Momma, You Matter.

How I long to love these tasks I perform day in and day out.

How I long to love these tasks I perform day in and day out.

I was going to do something big. Something that meant something. I mean, that ‘s what I always believed. When I was in the fourth grade, I won a national gymnastics title and I thought I was going to be the next Mary Lou Retton. In the sixth grade, my “academically talented” (we called it “AT”) peers and I were charged with creating and managing a family budget.  My income came from lectures and books sales. Because, naturally, I was a world-renowned child psychologist who wrote best selling “how to raise your kid” books.  In high school, I survived a multi-fatality car accident – that, I was certain, meant God spared me because I was going to impact the world in a big way someday.

As an undergraduate, I was a member of several honors societies and naturally landed leadership positions – the executive board of my sorority, President of the student body. I lobbied on behalf of students at our state and national capitals. I lunched with the university Chancellor and other administration on a regular basis. I was honored with the most prestigious awards our university offered. My husband teases that the hardware I sported at our undergraduate graduation totally weighed down my 5′ frame. I went straight into a Ph.D. program where I earned straight As. Every step of the way I received glowing feedback and was mentored by phenomenal teachers and professors. And I wouldn’t let them down. I would do something important one day.

Fast forward nine years, and I’m a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM). This is not where I envisioned myself. In fact, stay-at-home mom was never on my radar. My mom worked; I would work. I would do it all and be it all. But in 2004 I found myself pregnant with twins. Just weeks prior to learning of my multiple pregnancy, I was weighing competing job offers for a staff psychologist position at universities on opposing coasts. I knew I might be pregnant, but I didn’t expect twins. Looking back, I have a chuckle with God because He knows I’m a girl who goes big or goes home. I knew I couldn’t start a new job and be a new mom to twins at the same time while feeling good about my efforts in either arena. I turned down both offers and opted for an adjunct professor role back in Texas. At 28 weeks, I was put on bed rest. My teaching assistant completed my lectures as I corrected my graduate students’ papers from bed. I had my boys at 36 weeks and was completely overwhelmed for the next 18 months.

Here is where my struggle for meaning began. Mind you, my graduate work was centered on career development research. I studied the variables that impacted people’s career choice and specialized in helping others find work that satisfied them and gave them meaning. When I say struggle, I’m not saying that I grapple with the meaning of life. No, it’s not that. It’s the day-to-day monotony of motherhood that I struggle with. I remember, several years before I had kids when I was a graduate student … I was in a Bible study, in which a woman who had recently quit her job to be a SAHM said she was having a hard time finding the “joy” in vacuuming. I remember thinking how I would die for the opportunity to have the biggest “to-do” on my daily task list be vacuuming. Now I absolutely understand what she meant.

It’s been eight years since I graduated with my Ph.D. in counseling psychology. I’ve yet to be licensed as a psychologist for various reasons, but mostly because I’m a mom. It’s not for lack of trying. I won’t bore you with the differences in state’s requirements for licensure as a psychologist … but, in short, I tried to rack up “hours” in a way that met Texas’ requirements while allowing me to be the mom I wanted to be to my twins. But, when I moved to Wisconsin, the Wisconsin licensing board wouldn’t accept the way I accumulated those hours. So, after moving back to Wisconsin I threw in the towel – I’m not a licensed psychologist and probably never will be. So much for my sixth-grade dream of being a famous psychologist.

Staying at home with my twins, who were not happy babies might I add, made me feel crazy. I was so busy, but my mind was so bored. Even though I was terribly sleep deprived, I started moonlighting as a work-at-home consultant. I did this on and off for five years. While I felt like I was contributing financially to my family and I had something to think about that extended beyond sleep and feeding schedules, I knew it was impacting the way I parented my boys. Remember, I’m a go big or go home girl. Please know that I’m not saying that all mom’s have to choose between work and family. I know amazing working moms who function in both worlds incredibly well. But, for me, I have a very hard time doing both. I knew I couldn’t be working when my boys were awake, but I found myself losing my patience with them because I wanted to be working instead of playing cars on the playroom floor. My mind was always on work. I scheduled conference calls during nap times. But, as all moms know, we can’t “make” our kids sleep. My heart pounded in those moments when I needed to call in for a meeting, but my boys were crying in their cribs. One day, I prayed the customer on the other end didn’t hear Chase screaming endlessly in his crib. This had to end.

So, I hung up my consulting cap and threw myself completely into my mom role. I bake bread every week. I never buy granola bars or mac and cheese – I make them from scratch. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right. The problem is … I don’t find fulfillment in these things. I don’t like to cook; I don’t like to clean. A mom in my Texas Twins Club (yes, I served on the executive board), once told me she went to college just to find a husband with which she could start a family. She loved being at home with her young twins. She watched cooking shows and had a large dry-erase board mounted in her laundry room on which she sketched out her weekly cleaning routine and checked off each task as she completed it. She was born to do this and loved it. How I wanted to be her. I wanted to love the mundane daily routine of a SAMH. I longed to feel like I was doing something meaningful, something important.

I’ve prayed about this. I’ve meditated on this. I’ve fasted in efforts to hear God’s voice – where is the meaning in this for ME? I’ve learned that, for me, I’ve depended on external reinforcement for my meaning. Translation: I’ve leaned to depend on other people telling me that I’m doing a good job in order to believe that I’m doing something meaningful and doing it well.  The grades, awards, and stellar performance appraisals at work fed me. They told me I was worth something, that I contributed meaningfully. As SAHMs, we don’t get this regular feedback. Well, we get feedback, but it generally doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves. We get tantrums and turned up noses at dinner. No one thanks us for filling the pantry, making dinner, or ensuring clean clothes are in the dresser drawers. No, our kids, like I did as a child, take these things for granted. We only hear from the peanut gallery when favorite jeans aren’t clean or when the orange in the lunch we packed was sour. We don’t get our mom report card or performance appraisal for at least two decades after we take on the role.

So what do we do in the interim? Gaining insight into the fact that consistent positive reinforcement fed me has helped me not be so dependent on it. Because I know that I felt worthwhile only when someone patted me on the back, has made me less dependent on those kudos.  And when I really need someone to tell me I’m doing a good job, I ask for it. People cannot read my mind. When I need reinforcement, I ask, “Did you like dinner? Did you notice I scrubbed the floors? How do they look?” Yes, this is fishing, but it helps. When I’m feeling desperate, it gives me the pat on the back I need to feel like my day was worth something.

But, as I mature, my dependence on these kudos wains. Being a mom matters. Kids don’t raise themselves. And in a day and age when kids get swallowed up by TV, video games and the Internet, I find solace in the fact that I’m here to talk meaningfully to them, make them homemade meals, and that I have the time to demand that they follow through on their chores instead of letting it slide because I’m too busy. Because my boys will grow to be the men that I helped mold. As men they will be husbands and fathers. And they will impact their wives and their children. The mom I am to them today helps shape the husbands, fathers and citizens they are tomorrow. That matters. And maybe, I’ve developed the maturity to argue, that matters more than being a famous author and psychologist.

I’m also insightful enough to know that I’m susceptible to depending on my kids’ success to determine my mom grade. If they turn out to be lawyers, doctors and supportive husbands and fathers, then I’m a successful mom. But, I’ve seen those parents that depend on their own kids’ success for their self-worth, and I don’t want to be one of them. When my boys succeed, I feel proud, but I give them the credit. When they fail, I’m sad, and I help them find ways in which they can do differently next time. I can’t take the success or the blame – we don’t build self-responsible kids that way.

Life is just different than I thought it would be. I’m not successful in the way I thought I would be. I hope my mentors see me as a success none-the-less, because they helped shape the woman that I’ve chosen to be. Instead of being in the headlines, I’m working behind the scenes in a supporting role. This is my lesson – I  don’t have to be the star, at least not now. The other day, Noah, one of my super-special 8-year old twins looked at me with his Beetles-style long hair and sweet eyes and  said to me, “Mom, you have a good spirit. You’re the best mom I know. And I know a lot of moms.”  Maybe our performance appraisal isn’t decades in the making after all.

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Kid Spaces in Adult Places … Tackling the Playroom

Kid spaces in adult places.

Kid spaces in adult places.

The playroom. If you are anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with it. The colorful plastic it contains can be unyielding. It takes over your once adult-oriented, smartly decorated retreat.  And the thought of figuring out how to make it kid-friendly and something that doesn’t swallow your house can be overwhelming. Yet, it provides hours of educational entertainment for your wee one.

Through three kids, two states and two homes, I’ve definitely concluded that one size does not fit all when it comes to choosing the best space for your kiddos’ toys or how to organize them. Not only do home layouts differ, but the needs of our kids’ play spaces change as they get older. With those caveats  in mind, I’m going to open up our home and share how we’ve organized play spaces for Jax, who’s now 16-months old.

Their Home, Their Space Too

My philosophy is my home is my kids’ home too. As such, there’s a little bit of their stuff everywhere. My current house is a 2,200-square foot two-story with a finished basement. The basement is the 8-year old’s playroom with lots of itty-bitty pieces that Jax would surely pop right into his mouth if left to his own devises. So, there is very little of Jax’s there because we rarely venture down those stairs together. Only if I’m really desperate for a change of scenery do we find ourselves playing among the Legos, Snap Circuits and other 16-month old death traps.

The first floor, our main living area, is an other story. There’s a little bit of Jax in every nook and cranny.

View from our living room. Jax's main playspace is just beyond the staircase. Dinning room is to the right, and kitchen is through the doorway on the far right.

View from our living room. Jax’s main play space is just beyond the staircase. Dinning room is to the right, and kitchen is through the doorway on the far right.

As a stay-at-home mom, it’s important to me that he be able to roam the space safely and that there are things for him to do around every corner. That doesn’t mean that I have lots of his toys scattered everywhere. It means that what is out in the open and unlocked, he has access to. I know some parents believe that toddlers need to learn not to touch the “untouchables” in their home. I get that philosophy – I just don’t apply it. In my house, if it’s off limits, he can’t access it – it’s locked in a cabinet or high on a shelf. Now, as my kids get older this changes – my twins understand that some things are off limits. But for the littlest family members, I just don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze at this stage. First, I don’t want to have to hover over Jax all day making sure I’m telling him “no, you can’t touch that” and making sure he’s safe. Second, I want Jax to feel a sense of security, and eventually ownership, in his home. I think too many “no’s” and off-limit spaces make kids anxious. That’s just my personal parenting philosophy. All-righty then.

I need my main living space to be Jax-friendly and allow me to actually get something done during his waking hours when I’m not on the floor playing directly with him. My main floor is four semi-open concept rooms (kitchen, formal sitting room, living room and dinning room) all circled around a middle staircase leading upstairs. The kitchen opens directly to the formal sitting room. To the left of the formal sitting room is the living room. The living room shares a large open space with our dining room, which is connected via an open doorway back to the kitchen. It’s basically a big square with a smaller square (the stairway) in the middle. Hope you could picture that.

Because the formal sitting room is simply an extension off the open kitchen, it made the most sense to make Jax’s main play space there. Twelve months ago, this room was adult-friendly with two leather club chairs and two deep-seated wicker chairs cozied around our fireplace. It was a space into which we invited our dinner party guests to enjoy an after dinner drink. Fast-forward one year and it’s a Fisher-Price, Melissa & Doug metropolis. Tis’  but a season of life I say, and transforming this into a toddler-friendly room makes this current stage of life manageable for both of us.

Jax’s Main Play Zone

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

I believe that if toys aren’t visible, kids won’t play with them. I also believe in arranging their spaces so they have the greatest degree of independence possible for their age – this decreases frustration and promotes a healthy sense of self-worth. With those tenets in mind, I chose open shelving that Jax can access easily. He can see his toys, and he can take them out and put them back himself.

The canvas baskets above house toys that are “special” or require adult supervision. Keeping these hidden reduces Jax’s frustration in that he “forgets” they are there and rarely asks to play with them during times I’m not able to oblige. I also keep his puzzles up there mainly because I don’t have the table space to keep them out. I take one or two down, place them on the floor for the day, and rotate them often.

Kids feel safe and secure when they can predict their environment. A simple way to respect this need is by putting their toys back in the same place each day so they

Labeling shelves with a picture of what belongs there provides young children with a sense of predictability while helping them learn where to put toys away.

Labeling shelves with a picture of what belongs there provides young children with a sense of predictability while helping them learn where to put toys away.

know where to find them. Taking this concept a bit further, I like to create laminated

picture “labels” for our shelves. On the shelf, I mount a picture that corresponds to the toy that belongs there. This reassures Jax that, “Yep,this toy goes here,” and also  helps remind him where to put his toys back when we clean up before nap and bed. Granted, at this age I do most of the pick-up, but the pictures help as I introduce this self-responsibility concept. And, the pics remind Dad and big brothers where the baby’s toys belong – bonus.

A low bench with storage provides additional open toy storage and a play table all-in-one. | A turning bookshelf is a great space-saver.

A low bench with storage provides additional open toy storage and a play table all-in-one. | A turning bookshelf is a great space-saver.

Every few months I “rotate” several of his toys on these shelves. I haven’t figured out if it’s because I need a change or if he does – but boy do I get bored with the same ol’ same ol’. Keeping his favorites out, but replacing things he doesn’t seem that interested in mixes it up for both of us. I keep a bin in the garage of age-appropriate toys and label it with the date of the last toy rotation. Of course, I change out the shelf labels too:-)

Rotating toys every few months keeps things fresh.

Rotating toys every few months keeps things fresh.

Adding art at kids' height gives them something beautiful to look at.

Adding art at kids’ height gives them something beautiful to look at.

I think us tall adults, at least tall in comparison to our toddlers (I’m 5′ – so “tall” is all in one’s perspective ) forget that these little people have a very different view of the word. Artwork is almost always placed so adults can enjoy it, and the little guys are stuck staring at empty, painted walls. To give your littlest family members something beautiful to look at, frame inexpensive prints and hang them at their level. In Jax’s playroom, I used 3M Command Strips to hang this painting I did during a very fun girl’s night out (highly recommend such an outing, by the way). It’s not a Rembrandt, I’ll admit, but it’s more pleasing than blank red walls.

More Spaces for Play

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Giving kids spaces to explore around the house encourages independence and gives them something to do while you are getting your own stuff done. I don’t know about you, but I spend more time in the kitchen than I’d care to admit. Therefore, Jax spends lots of time there too. I’ve intentionally made sure he has multiple things to do in the kitchen so, if he tires of one activity, I can encourage him to rotate through the others available for him. Most of my cabinets are locked (I love Kiddco Tot Locks – work like a charm and they don’t ruin the aesthetics of your cabinets), but I keep four drawers/cabinets available for him to explore. I also have a Learning Tower (that I bought used from a friend) that brings Jax up to counter height. From there, he can organize nesting blocks, eat a snack or “mix” ingredients just like Mom as I’m baking. Finally, I’ve hauled our old Little Tikes kitchenette into our small kitchen. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle because it takes up valuable real estate, but seeing the pleasure Jax gets putting things in and taking things out of the cabinets and microwave of his own kitchen makes it worth while. In several months he’ll be ready for full-on pretend play, and I’m sure the kitchenette will be center stage as he mimics me baking bread or prepping dinner.

A home-made chalkboard creates a mini-play space.

A homemade chalkboard creates a mini-play space.

So Jax has safe, kid-appropriate things to do as he wonders the house, I have little spaces in nooks and crannies set up for him. Two of his current favorites are his chalk board and activity cube. I’ve fashioned a chalk board out of a framed bulletin board I bought at Hobby Lobby. Seeing as the bulletin board wasn’t going to be Jax-friendly until years down the road, I removed the corkboard from the frame, painted its backside with black chalkboard paint, and simply placed it back into the frame chalkboard-side out. I keep fat chalk and an eraser on the floor under the frame, and he’s free to scribble at his leisure.

Kids love to play in small nooks around the house. The space between our front entrance and hall closet creates a perfect little play “cave” for Jax. Because we sometimes need to get into that closet, I can’t put anything too cumbersome there, but his Parent’s activity cube fits perfectly. I can move it easily, and it’s the

Randomly placed toys invited children to explore their space.

Randomly placed toys invited children to explore their space.

perfect size for Jax to move around the cube in his own “special” space.

These are just some of my current solutions for our family and humble abode. Sure, if I had a million dollars, I might make other choices. And if my home layout were different, my choices would reflect that (my spaces for the twins were very different when they were Jax’s age because we had a rambling ranch). And what works at this stage in your and your child’s life will need to be adjusted as you move into the next chapter. So roll with it. Make changes, experiment and find what works for you.

I’d love to hear your comments and how you organize your space to best fit the needs of you and your Littles.

Ready, Set, Go!

Jax was pulling up and prepping to walk

Jax was pulling up and prepping to walk

And we’re off. Jaxinthebox.com is live and ready for you. Now maybe I’ll clean my house, and make dinners and do laundry … maybe.

It was seven months ago when the idea of an online resale store hit me. Jax was about seven months old and pulling up on furniture. I wanted an activity table for him, but our Leapfrog was 8-years old and missing parts. From experience with my twins, I knew that Jax wouldn’t use it long enough to warrant paying full price for new, so my quest for one with “previous experience” began.

I considered going to my local brick-and-mortar kids’ resale shop, but nightmares of browsing there for an exersaucer several month back haunted me. Yep, they had an exersaucer alright – circa 1999 and with enough dust piled on its tray that I wondered what color it actually was. No, I wouldn’t waste my time there. So, I searched Craigslist. Yep, several there. After emailing about 10 listings, only to discover half were already sold, and two more where a 1.5 hours drive … I was getting discouraged. I then went back and forth with the owner of a Baby Einstein, only to have her drop off the face of the Earth right when we were going to solidify a meeting place. Next, I considered driving 45 minutes to the next closest brick-and-mortar, but thought how awesome it would be if I could just look online to see if they had what I wanted before making the trek. Seeing as that wasn’t an option, my Plan B was to call and ask what they had in stock. I had an impossible time painting a picture in my mind of the play table the sales clerk was describing. Forget it.

I imagined that lots of parents have similar experiences, so I went on SurveyMonkey to find out. I created a short survey (good thing I paid all that money for a Ph.D. – at least I know how to write survey questions and crunch data), sent it out to a sample of moms, and found that lots of you wanted an online, gently-used shopping venue too. One that was easier to use than Craigslist or Ebay, and where you could browse any time of day or night. And Jax in the Box was born.

I’ve spent the last 3.5 months building and stocking the store. While there are so many things I want to do with it (and will over time)  … I think we are ready to share it with you. I hope you love it. Our goal is to stock a balance of unique, creative gear that you can’t find just anywhere with the everyday items available at most stores (Target, etc.) – all at great prices. Like, maybe you’ve always wanted to try a Moby Wrap, but couldn’t afford one new (or weren’t sure you wanted to fork out the cash if you didn’t like it) – well, we have one at an incredible price. Or perhaps you’ve wanted to try out cloth diapers, but $25 a pop made you gun-shy. We’ve got some of the most-loved brands at incredible prices. But be warned … we usually just have one, two if you’re lucky, of any item at a time. So act fast or you might miss it.

So browse around. And tell us what you love, what you think could be better and what you’d like to see us stock in our store. We love hunting for great gear, and we’ll try to find the items you want. Because, while playing “Fire Chief”  for two hours in a row can be fun (okay, maybe an overstatement), we think it’s more fun if it’s with a Green Toys Fire Engine in excellent shape that you got for a steal at our store. Maybe then you’ll have enough change in your pocket for a latte. Fire Chief is always better with a latte.