Thursday, February 5, 2015

When God isn't there

I was 13 years old when I had my first major depressive episode. I was younger than my age implies; I was naive. I was innocent. The "worst" thing I had ever done at that point was probably, I don't know, watch MTV even though my parents thought they had blocked the channel. I was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my entire life and taught Christian values since infancy — values I strove to put into practice even in my young life. I did what Mormons do: I went to church. I said my prayers. I helped my family and tried to love everyone I came in contact with, or at least not hold grudges or get involved in petty disputes. I did my best to follow God's laws and understand what He wanted from me, and I thought was on the right track. In essence, I was "doing everything right." But yet I suffered — oh, how I suffered.

I remember lying awake for hours at night, praying for my pain to be lifted. It was an anguish so deep that metaphor completely escapes me. It was paralyzing. It was black. It was consuming. I thought, "If God listens, if He really knows and loves all of His children, then He will hear my prayers. He will know that I don't deserve this, that I've done nothing wrong. If I have enough faith He will take this away from me."

But He didn't.

Time went on, and sometimes things were better. Sometimes they were worse. As the weeks and months and years went by, somewhere along the line, I decided I'd had enough. But I didn't turn my anger at the depression, at myself, or even the people in my life who couldn't see what I needed them to see, even though I did my best to hide it from the world. No, instead, I got angry at God.

I often thought of the poem "Footprints," which tells the story of a man walking along the beach with God. He sees footprints marking the path of his life and notices that in his darkest hours, there was just one set of prints, not two. When he asks God why he was abandoned in his time of need, God answers, "It was then I carried you."

I'd think about this poem and then I'd say to myself, "What a load of crap." Because God wasn't carrying me — He wasn't there, wasn't even with me at all.

It's been nearly 20 years since that first bleak episode with depression, though I've had many others that have been far worse. Through the decades I have learned so much about life and about God, but the fact still remains: I don't fully understand Him. I don't know what He wants me to do, though I struggle to understand it each and every day. I don't know why He lets bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. I don't know if He curses us or blesses us through trials. I don't know why some people seem to face every obstacle known to man while others seem to sail through life. And I just don't know where He is when it all goes down.

But of the many, many things that have changed since then, one thing remains the same: No matter how abandoned I have felt, I have never doubted that He is there. Whether He was indifferent or suffering along with me or simply absent I'll never know for sure, but since choosing to believe that God does exist, I have seen evidence of Him even in the worst of times. And now that I'm a parent, I'm starting to understand Him better and better every day.

Because sometimes, I am not there when my children get hurt. Sometimes I'm not even there when they recover and move on from the fall. I cannot hold their hands and wipe their tears and guide them through every storm, or even rejoice with them through every triumph. It doesn't mean I don't love my children or that I'm not heartbroken when they are; it means I love them fiercely and want them to become more, because it is in those absences that my children find their own strength. They learn what they're made of and what they can do — and what they can't or shouldn't do. They learn resilience, that they can be happy again even after they are consumed with sorrow. They learn that there's always another chance to try again. They learn to trust their inner voice, not just the ones whispering softly or screaming loudly all around them. They are discovering who they are and what they can do, how they fit into the world around them and how to change their world. They are deciding each day who they can and want to be. In the end, these discoveries will give them the ability to trust their own instincts and rely upon their own strength. And I pray that they will be strong, that they will find stability and inner peace. That they will grow.

Now, I'm starting to think that 13-year-old girl was right all along. God wasn't there. But now I'm starting to think that maybe He chose not to be there. He had to step away and let me fall, again and again and again and again. He had to let me grow strong and find my inner peace. It doesn't mean He doesn't love me; it means He wants me to know who I am, as He does, and what I'm capable of. Then, God lets me decide who I am, and He lets me change when I want to be someone better. I know He has given  me the ability to write and the desire to help others. And now, He is letting me change the world in the way that only I can, with all the wisdom I have gained because He wasn't there.

What's more, I have learned that God's laws and requests don't always protect me from heartache and frustration. I don't believe they were ever fully meant to. But I do know that they provide me with sure footing when I am ready to stand again. They bring the joy more quickly into my life when the world has extinguished it. And they give my children security and my family the peace and stability we need in our home. And for those times when I'm not quite ready to stand, choosing to be a member of my church provides me a community to lean on — a community of imperfect people like me who are struggling to understand God's place in their lives and their place in His. And if we choose to reach out to each other in times of anger and sorrow and frustration and pain, and to be there for others in those same lonely places, we are doing what God needs us to do: be there when He can't.

Friday, September 26, 2014

How to stencil a star-spangled wall

I'm back with another finished DIY project, one of my favorites thus far: a black-and-gold, star-spangled feature wall.

I've had some requests for a little tutorial, so here you go, complete with before and after.

The before was a boring, blank, "half-wall" that you see right when you walk in the front door.

It's a total snooze-fest, especially in contrast to the funky decor on the other side of the room:

And come on, with this dapper dude selling the decor? Perfection.

I've had my eye on some bold graphic wall treatments for a while, toying with a stark black-and-white geometric pattern. I played around with some ideas using Photoshop, but my kind and tactful Facebook friends unanimously voted them down, saying (more or less) that it was an assault on the eyeballs.

I still love them, but ... point taken. Then I started seeing a lot of eight-point metallic stars in home decor, and my wheels started turning. I set out to stencil them on my very own living room wall.

It was quite the project, seeing as how I had to work everything in between my kids' naps, but it was a project so worth doing. Here's how to get the job done, step by step.

1. Prime. Since I wanted a black wall, I knew the surface beneath had to be completely smooth without any color variations. I used a tinted primer in a deep shade of plum so nothing would show.

2. Paint. To make the metallic stars pop, I wanted a matte black paint. I used chalkboard paint for that effect, and it worked beautifully. Since I already had a pint of black semi-gloss, I painted it over the primer and under the chalkboard to be sure everything would turn out super dark and smooth. This step was probably unnecessary, since the chalkboard paint covered everything so nicely.

3. Measure. With a repeating pattern, there is no room for error. Much to my chagrin, I had to face my old nemesis: math. I measured the wall, horizontally and vertically, then figured out how to evenly divide the wall. In this case, it turned out to be every 9 inches, again both horizontally and vertically. Next I got out a long ruler with a level and marked everything out with chalk — convenient, seeing as how I used chalkboard paint. I first drew vertical lines, then made little marks every 9 inches where the stars would go.

4. Test. I needed a visual cue to let me know that I was on the right track, since I couldn't judge the final product by tic marks alone. I found a graphic of an 8-point star online, printed several and cut them out, then taped them to the wall. It worked beautifully, so I set to work.

5. Stencil. I bought thick sheets of vellum at the craft store, conveniently located with all the other stenciling materials. I took one of my star cutouts and traced the design on a sheet, then cut it out using an X-acto knife. Using painter's tape, I taped it to the wall at my markings.

Now here's the tricky part: I had intended to use metallic craft paint because it's cheaper and has a beautiful shiny finish. Sadly, it wouldn't stick to the chalkboard paint. Latex and latex do not mix, and it wiped right off. The professional way to do this is to go to a specialty paint store and have them custom make metallic paint, but with lots of little kids always around, I had no time for that nonsense. So I went the ghetto way: I dug up some spray paint from the garage, sprayed a few squirts into a paper cup, and used a sponge brush to apply it to the wall.

The end result was gorgeous, but the process was a huge pain in the butt. I had to pop outside each time I filled the cup — which was frequently, because I could only put a few sprays in at a time. I got anywhere from 2-5 stars with 5-8 sprays. Then I'd move the stencil and back out I'd go, spray in the cup, and run back in and paint before it dried. In hindsight it would have taken me less time to drag the kids to Sherwin-Williams, but nevertheless, the job got done.

After the paint dried, I wiped the wall down one final time to remove the chalk, and finito!

I can't tell you how much I love this wall. I go in and stare at it several times a day. It just has a feeling to it, and you get that right when you walk into my home. This look probably isn't for everyone, but if you are looking to go bold, you can't go wrong with dark colors and bright metallics.

In the end it was completely worth the time, and the aggravation was only slight. Without the distractions of children and other duties, you could totally knock this out in a weekend. If you primed Friday night and painted Saturday morning, you could be stenciling by Saturday night and done by Sunday. And totally happy with it until the end of time ... or until you get bored and decide to start all over again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Choosing the Right Time to Bloom

There are marigolds in my front yard. Vibrant, hearty, sunshiny marigolds. It's a common enough sight, as this ordinary flower can be found just about anywhere. But my marigolds have taken on a special significance as I've watched them unexpectedly bloom.

We have two flower beds in the front yard, one up next to the house and one in the middle of the lawn. We added the beds the spring after we first moved in, but it took a little while longer to actually fill them. The flower bed along the house and by the front door is full of bright flowers, lush ground cover, and a weeping Alaskan cedar, my favorite thing in the yard. Almost everything but the tree was donated by a neighbor, who not only gave us the plants but came over and helped us plant them. (Have I ever mentioned how incredible the people in our neighborhood are?) We've done a pretty good job of maintaining this bed, weeding it and keeping the plants trimmed. But the other bed? I'm sorry to say it has been sadly neglected.

We could never decide what to put in that front flower bed, the one that sits like an island halfway between the house and the street. Several years ago we planted a miniature spruce that we happened to find on sale, and then added a few irises donated by my parents. We also planted some petunias and a small handful of marigolds donated by Aaron's parents. The petunias flourished that summer, but with no other vision for the bed or money to fill it, the rest of the flower bed was left to its own devices.

Eventually the perennials dried up and died, and gradually the weeds won, choking everything that came out of the ground. Even the spruce was no match for the insidious morning glory. Every now and then we'd work our way through the flower bed, half-heartedly clearing room and adding a plant or two. But in the end, well, we just plain gave up.

The flower beds really got into a state last summer while I was pregnant, and this year was much of the same. It was on our list of to-do's, but it just never got done. Until a month or two ago, when our neighbors again came to the rescue.

The Relief Society sisters of the ward descended on our yard with trowels and spades and gardening gloves. Perhaps they took pity on me, the busy mama of twins. Or perhaps they were just tired of our white trash yard bringing the property values down. Either way, their help was exactly what we needed, and in less than an hour the bed was cleared of all weeds — even all traces of morning glory. The spruce could not be saved, but a few indian paintbrush plants finally had room to bloom. And to my great surprise, we found something else in the long-neglected flower bed: marigolds.

It's been several years since we first planted those hand-me-down blooms, and they haven't been seen since. It wasn't until the suffocating weeds and dead roots were torn up and cleared out that the marigolds surprised us and flourished once again. And flourished they have, with strong stems, hearty leaves, and bright yellow blossoms. Without the petunias crowding them out, they've grown to more than twice the size they were that first summer.

There is, of course, a metaphor here. There are several, in fact. There's the lovely reminder to bloom where you're planted, or one about needing the help of others to break free and bloom, and perhaps the one about being able to thrive despite the attempt of others who try to hold us down. But the metaphor most resonating with me today is one about choosing the right time to bloom.

Throughout my life I have always been an overachiever, hungry for stimulating experiences and bursting with energy to try new things, more things, all the things!! This appetite served me well in younger years but inevitably got me into a heap of trouble when my bipolar disorder went unchecked. After a harrowing and painful crash, I spent the next two years rebuilding a life reduced to ashes. My appetite had been checked, though never fully satiated. I had learned to pace myself, somewhat, or at least bide my time.

Then came marriage and children and the busy life of a full-time mother to three little ones. I find myself in new territory, as I never in all my days expected to fully abandon my career to become a stay-at-home mom. It's a confusing place, even if it were something I'd planned on for years. I constantly find myself torn between hard and harder-to-make choices, mostly about how to spend my time. I still have so many passions I want to pursue, and I still keep a vague hope of resuming my writing career in the not-too-distant future. But when you have a 3-year-old and 7-month-old twins, most of your day is spent feeding and changing and putting to bed and loving those endearing but needy little creatures. From sun up until sun down I give them nearly all of my time, all the while wondering if it's too much or not enough, if I'm spoiling them and neglecting myself or vice versa, only occasionally stopping long enough to pine for all the things I'd rather be doing than changing my 12th diaper of the day.

I try not to look too longingly at all the passions I've had to let fade. I know in my heart that this is where I am needed, and the work I am doing as a mother is absolutely vital and that this time I spend caring for my children will lay the crucial foundation on which they will base their entire lives. Despite the exhaustion it is incredibly fulfilling, helping me grow in ways I never could have on my own. But it's hard not to mourn the paths I've had to abandon and the journeys I never took. It's even harder to think of the writing career I chose to end right when it started to take off. I worry that my skills will fade and when I choose to return to it (assuming I ever do), I won't have what it takes and the dream will have died. Most of all, I worry that I'm letting the stresses of motherhood drain what precious energy I have left for me at the end of the day and spending my alone time on worthless endeavors instead of following my passions — because if that's true, I have no one to blame but myself. Not motherhood. Not bipolar disorder. Just me.

That's why, in the midst of all this uncertainty, the marigolds are speaking to me. When I stop to look and listen they say, "Hello, there! Here we are! Did you ever think you'd see us again?" If we were to sit and talk a while I imagine they'd tell me, with grandmotherly wisdom, about choosing the right time to bloom.

"There will be times," they'd say, "when you'll see the sun and feel the warm air, and your heart will ache with a passionate yearning to go out and meet the spring. But if you sit still a while you'll hear your wisdom coming to you in a whisper, telling you that the time is not right. It will remind you that your roots are too shallow and the weeds above are too thick. It will remind you of the work yet to do and tell you to send your seeds back into the ground, to keep them warm and to wait."

The marigolds will say to me hazily yet pointedly, as if walking backward through a memory, that no matter how bright the sun may shine, if you know in your soul it's not yet your season, the days ahead may feel cold and dark.

"You will feel lonely, under-nourished, perhaps even cheated, forgotten while all around you the flowers begin to pop up one by one," they will say. "But then, when your work is done and the sun comes again, when you know it is your time to bloom, how much brighter your blossoms will be! How strong your stems and how deep your roots! To all those who may have forgotten you, how great will be their surprise to see you rise again — vibrant, yes, but grounded, and oh so wise."

I will nod slowly, thoughtfully, because I'll know what they're saying is true. I know that the season for following my own passions has gone, but it will return again when the time is right. For now I must bury my seeds and set about work of a different kind, one that will strengthen the burgeoning blooms given to my care. I will do my best not to ache for my own bit of sun, for I know that by nourishing the seeds around me, we all will have our time to bloom.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Truth About Raising Twins

There are a lot of things people like to tell you about having twins.

That the next 18 years will be a chaotic blur.

That you'll always have your hands full.

That you'll never have time to yourself again and you can kiss who you were goodbye.

And for some reason, there's always someone who will delight in telling a twin-mom-to-be about her high school friend who had to be on hospital bed rest for the last 6 months of her twin pregnancy, of her sister's neighbor who gained 100 lbs. while pregnant with twins, or her cousin's friend's sorority sister's twins who were such terrors that their bedrooms were stripped down to nothing but bare mattresses on the floor because of the wanton destruction that would ensue every time the boys were left alone together. These kinds of people also like to add statements like, "Wow, I could never be a mom of twins," or, "Better you than me."

I've heard all this and more in the year since I first found out I was pregnant with twins, and I'll likely keep hearing it for the rest of my days as a Mom of Multiples.

But here's the thing: This isn't the truth. Not really. And that's why I feel the need to tell you, right here and now, the real truth about raising twins:

It's not that bad.


All you skeptics, hear me out. I'm not glossing over the details to give false hope, or to make any mother feel bad because her twins aren't perfect angelic beings. And I'm not saying that having multiples isn't difficult. It is. But it's not the great curse some people seem to think it is. There are reasons to back up my claim — solid reasons, ones you may not be expecting, so stay with me on this.

First, let me tell you about reason #1...

I first found out I was expecting twins when I was 10 weeks along. I was shocked. And delighted. And horrified. And bewildered. And terrified. All that and then some. I'm ever the optimist, but I had heard a million horror stories about life with twins. I just didn't know what to think.

So I did what I always do when confronted with a problem I don't know how to solve: I turned to books.

I went to the library and checked out all the books they had on twin pregnancy and raising twins. Some of them were great, like "Twin Sense: A Sanity-Saving Guide for Raising Twins — From Pregnancy Through the First Year." Some of them were interesting but not super helpful in the practical sense, like "Twins: Pregnancy, Birth, and the First Year of Life."

And then there was "Double Time: How I Survived — And Mostly Thrived — Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins" by Jane Roper. It was just what I had been looking for: a glimpse at the future, a look at what day-to-day life might be like once my girls were finally here.

It was nicely written, and at first I could really identify with Jane. She was (is) a writer, and like me she was quite shocked about being pregnant with twins. And, she struggled with depression both before and after her babies were born. As the book went on, it taught me something very important — something the author didn't intend at all, but something far more meaningful to me than any message she had hoped to convey.

The epiphany came during one chapter in particular about the insanity of having two newly-walking toddlers seeking to destroy anything they can get their pudgy little hands on. The tale was harrowing but silly, really, though it did stress me out to read about one little girl darting toward a vase on the coffee table while the other dove into the dog dish, and then the next thing you know they're both going to blows over a toy piano before wailing at the top of their lungs until being plied with more fishy crackers.

Then there was the anecdote about taking the girls to the park alone for the first time. They were about 16 months, and the experience was no less harrowing: One daughter began stuffing wood chips into her mouth as the other was about to dive off the side of a 5-foot high play structure, and later the first child tumbled head first off the slide while her sister made a break for it and started running out of the park.

Reading this reminded me of the day I first took my son to the park when he was around the same age. And though there was just one of him, the story was much the same — misadventure and frustration at every turn, until I finally packed it in and headed home. We didn't go back to the park for several months, not until he was old enough to not go blindly walking off the jungle gym or get seriously hurt by a little tumble down the slide.

So as I read all this and remembered my own similar tale of woe I caught myself thinking, "Well, that's what you get for taking a child that age to the park."

And that's when it hit me: These problems aren't twin problems. They're just mom problems — and first-time mom problems, at that. I had been through this before, and now I know to have the house baby-proofed long before my girls are walking. I know not to leave anything out that would do any harm if digested, or anything that would take more than 2 minutes to clean up after my children have crashed their way through it. I know that answering screams with crackers only begets more screams when the crackers are gone, and I certainly know now not to take my kids to the park by myself until they're old enough to handle it if I can't be there to catch them.

Suddenly I realized that having twins wasn't going to be that hard. (At least, not as hard as I had first feared.) A lot of it had to do with the fact that I'm not a first-timer anymore, but mostly, my big realization was this: Having two (or more) children doesn't automatically make it harder than having one.

No matter how many children you have, you will still have to learn these lessons by trial and error, just like every mother who has ever gone before you. It's not the number of children that makes parenting difficult. Being a parent just IS difficult. Period. But we all get through it and come out wiser in the end.

That was the moment I stopped being afraid. After all, I had survived my son's baby and toddler years, and billions of other mothers before me have, as well. Not only that, I learned from all the drama and woe and became a much stronger person and a wiser, more patient mother. Whatever my twins could throw at me, I could handle. If not at first, eventually. And we would all be that much better for it.

Now, reason #2 takes us back to the beginning, about all those awful twin stories that keep circling around. If I led you to believe that those little anecdotes I shared weren't true, I'm sorry ... because they are. The woman on hospital bed rest for 6 months, the mom who gained 100 lbs., and the holy terror twins with nothing but mattresses and light bulbs in their room are all real people that I know. What I mean to say is, even these real-life events aren't the whole truth about life with twins.

Each of these things, though dramatic and unpleasant, represent just a moment in time. They are preceded by highs and perhaps followed by more lows, but they are not constant and they don't last forever. Those brave women went on to have healthy babies and get their bodies back. I'm sorry to say that those rambunctious boys are still in that phase today, but they weren't always like this, and they won't be forever. The destructive phase will end and they will turn their energy to other things, like taking apart appliances to see how they work — maybe only slightly less frustrating, but perhaps the beginning of a brilliant engineering career. And after surviving this, I have no doubt that there's nothing their parents can't handle. Take it from me, whose first child screamed like a banshee the whole first year of his life. Now, almost 3 years later, I'm like a zen master when it comes to screaming. It barely even fazes me.

Please don't misunderstand me: I don't mean that being a mom of twins isn't hard. It is. And then some, boy howdy. But I don't need pity just because I'm a mom of multiples. It's certainly not the hardest thing I've ever been through; not by a long shot. But that's just life. Sometimes my twins are accidentally beating the daylights out of each other, sometimes screaming like a bag of alleycats while my son is stomping and whining for more TV and more crackers.

But then other times (more often than not), they're smiling and just happy to be with each other and with me.

The point I'm trying to make is, I'm not cursed because I have twins, and my life isn't infinitely harder because I was given two babies at once. I am infinitely blessed because I was given three children, and I get to be their mother.

Yes, having twins comes with its own unique challenges that parents of singletons will never experience. Like I said, sometimes it is just plain crazy. But the challenges we face aren't insurmountable obstacles. And let's not forget this truth: Having one child isn't automatically easier than having two. Take it from me, whose sweet baby girls are 10 times easier together than my wily, determined son ever was, and is. (Seriously, I hit the new-baby jackpot with these girls.) But we get through it, and my son has made me the mom I am. Together the three of them will keep testing my patience and increasing my compassion, forever changing my heart and making me far better than anyone I could hope to be on my own.

So Mothers of Multiples, MoMs-to-be, and parents everywhere take heart. Things aren't always as bad as they seem. Who knows; they could be better than you ever thought possible. So smile, grit your teeth if you have to, and cherish this remarkable opportunity to become the mother you never knew you could be.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Emergency kits for families — on the cheap

If you're a lifelong Utahn, you've heard the oft-repeated advice to be prepared for a natural disaster. (If you're a Mormon, like I am, you've heard it even more.) Living along the Wasatch Front, we've been told by experts that "The Big One" — a devastating earthquake that could decimate everything in the Salt Lake Valley and beyond — is long overdue. 

Enter the emergency kit.

You know you should have at least some food and water and a few basic necessities to tide you over should disaster strike. Still, it's intimidating to get started. Just looking at a list of recommended items for a 72-hour emergency kit can send you into a cold sweat as you try to calculate what it will cost. 

While you could spend hundreds of dollars getting every high-quality item on your long wish list, you don't have to. Most of the items you will already have on hand. What you don't have you can get for dirt cheap, and even for free. 

Here's how I put together five emergency kits for my family— two adults, one child, and two babies — quickly and on the cheap.

Keep in mind that I am not an expert, and this is by no means a comprehensive or authoritative list. I am just a mom trying to make sure all will be safely gathered in should disaster strike. So take this for what it is: a little inspiration to help you get your own kits together, and keep a little cash in your pocket while you're at it.

There are a lot of ways to think about 72-hour kits and the emergencies that might necessitate them. I just think of this: If my house were reduced to a pile of rubble and all utilities were down and stores closed, what would I need to get by? With this in mind, there are three main categories I focused on when assembling my kits: Food/water, hygiene, and comfort. Each family member gets one backpack or bag with their own items. Setting aside food for a moment, let's talk about the rest.

Adult Kits

Here's what's packed for Mom and Dad (details to follow):
  • First aid kit
  • Hygiene and toiletry bags
  • Extra outfit 

First, a little comfort mixed with necessity: I included one outfit (a T-shirt, one pair of jeans, and one pair of underwear) as well as a pair of socks and running shoes. I used stuff gathering dust in my closet, but bonus points if you have hiking boots and camping clothes to use, which will be even more useful in a disaster. If you need to purchase any of these items, check your local thrift store. There's no sense spending more than a few dollars on something you probably will never wear, anyway — and if you do need it one day, I guarantee you won't care how you look in it. While I can probably keep wearing the clothes I am in when disaster strikes, you never know what that outfit may entail. I could be coming home from church or lounging around shoeless. You'll want something utilitarian to get you through the first few days post-disaster. 

I spent more effort on the hygiene part of the adult kits, but not very much money. I provided an estimated cost of each component. It's a rough estimate, because many of these items you will already have around the home or you can get them for free or dirt cheap. I just wanted to show that although this looks like a lot of stuff, it didn't cost a lot of money.

One other note: I put all the small items in plastic bags. This is not only to keep them organized, but to protect them from the elements as well as any spills or leaks. 

First, a mini first aid kit. I have a larger, more complete one with the rest of my emergency stuff, but this is made to go in a personal bag.

It contains: 
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Band-aids
  • Alcohol swabs
  • Contact solution
  • Ibuprofen
  • Sunscreen
  • Eye drops
  • Safety pins
  • Bug repellant
  • Prescription medications (we don't have any, but if you need them, be sure to add enough pills for at least 3-7 days)

I had enough items laying around the house to fill this bag because I'm a bit of a hoarder when it comes to toiletry samples. If you don't have them handy, try the dollar store or the travel aisle at the pharmacy. For contact solution, ask your optometrist for a few samples. You can also sometimes get samples of your prescription medications from your doctor. If there are over-the-counter medications that you use frequently, like allergy medication, cough drops, etc., include those as well.

Estimated cost: $0 - $7


Next, a toiletry bag for Dad

It contains:
  • Lotion
  • Shampoo
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Deodorant
  • Contact case

Again, most of these I had on hand with the exception of deodorant and hand sanitizer, which I bought at the dollar store. To stock up on mini shampoo and the like, take the complementary bottles from your hotel each night the next time you travel or ask your frequent traveler friends to pick you up a few. (They'll give you a new one each day, it's expected, you're not stealing, and you paid for them with the room, for Pete's sake.)

Estimated cost: $0 - $4


Now a toiletry bag for Mom:

The goodies in this bag:
  • Shampoo
  • Lotion
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Deodorant
  • Contact case
  • Headband
  • Bobby pins
  • Hair clips
  • Mini hair brush
  • Glasses
When packing your toiletries, don't forget about your hair. The goal is not to worry about being pretty, of course; it's about keeping your hair up and out of your face so you can take care of business. If you're like me and wear contacts, pack an old pair of glasses in case you need to live out of your kit for longer than your contacts will last (or in case you lose or damage one).

I also packed a plastic bag full of feminine hygiene products, which I didn't feel the need to photograph. Also, while we're on the delicate subject, pack a supply of birth control pills if you need them (you can usually get a sample from your OB so you don't have to fill an extra prescription). I can think of few things worse than dealing with a major disaster during that special time of the month, so the least we can do is be prepared. 

Estimated cost: $0 - $10


Separate from the toiletries are hygiene bags. A note about these: They are probably not absolutely necessary in a 72-hour kit, as we would survive just fine with unbrushed teeth. But cleanliness can help prevent infection in case anyone is injured, and being able to wash and feel clean can go a long way toward better mental health in the midst of an intense situation.

They contain:
  • 1 washrag
  • 1 bar of soap
  • Q-tips
  • Cotton balls
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Tissues
  • Lip balm

My local Dollar Tree had these travel dental kits, which came with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and the plastic case. I bought the soap there, too, but everything else I already had. I used old washrags that were headed for the rag pile, but you could also cut up an old towel.  I also packed but did not photograph a towel and one roll of toilet paper per person, also in plastic bags.

Estimated cost: $3 - $6


Kid Kits

Small children don't need as much as you think. While you might pack an entire backpack for a trip to the zoo, when it comes down to it, their needs are really quite simple. In an emergency, you need very little to get by.

My 3-year-old son gets his own kid hygiene and toiletry kit:

  • Washrag
  • Bar of soap
  • Cotton balls
  • Q-tips
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes

Again, most of the items we had on hand and the rest were purchased at the dollar store. If you have older daughters, you may want to think about including feminine hygiene items even if they have not yet reached that stage. Better to be over-prepared than under.

Estimated cost: $2 - $5


My son also gets a clothing bag. 

It has one of each the following:
  • Pants
  • T-shirt
  • Pajamas
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Shoes

I pulled these items straight from his closet, but again, the thrift store is a great place to look if you need something else. You can also ask around for hand-me-downs in your child's size or the next size up. Also, be sure to pack for the correct season. This is a summer kit, but in the fall I will switch the clothes for warmer items in a bigger size. Next spring, I'll switch again for cooler items.

Estimated cost: $0 - $4


I also added a few "comfort items" for my son. I figured that if we ever have to use our emergency kits, he will have just gone through a pretty traumatic experience. I packed a small box full of little toys and candies as well as a book of nursery rhymes. This is a good place for a few fast food toys that may be cluttering up the toy box.

Estimated cost: $0


Baby Kits

Packing kits for my 5-month-old twins was most important to me, as they need the most to get by. I started with a feeding kit, since they are bottle fed.

  • Bottles
  • Formula
  • Water
  • Burp rags

Even if you are breastfeeding, I recommend packing a feeding kit since you can't guarantee that your milk supply will hold up under the stress of disaster conditions. The bottles were from Walmart and only cost a few bucks, but you could also pull one or two from your cupboard. The formula pictured here is a collection of all the to-go samples we got from the hospital and in the mail, but I did put a few regular-sized cans of formula with the rest of our emergency items (not pictured). To get a few cans for free, call your pediatrician. Many offices have samples available.

Estimated cost: $5 - $20


Each baby gets a baby clothing bag with the following:

  • 2 pairs of pajamas
  • 2 onesies
  • 1 bib

Again, pay attention to size and season. These kits have summer-weight clothes for size 6 months. In the fall I will replace these with long-sleeved shirts and warm pajamas for size 12 months. You can of course take items from your baby's closet, or you can hit up thrift stores or ask for hand-me-downs, which is where many of these items came from.

Estimated cost: $0 - $5


My girls also get baby hygiene kits:

  • Cotton balls
  • Q-tips
  • Baby shampoo
  • Washrag
  • Lotion

Included here are also the comfort items: 
  • Fleece swaddle blanket
  • Pacifiers
  • Small toy

Estimated cost: $2 - $7


Last but certainly not least, diapers and wipes. It's a good idea to use diapers that are one size larger than those your baby is currently in, not only because they will be "current" longer and because they will be more absorbent.

I also made a crude attempt at cloth diapers, in case we need to survive for longer than this case of diapers holds out.

I included:
  • Bloomers
  • Cloth diaper inserts
  • Safety pins

Estimated cost: $5 - $15


Emergency Food Items

I did not include food items in each bag because we keep our food together in a separate place. While many people like the ease of individual 72-hour kits, I personally like the flexibility of a communal supply. There are lots of different food items you could use for emergency kits, but since I have the storage space, I like to go with mostly canned foods because they have a long shelf life and require no prep — they can be eaten right out of the can. Just be sure to keep a can opener or two with your supply.

Here are some of my favorite canned food items:
  • Fruit (peaches, pears, pineapple)
  • Vegetables (green beans, corn)
  • Beans (pinto, black, kidney)
  • Tuna
  • Spaghetti-O's
  • Chili
  • Soup (not condensed)

For lightweight, easily packed travel foods:
  • Jerky
  • Trail mix
  • Applesauce
  • Granola bars
  • Protein bars 
  • MRE's (meals ready to eat, available at army-navy supply stores and emergency stores)

And a few others to round out the food groups:
  • Crackers
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Peanut butter
  • Ramen noodles

Also, be sure to store lots of water — much more than you think you'll need. Most experts advise one gallon of water per person per day, enough for a minimum of three days (though FEMA recommends enough for a week). You can buy large barrels and water jugs or even used, clean milk gallons or soda bottles and fill with your own tap water, but that water needs to be replaced every few months. I like buying the gallon jugs from the dollar store or grocery store, because they will keep for a bit longer.

Other Emergency Items

As I said before, this is far from a comprehensive emergency preparedness list. But to get your own wheels turning, here are a few other items we have stored:
  • Flashlights
  • Lanterns
  • Battery-powered radio
  • Batteries
  • Candles
  • Matches
  • Garbage bags
  • Blankets
  • Sleeping bags
  • Water purifier bottle
  • Camp stove
  • Propane
  • Tent
  • Shovel
Just think of an emergency as a three-day camping trip in the elements. Whatever you might need, pack it or have it accessible. If you have babies and small children, don't forget baby carriers/slings and strollers. You don't have to keep them in your emergency kits, but having them easily accessible could be a life saver in case you need to travel by foot.

Storing Your Emergency Essentials

Your emergency kit should be in a place that's easily accessible and ready to go, like on a hook or shelf in the garage or in the trunk of your car. We like keeping ours in the garage or in our camping trailer, which we try to keep fully stocked. If you have camping gear not in a trailer, keep it in one central spot, like a large Rubbermaid container or two. Add your emergency items as needed and you'll have everything together, ready to go.

Keeping Your Supply Up to Date

For us, the biggest challenge is keeping our items up to date because it's hard enough to gather everything in the first place. But food and water need to be rotated, and if you have growing children, their clothes will need to be updated. A good rule of thumb is to update the clothing twice a year (once in the spring and once in the fall) and the food annually. Try to schedule it around a recurring date, such as a holiday or, for your prepared Mormons out there, every general conference in April and October.

What did I leave out? What are your must-have items, and how do you keep them ready to go?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Giving your baby what it needs

"I just don't know what he wants."

It's something new parents say often, usually while throwing their hands up in frustration. The sentiment is harmless enough, and I can definitely sympathize. The first year of my son's life was spent spitting out this phrase in sheer exasperation. Being a new parent is the most mind-blowing, exhausting, utterly befuddling experience I have ever endured. You know in theory what your baby needs, but in actuality? That's something that takes work to figure out.

There are two types of parents in the world: First-timers, and the rest of us. Yes, it really is that simple. I say this because I recently realized just what it is that separates the two.

The other night my sister, Casey, was in town and she was helping out my husband and I as we bathed our 3-year-old son and 4-month-old twin daughters. This is no simple affair. To make things more complicated, the babies hadn't napped well that day and were getting pretty cranky. And to top it off, Aaron was selling his truck and had people continually calling, texting, and coming to see it. It was a pretty chaotic night.

After everyone was bathed, Aaron was putting Evan to bed and I swaddled Sadie and handed her to my sister to be fed while I did the same for Beth. Things did not go well for poor Casey as Sadie fought the bottle and cried pretty much continually. By the time I finished with Beth and put her to sleep, Casey had finally calmed Sadie, but she was no longer swaddled or seemingly interested in the bottle. That's when Casey uttered the phrase, "I just don't know what she wants."

A lightbulb went on.

Suddenly I understood that when you're a first-time parent — or not yet a parent, as is the case with my sister — it's all about that four-letter word: "want." Feeling nervous and ill-equipped to care for an infant, we look to the baby for clues as to what it wants. Does it want to be fed? Does it want to be cuddled? Does it want to get out of the crib and play? And then we frantically set off to satisfy those wants in an attempt to soothe the cries of the baby, as well as our own racing hearts and pounding heads.

What's wrong with this scenario? That word "want." If we looked to fulfill just the wants of anyone else, we would soon realize there's a problem. My son wants to eat chocolate and French fries all day and stay up late watching cartoons. I want to sleep in until 9, also eating chocolate and French fries all day, ignoring the laundry and dishes and staying up late reading books and pretending I'm not on call for when my babies wake to be fed at 5 a.m.

But this isn't what we need. We need good sleep and healthy food, with the occasional treat thrown in for good measure. We need physical activity and love and silliness and entertainment and mental stimulation and relaxation, but in the right place at the right time in the right amounts.

It makes sense, then, that trying to figure out what a baby wants is a losing game. Even if a baby was capable of communicating its every desire, we would be crazy to let that baby be in charge. Not only that, but oftentimes, giving a baby what it wants completely contradicts what that baby needs. Here's just one example: Most babies want to be held and rocked all night long, but they need to learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.

So it's up to us as parents to understand what our children need, and then fulfill those needs as best as we can.

Back to the bathtime scenario... I relieved my sister, re-swaddled Sadie despite her screams of protest, picked her up, and held the bottle in her mouth for a few seconds until she realized, "Oh yeah, I really AM hungry!" And within minutes, she was eating, calm, and on her way to sleep.

I'm not trying to throw my sister under the bus, here. I am grateful she was there to lend a hand, and I certainly don't blame her for not knowing what Sadie needs and how to fulfill those needs. I'm only trying to illustrate the point that newbies chase down wants, while veterans get down to business and take care of needs.

It's easy to see how we get sucked into this way of thinking, that we must look to our babies to give them what they want. We are continually told that babies don't come with an instruction manual, and we just have to figure it out as we go along. But I disagree, and say it doesn't have to be like this.

While we do have to learn on the job, in the trenches, and figure out our own children and their unique needs, we are not left with only the clues our screaming babies leave. There may not be an end-all, be-all encyclopedia on baby raising, but there are a lot of books out there that come pretty close. Then you have the countless magazines, websites and blog posts dedicated to every issue a parent has ever encountered in this modern world, plus advice from friends, family, and complete strangers, offering enough wisdom to help even the most frazzled parent. While I don't think there's ever a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every baby, there's enough collective experience in the world to equip any parent with at least enough tips and tricks to help navigate those tricky parenthood hurdles.

So, first-timers, educate yourself on basic baby needs, especially when it comes to eating and sleeping. Then do your best to be prepared to meet those needs as they come up. Don't be afraid to ask for advice when you need it, and then get to work to figure out how to help your unique baby best.

And don't forget that you are in charge of your baby, not the other way around. Give it what it needs, not what it wants.

Monday, April 21, 2014

In Defense of Mothers Who Succeed

Apparently, I'm a mom people love to hate.

That's according to some random Internet article, "10 Types of Moms That Suck." I found myself on the list as #6, The Always Chipper and Well-Dressed Mom (I flatter myself), which is followed by the author's explanation of her derision:

"I hate you. No really, I just... hate you. I'm 100% sure you sold your soul to Satan, or maybe Martha Stewart. Nope, don't even speak to me, I feel more disgusting and unworthy the closer you get."

Ouch. I shudder to think what the author would say about me if I also told her that my house is pretty much always tidy despite having three youngsters, I have a giant box of busy bags I put together for my son by hand when my twins were less than a month old, I cook dinner from scratch about five days a week, and I'm now 5 lbs. away from my pre-baby weight just three months after I gave birth to two babies, without hitting the gym once.

Why do I share this with you, my friends and anonymous readers, when to do so opens me up to much ridicule? The very point is that it DOES open me up to ridicule, and I want to go on the record to say that I'm sick of it.

To be clear, I don't care what people say about me personally. My skin is incredibly thick, I like myself, and a person's hate speaks more about them than the person at which they aim their vitriol.

And I also don't care what another mom does or doesn't do. If you find yourself wearing the same yoga pants three days in a row, without showering or changing, then so be it. If you use TV as a babysitter more often than you feel is good for your children, have at it. We all do what we have to do to survive motherhood. In this game, I'm quite certain no one is capable of their best even most of the time, and who am I to judge what someone must do in order to make it through this madness.

What I do care about is the constant bickering and trash-talking that make up the so-called Mommy Wars. It's bad enough to carry around the mommy guilt that comes with the territory, not to mention the near total sacrifice of self that happens when you become a mother. But it's even worse to be a mom in the kind of culture that puts self-loathing on a pedestal while tearing down anyone who dares to succeed and be proud of it.

It always bothers me when the kind of mommy blogs and articles getting all the attention are the ones that, as one author so eloquently described, manage to be both self-flagellating and smug. They speak of their inadequacies and failures as though this is as good as it's ever going to be, with the kind of woe-is-me bravado that elevates one to the status of Tragic Folk Hero. Don't get me wrong — in my dark motherhood moments I feel as much need to bemoan my situation as the next girl, and as women we feel consolation in the bearing of our souls when our burdens are compassionately received.

What I DO have a problem with is this: the idea that the dark moments and parental failures ARE as good as it's going to get, and anyone who dares rise above them is someone to be reviled.

Where is the camaraderie in that? Where is the support, the encouragement we so desperately seek in the midst of our failures? What's more, where is the incentive to ever dust ourselves off and try again when to fail is to be glorified and to succeed is to be vilified?

I am not perfect, nor do I pretend to be. More importantly, I don't do the things I do to put myself on a pedestal, to show off or make other women feel inadequate. I do them because I want to create a happy family and a happy home, and this is how I set out to achieve it. Moreover, I feel a great source of satisfaction in a job well done, in setting the bar high and accomplishing what I set out to achieve. It's just the type of person I am, and always have been — and hopefully always will be.

I also don't feel the need to lower the bar to make my life more palatable to others. On the contrary: I would love, more than anything, to inspire someone else to try a little harder, in any way that's meaningful to them. I want this because I've been inspired by so many other moms who, like me, refuse to give into the insecurity and sadness that can so easily creep into the life of a stay-at-home mom.

When I was a first-time mom I was hit pretty hard with postpartum depression. There I sat, in my ratty old pajamas and in tears, desperately trying to soothe a baby who screamed for hours and hours on end. I looked at my new life and thought, "Is this really all there is?"

If I had only listened to the woe-is-me voices who said there is nothing more to aspire to, I would still be stuck in a fog of depression, dirty yoga pants and all. But luckily, I met some mothers who said no, this isn't the end of your life. You can do more, when you're ready, and you can have a full, happy life as a mom. So that's what I set off to achieve, in my own way and in my own time. And I am happy — yes, happy, with a crazy 3-year-old boy and sweet but demanding 3-month-old twin girls. And I'm proud of that.

Just for the record, I am always chipper because I have chosen to embrace my role as a mother, not bemoan the ways my life has changed. I am chipper because I have battled my way out of a depression that doctors told me would rule my life, and there is no way I'm going to let momentary frustration derail my progress and take me back to that deep, dark place. I am well-dressed because fashion is a hobby I've always had, and dressing with my own sense of style (even when I have nowhere to go) helps me remember the person I am, not just the mom I've become.

My house is always tidy because a clean home makes me feel at peace, and so I work my butt off to keep it that way. I put together busy bags for my son as a labor of love, because I wanted to ease the transition from being an only child to a big brother to twin sisters and give him something to look forward to when Mommy can't be with him. I cook dinner from scratch because it's healthier and cheaper, and it's also probably why I was able to keep my pregnancy weight within a healthy range as well as slim down so quickly after the birth of my children.

Still, this is only part of the story. Although my house is clutter-free, it's been weeks since I've cleaned a bathroom and even longer since I've vacuumed because I simply can't do it all. After the first week or two my son hasn't touched his busy bags and spends most of his days whining for more TV, and would probably sit on the couch all day every day if I let him. My home-cooked meals are incredibly simple and even a little boring, and if I had the money I'd be eating out a lot more than is good for me. And even though I'm almost to my pre-pregnancy weight, I am still about 20 lbs. heavier than is healthy for my height, not to mention the fact that I have the stretch marks and sagging skin that prove I carried children to term, and more than one at a time.

But that's the last you'll hear of my shortcomings — not because I don't want anyone to know the dirty truth, but because I choose to focus on my successes, not my failures.

And anyway, it really doesn't matter what I do or don't do. These are just the things I choose to do for me and my family, and everyone's priorities and strengths are different. Our particular talents should be what make us unique and help us take satisfaction in our motherhood, and our differences should allow us to stand as an example to other mothers who want to try things a little differently, not as a target for those who are less than happy with their own stressful situations.

So, bickering mommies, hate me if you must. Choose to stay at your low points and use your energy to tear down others instead of building the life you really want for yourself and your families. I choose to ignore my flaws and be proud of my strengths, and no amount of trash-talking is going to stop me from doing my best.