Monday, April 30, 2012

Mommy Monday: The First Year of Baby

"But for most new mothers the year after having their first baby turns out to be the loneliest, according to a survey." (The first year of motherhood 'is the loneliest in a woman's life', survey shows @ Mail Online)

This weekend I was watching a wonderful parenting video on TED titled Let's Talk Parenting Taboos: Rufus  Griscom + Alisa Volkman.



One of the taboos discussed was that as moms we are not allowed to admit to the feelings of loneliness and isolation we experience in the first few years with young children. Other cultures offer family and community support, but many new moms in the U.S. today live far away from family and lose contact with their friends. It was such a relief to know that I was not the only mom struggling with this issue and that there were sources out there to help me.

When my oldest son was born, I was completely overwhelmed, despite all the books, parenting classes, and well-meaning advice. My baby cried constantly, ate all the time, hated having his diaper changed, and generally created noisy, loud (my husband swears he suffered hearing loss) chaos in my relatively peaceful life. When maternity leave ended, I was happy to go back to work.

Eighteen months later, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom for a little while and have a second baby. For the next two years, I felt profoundly lonely and isolated. All of my friends and most of my neighbors held full time jobs. My mom lived three hours away and my mother in-law was a quiet woman who kept to herself. Most days my husband was the only adult conversation I had. I used Facebook prolifically until I realized few of my friends and family actually checked Facebook. The only comforting advice I received was from my sister whose children were a few years to a few months older than mine. She simply stated, "It gets better."

I still haven't found the cure for loneliness, but gradually it is fading. I have a wonderful neighbor and friend who is a retired teacher. She is a profound comfort and support during these long days. My children are older now. With only one nap time, my youngest off the bottle and capable of walking, and my oldest capable of not running away when I can't hold his hand, the three of us are going out more and enjoying parks, bookstores, and occasionally even snack time at McDonald's or the ice cream parlor. My newest resource is babble.com, discovered through Rufus' and Alisa's discussion. Their discussion also gave me additional hope as the charts show an upturn when the children turn age five and presumably start school. I admit I am looking forward to that day with great anticipation.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Financially Fit Fashion Tip: Thrift Store Shopping

"Whatever your financial status, presenting well to the world still matters and these days, looking good is an inexpensive option. Thrift stores are great resources for affordable, quality clothes." (How to Live on Practically Nothing @ WikiHow)

I remember the first time I went thrift store shopping. My dad lost his job during the 1987 downturn and my mom, on the advice of a friend, took me and my sisters thrift store shopping before school began. My mom found the experience degrading and humiliating and the clothes drab and shabby.  She vowed never to take us thrift store shopping again and she never did.

When I went to college, thrift store shopping was vogue among my neo-hippie friends. They would pair a thrift store t-shirt with a pair of $300 ripped up jeans and a $20 pair of surplus combat boots. I didn't have the flair for mix-and-match fashion, but I admired theirs while I stuck with middle-class chain store finds.

I didn't actually develop a passion for thrift store shopping until I met my husband. I learned from him how to find the high end, name brand stuff for a fraction of the price. Thrift stores, particularly those in well-heeled areas, are goldmines of elitist fashion, accessories, and decor. They are a great source for special one-of-a-kind finds like leather jackets, designer jeans, or vintage anything, and a terrific place to find kids clothing, especially for little boys who are tough on their clothes in the first place.

Eventually, I learned to examine the quality of my finds, not just the brand name label. The look, feel, content, and  density and consistency of the seams tells me so much more its durability. I also learned to examine for wear and tear on the clothing. Fading, stains (particularly in the armpits and collar), rips, tears, and broken buttons and zippers must be restored thus adding to the cost of the garment.

Today my wardrobe is an easy mix of middle-class chain store, online, and thrift store finds. Now that I've cultivated my own sense of style, it's easier for me to spot what I need and determine what price to pay for it. While I occasionally spend larger amounts on specific items, I get a special thrill when I find a statement piece that's just right at the thrift store.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Two Terrific Learning Resources for the Home Body

"The French believe in always learning something new. So, the next time you read about classes and workshops at your local community college or night school, sign up for something that challenges you. Your brain will thank you." (Bonjour, Happiness! by Jamie Cat Callan)

Being a stay-at-home mom, I don't get out much. Taking two small children anywhere is a lesson in perseverance and determination. Traditional workshops or classes aren't really an option at this stage in my life, but I enjoy learning so much that I found new methods for educating myself. Two of my greatest resources are my local library, where I can reserve books from 22 branches, and the internet where I've found online magazines, blogs, books, music, art, and lectures.

Two of my recent best finds include Susan Cain's new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and TED Talks. Susan Cain's book gave me so many insights into myself, the most significant one being why I  become so tired and irritable after sustained exposure to noisy environments, and reassured me that enjoying quiet activities, such as reading books together in bed with my husband, isn't weird. I haven't yet finished reading her book, but it is such a relief to know that my desire for quiet and solitude doesn't make me an eccentric.

I found a presentation by Susan Cain on TED Talks, a collection of lectures on a variety of subjects, and quickly became addicted. TED is a non-profit group dedicated to spreading ideas, and their wide array of topics includes music, art, business, money, science, relationships, personal development, religion and so much more. They are given by notable teachers and professionals knowledgeable in their fields and last anywhere from 10-30 minutes - perfect chunks of time for a stay-at-home mom who is frequently distracted. A bonus feature is that through these lectures and presentations, I'm also learning about other non-profits and online educational resources for additional, more in depth information.

When the children begin school, I hope to pursue more traditional learning activities and spend more time visiting cultural sites and attending cultural events. In the meantime, I'm thrilled to have discovered a goldmine of learning in our local library and online. Learning something new and engaging in activities that are challenging yet doable has been a rewarding part of my stay-at-home experience that I intend to nurture throughout the rest of my life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spiritual Break: Why is learning to meditate so hard?

"Because by learning to impartially observe our thoughts, mindfulness meditation allows us to gain brief respites from the soundtracks in our heads." (What is Mindfulness Meditation? by Ira Israel)

My goal for this month was to develop the habit of daily meditating for five minutes. It seemed reasonable, but I haven't been very successful. It is much harder to stop or even slow down the thoughts running through my head than I anticipated. My practice usually goes something like this:

Sit comfortably. I purchased a zafu cushion because I needed help to sit in a proper yoga meditation position, but I later learned that any comfortable sitting position will do. Some people meditate lying down, but I go to sleep.

Sit comfortably. Focus on your breath. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. One. Or, if you prefer, inhale deeply. One. Exhale deeply. Two. I prefer to pair my inhales and exhales.

Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. One. Keep a smooth rhythm. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Two. Don't forget to squeeze the air out from the bottom up. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Three. See if you can get more air into the bottom of your lungs. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Four. Ugh! My nose itches. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Five. Did I remember to take dinner out of the freezer for tomorrow? Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Six. Maybe I should do that now before I forget. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Seven. No. You are meditating. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Eight. Stay focused. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Nine. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Ten.

And on it goes for five minutes. After ten inhales and exhales, I start over again, except when I get so carried away with my thoughts that I've counted to twenty before catching myself. I keep a stop watch beside me to help me mediate the entire five minutes. Time moves slowly in meditation.

Every once in awhile, usually towards the end of my five minutes, I do manage to zone - to empty my head of thoughts, relax, and just be. The state doesn't last long because as soon as I realize I'm in it, I lose it. But for those few moments of respite, I find peace, balance, and flow.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learning Discretion

"Resist the urge to dish too much or talk about all your private business." (Bonjour, Happiness! by Jamie Cat Callan)

This is really great advice and I am becoming better at putting it into practice. Sometimes this is a bigger challenge when I'm with a don't-talk-about-yourself aficionado who provides short answers to my general inquiries into their well being and what is new in their lives. Having a small collection of neutral topics to discuss - the weather and related issues, the latest movie, sports (a terrific fallback topic because so many people love to passionately talk about the details of their favorite team), and music - helps to fill the space in casual social meetings. Listening to how people respond guides me in finding other potential topics to discuss. And sometimes the quiet space between discussions doesn't need to be filled at all. By allowing myself to be quiet, I create the space I need to think. It takes discipline to remain silent during these times, but it's the quiet me I like best.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Financially Fit: Debt and Its Relationship to Work

"On the simplest level, overspending means getting into debt trouble, and debt trouble means stress and worry and a painful attachment to one's job." (Snippets of Frugality by Trent @ thesimpledollar.com)

When my husband and I began dating, one of the things on which he prided himself most was being cheap. Granted, it was a bit of an embarrassment to me when he threatened to pay for our meals in pennies (he never followed through - at least when I was around, thank goodness).

When we were married, the first thing he insisted I do was pay off all my debt. I thought this was just his chinchy nature, but for our marriage, I humored him. I couldn't believe what freedom came from paying off debt. First went my credit cards. Whew! What a relief! Next went my car loan. Wow! That was an extra few hundred dollars in our pockets each month. Finally, came my student loans. Those were my biggest debt and extra tough to pay off. The student loan servicer wasn't exactly cooperative.  They couldn't seem to wrap their minds around the concept that someone might want to pay off their student loan early.

In the end, I won my freedom from that wretched loan, and I learned that paying off debt is worth the struggle. If I had that debt still hanging over my head, I wouldn't have been able to become a stay-at-home mom. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to reevaluate my life or my career. I wouldn't have had the time to nurture my children and participate in the activities that bring me fulfillment. Paying off debt changed my life and I have never want to go back to my former ways. The freedom I enjoy now is more precious to me than anything a credit card could buy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spiritual Break: Seeking Balance

"Balance is a humanist virtue - it is not consistent to be a humanist and a fanatic." (Humanism: An Introduction by Jim Herrick)


One of the areas in which I struggle to find balance is my spiritual life. Growing up in a strict, almost authoritarian, home where church attendance a minimum of three times a week (not counting church related social activities) caused me to enter adulthood "burned out." When I left home and went to college, I stopped paying attention to my spiritual life altogether. No church. No religious activities. No religious literature. No religious conversations. I wanted nothing to do with the "repressive" religion of my youth that kept me from living life to the full.

Eventually, I found that neglecting my spiritual life left me feeling empty and hollow. It wasn't until I took a World Religions class in college that I began opening my mind to a different approach to spiritual practice. Christianity was and is my spiritual foundation, but I wanted to know about other world religions and practices. I longed to grow my spiritual life and find new inspiration and wider understanding by looking outside the tradition in which I was raised.

Since I began my quest to learn more about other world religions, I have found inspiration in Native American, Humanist, Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianism teachings. I have also discovered that fanaticism exists in every religious/philosophical thought. Fanaticism corrupts religions and hinders spiritual growth by insisting that there is only one path to fundamental truth. Fanatics in every religion have committed horrible atrocities on others, and on themselves, in the name of their faith because they assume that god directs them to oppress the infidel - with "the infidel" defined as anyone whose religious understanding differs from the strictest interpretation of one's own views.  What seems to be lacking among fanatics is the fundamental realization that everyone's religious understanding differs to some degree and that even if "the infidel" is eliminated, the bar is shifted and the next infidel is targeted.  Some of the greatest acts of repression in history have taken place among peoples who are ethnically, socially and religiously closest.

This is when I come back to the ancient Greek mantra, "moderation in everything." A moderate approach to spirituality - a balanced approach - allows me to discern the spiritual practices that enrich my life from the practices that destroy or limit opportunities for spiritual growth. Balance is how I can take humanists values (frequently associated with atheism and agnosticism) and apply them to my own spiritual life. It truly is possible to appreciate wisdom from the philosophical teachings of Native Americans, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Humanism, Judaism, and Christianity (I haven't had much exposure to Islam) and create a prolific and growing spiritual life.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mid-week Spiritual Retreat: Learning to Meditate

"There are lots and lots of ways to meditate. But our concern is not to find a perfect form of meditation — it’s to form the daily habit of meditation. And so our method will be as simple as possible." (How to Meditate Daily by Leo Babauta)

I love Leo Babauta's Zen Habits blog. His words refresh, inspire, soothe, and remind me to come back to my center. This post helped me a great deal as my goal this month is to learn to meditate. I haven't been especially successful. My children are loud and noisy and interrupt my efforts. Finding a few moments when they are quietly occupied with a harmless project is quite a challenge. Most of those moments are already occupied - walks, yoga, bathroom time, shower time, sleep time. But, Mr. Babauta recommends beginning with two minutes of meditation. I can find two minutes somewhere in the day to meditate - perhaps after the toddler goes down for his nap and my oldest son is content watch PBS. After a long week, and another three days to go, I'm looking forward to my meditation retreat today.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mommy Monday: Being a 'Good Enough Mother'

"being a 'good enough mother' is actually better for you and your kids than trying to be a perfect mother." (The Nine Rooms of Happiness by Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf)

Motherhood isn't an easy job for any mother, but some days I feel like I struggle more than most. My children aren't quiet, passive, or cooperative. They are independent, strong-willed, and stubborn. Despite my best efforts to be a good mom, we butt heads at the worst possible moments. Many days I wonder if anything could have prepared me for being a mom.

I remember the first time my life fell short of my idealized version of motherhood. Well-meaning mothers and lactation consultants created a beautiful image in my mind of bonding with a newborn infant while nursing. Reality turned out to be much different. Despite my best efforts and endless consultations, my son continued to nurse every 45 minutes. There was no bonding involved. After three weeks, my stamina (and self-worth) gave out. I couldn't do it. I wasn't producing enough milk and I needed sleep. Finally, I allowed my husband to give him a bottle every other feeding while I enjoyed a luxurious 2-3 hours of sleep. It was the first time I decided that being good enough mom was a more rational choice than being perfect mom.

When my second son was born, I decided that 2-3 hours of sleep at night was the minimum I needed to remain a sane mom. Part of me felt like a bad mother for not nursing exclusively, but part of me knew that a sane mother with a few hours of sleep would be better capable of taking care of her infant. He  benefited from the milk I produced and I benefited from a few hours of sleep. I never regretted the decision because it allowed me to enjoy those special mommy-baby bonding moments that disappear so quickly.

There have been many "good enough" moments since then as I become the mother I want to be. Developing mothering methods that accommodate my and my children's personalities has been key. Using my strengths and finding someone to help in the areas I am weak makes motherhood a more joyful experience for me.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Being a Fixer Upper

"I'm beginning to realize that home improvement can be just as tricky as self-improvement: how do you keep working, little by little, on making your surroundings (or your spirit) cleaner, warmer, lovelier, more functional...while still accepting that what you have - right now, this very minute - really is good enough - no, better than good enough; something to be celebrated." (The Happiest Mom: A Fixer Upper by Meagan Francis)

I began following Meagan Francis' blog after reading her book, The Happiest Mom, and this quote from one of her posts resonated with me. My husband is an architectural preservationist and I have watched many of his projects go from decrepit old buildings to elegant masterpieces. The transformation often takes years and financial resources determine the pace of the work, but when the restoration project is complete the building is nothing less than breathtaking.

The apt analogy between home improvement and self-improvement compelled me to reflect on my life improvement project from a different angle. In the beginning, everything looks bad and  internal conditions are probably even worse. The first step, pulling everything apart in pieces, doesn't add much to the aesthetic value of the project. Next, all the rotting, weak, rusted, outdated elements are removed and replaced. Many of these elements (wiring, plumbing, HVAC systems) must be brought up to date to meet current code and many times new elements (cable, WiFi, automated systems) are added to increase the efficiency and usability of the building.

Just like one of my husband's projects, my life looked bad at the beginning of my project. The first step, pulling my life apart piece by piece and removing all the elements in my life that no longer worked for me, left me feeling spiritually gutted and empty. The fun work began when I started replacing my old non-functioning way of life with more fulfilling activities (reading, yoga, time with my family, blogging, exercise, eating healthily, building quality friendships).

Through this process I am learning what is truly important to me and what lifestyle I truly want to lead. New desires (financial peace of mind, travel, flexibility) replace former ones (large home, new cars) and gradually, the pieces begin coming back together to define the new me. Eventually my life will be a masterpiece, but in the meantime I am learning to enjoy the small accomplishments that bring me closer to becoming the person I want to be.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Changing the Past

"One thing we can never change is our past. What we can change is the hold our past has on our lives." (Small Change: It's the Little Things in Life That Make a Big Difference by Susan Terkel and Larry Terkel)

If there is one thing that is hard for me to let go, it is the past. It would be great if the parts of my past I held onto were all the good times and happy memories. Unfortunately, I obsess over the mistakes. I made many missteps and experienced painful moments. Of course, there were good times, too. I did many things right, but I rarely pat myself on the back for a job well done.

One of the areas I continue to improve is recording memories of the good times. After I gave birth to my first son, I began taking more pictures. With digital photography available on every gizmo and device, it was easy to get carried away and I'm glad I did, because now I remember the precious moments. The pictures that mean the most to me aren't the ones of birthdays and holidays (although those are meaningful). They are photos of the ordinary moments - times when my children are sleeping, playing. laughing, learning. Occasionally, I will sit down with the kids to look at pictures and videos of them when they were "little." They love seeing how much they have grown up and it helps them remember happy days.

I may not be able to change my past, but I'm determined to retrain my focus on the good times. I am learning to look for the positive and the memorable in the here and now. If I see a precious moment, I bring out the camera to record it, because when I'm eighty, the memories of special moments in day-to-day living are the heritage I want to share with my grandchildren.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fitness Goals

"Take the stairs whenever possible and try to walk everywhere - or at least as much as you can." (Bonjour, Happiness! by Jamie Cat Callan)

After reading several books about the French culture, the consensus on achieving French thin is to walk everywhere and eat petite portions. Texas culture is a bit different where servings are supersized and walking is what you do when you don't have a car. Fortunately, I live in Austin, where parks, lakes, greenbelts, hike and bike trails, bike lanes, and wide sidewalks abound. It's not unusual to see moms pushing their baby in the stroller, dads taking a bike ride with their kids, and people of all ages hiking throughout the greenbelts. Of course, it's also not unusual to see people driving golf carts to visit their neighbors in my community, too.

My goal this year is to walk 10,000 steps consistently every day. My first born son, however, doesn't share this goal and persuading him to walk without going anywhere (the closest neighborhood store is five miles away) is almost impossible. So I walk in the early mornings, late evenings, and weekends, when my husband is available to watch the kids, and spend the rest of my time pacing around the house and backyard. I'm sure my neighbors think all this walking is a bit odd (they use golf carts to visit the neighborhood after all) but I'm quickly learning how to achieve my goal every day. So the neighbors can think what they want, I feel great every time I hit my benchmark.