I Want to Stay Three, Actually.

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Thursday evening, after his bath, Teo and I were sitting in his bedroom with all of his pajamas spread out on the floor. I’d casually asked if he wanted to wear the pajamas on the end of his bed or another pair.  In his post school day exhaustion, he whined that he didn’t want to wear “…those jammies!”  Then he declared, “I want to see all of my choices!” Mateo is an ultra-deliberate decision maker. This fact plus his emotional state set him up for quite the reaction to his pajama dilemma.

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Seeing all the pajamas laid out, I took the opportunity to select a few sets that he’d clearly outgrown. They were mostly shorts and t-shirt sets that he hadn’t worn in several months due to our unusually chilly winter. “Oh, these Mickey ones don’t fit anymore. Probably these other ones too,” I said as I gathered three pajama sets in my hands.  “Those are my favorites!  You can’t get rid of them!” Teo replied.  “Honey, you’ve outgrown them, it’s okay to clear them out of your drawer.”

“I don’t want to grow up, Mama!” Teo started to cry. “I want to stay six.”

I started to tell him how growing up is what he’s supposed to do. We’ve had this conversation several times lately and the words rolled right off my tongue.  “Teo, God designed us to grow up…”

“I liked being small. I want to stay three, actually.”

“Three? Really? Was three the perfect age?”

“Yes,” he replied as he curled up in my arms.

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I signed as a thought suddenly occurred to me: this is really how he feels, he’s mourning the loss of his little boy self. For that matter, I’m mourning it a bit too.  Why don’t I stop trying to reason with him and just hold him in my lap while he cries?

We sat, cuddled up on the floor of his bedroom for several minutes. When Dennis came home from work he found us there.  “What’s going on?” he asked.

“We’re just cuddling. Teo’s deciding which pajamas to wear.”

Shortly after that, Mateo decided which pajamas most appealed to him and got them on. The rest of the evening he was in great spirits and I was reminded of the simple truth that emotions are like the weather.  When we express them or at least stop resisting them, they pass in their own good time. What came out as a reaction to outgrowing pajamas was actually more about being expected to behave like a big kid for the whole day – sitting in class all day and then cooperating with his after school teachers for nine hours.  I couldn’t argue with him – life was simpler when he was three.

By letting out his pent of feelings, without being told that he was silly or wrong for feeling them, Teo quickly moved on to the next adventure in his life… in this case, dinnertime.

A Year of Essential at the Office

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I’ve really enjoyed this feeling of simplicity and clarity as I focus on a “year of essential” – cutting out the extra noise and spending my time in pursuit of what’s most important and valuable in life. This week, I noticed that the “year of essential” is having an unforeseen impact on my work life.  As in, I am super productive at the office!

One idea I’ve recently employed was something I picked up years ago from the blog ZenHabits, but never consistently implemented. Basically you select your top three highest priorities for the day and make sure to get those three things done. The beauty of the system is you get the most important tasks completed and feel productive by limiting the list to three things you can realistically achieve that day.  Then, that productive mindset helps propel you to accomplish more tasks.  For me, it’s been very helpful in taking time each morning to intentionally consider what my “highest and best use” is.  I’m deciding each day which essential tasks I’m supposed to be working on, versus things I should be delegating to my team or others.

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Feeling productive provides such a great energy boost! It just makes you feel good to know you’ve done your best that day and helped accomplish something as part of a team.  This energy has been super high this week as our office gears up for the spring busy season.  I’m finding more efficient and productive ways to accomplish my tasks, which generally involve communication with people at all different levels.

By meeting with my team to discuss the upcoming busy season expectations, processes updates, and preseason tasks we need to complete, team unity grows. By asking my team for feedback on my performance, I feel good for walking my talk!  By getting out and engaging people when I need information to solve an issue, I can move forward instead of waiting for an email response.  By buckling down and getting a task accomplished (because I can’t tell my boss one more time why I haven’t implemented a new scheduling process because “I need to catch up the past five months”) I get a boost of energy from crossing a nagging task off my list.  The essential functions of my job are properly getting my attention because I’m ignoring the noise and distraction that swirls around us all.

That all sounds well and good, but also a little like I’m feeling in control and very much like the pre-awakening version of me. But, there’s something deeper going on. By thinking about only what’s most essential to my life, I’m ultimately depending on God to provide guidance and direction on what’s most important.  I find myself praying for strength and wisdom as I make decisions on how to spend my time throughout the day.

It’s also helped me to look at my work as a blessing that God has bestowed upon me. Just this week I celebrated my 12th anniversary at my company.  To be honest, this job wasn’t what I set out to “be in life”.  After studying philosophy in college and history as a graduate student, I very much saw myself in academia.  But, that wasn’t the direction life took me and it took several years for that to become acceptable in my mind and heart.  Now, I see my work as a gift from God, a means to support my family.  When I’m in the office for nine hours in a typical day, focusing on what’s essential makes that time feel valuable.  Being away from my children during those hours in the late afternoon, I best use that time to accomplish what’s important to my job, or else a subtle feeling that “life isn’t as it should be” starts to settle in.

We all have various vocations in life, places that God has planted us to serve him and one another. That’s another way that focusing on the essential has brought peace – it helps balance my various vocations as wife, mom, manager, daughter, sister, friend, citizen, etc.  While I’m at work, my focus is largely on my employee/manager role, which helps me to accomplish enough of my job that I can then be Dennis’s wife and the kids’ mom at home, without letting work encroach on that time.

It’s funny, my initial approach to “only what’s essential” for this year was largely about my personal time and money. I didn’t realize that this mindset would yield such a productive and peaceful start to the year at the office.  Although it’s only mid-January… we’ll see how long this lasts!

Annual Check-ups, Football, and Growing Kids

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A very specific feeling comes over me whenever I’m in a medical office with my children.  It’s a mixture of calmness, heightened senses, and the peace that comes from having one priority to focus on.

Just last night, after showing the kids the picture of Teo and me from six years ago in the NICU that Facebook reminded me of, they insisted on hearing the entire story again.  As they finished dinner I started the tale of Teo’s weeklong stay in the NICU because he had the “diabetic baby” stigma.  Teo chimed in with his favorite part of the story, “…and I was so big it looked like I ate the other babies!”

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Recalling the feelings from that memorable week set the stage for today’s visit to the pediatrician.  With the kids’ birthdays being so close together and at the beginning of the year, it’s easy to remember when to schedule and efficient to knock out their annual physicals or “well child check-up” at the same time.

Today’s visit was fun because I finally get the hang of what questions the doctor wants me to answer and which she’s looking for the patient to address.  With Sienna, I spoke up for her at these appointments for probably two or three years past when I needed to.  I love our pediatrician and she was always gentle with me, but I figured out that I needed to pipe down and let Sienna speak up a couple years ago.

Determined not to make the same mistake with Teo, I hung back and let him speak up.  And did he ever!  He had a lot to tell the doctor – everything from the sports he plays with friends at school, to his every sniffle and cough for the past several months.  Later, while Sienna had her exam, Teo borrowed the doctor’s hammer to retest his reflexes and her stethoscope to check both his heart and mine. The doctor called him “The Kid with a Thousand Questions” by the time we left.

Sienna is now so big and capable of expressing her thoughts and feelings, I felt more like a spectator than a participant in her check-up today.

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I love seeing the growth and development in the kids during these annual visits.  Teo did his eye exam on the letter chart today; last year he didn’t know all his letters so he still used the picture chart.  They were both champs about the blood pressure test, when last year Teo cried about how much it hurt.  Sienna needs to have a blood test to check cholesterol within the next year!

During the visit today, Teo mentioned football so I decided to appeal to the doctor for support on my position.  “Let’s ask the doctor what she thinks about tackle football at your age!” I triumphantly said.  She replied, “Well, I’m a bit ambivalent…” and went on to describe some pros and cons.

This has become a bit of a joke in our home.  Dennis recently remembered an episode of The Wonder Years where Kevin’s mom doesn’t want him to play football and he asserts himself.  We all watched it together last night.  After just retelling the kids the tale of Teo’s NICU stay and gazing at the infant picture of him in the little football jammies, this episode struck me deeply.  Kevin is twelve years old.  In six more years, Teo will be that age.  At the end of the show, Kevin comes home injured after yelling at his mom not to baby him anymore.  She resists her urge to help bandage up his hand, instead telling him where to find the first aid supplies.  The poignant narrator explains how nothing really happened, “…but something changed that will never be the same again.”

I sobbed.  Teo sobbed.  He said, “I don’t want to grow up, Mommy!”  I had to pull myself together to explain that growing up is what’s supposed to happen.  God designed him to grow and experience all these wonderful stages and I’ll love him so much at each and every phase of his life.

That is, as long as he doesn’t get a concussion from playing football.

Lessons in Assertive Parenting (aka The Journal Story)

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After suffering through watching the Dolphins lose badly in their playoff game Sunday, we had an unplanned afternoon ahead of us. It was a beautiful day in the mid-70s with rain promised for most of the upcoming week.  We decided to get outside to enjoy the sunshine with a hike in Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. There’s a beautiful waterfall, but it’s a six mile hike roundtrip, so we knew we wouldn’t make it that far before the sunset.  Nevertheless, it would be fun to hike in the mud and let the kids explore.

Sienna responded to our enthusiasm for the hike with “I’ll bring my journal to record what we find!” She is very observant; always pointing out interesting sights that I’d failed to see and asking inquisitive questions.  She found her trusty purple journal and new princess pen and brought them along.

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We arrived at the trailhead and had to park a half mile away. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who decided to enjoy being outdoors before the storms hit!  The five of us – Dennis, me, Sienna, Teo, and our little dog Claira, headed out, careful to avoid the gigantic puddles that had formed on the road.  About a half mile from the car, as we’d just entered the muddy trail, Sienna declared “I don’t want to carry this journal the whole time!  Can we take it back to the car?”

“Honey, it’s a ways back to the car. We can just take it along.  I thought you wanted to record your discoveries…” I replied.

“But, I don’t want to carry it the whole time!” she cried.

“Okay, well I’ll take a turn carrying it. Or, we can put it here by this bush and come back for it,” I offered, as I took the journal and pen from her.

“No! Someone will take it!” Sienna started to cry real tears.

Oh for goodness sakes, I thought, as I kept walking.

“We have to put it back in the car!”

“Sienna, it’s not that big of a deal! You’re not even carrying it!” I replied.

This back and forth lasted another minute or so. Finally, I asked, “Why did you bring it if you didn’t want to record what you found?”

Sienna replied, “I thought I did, but now I don’t. I made a mistake, Mom.”

She made a mistake. We all make mistakes.

How do I want to handle her mistake?  Make her suffer for it?  Shame her?  Or, be the one she comes to for help fixing her mistakes.

“Babe,” I called up the trail to Dennis. “We’re going to dash back to the car to drop this stuff off.”

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Truthfully, I was still irritated as we turned around. All we wanted to do was go for a nice family hike, I thought.  Then, I stopped that thought.  So, I’ll help her fix the mistake but make her feel badly about it?

I took a deep breath, slowed, turned back and waited for Sienna to catch up so I could take her hand.

“Let’s talk about how we could have handled this better,” I said. “I’m sorry for getting upset with you, I know it was a simple mistake.”

“I just didn’t want you to leave it there. I was afraid someone would take it.”

“I understand. Next time, can you ask more calmly?  It’s hard for me to hear what you’re trying to tell me when you’re crying and throwing a fit.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

We returned the journal, pen, and her jacket which she decided to ditch too, back to the car. In no time, we joined Dennis, Teo, and Claira to resume the hike.  We crossed creeks that were relatively raging with water, threw sticks in said creeks, and generally explored the canyon.

After about an hour, we spotted a tree that was filled with Woodpecker holes. “Wow, look at that, kids!” Dennis exclaimed.

“There’s a Woodpecker!” Sienna shouted.

We stood as quietly as possible to hear the Woodpecker drilling yet another hole into the old tree.

“Wow,” Sienna spoke with awe, “I wish I had some way to record this.”

“Oh, yeah. If only you had a field journal with you,” I couldn’t help but reply.

She looked up at me and met my sarcastic gaze with a wry look. “Yeah, Mom.” We smiled as I threw my arm around her shoulders.

As I’ve learned to be present and live more fully in the moment, I can see the ebb and flow of individual and family moods and feelings. We had a great day, overall.  But, there were tears and frustrations at various moments.  The kids bickered.  Teo got cold and I felt guilty for not bringing him a sweatshirt.  No one complained of hunger on the two hour hike, but typically that happens on long family outings.  Or, one child decides they’re going to die without the last drink of water and the other kid realizes they are also extremely parched.  Did I mention bickering??

But, by being more comfortable with being present and letting the moments unfold, I’m better able to rescue a family outing by modifying my own behavior. So our walk is delayed because we have to return a journal to the car?  Big deal; that’s just life as a family trying to balance the needs of four people.  When I needed things to go a certain way, my relationships with Dennis and the kids paid the price. When I strove for control, I likely would have pushed the issue with Sienna even further by shaming her for her poor decision to bring the journal or left it behind in the bush, causing her to completely meltdown.

It’s funny, I’ve been working on assertiveness as a parent. Just yesterday, when we first got home from church, before putting the recorded Dolphins game on, Teo copped an attitude about his half hour on the iPad.  I calmly put him in his room, put the iPad on the top shelf of my closet and told him he wouldn’t get to play on it for the entire day.  They only get to play games on it during the weekend, so this felt like a major consequence to him.  He threw a huge fit, but got over it once the football game was on and he had chocolate milk in his hand.  Looking back, taking away the iPad helped pave the way for connection and outdoor fun as a family.  Good decision, Mom!

I suppose one could argue that I wasn’t assertive when the journal situation arose. But, I think therein lies the trick to parenting, knowing when assertiveness helps and when it hurts.  Being unyielding with my children will not enhance my relationships with Sienna and Mateo.  Setting boundaries and holding them will.

There are no perfect guidelines, but focusing on connection and love will rarely steer me wrong.

Some Thoughts on Aligning Values and Actions

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Along the same lines of focusing on “the essential” things we value, I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about what’s important in life recently. One of the biggest complaints in modern life is how busy and hectic our days have become.  We seemingly get caught up in the tidal wave of activities, events, and to do lists, without stopping to ask ourselves whether we have to do any of it.

As I’m nearing my late thirties (when did that happen?!), I’ve come to realize that, in terms of possible activities, the decisions are typically not between something good and something bad. Instead, we have to choose between two positive and valuable activities. That’s when it becomes a challenge to simplify, because the things we may have to cut out are worthwhile, in and of themselves.

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For example, as a family with two working parents, our weekend hours are precious and few.   Going to the Divine Service on Sunday morning is our highest priority and we have adopted special routines around the morning, including Dennis and my coffee weekly coffee date while the kids are in Sunday school. I look forward to it all week!  During the fall, football is high on our priority list too, especially when the Dolphins are playing so well!

As our kids are getting into sports and activities, in addition to me coveting my early morning long run, Saturdays now include soccer games in the fall and soon Tee-ball in the spring. Which will be fun mother/son bonding since I’m co-coaching Teo’s Tee-ball team!  But, before you know it, the weekend is full of planned activities that we find valuable.

There are dozens of other potential activities that could fill our time and many of them are good – reading a book, playing with the kids at the park, socializing, preparing meals for people, teaching the kids to swim, spending time with my husband, catching up with extended family, exercising, cleaning the house, etc. But, when it comes time to decide how to spend a weekend afternoon, we need to consider how relatively valuable each of these activities are to us.  The hours are limited and prioritization is necessary if we want to look back and feel that we lived with integrity – that is our values were aligned with our actions.

Now that I think about this, it’s really being intentional about how we spend our time, right? Rather than going through the motions and opting to do whatever comes our way, without taking the time to actually choose.

Just today, I realized that I’d already fallen behind on my “Through the Bible in a Year” reading! It’s only the fourth day of the year!  I started to tell myself that I didn’t have time to read four chapters of the Bible each day.  The “I’m too busy for this” mantra only lasted a second before I realized that I’d just spent 10 minutes scrolling through Facebook.  When I compare spending time looking at social media (when, let’s be honest, at least half of the items I scroll by add no redeeming value to my life) to reading the Word of God, it’s pretty clear what’s more valuable.

So, going into the New Year, I’m praying that God helps me to mindfully prioritize activities that focus on Him and the people that I value most. Because, in the end, connections to my loved ones and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what’s most important to me.