Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Best Two Years

It’s a term that’s familiar to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), because every young adult has the opportunity to serve as a full-time missionary for 18 to 24 months, and it’s a life-changing experience for most. That’s why they call it “the best two years.”

I’ve always felt like I missed out by not serving a mission. At the time, women had be 21 to apply (now it’s 19), and by age 20, I had graduated from college and was engaged to Ben. So although I’d wanted to serve, God had a different plan for my life, and I knew His path for me would lead to happiness, as it always does.

I’ve been happier than I could’ve imagined in the 7+ years I’ve been married to Ben. But it’s been the last two years that have been the very best, and this amazing little boy is the reason why.

Caleb was born two years ago today, and A LOT has happened since then. In November 2013, we became parents for the first time--talk about a life changer! Then in May, Ben switched jobs after a 6-month, nation-wide job search. We bought a house in August and became homeowners for the first time, and we’d barely settled in when we were shocked to find out that we were expecting again!

Less than a week later, Ben lost his job when his company downsized. He worked a couple of temporary part-time jobs--meanwhile turning down a management position in Sun Valley filling prescriptions for the likes of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger--and finally found a promising position with a specialized home care pharmacy. This summer, he became the manager there, and he’s been doing great things for the business.

So as you can imagine, these two years have been quite a roller coaster--3 job changes, 2 new babies, 1 big move (which came with a big investment too), plus the stress of new parenthood, unemployment, a tough pregnancy (high risk with two hospitalizations, plus the usual sickness, exhaustion, and raging hormones), then adjusting to life with two little ones--it’s no wonder we’ve aged more in the last two years than in the five years before that. Wrinkle cream recommendations, anyone?

How, with all that stress and change, could they have been the very best years of our lives so far? Why have I felt more peace during this time than in the years before?

I believe I’ve experienced what so many missionaries do, that even when serving a mission is the most stressful and trying time of their lives, it’s also the most rewarding. They have a sense of purpose, and they see the Hand of the Lord in their lives every day. They see Him working miracles.

That’s what motherhood has done for me. It has become my mission, my calling in life. When Caleb was born two years ago, I stopped questioning what the future held, because I held it in my arms. Whatever happens--whatever worries I have--nothing can erase what I’ve experienced and how I’ve grown as a mother.

So this isn't just any birthday--it’s a celebration of the best two years of my life! And I hope there will be many, many more to come. Happy Birthday, Caleb!

Caleb Turns Two:

Caleb loves all things motorized--trucks, tractors, construction vehicles, cars, trains, fire engines--you name it. He's starting to speak more in sentences, and I’ve lost track of how many words are in his vocabulary, but it has to be upwards of 500. He loves to learn and recognizes about half of the letters of the alphabet and numbers 1-10. Caleb also loves to play with friends at church and in our preschool group, and he asks to go to one or both almost every day. He’s a great helper around the house and loves to make his little sister Lydia smile and laugh. His sense of adventure and curiosity grow every day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Happy Fall Ya'll: DIY Faux Red Maple Branches

Ever since the leaves started turning a few weeks ago, I’ve been dreaming of red maple branches on my table. My neighbors across the street have the most gorgeous maple, and every time I saw those brilliant red leaves, oh, how I wanted that tree to be mine.

After considering the possible consequences of sneaking onto their property in the middle of the night to snip a few branches for myself, I decided not to risk incarceration. So I came up with the idea of making my own.

I don’t often craft (and I’ve never blogged about it), but there’s something about this cooler weather that makes me want to fire up my hot glue gun. And if you’re like me, you’re hanging on to every last autumn leaf and golden sunset. This simple fall craft will let you hang on to fall a little longer, because it won’t ever dry up or crumble like real leaves. (I think it goes without saying, however, that if you have access to REAL red maple branches, USE them!)

You can make your own “faux” red maple branches for your fall centerpiece or mantle in about 20 minutes for less than a dollar! All you need is:

  • Bare branches of any type, roughly 2 feet long
  • 2 sheets of red tissue paper
  • hot glue gun
  • scissors
  • pen or pencil
  • a maple leaf shape to trace

I cut the branches from my cherry tree, but if you don’t have a tree, you could gather sticks off the ground at the park, or sometimes you can find decorative willow branches at the dollar store. If you don’t know where to find sticks, I feel a little sad for you, wherever it is you live.

Caleb stayed busy by helping me take the leaves off the branches.
After you’ve gathered your branches, you’ll need the maple leaf shape to trace onto your red tissue paper. The easiest way is to Google “maple leaf” and print out whichever shape takes your fancy. You could also use a REAL maple leaf if you can find one, or preferably two or three of different sizes.

Fold your tissue paper in half about 4 or 5 times, then trace your leaf shape, so that for each tracing you cut, you’ll make several leaves.

TIP: Try to modify each tracing so that some of your leaves will be larger and some will be smaller. Also, the more angles and points you can make, the more realistic your leaves will look. You can make as many pen marks as you need, since you can just throw that top leaf away after cutting.

Once you’ve cut all of your leaves out, plug in your hot glue gun and start gluing! There’s no rhyme or reason--you may want to cluster a couple leaves here and there.

TIP: You need only a tiny dot of hot glue. Larger globs of hot glue will show through your leaves and produce thousands of annoying stringy things.

Meanwhile, I gave Caleb a few of the leaves so that he could work on his own fall wreath craft while I worked on the branches, but he was totally over it after about 7 leaves.

So here are a few finished branches.

And here they all are together, in a blue and white pitcher I fell in love with at a thrift store a few years ago.

So there you go--a beautiful and easy craft to bring fall foliage into your home, and it only takes about 20 minutes! ...Unless you have a toddler and a baby, and then you should plan on this stuff sitting on your kitchen counter for a few days before you actually finish it.

Speaking of...eek! Oh, and I can't wait to refinish our cabinets soon...or rather to be done refinishing them.

I think I’ll just keep looking at this spot.

What are your favorite fall crafts?

Monday, November 9, 2015

What We've Been Up To (i.e. How to Keep a Toddler Busy)

If you’ve been following us on Instagram (@jennyfromgeorgia), you know we’ve been up to some fun. This blog post could be titled, “How to Keep a Toddler Busy While Caring for a Newborn.” You might be wondering after I mentioned my post-partum euphoria in August if it finally all caught up to me. The short answer: No. The long answer: Yes. And if you happened to get the joke there, I can only say I’m sorry--I’ve never been that funny.

We have a lot of fun, especially in those brief moments when no one is crying.

No, because I’m just thrilled to be a mom again, and because Lydia’s been the best baby I could ever dream of, and because--oddly enough--I’m still on a cleaning kick, so that can only mean my brain is pumping out some sort of magical mixture of oxytocin and adrenaline. Hormones have never been so kind to me.

BUT, I must clarify: just because I’m finally feeling motivated to clean, doesn’t mean my house is actually clean, so don’t be disappointed if you drop by unexpectedly. I do have two kids under two, people.

Sidebar: Talk about unexpected, I actually fell in LOVE with a cleaner. Goodbye, Lysol wipes! This stuff smells like heaven and makes my house smell so clean and fresh--no small feat with the constant barrage of dirty diapers and baby barf. It can be diluted, so a little goes a long way, and it's non-toxic, so I can use it on any surface without worrying if my little ones are going to be touching or putting their mouths on it (like, for example, the toilet...because yes, my child has put his mouth on the toilet before).

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Multi-Surface Concentrate in Basil Scent

So yes, it has caught up to me, or at least, it’s getting harder to keep up--especially with Caleb, who’s almost two. He’s spent his whole life chasing every milestone: rolling, sitting, crawling, walking, climbing, talking. “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” But now that he’s conquered all, he’s bored. He needs a new horizon--a new frontier to explore. Preschool would be the perfect adventure for him, but that’s still a couple years away.

So what do you do with a toddler who will soon begin to wreak havoc in his quest for adventure? First, you panic, because you just had a baby three weeks ago, and your mom is leaving tomorrow and you realize, there will only be ONE of you and TWO of them. Outnumbered. How will you take care of both of them at the SAME time? How will you eat? How will you sleep? How will you shower, or go to the bathroom for that matter?

Look at those faces. Don't they just strike fear into your heart?

THEN, you start trying to figure out how to keep him busy all day--or for at least three minutes, just long enough to go to the bathroom. Okay, so we’re actually talking about me, not you. What would you do? I’d love to hear your ideas! Here are 5 things I’ve learned so far about keeping a toddler busy:

1. It's All in the Routine

The night before my mom left, when I was starting to panic, I went into the bathroom by myself and shut the door for what would be the very last time. I opened up a new note in my Evernote app and punched in a rough hour-by-hour plan for the day. It’s evolved since then, but having a routine has been THE best way to keep Caleb busy. There's always something for him to be doing or helping me with. It helps keep me on track too, because I've already decided how to spend my time.

Caleb helps clean up after eating.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you more seasoned moms out there are like, “duh!” And those moms who are working or have older kids in school are probably just used to having a routine, so they might not even think about it. I remember well the daily grind of working full-time (/overtime). But as a stay-at-home mom with two under two, these babies can easily rule every waking (and not-so-waking) moment, so it's a challenge to be proactive and intentional about structuring my day. This is roughly how our routine goes:

7:00 - Wake up, get dressed, make beds, say prayers, "Letter of the Day"
7:30 - Eat breakfast and clean up, family prayer, Daddy leaves at 7:45
8:00 - Start the day, dinner prep, to-do list/chores (Caleb helps or plays)
9:00 - Feed and change Lydia
10:00 - Have fun! (e.g. play together, run errands, library, play date)
11:00 - Nap time for Lydia, learning activity for Caleb
12:00 - Back home, lunch, wind-down
2:00 - Read the Friend, nap time, Mommy Time (if Lydia actually sleeps)
4:00 - Chocolate milk after naps, learning activity for Caleb
5:30 - Daddy’s home! Caleb’s Daddy Time, get dinner ready
6:30 - Dinner, clean-up, family time
7:30 - Get ready for bed, baths, family scripture study and prayer
8:30 - Bedtime, Mommy and Daddy Time
10:30 - Sleep(?!)

Keep in mind: this is the goal, not necessarily reality. There are days when it’s 10AM and I’ve just reheated my breakfast for the fifth time, and it seems like all I’ve done for the last 3 hours is clean up spills and baby barf and change diapers. Once we’ve gotten into a groove, I’d like to add time for exercise and/or a morning walk.

2. We're Always Learning New Things

Every week I pick a topic to explore with Caleb (usually the same as our preschool group), and I try to do one or two learning activities with him every day centered on that topic--one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s “scheduled” as part of our routine, but it’s flexible depending on what else we have going on. The goal is not to add more to my plate, but to keep him busy and learning--one way or another--so if we’re already out for a play date or story time at the library, we usually skip the activity that morning.

Overall, this has been working pretty well, because picking a topic for the week is the perfect springboard for planning plenty of activities to keep Caleb busy. Pinterest is a frequent source of inspiration, of course, along with a few friends and blogs I follow. Here are just a few of our adventures:

Let's go fly a kite!
WARNING: Gluing cotton balls can be addicting to toddlers.
Sidewalk chalk makes learning bigger and better.
Duct Tape + Backyard Exploring = Nature Bracelets
Toothpicks and marshmallows, 'nough said.
Digging for dinosaur fossils
More gluing
YouTube has tons of educational videos for kids on anything and everything.

Most of our activities are 100% improv, using whatever we have on hand, so there's no prep in advance. Except, the terms "weekly topic" and “learning activity” sound so boring...I need to think of something else to call them. My marketing brain has failed me so far. Any ideas?

3. It's Letter of the Day! (Clap! Clap!)

If you know the song, you're already singing along in your head, right? This is pretty self-explanatory: we “study” a new letter of the alphabet each day. So every morning in Caleb’s room after he gets dressed, makes his bed, and says his prayers, we draw our "Letter of the Day" on his chalkboard, along with pictures and words that start with that letter.

Later, we watch the Sesame Street podcast and "Letter of the Day" song on YouTube, and sometimes we do learning activities for that letter. It depends on the day. Again, I see it as a tool to keep Caleb busy and learning all day, not so much an item on my to-do list. We started with “A,” and after stopping for a while then starting back up, we’re now on “U.” I think once we finish the alphabet, we'll start on numbers.

Here's a sample of Sesame Street's "Letter of the Day" song, so come dance with Elmo, we're moving your body to the ABC's!

4. We DIY Preschool

Once a week, we meet with a few other moms and toddlers in our neighborhood for our own preschool/playgroup. We start with a song, then we have a short lesson on our topic using pictures or books, and we finish with a simple hands-on activity or craft. Of course, there’s also plenty of playtime for the kids and girl talk for the moms. It’s a fun way to get together with friends, and we take turns hosting and planning it.

A super-cute, super-fun activity for learning about shapes by one of the other moms

5. Nap Time is Sacred

A HUGE motivation to stay busy all day is to tire both kids out so they’ll nap at the same time in the afternoon. Sometimes it’s less than 20 minutes, sometimes it’s over two hours, but it’s time I can use to “sharpen my saw.” I don’t do any housekeeping usually; I study the scriptures, write, work on my own projects, chat with a friend, or sometimes just relax with a good book or period drama on Netflix.

The point is: I find that when I spend a little time every afternoon on my own goals and interests, I have more energy to spend on my kids when they wake up from their naps. It helps me keep Caleb busy for the rest of the afternoon and keeps me going until bedtime and beyond. It’s often the only time I have to myself, so it really is sacred, and the result is that I can be at my best (and getting better) every day.

Is it nap time yet?

So that’s what we’ve been up to. What about you? What do you do to keep your kids busy and be at your best all day long?

(Psst! Don't forget to follow us on Instagram @jennyfromgeorgia to see what else we're up to and share your own ideas!)