gratitude

5 Things I’m Grateful For (December 2020)

This is a time of year that is usually great for my writing. I love to reflect on the year, and I love setting intentions for the year to come.

And, as always, I love writing my monthly gratitude list.

  • THE HOLIDAY SEASON AND ALL THE MERRY. Today is December 22nd, and I am just incredibly grateful for the holiday season this year. My family celebrates Christmas, primarily, and I have just leaned in to holiday festivities with all my energy and spirit. It has been lovely, and just the pick-me-up I needed. (See my post about taking merry to the next level here!)
  • SNOW! We had the first snow of the season on December 16, and it was a good snow – about eight inches deep. It came at just the right moment, when many people (myself included) have been feeling the weight of rising COVID numbers and increasingly cold weather. This was Jonas’s first time experiencing snow, and he was in love. (For ten minutes, and then he wanted to go inside to warm up his cold little hands!)
  • The adorable things my kids are doing lately. They make up games, like “Pop” and “Egg” – the rules are ambiguous, the fun is non-stop. They get magically, wondrously excited about the snow. They sometimes hide somewhere in the basement and I don’t even know they’re hiding until I wander downstairs and they jump out at me. (Like, how long were they snuggled together behind the couch?! Could be one minute – might have been ten!)
  • The approach of the new year. I am not really in the “Screw 2020” camp – it’s been a tough year, but nothing’s going to magically shift when the calendar changes from December 31 to January 1, related to COVID-19, ransomware hackers (long story, google Baltimore County), travel, etc. But I love a new year and the blank canvas it provides.
  • The little things. This year, a lot of the big things I’m grateful for haven’t been possible. I’ve found a lot of solace in the littlest things. Picking a tiny sprig of lavender and enjoying the smell. Adding songs I love to an Alexa playlist. Giving myself the gift of zero input (more on that later) by setting my phone aside for minutes or hours so that I can be fully present. My sweet and simply wonderful Christmas tree. Any and all of the tiny joys that make me smile.

Happy holidays to all! May your days be merry and bright and oh-so-awesome.

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

goals · mindfulness

My Intentions For Winter Break

FORGET NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR A SECOND.

This afternoon, my winter break officially begins, and I am pumped.

I have two intentions for winter break: zero guilt and zero input.

ZERO GUILT

Here’s the thing – I really love working from home. I love zero commute, and I love having my kids close by. I am comfortable and productive. I think that if I had the option, I could do this for a long time.

HOWEVER – I am a person very prone to guilt, and there’s a tricky guilt trap I can fall into while working from home. It’s the trap of I should be working.

I am disciplined and committed when it comes to leaving work at work. It’s something I had to train myself to do when I became a social worker, because I simply can’t do my job to the best of my ability if I don’t allow my brain, body, and heart some time to be at rest and recharge. But it is so much harder to leave work at work when you’re working from home. You don’t have the physical boundaries that you do when you commute to a job. Usually, I get in my car, I drive home, I stow my phone away someplace, and I am done – ready to be with my family and off duty from work responsibilities. Without that boundary, I sometimes feel like I am half-working 100% of the time, and that’s no good.

So this week, while I’m on break from work, I am excited to be present and enjoy my time with zero guilt about other things I “should” be doing.

ZERO INPUT

My other intention is just a variance on a goal I often set for myself. I’ve been working hard, for a long time, to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my routine. Occasionally, it works and I love it. Often, I stick with it for a while and then I drift away from it, and that’s okay too. I’ve been trying to remind myself that mindfulness does not have to happen in just one way. You don’t have to be sitting on a yoga mat with your eyes closed to be mindful. You can simply bring full awareness to the activities of your day – washing dishes, reading a bedtime story, taking a walk.

But, here’s the thing: I am an input junkie. I am rarely doing the dishes mindfully, completely focused on the task at hand. I listen to a podcast while I do dishes; I listen to audiobooks while I fold laundry; I have music or TV in the background while I clean my room. When I wake up in the morning, it’s a matter of minutes before I’m reading my book or listening to a podcast.

None of this is bad. But I do think my brain could benefit from opportunities to rest – to stop aborbing new information and just be. I’m pretty sure I got this idea from the book Digital Minimalism, where Cal Newport talking about solitude as a time with no input from the outside world. So, not just being by yourself – but allowing your brain time with no input from others, whether it’s live and in person or via a book or podcast.

So, my intention for winter break is: allow for time with zero input. It could be five minutes – it could be twenty. The point is to give my mind a break from the constant stream of information and noise. For me, the easiest ways to do this are having writing time with no background noise or doing household tasks (dishes, laundry) without an accompanying podcast or audiobook. Not all day every day – not even close to that! But just little pockets of time each day when I give my mind a little solitude.

Happy winter break to all who get it – and happy almost new year to everyone else!

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books + reading

Edgar’s Faves (Best Books for a 4-Year-Old)

Edgar continues to love to read. Jonas is liking books more and more, but I gotta say – the books get way better as the kids get older. The books Edgar likes tend to be a little more creative and interesting. I genuinely enjoy each of the books on this list.

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima. Such a great story with a sweet and fun plot.

A Whale In The Bathtub by Kylie Westaway. Edgar is super duper into whales lately. Like, really into whales. Like, he hasn’t been talking much about trucks lately, and I never thought I’d see that day. This book is super cute and fun – the title sort of gives away the plot.

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett. See above – we are REALLY INTO WHALES lately. This book is so fun and funny for kids and for grown-ups.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall. This is a fun story with a great message about not making assumptions about who someone is on the inside based on what they look like on the outside.

Fire Truck v. Dragon by Chris Barton. I’ve written previously about Edgar’s love of and obsession with another book by Chris Barton, Shark v. Train. This book is similar, but with a different silly twist.

McToad Mows Tiny Island by Tom Angleberger. So we still like trucks a lot, and this book is a dream for any kid who loves vehicles. ALL the winners are include – planes, lawn mowers, helicopters, ships. It’s super cute and lovable.

88 Instruments by Chris Barton. Another unique and fun story by the author of Shark Vs. Train. Very different; still awesome.

This post doesn’t have as much summary as I usually strive for, but Edgar’s almost four and a half and I need to start working on his next list of recommendations. Happy reading, everyone!

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all the things

Merry 2.0

I love Christmas. And this year, I am leaning in to the joy and festivity of the holidays more than ever before.

There are family traditions that just won’t happen this year. The one that makes me the saddest is not getting to New York to visit friends and family and spend a day in the city. We won’t see the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center this year, and that’s a huge hole in my holiday merry. Yet we are happy and healthy and incredibly blessed, and I’m so happy to be enjoying the holidays after such a strange and difficult year.

This year, I’ve felt moved to celebrate the holiday season in ways I haven’t previously, in the following ways:

After much careful negotiating with Tamara, she agreed to get our Christmas tree the weekend before Thanksgiving. We did not decorate it until the day after Thanksgiving. (Well, some of us actually started stringing the lights immediately after the kids went to bed on Thursday.) Edgar likes to tell people, “It was a Thanksgiving tree, and now it’s a Christmas tree.” I was so grateful to spend the day after Thanksgiving unpacking Christmas ornaments and decorating the house. We don’t do a ton of decorating – I love Christmas, but I don’t love having a ton of stuff, especially when the stuff only comes out once a year! But what we have is sweet and festive. Jo Jo was excited to play with a small stuffed Santa, everyone put on Santa hats, and Edgar definitely thinks “ornament” means “toy that I can play with that goes back on the tree when I’m done.”

We started working on a holiday-themed playlist on the morning after Thanksgiving. This is my first year with an Alexa at Christmastime – it was a gift from my brother last year. I’ve been surprised at how much I love it. The first songs we added were our classic faves – Holly Jolly Christmas, The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Wonderful Christmastime. Then I started googling and making requests and discovering new titles I’d never heard before. My current fave is Sleigh Ride by TLC, Jo Jo likes anything Rudolph, and Edgar is into I’m The Grinch by Tyler the Creator.

Never in my life have I attempted to put up outdoor Christmas lights on a house. My dad always did it at my childhood home, and I loved it. But as an adult? I’ve never thought it worth the trouble. I’ve just appreciated the lights and efforts of others. But this year, in a year that’s been low on merriment, when we have fewer commitments outside of the home, when we have a four-year-old asking when we’re going to put up our own light display, we went for it. I climbed on the roof and there are now twinkly colored lights hanging from the gutter along the front of our house. I’m also making notes about adding inflatables to our display for next year. WHO AM I?

The sweetest Advent calendar ever. Tamara and I went back and forth about having an Advent calendar. We contemplated a candy-based one (too many sweets) and a cotton ball Santa Claus beard (we did this last year, the kids weren’t that into it), and we almost abandoned the idea altogether. Thankfully, we ended up making one, and it’s awesome. We cut out a cardboard tree (lots of cardboard boxes available right now!), and Edgar painted it with green glitter paint. Every day, the boys each get an “ornament” (most made by crafty Tamara) and they have to glue their ornament on the number(s) for that day. (We included two of every number, so both boys get to glue an ornament each day.) I love our Advent calendar because it’s festive and really seems to help with the passage of time; we keep explaining to Edgar that the closer we get to Christmas, the more ornaments will be on the Advent tree. This has NOT stopped him from checking his stocking every morning to see if Santa paid him an early visit.

We actually sent Christmas cards this year! This is my first year ever sending a large number of Christmas cards. I have never thought of this as a Have To of the holiday season, and many years, I just would not have had the time to do it. This year, thanks to Postcards To Voters, I knew I could do an efficient job of writing, addressing, and mailing cards if I wanted to do it. And you know what? I did want to do it. I miss My People so much this year, and I just wanted to reach out and be in touch in some small way. The photos we took were adorable and I was so happy to send them out to a small group of family and friends.

The return of the Night Night Fairy! A year or so ago, Edgar was getting really fussy at bedtime, so we started getting visits from the Night Night Fairy. We never caught a glimpse of her, but every night she would deliver pajamas and a book to read on Edgar’s bed. That delightful surprise brought a little fun to our otherwise bummer bedtime routine, and really helped us behaviorally. This year for the holidays, I really wanted to do a sort of Advent calendar of books – for every night of December, we’d have a Christmas/holiday/winter-themed book to read at bedtime. But I didn’t want the book to be a wrapped gift, as I’ve seen done elsewhere – I didn’t want to set up an expectation of receiving a present or a brand-new book every day of the month. So I set aside all the books we own that fit the Christmas/winter/holiday theme – it was probably about 10-15 books – and then did a bunch of requests from the library for more. Now every night at bedtime, we look inside a little Santa bag and we find the boys’ pajamas for the night and a holiday/winter book to read. It is lovely and merry.

Many evenings, we’ve taken nighttime Christmas light walks – just short strolls around the neighborhood to check out the holiday displays. We’ve taken a couple of drives, too, but I especially love the walks – it’s a little extra exercise right after dinner, it gets us outside, and it’s an enjoyable activity we can do at the time of day when I am just spent, creativity-wise, and don’t have any more Mom tricks up my sleeve. The boys love it, because it feels extra-special to them to be outside in the dark, and we are often pleasantly surprised whenever a new house puts up their display.

EVERYTHING ELSE MISCELLANEOUSLY MERRY. We are here for all of it this year. Cinnamon applesauce ornaments, salt dough ornaments, a Santa with a cotton ball beard, a snowman shapes activity. Stringing jingle bells and felted ornaments and popcorn and cranberries. ALL OF IT.

Merry whatever to you and yours. Cheers to doing anything and everything you can to bring a smile to your face as we close out this *unprecedented* year!

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com
parenting

How To Be Santa – Part 2

I love Christmas so, so much.

And yet – I have so many complicated feelings about the Santa Claus thing.

Last year, I wrote a post called How To Be Santa – Part 1. It was mainly about the adult milestone of realizing that every family handles The Santa Claus Thing differently – when he comes, whether he brings all the gifts or just one or two, etc. Tamara and I talked a lot about that once we became parents and came up with a plan for our own family. 

For this post, I want to focus in a little about the concerns I have with The Whole Deal With Santa Claus. When I’m done with my concerns, I’ll explain why I’m still #TeamSanta and how we talk about the phenomenon with our kids.

And before I share my thoughts, I want to be clear: I think every person and family in the world should do whatever the heck they want related to the holidays. WHATEVER THEY WANT. These are MY thoughts, and they’re not intended to be a judgment on anyone else. For me, this is like when you spot problematic details in a beloved TV show and you point them out – like noting the impossibility of Monica and Rachel renting such an amazing apartment on Friends on the salaries of a chef and a waitress. You can point out that detail without passing judgment on anyone who watches Friends. And everyone should watch Friends because it’s the greatest thing ever and one of my favorite TV shows of all time. But, I digress.

My major concerns with The Whole Deal With Santa Claus are:

  1. use of Santa Claus as temporary disciplinary method; 
  2. the naughty/nice list; and,
  3. the economic disparity of the Santa experience.

Problem # 1: the use of Santa as a temporary disciplinary method.

This drives me nutty, and it’s because I’m a behaviorist. I have strong feelings about behavior modification, and one of my most fundamental rules as a parent is: Don’t make any threats that you are not fully prepared to carry out. If you’re out as a family for a fun activity, are you really going to make everyone go home if your preschooler doesn’t finish his sandwich? I’m not – so I don’t make that threat. I try to avoid threats completely, but I fail at this over and over. However, I am pretty successful with making sure my threats are actually things I’d follow through with in the situation, because this is something I believe strongly in my home life and at work.

There are so many times when I hear parents use Santa as a motivator/threat during the holiday season, and it’s totally fine – except that I always question if the threat is legit. Are you really saying that Santa’s not going to bring any or many toys on Christmas morning if your kid doesn’t improve their behavior? Because I’m skeptical. I think this threat is used as a temporary behavioral technique, and if you’re not really going to throw toys away ahead of Christmas, then I think you should avoid this tactic. Also – don’t we want our kids to be good so that they’re just good human beings? Not just so that some judgy guy who lives at the North Pole gives us a bounty of presents?

I’m in the trenches of parenting young kids right now, and I seriously mean no judgment on anyone who uses this tactic. Keeping young kids alive and well and not clawing each other’s eyes out is an art and a talent and damn near impossible, so do WHATEVER you need to do. But for logical and behavioral reasons, I formally object to the use of Santa as disciplinary means.

Whew. Onward.

Problem # 2: the naughty/nice list.

What does it mean, to be on the naughty list or the nice list?

Are there kids who are just *bad* all the time?  I really don’t think so, and I’ve worked with some tough kids. We are all a result of our experiences, and if there’s a kid who is anywhere close to 100% naughty, then I’m betting that there’s trauma and/or ineffective parenting in their story. 

Am I overthinking it? Honestly, I don’t think I am. Literally, we tell kids that Santa makes a list – categorizing who is naughty and who is nice. This does not line up with the language I use with my kids around behavior. We make choices, all day every day, and we want to make choices that are good rather than bad. Hitting your brother? Bad choice. Dumping out all the Legos when I told you not to? Bad choice. That doesn’t mean the kid making the choice is bad, and it doesn’t prevent him from making a good choice at the next opportunity. 

I’ll explain how we talk to our boys about Santa (because we do!) below, but to be clear – there is no talk of lists, naughtiness, or niceness in our Christmas story. 

Problem # 3: the economic disparity of the Santa experience. 

How do we explain, in our Santa story, why certain kids don’t receive presents or don’t receive as many presents on Christmas morning? (I haven’t even delved into the religious aspect of this, which always plagued me as a kid. If Santa brings gifts to all kids, wouldn’t he just bring some to the kids who were Jewish, even if they don’t celebrate Christmas? But, I digress yet again.)

There is sometimes a weird element connecting the naughty/nice thing with the amount of gifts underneath the Christmas tree. Not everyone utilizes this, but some do, and it really rubs me the wrong way. Are the kids supposed to imagine that when they are naughty, present #3 or #7 or # 20 is removed from the pile under the tree? Like, a present less for every naughty deed committed? Does that mean the kid with the highest number of presents (or, more likely, the highest cash value amount of presents) was the *nicest* kid this year? What happens when the kids go into school on January 4th and start chit-chatting, and your kid finds out that another kid got a toy that your family chose not to purchase? What conclusions do they draw, in that impressionable and imaginative brain of theirs?

When I was a kid, my family always “adopted” a few children or a family at Christmastime. There was an angel tree at our Church, and you removed an ornament that had written on it the name and age of the child you’d be buying for. My mother would let me pick, and I remember studying names carefully and usually choosing a child close to my own age, because their gifts sounded like the most fun to buy. 

I don’t remember a cognitive moment when my brain recognized the switch, the disparity.  How old are kids when that happens, I wonder? You’re 3 and 4 and 5 years old, and you try to be really good so that Santa brings you gifts. You assume (or are taught) that Santa brings gifts to all children who are good. Then, somewhere around 6 to 10 years old, you learn that your parents buy your presents, and that some kids don’t have any presents on Christmas morning, and you realize that this is why the angel tree exists – so that families who have more resources can adopt a child so that they can experience the joy of receiving a present on Christmas morning. 

When we don’t explain things to kids, they fill in the blanks all on their own, often in ways we wouldn’t expect. I don’t like thinking about kids comparing their Christmas morning reports and imagining that they are less good than their peers whose families are wealthier. I also don’t like pretending that every kid in the world gets gifts from Santa, since that’s not the case. 

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

All of that said – Edgar is excitedly awaiting Christmas Eve. Every morning for the past week, he’s checked his stocking. (I think he’s wondering if Santa ever makes a surprise early visit.) He knows that on Christmas Eve, Santa will fill our stockings with small treats and treasures. And I like it; I like that there’s magic and mystery to the holiday season. And here’s why I’m okay with it:

  • There is absolutely no reference to a naughty/nice list. If we run into a reference in a book or movie, I correct it and explain that all children are good and Santa brings toys and gifts to children around the world because he wants to spread love and joy around the world.
  • Since there’s no list, there’s no discipline associated with Santa. You don’t have to be extra good during this month of the year, and it’s not any more important to make good choices in December than it is in May and August.
  • When Edgar is 6 or 7 or 15 and asks me what the real deal is with Santa, I’ll tell him: “The holiday season is magical. It’s a time of year when people are extra-motivated to provide mutual aid to others, to show love to their loved ones, and to spread joy and cheer. THAT is what Santa is – that special magic. Santa filled your stockings. Santa tries to find families who benefit from support and offer them assistance every December. And now that you’re in on the secret – it’s your job to find ways to be Santa, every December, every holiday season – really, whenever you get the chance.” Every time I use the S-word, I keep that eventual explanation in mind.

So really, I love the Santa thing. We should provide mutual aid and spread love and cheer all year long – but I have zero problem with the fact that we as a society seem to have more to give during this season. I’m happy to share the magic of the Santa story with my little ones – though modified so that it can be reconciled with this overthinking Christmas brain o’ mine.

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