Raising the Modern Family: Jen’s Wise Advice

July 26th

Today in the series on step-parenting: Raising a Modern Family — Jen’s story. Jen married her sweetheart at the wise age of 24, and became a stepmother to two lovely girls … who would make her a grandma at the wise, old age of 33. Jen’s perspective is hilarious and so wise. The best piece of advice she gives: never, ever talk trash about your stepkid’s bio parents.

Raising the Modern Family

Tell me about you, and your family. How long have you been married? How old are your kids? 

Cliff and I have been married for almost 19 years.  We met in my final year of college, when I was 22; we married when I was 24.  I like to joke that I’m the “trophy wife” because he is a good 12 years older than I am*, and many of my friends were shocked at me dating a divorced dad in his 30s.  Also humor is my coping mechanism, and boy do you need humor as a step-mom.

The girls (really, they’re women now, but Cliff and I have always referred to them as “the girls”) are 30 and 28.  They were 7 and 5 when Cliff and their mom got divorced, 10 and 8 when I met their dad, and 12 and 10 when we got married.  Their mom remarried immediately after she and Cliff divorced, and she and her husband have two sons together.  Due to their step-dad’s life in the USAF, the girls have always lived out of state and could only visit us once a year for about two weeks at a time.

*The age difference makes it really fun to tell people I’m a grandmother of four (first grandchild was born when I was 33, Cliff was 45).  Ha!
Did you ever think you would be a stepparent? Do you have stepparents?

I never thought I would be a stepparent, or any kind of a parent for that matter. Step-parents were a mystery to me.  My parents were married almost 48 years when my dad passed; their parents were each married 50+ years.  There was no precedent in my immediate family.

Luckily I was young and dumb and romantic, very much: “our love is worth the struggle” (cue pearl clutch).  It was, it still is, but there were some extremely stressful times that I did not foresee.  Just as well.  Had I known, I might have scared myself off and missed out on so much wonderful – both in my marriage, and in these humans I’ve been lucky to see grow up.

How has this experience changed you? 

I’ve learned a lot about myself, mostly things I’m ashamed of.  I’m not selfless. I don’t like spending time 24/7 with kids.  Parenting was not my idea of a fun way to spend my limited vacation time and money.  I’m not patient: I absolutely cannot understand why anyone needs to put on sunblock while sitting on an upholstered chair, or leave their bottle of body oil face down on the futon.

“PICK UP YOUR DAMN TOWELS; I DON’T CARE IF YOUR MOM GIVES YOU FRESH ONES EVERY DAY; YOUR MOM DOES NOT LIVE HERE.” I will neither confirm nor deny having said this more than once.

I regularly freaked out over grocery bills; I yelled and snapped at my husband instead of discussing issues.  I’m angry and jealous and petty and rude as a parent.  It’s given me so much grace for people and how we each struggle with our image of ourselves not matching the reality of ourselves.

On the other hand, I challenged my step-daughters to learn new things, to plan with a budget, to conserve water and care for their environments, to love their bodies, to say “I CAN,” and to know they have choices.  Hopefully I have managed to communicate how much I love them, even though my love is (clearly) not a parent’s love and may not be the love they wanted or needed from me.  And hopefully I have managed to show that while no one is perfect, family means there’s room for all of us– because that’s what I’ve learned, too –room even for a somewhat evil step-mom.

Has your parenting style influenced your relationship with your partner? 

Our styles in parenting reflect our approaches to life: he’s laid back and content to watch TV and movies and eat candy all day, and I’m about getting out to museums and state fairs and swimming and bedtime at 9:00 and up again tomorrow at 7:00 am for more of the same ….

I found it necessary to give Cliff and his girls plenty of time alone together during their visits.  It kept me from over-structuring their time, gave me a break from all the sturm und drang of adolescent girls, allowed them their TV and candy time, and encouraged their old dynamic: just the three of them–something they had for a few years before I came along.  It worked amazingly well and made us all happier when we were together.
What advice would you give to someone new to this game?

There are many different ways of being a step-parent, and they are all real.  They are all legitimate.  They are all valid.  I have had many people tell me my experience “didn’t count” because the girls didn’t live with us and we didn’t have a weekly visitation schedule.

I felt very, very alone.  My experiences didn’t match anyone’s that I knew.  I had loving family support but no one really “got it.”  Find the people who “get it.”  Thank god/dess there’s Facebook now. Use it.  Form a tribe.  Get with step-parents of all genders, ages, levels of parenting.  Listen.   Ask for help.  Complain (discreetly).

Which leads me to: find someone totally safe to unload the daily shit to, so you feel heard and you can get it out of your house and out of your marriage.   I learned very quickly that it doesn’t help to complain to your spouse about their ex; either he had conflicted feelings of loyalty (they were married for 7 years, after all), or his complaints fueled my fire.  And there were many situations in which I couldn’t kvetch about the kids to my spouse, either.  Because we only had them for two weeks, those two weeks had to be perfect in every way.   Do not let your parents become this person for you.  Parents can skew a couple even with the perfect circumstances.

Alternately, find someone who is in the same position as your spouse’s ex and listen to them, so you understand what it’s like to be on the other side.  Because there are always complicated issues involved, and nothing is ever as simple as an evil ex or evil step.  The more empathy you have, the more you can all work together instead of battle each other.

— DO NOT EVER LET YOUR STEPKIDS HEAR YOU BADMOUTH EITHER OF THEIR PARENTS.  Take the high road, and take your trash talk out to margaritas with someone completely removed from the situation (not your parents, as noted above, they can make things get messy).

I kissed ass and swallowed insults often, for the sake of the kids.  I have never regretted it, and now my grown kids continue to invite me to be part of their lives, even though now they don’t have to.  Win-win.  (Note: there was never any question of abuse or boundary problems in our relationship with the girls’ mom.  If you are dealing with an ex who is themselves dealing with unhealthy behaviors, you’re going to need the help of a good counselor.  Invest the money.)

Since we have never lived in the same state, let alone zip code, we found it fun to go to the dollar store and make seasonal packages and mail them.  All kids love mail, and it kept us feeling connected, since kids don’t talk on the phone much (this was pre-Skype and pre-FaceTime, people.  The communication DARK AGES).  We would hear later that they enjoyed sharing the boxes with their little brothers, which came in handy when we visited and their brothers knew who we were.

We covered one wall of wherever we lived with pictures from times we spent together.  We wanted the reminder, when they weren’t around; and when they visited, we wanted them to know we saw them as integral to our life.  We let them paint and decorate our home so a piece of them stayed when they left.
Is there a story about your kids you’d like to share? 

The first time my oldest acknowledged me on Mother’s Day, I cried.  She was 18.  I had given up all hope.

The oldest caught the bouquet at Mom’s re-marriage; the youngest caught mine.  I think that was a favorable sign.

 

Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about your experience? 

Because we only got them two weeks out of every year, they were different humans at every visit,  and so were we.  Once I figured that out, it made things much more interesting and fun.  We could all enjoy each other in the moment and let go of last year’s struggles.
Kelli knows –  I’m a HUGE reader, and so my go-to approach is always research and finding a book about whatever challenges I’m facing.  One of the things I read early on that has stayed with me is that it takes, on average, 7 years for a blended family to feel cohesive.  7 years!  So cut yourself some slack and focus on building one bit at a time.  You don’t have to have the whole fortress made right away.

 

Many thanks to Jen for sharing these gems. SEVEN years. Oy. 

~K

 

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Modern Family
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Raising a Modern Family: Stephanie and Scott

July 25th

Today begins a new series on step-parenting: Raising a Modern Family. As I approach marriage and becoming a stepmother, I thought I’d look to the advice and knowledge of those who have already found what works, and what doesn’t. Today, we welcome Stephanie and Scott.

Raising the Modern Family

Tell me about you, and your family. How long have you been married? How old are your kids? 

Scott and I have been married a little over a year but we’ve been together a little over 3 years. His daughter Ryan is 8, and my daughter Maya will soon be 11. Maya is adopted. My ex-husband and I adopted her as a newborn in 2005, and we have an open adoption with her birthmother and family. It’s a unique and wonderful experience that doesn’t always come with adoption.

Scott and I have the same parenting schedule — joint custody, 50/50. This allows the girls to be here with us the same days each week, which has helped their relationship tremendously. It is nice for Scott and I when we have our “parenting” and “non-parenting time” together too.

How long have you been a stepparent?

We both officially became step-parents June 6th of 2015 when we were married. Scott and Ryan moved in with Maya and me about 9 months after we started dating. The living arrangements and “step-parenting” started pretty early for both of us, which I think has helped since we’ve gotten married. We both went into the marriage comfortable with our situation and our roles in our kids’ lives. We weren’t totally terrified, wondering if we’d all get along.
Did you ever think you would be a stepparent? Do you have stepparents?

Scott: No. I didn’t start thinking of that as a possibility until after I became divorced. My parents are still married and I was never brought up around divorces or step-parents and step-siblings.

Stephanie: No. Obviously it never occurred to me as a possibility while married, but even while I was dating after my divorce, I never imagined parenting anyone other than Maya. I purposely did not date men with children because I wanted Maya to be priority. I didn’t think I had it in me to love someone else’s child without bias to my own. After failed dating attempts, I finally decided I would try to meet someone who did have a child/children to see if that was the problem. Scott was the first and only person I dated with kids. It made me realize that I needed someone who related to my situation of being a single parent and being divorced to connect. Scott understood scheduling conflicts, dealing with divorce and ex-spouses, raising a daughter similar in age, and juggling it all.

My mom was remarried 4 times. I had 2 step-dads growing up and I disliked both of them. Knowing what made me dislike them growing up as a kid has helped me as an adult be conscious of our actions as step-parents.

How has this experience changed you? 

Scott: As a dad/stepdad, I have become more attentive to my daughter and Maya’s needs as kids and girls! Stephanie helped me with that.  I now have a full family to think of now, not just Ryan and I. I think harder about the decisions I make as a parent and step parent.

Stephanie: It’s been an eye opening experience and a challenging one for us both at times. I’ve changed in that I have found that I can love and nurture another child, despite her not being my own. I tend to re-evaluate situations and analyze them closer, making sure I’m doing what is in the girls’ best interest. Not that I didn’t before, but I do it more closely now, ensuring I don’t step on toes of Ryan’s mom, or make Ryan ever feel uncomfortable. I am so content with where I am at in my life now, and I love the family we have created together. I always wanted two kids, and now I have them!
What would you have done differently?

Scott: I would have reminded myself to have more patience with Maya initially. She and Ryan have different dispositions and I wasn’t used to managing this type of child. I would sometimes get easily frustrated with having to repeat myself or constantly remind her to do things.

Stephanie: Step-parenting wise, I would have changed how I initially tried to always make Ryan happy and ensure she was in a good mood or enjoyed being with us. I think part of that is normal going into these types of situations, but I tried too hard to please a 5-year-old, and started to stray from ensuring Maya was also happy. I tended to forget that Maya was still adjusting and getting used to Scott as well. I think Scott and I have done well with keeping each other in check and adjusting things as needed. If I could have done anything differently post-divorce, it would have been refraining from introducing Maya to anyone I dated until I knew things were solid.
Has your parenting style influenced your relationship with your partner? 

Scott: I think it’s brought us closer together, being that we are forced to discuss difficult and sensitive issues regarding both of our kids. We’ve had to remember to be open-minded to the other parent’s style of dealing with things without getting offended or upset.

Stephanie: We talk about situations or conflicts together and how to best go about resolving them. I think our similar situations have brought us closer together, being that we connect with the emotions the other is dealing with easier. I know it’s also caused conflict in the household at times as well. Sometimes I may tell Scott that he should have reacted or done something differently in his parenting, and he can get defensive about it — which causes tension. I think I did this more when we initially started dating, and since then only a handful of times.
What advice would you give to someone new to this game? 

Scott: To be understanding that parenting styles differ and that assuming the role of the “other parent” in your own home environment can be challenging. You aren’t trying to replace or be the other parent, but your responsibilities are similar and you have to know and understand that boundary and difference going in.

Stephanie: Don’t try so hard at trying to facilitate the relationship between you and your step-child/children. Let it happen naturally. Don’t be afraid to “parent.” Kids still need to know you that you and their mom/dad are a team and it’s not one sided parenting in the home, just because you are a step-parent. I have learned that you shouldn’t treat step-children any differently than your own. I was afraid that Ryan wouldn’t like being at our house or like me, if I had to enforce rules with her. I found myself barking at Maya and never Ryan, which began to make Maya feel like a target and that wasn’t fair.

Remember that everyone is adjusting to something new.

Is there a story about your kids you’d like to share? 

Both: Maya and Ryan have totally different dispositions, yet similar likes/dislikes. Maya is loud, easily distracted, and is constantly moving and on the go. She tends to be the one who needs reminders to do things, and to finish tasks. Ryan is mellow, laid back and a rule follower. She is like a mother hen and has a mature mind, despite being nearly 3 years younger. Both girls love Minecraft, horses and animals, shopping and the same TV shows and movies, so they get along extremely well and rarely get into arguments or tiffs. The girls were goofing around on the couch one day this summer, just being silly and they bumped heads. Both of them rubbed their heads, laughed about it and apologized to the other. Then Maya says, “Wow….I think I’m starting to feel more mature from bumping Ryan’s head. Wait, no, never mind…..” She then resumed flailing around on the couch again. We all about died laughing at her comment, but it was comforting to know she realizes their differences and is just fine with being herself in our home.

Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about your experience? 

Both: We have never referred to the girls as “your step-sister” since being married. We always use the word “sister” and “my daughter” when speaking, without really realizing it. I think this has made an impression on them, in that we have noticed them both referring to the other as their “sister” as well. They bring home drawings of their family and they include each other. They get prizes at school and they bring one home for the other. We are truly lucky that the girls are so close in age and similarities and I think that has helped tremendously with the transition into becoming a step-parent. Scott and I discuss how terrible it would be if they didn’t get along and we thank our lucky stars that they adore each other. We are in no way perfect parents OR step-parents and it hasn’t always been easy but we both do the best we can to make our situation be the best it can be.

 

If you’d like to share your adventure in being a step parent, step kid, or step grandparent — leave a comment. We all have something to learn from one another!

Many thanks to Stephanie, Scott, Maya and Ryan!

~K

Posted in
Modern Family
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We are getting married!

July 12th

Engagement Photos

Jason asked me to marry him this weekend, and I went from a “strong maybe” to a “definite yes!” immediately. I’d been joking with him for months when he would talk about our future that, “Hey! I was still a strong maybe.” And then I’d shake my had obnoxiously, signaling the “All the single ladies!” dance moves of Beyonce.

As in: dude. Put a ring on it.

Now that he has, and with a lot of luck and patience, I hope we live happily ever after.

xo,

K

aka: Feyonce

 

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Celebrate!
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Let’s Talk About Suicide

June 29th

Community Gardening

 

One of my roles is work in suicide prevention. In the last two years, I’ve learned there are few families in America who haven’t been touched by suicide — and this is especially true if you live west of the Mississippi. There is a western wave of violence theory; in a nutshell: there are a lot of guns west of the Mississippi.

I’m not getting into a gun debate here. I am going to share a few insights that I hope may help one of you reading.

  1. You’re not alone. Lots and lots of people (most Americans, actually) will experience depression at some point. Some 80% of suicides are related to depression. You may have visited that dark place where ending your life seems more reasonable than sorting out the problems at hand. The good news in all of this is there are lots of resources, and you can remain anonymous if you want too.
  2. People who attempt suicide and survive are not doing so “for attention.” They are hurting, and they need help. Judgments of their behavior do not help. Let’s be thankful they’ve survived.
  3. Talk therapy is gold for suicidal individuals. Sometimes, a person may also need medications to help right the chemicals in their brain. Similarly, sometimes diabetics need insulin. There should be no societal difference in how we decipher the pharmaceutical needs of our physical and behavioral needs.
  4. Community is critical. The most successful suicide prevention program in Arizona pairs senior volunteers with home-bound seniors. These pairs become friends. Now, a person who wasn’t able to leave their home has a friend coming over at least once a week to check in. Just that has been enough. The program hasn’t had a suicide yet.
  5. Suicide, regardless of age, race or sexual preference, etc., happens because of isolation. A person may feel alone in a rural community, or in a bustling high school. Loneliness is public enemy number one in suicide prevention. We are creatures who need friendship.
  6. The largest group of individuals dying by suicide in America are white men age 65 and older by gun. If you have a man who meets these criteria in your life and you are at all concerned, please remove any guns or prescription drugs from the home until you can find him help.

Some great resources:

  • Teen Lifeline pairs kids with kids to talk about tough things, including suicide.
  • Your state behavioral health system. It may not be perfect, but they should have resources available for both substance abuse and suicide prevention. These often go hand in hand.
  • Safe Talk. This is a two day class that trains anyone age 18 and older how to recognize concerning behaviors and make a safe plan. Your municipality should be offering this course.
  • The Area Agency on Aging. The AAA will have community resources regarding suicide as well.

If someone in your life is hurting and considering suicide, please speak up.

~K

 

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Public Health
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Bye bye, Garden

June 21st

Garden to Table

This has been a very frustrating year in the gardening department. *We spent several hundred dollars (and several weekends) getting the irrigation set to the garden beds. And several hundred dollars on great earth and heirloom seeds and plants. And then, several hundred dollars on water.

This year, we’ve produced two squash, a couple dozen tomatoes and a dozen peppers. Total. The birds have eaten another two dozen tomatoes. And we’ve lost some of everything to the sun.

We are currently in the middle of a crazy heatwave, even for Arizona. It has been 115+ for the last few days. My green, leafy garden looks like someone took a blow torch to it. The leaves are singed along the edges, if not entirely dead. We do have gourds going nuts, vining all over the yard. And the herbs, happily potted in the shade, are also doing well in the heat as of today.

But man, the first year of a new garden is rough. It is a lot of work for future bounty. I need a good attitude to keep everyone else in the house who is waiting on the bounty interested, instead of wondering where all of our time and money went.

Our fall garden? It will be great. We’ll pull everything out in late-August, mix in new soil amendments and start over. I’m half-tempted to pull the remaining tomatoes now and plant pumpkin seeds for autumn. We are trying something new: starting tomato starts from cuttings. I’m going to do the same with both types of basil we are growing as well. There is a chance we’ll be able to keep our favorite tomato plants from this year alive indoors until mid-October and then transplant. Because if it is 118 in June, it better not freeze come January. That’s the deal I’m making with Mama Nature.

Gardening is a long-term hobby. Some years you fall flat. Or burnt.

~K

*and by “We” I firmly mean “Jason.”

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Arizona, Flora and Fauna
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Finding Your Muse

June 16th

dementia

I working on novel 3: “Counting Coup.” It is in the bare bones beginning stages, where I am throwing a bunch of ideas and characters down on the page and seeing what works. I’m about 15,000 words into this story — part of which is set on a farm in Nebraska in the 1950s and the other side, set in modern day Phoenix.

One of the characters has dementia. I’ve been struggling with how to get the details right about her care and her symptoms without barraging the reader with information that reads like a medical journal entry. Books that accidentally teach me something are my favorite. (A recent example is “All the Light We Cannot See,” and the creation and engineering of radios.)

Writing about dementia that lets the reader experience it emotionally, but doesn’t hit them over the head with sentimentality, is tricky.

This week my boss asked me to attend a health care conference in town. She was presenting and wasn’t able to attend several sessions of interest herself. Imagine my delight when I got the course material and realized one of those sessions was with an expert in dementia behaviors and treatment. Seriously. I took five handwritten pages of notes, was able to ask questions and got the details and nuance I needed to better develop this character.

When the universe aligns in this way, I feel like my friends Creativity and Inspiration are sitting on either side of me, paving the path to something great. I skipped out of there with new motivation to get back to writing and feeling very lucky. Speaking of — time to get back to it.

~K

 

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Writing
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On Publishing

June 14th

Female Shepherd

More than a year ago, I sent my second novel, “Basket Baby” off to a small publishing house in Montana. A friend of mine had success in publishing with them, and spoke highly of their work. She said she’d put in a good word.

They read the first few chapters, requested the rest of the novel, and returned it with detailed editing and a note that said, “This may or may not be for us. There are a lot of cliches.” (I’m paraphrasing, but the word cliche was definitely used.)

I made their changes, page by page. And I workshopped the novel with a group of people I trust. I watched common errors fall away — word echos that are hard to catch in your own work, for example. I noticed that my dialog skills were strengthened by reminding the reader who is speaking, even if it is just two people and it is wildly clear to you, the writer. My character descriptions became more consistent and true.

These are a few of many areas I worked through before sending “Basket Baby” back to the original publisher. A month later, I got the news: they had decided to publish the book. The edits were good, and I’ve been assigned another editor to work with during the next 60 days to make the story ready for print. I’m working with another staff member on designing a book cover. “Basket Baby” will be on store shelves December 6, 2016.

I KNOW!

I mean… I’ve been talking about this day for decades. This novel, like the first, took years to see the light of day. And then took increasingly thick skin to make something worth sharing publicly. I’ve called myself a novelist since I self-published “Under the Same Moon” in 2010. Today, it feels real. And, it feels absolutely marvelous!

Thank you for hanging around here all these years to see this dream to fruition. I’ll be sharing book signing dates as they are scheduled and hope to see as many of you as possible.

~Kelli

(the novelist)

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Media, Writing
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A Pillow for the Cuban Room

June 1st

My friend Lisa once hosted me at her home in Indianapolis. She and her partner Dan are two of the most gracious people I know. Also, Lisa happens to be a total fitness nut and hilarious. I love the bits of time I get to spend with her when she’s in Arizona, and hope to travel to Indiana again to see them.

Her 50th birthday was a few months ago and of course I didn’t get anything in the mail to her her in time. So, I asked her if I could make a log cabin pillow to match one of the colorful rooms in their home. She sent me photos of the Cuba room, and this is what eventually arrived as a belated gift:

Cuba room pillow for Lisa. Www.africankelli.com

Cuba room pillow for Lisa. Www.africankelli.com

Cuba room pillow for Lisa. Www.africankelli.com

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Indiana?

~K

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Domestic Art
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A Pillow for the Finny

May 27th

May 2016 domestic life www.africankelli.com

May 2016 domestic life www.africankelli.com

Finny's book pillow May 2016 www.africankelli.com

Finny's book pillow May 2016 www.africankelli.com

Finny's book pillow May 2016 www.africankelli.com

Finny's book pillow May 2016 www.africankelli.com

Finny's book pillow May 2016 www.africankelli.com

I asked Finny a while back for her list of favorite books. I knew I wanted to make a book pillow for her. The package arrived today and she was happy, which in turn makes me happy. This was a fun project — challenging because I am fairly awful at embroidery. And yet, there is her smiley face!

 

~K

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Domestic Art
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Creative Time

May 21st

May 2016 domestic life www.africankelli.com

I’ve talked about this before, but finding time to be creative is essential to my joy. And by “joy,” I mean “not screaming my head off and breaking things like the Hulk.”  When life gets busy, especially at the end of the school year, the schedule leaves little space for new recipes — much less time to just sit in the garden and talk to the plants.

What? You don’t talk to your vegetables? You should. 

I’m slowly and painfully learning to let go of the picture of what life should look like. Do you trip over this too? That all the beds should be made daily (Reality: once every 2-3 weeks when I get sheets changed), that the catch-all basket on the kitchen counter is organized and the mail and bills are caught up (Reality: more mail shows up daily), that I’ll get caught up at work (Reality: never. This is absolutely never going to happen), that I’ll feel like I’m getting enough exercise/sleep/sex and not worried about too many glasses of wine/calories/gray hair (Reality: are you kidding me?)

Letting the house remain dusty, the weeds grow one more day and junk mail unsorted gives me the time to sit down with a cup of coffee for a few minutes in the morning, cuddle the pups and knit a couple rows. Or embroider. Or practice the piano in the evenings. And making the time to do these things makes everyone in my family happier. I’m a resentful grouch if I spend all my time cleaning. This house is never, ever going to be wholly clean and organized. I’m working against two teenagers, three dogs, a bunny and the open, beautiful desert nearby — which is also REALLY dusty. And no one in this house needs to be nagged about being tidy. What we do need is to be regularly reminded we are loved.

There is no perfection. This life is messy and busy and absolutely wonderful as is, which I can see more clearly when I have time for the hobbies I love.

~K

 

 

 

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Daily Sass
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