the shelf in her basement, but I only took a few. I explained that she taught me that you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting its rattles; a rattlesnake grows 2-3 rattles each year of its life.   It was a “show and tell” first for Swanson Elementary.

My grandma, Mildred Spencer Monson, passed away more than 14 years ago. But, she’s been on my mind a lot this week. At times when I’ve felt like my life is hard, I’ve encouraged myself to summon my inner Mildred. When I compare my life to hers, I have it pretty easy.

Mildred was a strong woman. She killed rattlesnakes with an ax. She grew up in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana. She received a formal education as a young girl, attended boarding school, college and went on to become a teacher. She married Melvin Monson (a handsome rancher), had three children and settled on a cattle ranch near Chinook, Montana. A regular day for her included waking up at the crack of dawn to milk cows, gather eggs, make three meals from scratch (no convenience items or microwave), tend the family garden (where she ran into many rattlers), sew her children’s clothes, wash all of the family’s clothes and dishes by hand . . . Oh, and teach grades first through eighth in the rural, one-room schoolhouse. She ran a small home without indoor plumbing for years. My dad remembers playing marbles with his siblings and listening to the radio at night for entertainment. The nearest town was about 25 minutes away (no Amazon.com). She was an expert at stretching the dollar. I fondly remember her cutting paper towels into fourths because that was cheaper than purchasing Kleenex (she’d done the math). She also stretched her coffee grounds by reusing them multiple times…

It really is amazing how quickly life has evolved in just a couple of generations in this country. I was trying to explain to my kids that cell phones did not exist when I was little and that I didn’t have an e-mail address until I was in college. In order to do a research paper for school, I used to have to go to the library and use a card catalog, microfiche film and encyclopedias (all foreign words to them); we did not have the Internet or a computer when I was in elementary school. They could not comprehend that my television only had three channels or that cartoons were only played on Saturday!

Modern conveniences have allowed us to save time, but somehow we’ve still managed to fill our calendars with more “stuff.” I wonder what Mildred would say as she scrolled through my family’s iCal for the week? Would she approve or would she scoff?

I think she’d question the value of spending so much time and money on extracurricular activities. I think she’d wonder why my children don’t help out more around the house and why I’m so exhausted at the end of the day. But, I think she would be incredibly proud of my oldest son, who inherited her love of learning. I think she’d smile as she took in all of the messy stacks of books around his room, noting many familiar ones that I inherited from her own book shelves; that image makes my heart happy.

When I was a little girl, I was told that I inherited my grandma’s eyes. As an adult, I catch myself thinking Mildred-like thoughts and doing Mildred-like things. I am thankful that I grew up with a strong grandma who taught me that you don’t need to be afraid of rattlesnakes or hard work.

Focus on What’s Right

3.10.16

Growing up, I remember my mom saying: “You are only as happy as your saddest child.” This past week, her words have echoed through my thoughts as I’ve driven carpool, jogged around my neighborhood and tried to fall asleep at night.

When I was pregnant, I constantly prayed for happy, healthy children. I felt like it would be greedy to add anything else to the list (smart, athletic, attractive, driven, artistic, musical or socially gifted…). When you boil it all down, these are the two greatest blessings.

One of the most difficult facts about motherhood is that I can’t actually control my children’s happiness or their health. I can make sure that all of their basic needs are met. I can teach by my example. I can preach (by far my most used and least effective tactic). I can provide constant love and support.  But, I can’t do it for them. I can’t make them make healthy choices or follow my advice.

I can’t control what cruelties life hurls at me or my family. But, I can control how I react. Do I get depressed? Angry? Even? Or, do I choose to count my blessings? Happiness is a choice.

A wise man once told me not to build a shrine to my sadness or anger. He encouraged me to make our home a happy retreat, separate from the unkind world. He told me to have faith and to trust that there are lessons to be learned; in the future, we will be able to look back and laugh at the memories that are painful realities today.

When my mind starts to go toward the sadness, I must force myself to focus on the joy. I must choose to find the beauty in the ugly. I must choose to celebrate the simplest blessings, which are plentiful. Honestly, even on my darkest days – the good still outweighs the bad.  I just have to make the choice to focus on what’s right…again and again and again.

Focusing on what’s right in my life takes away the power of what isn’t. It also allows me to be a better mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend…a better all-around person.

 

My Heart: Walking Around Outside My Body

2.29.16

“Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
― Elizabeth Stone

I will never forget the first time that I left my oldest son for an hour. He was a couple of months old, and I handed him to sweet Miss Donna in our church’s nursery. I gave her detailed, written instructions for every possible scenario that she might encounter within the next 60 minutes. As I walked upstairs with my husband to attend the service, I understood Elizabeth Stone’s quote for the first time. Once you have a child, your heart never leaves his side. Your heart feels his joy more strongly, his pain more deeply. . .both his pride and shame are multiplied.

During the next hour I struggled to focus, wondering if he was hungry or needed to be changed…did I bring two pacifiers? What if one dropped on the floor? When I picked him up, he was sleeping soundly in Miss Donna’s arms as she gently rocked him. Over the next three and a half years, Miss Donna became a regular part of our weekly routine and a person that our family came to adore. After 11 years, this incredibly kind, big-hearted woman has not missed a single birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day—my kids continue to be delighted when they find her cards from North Carolina in our mailbox. I am so thankful that she came into our lives when I truly needed a break and a person I could trust. She has continued to spread sunshine and to remind my kids just how special they are through her loving eyes.

As my kids have grown up, I have felt my heart separate from me time and time again. The odd thing is that it never gets easier. . .never becomes routine. I remember when the nurse gave my son his first set of vaccinations, plunging needles into his chubby little thighs, his cherubic face went from innocently smiling into my eyes to a pained, twisted, angry shade of red that matched his blood-curdling scream. I wished I could change places with him. As a toddler, I remember when a little cute little girl with golden curls bit him on the cheek because she wanted his toy, during “Book Babies” at the library. I wished it was me with the teeth marks on my own face. As he’s gotten older he’s no longer at risk of being physically bitten by another toddler, but tweens’ words can cut with much more force…It breaks my heart.  I wish I could protect him from cruelty.

Motherhood has been full of surprises, but my greatest shock has been the incredible, unconditional love that brings great joy and greater pain. When I kiss my youngest goodnight, I always tell him that I love him and he always responds by saying that he loves me more — such a sweet sentiment, but so NOT possible.

Elizabeth Stone Quote