Today marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. This year, Easter happens to fall on my son’s 1-year-birthday.

I’ve been telling myself for awhile now that Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical calendar. This should be a hint as to what a fun person I am! Did you enjoy overeating and racking up debt during Advent? Well, I love giving up desserts in order to practice solidarity with Christ’s suffering on the cross. Cheers!

Haha. But seriously, I do observe Lent, and I enjoy the fact that it is somewhat counter-cultural. In the U.S., we live in a culture of excess. I recently read that 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, meaning they don’t have enough savings to pay their bills if their paycheck was delayed by just one week. Also, I think it’s safe to say that as a whole our society has big problems with food, alcohol, drugs, and pornography. Lent is all about practicing self-control, and that is not something that we do very well.

This season, I’m planning to focus on two things: cleaning/decluttering our apartment and organizing our finances. This means I’m going to be in a bad mood for awhile! But hopefully by the time Easter rolls around, I’ll be feeling better than before I started these projects. I’m currently reading Dave Ramsey’s Complete Guide to Money and I have Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on deck.

To help me with cleaning, I’ve started a housekeeping calendar on a whiteboard on our refrigerator. I’m trying to keep my daily expectations low, since it’s hard to get a lot done with my very active 10-month-old and preschooler around. As I write this, Marie is at preschool and Paul is pulling books and DVDs off our bookshelf. Time to move him into the pack-and-play. I actually started the housekeeping calendar last week; already I haven’t been able to keep up with the laundry schedule I created, but have done okay with the rest of it.

I also want to go through and declutter little sections of our apartment at a time. I’ve already gone through a lot of old papers and filled up several bags of recycling. I got an accordion folder and filed away important papers so that I can find them when I need them. This cuts down on clutter and stress.

My goal in this endeavor is making our apartment a nicer place to be. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be in this apartment, but I might as well make it as nice as I can while we’re here. Plus, if I declutter, it will make it easier when we do move.

For the finance part of this, my husband and I are taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University through our church. We are very blessed to not have any debt, but I want to get a better grasp on budgeting, saving, and a lens for making big financial decisions. This is especially important since we are living on just one income for now. Dave Ramsey talks about using cash envelopes for certain budget areas, like groceries and entertainment, to help prevent you from overspending. I’m planning to try this during Lent and see how it goes.

To be honest, thinking about my finances and decluttering my space fills me with anxiety, fear, and shame. It’s much harder than my usual Lenten sacrifice of forgoing ice cream. I’m reclaiming the things God has already given me.

When this season is over, I’m looking ahead to celebrating. We’ll be kicking up our heels over Easter and Paul’s first birthday, with Marie’s fourth birthday following a few weeks later. I’ll be celebrating finding beauty in the things we already have and joy in opening my eyes to the blessings around me.

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Celebrating good times on Marie’s first trip to the roller rink.

 

 

Are you observing Lent this year? What are you giving up or taking on? What’s something you’re looking forward to celebrating?

 

Last June I got an email from my friend Sam in Portland telling me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I think it came as quite a shock to everyone. She hadn’t yet turned 30; I had seen her just a few weeks before when she came to Eugene to meet baby Paul and give him a quilt she’d made. She’d seemed vibrant, happy, and healthy when she visited. We’ve been staying in touch via email, and I asked her to share part of her story here:

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One of Sam’s lovely hand-made quilts. Photo credit: Samantha Breen

 

My name is Samantha and I am a fiery, passionate young woman. I am also an elementary school teacher, quilter, printmaker, salsa dancer, and Ed.D (doctorate of education) candidate.

In mid-May 2015 I was reaching for soap in the shower when I hit my left breast, hitting something different, something hard. By May 27, 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a very common type of breast cancer known as IDC (Invasive Ductile Carcimona). I got placed in the Multi-Disciplinary Team for Breast Cancer with an appointment for June 2.

In a PET scan ordered before the appointment, my worst nightmares were revealed: I not only had advanced breast cancer, I had metastatic breast cancer meaning the cancer was Stage IV and had spread to my lung and thigh. I had 0% chance of survival and was told by my all the oncologists in the little exam room along with my parents that they could make me comfortable until the end, but they could not cure me. I was 29 years old.

I ended up being one of the lucky ones. With further examination, they discovered I did not have Stage IV cancer — the spots in my lung and thigh turned out to be non-cancerous. I think that the initial horror that my time left was to be limited and unpleasant led me to be grateful for all moments. I remember waking up from my bilateral (double) mastectomy now breastless, hairless and infertile (from chemotherapy) thinking that these were just battle scars to a better life.

Cancer helped me to clarify my perspectives. I had many friends before I got cancer. Many of them left and stayed away after I got cancer. The friends that have stayed I have learned are true friends, not just friends who are there when it is convenient for them. The deep love my parents have for me is unmatched. I realized that more framed degrees on my wall would not make me happier, but that I should focus on slowing down and enjoying life with the people I enjoy being around.

To help me cope, I go to cancer patient groups. I go to a group that meets weekly that is people mostly 30 or more years older than me and along with a cancer counselor we help each other problem-solve. It is a group made up of people with many different cancers. I also go to a 40-and-under (when diagnosed) group for breast cancer; that group meets once a month. I also walk as much as I can and spend time with the people I love.

If you are just being diagnosed with any kind of cancer, I say you should find a group that works for you. There are writing groups, groups that are just for men, women, and young survivors. Not every group just sits and talks, many groups go on all kinds of outings. For me the greatest help came from another young teacher diagnosed with breast cancer who came to my house when I couldn’t leave for comfort. I hope to do the same for someone else someday.

If you want to be a supportive friend, I suggest finding yourself a job that you can do. The hardest friends to me were the friends who would make plans; I would rearrange many medical appointments, and then they would cancel. I had a friend who loved to drive so she would take me for rides at a good time in my chemotherapy cycle. Other friends lived far away and would send me care packages.

Remember that the worst thing to say or do to someone who has cancer is nothing—it completely invalidates that they exist. Having cancer, I thrive on connection. A hug, a letter, a phone call, they mean the world.

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Please join me in keeping Samantha in your thoughts and prayers as she continues to fight to regain her health.

 

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my journey as a mom, it’s that I can’t do it alone. And it’s not enough just to have my husband’s help – even though I appreciate him and he is a huge support financially and emotionally.

I guess before Marie was born I really thought Spencer and I could handle it all on our own.

I’ve never been more wrong about anything.

I don’t want to spend too much time reminiscing about the details of Marie’s newborn phase. It was so much harder than I could have imagined beforehand. She was healthy, but I had breastfeeding challenges as well as a difficult physical recovery from birth. We made it through, thanks in large part to my mom and mother-in-law who frequently spent the night on weekends to help care for Marie in the night and give Spencer and I some longer stretches of sleep.

Once we made it through the newborn phase, the isolation of being a stay-at-home mom with a baby kicked in. I developed postpartum depression and anxiety, and probably even PTSD from the birth and newborn ordeal. I had nothing on my calendar anymore, and each day seemed to go on forever until my husband came home and I had someone else to talk to.

Yes, I should have sought counseling but I didn’t have health insurance and didn’t think we had the financial resources to pay for counseling out-of-pocket. But the thing that helped get me through was seeking out community. I realized I couldn’t spend so much time alone with my baby anymore, so I tried to engage with community in whatever ways were available to me. I went to:

  • library story times
  • mom & baby yoga
  • baby sign language class
  • mom writing group
  • MOPS

We moved back to my hometown so I could get more support from my family, and I found new sources of community here. We had another baby. Now, my first child is nearing age 4 and I’m still a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t feel isolated anymore. The days go by quickly. I’ve found community through my family, MOPS, church, and preschool. I’m busy chauffering Marie to preschool and play dates and working a few hours a week as a publicist for her choir.

My pastor said yesterday that community is messy, but it’s the only way. It’s so true. Relationships with other people can be challenging. We all have our sharp edges and annoying habits. When we seek community we’ll experience awkward moments, and sometimes rejection. But we’ll also find deep and meaningful relationships.

Recently I’ve had the experience of reconnecting with old friends from various stages of life – from grad school, college, high school and even elementary school. Even though several of these people I hadn’t seen for years – I still felt that we connected when we got together. Once you build a close connection with someone, you can often get it back even if you’ve been out of touch for awhile. So I think the reward of building real friendships is more than worth the possible risk of rejection. Quality friendships are priceless.

No mom is an island.

What are some ways that you’ve found community as a mom?

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If you’re a mom with young children and you’re looking for a community of other moms, consider checking out MOPS or your local chapter of Moms Club. Also, I thought that mom & baby yoga was pretty awesome.

 

 

January is the cruelest month, perhaps. The glitz and the busyness of the holiday season is over. We’ve overextended our budgets and our waistlines. Our out-of-town friends and visitors have gone back home, and now we’re realizing that keeping our New Year’s Resolutions may be harder than we thought. If we want to get in shape, we might actually have to exercise and cut back on donuts. Reality hurts sometimes.

This was the first year that Marie kind of understood what Christmas was about, which meant this was the first year we had to start lying about Santa. And even though we took Marie and Paul to meet Santa  and get their pictures taken, she didn’t seem to really buy it. I’ve assured her multiple times that Santa is real but she still seems skeptical. I made the mistake of putting a book that we already had in Paul’s stocking and Marie said – “Hey, we already had that book.” I didn’t think she would notice, but that is the trouble you run into when your child is more intelligent than you are. At almost 9 months, Paul certainly didn’t know the difference.

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Well, I think this guy makes a pretty convincing Santa, if you ask me.

Marie’s highlights of Christmas included a new bed (with a slide and a tent underneath!), a ballerina music box, an Elsa dress, and ballet classes. These were all gifts from various grandparents. Spencer and I only got her a couple of gifts, one was a fairy wand she had asked for and immediately snapped into two pieces on Christmas morning. I believe Paul’s highlight was the dump truck he got from my mom. For me the the nice part about Christmas was watching Marie have fun and also spending time with family and friends. I also enjoyed donating to Mercy Corps and talking with Marie about what that meant. She started praying for the people who would benefit from the donation.

We were so busy leading up to Christmas and during the week of Christmas and New Year’s, and now I have a little more space to reflect. As I mentioned, January can be a hard month. But I’m actually feeling renewed and hopeful, despite the fact that Paul is teething and hasn’t been letting me sleep much lately. I’m looking forward to this year, and I’m looking forward to this month.

A few things I’m excited about this month:

  • going to a Duck basketball game
  • doing my first community service project of the year with Marie
  • watching Paul learn to walk (he’s already taking a few steps)
  • taking Marie roller skating for the first time
  • taking Marie and Paul on play dates with her friends
  • watching Marie’s ballet lessons
  • finally finishing the Gregory Maguire novel Spencer got me for my birthday
  • Tuesday mornings at MOPS

And that’s just this month. Life is full of gifts. I’m so grateful.

 

 

I love the clean slate feel of the new year. And so, I am a resolution-maker. Every year, I tell myself – this will be the year I get it all together. I will exercise more. I will run a 10K. I will make more friends, get my apartment completely organized, closely follow a budget. This year I will make more money and buy a house. I will be a nicer person and never say mean things about anyone behind their back. This will be the year I finally achieve my lifelong goal of writing a book. I will also connect more deeply with my faith and read through the entire Bible.

This has been my self-talk every new year for awhile now. And I finally have to laugh at myself and realize that it’s not realistic to accomplish all of this in any given year, especially while raising two small children. Maybe I need to lower my expectations a little bit.

2015 was a good year for me. I wrapped up a travel editing project in February with a big client. I finally learned how to do my taxes and was self-sufficient enough to prepare a freezer full of meals during my pregnancy. My son was born in March and when my daughter turned 3 in April we celebrated with a party at the trampoline gym. I wrote a couple of travel articles about Lexington, Kentucky, and I got a new part-time job as publicity coordinator for my daughter’s children’s choir. Spencer took a month off from work in the summer and helped me at home with the kids. We visited the beach several times; Marie went to ballet camp and swimming lessons. In September, Spencer transitioned to a new job that he really enjoys.

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Fun at the beach with my daughter. Photo credit: Spencer Crawford

2015 was a hard year for me. When my son was one-week old, I developed a postpartum uterine infection and was readmitted to the hospital through the ER for 24 hours. It took me about a month to physically recover from childbirth and my complications, and I struggled with postpartum mood disorder for the second time (though not as severely). After my son was born, I had to sign up for WIC to help make ends meet. My husband struggled at work and ended up quitting his job without having another job lined up, and without me having a job.

So my year was amazing and it was also difficult. I did not run a 10K, write a book, or buy a house. Maybe in 2016 I’ll accomplish at least one of those things; time will tell. I know there are many joys ahead as well as many challenges, and I’m looking forward to the journey. As for my resolution this year?

It seems to work best if I have one, achievable resolution. Recently I heard about a dad who had resolved to take his 4-year-old son camping once a month throughout the year. While cold-weather camping isn’t my thing, I like the idea of creating a special tradition with my child. So, I’m resolving to do a community service project once a month with my daughter. I discovered a local nonprofit called Little Hands Can that does service projects with parents and kids, and I’ve already signed up for a project in January. I’m excited to start a tradition of service with Marie.

What’s your resolution for 2016?

 

Today I feel completely drained. It’s due to the months/years of sleep-deprivation, plus the ongoing 3-year-old tantrums and arguments. My daughter throws tantrums pretty much every morning for various reasons, but usually to do with food or clothing.

This morning she was mad that I mixed her fruit-on-top yogurt, which I always do — because otherwise she won’t eat the yogurt and will only eat the fruit. Yesterday morning she threw a fit because she didn’t want the lemon yogurt mixed with maple syrup that she asked for. So she asked her dad for a peach yogurt, which he gave her, and then she decided she didn’t want to eat that either and continued having a tantrum. Ultimately I ended up spoon-feeding her the peach yogurt because that’s what she insisted on (because baby brother is spoon-fed). On Monday morning she threw a giant, foaming-at-the-mouth tantrum because her shirt got a little bit wet when she brushed her teeth and Spencer told her she couldn’t change it because it was already time to leave for school. And ultimately I did let her pick a new shirt after she took off the (very slightly) wet one. You must choose your battles wisely.

As you can imagine, the constant tantrums are exhausting for me to deal with. It makes me fantasize a bit about having a full-time job so that I can put her in full-time daycare and have a bit more of a break. Thank goodness for the 9 hours a week of preschool. But even when my daughter is at school, I am still taking care of my baby, and trying to fit in my meal planning and grocery shopping, cleaning, and part-time publicity job.

So, today I feel emotionally and physically exhausted and it’s not a big surprise. Until my baby starts sleeping through the night, (which will probably not happen until he is weaned, or until I start sleeping in the living room and wearing earplugs) I am a round-the-clock caregiver. There is little time for self-care.

But there has to be. Self-care is essential for everyone, and I think it is especially important for moms of tiny kids. My prenatal yoga teacher used to read a quote that was something like, “You cannot pour your life into others unless you first fill your own cup.” Tiny kids need a lot of love, and we want to give it to them, but we can’t if we don’t also take care of ourselves.

Sometimes self-care can mean saying yes to things. For me, saying yes to having my daughter in preschool has helped me a lot, as I mentioned. I also try to make time for exercise – I do yoga videos at home, and I found a fun Saturday morning zumba class. I also say yes to taking my kids on lots of fun outings because it’s not just for them. It is super important for me to get out, be around other people, and have fun.

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Parenting is no Day at the Beach. But sometimes a day at the beach is just what I need. Photo credit: Spencer Crawford

Self-care can also mean setting appropriate boundaries and saying no to things that drain your energy. I’ve learned to set better boundaries over the years. For one, I only have limited energy and most of it is taken up by my tinies.

For me, self-care also means letting go of perfectionism and lowering my expectations of myself a little bit. I am not a perfect mom. I don’t have a perfectly clean house or make gourmet meals every night. Are those the ingredients that would create a perfect mom anyway?

How about this more honest assessment. I am not a perfect mom. I don’t know how to deal with every tantrum. I don’t know how to find the perfect balance of positive discipline and love. I often forget to make my daughter clean up her messes. I am usually late to things. Sometimes I yell at my daughter, and sometimes I have to apologize for getting mad at her when she’s just being a normal 3-year-old.

I can’t ever be the perfect mom because the perfect mom does not exist. That is okay. I am doing the best I can, and making time to take care of myself makes me a better mom than I would be otherwise.

Thanks for reading. What do you do to take care of yourself?

 

 

Last night I was working to finish up our family Christmas card in time to take advantage of Shutterfly’s Black Friday sale. (And I did end up saving more than $60 off the regular price…yay!).

I started doing photo Christmas cards every year after Marie was born, and before that for a few years I just sent out a Christmas letter. Everyone loves to hate the Christmas letter, but of course as a writer and avid reader, I think it’s a lovely tradition.

Anyway, I was thinking how for a lot of my relatives, my annual Christmas card is my only communication with them. And if someone only knew me by my Christmas card, with its adorable family photos and paragraph on the back about the highlights of our year, that person would probably think I had a really blessed life.

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My family at the zoo – baby’s first visit!

And then I thought, if that person knew what our annual income was, they might think – eh, not so blessed.

Or if that person knew about some of the really tough struggles I’ve had with depression and anxiety – off and on throughout my life – again, not so blessed.

Then I thought, well the truth is actually this: I do have a really blessed life.

And hello there dear reader, I think you have a really blessed life too.

Did you know that about 26% of the world’s adult population is illiterate? And women make up two-thirds of all illiterates?

Did you know that 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day? And nearly half of the world’s population survives on less than $2 a day. Did you know that 1 billion people in the world today do not have access to safe drinking water?

Or this fact: women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population, but they account for 60% of the world’s hungry?

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Ghanaian children playing in the street. (Photo credit: Ursula Crawford).

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. If you’re reading this post, you are literate. You have Internet access. You probably get enough to eat, have a safe place to sleep at night, and have access to clean drinking water.

Most of us in the Western world have our basic needs met and more, and yet we are never satisfied with our material wealth. We consider money and material objects to be the greatest possible blessings.

But then why do we who have so much, struggle so much with depression and anxiety?

What if money is not the greatest blessing?

What if the greatest blessing we can have is something that can’t be measured or hoarded?

What if the greatest blessing of all is love, actually?

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My daughter, one of the great loves of my life, sits in the Appreciation Chair and Portland Children’s Museum.

What are some of  the greatest blessings in your life?

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Resources:

United Nations Hunger Statistics

World Literacy Foundation

A few ways to help:

MercyCorps

Doctors without Borders

Fistula Foundation

Do you have a favorite nonprofit? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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