People think I have it all together. The only reason I know this is because a lot of people email me saying, “wow, you really have it all together.” I close those emails immediately and never respond because: 1) my email inbox is a horror show of un-replied-to messages; and 2) I don’t know how to explain to these well-meaning strangers that I in no way have it all together. Mostly I am a mess and I spend my days trying to get through them with sporadic bursts of creativity in the form of writing or, as it happens right now, making gigantic sandwiches from excavated refrigerator remnants.
When you write about your life, as I do, there’s a tremendous temptation to make oneself look good. Most of us, after all, would prefer not to look like disorganized morons–speaking for myself here (although I did show you guys that before photo of my atrocious basement… ). But it’s also true that each one of us has a personal pros and cons list. I’ve written about my cons many times over the years–and quite a bit in my book–because one of my goals in writing is to share how I learn and evolve as a person. I don’t write about my downsides to whine about my life, or in search of sympathy or advice; I write about them because they’re part of life. I write about them because I feel better when I read about other people who’ve experienced what I experience.
My hope is that perhaps by writing about my imperfect journey, some of you might find comfort, solace, a sense of belonging, or, at the very least, a laugh. I am riddled with errors, self-doubt (and mustard from my sandwich at present moment) and so today, please enjoy a vingnette on how I most definitely do not have it all together, with some thoughts on how I’m trying to better get it together.
Why I Haven’t Been Writing Much Lately
I haven’t been writing much lately. Or at least, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to or as much as I used to. One reason for this? My life is hectic.
The past five months threw me off with their frenzy. It’s all good, wonderful, wanted stuff, but despite how wonderful and wanted it is, it strained my abilities as a multi-tasking, high energy, gets-a-lot-done type of person. I feel much more like a myopic, unfocused, exhausted person lately. In February of this year, our second daughter–Littlewoods–was born. A few weeks later, my first book published. Then, our older daughter’s preschool went on summer break. Next up was a slew of summer visitors to the homestead, accompanied by the accelerated, dizzying pace of summer outside work: planting and tending the garden, pruning the fruit trees, harvesting wood for winter, and on and on.
Each and every one of these things is wonderful and wanted. Each and every one of these things was conceived of and executed at my behest. In so many ways, I am living out my dream life of being a writer, mama, and homesteader. But I wasn’t prepared for how different our lives would be with the glorious addition of Littlewoods. One kid is a ton of work, but two kids under age three often feels like a suffocating amount of work. I recently wrote that parenting little kids feels like walking through water with clothes on because you’re constantly exhausted, constantly on alert, and constantly in demand by one child or the other. The wonderful is so closely twined with the overwhelmed.
So in short, I’m super busy.
The Other Reason
The other reason I haven’t been writing as much lately is that I’m afraid you might not want to read what I want to write; because the thing is, my focus isn’t on money right now. It’s not on frugality or increasing my income or doing spectacularly efficient things with my taxes. It’s just not. Lately, every time I sit down to try and write to you about investing or 401ks or optimal frugality, I just can’t. I don’t have the words or the inspirational thoughts because my attention is sucked back towards my kids (but hey, lucky for you, there are no less than 458 articles on this site that you can read and most of them are about money. Although one is about popcorn. And another is about bananas. Then there’s a whole series about stuff I’ve found in the trash… but the rest are about money, I swear!).
Rather than militate against this phase of my life and write something profoundly corny about why frugality has made me a happier person (which it has!), I think I’ll write about where I find myself right now. Your enthusiastic reactions to my recent piece about looking like someone’s mom (which, whoa buddy, I do… ) opened my mind up to the possibility that maybe you DO want to hear about my days these days. That maybe you ARE interested in the grinding minutiae that is parenting.
Lately, my This Month On The Homestead posts are chronicles of the herculean work my husband does around our property to maintain and advance our permaculture homesteading goals. “But what about you, Mrs. Frugalwoods? What is it that YOU do?” many of you have asked. Well, I’ll tell you.
All of my work these days feels impermanent, which is an aspect of parenting small children that challenges my personality on a visceral level. I run around with few opportunities to sit down or eat food (or go to the bathroom alone… ) all day long and what do I have to show for it after they’re in bed? Nothing. Or at least, nothing tangible.
I empty the dishwasher, I load the dishwasher. I clean the kitchen, I mess up the kitchen, I clean it again. I wash laundry, it gets dirty, I wash it again. My never-ending household maintence cycle tempts me with the illusion of accomplishment, only to rip it out of my hands the next time someone (not me, I swear) pees their pants. I’m on an endless treadmill of repeated, rote work. And I’m not a treadmill person. I’ll sweep the floors and experience this weird elation that FINALLY I have DONE SOMETHING with my life. Someone pin a medal on me. Then I turn around and Babywoods is making foot impressions on play-dough that I can just HEAR grinding into the floor boards. I like to see things completed. I like to check off a list and move onto the next thing, but linear success doesn’t happen for me these days.
I think I’m in the R&D phase of parenting. I’m laying the groundwork for (hopefully) encouraging the growth of intelligent, kind, hilarious, thoughtful people. I know my work isn’t all for naught and I know that the intangibles are where it’s at. But still, it’d be great to get a report card on parenting, wouldn’t it? To KNOW that we’re doing the right things. To see a big, fat A for “teaching your child not to dump soup in her lap during dinner. A+ for that one, mom.” But straightforward metrics don’t exist. It’s a long slog, parenting, and it’s tough to know if your decisions are right.
Maybe I’m setting my kids up for major success; on the other hand, maybe I’m failing them spectacularly. It’s a lot easier to accurately manage your money, which might be why I’ve found so much fulfillment (and comfort) in writing about just that. Parenting, on the other hand, feels like sticking my head into a cave so dark I can’t see my own feet and yet expecting to emerge with gold in my hands. In other words, impossible and rewarding. There’s a level of nuance and intuition to parenting that can’t be put into a spreadsheet, which chafes against my nature.
I’d much rather execute a formula for their successful upbringing, since “going by feel” is not my forte. This is EXACTLY why I’m so good with money–I’m like, heck yes, money! You are in a spreadsheet, I am saving more than I earn, I am investing the surplus, I am projecting out for decades–YES! This is also the EXACT reason why I struggle so much with the murky, nebulous metrics of parenting. My consolation is devouring parenting books to try and divine how to raise great kids. I derive comfort from expanding my knowledge of child development, but I’m still left unsure at the end of each day.
Attaining Enlightenment While Chopping Wood
As soon as I finish a load of laundry, I see the stack mounting against me, piled up with baby spit-upon towels and berry-stained toddler shirts (and pants and socks… ). So I try to internalize the Zen concept of attaining enlightenment while chopping wood. The idea is that through repeated, mindless actions (although believe me, I have to pay attention while doing laundry, just ask any parent who has accidentally washed a non-washable toy… ), you can reach a higher plane of consciousness because your mind is allowed to simplify and rest in meditation. (P.S. I am not a learned Buddhist, so I’ve probably mangled this maxim, but you get the gist).
Good idea, right? However, I’m certain those monks were not trying to keep two kids alive while doing their wood chopping chores. Would that all I had to do was something so simple as chop wood or empty a dishwasher without small fingers trying to assist me (Babywoods “measured” the dishwasher with a ribbon the other morning while I tried to empty it with Littlewoods in a carrier on my chest, grasping at every dish I picked up). The constant vigilance of parenting means that my mind is rarely my own. It’s bifurcated into multiple streams of thought at nearly every moment of every day. Restful meditative states are hard to come by.
Let me give you an example. All of this happens at the same time, on a regular basis:
- Baby is crying, so I’m trying to remember what time she woke up from her last nap? Is she hungry or tired? Or both?
- Toddler is asking, “can I please color with markers while I use the potty?” Make a quick decision about which I’d rather clean up: pee or marker stains. Opt for marker stains and situate her on the potty with notebook and markers.
- Hear washing machine chime and rush to swap it out because we have a high-efficiency machine, which is awesome, but means that every load takes 19 days to complete and if I don’t swap the loads IMMEDIATELY, I cannot get our family of four’s laundry done in a single day and the chore will stretch languidly over the entire week, draping dirty socks over every surface.
- Realize it’s 10:30am and I still haven’t finished eating my breakfast. Try to scarf a few bites before toddler announces she’s done on the potty and needs a wipe.
- Conclude baby is crying because she’s both hungry and tired and that I’ll need to take her upstairs on account of her intense interest in her older sister, which means she WILL NOT nurse unless we’re upstairs alone in her bedroom.
- Abandon partially-eaten breakfast and take infant upstairs to nurse while toddler accidentally trips over full potty, which I forgot to dump out on account of infant screaming.
- Balance sobbing infant in arms while mopping up potty contents and sequestering all toys that were in the swath of destruction. Fling a saturated teddy bear into the bathroom sink in the hopes that this is out of reach of the toddler, who will otherwise grab it, kiss it, and snuggle it on my couch. Remind self that kids are gross.
- Take infant upstairs to nurse and settle in crib for a nap before returning to complete that load of laundry, find my toddler, and perhaps, maybe even finish my breakfast. Wonder, with abiding hope, if I can find my coffee thermos?
- Return downstairs to find toddler enthusiastically “rearranging” the kitchen pantry.
Time elapsed: ten minutes.
This is not hyperbole. This is not made up. These antics play out in our house hour after hour, day after day, as they do in the homes of all families with young children.
After a ten minute spurt like this, I catch myself wondering what on this green earth I did with my time before I had kids. I mean this in a serious and literal sense. How was I EVER busy or stressed???? Ridiculous, I know, but there’s a temptation to imagine one’s pre-kid life and lament. Now, I’m just glad if we can get to the end of the day with minimal/manageable damage to selves and property.
Even though I can fall into the maddening comparison of how free my time, my brain, and my body used to be, I also acknowledge that my children bring me a deep, lasting contentment. I’m absent many of the existential fears I used to harbor. I’m not worried about the future in the same preoccupied, obsessed way. I’m not trying to figure out where happiness will come from. It’s right here, in my moments of exasperation and soaked teddy bear flinging. When I can part the curtain of my exhaustion long enough to feel it, I find actual enduring peace in the present moment, which is a new experience for me.
Parenting Under The Best Of Circumstances
A recognition that doles out a modicum of comfort is that, while all of my work is impermanent, so are my concerns. I fully realize that the struggles of our days–which are physically draining–aren’t longterm challenges. While the stress of each moment (such as the above ten-minute excerpt of an embarrassingly typical morning for us) is intense, it’s also true that the moment it’s resolved (and the baby is put down for nap and the pantry reassembled), we’re onto the next thing. I don’t (yet) have to grapple with frightening concerns about where my kids are at 11pm (they’re both in cribs for this reason) or if they’re choosing good friends or making wise choices. That time will come.
I also recognize, with no small amount of guilt, that I am parenting under the best of circumstances. I have everything and yet I still struggle to get through the day with two kids intact. I’m fortunate beyond belief that both of my kids are healthy and happy. I’m lucky beyond reason that I have a wonderful partner in parenting and in life. I’m ridiculously blessed that I don’t have to worry about money. I choose this lifestyle, I choose not to send my kids to daycare, and this is a luxury all its own. I find myself awash in an embarrassment of riches, and nevertheless, I’m challenged and exhausted.
I mention this both to acknowledge my immense privilege, but also to discuss the wellspring of empathy I’ve developed since becoming a parent. I was much quicker to judge before having kids. I jumped to conclusions about people’s lives and their circumstances in ways that my lived experiences simply won’t allow me to anymore. Let me tell you, I knew SO MUCH about parenting before I had children. Now? The nuance and brutal slog of each day is humbling (P.S. a MASSIVE reminder to self NOT to dole out advice on things I don’t have firsthand experience of).
I no longer have the capacity to judge someone else’s screaming child in a grocery story (because I’ve been there) and I don’t have the ability to judge someone else’s spending either (because my own spending is higher since having kids) and the list goes on. The growth of empathy is an imperfect, unintentional practice for me, but it’s one of the most pronounced outcroppings of parenthood for my husband and me. My hope is that when I can breathe again, and when I have more than fifteen minutes to myself, and when I can conceive of leaving my house without at least one child in tow, I will find a way to translate this empathy into action. I do it right now with my charitable donations, but I need to do it with my time. I feel guilty that I can’t do it with my time right now, which compounds the spiral of guilt. But I stop myself. I reflect that I feel guilty and that is a fact. Then I vow to turn that guilt–and the resulting empathy–into action. There’s something jagged about parenting, unmatched in other aspects of life, that makes me want to help parents who don’t have the resources that I do. That’s the best I can do right now. Write words about how I will one day be helpful to others.
Mine Are Fleeting Fears
For now, my life is the stuff of minutiae. It is the stuff of changing teeny, tiny diapers and realizing that my children’s needs are fairly straightforward and simply met. They want me and my attention, which feels so hard to give through my fog of physical and mental exhaustion.
But I can give it and I do give it and they reward me with smiles, giggles, snuggles (often accompanied by an unintentional, yet oddly painful, headbutt) and glimpses of the people they’re becoming. Babywoods is developing compassion, as evidenced by the following conversation with a balloon the other day: “I love you, Balloon, and I will take care of you!” It would be nice for her to say that to, for example, one of her parents, but hey, I will take kindness wherever it comes. And I really shouldn’t complain because in a public restroom recently she told me (at full volume) that she was proud of me for going potty. Hey, I was proud of me too. The other day I was in the kitchen struggling to get a loaf of bread started in the bread machine, singing the ABCs with Babywoods (you know you’ve hit rock bottom when you forget some of the ABCs…. ), and consoling the infant by rocking her bouncer with my foot, when Babywoods popped up, ran out to get a toy and sat down next to her sister, softly crooning, “it’s ok, I’m here, let’s look at this toy!” Heart-melting. Also, I DID finally get the bread in (with all of the ingredients, thank you very much).
These ephemeral bursts of anguish are so quickly followed by the triumph of Babywoods remembering to say “please” or “thank you” in public without a reminder. Of Littlewoods learning to roll over (and then getting stuck on her tummy–not her fave position–and squawking until we roll her back over so that she can re-tummy herself… ). Of internalizing the message, delivered to me by a wise friend the other day, that the nature of reality is that everything will change. I am not in a static role of caring for tiny children. I am not defined entirely by these years and, in some ways, I just need to get through them.
Finding Joy Amid Exhaustion
I work to see the beauty in how simple my kids’ needs are right now and in the fact that hugs and kisses usually do make everything better. It’s hard to have this perspective when I look down and realize the baby has spit up her (carefully prepared by me) sweet potato puree onto my pants, which JUST (and I mean they were still warm) came out of the dryer.
It’s hard to have perspective at 3am when I’m awakened, yet again, by an infant needing to nurse. It’s hard to have perspective when I remind our toddler to speak nicely, and not yell, for the actual 700th time in a morning. It’s hard to have perspective when I employ a general’s strategic approach to engineer a scenario whereby both of my precious angels nap at the same time (I mean, is that so hard, kids?!), only to hear dulcet “meeeehhhhhssss” emanating from the baby’s room the exact moment I’ve finally snuggled the toddler in for her nap.
I try to remember that, in some ways, this is an easy phase of life. Both of my kids are under my roof, safe, and within reach. They devour our attention and love us wildly, which hey, is pretty nice. Having once been a teenager, I can assert we’ll go through a phase of them not being so interested in the parental units, so I try to enjoy the moments when they cling to me–actually cling like tiny monkeys–while I also carry a laundry hamper, as though walking across the house without me is tantamount to torture.
So what’s the takeaway here? What’s the thesis of this ramble? Why did you just bother to read it? My hope is that you’ve glimpsed a time in your life–perhaps the time you’re in right now–when you wanted to sink more fully into the present, despite how ragged it felt.
Don’t worry, I have a plan for you and bullet points will get us there (they are my friends during this fractured, ten-minutes-at-a-time, style of writing). I can either write this way or not at all. So here goes:
- Lean into the phase of life you’re in. It’s expensive and difficult (if not impossible) to militate against it. Embrace the frustrations and elations specific to where you are on life’s journey. Doing so will allow you to live without regrets. If you’re always pressed into the wind, you’ll miss the point of where you are right now. After all, soon enough it’ll be over because…
- Life is a series of changes and amendments. Recognize that it’s all fleeting. This makes the bad times move on more swiftly and lets you savor the good times like a raspberry that’s ripe for only a day or two (what a stupid analogy, but you get the idea).
- Recognize and acknowledge privilege and abundance in a way that encourages the growth of empathy and in turn, translates that empathy into action to help people who need your help.
- Transform guilt into gratitude and gratitude into action (that’s similar to the previous bullet, but I really like that phrase as a meditation, so there ya go).
- Pray–in a serious way–that potty training will not last until your child turns five. Amen.