Balancing Act

Lately, I’ve noticed three brown-headed cowbird pairs pecking at the fallen seed under our feeders.

There is a beauty to them, especially the males, with their sleek black body feathers and their deep brown heads. They look like they’re made of velvet. But knowing that there are other birds’ nests that are playing host to cowbird young poised to shove out the smaller, legitimate nestlings, I feel conflicted about the cowbirds’ presence. I want to feed the birds, but by doing so, I’m also feeding this parasitic species. But if I stop putting out food, I eliminate the food source not just for the cowbirds but for all of the other non-parasitic passerines.

This conundrum echoes a struggle in which I’ve been engaged for weeks now.

I’m currently part of two monthly book clubs, a weekly webinar entitled “Immigration as a Moral Issue,” a bi-weekly discussion group called “Finding Your Spiritual Path,” and our church Social Action Committee. In addition to this, I homeschool my kids (including the hour or more each day my daughter and I practice flute together) and my husband and I are trying to make an effort to connect with other people in our community by initiating and accepting dinner invitations.

Each of these things has value, but I’m wiped out. I’m inclined to drop my evening activities and focus instead on reading and going to bed early and meditating in the mornings, which are all things that I know feed my spirit. Trouble is, my evening activities are the only social things I do for myself. If I cut them out, will the loss of that social interaction hurt me more than help me? Will I be shutting myself off from deepening friendships? But if I keep them, will I just be perpetuating this feeling of being spread thin?

How do I know when it serves my needs better to cut out activities than to add activities?

Where is the balance?

My Craziest Idea Yet: Sleeping

Where I should be spending 1/3 of my life.

The idea goes that I spend so many hours with my kids, I need time to myself to function properly, even if this means giving up adequate sleep to get said alone time.

I recently realized that this is an entirely untested hypothesis.

What if I actually function better if I get adequate sleep but sacrifice some of my precious Me time?

I really have never tried this for more than two nights in a row. I just can’t seem to give up the reading or blogging or blog-reading that fills the hours between the kids’ bedtime at 8:30 and 12 or 1 when I finally go to bed myself. What’s really awesome is when I go back and spend an hour reading my old blog posts. Yes, that is a very good use of my time. Or when I start some movie or tv show on Netflix and then lose interest or get bogged down by how weird it is for real people to be acting out stories in front of a camera so that I can sit in my pjs in front of my laptop and watch them pretending to be someone else. (Apparently, this is what happens when I get away from television for long enough: the entire concept seems weird to me. Which in itself is a profound shift because I used to totally rock the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game and now I can hardly recognize the names of the current stars. Or even the current movies.)

But I don’t go to bed feeling fulfilled. I feel tired and irritable and greedy for more time to waste. In the morning I’m all of those things plus resentful of my children for taking me away from my alone time. I’ve been snapping at the kids and just in general not being a very engaged and pleasant mommy.

This evidence suggests that my current “it’s worth being tired if I get to do nothing much for several hours every night” hypothesis isn’t working out very well.

My new hypothesis is this: If I get adequate sleep, I’ll be able to feel happier with my children during the day and make better use of the time I have to myself because I have less of it and won’t be so tempted to squander it.

To test this hypothesis, I will be going to bed at 9:30 every night for a month. Okay, well, maybe for a week. And if that works out alright, I’ll try it for two weeks. Then for a third, and with any luck, make it to a full month.

During this one- to four-week period, I will go to bed at 9:30 even if that means I don’t get to finish a blog post every evening. I’ll go to bed on time even if it means it takes me a full week to read a novel. (In this way, I suppose it will be in line with my focus on simplicity, too.)

I know that this will be a challenge. But I’m hopeful that once I’m more well-rested I’ll be better able to maintain routines during the day, which will benefit my children’s moods and my own. I hope that I will lose some of this brain fog and fatigue-related…you know, that thing where you can’t remember things? Not insomnia… Not magnesia…

At any rate, maybe I’ll be able to think more clearly and be more effective when I go to try to do something with my brain.

And maybe I’ll even be able to get some reading or blogging in during the day while the kids are up because they’ll be happy to spend some time playing quietly on their own after spending high-quality time with their new and improved non-zombie Mommy!

But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

What I’m really hoping is that I can actually follow my experimental design. Even during that year when my daughter was up at 4:30 every morning I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed at a decent hour. But I’m nothing if not inconsistently persistent.

So, here goes nothing! I’ll let you know how I do.

Us or Them: Six Tips for Meeting Mom’s Needs

One day, I’ll have my mornings back. One day, the kids will be old enough to stay home alone while I go to the gym. One day, I’ll get to go to the bathroom by myself. In the meantime, I’ve got to find ways to meet my needs in the best way I can.

Over the course of my Happiness Project, I’ve found several guidelines for meeting my needs that, if I bother to follow them, seem to work fairly well to keep balance in my life between my needs and those of my kids. I might be wrong, but I think at least some of these would be applicable even to people without kids.

These were all identified in retrospect after discovering that—surprise!—I was sometimes actually meeting my needs. I offer them here in the hopes that some of them might work for you, too.

1) Identify what meets my needs. This sounds easier than it is. I live a lot of my life on autopilot and don’t stop to reflect on what is actually meeting my needs and what isn’t. What do I like to do? What brings me happiness? What just fills time until the next activity? Sometimes this can be deceptive because the things that bring me long-term happiness aren’t always those things that are pleasant in the short-term. In my day-to-day life, some of the things that I find necessary to my happiness are exercise, quiet (including meditation), writing, and reading. Identifying needs also includes exploring other ways of meeting my needs, like this Mindfulness class I’m doing right now. I don’t know if 40 minutes of mindfulness meditation each day is going to be something I work into my schedule long-term, but I won’t know unless I try.

2) Schedule my needs first. Back when I used to watch daytime TV, it seemed like everyone talking about personal finance would tell you to “pay yourself first.” I look at scheduling my needs first kind of like that. The way my life works, my kids get all of my time by default. If I don’t stake my claim on it, it’s theirs. Even if I do stake my claim, it’s sometimes theirs. I try to look a week ahead (or sometimes just a day ahead) and schedule in when I’m going to exercise. I set up childcare for a trip to the gym or a jog around the park, or I schedule in a hike with the family. Scheduling them isn’t a guarantee I’ll do them, but at least it decreases the energy barriers and tips the odds in my favor.

3) Develop routines. I go to yoga every Thursday night. I have our sitter every Tuesday and Friday morning. I blog every day. I do these things whether I feel like I need to (or even want to). Having a schedule keeps the inner argument out of it.

4) Have concrete goals with a way to track progress. During National Novel Writing Month, I wrote 1667 words per day. I plugged in my word count and it showed me on a graph how close I was to reaching my goal. This was remarkably effective in keeping me motivated. For years, I followed Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and did my Morning Pages, three pages of longhand written first thing every single morning. The routine helped, but so did having my concrete goal (three pages) and the visible sign of progress (filling the notebooks). Reading has the concrete goal part built in, and I track my progress on Goodreads.

5) Prioritize activities. I have friends who knit. And knit, and knit. They are passionate about knitting and that meets their needs (at least some of their needs). I like knitting. But it’s not my passion, and it doesn’t meet my basic needs in the way that other activities do. I would love to make more time for it, but knowing I have limited time in my day, I choose to prioritize writing or reading or exercising over knitting. Of course, logic doesn’t always factor into these decisions. If it did, I’d put Facebook much lower on my priorities list.

6) Be flexible. Sometimes, despite my best plans, I don’t get to work out at the gym. Maybe a kid’s sick or the babysitter’s late or my husband’s been called away on an interview. I maybe put in an exercise video to do with the kids, or I allow enough time to walk to run errands rather than drive, or I mow the lawn, or take the kids to the zoo or the gardens or some other place that involves me wearing my son on my back and walking all over creation.

What are some of the ways you’ve found to balance your needs with those of your children or other loved ones, or with other responsibilities?

Volunteering as a Path to Greater Happiness

The day (and evening) have gotten away from me. So for Monday’s post, I leave you a quote to ponder from Gretchen Rubin. It’s her “Second Splendid Truth”:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make someone else happy;

One of the best ways to make someone else happy is to be happy yourself.

-Gretchen Rubin

via The Happiness Project: Volunteer. Give Pro Bono. Help Others. It’s the Right Thing to Do, and It Will Boost Your Happiness..

I plan to write some this month about the other paradox of giving of oneself to the wider community for the purpose of refilling your Happiness bank while wearing the “Full-time Mommy” hat at the same time.

I do find that volunteering my time brings me happiness. But I tend to jump in with both feet and allow volunteering to be yet another thing keeping me from meeting my basic needs for Self Care (adequate sleep, proper diet, exercise). Then I get burned out and have to start from scratch again. (But then, it seems like I prioritize pretty much everything over Self Care…)

As usual, this balance seems a difficult one to strike.

The Roots of Vegetable Optimism

Légumes

This is about how many vegetables I'm supposed to eat each day. (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve had enough with feeling down, and with feeling anxious, and with hormone fluctuations. So, I went to the acupuncturist today.

Right now, if my brother’s reading this, he’s rolling his eyes. Despite the fact that he’s never tried acupuncture, he’s pretty sure it’s a load of crap. My brother knows a load of crap when he sees one. (Yikes, did that sound mean?) OK, enough poking fun at my baby brother.

The bottom line is, my family practice doctor, nice as she is, doesn’t have any suggestions to offer me that I’ve not already tried, and the acupuncturist has helped before, so that’s where I went today.

He felt my pulses, looked at my tongue, asked me some questions, and declared that my adrenals were “fried” and that my liver was “hanging on by a thread.” I can only assume these are highly technical terms he learned in acupuncture school.

His recommendation for strengthening my liver: a diet that includes pretty much as many vegetables as I can possibly consume for two weeks, but no grains or sugar or alcohol or coffee. Luckily, I still get to eat eggs and fish because I’m nursing and need that extra protein (just between you and me, I might sneak in some brown rice every now and then, too).

When I first read the list of OK foods and the list of not-OK foods, I felt cautiously optimistic. I have a green smoothie every morning. I don’t eat dairy or gluten. I’m already at least three steps ahead of the average person on implementing this diet.

When I got home, the sitter was still with the kids, so I snuck upstairs with two cookbooks (Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair and I am Grateful, the Cafe Gratitude cookbook), my laptop, and a couple of sheets of paper. After forty-five minutes, I had a page and a half of lunches, dinners, and snacks that would be compliant with the diet. (Well, except for the three dates in the raw molé that goes with my stuffed avocados. I decided that was a tiny cheat and so didn’t count at all.)

After clearing my dinner ideas with my husband (I think it says something about the frequency of my harebrained dietary schemes that my husband endorsed this plan with a hearty, “I actually don’t think this is crazy.”), I got the grocery list, a bunch of cloth grocery bags, and my car keys, and headed out to the new Whole Foods. I filled my cart with greens and nuts and seeds, apples and squash and pears, parsley and sage and eggplant. I grabbed a few bags of frozen berries and a half-gallon of cow’s milk (for the rest of the family), tossed a couple of packages of raw flax crackers on top, and headed to the checkout. Surveying my purchases inching along on the conveyor belt, I felt incredibly optimistic.

“I can do this,” I thought. “This is going to be easy. This is going to rock. In a few days, I’ll be feeling awesome. AWESOME!”

This feeling lasted until I pulled the car into the garage, opened the car door, and swung my legs out of the car. The moment my feet touched the concrete, reality hit.

“Oh, shit,” I thought. “I’m going to be prepping veggies non-stop for the next two weeks. No! That’s not even true. I’ll be prepping veggies and soaking nuts and cooking beans and straining nut milk and not drinking coffee. My children will eat me alive!”

“But,” my optimistic side piped up, “you can drink all the herbal tea that you want! You can make up a big jug of it in the morning and just sip it all day!”

My freaking-out side wouldn’t even dignify that with a response.

But, here I am. I’ve got my cranberry/lemon/apple cider vinegar drink mixed and in the fridge. I’ve got the veggie drawers filled to overflowing and bags of nuts falling off of the counters. I’m doing this.

Starting tomorrow.

Ah, Endorphins and Clean(er) Air…

Between the lovely rains that came through today and cleaned out a good chunk of the pollution and the wonderful workout I had this afternoon, I’m feeling in a much better place than I have been for the past week. I’m pleasantly sleepy and know I’m going to be sore tomorrow. But I also have a Yin Yoga DVD I got from the library, so I can do that tomorrow and soothe my poor Yanged-up muscles.

For my workout, I went to a different gym location at which they have a steam room. The steam room was lovely. I think it may have been 2001 or 2002 when my husband and I went with some friends to their family’s condo in Williamsburg, Virginia, for a weekend. Our friends very generously gave us the master suite, which included a steam shower in the bathroom. Once we figured out how to work it, it was absolutely divine.

After that weekend, I vowed that one day I would have a steam shower in my home. So far, it’s not worked out that way. While we were house-hunting, I did look at one place that had a magnificent basement master with ten-foot ceilings and a steam shower that the whole family could easily have fit in. But the house was about $130,000 over what we wanted to spend and had no yard, so I remain steam-showerless.

It’s kind of funny that I like steam showers so much because, as a rule, I hate humidity. But perhaps I actually like humidity as long as I can choose when to experience it and escape it before it ceases to be fun. And there’s nothing like the intense aridity of Utah to make a person crave a little humidity.

A co-ed steam room in a gym is slightly less awesome than a steam shower in the privacy of one’s own master suite, but it’s still better than no steam at all. My husband’s not thrilled at the idea of me sitting in a bikini with three men in swim trunks, but he knows there’s an alternative. If he decides it’s worth the expense, I’m happy to sit by myself in a steam shower in my own home.

At any rate, I loved my workout and then my steam. The men who were in the room didn’t bother me much. My glasses, predictably, became covered with an opaque fog the moment I set foot inside the steam room, so I took them off. From my myopic perspective, I was sharing the room with three indistinct blobs in swim trunks that periodically stretched or massaged where I guessed their feet would be or left for a swim and then returned to steam some more. I would have preferred to share the steam room with blobs wearing bikinis, but as my dad always used to say, wish in one hand, spit in the other (only he didn’t say “spit”).

And the air! Oh, my, how lovely it was to see the blue sky again, if only for a brief time! And my dizziness almost disappeared today with all the breathing I was doing of air that was comparatively lower in particulates and chemicals than it has been for the past week!

I’m going to round out the day by going to bed early (ish), so I’ll just leave you with a smoothie I made last week. I’ve been just throwing together smoothies with whatever I happen to have around the house. I noticed that the raw cranberry sauce/relish I’d made for Thanksgiving was getting a little old. So, I tossed it in the smoothie with a couple of enormous swiss chard leaves, a cored comice pear, a peeled navel orange, a banana and a half (I was only going to use one banana, but the baby asked for a banana so I gave him half and put the rest in my smoothie. He smooshed his half in his little fists and then rubbed it in his hair), and about a cup of rice milk.

The result, artfully arranged with some autumn leaves my daughter left lying on the table:

 

Cranberry Sauce Smoothie

It tasted so good that I wished I’d bought a ton of cranberries while they were still at the store and packed them into my freezer. Except that they wouldn’t have fit, and I would had to have bought a chest freezer.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how to make raw cranberry sauce/relish, use a bag of cranberries, a cup of sugar, and the zest and pulp of one valencia orange (making sure there aren’t any seeds in it). Put everything in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and masticate for, I don’t know, like 30 to 60 minutes. Until it looks chunky but juicy and the sugar is all dissolved. The cranberries will try to jump out of the bowl at first. I just stand there with my hands blocking the edges and getting cranberry juice on my shirt until enough of them burst that they settle down and get crushed like good little berries. There’s likely a better way to do this, but this one works for me for the one time a year I make the cranberry sauce.

If I find more cranberries, I’ll make more sauce and post the prettied-up recipe with a picture.

December is Fun Month!

Finally, time for a little fun! Not only is December all about parties and celebrations, but it’s also my birth month. All of my life, I’ve looked forward to December only to have it pass by before I’d even had a chance to notice it. As part of my Happiness Project, I decided to try to remedy that by focusing the entire month around “fun.” Of course, this is Me-Style Fun, which is pretty low-key and introverted, but how much fun would I actually have if I tried to have someone else’s fun? I remember reading a cousin’s list of holiday parties on her Facebook profile a couple of years ago. It was party after party after party. She was clearly having a blast and loving all of the socializing, but I thought at the time (and still think) that that many parties would be my idea of hell. No exaggeration. Hell. She’d likely think something similar about my comparatively hermit-like lifestyle. That’s totally cool, and good to know as I plan my Fun Month. So, my first criterion: Fun Month will involve a minimum of parties.

Here’s what it will involve:

December 2010 – Fun

Focus: Let myself have a ball.

Set the stage for enjoyment. Back in college, fun involved staying up late and coming home feeling sick and smelling like cigarette smoke, getting two hours of sleep and then heading to class in the same clothes I’d partied in, barely held vertical by large amounts of caffeine. In the intervening years, my definition of fun has changed significantly. I look back nostaligcally at my baccanalian days, but I realize that as I approach my mid-thirties nothing’s fun if I’m sleep-deprived or know I’m going to feel crappy as a result of my frivolities. So I basically want to re-commit myself to the resolutions I’ve already introduced, especially the Mindfulness and Self Care resolutions from August and September, and explore these resolutions as they relate to fun. I’m hoping this gives me the best odds of being able to enjoy whatever it is I’m doing. I’m also hoping it helps me feel less self-conscious about the things that I find enjoyable. Who cares if other people think the things I’m doing are boring as long as I find them fun?

Make time for fun. Each day, I would like to know that I’ve got time earmarked for me to have fun. I spend most of the day doing things that simply need to be done, like feeding my family and overseeing their hygiene. Like it or not, I’m in charge of everyone’s underpants. I will try my best to enjoy underpants management through mindfulness. But I think it will also help if I know that I’ve got 30 minutes (or so) set aside just for what I want to do. If this is reading a novel instead of a nonfiction book about happiness, so be it. If it’s watching the John Adams miniseries I have out from the library while crocheting a scarf and sipping non-alcoholic wine, great. So long as it’s for me and I know it’s coming, I think I will be better able to enjoy those moments that aren’t so universally viewed as “fun,” as the John Adams miniseries is.

And that’s it. Broad strokes, not so measurable, but I think it’s the best approach for me in relation to my quest for fun. If you’d like to review my full Happiness Project schedule, please click the link to the left.

Let the FUN begin!

Not so Green “Green” Smoothie

"Green" Smoothie. It's good. Trust me.

When I offered a taste of this smoothie to my husband, he was enthusiastic.

“Oh! You put chocolate in it?” he asked.

“Um, no.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want me to tell you what’s in it, or do you want to try it first?”

Pause.

“I’ll try it first.”

He ended up liking it. I just share this exchange to illustrate that I know this smoothie doesn’t look supremely appetizing. But really, it’s my current favorite. If you’re feeling adventurous (or if you don’t mind that it’s an odd color for a smoothie that does not contain chocolate), my recipe is below.

Not so Green “Green” Smoothie

makes 5 cups

Place in your blender (mine’s a VitaMix. I don’t know how other blenders handle this concoction):

1/2 bunch dandelion greens (I used organic red dandelion from the grocery store. I don’t use dandelion greens from the yard. They’re a different variety from the ones at the grocery store.)

1/2 pineapple (leave the core, cut off the spiky peel)

1 banana

3 frozen plums (These are probably optional. I use them because we have a golden plum tree in our yard, and I have a bunch of plums in my freezer.)

10-15 frozen strawberries (I’m pretty sure it’s these that change the smoothie from green to burnt ochre. Perhaps if you used something with less color, like yellow raspberries or something, the smoothie would stay green)

Turn that baby on and crank up to High and jam everything into the blades with the approved tamper. Blend for 30-60 seconds. I usually drink about half of it and leave the rest in the fridge for lunch.

NaNoWriMo Day 11 Update

Main health effects of sleep deprivation (See ...

They seem to have forgotten "Increased dairy-free ice cream consumption." (Image via Wikipedia)

Word Count: 18,992

I skipped writing last night because I went out with a group of other moms for dinner and a dueling piano show. I worked ahead so my daily average word count wouldn’t take a hit, but I hadn’t banked on how exhausted being out until nearly midnight would leave me. I didn’t get to bed until 1am. The kids slept until almost 8, but the baby has a cold and, I think, is teething, so he spent much of the night nursing. While I’m more skilled at sleeping while nursing than I was with my first, it still doesn’t give me the quality of sleep that sleeping while not nursing does.

I almost scrapped the idea of writing tonight in favor of going to bed at 8:00. Instead, I had another dairy-free ice cream bar and soldiered on. I’m glad I did. I feel better—calmer, more satisfied, less hungry—and I’m happy that I won’t be playing catchup tomorrow.

Apparently NaNoWriMo Week Two is notoriously difficult from a psychological standpoint, and I want to make sure I show up at the computer to write every day so that pesky inner critic doesn’t get a foothold.

So far, so good. (I hope that didn’t taunt her too much.)

Compromising with Gravity

Last night I followed two of my commandments: Risk Looking Silly, and If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Poorly.

First I side-stepped my inner perfectionist by finally framing and hanging all of the prints I had made and the kids’ birth samplers that my aunt cross-stitched. We have a dentist we like, a place to service our car, hikes we love, farmers we know by name, and now I’ve hung photographs, which means we’ll probably move out of state within the year, given our history. If I find a church I like, it’ll be even sooner. (That reminds me, I had a dream that I tried out a church downtown, and they showed up the next day and mowed my lawn and poured us a new driveway. I thought, “Wow, what a great way to get visitors to continue attending!”)

But back to the topic of this post:

In the evening, I attended an Anti-Gravity Yoga class with some friends for our monthly “Ladies Night.”

For those unfamiliar with Anti-Gravity Yoga, it was developed by Christopher Harrison (a Utah native who now lives in New York City), and involves hammocks hung from the ceiling in which the practitioners sit, wrap themselves, swing, and flip, and out of which, with any luck, they do not fall.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog (and/or if you know me in person), you may have guessed that I’m not much of a thrill seeker. There were a number of things I wasn’t interested in trying in the class last night. I didn’t really enjoy the swinging part and was tentative about the flips. The fabric of the hammock kind of cut into the meat of my thighs and hips, which was uncomfortable and not really something I needed to see reflected in a floor-to-ceiling mirror. But there were some stretches, like downward-facing dog, a variation on pigeon, and warrior 1, that were greatly enhanced by the support of the hammock. The shoulder/heart openers were quite intense, in a good way. My abs and back muscles are quite sore today, which is a little surprising because I didn’t realize I was working my core that much. And man, savasana in a hammock was about the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done.

I was fairly impressed with my willingness to be a little adventurous and try out this new activity. My husband asked what I thought of it when I got home, and I couldn’t really come up with a succinct answer. I don’t generally like things I’m not automatically good at. I’m aware of this and adjust for it in my thinking, so it’s not surprising that my opinion about Anti-Gravity Yoga is nuanced. I think it would take attending 3 or 4 classes before I could say for sure whether it’s something I enjoy or not.

But I definitely enjoyed getting together with friends and meeting new people. If I’m going to hang upside-down with my feet hooked in a sling, I’d much rather do it in a room full of people I know than in a room full of strangers.