Hard habits to make

The last time I looked at my resolutions was on October 15th. That is seriously unimpressive. Haven't done my Effective Habits since the 16th. The reason? I've had an out-of-town guest, a birthday, and a party - all of which contributed to a sense that I had Better Things To Do than what was on my recurring list.

The lesson I've learned is that even with a month and a half of trying to create these new habits, it took very little time to undo them. I know they are undone instead of just on hold because as soon as my son went to sleep this afternoon, I thought first of going to sleep myself, then to just replying to emails, then to reading blogs, and finally to writing my own post. Which I also haven't done since the 15th, but is much lower down on the task list. I feel a little guilty about it, but only just a little, which is the other reason I know my habits are undone.

One of my Guiding Principles is borrowed from The Happiness Project: Do what ought to be done. So what ought to be done right now? And why am I not doing it?

The answer to the second question is quite simple, really: a good book. A good book is the complete undoing of every resolution I have of accomplishing anything.

Today's was The Tipping Point, and I cannot stop thinking about how I wish that I had access to testing like they do for the show "Blue's Clues" before I taught my lessons to my students! If I just had several hundred sample students, I'd know how best to deliver every nugget of crucial information to those ten-year-olds. It would be a wonderful sight to behold. Alas, I don't, but I surely wish that the extensive educational research that has been done weren't so difficult to easily find and apply. It also usually boils down to the notion that it all depends on the individual teacher. Great. More pressure on me to be fabulous. Anyway, I have lots of thoughts about this excellent book (thanks for the birthday present, Renee!), but they are too numerous to list here.

The next book on my list is another break from my Newbery Project because I simply couldn't put it down at the bookstore. It spoke to me, just like The Penderwicks did a while back, and many, many other books. You can see why when I show you the cover:

It has 500 pages and a sequel.

I may not be getting anything done all week.

Different like everyone else

I've been thinking a lot about what makes me stand out in a crowd, thanks for the All About Meme post from MommyBrain last week (sorry I'm a week late, D!). The challenge was to think of five things about me that make me different. When I read hers, I found that we were the same on 3.5/5 (I won't say which one and a half were different), and that many of those were things that wouldn't make me stand out in my crowd at all.

So what does? And do I like to stand out? I confessed in another post to being a bit of a drama queen, so the answer is probably yes. I'm reading The Tipping Point now and was trying to figure out if I was a Connector, Maven, or Salesman because I was so drawn to the idea of being special and important, but as I read on, I decided that I was none of the above. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I'm drawn to characters in books who discover that they are different in some way, but even in that I'm like a lot of other people. I read once that one reason Harry Potter books are so popular is that most kids wish they could wake up and find that they were special and were getting out of their ordinary, unpleasant lives.

Now my life is far from unpleasant, but it's clearly and disturbingly ordinary, so I kept thinking about this idea of what makes me stand out. Confession: It's supposed to be an "I never..." post, so I'm supposed to think of things I've never done. But that would be all too easy, because there are a zillion things I've never done. So here's what I came up with instead:

1. I know sign language and can still be found carrying on silent conversations with my mom when someone is sleeping or across the room at a family gathering. We learned when I was young, spent a few summers at a deaf camp, and became involved with a deaf church when I was in middle and high school. When my son was born it was wonderful to be able to be able to communicate with him in both sign and English. I just wish I remembered more of the actual ASL!

2. I was (am?) a ballroom dancer. I learned a bit through doing a production of "Guys and Dolls" in high school and joined the dance team at Yale. That's right, I can not only do the rumba, I have a blue ribbon for it! But once I graduated, I stopped dancing for the most part, because it's an expensive hobby for a teacher who also has student loans. I love it, though, and am hoping I can get back into it at some point.

3. I am a grammar geek. My relatives are kinder and say that I'm a grammar cop, but this is only so they can tease me about blowing my grammar whistle when I hear something like, "I did good on my English test." Tweeeeet!! I love revising and editing and harbor the fantasy that I'll get to be a children's book editor for a living and work from home as much as I want.

4. I didn't think that I was outside of the mainstream parenting group, but I've found that within my circle of friends, I stand out for being one of the only ones who uses cloth diapers. I think this is because people think they are much more difficult and disgusting than they really are. We use Mother-Ease diapers and they rock. I'm saving the cost of diapers (an extra load of laundry really doesn't come close to being as expensive, people) as well as doing my bit to reduce landfills. They help keep my son from having a miserable diaper rash, too, so it's a win-win. Turns out I'm also an unusual parent for not letting my guy cry it out in order to sleep train him, but that's a subject for another post. Hey, that fits with the I never prompt! Whew, I can follow rules a little, I guess.

5. I have Sebastian. This is what makes me different, just like every other parent out there. And every other parent out there knows exactly what I mean.

Still thinking about who I am. I try not to think too much about who I never was, unless there's still a chance to become her.

The Sink Trap

A few years ago I read an article about how to have a successful marriage. I'm a sucker for such articles, even though they often are obvious or so patently wrong they make me angry. I'm too lazy to look up this particular one again, so you'll have to accept my paraphrasing of it. The way to a happy marriage in the view of this author was acceptance. Now if you've seen my inspiration at the top of this site, you know I believe in acceptance. Limited acceptance. Only of things we cannot change. Remember that, for it will become important later in the story.

Ok, so one woman is quoted as being constantly irritated with her husband because whenever it is his turn to clean the kitchen at the end of the day, he forgets to empty the sink trap. This is disgusting, frankly, and she doesn't see why she should have to do it for him. Clearly. How she solves this problem? She reframes it. Instead of being annoyed that he hasn't cleaned the sink trap, she tells herself, "This is great. Now all I have to do is clean the sink trap." In other words, she thinks about how helpful her husband is so she only has one part of the clean up to do instead of all of it. How wonderful, right? Acceptance and a happy marriage!

NO FREAKING WAY. I read this and became instantly furious. Why should that stupid husband get to do a sub-par job on his day to clean the kitchen? Why should she have to accept that in order to be satisfied with his less-than-sparkling performance? Does HE have to "just clean the sink trap" when it's her turn? Of course not!!

And I referred to this marital problem as The Sink Trap henceforth.

What exactly is The Sink Trap? It's the idea that in order to have happy relationships, women end up just accepting whatever men contribute in order to have peace and harmony. But it's a trap because it's incredibly hard to get out of once you have fallen in. Once you have accepted that he will never clean the sink trap, and he knows you have accepted it, then guess what? He will never clean the freaking sink trap. Ever. This is one reason why women still do far more than their fair share of the raising of children and the household chores, even when they work as many or more hours outside the home as he does.

What am I doing here?

Sick Day number 7. This is getting completely ridiculous. It is only thanks to my helpful husband that I have not been long since buried in dishes and laundry since I take every toddler nap time to lie on the couch. It's not to sleep, though that would be lovely. No, sleep is impossible when one has Watermelon Head. It's just to escape the dizzy feeling I get when vertical. So I find that the one task I can cross off my list every day is to write in this journal {Side note: I hate the word blog. It sounds ugly and heavy like slog and bog and blah. It is a horrible word, and I despise the person who came up with it. Weblog is better. A log is a great word for a journal. Why shorten it to blog? No, thank you.}.

But then I started to think about this journal, this public-yet-not-quite log (since I haven't yet shared it with most people I know), and wondered how I got here and what I'm doing exactly. Last year I took a look around at the stay-at-home options. Mommy and Me classes, playdates (another word I detest), blogs, and mommy groups, and I felt... what's the right word?... confusion? disdain? Many mixed feelings to be sure. I didn't want to have a life in which I became only The Mom who used any free time I had trying to figure out what to do with myself and chose to do mostly things related to being The Mom. I didn't want to be the person who only had friends who were other moms and couldn't talk about anything but our children. I did NOT want to be the person who used my intellect to write about my child day in and day out when I wasn't actively caring for him.

Then, through a convoluted series of unfortunate events and difficult decisions, I became a stay-at-home mom. I still told myself I would do it my way, a different way. Yet a few months into my stint, I have become the mom who does playdates, goes to classes, and lo and behold, begins writing a blog journal. Sigh. How did I get here? And what is the goal?

Well, it started with insomnia, as you may have read in this post. Before that it started with trying to figure out what sort of life I'm trying to have, and what sort of blend of identities I can create for myself (not just mom, but woman, wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, neighbor). It then became a task to find other, non-mom-related activities to do. This was immensely difficult since I can only do things in the early morning or evening because this is when my husband can care for our son. So I put my organizational brain to work and signed up for some teaching gigs - some paying, some volunteer - and thought that would help make me feel like an adult, not just a mom.

Though my task list is endless and now I have great teaching opportunities that can fill up my free hours and give me a creative outlet, I still have so much on my mind as I work through my Happiness Project (that may need a name), the Toddler project (he has a name), and the overall Jessica's Life project (which definitely needs a new name).

So here is the question: am I writing this journal because I have nothing more pressing to do with my time? Or am I writing it because it's what I wished I could do but was too busy before? Or some acceptable combination? If it's just the former, I need to get offline and get back to figuring out and achieving some goals. If this is just part of the life balance I wished I had last year and was desperate for when I signed the paperwork to take the year off, then I can move forward.

I'll be back once I've figured it out.

You always have time...

...for what you do first.

I don't remember where I read that quote, but I've been trying to live by it for about a year now.  I even tried to teach it to my fourth graders as a lesson in time management.  I think probably two of them got it and the rest just nodded along and then did whatever activity was the one that seemed easiest or most fun, but life lessons from ten-year-olds (and there are many!) will have to live in another post.  

Time management is apparently this crazy western notion we have because we are overscheduled, underrested, and generally pushing ourselves to the limit.  Many others advise scaling back our lives in order to have enough time to really enjoy them.  This is good advice, but as my sister and I ask ourselves often, just what exactly can we scale back on these days as mothers of toddlers?  I don't think they'd appreciate not being fed, so going to the grocery store has to happen as well as making some meals (and I already cut corners on that aplenty thanks to my trusty microwave).

Anyway, whether you think you can simplify your life or not, it remains true that you always have time for what you do first.  Clearly, it's all about priorities.  I find that if I'm mindful about what I do first, I tend to be satisfied with however the rest of my day plays out.  And if I'm unsatisfied, I can do something else first tomorrow.

So what do I usually do first?  I put away the clean dishes.  This starts me off putting things where they belong and paves the way for doing so the whole rest of the day by having the dishwasher empty and waiting to be refilled.  As I've been sick and not doing this task this week, it's become very apparent to us just how helpful this was for the state of our kitchen and my state of mind.

After that I have breakfast and read emails, blogs, the news, or just whatever strikes my fancy until my son wakes up.  On days when I don't get up before he does and don't have a chance to start my day this way, I feel slightly harried.  But if hugging my son and reading him a story over his morning milk is what I do first, no one could say that wasn't a pretty good priority either.

How about you - what do you do first?

Image from here

When you can't do it alone

I don't know what it is about asking for help, but I am terrible at it.  There are probably a lot of reasons for this, which include the following facts:

a) I like things to be done my way and therefore would often rather just do them myself
b) I see asking for help as a sign that I can't do it, and deep down I am still trying to be Superwoman.
c) I want others to offer so I don't have to ask.

It is c) that is especially on my mind today, as I finally after four days broke down and asked my husband to take a sick day from work so he could care for SP - who is also sick - and I could take care of only myself.  He did half days on Tuesday and Wednesday, but even when he was home I was doing chores or I was still helping with dinner, bathtime, etc.  I found myself growing increasingly resentful that I was still trying to take care of everyone when I decided to take a deep breath (through my mouth; my nose is still impossibly stuffed), and recognize that the only person I can really change is myself.

The fifteen-minute guide to greatness

No, this post won't take you fifteen minutes to read (I don't think), nor is it some guideline to whatever is your particular kind of greatness.  Rather, it was my shining moment of introspection that is helping me along in my goal to be happier.

Last weekend I set myself an ambitious task to collect and print out new pictures of pretty much everyone we love to put them on the fridge for my son to enjoy since we live too far away from most of them to see regularly.  {He is learning tons of names and his face lights up when he recognizes someone up there!  Just wait until Thanksgiving!}  Anyway, I spent pretty much every nonparenting, nonsleeping minute working on these pictures, and by Sunday evening they were up and they were lovely.  I was proud as I checked it off my (neverending) Task list...

...until I looked around at the rest of the house.  I saw dishes in the sink, a full laundry hamper, files still out from my Great Refiling Project, a pile of emails in my inbox.  ARGH.  Nothing else had been accomplished.

Monday morning rolled around, and I got going with my new Effective Habits list.  It is a list of things that I typically forget to do or put off doing.  I have it set up so that I don't spend more than fifteen minutes doing any one thing on it.  It includes items like "sort and reply to emails" or "put things where they belong."  I set a timer on my computer and do as much of those things as I can until the fifteen minutes are up.  I give myself a little smiley on the box in my Word table just for finishing fifteen minutes even if the task needs to be continued the next day.  I crave metaphorical (or actual) gold stars, so I think the smiley faces are the key to my Effective Habits success.  Then I move on to the next thing on the daily list (I have monthly and yearly versions built into the system now, too - another thing I was mocked for by aforementioned teacher friend, but I think it's great!). 

And it turns out that I was much happier on Monday evening.  I hadn't finished any one task in its entirety like I had the photos, but overall I felt a greater sense of accomplishment.  This was a huge Aha! moment for me, as I have always been the sort of person who doesn't like to start a task I can't finish right then.  This sort of behavior is what leads to the Disaster Zone my garage has become.  But now that I have my fifteen-minute guide to greatness, I think I can tackle pretty much anything.  It just might take me a while to finish, but that's true of any parent of a toddler, isn't it? 

And now my fifteen minutes of blogging are officially up.

My Happiness Project, part one

Since this is a project, this will probably be part one of many posts about it.  I started it after spending a considerable amount of time reading The Happiness Project blog, so if you're interested in doing one of your own, you may want to start there rather than here.  I'm just derivative.

Nevertheless, my project is underway.  I started by trying to think about how to be happier, which meant that I had to try to determine whether I was happy overall, if I felt I should be happier, what things were making me unhappy and many other such circular thoughts.  Since I LOVE lists (I sometimes make them just for the joy of organizing my thoughts and then never look at them again), I began making lists of my goals, divided into subcategories like Marital goals, Parental goals, Career goals, etc.

At this point you are probably thinking about how freakish I am and how it's no wonder I needed a project in order to be happier.  Or as a teacher friend of mine put it:  "Wow, you are SO a teacher on leave right now."  This is very true, but it is also true that doing this project made me do a lot of hard work at analyzing my life and what I wanted from it. 

Before I get to the goals or resolutions, I wanted to write about my Guiding Principles (or "commandments" as Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project calls them).  These are statements that I'm using to guide my thoughts, behaviors, and creation of resolutions.  They are a work in progress, so I welcome feedback.

Guiding Principles (so far):

Friends and Family

To move or not to move, that was the question my husband and I were mulling over one night not long ago.  We live far, far away from where I grew up and where the majority of my family still resides.  Home, sweet Michigan.  When we moved to Washington (thank you, Microsoft), we had a roughly 5-year plan to stay before moving home to start a family.

I remember sitting on the plane as I flew out here to find us a place to live and mulling over the future as I passed fields and then mountains.  It dawned on me, quite suddenly, right about when we were flying over the Cascades, that I would be having my first child out here.  The idea that we would both quit our jobs, find new ones, and move home all right before becoming parents was suddenly absurd.  I started to cry, thinking of having a baby so far from all of the relatives who had helped raise me: my parents, grandparents, the Aunt Hill.  But there was nothing for it.

Fifteen months ago, our son joined the family and we set up a website to share his pictures and progress with our relatives.  Many of my generation had also moved away from home and this seemed a bit more normal.  A very tiny little bit.  But every so often it comes back to me how much my baby grows up in between visits home, and how much he -and I- am missing out on by being a long plane ride away.

Last year while I did a weird amalgam of teaching part-time and caring for two boys the other part (my guy and the son of my teaching partner), I didn't have as much time to yearn for home.  Now, with him full time, it feels completely pointless to me to be out here.  If I'm going to be focusing on raising my toddler to be a happy, healthy human being, why on earth would I not tap many of the very people I credit for whatever mental health and happiness I currently have?

So I said as much to my husband that night.  At 11:00.  He was unimpressed with my timing.


I've been trying to declutter my life, and realized after several consecutive nights of insomnia that it might be wise to begin with my brain. How does one declutter a brain? Meditation? Perhaps. I've never been very good at meditating, which is obvious because one needs a decluttered mind in order to be good at it, to learn meditation in order to declutter. A circle I have yet to penetrate. So how else to clear out all of these thoughts? {Interesting side note: I accidentally typed medication the first time. Freudian slip?}

Well, I've been reading a lot of blogs lately. I blame...ahem, credit... two people for this: my neighbor for writing funny, sweet stories about her daughter on her MommyBrain blog, and Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project who has been instrumental in helping me on my quest for serenity. In any case, they've linked me to lots of other great blogs which probably contributed a bit to my mental clutter, but also gave me the idea that it's helpful to just put a lot of these thoughts out there.

I've resisted this for many reasons that have to do with my battle to determine my sense of self as I redefine it in the wake of recent motherhood. Even after sleepless nights, I figured there was little point in writing a blog; why not just write a journal? Why post things for the world to see? I am already slightly obsessed with feedback and getting gold stars and being in the spotlight. Won't a blog just exacerbate those drama queen tendencies? Perhaps, and yet I find the sharing of stories and ideas invaluable. I've learned a lot already and been given all kinds of food for thought by the aforementioned blogs and their blogging counterparts, so... maybe the teacher in me thinks others could learn from my thoughts and experiences.

Or else I'm just trying to make my mental clutter your mental clutter. Hard to say.