The Messy Person’s Guide to Housekeeping

eternal-seconds-BL_f4gQ0TXI-unsplash

Dear messy people: those “how to keep a clean house” articles aren’t meant for you and me. They’re meant for people who are prone to orderliness and cleanliness, whose internal state functions best in a spotless home, whose very souls scream out for mopped floors and organized toy shelves. Even if they say they were once messy (messier than you, even — imagine that), they are now experts with whole livelihoods built around cleaning and organizing. Do you care enough about cleaning and organizing to quit your job and start a full-time gig involving weekly tips and a book deal on organizing? No?

Point proven: They’re not one of us.

These people have three things that set them apart from us messy ones: (1) they care more than we do about cleaning and organization; (2) they have more time than we do to clean and organize because that’s their day job; and/or (3) there’s a strong chance they’re not starting out their hey-I-was-a-slob-but-now-I’m-not success story turned brand during those [early stages of motherhood where everything is sleep deprivation, ground-in raisins, and toddlers in the toy dumping phase]. (Insert your own chaotic life situation if that one doesn’t apply.)

As I finally figured out, if I’m not internally motivated by cleaning demons, if I’m busy with other things I care about, and if all of my hard work goes to pot the second the toddler wakes up, my house isn’t going to get clean.

The standard advice for messy moms struggling to survive is, “Just let things go.” I absolutely advocate for this as part of my messy housekeeping guide, but as even struggling new moms know, it’s not a sustainable way of living. Why? Because while we messy people don’t need spotless floors or color-coded closets, we’re still adversely affected by certain things. I can let things go for quite a bit longer than clean people can…but once I can’t find matching socks or a clean spoon, I’m starting to get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. That leaves me open (and vulnerable) to the cleaning experts’ advice — an equally frustrating, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing situation (I DON’T WANT TO FIGURE OUT A SCHEDULE FOR VACUUMING MY MATTRESS, KAREN, I JUST WANT TO STOP STEPPING ON CHEERIOS).

Letting things go is a helpful, adaptive, necessary strategy for me to prioritize other things, but there comes a point when letting things go creates even more work or anxiety in the long run. Scraping mold off weeks-old dirty dishes is a low I don’t care to revisit…for a third time. Desperately soaking a cute baby onesie in Oxyclean to kill the black mold that spread from a wet washcloth I dropped down the laundry chute a decade ago — another situation I’d like to avoid in the future. And I cannot stand grimy, grungy floors.

That was a big breakthrough for me: I didn’t have “low standards” for cleaning. I had different standards. I wasn’t a lazy slob. I just didn’t prioritize certain domestic tasks as much as other people did. (And who made different people with different lives and interests and mess tolerance thresholds in charge of what I should or shouldn’t care about?)

Once I determined what my standards and my priorities were, and cleared out the clutter of other people’s standards and priorities, bingo. There was my natural motivation, shining through. Now I had time and energy to focus on my short but meaningful list of things that made my home feel livable and lovable.

What matters to you? Do you care about making your bed every morning? And I mean care because it actually matters to you, not care because some military dude says self-discipline all starts with a neatly-made bed, or care because you’re embarrassed of what your friends would think if they dropped by, or care because a study linked productivity and success with made-up beds? Does a made-up bed matter to you? Does it affect your life in a meaningful way, whether mentally or practically? No? Then forget about the bed and do the things that actually spark joy in your life. (Sorry to twist your words, Marie Kondo.)

Getting rid of the stigma and anxiety around being a messy person woman — and worse, a messy wife and mother — created much more space and positive energy around the chores that absolutely needed to get done for me and my family’s functioning.

And yes, there’s a stigma. Nobody who walks through my door and into my messy living room thinks, “Wow, her husband is such a slob” — not unless it’s quickly followed by, “I can’t believe she lets him wreck her house like that!” Nope. It’s always my fault, especially because I stay home with my kids. (Oh, you didn’t know? Staying at home with children automatically means dedicating the rest of your spare time and energy to domestic duties. You couldn’t possibly have anything else meaningful to do with your life than run after your kids with a vacuum all day long, so yes, the state of your house will be a major factor in whether you’re Being a Good Mom.)

I’m messy. That’s just the way I am. I kind of like a lived in look, and I certainly don’t mind a level of clutter and a sink of unwashed dishes — especially if it means I’m choosing to spend my time doing things that matter to me. Not to go on about double standards, but if I was a man, we’d link my messiness to being a free, creative, thoughtful soul and delegate the mess to the woman in my life. Since I’ve no woman to delegate my mess to and I’m often busy with other things, domestic stuff just doesn’t get done.

I’m okay with that now.

Being messy is not a vice, I decided — not unless it starts to interfere with my mental health and daily functioning, just like any thing in this world (including neatness). So I turned my tentative guilty pleasures (like never folding laundry in a timely manner) into lifestyle choices. My litmus test: If the only reason I feel ashamed about not doing something is because of what a stranger or an organized friend or a Better Homes and Garden contributor might think of me, that’s not a good reason to prioritize it.

I am terrified of typing those words, because bucking any ingrained female expectation is a no-no — even among those of us who are literally losing our minds trying to meet those crushing expectations. I think it takes a lot of courage to admit, “Hey, I genuinely don’t care that my clean laundry is piled out of sight for a week, and since I find no compelling moral or practical argument for why I should focus on that in my current life situation, I’m not going to reorder my whole existence to become the kind of woman who wants to fold her laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer.” It’s courageous, I think, because what we’re actually saying is, “Hey, I’m not going to let what the culture says or what other people might think of me set the priorities for my particular life at the cost of me and my family’s purpose, passions, and well-being.”

This is a gigantic Step 1. This is the it that wiser women really mean when they tell struggling moms to “let it all go.” Let go all these desperate and failing attempts at keeping up false, clean freak appearances. Repeat after me: You are a messier person than some people, and that’s okay. You don’t care about an organized pantry, and that’s okay.

You don’t notice the grime in the windowsills. You don’t care about artfully stacking your books on your bedside table. It takes you a few weeks (or months) to throw out whatever’s expiring in the Tupperware that got shoved to the back of the fridge.

But you do care about the cleaning things you care about — so make a list of those things and let the rest go. Speaking of letting go — that’s Step 2.

Step 2. Rest. The more I push and hustle when I’m burnt out, the more anxiety, frustration, and negativity builds up around chores — all huge motivation killers. I’m a low-energy person who needs lots of space to do nothing, to do something thoughtful or relational, and/or to sleep before I’m fit for the world of productivity. Once I embraced that side of me instead of pushing it away as a sign of laziness and failure, I was more productive. When my batteries were fully or mostly charged, I could go longer. I didn’t resent the time and energy I had to spend on housekeeping because I had time and energy to spend.

Now, when I start avoiding chores, or resenting chores, or feeling overwhelmed by chores, or experience that soul-burning agony of putting my dish in the dishwasher instead of the sink, I don’t beat myself up for being a lazy slob. I take them as signs that I’m burnt out. I use a little humor and compassion: “Wow, Bailey, it’s that exhausting to you to fold and put away your pants instead of dropping them on the floor? If you’re that tired, you need to go rest.”

This sometimes means letting things go to pot a bit more than I like, a bit longer than I like. I intentionally let them go. I say, “Yikes, I really want to get the kitchen cleaned up, but this is my only chance to take a nap before work, and I desperately need a nap because I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I am choosing to take a nap instead of resentfully plowing through the dishes and depleting my energy further.”

Without fail, every time I prioritize rest, I recharge more quickly and am able to get things done. Without fail, every time I push or belittle myself for feeling unmotivated, the house falls apart more and longer. Shame and resentment are only motivational in the very short run, and fail to address the burn-out underlying my lack of motivation.

Step 3. Set things up so that your priorities drive chores, not the other way around. For me, a big motivation killer is feeling like I’m constantly running around the house putting something away or cleaning something up. It makes me feel unfocused, unproductive, and unavailable to the people and passions I care most about. Cleaning schedules are hit and miss with my lifestyle too — rarely do they coincide with how my specific week actually goes, and I end up feeling ashamed or frustrated about abandoning them for a slew of non-negotiable errands and obligations that continually and unexpectedly crop up.

Instead of interrupting what I’m doing or how I’m living to clean, I now pair related tasks together as much as possible. If I’m running a bath for the toddler, I might quickly spray down the fixtures while still engaging with him. If I’m microwaving popcorn for movie night, I’ll empty the dishwasher until the timer beeps. I’ll stack my son’s laundry on the stairs to take up when I’m going up to tuck him in. I might quietly tidy up his room if he asks me to sit with him a few minutes longer at bedtime. If I’m bringing my coffee cup to the sink, I’ll also gather up any wrappers, tissues, and dirty dishes that never made it into the kitchen yesterday. I fold and stuff my clothes into drawers right after I undress at night. Things like that. I’m already there doing something absolutely necessary or wanted, so I tack on a little task I’ve been meaning to do.

This means that the dishes don’t always get done by bedtime, and my son’s room remains a disaster zone for a month (and counting), and stuff stays stacked on the stairs for a while. That’s okay with me, because stuff still gets done, and I don’t feel hounded by meaningless tasks. My house is never always clean, all of it — but it wasn’t all of it always clean back when I was struggling to follow the clean people’s advice and beating myself up about being a lazy slob because I couldn’t keep up. Nope, my house isn’t always clean and tidy — but it no longer feels unmanageable, and it’s no longer a source of chronic anxiety and shame.

For a messy person like me, that’s all I want out of a cleaning approach.

Our No Shopping Challenge

lucrezia-carnelos-wQ9VuP_Njr4-unsplash

I’m not usually into resolutions or words or yearlong challenges, but on New Year’s Day, I found an inspirational article on one woman’s “no spending year.” She didn’t buy anything other than necessities — not even gifts. She didn’t even window shop.

“Let’s try it out for a month!” I suggested to my husband, because we’re fun like that.

Then we did our budget for the year.

“Looks like we’re doing it all year!”

I’ve got embarrassingly mixed emotions on this. I never considered myself rich, certainly not after getting married right out of college, but I never wanted for anything. This is partly because I’m a Scrooge with my money. I’ve never felt comfortable purchasing expensive items or updating items just to stay in style or top performance. I rarely buy things for myself.

Proof: My cell phone plan has no data and poor cell service. My cell phone itself is cheap and has a weird virus that makes it open up apps when the brightness is turned up too far. (Wut.) My computer is a sad, slow, frustrating, falling apart piece of tech with a cracked screen. We don’t subscribe to any streaming services or buy books or movies or music. We rock whatever fashion is trending at Goodwill. I brew my own coffee at home.

But I can’t toot my horn very loudly, because, frankly, those are all choices well within my desired lifestyle. I’ve never wanted something and couldn’t have it due to tight finances. Never. The thought of denying myself a material good that I do actually want scares me. If I can’t purchase whatever I want, whenever I want it, I don’t feel financially secure.

Privileged, much?

This has absolutely nothing to do with trusting God for provision or watching miracles happen on our behalf or anything spectacular like that. It’s all about recognizing the overwhelming abundance (excess?) we already have stuffed away in our closets — and that even frugal gals like me struggle with materialism.

Deep philosophical insights aside, I’m excited just as a creative exercise to see what we can come up with as alternatives to adding non-essential items to the cart. Just this past week, we needed (wanted?) a 2020 calendar. I was resentful at the thought of hanging an ugly Microsoft template on the wall all year long. I like beautiful and interesting print calendars.

A quick Google search later, I printed out a pretty calendar on scrap cardstock, completely free. Then my husband came home with a free nature photo calendar from work.

Abundance.

Also exciting: no more shopping anxiety. You know what I’m talking about? No? I get major anxiety when shopping. Too many decisions, too many options, none of them exactly what I want. If you want to get me crabby, task me with internet shopping for a toddler dress shirt in a particular maroon color. If you want to see me melt down, set me loose in a loud, crowded mall with the objective of finding a gift for my brother. I have to shop with people who are more decisive and opinionated than I am just to avoid a mental breakdown. (“I don’t care what shirt you pick,” my husband said kindly, by way of empowering me to trust my decision-making like the awesome feminist he is. “YOU HAVE TO CARE!!!” I screamed back. “I’M FREAKING OUT OVER HERE.”)

The thought of shopping only for the same old familiar grocery items fills me with joy.

So we’ll see what happens this year (and if we can/will strictly abide by this challenge, which…I doubt). Operation Spoiled Middle Class Girl Learns the Difference Between Wants and Needs at an Embarrassingly Late Age is on.

Pregnancy Is My Winter Season

toa-heftiba-WsDF95mSUsI-unsplash

It’s winter, and I’m pregnant. Only five weeks left to go, but they’re still a whole five weeks.

These are my two least favorite seasons in the entire world. I shouldn’t have to explain why winter gets me in a funk, but here you go anyway: IT’S FREEZING. And for pregnancy: IT’S UTTER , ALL-CONSUMING EXHAUSTION.

Nobody told me about pregnancy exhaustion. You hear about the morning sickness — a bane that passed quickly for both my pregnancies — but not the exhaustion.

Surprise: It’s a whole thing.

I was chatting about it with my sister a trimester go, the trimester where your body’s supposed to hit an energy spike. Am I exaggerating? I wanted to know. Am I just a wimp? Is it possible that pregnancy is really this tiring?

Bailey, she said. I would take the sleep deprivation of having a newborn over pregnancy exhaustion anytime.

And she had two under two at the time. She knew a thing or two about tired.

I, like all women, possess the unique talent of being completely incapable of recognizing just how exhausted and burnt out I am. I err on the side of guilt and comparison. Other women get through it — with more children, tougher pregnancies, and cleaner houses! Slog it out, girlfriend.

And I do, usually, but I’ve been slogging more slowly lately, checking behind my shoulder to see who’s policing my pace and my output. Is anybody? And if they are, are they right to do so?

I just want to sleep. Forever. Or at the very least lie horizontally on a comfy couch with my two gigantic pillows and the cozy red throw.

But I haven’t been letting myself, because I’ve got a toddler. And I’ve got guilt about all the things I should be doing with him and for him. Mainly, I’ve got major guilt about not getting him outside everyday.

A couple winters ago, I got sucked into the wonderful world of nature-based play. We went outside almost every day, rain or shine, for two winters. I rhapsodized about all the fun we were having splashing in slush puddles and running around in freezing rain and hauling a sled in a real, actual blizzard (okay, that wasn’t such a fun time at all). I even started my own hashtag for all our nature adventure photos: #rainorshine365.

This winter, I was having none of it.

I remember sitting on the front porch, already too pregnant and tired to stand on two feet, and feeling the shift in the weather. There was this melodramatic, WINTER IS COMING moment, and there was my feeble, Nope, and then winter unleashed itself halfway through fall.

Not here for this.

Neither was my toddler. I’d take the ten minutes to bundle us both up, and I’d hunch on the porch, unmoving, and he’d sit on his tricycle, staring into space, and then he’d echo my heart’s cry of, “In! In!” Thank goodness. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to play outside, he’d say no. Praise Jesus.

It took me a good long time to let go of my #rainorshine365 goal this winter. Just today we won’t go out, I reasoned. Okay, just on days below 20 degrees we won’t go out. Just on gray dreary days we won’t go. Just on weekends we’ll get out, if the weather is nice.

But here I am, on a beautiful, sunshiney holiday day, temps in the 30’s, fresh white snow on the ground, and we are not outside.

The reason for this severe shift from hippy nature mama to couch potato is obviously because I am a wimpy, selfish, sad excuse of a mother. That’s the “fact” I struggle against daily.

I don’t why it’s so difficult for me to say, “Hey, I’m five weeks away from giving birth. I’m huge. I’m tired. I’m getting ready to recede into post-partum hibernation anyway. This is just a season. My spring is coming, but right now it’s winter. So curl up on that couch and nap away.”

Actually, I do know why it’s difficult for me to say that. It’s because our culture is not a seasonal culture. It didn’t teach me to connect with, much less honor, the ebb and flow of nature — of my body, of the day and night, of the four seasons. I didn’t run with the seasons — I honed an internal drive to motor a linear path through every. single. obstacle. Tiredness? Sickness? That time of month? Just temptations for laziness.

Life is about balance, I thought. It’s about habit. You figure out the middle ground between vice and virtue and carry it with you all day, every day, or you are a terrible failure of a human being.

My feasting was marked with moderation. My resting was marred with work. The seasons of my life and of nature all bled together into one overwhelming, never-ending thing to be overcome. The slog.

Fortunately, being a short-lived wildschooler put me in contact with a whole community of nature lovers and cold dwellers who encouraged living with and listening to the seasons.

Winter is not a season for any sort of plowing ahead. It’s a resting season. Nothing grows. Nothing is produced. It’s not the time for harvest or output or even getting things ready. Everything is dead, sleeping, waiting for resurrection. It’s a time for enjoying the abundance of what we have and what we’ve worked for. It’s a time for conserving resources, energy, light, and warmth, huddling closer to share them, curling in on ourselves to maintain them.

And here’s the thing: spring always comes. But first, winter. Always. Our ecosystem depends on it.

Pregnancy is my winter season — especially in winter. (I’ve only ever had winter babies.) I can’t motor through anymore. I don’t have much to give. Shutting the doors. Settling down. Curling up. Snuggling close. Sleeping.

I’m not giving up. I’m not failing. I’m hibernating.

This winter pregnancy, I’m trying to follow the rhythm of my body, the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of the life within me, and the rhythm of the seasons I’m in — seasons that might not be my personal favorites, but seasons that are critical for producing life.

This Holiday Season, I’m Saying No to Literally Almost Everything

annie-spratt-QKo-op_gR9I-unsplash

[F]or a season, no had to be the answer to almost everything. But over time, when you rebuild a life that’s the right size and dimension and weight, full of the things you’re called to, emptied of the rest, then you do get to live some yes again. But for a while, no is what gets you there. — Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, pg. 51

It’s been occurring to me (slowly) that there a million different ways to live a good, meaningful life — and I can choose what to prioritize so that my everyday matches up with what I really believe is good and meaningful. There’s no one way to be a woman. There’s no one way to be an adult.

Over the past few years, I’ve started openly admitting to myself what I do and don’t like, what I do and don’t believe, what I will and will not prioritize. I’ve been incorporating these things and rearranging my life to get those priorities to the forefront.

And you know what?

I haven’t found a single shred of peace because I am so dang exhausted all the freaking time.

That is a (slight) exaggeration. Some things have stuck. But most things haven’t. There are too many learning curves and lifestyle changes required to “live my best life,” and beyond that, never-ending to-do lists clutter the way. Factor in my years of being depressed, pregnant, and/or sleep-deprived (which are quite a few in the college and early parenthood years), and the good stuff never gets done.

I began to suspect I was not made for a good, meaningful life…just a stressed-out, scraping-along one.

Then I read that Shauna Niequist quote. This, I realized, was my problem: I kept adding lots of good things without cutting out anything else. I kept trying to sustain a lifestyle that was exhausting and stressing me out while simultaneously transforming it. And perhaps the biggest revelation of all was that the person I needed to say no to the most was not work or friends or family or random acquaintances. It was…me. Me and my ideas and ambitions and callings.

Not a permanent no. Not a dismissive no. Just a realistic, not-until-you-eat-your-veggies-and-learn-to-go-to-bed-on-time no. A not until you make space, time, and energy no. A not right now, not this year no.

I am always brimming with ideas. I am a perfectionist. I love aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound, people delighting things. I just don’t have the energy, know-how, talent, and/or time to put all those beautiful, meaningful things into action right now.

And this is why the holiday season is a nightmare for me. It involves so many wonderful things that tax my extremely limited domestic skills. Look at all these cute kids’ crafts! How fun would it be to make and deliver cookies to my co-workers with my adorable toddler in tow? This Thanksgiving pie looks delicious. I bet we could copy those decorations into our living room arrangement!

I get excited and inspired and make a to-do list one night…then spend the rest of the season feeling guilty and dull because I keep procrastinating and procrastinating until finally the holiday has past. No cute crafts. No homemade cookies or pies. No coordinated decor. Nothing.

I’VE RUINED THE HOLIDAYS.

If there’s one thing going for me, at least I give up now. I rarely reach the extreme holiday burn-out other moms feel just because I am finally at the point where I wave my white flag before I’ve even begun to fight. I’m too busy wrangling my anxiety to force my way through decorating 4 dozen sugar cookies. Progress?

But I don’t want to do just nothing. I love the holidays. I love holiday traditions. I love good food and pretty decor and fun activities. I want to make meaningful, joyful memories with my family. No matter how tired and burnt-out I am, I don’t just want to bury my head in my pillows and just survive. (I mean, I do, but my soul doesn’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.)

I had a Great Awakening over all this when I bitterly observed how my husband experienced none of this stress or pressure to make the holidays happen. If I, the wife and mother, was dead, I grumbled, we wouldn’t have any holiday cheer! He doesn’t have a Pinterest page. He’s never picked up Parents magazine. The kids would grow up without Sunday Advent readings and salt dough ornaments and paper chain Christmas countdowns and Hallmark movie marathons and Christmas light-seeing and matching Christmas jammies!

And then an ornery part of me said…So?

Would anybody even care if they grew up without those particular things? Would anyone even notice?

I was like the reverse Grinch: Maybe Christmas, I thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, I thought, means something more.

If I and my stressed out plans that never came to fruition anyway OR ended up turning Mama into a Stress Monster were out of the equation…what would happen? Only the things my husband wanted to do — because he, a simpler soul than I, is motivated not by ideals and mom guilt but by what genuinely brings him and others joy. What would happen? Only the things our kids wanted to do — the things that mattered so much to them that they pestered Daddy to do them, the things to which they brought their own energy and planning and joy.

That sounded like an amazing holiday season to me. It hadn’t occurred to me (no, really, it hadn’t) that I could choose to opt into only a few good things and leave the rest I didn’t like or couldn’t fit in. I didn’t have to choose between a guilty fetal position and a non-stop stress fest. It wasn’t all or nothing. I just had to say no, nopenot this year to all the lovely, brilliant, meaningful ideas that whirred through my brain one day and left me depleted for the rest of the season.

I said no to almost literally everything. Even the things I said yes to, I had to say no to more traditional (re: elaborate) ways of doing them. My criteria was no longer, Isn’t this a gorgeous, fun, awesome idea?! They were these, in this order:

(1) Do I want to do this?

(2) Do other people in my family want to do this?

(3) Do I have time and energy for this? (E.g., does this involve planning, shopping, and decision-making? Will this event or activity occur in close proximity to other fun events?)

If there was any sort of hesitation, weariness, or “Hmm, maybe this could work if I…”, I nixed it right then and there — no matter how great of an idea it was.

And our Christmas was lovely. Because while I did cut out a great, great deal, I said yes to things that really mattered in ways I could actually enjoy them.

Basically, I mooched off the energy and planning of other people by showing up to and going along with things instead of offering to host them or plan them.

I caroled with my choir. We attended special church services. My in-laws put on Christmas movies for the toddler and made a yummy German-themed Christmas dinner. Relatives invited us to cookie decorating.

We cut down and decorated a Christmas tree per tradition because all three of us wanted to. Decorations were whatever we pulled out of the Christmas box and placed around the dining and living room. I did all my stocking stuffer and gift shopping online. I only gave a gift if I wanted to and had an idea for. I imperfectly wrapped them in store-bought paper without affixing fresh pine branches with red twine.

We opened presents and stockings on Christmas morning, just us three. No special breakfast…just Cheerios and orange juice in a snowman mug. We hosted a simple Christmas brunch for local family — a charcuterie board, deviled eggs, a couple sweet breads, all prepared by my husband, bless him. The toddler and I napped a ton that day, and we took a cue from him when he asked to go home and play with his new trucks instead of visit with family longer.

We all immensely enjoyed this Christmas — all of us, even me, the tired, super-pregnant, Grinchy mom and wifey. I enjoyed everything we did, instead of resenting it halfway through. I didn’t miss the things we didn’t do because I was too busy being present with the things we did do.

Is this how I want every Christmas to be? Is this how I’m advocating everyone’s Christmas should be? Well, no, not in the sense that a Christmas devoid of crafts and movie marathons and special meals cooked with kids over a beautifully decorated table is inherently superior. But yes, in the sense that everyone’s Christmas ought to be the size and scope that everyone in the family actually wants and can handle that particular year.

I am not hating on beautifully wrapped gifts or elaborate decorations or kids’ crafts or anybody who just couldn’t have Christmas without them. Those traditions and activities are immensely enjoyable to certain people and in certain contexts and seasons, and I love seeing my Facebook feed filled with families in matching Christmas jammies and detailed gingerbread houses and Advent lessons and St. Nicholas Day celebrations. There are so many traditions I loved as a child that I can’t wait to share with my babies, and many that I want to borrow from Pinterest, Parents magazine, and Instagram. Beauty and goodness are beautiful and good even if they can’t fit onto this year’s itinerary. I don’t need to personally squeeze them all in until I’m a hot mess in order to appreciate them.

That’s all I’m saying: they can wait until next year. Or the year after that. Or after that one. Or maybe never, and it’ll be okay. There are so many joyful things to do during the holidays — but they will only be joyful if we say no to the other good things we don’t actually have time, energy, and real interest for.

My Clothes Shopping Rules

img_20190414_164035814
Goodwill finds: LOFT jeans, LOFT sweater, toddler (look for yours in the stuffed animal bin)

Last Saturday I told my husband that I just wanted to peek inside Goodwill for a pink sweater, and then we’d be done, I promise.

An hour and a shopping cart full later…..

I really don’t spend much on myself, besides medical bills, coffee dates, and the occasional cute outfit. Spending money paralyzes me. Shopping overwhelms me. Decisions in general make my head spin, so it’s not exactly my idea of a fun weekend to hang out at the mall.

But Goodwill’s low prices mitigate some of that fear. So much, in fact, that I’ve got a bag of rejects sitting in my closet waiting to go back to Goodwill.

That’s one of the weird things about being me. I freak out about spending money, and then when I do, I inevitably buy something I don’t even like that much.

Since I clearly have issues knowing my own mind and then making it up, I’ve had to develop some clothes shopping rules. They help me make a decision when I need to make one, and they keep me away from embarrassing impulse buys. (The cheetah print skirt….)

The Rules

(1) It absolutely must fit. Perfectly. If it needs hemming or taking in, forget it. It’s an automatic hard pass if I find myself thinking, “Well, it’ll fit if….” I don’t like belts, I can’t sew, it won’t happen. This rule prevents 90% of all purchases because I am too short for most bottoms, too embarrassed to wear most shorts, and too skinny to fit into almost everything else.

(2) It needs to coordinate with with multiple items in my preexisting wardrobe. Last year, I decided on a color palette (olive, pink, denim, gray, tan, chestnut, bright white), a color saturation (muted, some pastel), and a style (looser shirts, skinny jeans/leggings, long sweaters, some slight, tentative ventures into boho/hipster/vintage worlds). I can pretty much pick any random pair of pants and any random shirt and throw it together with any sweater. Voila, an outfit! Several things don’t exactly go with the New Me (and to be honest, I don’t exactly wear them, either). While I can’t work up the courage to get rid of these un-matchy pieces, I sure try my darndest not to bring any more of them home from Goodwill. If I can’t match the article of clothing to at least a couple of my regular outfits, it’s going back on the rack with a wistful farewell.

(3) I need to be able to wear it at work or church. Gone are the college days where cold shoulders or super high heels could even remotely be appropriate. Gone too are the days when dressing preppy for class or, at the other extreme, lounging in sweatpants, was a daily probability. I get ONE singular Saturday a week to wear something not work-appropriate or church-appropriate. Since I’ve already got lots of competition for that spot (short shorts! ripped jeans! graphic tees!), I don’t buy anything I couldn’t wear to work or church. I know now that I just won’t wear it, no matter how cute it looks in isolation from my real life. In case you’re wondering, I can wear normal clothes to work — even athleisure.

(4) It needs to fit with and cover the bra types I already own. You feel me? None of these weird straps and cutouts and necklines that are made for braless prepubescents and recklessly marketed to adult women.

(5) It needs to be well-made but easy to care for. This is actually a new rule for me, developed after reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline. It should feel substantial, not thin or see through; be tailored well; include nice details; wash without turning into a permanently rumpled mess; and have no stains or holes. (Because, again, it’s delusional to think I’ll get around to fixing it.) I now try to avoid fast fashion brands that use cheap materials (even though my entire wardrobe is hypocritically Old Navy).

Last but not least: (6) It needs to be something I’ve wanted for awhile. I’ve got a running wish list: I’m on the hunt for a pleasantly colored yellow something in my life, a pink cardigan (maybe floral, please?), a white calf-length tulle skirt, a shirt with dinosaurs or hedgehogs or sloths or llamas (channeling my inner Ms. Frizzle here), those cute high-waisted shorts that tie in a bow, and maybe — the unicorn of petite clothing — a maxi skirt that doesn’t trip me onto my face. These are things I persistently find myself drooling over whenever I encounter fashion. They stay with me over the years and the Google searches. They are my true loves and my real style. And when I find them at Goodwill for $7.99 like a fated meeting — I feel absolutely no hesitation buying them.

Just last month I stumbled upon a leather jacket in exactly the color and style I’ve wanted since forever. It makes me happy in a way a leather jacket probably shouldn’t make me. I’m so glad I didn’t settle for the Target one that didn’t fit quite right, or the online one that cost a fortune. True love waits.

This rule also helps me make rational decisions when the price tag is high. If I’ve been wanting a piece for forever, I feel more confident spending a bit extra or buying it brand new instead of off the Goodwill rack. I know it’s not an impulse buy, so I’m okay forking over money for good quality and the exact look I want.

While I’ve got a lifetime of impulsive and disappointing buys to educate me, these rules really flow from that satisfaction of finding just the perfect piece for a price I’m willing to pay — and then loving it every time I pull it out of my closet.

Do you have any clothes shopping rules?

You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Prioritize What’s Most Important to You

oliver-hale-705232-unsplash

Good news! I finally realized that I don’t have to live my life according to every twinge of guilt that plagues my soul. In the absence of direct moral imperatives, I can choose my priorities, and I can order my days, years, and life around them.

I’ve been in a funk ever since birthing a baby. More accurately — I’ve been in one particular funk, the funk where I worry about what my abysmal housekeeping skills say about my mothering, and what my stay-at-home status says about my feminism, and what wearing a robe and unwashed hair until noon says about my success at life.

There are so many things I want to do and mean to do, and then there are all the things I feel like I should do. Motherhood doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but it does come with pre-downloaded guilt. I can’t always tell you what specific thing I feel bad about, much less why I feel bad about it, but I can assure you I almost always feel bad about something. Call it hormones or the patriarchy, the result is the same: discouragement and paralysis. I don’t do any of the things I want to do or mean to do because I’m too busying doing the things I think I should do — or procrastinating on everything.

I tried bolstering my momentum with the thrill of crossing items off my to do list. This college hack failed to work its magic in the post-grad world. For one thing, the sheer number of unconnected tasks overwhelmed me.

If my to do list was whittled down to a less overwhelming number, it contained mundane items that required far too much of a learning curve than they were worth. (Check tire pressure. Unclog the drain. Clean that rubber part of the washing machine that breeds mold. All of those things required calling up my dad and having him walk me through the process again, only to end up watching YouTube tutorials.)

Most discouraging of all, a good chunk of my to do list had to be repeated almost instantly. Sweep the floors? Check! Sweep them again because the toddler dumped Cheerio dust on the floor? Check. ….and again because he tracked in dirt after you chased him outside to sweep up the Cheerio dust in peace? Forget it.

Bottom line: accomplishing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t care about did not make me feel successful or productive. I just felt so guilty admitting that I’d rather not clean my apartment than clean it. Don’t all successful women choose a clean home over sanity? Plus, I kind of did want to clean it. Just not all the time. Not when there were other things I wanted to do with my life.

Around that point in time, I was toying with the idea that maybe I didn’t have to live my life according to these vague shoulds that haunted every stolen moment of pleasure. I noodled on that, and I noodled on what that would look like practically, to live by conscious choices judged against my own values. Another college hack came to mind: the depressing but honest quip, “Friends, School, Sleep: Pick Two.”

friends school sleep

Of course, this is old news for us modern women. “You can have it all — just not at the same time.” I needed to harness that truth in an empowering way, instead of a discouraging way. I couldn’t resign myself to accepting even one season of life where sweeping up Cheerio dust was the biggest accomplishment of my every day.

I needed to prioritize, yes, but I needed to know that I could pick my priorities based off my values — not off shoulds that came from whatever undefined, unexplored, unwelcome value systems muddled around in my conscience.

I had to do a mental organizing of my plans, goals, and values — hanging them up on their own hooks where I could see them, and then consciously, daily pulling them down and fitting them together into something cohesive, practical, and fulfilling. Is this the year I’m going to write a book? Nah, that doesn’t pair well with where I’m at in motherhood. Maybe next year. Is this the week I’m finally going to get together with that mom I met at the playground? No, I’m choosing to rest up from my cold. I’ll come back to that when I’m recovered. Is this the day I’m going to mop the floors? Yes, it matters to me have to a somewhat clean floors, but I am only allotting time on Thursdays to exert any cares about that.

I’m finding so much freedom, satisfaction, and oddly enough, productivity in deciding to prioritize what I actually care about and conscientiously deciding to table other things.

The hardest part of adult life is the mental load. I’ve discovered I need to set things down so that I’m not juggling an armload of unfinished tasks every time I attempt to accomplish something. I need the habit and the intention of asking, “Is this important to me? If so, is this important to me now? If not, I’ll table it until later.”

Today, I prioritized writing. I have some office work that absolutely needs to get done today, but I checked in with my priorities and energy level and decided that I would be okay sacrificing some veg time after work in order to get the office stuff done. This morning, I wrote. This morning, I let the house go to pot, I let the toddler play independently, I ignored the other items on my to do list, and I wrote.

I don’t always prioritize writing. In fact, I struggle to fit it into my life at all anymore. I just don’t have the mental bandwidth or the time to prioritize it every day., or even every month. Generally I prioritize quality time with my son over everything else — my overarching value and goal for this season of life. But today, knowing he would be fine, I told him that Mommy was writing, and she’d play with him later. And having made my choice, I wrote without guilt.

The thing I had to get over is that another person could see me make that choice and say, “This is unacceptable. I value a clean home and quality time with my kids over writing. I would not make that choice.” I constantly found myself looking at my life through those eyes of judgment, through the eyes of someone else with different priorities — and I think that’s where a lot of the guilt came from. I knew that I could never convince a critic that I made a good choice, and I couldn’t handle that judgment.

I’m learning that I don’t have to live my life on the defensive against every imaginary criticism or different lifestyle. There are many good priorities in the world. There are many people who will rank their priorities differently and find fault with mine. That’s okay. I don’t need to pretend there aren’t good reasons for prioritizing different things than I do. I don’t need to adopt their ranking if I see otherwise. My priorities are different in this stage of life, in this season, on this day. And if I ever feel convicted to change those priorities, I can do so when and if that time comes.

When I became intentional about what I valued and what I wanted to accomplish, I could look at my life through my own priorities. Instead of focusing on all the things I still needed to do, I could focus on the things I chose to accomplish that day and feel successful. I didn’t have to hide from the things I didn’t do. I could look them squarely in the eye and say, “You’re not a priority right now, dishes. I’m cleaning the bathroom instead, and then I’m taking a nap.”

What I Read: March 2019

big little lies

Favorite: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

True confession: I’m tired of reading literary works. That’s almost all I read in high school and all I read in college, because I was a pretentious snob (okay, and scared of reading anything with overt sex and swear words). And I loved it — the highlighting, the “profound” margin scribbles, the essays dissecting this or that theme, the trawling through JSTOR looking for feminist interpretations of Pride & Prejudice. Most beloved, the group discussions. I’m convinced that good, literary works are best digested in groups.

But alas, I am a lone reading island surrounded by busy adults, shrouded in a fog of toddler interruptions.

So I find myself reading thoughtful, serious literary works and thinking, That is objectively a really good book — but I don’t love them, I don’t get excited about them, I don’t think I want to read them. I need a cheap, common, digestible hook to keep me going — quirky characters (maybe a bit stereotypical or unbelievable), a sense of humor, an almost-too-ridiculous situation, a mystery.

But I am still at my heart the same pretentious snob that requires something meaningful and well-written in even the lightest of books — which is why I adored Big Little Lies.

It’s got all those hooks I talked about, it addresses serious, relatable issues, and while it isn’t literary, it’s objectively a good book. I insisted my non-reading sisters read it, and they devoured it almost overnight.

As one Goodreads contributor quipped, “Probably the funniest book about murder and domestic abuse I’ll ever read.”

Bonus: Madeline and Ed are a great example of a normal, flawed egalitarian marriage.

Enough fangirling. The other books I finished up this month:

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, by Marcus Borg \\ 5 stars \\ My full thoughts here.

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, by Marcus J. Borg \\ 4 stars \\ Biggest takeaway: Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of his time with alternate, subversive wisdom based on loving God and others. This reframed some tricky contemporary subjects for me. Instead of just looking at “what Jesus said” as a measure for how to approach today’s issues, I feel encouraged to approach today’s sacred cows with the love, courage, and clarity that Jesus did in his own time.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty \\ 4 stars \\ Being a highly sensitive person, I had to put it down for days every time she mentioned a child’s death. When it became clear that her goal was to help me come to terms with death, I almost refused point-blank to finish it. But I worked up enough courage to finish it. After all, Lent is the perfect time to contemplate that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins \\ 3 stars \\ In light of Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, this just didn’t measure up.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan \\ 3 stars \\ Sub-par writing, fascinating culture. Watch the movie first.

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love \\ 3 stars \\ I need to write an entirely separate post on this. Its concepts saved my marriage, but it’s bizarrely incomplete and poorly constructed.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren \\ 3 stars \\ This sums up my spirituality, I think. (More thoughts here.)

What We Eat

wesual-click-719517-unsplash

I’m always curious about how real people eat. It’s nice to hear expert advice and inspiration from dietitians and chefs, but their enthusiasm can only motivate me so much — being, as I am, a non-cook who grew up eating frozen taquitos for lunch and can’t afford organic everything. I’ll just be honest: my budget, interests, and priorities don’t match professionals’.

Still, once I had a hungry child, I started caring more about what we ate. Neither my husband nor I cared about that before. We regularly skipped meals. We ate lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, the only variety being the random spices my husband tried out. Taco seasoned spaghetti was one such experiment. Fresh fruits and veggies? Eh. Occasionally we bought clementines and apples.

But when e.e. showed up with a pure, unspoiled gut, it felt like sin to feed him the same sugary, processed, meat-heavy, vegetation-barren diet we ate.

What to feed him? That was a mine field. The last time I’d done any real learning on diet was back in the dinosaur days of the food pyramid. Everyone swore by these specialized diets that cut out my favorite foods. (Give me my carbs and cheese!) Every diet seemed zeroed in on losing weight or reducing inflammation or detoxing or other stuff that was only tangential to my main question: What do I feed a human in general?

I read a couple books over the past year to figure out the new lay of the food land. The Whole Foods Diet, by John Mackey convinced me that immortality was within my grasp as long as I had the discipline to stay away from all my favorite snacks. What to Eat, by Marion Nestle stuck my spinning head back on straight. The website Real Mom Nutrition gave me the permission and confidence to do my best — even if that included more processed snacks.

Our new food philosophy is pretty simple: inexpensive, plant-based, reduced sugar, minimally processed but easily accessible. Am I really going to bake my own granola bars on the days I’m too tired to get dressed before noon? Absolutely not.

To borrow a line from another controversial area of baby nutrition, fed is best.

Having said that, the research is clear and consistent that a minimally-processed, plant-based diet is healthiest. That gives me both freedom and challenge in my meal planning. My rule of thumb with everything is, Would I be okay with my child eating as much of this food as he wants? If the answer is no, I don’t or rarely buy it (she says, as she eats mint chocolate chunk ice cream at her keyboard).

Because this is my other big thing with food: eating should be pleasant. It should make us feel good about our bodies. It should bring people together. It shouldn’t be a source of paranoia, or a headache, or a trigger for tantrums, adult or toddler. I want to create good associations with food for my son — both in the sense that he reaches for healthy food naturally, and that he doesn’t feel guilty about certain foods. I don’t want him drinking Kool-Aid and eating Twinkies after school everyday, but I also don’t want him to decline a treat at his friend’s birthday party out of an irrational fear of sugar. This means, to me, stocking our pantry and fridge with healthy, yummy foods instead of trying to keep certain things off-limits, and letting him regulate his own appetite within that boundary.

That’s the theoretical stuff. Practically, since I hate meal planning, I follow simple meal formulas and just plug in recipes that meet those requirements.

Breakfast is a dairy/egg, grain, and fruit, and it stays the same every week:

Monday: Siggi’s yogurt, frozen berries, and cereal sprinkled on top
Tuesday: whole wheat English muffin, cream cheese, whatever fruit we have on hand
Wednesday: oatmeal with a splash of milk and frozen berries
Thursday: goat cheese crumbles or yogurt, fruit, and cereal
Friday: oatmeal again
Weekend: probably more oatmeal or cereal if I’m exhausted, or French toast with cooked apple topping if I’m feeling like that kind of mom

Lunch is a meat alternate, grain, veggie, and supposedly a fruit (but sometimes we run out of fresh options, or my guys decide they’re not interested in that particular fruit that day — which happens more than I like, but, c’est la vie). Our favorites are beans and greens on quesadillas, with noodles, or with rice or quinoa; pasta salads; spinach and mushroom French bread pizzas; and stir fries, preferably with peanut noodles. We’re branching out into egg dishes now, such as huevos rancheros, with the occasional grilled cheese or PB&J when I’m running late on lunch.

Try Crazy Good Peanut Noodles with frozen stir fry or Kale and Cannellini Bean Pasta.

Dinner is a meat/meat alternate, grain, and veggie — soups and noodle dishes, mostly.

If I’m planning dinner, we mostly eat vegetarian. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with eating meat, to be honest — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m uncomfortable with all the mental gymnastics I perform to get around the inconsistencies in my thinking. The long and short of it is, I can’t stomach the idea of animals being poorly treated, I don’t think I can stomach the killing of even well-treated animals, but we can’t afford locally sourced meat, and my family still enjoys meat to the point where it’d create hassle and headache to accommodate everyone’s strong feelings on the subject.

So we still eat lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, pending my courage to address my concerns. We just add frozen veggies now.

Try Thai Green Curry with Spring Vegetables or add frozen spinach, a 1/4 cup of whole milk, and a new kind of noodle to shake up regular ol’ spaghetti.

Frozen produce is our secret to getting in enough fruit and veg every day. We buy steamable bags to throw in the microwave for a side, or add them into cooked dishes. We sprinkle frozen berries onto our breakfast foods. They’re quick, cost effective, and don’t spoil. And we live off canned beans — another quick, cheap, shelf-stable addition to meals.

Apart from a couple Pinterest finds, our favorite meals come from Cookie + Kate, a vegetarian website. We’ve also been enjoying new recipes from 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget, by Lisa Leake. Everything else originates from my husband’s brain or personal recipe stash passed down from the women in his family.

Okay: snacks. We splurge and fudge a bit to make sure e.e. gets fed without too much mom guilt. I wish I could say that we only eat homemade energy balls and fresh produce, but I only shop twice a month — snacks have got to last; we’re on the go during morning snack — they’ve got to pack well; and there are few veggies that a baby with a singular molar can eat.

Shamelessly, I buy shelf-stable snacks (i.e., more processed), but I’m willing to pay more to make sure they’ve got realer food and less sugar. Our go-tos are cheese sticks, cherry tomatoes, real peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts) on unsalted rice cakes, microwave popcorn, Craisins, raisins, and other dried fruits (DO NOT get freeze-dried strawberries — nasty), Squeez pouches, chips and salsa, Power Up Mega Omega trail mix, The Good Bean (chickpeas or favas and peas), Harvest Snaps green pea snap crisps, RW Garcia sweet potato crackers, and Triscuit original 100% whole wheat crackers. I’m not above purchasing Cheerios, Kix, and other processed cereals, either. (Some great practical guidance here.)

And on the occasions when there are cookies and candy and ultra-processed foods in the house? We eat them without guilt as special treats — Oreos, chocolate, Girl Scout Samoas, my in laws’ delicious molasses cookies. And I, personally, indulge every morning in a cup of coffee with a generous splash of Natural Bliss coffee creamer. I refuse to live in fear of individual foods when the overall pattern of our diets is healthy. Besides, when you’ve developed a hankering for quinoa and chickpeas, of all things, processed sugar doesn’t sit too well anymore.

I know we can eat better. I hope to continue to make more positive changes throughout the rest of our lives. But like I said: right now, I don’t have the time, interest, and budget to eat like a registered dietitian. I have other priorities that lead me to zap a can of refried beans in the microwave instead of make a lunch from scratch. I feed our family to the best of my priorities. We feel good about our food physically and emotionally, our son eats a wide variety of flavorful, healthy foods, and we all get fed.

What do you eat?

I’m Wearing Braces for Lent

387431-PC4AFQ-40
Photo Credit

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.

I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.

But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?

Enter adult braces.

Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.

Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.

P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.

And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.

It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.

I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.

That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.

It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.

It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.

I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.

That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.

And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.

Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.

Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.

The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.

Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.

For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.

And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.

The Unmotivated Person’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done

rawpixel-777268-unsplash

Update on my housekeeping streak: I kind of failed all through this month. I sat around in my robe longer than I wanted. I stretched out my morning coffee to give myself an excuse not to do anything yet. I stopped cleaning the bathroom every day and keeping my sink shiny. Sometimes the dishes sat for a day. And I didn’t even try to keep up with Flylady’s daily challenges.

I did a little each day and tried to do a little more the next, but I ended up doing barely anything today and next to nothing the day after that. That’s how my August went.

I was just so unmotivated, and bummed that I couldn’t keep up the motivation that made me such an awesome housekeeper once upon a time.

But I tried something new, something I’d learned from my obsessive study of childhood development: focus on the needs a negative behavior is communicating rather than the behavior itself. When you address only the behavior, the needs remain unmet and come out again in destructive ways. When you meet the needs, the behavior changes too.

What was the need behind my failure to do housework like a champ?

Sleep deprivation. Even though my baby regularly sleeps through the night, it’s taken me a couple months to adjust to that. I woke up at odd hours and couldn’t get back to sleep.

Armed with this unsurprising find, I focused on meeting my needs. I stopped beating myself and pushing myself to do more. I did the bare minimum, rested as much as possible, and focused on getting enough sleep.

And it worked! Once I got enough sleep, my motivation to get up and get going came back. I’m still getting back into a routine, but I’m confident I’ll get there.

Tl;dr: The secret to getting stuff done is meeting the need underneath why you feel unmotivated. Maybe it’s perfectionism. Maybe it’s depression, or sleep deprivation, or saying yes to the wrong things. Whatever it is, work on meeting that need first, and don’t beat yourself up in the meantime.