How I Involve My Kids in Helping Out Around the House

Apr 20, 2018

When I wrote that post last month about celebrating our unique mothering strengths, I listed "teaching my kids how to work" as one of the things I like to do.

Today I thought I'd offer a bit more of an explanation.

When I said that, I didn't mean we always have a spotlessly clean house or that I have a perfect system for getting my kids to do chores. Like most things in life, it is a constantly shifting routine that changes with my kids' ages and stages.

However, teaching my kids both the value of work and how to do it is a priority to me, and because of that, I make sure they have daily and weekly opportunities to be contributing members of our family.

Before I share some of the nitty gritty details however, I have to tell you my personal motto. When kids are helping around the house, it is highly probable that THEIR finished task won't look like YOUR finished task, not to mention it will probably take them twice as long. It can be easy to watch their sloppy efforts, throw up your hands in frustration, and say, "Never mind! Go play! I'll do it myself."

But stop. Take a deep breath. And repeat after me: It's better than it was. Really, I promise you it is. If they're vacuuming, they're sucking up something. If they're dusting, it's less dusty than it was. If they're washing the windows, at least some fingerprints are disappearing (and okay, maybe a few streaks are taking their places). Sometimes I spend most of Saturday morning chores turning a blind eye to the things I can still see and instead say to myself, It's better than it was. It's better than it was.

That doesn't mean I never offer correction or instruction, but it is important for me not to get hung up on the tiny little perfections. I let my kids take ownership of the job they've done, and I try be grateful that it's better than it was.

Now I'll share a little bit about how we break down the work in our house, as well as a list of the tasks my kids help with. We have daily responsibilities, family expectations, Saturday chores, and summer jobs.

On a daily basis, each child is expected to:
  • make his bed
  • practice the piano
  • brush his teeth
  • straighten up his bedroom
  • do any assignments he didn't finish at school
You'll notice that there aren't a lot of traditional chores on this list. That hasn't always been the case, but it's what is working for us right now, mainly because those chores that used to be part of the morning routine are now reserved for other times (see below). These are the things that I feel are essential for a productive morning. (However, just this week, I reminded the boys that I expect them to pick up their bedrooms before they leave for school, and I was met with blank stares and protests of, "I have never heard you say that before." Sigh. This is why I sometimes feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall.)

Part of the reason why I've chosen to keep daily chores to a minimum is because I expect them to just help out when I need it. Being part of a family means contributing to the care and upkeep and cleanliness of the home. So while they don't have very many formal daily chores, they are given "in the moment" jobs multiple times a day. These requests might include:
  • Pick up 20 items in the family room
  • Do a two-minute speed clean up
  • Sweep the floor
  • Put away the laundry
  • Wipe down the kitchen table
  • Put all the toys away in the backyard
  • Clean up a game that a younger sibling left out
  • Play with the baby
  • Wipe down the bathroom counter
  • Take out the trash
And here's a little tip one of my friends shared with me. If I phrase the request as, "Would you be willing to . . ." rather than "I need you to . . . " my kids are much more likely to respond cheerfully. I don't know why. But just changing the phrasing helps a ton.

The daily cleaning is mostly fast and superficial. It keeps the surfaces clean and the living spaces neat. It's reactive (i.e., someone spilled milk so it must be cleaned up). We reserve the heavy duty, deep cleaning for Saturday morning.

I instituted Saturday morning chores over a year ago, and it is still working so well. I think most families do some form of Saturday cleaning, but up until a year ago, ours was definitely more of the casual variety, and consequently, my kids always felt it was negotiable and worth complaining about. Now it's set with clear expectations: the whole family (including Mike and me) will clean for two hours on Saturday morning. It's amazing how much we're able to get done during that time, and many of the odd jobs that were being neglected before are now getting done much more regularly (long before they're a blatant problem).

Chores are begun immediately after breakfast. I usually write up a list for each boy so he can check off each task when it's completed. This list of jobs is meant to take about two hours to finish (although they've been known to stretch it out much longer . . . ). Occasionally, to change things up, we'll forego the lists and Mike will direct the cleaning, giving them one task at a time and having them come to him when it's completed to get another one. (Notice I said Mike will do that. I prefer the lists so they're not coming to me every two minutes. He prefers to just work hard and fast together.)

Here is a sampling of Saturday morning jobs:
  • Clean bedroom (this is different from the daily task; it's much more thorough)
  • Clean under bed
  • Organize closet
  • Vacuum couches
  • Dust living room
  • Clean baseboards
  • Scrub down kitchen chairs and benches
  • Wipe down light switches and door knobs
  • Wipe down kitchen cupboards
  • Organize pantry
  • Vacuum around edges
  • Clean windows
  • Fold laundry
  • Sweep out car port
  • Clean out van
  • Vacuum van
  • Vacuum family room/living room/bedrooms/etc.
  • Vacuum under couches
  • Sweep and straighten shoe closet
  • Organize game closet
  • Straighten book shelves in library
  • Clean out fridge
  • Wipe down microwave
  • Mop kitchen floor
  • Clean mirrors
  • Clean toilets
I know someone will ask what chores three-year-old Clark does, and the truth is, we let him do whatever will keep him busy and occupied while the rest of us are working. Sometimes he's doing little odd jobs, sometimes he's shadowing an older brother, and sometimes he's playing. Most of the time, he's begging for a snack. Because he's Clark. I think one of the best ways to teach a younger child to work is just to let them see everyone else working and incorporate them into the mix as much as possible. There's a certain camaraderie that comes from working together and the younger ones will feel that and want to be a part of it.

The final component in our cleaning regimen is summer jobs. I use the summer months as a time to teach my kids new skills. Each child learns how to do several new household tasks over the summer. Last summer, Aaron learned how to thoroughly clean the bathroom (toilet, sink, floor, etc.) and do the laundry from start to finish. Maxwell learned how to wash the dishes and weed the garden. Bradley learned how wipe down the kitchen table and sweep.

They also get a longer list of daily jobs in the summer because they have more time and the house seems to get messier since they're all home all day. Their new skills are usually a part of their daily routine, and this gives them lots of additional practice as well.

That's a pretty good rundown of how things go at our house. It's not a perfect system. Just last week, I realized I haven't been having my kids help with cleanup after dinner, and I feel like that would be a good idea. My kids don't always help willingly and cheerfully. And sometimes I send them all to the backyard because it's so much easier to just do it myself.

But most of the time, I stick with it because I feel like instilling a strong work ethic in kids is so important to their future success as adults. And also because now that I've invested the time to train them, they actually can be quite helpful.

And on days when chores are not completed the way I want them to, I remind myself, "It's better than it was." 

Do you have some "cleaning with kids" tips? Share them in the comments!

A Little of This and That in March

Apr 13, 2018

Sometimes when I sit down to write these monthly update posts, I suddenly realize I don't have any photos to go along with our activities. That . . . is not the case with March. It was a busy month, and I didn't forget my camera for any of it.

In light of that, this is going to be a picture-heavy update. March's activities included . . .

Celebrating . . . Maxwell's eighth birthday. I went on a field trip with his class, Mike made him an iridescent beetle cake (because bugs are still his love language), and he got to eat salmon and roasted asparagus for dinner (his choice).

Attending . . . my sister's graduate piano recital. Oh man, she was sooooooo good. Max and Aaron came with us, and afterwards Max declared that it "felt like it was only ten minutes long," which was the highest compliment he could think of. Later in the month, she also rocked her oral exams, so I'm pretty proud of her (and I'm dreaming of the day when, maybe, I can take piano lessons from her!).

Going . . . to Music and the Spoken Word with my parents and siblings, specifically to hear Brian Mathias in his debut performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I mentioned a couple of months ago that Brian, one of my friends from my college days, was hired as a new Tabernacle organist. It was amazing to hear him play with the Choir. I even teared up a little. It's just pretty thrilling to see someone catch their dream, you know?

Forgetting . . . about St. Patrick's Day. I mean, it's not like I was planning a big celebration or anything, but we usually pull out the green tablecloth and candlesticks and let the boys eat a couple of bowls of authentic Lucky Charms. So at 7:30 am (when we realized our oversight), Mike rushed to the grocery store, we scattered some gold eggs (the store was out of gold coins) on the table, put a few drops of food coloring in the milk, and called it a win. Plus, that night, Mike actually made corned beef, cabbage, and soda bread, so I guess we did more than I realized.

Steeking . . . my cardigan. In knitting, a steek is used when you knit something in the round and then cut down the center of a column of stitches to open it up--essentially turning a sweater into a cardigan. Most of the time you reinforce the stitches around the steek (I definitely did with mine), but even with that, I was terrified (and almost physically ill) at the prospect of cutting up my many hours of hard work. Two things gave me the courage to finally do it: 1) I kept repeating this mantra in my head: Knitting doesn't like to unravel sideways, Knitting doesn't like to unravel sideways and 2) I wasn't going to be able to wear it without cutting it, so it was worthless to me whether I cut it and ruined it or just left it alone. So I gritted my teeth and did it, and it all worked out (see below).

Finishing . . . my cardigan. After the dreaded steek was over, all I had to do was knit the collar, and it was finished! This was the Watkins Cardigan by Whitney Hayward, and the yarn I used was Quince and Co. Puffin. I love the way it turned out. It's big and squishy and so, so warm. Since we've been having such a cold spring, I've actually been wearing it quite a bit, and it makes me happy every time I put it on.

Racing . . . in the pinewood derby. Both Maxwell and Aaron made cars this year, and Aaron came in 6th overall, which was an improvement over last year. Basically, they're happy if they win at least one race, which they both did, so it was a good night.

Going . . .  to one of BYU's family concerts. Every year, BYU puts together a series of several concerts that are designed for children. They are shorter than normal performances (under an hour) with lots of interaction and opportunities to move. There is no age restriction, and they are absolutely free. We decided to go to the one by Men's Chorus and Women's Chorus since my sister sings with Women's Chorus. It was a fantastic program, and all of my kids loved it.

Showing . . . off BYU to our kids. Mike and I always have the BEST time being back on campus, and it's even better when we have our kids with us and we can relive the glory days, as it were. This time, we went to the Eyring Science Center, where Mike lived for most of his college career. The foyer is filled with a bunch of hands-on exhibits, and we spent a good hour playing with them. The boys especially loved the vortex cannon.

Being . . . tourists in our own state. The boys were on spring break at the same time Mike's parents were here from Germany. This had many advantages, of course, because we had the freedom to see them as often as their schedules would allow. But it meant that we couldn't exactly go anywhere for spring break because we wanted to stay close to where the action was. So we decided to go on a day trip and see some "Utah" things we'd never seen before, namely the Hill Aerospace Museum (before we even got out of the car, Max declared, "This is way cooler than I thought it was going to be!"), Promontory Point (which involved a history lesson as well), and the Spiral Jetty (a large-scale art piece on the salt flats of the Great Salt Lake). It turned into such a fun day, and it was pretty obvious that we weren't hitting the usual spring break attractions because we didn't fight a single crowd.

Spending . . . time with Grandpa Paul and Grandma Jill. As I already mentioned, Mike's parents were here for the couple of weeks surrounding General Conference. Even though they have a lot of kids (nine) and even more grandkids (thirty-four), they are always so good to give each family some one-on-one time, not to mention packing in the family parties. Always a treat.

Being . . . baptized. That would be Maxwell, but the rest of us were all there to support him, including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmas, and grandpas. Max happened to be the only child being baptized in our entire stake in March, so we got to plan the whole program, which made it even more special. Aaron and Grandma Jill gave the opening and closing prayers. Cousin Steven played the piano; Uncle Gordy led the music. Grandma B and Aunt Sonja gave the talks. Aunt Angela and Aunt Anna played a piano duet. And of course, Mike baptized him. It was a beautiful, special day, and Maxwell beamed with happiness.

Hosting . . . our third annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt. We invite anyone (12 and under) who wants to participate to bring over a dozen filled eggs the day before. Then we hide them in our yard plus three other neighbors' on Saturday morning. Everyone comes over, we divide the kids by ages, and they have a great time finding twelve eggs. It doesn't have the frenzied, greedy feeling that so many egg hunts seem to have, and everyone hangs out afterwards playing and chatting.

And that's a wrap for March! Tell me about your month in the comments!

What I Read in March

Apr 2, 2018

March was a good reading month for me, especially considering the fact that one of the books I read will probably be one of my top five reads in 2018. Keep reading to find out which one it was . . .

1. Zinnia and the Bees by Danielle Davis
Most books ask the reader to suspend their disbelief on some level., but I'm going to be perfectly frank and say that I just couldn't do it with this one. I wanted to like it because Zinnia, the protagonist, is a knitter, which I found immediately endearing. But when a truck filled with beehives crashes and the hundreds of liberated bees choose to collectively land in Zinnia's unruly curly hair, I was skeptical. But then the bees proceed to stay on top of her head for something like the next three weeks. She hates it (understandably) but just pulls up a hood and carries on with the other traumas in her life (her brother's abrupt departure, an emotionally distant mother, and friend problems). One has to wonder why a) no one else notices the buzzing bees, b) Zinnia doesn't ask someone to drive her outside the city or at least to a park where the bees could find an appropriate home, or c) Zinnia's new friend, a brilliant naturalist, doesn't come up with any ideas himself (even though he says he'll help her). If the events in the book took place during a single day, maybe this would work, but over several weeks, no way.

The other thing I couldn't handle, and this is actually a big pet peeve of mine in general, is that Zinnia's mother is an austere, insensitive, unloving mother (and always has been from the sounds of it), but then one day, she flips things around and begins to invest in their relationship. Of course, a big event triggers this, so maybe it isn't completely unbelievable, but I still have a really hard time with someone being painted as completely awful and then expecting me to just go along with this miraculous change in attitude and temperament. If this is going to be asked of me, then you have to give me at least a little glimmer that such a change could be possible before it actually takes place.

I can appreciate the fact that there are different books for different tastes, and this one just wasn't for me

2. Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary
We're not quite ready to read the last book in the Ramona series. She and Aaron have grown up together, matching year for year, and now they're both in fourth grade, which is when the final book takes place. We'll read it in the next couple of months, but it will be bittersweet for sure.

In the meantime, we read Ellen Tebbits, which was new to me as well as to my kids. Ellen has a quieter personality than Ramona, but that doesn't mean she avoids childhood drama. In fact, the fight between her and her best friend, Austine, is probably one of the most realistic squabbles turned serious that I've ever read.

I always love Beverly Cleary's books for their strong time stamp. For example, at one point, Ellen and her mother go to the department store to pick out a pattern and material for a new dress. Can you imagine going to Nordstrom's to shop for fabric?! But I guess in an era when sewing for your entire family was in vogue, it would make sense to sell what the mothers would buy.

I gave Maxwell Otis Spofford for his birthday, which is the followup to this book. I thought I would read it aloud as well, but at the time, we were still in the middle of Ellen Tebbits, and by the time we finished, he and Aaron had both already read it on their own.

This was my book club's pick for March, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't make it into my top five books of 2018. It was so good, but it's not for the faint of heart.

It was one of those books that left me pacing around the house, shouting, "This is happening in MY country?! During MY lifetime?!" "And also, "Our justice system is broken. BROKEN. And so corrupt." Mike's probably glad I'm done with it and that I processed all my feelings at book club so he doesn't have to hear about it anymore.

The book is by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that strives to provide fair trials and secure humane sentences for all prisoners . In the book, he exposed many of the holes in our justice system--things like bribery, insufficient evidence, dishonesty, corrupt officials, and racial prejudices. He also shared many stories, which opened my eyes to the truth in painful ways.

One of these was about Walter, a man who was falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death row. The only evidence against him was a shaky testimony given by a man who later admitted he had been bribed by police in exchange for a lesser sentence for a crime he had committed. It was frightening to see how easily Walter was convicted of murder and how difficult it was to reverse that decision (even with plenty of evidence supporting his innocence).

But ultimately, the book was about mercy. Bryan was adamant that "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." I believe that, and that was something I tried to stress during our book club discussion. In this book, the criminals are the "good guys," the ones being wronged, and the ones the readers end up rooting for. But I was kind of amused how quickly we started pointing our fingers and condemning some of the other people in the stories: the prison guard, the judge, the white police officer, and the nosy neighbor. It was as if we needed a target for all of the anger and indignation we were feeling. But those people were also "more than the worst thing they've ever done." It was hard to admit, but they needed mercy, too.

Anyway, you can probably tell that this is a book for which I could easily have written a whole review. Maybe I should have. But I highly recommend it nonetheless.

4. Seek This Jesus by Neill Marriott
I became a fan of Neill Marriott the moment I first heard her endearing southern accent during General Conference. Her talks have been some of the most memorable of my life, and I think about them often, in all sorts of situations. (Side note: she was released from the Young Women General Presidency this past weekend during General Conference, and it made me want to cry. I feel so sad that I won't get to hear any more talks from her.)

This is a slim book, but I loved every word of it. Turns out, Sister Marriott has a way with words on paper just as much as she does when she is speaking. In fact, there were times when her voice seemed to leap off of the page as she shared her experiences.

This was a good mix of personal stories and bold insights. One of the most impactful stories for me was about one of her daughters when she was in elementary school. She didn't have any friends and felt so lonely at school. Sister Marriott said she found out the times her daughter's class went to recess. She said, "Each day at 10:10 am, I dropped to my knees wherever I was in the house. The kitchen floor, the family room rug, the bathroom tiles, all became prayer places as I petitioned the Lord on behalf of my lonely daughter." But the thing that made my eyes prick up instantly with tears was this: "That was when she needed me, and that was when she would have me."  I loved the way she accessed the power of prayer on her daughter's behalf.

I also loved this thought, which actually goes along perfectly with my theme for 2018 (which I still haven't written about . . .): "The temporal world rushes into any space in our lives that we will give it, filling our spiritual needs with good but mostly temporary activities."

This is a book I'm sure I'll revisit frequently, probably even later this year as part of my rereading goal. But first, I have to loan it to my mom.

5. Hello, Universe by Erin Entranda Kelly
This was the winner of the 2018 Newbery Medal. I had never even heard of it beforehand, which either shows that I was not great about following Newbery news ahead of time (which is true) or that it wasn't a favorite to win. Regardless, I put the audio on hold as soon as the winners were announced, and then I flew through it as soon as I got it.

It follows four characters: Virgil (a shy boy who is being bullied by Chet and is secretly smitten with Valencia), Valencia (a deaf girl who loves nature, is tormented by a recurring bad dream, and doesn't realize Virgil exists), Chet (the aforementioned bully), and Kaori (a self-proclaimed psychic who happens to have both Virgil and Valencia as (her only) clients). The bulk of the story takes place on a single Saturday when all four characters happen to cross paths and interact in a rather uncanny way. It begins when Chet meets Virgil in the woods and drops Virgil's backpack (which happens to be holding his pet guinea pig, Gulliver) down a deep, dark well.

I had mixed feelings with this one. I liked the story and the characters, and I absolutely adored the ending, but my overall reaction was surprise that it had won the Newbery. The writing was good, but I wasn't blown away by it (although Kaori did get me to laugh out loud several times). The plot line was interesting but not super intricate. And it was just a little bit on the short side. I had a difficult time seeing what set it apart from other beautifully executed middle-grade novels. I liked it for sure (much more than Zinnia and the Bees--see above) and would recommend it, but it's not one I'm rushing out to buy for our personal shelves.

What did you read in March? I'm always up for new recommendations!

The BEST Kind of Mom

Mar 21, 2018

Aaron will turn ten this year, which means I will also be celebrating my tenth anniversary of motherhood.

Becoming a mother was probably the easiest transition of my life. It was easier than going to college; easier than marriage; easier than moving. It just felt so good and so right.

But even though I was always content to be a mom, I wasn't always comfortable in my own mom-skin. I often found myself watching other moms, both older and younger, with more or fewer children, and thinking I should be . . . different.

Excursions to the park would trigger feelings that I either wasn't being interactive enough (observing the moms who were narrating all their children's actions while going down the slides with them) or was paying too much attention to them (observing the moms who were absorbed in a good book while their children entertained themselves).

I tended to feel extremely guilty when one of my children was invited to an elaborate birthday party because I knew I would never be throwing a similar party for him.

But I had a bit of a turning point about three years ago when I read MotherStyles, which was all about how Myers-Briggs personality types could be specifically applied to motherhood. The book made the case that you naturally have certain strengths and weaknesses and that rather than try to give yourself different strengths, you should focus on the strengths you already have.

My thoughts further evolved last year when I used a quote by Marjorie Pay Hinckley as my theme for 2017. She said,
"I don't want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor's children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone's garden. I want to be there with children's sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.
At first, I tried to force myself to be the kind of mom she seemed to be advocating--one that would almost certainly welcome all the neighborhood children into her kitchen for warm cookies and cold milk.

But anytime I tried to be that kind of mom, I felt tense and irritable, which led to feelings of guilt, which led to me feeling bad about myself.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized Sister Hinckley's statement was less about becoming a certain kind of mother and more about being present and involved in the way that suited me best. There were many ways to show the Lord that "I was really here and that I really lived."

In the book Crossing to Safety (side note: if you haven't read it, read it), Larry Morgan's father gives him this piece of advice: "Do what you like to do. It will probably be what you do best."

Last year, I began paying attention to certain activities and actions and how they made me feel: when was I happiest as a mom? when did I feel the most anxious or grumpy? when were the times I felt fulfilled and proud of myself?

It turned out that the things I liked to do were, no surprise, the things I was best at. Maybe I needed to spend more time using my strengths and less time trying to force myself to acquire new skills. Maybe I should let the moms who were good at the things I was bad at do those things so I could have more time to do the things I was good at.

Maybe, just maybe, if we moms played to our strengths instead of our weaknesses, our kids would have exactly what they needed.

In light of that, here are a few of my strengths (i.e., the things I do well):
  • Reading aloud
  • Teaching my kids how to read
  • Doing puzzles
  • Going to familiar places, like the library, pool, or park
  • Giving piano lessons
  • Teaching my kids how to work
  • Recording important moments in my journal
  • Having one-on-one special time
  • Having consistent mealtimes, nap times, bedtimes
  • Taking photos on a regular basis
  • Celebrating birthdays and holidays with simple traditions
  • Making/achieving goals
  • Cuddling
  • Making a photo calendar
  • Memorizing poems/quotes/scriptures
  • Going on walks
And here are a few of my weaknesses (i.e., the things I don't do well):
  • Engaging in creative, imaginative play
  • Doing messy, involved crafts
  • Throwing themed birthday parties (with 20 children)
  • Going to the store
  • Going on new adventures
  • Making dinner
  • Making memory or photo books
  • Organizing play dates
  • Enjoying lots of noise
  • Inviting neighbor kids over
  • Being okay with messes
  • Playing games
  • Being spontaneous
  • Being patient
  • Not yelling
This shift in mindset has done wonders for my identity as a mother, but it has also given me an unexpected blessing, which is that I love other mothers more. I no longer feel jealous of their cake decorating/infectious enthusiasm/fun games/fill in the blank skills (not most of the time anyway). Instead, I think, That's one of their strengths. They're doing something they love. That is one of the ways they find joy in motherhood. (And interestingly, many of my weaknesses are actually Mike's strengths, so it has helped for me to recognize that as well.)

This is not to say there aren't things I could improve or skills that would be beneficial to acquire (see "being patient" above). However, I have chosen to embrace the good things I'm doing and look for ways to build on the strengths that are already there rather than try to do something (poorly) because another mother is doing it.

So you probably won't see me playing a magical dinosaur game in the park, but that's because I'm curled up on the couch with a big stack of picture books. And that feels just right.

I'd love to hear about some of the things you do that make you feel happiest as a mom. Or, conversely, what is something you're willing to let go of because you don't enjoy it? 

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 9, 2018

After I wrote that hygge post, we got twelve inches of snow. Then a few days later, we got another six inches. And then last Sunday, we got another 12+ inches. That means in the last two weeks, it has snowed more than thirty inches. So I'm hygge-ing hard, dreaming of spring, and feeling grateful that we finally got some water to pull us through the summer months.

In other news, we've been . . .

Listening . . . to The Greatest Showman. My kids have yet to see the movie (Mike and I saw it on a date without them), but that doesn't stop them from loving the music. We purchased the soundtrack, and then Mike burned it onto two CD's--one for Aaron and Bradley and the other for Clark and Maxwell (because we're still old school and use CD players in their bedrooms). This means that sometimes I get to hear two songs from The Greatest Showman playing at the same time (lucky me!). I like the music, but I'll admit that at this point, I'm getting a little sick of it.

Soaking . . . up the nice weather before the snow hit mid-month. The boys jumped on the tramp (in bare feet, no less), played basketball, rode their bikes, and played soccer. One Saturday, we all went to the zoo. And we should have gone on more walks (she says in retrospect).

Watching . . . the Olympics. In general, we don't watch a lot of TV, but that all goes out the window when the Olympics arrive. Except for taking a break on Sundays, I think we watched them every single evening. Aaron was especially into them and knew all of the athletes and sports much better than I did. We let him stay up late on the last Friday of the Games, but apparently, it wasn't late enough because when we made to turn off the TV, he started crying: "They're going to show curling at 10:30, and I haven't seen curling during this whole Olympics!" Devastating. Luckily, curling was on again the next afternoon, so he ended the Olympics feeling satisfied. My favorite moment was when Shaun White won gold on the half pipe (which is so funny since I am not into punk sports at all). That or seeing Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir's coordinating outfits each night, haha.

Feeling . . . spoiled at a Valentine's brunch. My good friend, Sarah, hosted a brunch the week of Valentine's Day and invited me and two other friends, Molly and Jami. She set a darling table, made yummy crepes, and even gave a little party favor to each person. We did it on a week day, so of course we had all of our little kids with us, but we sent them down to the basement to play while we ate and chatted. It felt luxurious to have something like that in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. I'm so lucky to have these sweet friends.

Wearing . . . pajamas. Ian has basically lived in pajamas all winter. Even when I get him "dressed," I usually just put him in another sleeper. Because they're one piece and have a zipper, they're fast to put on. Plus, they have built in socks. And they're cozy and warm and comfortable. It's a far cry from the days when I dressed Aaron to the nines before going out, but Ian seems to like the arrangement just fine.

Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day. Honestly, we don't do a lot to celebrate. We have a yummy breakfast in the morning (which, when Valentine's Day falls on a Wednesday, does tend to feel pretty special). Mike and I limit our gift giving to a few cheesy presents (and Mike wrote me a poem this year, which I always consider the nicest of presents) and we go out to dinner (and for the last few years, it has been to the Gardner's house, so we don't even have to battle the crowds). We gave each of the boys a book, and when I mentioned it on Instagram, a couple of people acted like it was such a good idea to give books, and I was like, "Pretty much every holiday is an excuse for me to give my kids more books."

Dieting . . . with Mike. I finally decided it was time to focus and lose the last few pounds of baby weight. I had basically plateaued and knew the rest wasn't going to go away without some effort on my part. Mike wanted to lose some weight, too, so he decided to join me. I'm happy for the company, but the problem is Mike likes everything to be a competition (that's how he stays motivated), so now we've got a chart taped to our closet door to track our progress. If both of us meet our goals, we get to go on a little overnight getaway at the end of April. But if one of us doesn't meet his/her goal, then that person has to take the other person's month for planning dates (I do NOT want to lose!). So far I'm on track. You might even say I'm wasting Mike.

Sledding . . . and playing in the snow. The boys finally got to break out the sleds, and that made (most of) them very happy. (I didn't go on either of their sledding outings, but I guess Maxwell complained most of the time; he's not much of a cold weather fan. But after the third snowstorm, he eventually came around and even built a snowman by his own choice.)

Swatching . . . for a big chunky cardigan with a fun colorwork pattern. This one is knit in the round and then you cut up the front of it (yes, with scissors!) to turn it into a cardigan. I practiced cutting on my swatches, but I still don't feel comfortable doing it to my actual project. It's knitting up quickly (I just attached the sleeves), so I'm going to have to work up the courage soon. I also knitted a couple of cute little flowers and fairies for my nieces, and I think they're so adorable (both the fairies and my nieces!).

Adoring . . . Ian. Words cannot describe how much we all adore this baby. Even though he is ten months old, every single one of my kids still asks to hold him on a daily basis. And when they're not holding him, they're talking to him, playing with him, making him laugh, or just generally admiring his cuteness. And I would say the feeling his mutual because he adores his brothers. There is something so sweet about seeing older kids with their younger siblings. It's a different kind of nurturing, and it's made me so grateful that we didn't stop with four kids but let them all grow up a little and then added one more. There's just nothing like having a baby to love. (Plus, even though Ian is huge, he has really stayed babyish for so much longer than my other kids, and that is a major bonus.)

It was a nice month, but I will forever be grateful that February is short and sweet. On to spring! What did you do in February?

What I Read in February

Mar 1, 2018

Okay, this is getting embarrassing. Like January, I somehow managed to only read three books in February. What is wrong with me? In my defense, I spent a big chunk of the month reading a book for book club (Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese Oneill), but I'm not including it here; I only read half of it because the style grated on me after awhile, plus I didn't appreciate some of the content.

So here are the three books I actually finished:

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Some books are extremely engaging and entertaining when you're in the middle of them, but after you finish, you find yourself liking them less and less each time you think about them. Other books are harder to connect with when you're reading them, but the longer you're apart from them, the more you love them.

I can already tell this book is going to be the latter scenario for me.

That's not to say I didn't like it when I was reading it. I definitely did--the writing is pristine and stunning, and the Alaskan wilderness is a perfect backdrop for winter reading--but the plot was a little slow-moving. I didn't fly through it but had to hunker down and really commit to finishing it.

But since finishing it, I'm finding my esteem gradually rising. It's hard to explain, mostly because it makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the actual act of reading it. It's just that I love it so much more now that it's over, and I'm beginning to see that it wasn't just a good story but a masterful retelling of a quiet and heart wrenching fairy tale.

It has its roots in the Russian fairy tale, "Snegurochka" (the Snow Child). But it's set in the early 20th century on a wild and often times harsh Alaskan homestead. I loved what Eowyn Ivey said about it in an interview: "I found that the earthy, often violent realities of homesteading created wonderful texture contrasted with the ethereal elements of the snow maiden." And that's exactly how I felt about it. There's this part of it that's very physical and tangible and this other part that keeps slipping through your fingers in an other-worldly fashion.

But the real takeaway for me was this: "We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?" I had a feeling from the beginning that the ending would be, at best, bittersweet, and, at worst, tragic. While I won't spoil what happens, I will say that I kept thinking about this phrase as I was reading, and I realized that in spite of sad things, we can always choose joy over sorrow, even if sorrowful things happen to us, and I think Mabel really makes that discovery during the course of the story.

Content note: a baby is conceived out of wedlock, and there is some profanity

2. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
My boys and I have several series that we're in the middle of. This is intentional. It's nice to have a few books constantly at the ready so if our current readaloud is a total bomb (it happens), we can get back into a good reading groove with the next installment in a much-beloved series.

The Chronicles of Narnia happens to be one of those. It's been almost two years since we were last in Narnia (when we read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), and Aaron and I were ready to get back to it. The feeling wasn't mutual though. Max was obstinately reluctant (as usual), and Bradley took one look at the cover and insisted that it would give him nightmares. We went ahead with it anyway.

(Ironically, Bradley skipped the first two-thirds of the book and finally decided to join us on, you guessed it, the very scene depicted on the front cover. And he wasn't scared at all.)

I read this book myself several years ago and wrote an extensive review at that time (probably one of my favorite reviews I've ever written), so I don't feel like I need to go into much additional detail here. I will say that I loved reading this one out loud. Doing the voices for Puddleglum and the witch were my favorite.

3. Anne of Green Gables: a graphic novel adapted by Mariah Marsden and illustrated by Brenna Thummler

I have reached a point in my reading life that I never quite expected and that is that I actually really enjoy graphic novels and will often reach for one when I need a quick read that will also serve as a bit of a palette cleanser.

When I saw this new graphic novel adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, I immediately put it on hold, and I loved revisiting one of my favorite stories in a new way.

For the most part, this adaptation remains true to the original story and includes all of the major scenes (Anne cracking her slate over Gilbert's head, intoxicating Diana, dreaming of puffed sleeves, and nearly drowning in her role as the Lady of Shalott, etc.). But more important to me was that it stay true to the heart and feeling and essence of the original, and it did. (And we all know that sometimes these adaptations DO NOT--can I get an "amen" in regards to Netflix's Anne with an 'E'? Ugh.)

I particularly loved Matthew and Marilla in this adaptation, and I maybe got a little teary-eyed when Marilla tells Anne, "Matthew and I--together, we loved you beyond sense."

Of course, it can't compare to the original (nothing can!!), but I think this would be a perfect introduction for kids who might not be quite ready for Anne's flowery speeches. I'm pretty sure Aaron, Max, and Bradley would agree since they all stole it from me and read it, too.

That's it for February. I anticipate March being a much better reading month as I'm already well over halfway through three books.

What did YOU read in February?

A Birthday Trip to Arizona

Feb 22, 2018

For the third year in a row, we ditched the dreary clutches of Utah's January in favor of warmer climes. This is fast becoming one of my favorite traditions and makes my birthday month not seem half as bad as it once did. In 2016, we went to San Diego. In 2017, we went to Las Vegas. And this year, we went to Arizona.

When Mike and I were first married and still in school, we lived in a small apartment on the third floor of a ten-plex just south of campus. Across the street, there was an old house divided up into several units. And in one of those, even smaller than our small apartment, lived Curtis and Alicia Langstraat.

There is something absolutely incredible when you find another couple that you just click with. It's one thing to form a friendship one-on-one; it's quite another when the friendship has to cross many ways: between the couples and the spouses and the genders. During our nearly thirteen years of marriage, it has only happened a handful of times, but the year we met the Langstraats was one of them.

December 2006 after a failed attempt to see the Mormon Tabernacle Christmas concert

In the years since then, the Langstraats have lived several places--Colorado, Texas, Arizona--but we've managed to see them somewhat regularly because they usually make a trip to Utah to visit family at least once a year (and now that Curtis is a pilot, it's even easier for them to catch a flight up here for a day or two). We've been wanting to visit them for a long time, so when they bought a home last year, it seemed like the right time to finally invite ourselves over for a little vacation.

I've learned with these family vacations that there will be some rough moments, but if I can just relax and ride them out, then the bulk of the trip will be good. And that is why I could laugh on the first night of this vacation when Mike and I were eating lunchables in the hotel bathroom because it was 10:00pm, the kids were finally all asleep so we didn't dare turn on a light or make a sound; we were both starving but had very few options for food. So lunchables in the bathroom it was.

I don't think that could necessarily be called a highlight, but these other things could be:

The Grand Canyon
When we first began planning our route down to Phoenix, Mike said, "And of course we'll make a stop at the Grand Canyon," and I was like, "Over my dead body" Even on the best of days under the best of circumstances, I don't do well with heights. But if it's my kids who are up high, then it's one hundred times worse--like, I feel physically ill and come close to having a panic attack.

So I don't know how Mike ever convinced me that this would be okay, but somehow there we were, standing by the edge (but not too close) and taking in that breathtaking expanse of colors and layers and space. And I'm here to tell you that I'm glad we went. And I'm glad my kids went. We will never forget what it felt like to stand on the south rim, breathe in the crisp wind-blown air, and slowly turn from one side to the other. It was magnificent. (And I was actually far more nervous in the watch tower where the four floors were open to each other than I was when we were outside by the railing.)

As I mentioned before, we read Brighty of the Grand Canyon in preparation for our trip, and we were thrilled to get to hike on Bright Angel Trail, named after Brighty (or vice versa--I honestly don't know which came first) and see the mules coming up the trail. I'm using the term "hike" very loosely because we only made it a few hundred feet before we came to a sign that said, "Steep drop-offs beyond this point," and that was enough for me. However, I was proud of myself for even stepping foot on the trail, and my kids were so good to hug the wall so that I wouldn't be too nervous.

I fell hard and fast for all of the cacti we saw while we were in Arizona. I hadn't really thought about it before, but I guess this was my first time ever seeing that cactus of all cacti, the saguaro (it was also my first time ever hearing the word pronounced out loud--isn't that weird? I'd never really known how to say it before). I think the thing that surprised me more than anything was the sheer number of cacti. I kind of thought you'd see one saguaro standing sentry, but instead there were hundreds (thousands) of them dotting the landscape, each one totally unique. Besides the saguaro, I also loved the jumping cholla, ocotillo, prickly pear, organ pipe, barrel, and palo verde (technically a tree, not a cactus, but always there with the saguaro). I had absolutely zero expectations for the cacti (I definitely wasn't looking forward to them with eager anticipation or anything), so to be totally charmed by them was so fun.

Grapefruit picking
Before we went on this trip, if you'd asked my kids how oranges or lemons grow, they might have guessed on a tree, but they wouldn't have been able to say for sure. I asked our friends if they knew of a pick-your-own-citrus place nearby, and Alicia said they had some friends with a grapefruit orchard who said we could come pick as many grapefruits as we wanted. As we drove into the neighborhood, we saw hundreds of trees heavy laden with orange, yellow, and green fruit. It was a new experience for me, as well as my kids, and I admit, I found it somewhat thrilling. The Langstraats' friends had a couple dozen grapefruit trees, and my kids wasted no time climbing up into them and reaching with the picker to choose the best looking fruit. And it smelled heavenly. (When Maxwell heard that the scorpions came out in droves at night, he wanted to come back after dark, but he didn't get his wish.) Since coming home, we've enjoyed slicing into a cold, juicy grapefruit for breakfast. It's the best souvenir.

Bahama Bucks
I probably wouldn't mention this one except for the fact that, when the whole trip was said and done,  it vied for the top spot on Bradley's list of favorite activities. Bahama Bucks is a shaved ice place. Alicia's parents own several of them in Arizona, and my kids only had to hear the Langstraat kids mention it once before they were begging to go. And while I'm not going to say it was better than any shaved ice I've ever had, it was definitely yummy. More than that though, it was just so fun to stop for a cold treat in January and have it taste refreshing.

The Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch
If we had to choose one activity from the trip that was equally enjoyed by every member of the family, it would probably be this. I thought it was going to be like a gimmicky petting zoo, and I guess it kind of was, but nonetheless we had so much fun. As part of your ticket, you get enough food to feed all the animals at the ranch (whoever thought up this marketing idea was a genius--get the people to pay for the food AND have them do the work for you). It was all very organized: large pellets for the donkeys, deer, sheep, and goats, small pellets for the ostriches, a bird seed stick for the parakeets, a little container with nectar for the lorikeets, and tokens to buy the food for the ducks, rabbits, and stingrays later on. The animals were so accustomed to people feeding them that they crowded to the fence and eagerly took the food offered to them (to be honest, I was a little freaked out by the ostriches who seemed to have a crazed look in their eyes). The sign by the goats said you could stick a pellet between your lips, and the goat would pluck it right out with a wet "kiss." I didn't think any of my kids would do it, but Mike paved the way, and then they were all willing to give it a try (except for me . . . no, thank you!). Aaron felt the need to really prove his bravery, and ended up doing the goat kiss fifteen times. But I think they all would say that feeding the lorikeets was their favorite. I even did that one, and it was pretty magical to walk into the enclosure and have these beautiful rainbow birds eagerly hop onto your hand (or head!) and sip out of a little cup. All in all, it was just a really fun experience we all enjoyed.

We had the most gorgeous weather on our trip, which led me to say many times, "I can totally see why wintering in Arizona is a thing." We took full advantage of the perfect temperatures and spent most of our time outside. We went on a couple of hikes. The first one was in Picacho Peak State Park, and we actually spent most of our time at a little playground with the most unusual swings that all of our kids were obsessed with. The other hike was the Hieroglyphics Trail. We turned around about two-thirds of the way to the top because everyone was getting hot and tired (Mike kept reminding them, "But isn't it amazing that you're hot in January?!"), but I loved soaking up the sun and getting better acquainted with all of the aforementioned cacti.

Of course the best part of the trip was spending it with people we love. We actually met up with our friends, the Gardners, at the Grand Canyon, and then of course, we spent the remainder of our trip with the Langstraats. Remember how I said it's hard to find another couple that you really mesh with because the relationship is no longer just two personalities but four? Well, imagine how complex things become when there are also ten kids thrown into the mix. But everyone got along so well (which is doubly amazing considering the fact that we were also imposing on the Langstraat's hospitality, and they had to share everything--toys, food, bedrooms, bathrooms--with us). In fact, when we weren't out exploring, we hardly saw the kids because they were so busy playing games. Sometimes they would all play together, and sometimes they paired off with the child they were closest in age to. Aaron and Nathan spent a lot of time outside jumping around on pogo sticks (which led to Aaron purchasing his own soon after we returned home). Ryan was a perfect match for Clark's intense imagination. And as for the adults? We stayed up late after the kids went to bed, chatting and playing games just like in the olden days. And we even managed to hire a babysitter and sneak out for a double date one night (where we had some seriously yummy Mexican food). Sharing memories with others is just the best, and we're already plotting ways to get together again soon.

Now we're home, and the only thing left to do is decide where we're going to go next January!

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