Redecorating on a $0 Budget (Featuring My aMaZiNg Photography Skillz)

If you scrolled through my Pinterest boards, you’d think I’m some sort of DIY goddess with a great affinity for decor, a pioneer who’s not afraid to go big and bold with a dark accent wall, an eclectic stylist who collects tons of house plants and meaningful knickknacks (but also super into minimalism).

I mean, that’s the plan, but the reality is I am terrified of DIY projects. And home decorating? The thought of it makes me sweat. It’s an extension of my anxiety around change and decision-making. What if I repaint the ugly dresser and hate it? What if I spend a bunch of money on new furniture and discover it doesn’t give off the vibe I was going for? What if I permanently repurpose something but end up needing it unrepurposed five years down the road?

Plus, I don’t have a good eye for basic coordination, color, and symmetry, much less the envelope-pushing style choices I often pin. Since I place zero confidence in my style skills, it’s tougher to take risks.

BUT, I am actively combating my anxiety-gripped perfectionism, and redecorating is a far more low-key, non-life-changing way to step out of my comfort zone than, like, setting boundaries and speaking up for myself and all those other Important Life Things that require risk, mess, and a failure-riddled learning process.

Creativity is supremely uncomfortable for me because of my anxious perfectionism. I overplan my decorating schemes. I click around the internet for hours looking for exactly what I had in mind, and then never get around to changing anything because, weirdly enough, my precise style isn’t trending, or I find the perfect thing…and it costs way too much money. Then I have to do the dreaded Decision Making Process where I gamble away a bunch of money on something I think I want and then not being able to purchase something else better down the road — or what if it goes on sale in a couple months?! But what if I don’t purchase it and then never achieve the vibe of my dreams? Maybe I should check another website….

Oh, and it’s even worse shopping in person, because the stakes are higher: if I want it, I need to buy it right now because it might not be there after a few weeks of mulling, and I can’t keep popping back and forth amongst local stores to check out my options and price compare, because the kiddos are melting down and the husband is starting to give advice based on how likely it’s going to get him home sooner. And I need real advice.

Doesn’t that sound like a fun way to spend a weekend?

So I have pined the better part of a year away about how boring and ugly my house is, and done absolutely nothing about it. (Except pinning impossible Pinterest dreams.)

Then the heavens opened and suggested some YouTube channels about creating things on the fly, without a precious plan, without too much particular skill. Just people spending a few bucks on something from the thrift store and seeing what happens. In particular, I’ve been watching Mr. Kate’s $300 room makeovers (like this and this one).

Two elements stood out to me, besides the gloriously cheap budget: they shopped at one thrift store, and they did everything in one day. They narrowed their options from ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE INTERNET to one store, they limited what they were doing to one eight hour day, and they further curtailed their choices to stuff under $300. And then they did what they could, within those limits, and they just did them.

Something about those limits freed up what little creativity I had banging around inside my perfectionist little soul. I didn’t need to do the best thing humanly possible — which is what my perfectionism boils down to. I just needed to do the best with what I had.

I hit pause midway through another Mr. Kate episode and just did stuff. My budget? Zero bucks. My store? The junk closets and corners around my home. My time limit? Now until bedtime. 

First up: this sideboard filled with art supplies.


I decluttered all the important papers we’d carefully haphazardly scattered about the horizontal space, then moved the sideboard out of an awkward corner onto a blank wall in our dining room.


I’d found this amazingly weird piece of wood last fall while throwing walnuts into a flooded footpath with my toddlers. The flowers were a gift for my baby’s birth, and since I never remember to water anything living, they dried out on my dresser. For some Wisconsin grit, I stuck in buckthorn branches from the vast dead plant pile taking up our entire back patio. My husband hoards candles that my toddler then scatters about the house, so I gathered three together into a pottery dish that my husband sculpted and painted in high school. The napkin (you know, one of those cloth napkins you register for during those starry-eyed pre-wedding days when you delusionally think you’ll have time to launder cloth napkins after every meal) pulled it all together.


I dug out those mirrors from a Goodwill bag stuffed into a closet. Totally forgot I’d bought them, but now that I stumbled across them again, I realized I’d never put them up because I wanted them a certain color that I would never get around to painting, and thrown up in a gallery wall that has yet to happen. They worked perfectly with the sideboard wood. I didn’t plan to hang them diagonally, but they didn’t have any hangers (???), so I had to hang them from a corner. The nails were already there from the previous owners. Why reinvent the wheel?

Next, this shelf.

Quick book review: Zoom in on those books and read them all. You’re welcome.

I also rescued this from an awkward corner and a pile of stuff. I wasn’t exactly sure what to put on it, but once I started digging around in my clutter hotspots, I found plenty. Finally I could display our college diplomas. My dried out wedding bouquet sits atop the Book of Common Prayer (a nod to my Christian studies major) and next to the tiny silver beaker my husband insisted on keeping, now a symbol of his chemistry major.

Four years of liberal arts education did not prepare me to read my cursive Latin diploma.

Our senior year college yearbook was too beautiful not to display, and I just filled in things around it — my husband’s original art, some naked hardbacks, the decanter my husband also insisted on keeping without purpose, and this awesome retro adding machine from (notice a theme?) a box of childhood stuff my husband insisted on keeping. I love adding interactive design elements that my kids can play with and fondly remember….


I’ve been agonizing over family photos for years now, but I never had the right frames, or the right wall space, or the ideal time to order prints. Now that I was a new and improved person, I just printed a few photos on cardstock and stuck them in frames lying around in a box — nothing precious about it. Are they amazing quality? Nope. Do I like the frames? No. Do I love looking at my loved ones’ faces, as is the primary intent of framing photos? Absolutely!

Oh, and the bottom shelf is reserved for the mountains of library books I check out and never read.


Speaking of books, I wanted to empty our heaving bookshelf and do something minimalist…but after browsing Pinterest, I realized the heaving bookshelf look is an actual style, and I, a lover of books, liked it. Besides, I couldn’t be too fussy about the shelves, because my toddler periodically, um, rearranges things. So I merely played with texture and depth — stacking some books horizontally, embracing the stack that leaned diagonally. Then I pulled out our German china heirlooms that have been languishing unappreciated at the back of our cupboard, and paired them with some dried phlox I rescued from that patio plant pile.


I think Assassin’s Creed pairs well with delicate floral china, don’t you?

Just one last touch: we’ve got so many random furniture pieces strewn about the basement, so I brought one up and put a plant on it.


There you have it! A midnight redecorating project, completely dollar- and stress-free. We all love the dimension, styling, and meaning these areas bring to our house, and I came away from a few hours of creativity absolutely singing with joy and a sense of accomplishment.

What are you waiting for, my perfectionist people? Go! Be free! Raid your junk closets!

Date Night: Re-reading Childhood Favorites


There’s nothing quite like the bond of reading and rehashing a book — even a terrible one. Unfortunately, my husband and I aren’t usually on the same page in our personal reading lives. He likes dense books and technical nonfiction, classics and sweeping five-hundred page narratives. He’s been begging me to read a fantasy trilogy for years that I just can’t work up the interest in. I love character-driven modern novels about relationships, different cultures and lifestyles, and self-discovery. I don’t even bother suggesting my favorite books anymore — though I did buy him Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime for Christmas and got him to love it.

The one book I did read on his recommendation was one of his childhood favorites — River Boy, by Tim Bowler. It was not my cup of tea (even though it should have been, being a moody narrative about loss and growing up), but what kept me reading was trying to figure out why this was my husband’s cup of tea. What did middle-school-aged husband see in this story that kept him coming back again?

It’s a unique sort of intimacy, reading your spouse’s childhood favorites, getting a peek at who they were as a kid, and what that might say about them now.

So we started reading our favorites — together. Fortunately, I love reading aloud, and my husband loves being read to. Children’s literature is generally shorter and faster-paced than our adult favorites, making them perfect for those few grown up hours after the toddler goes to bed.

We just finished one of my favorites that I read a million times growing up — Shadow Spinner, by Susan Fletcher, an adventure tale about a girl helping Shahrazad find stories to fill a thousand and one nights. I must have read it during a homeschool history unit on Persia, and the book is filled with lush, sensual descriptions of the bazaar and harem life. I knew my husband would be just as fascinated as I was by this peek into a different time period, culture, and religion.

Now we’re reading Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, another book I’ve read to pieces (literally — I need to dig out some spine-reinforcing packing tape!). It’s already made my husband laugh. There’s something amazing about sharing a book I’ve loved for half my life and seeing my spouse experience it for the first time. (Not as amazing: trying to pronounce all the made-up languages I skipped over when reading to myself….)

Lately, our evenings look like my husband working on his Minecraft world while I read a few chapters aloud…until the baby wakes up. That’s our introverted idea of a great date night!

A Great Tool for Sharing the Mental Load

It used to be more stressful for me to send my husband grocery shopping than simply doing it myself. I’d still be the one coming up with the meal plan, then making the list itself—a long process that involved us texting back and forth on what he needed from the store, writing specific brands and quantities, then verbally reading it out loud to him to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Plus there was the issue of what platform to write and save lists on. I used my phone’s notepad, I printed out Word documents, I wrote with dry erase markers on laminated paper.

A pain.

screenshot_20200321-162551Enter Cozi! It’s a family app the syncs calendars and lists across phones. And it’s done wonders for list making. Instead of texting me a list that I would then transcribe into whatever format I was experimenting with that month, my husband simply inputs items into a shared list as he thinks about them. The list is always in his back pocket if he’s running into Meijer for his own projects—no need for me to debrief him on what our family collectively needs.

Whenever he wants to make a recipe or needs to know the ingredients for a family favorite, he no longer needs me to text him the recipe link (again). All our recipes are stored in the family recipe box. (What, you don’t cook most of your meals from randomly Googled recipes?)

We sync to-do lists too—our own individual lists as well as shared to-dos. Cozi allows us to cross off items without deleting them, which helps us track important things like if I paid the mortgage already. It both eliminates the need for remembering to start that oh, by the way, do we still need to do this thing? conversation and reminds us of things we need to mutually discuss and delegate.

We’re doing just fine with a paper calendar posted in the dining room that we share and discuss, but Cozi offers a shared calendar, and emails out daily, weekly, and/or monthly agendas—a fabulous way to keep appointments, holidays, and events in the forefront of both spouses’ minds.

And did I mention the best part? It’s free!

Are there any other tools you recommend for sharing the mental load?

Need Some Easy Mealtime Inspiration?

This is definitely what my table looks like at every meal. *cough*

I’m always looking for something simple and quick to throw on the table for those days when I don’t have much time or energy to cook. Two mindset shifts have made my cooking life much easier:

1. Decide on what food groups I want to serve in each meal, and plug in foods that meet that requirement. Duh, but I used to think in terms of planning whole meals (quiche on Wednesday, pizza on Friday, etc.) and shopping specifically for those meal only. This is great — unless I’m too busy on Wednesday to make quiche, or I used up the eggs on Monday for an emergency lunch, or the eggs went bad because my meal plan got pushed back half a week. Now what?

Now I don’t shop for individual meals; I shop for a variety of individual components within food groups — nut butter, dairy products, eggs, frozen shredded chicken for protein options; cereal, breads, noodles, rice, farro for whole grain options; dried, frozen, and fresh fruits and veggies for produce options. When meal time rolls around, I mix and match those components to create a variety of meals. This allows me to get creative and use up random things in the pantry, while sticking with familiar recipes.

I’m also a moody eater: quiche might sound great a week ago when I planned it, but I might be feeling egged out when it comes up on the meal plan. Cooking a meal I don’t feel like eating is a bummer, but with this component-style meal planning, I can poll my mood and my family to see what kind of flavors we’d like for dinner.

I haven’t meal planned in over a year, but with this method, we almost always have healthy, varied meals.

2. Eat breakfast for dinner. Or snack for breakfast. Or lunch for snack. The point is, if I’m stumped on what to make for a particular time of day, I borrow inspiration from another mealtime. Run out of pre-made snacks? Scramble an egg, grill a cheese quesadilla, or serve a bowl of cereal. Running short on time for dinner? Make a sandwich, set out cheese and crackers, or throw together a fruit and granola parfait. No motivation to get out of bed and cook breakfast for your hungry kids? Raid the pantry for no-cook snacks: rice cakes with peanut butter, a granola bar with a handful of raisins and an applesauce squeeze, or apple slices with yogurt dip.

P.S. My picky or moody eaters often love breakfast and snack foods, and they’re often easier to modify than full meals without turning us parents into short order cooks.

Want a Good Parenting Day? Lower Your Expectations. Lower. Nope, Even Lower Than That.

hammering golf tees
Via My Baba

Sometimes the worst parenting days are the ones where you’ve got a plan and a positive attitude. You know what I’m talking about? Those days when you’ve finally got enough energy and inspiration to do something fun? Your toddler starts putzing around the house, bored, and instead of flipping on the TV, you say, “Oh! I have an idea! You’ll love this!”

So you set up that activity you’ve had pinned on Pinterest for two years, that one where the kids hammer golf tees into styrofoam. It’s perfect because your toddler loves “booming” things. You don’t have golf tees or styrofoam, so you run around the house looking for nails big enough and blunt enough to be reasonably safe. You can’t find any, so you call your husband for a hint as to where they might be. They’re in the garage, and the hammer’s in there too. You find the nails, but you can’t find the hammer, which is fine, you’re still chipper, because you remember seeing your toddler’s toy hammer somewhere, recently. You’re running around the house checking everywhere you might have last seen it. OH MY GOSH YOU JUST SAW IT WHERE IS IT. It’s under the couch, of course, all the way in the back by the wall, of course, so you whack it out with a broom. You find a cardboard box. There. Ready to go.

The toddler is already dumping the box of nails everywhere. “No, no, no, wait, let me show you how to do it,” you say.

The toddler seems excited. “Boomin’ hammer, Mommy! Boomin’ hammer!”

“Yes! You can boom with the hammer!” You knew he’d love it.

You can’t really hammer the nails in with the plastic hammer, but you discover that if you jam the nail into the cardboard really hard, it’s creates a big enough hole for a toy hammer to make headway.

“Whack it!” you encourage.

Your toddler gives a halfhearted whack.

“That’s it! Keep going! You’re doing it!”

“Mommy do it,” your toddler says.

“No, no, you do it! It’s for you! It’s supposed to be fun!”

“Watch TVs?”

You know. Those days?

Or the days you wake up and feel the urge to deep clean the house or write a blog post or drink all of your coffee while it’s hot — feel the urge in your soul — and every part of the day conspires to make sure you reach only a semblance of that goal with the maximum possible stress and disappointment?

Those are the days I want to hand in my notice to my husband and walk out the door. (That’s how you quit parenthood. Right?)

Life with littles can be so frustrating.

God grant me the serenity to accept the moods I cannot change, and the courage to change the one thing I can — my expectations.

Emily Nagoski, author of the must-read book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, taught me about the brain’s discrepancy reducing feedback loop:

In your brain there is a little monitor, a watcher, who knows: (1) what your goal is, (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal, and (3) how much progress you’re making. And it keeps a ratio of effort to progress.

And it has a very strong opinion about what that ratio should be.

As you encounter obstacle after obstacle in your attempts to entertain your toddler or enjoy a cup of hot coffee, your brain must recalculate how much effort is required and how likely the goal is. This is frustrating for your brain — to continually put effort into something that seems less and less likely. As the goal continues to float out of reach and the required effort piles up, frustration turns to anger. Then there comes that point where the required effort becomes so overwhelming or the feasibility of the goal so unfeasible that your brain just gives up and pitches you into the depths of despair.

I can think of a dozen examples of that psychological process from the past hour alone. Parenting littles, in particular, is rife with failed, delayed, or prolonged attempts at reaching goals. And that’s what often makes up those defeating, rage-inducing, burnt-out days.

But when I understand what is happening in my brain — that it isn’t the day just magically and hopelessly crumbling around me — I can consciously evaluate my effort and my goals. As Nagoski advises, I have three options:

  1. Change the goal.
  2. Change your effort.
  3. Change your expectation about how difficult the goal will be.

For me, in the context of littles, the lesson here is lower my expectations — lower, lower, and lower still. I change goals into either tiny concrete things more within my control or broader goals that allow for whatever happens to happen. And I anticipate that things are likely to go awry. I plan for the worst (or really, the normal) toddler behavior, I lowball my goals and expectations, and I feel that glorious ding ding ding of achievement when I hit those simple goals. If it’s one of those days where I easily meet the bare bones of parenting, I can build up toward loftier goals — like enjoying a hot coffee all the way through.

It feels much better to start humble and grow than crash and burn from aspirational heights.

The other day, I took my kiddos on a walk. I consciously framed it, as I frame almost all walks, as toddler-led. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I planned on going slowly, maybe doubling back, stopping in spots for an absurdly long time. I set the goal as enjoying time in nature with whatever my toddler found interesting. That’s a doable goal, because it accounts for a wide variety of toddler behavior, from getting engrossed in nature to sitting like a rock in the middle of the trail, and it focuses on something I can control — my behavior.

If I was strapped for time, or wanted to get a brisk walk in for exercise, or desired to get to a particular destination, I would buckle the toddler into the stroller and communicate that he wasn’t getting out. I would anticipate some extra steps and maybe some more emotional friction to accomplish that goal — thus changing my expectation for how difficult reaching my goal would be. Since he was walking, though, I knew it’d be a colossal struggle to get him moving in the direction and along the timeline I wanted. So I lowered my expectations and broadened my goal, and we enjoyed a lovely slow, meandering walk that involved a lot of standing in one spot looking at bugs.

Not going to lie: I still got a bit agitated once we hit minute ten of watching the beetle walk around in circles. But I repeated my mantra: Lower your expectations. Lower. Lower still. Accept that this is what today’s toddler-led walk looks like. And God granted me a little more serenity in that acceptance.

Some day, the toddler won’t be a toddler, and can more realistically and reliably meet greater expectations and bigger goals. But for now, the toddler does what toddlers do — and we are all much less frustrated when I meet him where he’s at. Then we both experience success.

Even if I start out with too lofty of goals (silly me, thinking I could brush my teeth before lunchtime), and the day is crashing and burning around me, I can reset goals in hindsight to get myself back on track. My mom taught me this one: When she was a young mom, overwhelmed with how little she had achieved that day, my dad encouraged her to focus on what she had achieved, no matter how small — even if it was just nursing a baby all day. Which is an amazing reframe for me because I do, indeed, spend a great deal of my time sitting and nursing a baby.

Every day, I set my goals super low: feed the kids three meals and one snack a day, change their diapers, put them down for their naps, and respond to their emotional needs as best I can. That’s it. Depending on the day, that seems far too aspirational or far too easy — but it keeps me from migrating toward the despair at the end of my brain’s discrepancy feedback loop. And when I feel positive and successful, it’s a good parenting day — no matter how much I actually accomplish or what craziness actually goes down.

How to Parent When You Don’t Have a Lot to Give


I’ve got a toddler and a newborn, and often their needs conflict in a way that leaves me feeling stretched thin and not enough. Even when there aren’t two voices begging for my attention, and both babies are content, I sometimes feel stretched thin and not enough.

I’m parenting from the couch. All I want to do with any spare time is nap. I haven’t taken my kids outside in a few days. It’s too hard to go on fun outings right now with a baby still learning to breastfeed. I made cereal for breakfast again. My toddler’s been playing from a bunch of scattered toys on the playroom floor instead of the Pinterest activities I will someday set up. He should probably have more playdates. I’m probably depriving him by keeping him at home, but we can’t afford preschool. Have I interacted enough with the baby? She seems thrown in between all my naps and my toddler’s needs. I haven’t got around to doing that infant massage or the baby and mommy yoga video. I should probably start reading to her, or doing something to show I’m invested and interested in her beyond nursing her around the clock while I scroll through Twitter to stay awake.

Scarcity. This is a scarcity mindset. I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough. What I have, what I’m doing, this phase we’re in, it’s not enough — not enough to give my precious children what they need or deserve. I need to serve up and carve out something different, better, extra, more than what’s happening right now.

With my first, I had anxiety that I thought was normal first-time mom stuff at the time, but in anxiety-free hindsight, was a roaring mental health issue. Any time he cried or seemed bored or unhappy or not meeting the emotional equilibrium I thought children of good, attentive parents should, my anxiety latched onto this scarcity mindset, catastrophized it (“He hates me! He’ll grow up stunted! Our attachment is ruined!”), then left me too depressed to engage in the life in front of me.

It’s all adult projection. It’s my own fears about repeating any lack I experienced in my parents’ generation of parenting. It’s my own shame about not keeping up with this generation’s overly abundant parenting — all the things and activities and ways of living and being that are supposed to counteract everything that makes life hard. It’s my own misunderstanding of what children truly need, a focus on the trappings of a good, healthy, connected lifestyle while missing the substance of the good, healthy, connected lifestyle itself.

The trappings are often unattainable. I don’t always have the money or space or energy or time or talent to do many of the trappings of good parenting. I’m tired, and I’m tethered to a newborn’s needs and distracted by a toddler’s. That’s our life right now, and it feels limiting and limited when I compare it to other phases in parenting or other parenting lifestyles made possible by things I don’t have right now (mainly sleep).

But toddlers and newborns aren’t comparing, and they have nothing to compare things to. They don’t know what other parents are doing. They’re not aware of what they could be doing or having. They are perfectly content with the lives in front of them as long as those lives meet their needs. And the main thing they need from me is not to revamp our entire lifestyle or rush out of the current, not-always-awesome parenting stage I’m in, but to join them in that life. To meet them there. To see opportunities of connection in every moment, not just the planned, Pinterest-y ones.

Kids are brilliant and resilient. They can make do with a lack of resources. They engage with what’s in front of them. They can come up with games and worlds and ideas out of almost nothing. They enjoy repetition as much as novelty. They have no reference to interpret our parenting “fails” as anything else but their normal, beloved family life.

But the one thing they can’t make do without is me. They don’t need anything more or different from me; they just need me present and confident in what I currently have to offer — even if it doesn’t seem like much to me. They fill up on what I’m giving and have no idea about what I can’t give.

So I might not be able to give a ton of undivided attention to my newborn, but if I’m changing a diaper, I’m there, talking through it, counting snaps and wiggling toes, naming body parts, making eye contact, kissing bellies. And if there are screams, I’m there too, going slow but forward, empathizing.

I might not be able to muster up anything more for breakfast but cereal again, but if I’m serving cereal, I’m there, making small talk, noting the school bus out the window, or sitting in companionable silence, present and available.

We might be having a rough day where everyone is cranky and the day just won’t end, but if I’m dealing with cranky kids, I’m there with what little my frazzled self can offer — a deep breath, a hug, a kind word, or maybe just the restraint to not shame them for fussing and an apology for if I do.

It might be subzero temps outside with a tight budget that doesn’t allow for many trips to the kids’ museum, but if we’re stuck inside, I’m there with whatever we can do and are doing indoors.

I might be tired and needing to nap more than I would want to as an attentive parent, but when I’m napping, I’m there napping, and when I’m giving my children attention, I’m there giving them my attention.

Not all parenting stages are enjoyable. Not every aspect of our current lifestyle is ideal. There is always more and more and more to do or be or have, so much so that it would take hundreds of lives to fit it all in. But this is the stage, the lifestyle, the one life I have. So I’m going to be there for it, whatever it is. I’m not always going to love every second of it. I’m not going to stop bettering myself where I want and need to. But I’m not going to let a perceived scarcity crowd out what I do have to give.

I don’t need to do anything differently. I don’t need to give more. I just need to pay attention to what I am doing — to be there, to observe how it matters, to see things how my children see them, not as I am afraid they are seeing them.

When I fill in that “scarcity” with my presence and intention, it’s enough.

The Messy Person’s Guide to Housekeeping


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


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.


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


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


[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.


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.