4 Small Routine Tweaks that Are Saving My Family

New routines freak me out. It takes forever for me to adjust to change, so I avoid it at all costs . . . to the point where I’ll blunder around in routine-less no-man’s-land for months rather than commit to a schedule I may not like.

That routineless life is what I’ve been living for more than a year. You can hear in this podcast episode how unstructured my days were. I thought I was being flexible, making it easier to change things up depending on what the kids needed. In reality, I was creating more stress for myself and leaving my kids feeling untethered in their days.

The addition of a third baby plus having my oldest in full-day preschool a few days a week has made it glaringly clear that the status quo is broken. No longer can I drift through my days and expect for everyone to be happy by the time evening rolls around.

I’ve spent the last few weeks reluctantly tweaking our routines. Surprise, surprise! The positive results were almost instantaneous. Here, for routine lovers and haters alike, are the four tiny changes that have made all the difference in my family’s routines.

1. Monthly grocery delivery

Grocery delivery is one of my saving graces as a mom, but in the past I’ve used it as a luxury service rather than part of our shopping routine. Sick kids? Snowstorm? Two weeks away from delivering a baby? Bring on the grocery delivery. Just your average Wednesday? I’d tell myself there was no reason I couldn’t get groceries on my own.

But really, the alternative of loading up three kids and dragging them around the grocery store is totally a reason to use a regular delivery service. In my head, grocery shopping only took an hour. In reality, it wasted an entire day because we were all so crabby and off-kilter by the time we got home. Now I pay the delivery fee for our big shopping trip once a month, and I make a quick Trader Joe’s run by myself once a week for produce and other odds and ends.

2. On-time dinner

It shouldn’t be rocket science that eating dinner on time is better than eating dinner late, but that just goes to show how much I was bogged down by my “flexible” daily schedule.

I used to start dinner at 4:30 because I thought one hour should be plenty of time to get most meals on the table. But that math doesn’t take into account the many times I’ll be interrupted by various kid demands, nor the reality that dinner has been served at 6:00 or later most nights since the new baby was born. With a kid bedtime of 7:00, there just wasn’t enough time for a relaxing evening routine. Every night ended in tears and shouting.

The solution is an easy one, and I’m not sure why I resisted it for so long. I now start dinner at 3:30 and we eat between 5:00 and 5:30. Seeing those times written out kind of kills me, but I’ve learned that no matter how productive I think I’ll be during those two hours, I never do anything other than waste time. I’m better off taking forever to cook on-time dinner than rush to make late dinner.

This adjustment has completely changed our evenings in ways I hadn’t expected. The kids aren’t crabby when we eat because they’re not starving. There’s less rush to get through bedtime stories. And my favorite, we have time to clean the kitchen as a family after dinner rather than my husband and I facing it alone after the kids go to bed.

3. Late-afternoon kid yoga

There has been much angst over what to do with the kids while I cook. We have a small galley kitchen that always leaves me tripping over them or being terrified they’re going to get splattered by something hot on the stove. I tried making this their TV time, but the toddler is still more interested in me than Daniel Tiger—flattering, but not helpful.

That’s when I got the bright idea to turn on a yoga video for the kids while I cook. There’s definitely no meditating happening there, but it keeps both girls busy so I can cook. By the time we sit down to eat (on time!), they’re relaxed and happy because they got the “special treat” of a YouTube video. Also, they’re not traumatized by their mother screaming at them to get the heck out of her kitchen.

4. Early morning silence

This is the change I’ve been most resistant to. For the four years I’ve been a mother, I’ve proudly flaunted my status as someone who sleeps in until my kids wake me up. I had a lot of reasons for this, not least of all that I have high sleep needs and none of our kids (so far) have slept through the night until their first birthday.

It turns out three kids is my breaking point for a lot of things: getting everyone ready simultaneously, getting any work at all done during the day, finding two minutes to read in peace. And so, the early morning ritual so many women swear by has become part of my routine, too.

This is less of a routine and more of a commitment to start my days well, even though that looks different depending on the day. Nearly all mornings begin with a few minutes of quiet time. Some start at 4 or 5 a.m., usually the days where I need to get some work done. On others I’ll “sleep in” until 6, leaving just enough time to get myself ready and read a chapter or two before the kids get up.

Where to go from here

These routines aren’t set in stone, and there are still quite a few things that need adjusting before I’ll feel like we’re truly in a good rhythm. Areas that could still use some more structure include exercise, regular child care, budgeting and bill paying, daily quiet time with the kids, and weekly meal planning.

Overall, though, things are better than they were. That feels like the best I can ask for with three tiny children at my heels all day long.

Are there any routines you love? Any small changes that have made a big difference? Let me know in the comments!

Summer Book Review Roundup

So. I had a baby, summer happened, and I fell behind on book reviews. But not behind on reading! I'm actually far ahead of my reading goal for 2018 . . . which is ironic since I purposely planned to read less this year.  

The bad news is that I've been less than impressed with some of my book choices in recent months, mostly because I loosened my grip on my deep reading plans while I was in the newborn haze. Not every book I've read this summer deserves a full review. Instead, we're going with a star rating and a one-sentence review to keep things quick while I take us through every book I read from May through August. 


May

This month found me with a weeks-old baby, deep in the throes of sleep deprivation. My reading this month was driven by ebooks I'd purchased on sale for easy one-handed reading while nursing a baby, and much-awaited library books that finally came in. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

"Unrepentant aristocrat" Alexander Rostov is sentenced to a life of house arrest in 1922, and readers are given the delightful treat of following his life in the ever-changing Metropol hotel. I'm already breaking my one-sentence rule so I can tell you that this book is amazing and you won't regret reading it.

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 4 stars

A short read that lays out practical (if somewhat aspirational) suggestions for parents looking to manage their family's technology use; I especially appreciated the Christian perspective.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 1 star

Predictable and fluffy, this book didn't nearly live up to the hype and actually made me feel dumber than I was when I started it. 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

Backman once again hits it out of the park with a well-written novel that had me laughing and crying—often on the same page—thanks to an endearing title character that reminds me of my husband.

June

June was marked by my return to work after maternity leave and a serious decrease in reading. As per usual, it took me a while to find my new work rhythm after adding another tiny person to the family. The two books I read this month took me week to get through, and I owe the fact that I read anything at all to library holds coming in.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4 stars

The second in a trilogy, Us Against You made an impressive follow-up to Beartown, though it isn't my favorite of Backman's work.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4.5 stars

That Kind of Mother is a literary novel that's not too weighty, even though it tackles issues like racism; I was especially impressed by how well the male author captured the reality of early motherhood.

July

This month came with a trip to the cabin that resulted in tons of extra reading time. I enjoyed the new reading pace, but I let my choices skew too far toward nonfiction for summer.

Rumors of Water by L. L. Barkat

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

These essays on creativity and motherhood were given to me by my podcast cohost,  and she was absolutely right about how much I'd love them.

The Path Between Us by Suzanne Stabile

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

I carried on in my personality framework obsession with this book, which applies the wisdom of the Enneagram to relationships, interactions, and communication with others. 

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 2 stars

I have respect for this memoir about a father and daughter battling cancer at the same time, but the writing and the author's personality weren't my cup of tea.

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

Time-tracking expert Laura Vanderkam is back with an excellent read on being mindful with your time, being present to your own life, and avoiding the trap of feeling busy even when you're not.

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 3 stars

The first in a dystopian YA series, this novel is like The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games—nothing groundbreaking, but a good summer read that has me interested enough to return to the sequel someday.

August

August started off with a plague upon our house (hand, foot, and mouth virus) that set me back on work and other projects all month long. I let my incoming library holds dictate my reading habits yet again, mostly because I didn't have time to be more intentional with my choices without letting my library books go overdue or unread.

One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 4 stars

I took issue with some of the writing and pacing, but overall I gleaned some timely lessons from this memoir by a Catholic blogger who balances her six kids with her writing and radio career.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4 stars

The pacing was slow at times, but it's impossible to overstate how gorgeous the writing is in this incredibly well-crafted novel about the members of a string quartet.

I'd Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 4 stars

This collection of essays spoke right to my book-loving heart, from confessing literary sins (purposely keeping library books past their due date because you just HAVE to finish them, anyone?) to the magic of the right book finding you at the right time. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 3 stars

The content of this Christian book was pretty good on a topic that's not discussed often enough, but it was a classic case of the wrong book at the wrong time (as evidenced by the three months it took me to read it).


I'm dissatisfied with my reading life lately—I haven't quite been reading what I want to. My goal is to read only four- and five-star books. Idealistic? Maybe. I didn't fall too far short of that this summer, but the handful of not-great books were SO not-great that I feel like they dragged down my overall perception of my summer reading choices.

As I head into fall, I want to be more intentional with the books I pick up so I can make the most of my reading time. Maybe I'll even take a library hiatus so I can work through the backlog of books I own and haven't read yet.

In the meantime, stop by the comments and tell me the best book you've read this summer!

Let Me Tell You a Love Story

There's a couple that walks down our street every night after dinner, a boy and girl who are most likely newlyweds. They're just a few years younger than I am, still lightened by the weightless possibility that comes in those post-graduation years of your early twenties.

My husband and I good-naturedly refer to them as Hipster Couple. They resemble each other in the way that long-term couples do. They both wear huge plastic glasses and, occasionally, matching fedoras that top their honey-colored hair. He has a signature goatee and a love of both flannel and suspenders. She wears only warm neutrals and has the impressive ability to pull off wide-leg pants with confidence. They even have a pair of matching dogs, each of them holding a leash.

Hipster couple is always touching each other. Sometimes they hold hands, but more often he'll have his arm draped across her shoulders, or she'll have hers circling his waist. If the dogs are pulling them apart, they still manage to lean towards each other, as though they're magnetized.

I have never seen them not talking, not smiling, or not laughing. They're adorable, is what I'm trying to say.


I refuse to feel creepy about watching them whenever they pass by. For one thing, our house is on a hill with a huge picture window facing the street; it's hard not to notice who's walking along. But more than that, I'm drawn to them.

It's like watching a rom-com day by day. They make my heart happy every time I see them. More than once, I've felt the urge to snap a few candid photos and anonymously leave them in their mailbox (after following them to discover where they live in the most non-stalkerish way possible). I think they deserve to see what their love looks like from afar.

Jacob and I can't help but comment on them. Mostly I'll talk about how happy they look and he'll talk about how he doesn't understand fashion these days. But the other day, we had this exchange. 

"Do you think Hipster Couple will be together forever?" I said. "We don't even know if they're married." 

And Jacob, who is no great romantic, replied, "Yeah, they will. Those two just go together."


I hope they never move. I hope I get to keep watching them walk by for years and years, eventually accompanied by a pregnant belly, then a stroller, then laughing, smiling, honey-haired children. I want to watch this far-away, shining love story go on forever. 

And I'm not delusional, okay? I know that I don't actually know them, that maybe all of us would look this happy and in love if people couldn't see our screaming fights and our secret fears and the nights we feel so far apart, even though we're sitting on the same couch. 

All I'm saying is, this boy loves that girl, and that girl loves this boy, so much that perfect strangers can see it from their living room window. That's the kind of love I'm going to keep believing in, even if it makes me the crazy stalker lady in the house on the hill. 

Speaking Books into Life

I used to read out loud to my mom. I was ten, or maybe twelve. The Harry Potter books had become an obsession for me. Was Snape good or bad? Could Dumbledore keep everyone safe now that Voldemort had returned? Would Harry beat Malfoy in the next Quidditch match? These were the questions that consumed my brain, and I had no one to discuss them with.

My mom isn't much of a reader. Despite my badgering, I could never get her on board with reading thousands of pages of books meant for children. So when she was trapped in the car with me, usually on our way to my grandma's house for coffee each Sunday morning, I'd read them to her. 

She liked them. Loved them, actually. Soon every Target run was a chance to squeeze in a few more pages. I started doing voices and speaking in a British accent. (My utter lack of theater skills mean this was every bit as embarrassing as it sounds.) 

I introduced my mom to the magic of Harry one 10-minute car ride at a time. I had successfully shared a story that mattered to me with someone else, and I was ecstatic. 


I can't remember how many books we got through before I stopped reading to her. Did we quit after the massive tome that was Goblet of Fire? Did the ritual end once I got my first boyfriend and started riding everywhere in the passenger seat of his Chevy Cavalier instead of with my parents? Deathly Hallows came out when I was 17, and I'm sure I wasn't still reading out loud by then. 

Did my mom finish the books on her own, waiting until I had raced through each new release in less than a day so she could borrow my copy? Or did she just watch the movies once I stopped reading out loud? 

The details I can't remember are startling. I'm not even 30. This wasn't that long ago. But up until a few years ago, I'd forgotten that we used to read Harry together at all. 

Then my oldest daughter, Hadley, was born. Everyone tells you that reading to babies is good for them, but babies don't have much of an opinion about which books you pick. I took full advantage of this.

We were a few chapters into Sorcerer's Stone when I started having deja vu. Had I done this before? By the end of the first book, I remembered my car readings with my mom. By book two, my non-reader husband was listening in. I was once again sharing the story with someone who would otherwise never have known its magic.


Hadley is nearly four now, and old enough to be freaked out by things like an evil giant snake living in school walls. We made it through Goblet of Fire and her first 18 months of life before I decided it was time to shelve Harry for the time being. 

Now there are the Dr. Seuss books to hold her attention with their neverending rhymes, and Go Dog, Go with that horribly rude yellow dog who never likes the poor poodle's hat. Hadley has opinions about her books now, and the ones she most wants to hear are often the most tedious to read. 

It's hard to bond over phonics and early-reader books. I want to share a story with my kids. But stories, real stories, seem to be in a short supply for the under-five crowd. So I do what I've always done, ever since I was a 12-year-old tearing through Gone with the Wind and tackling my first Kingsolver: I read up to them.

The trick is to find books with pictures and a good story. Not too long—attention spans are still short. Hidden messages and strong values are always a plus, as are gorgeous illustrations. These books will likely have tearable pages and dust jackets, and the two-year-old will gradually destroy them. But that's okay; the story is just as good with some tattered edges. 

These books have been hard to come by. Bloom is one, What Do You Do with an Idea? another. And now there's a new addition to our bedtime rotation, another worthwhile story to fit in between sessions of Cat in the Hat.

The Golden Dress by L. L. Barkat checks all the boxes for me.

There's whimsy and magic, a beautiful dress any girl would adore brought to life with illustrations so gorgeous, I can't even put words to them. There's a truth-telling raven I'll 100% be using as a gateway into Poe someday. There's a dedication to all those who love fairy tales, which had me sold before I even got past the title page. There's an impressive use of vocabulary, which I appreciate in kids' books because it encourages research and curiosity. (I had to look up the word lissome, myself.)

And most of all, there's a mother and her daughter. A mother's heart laid bare in the seams of a dress, a daughter's slow understanding. This isn't a book that teaches manners or how to use the potty or a million other important little lessons we beat into our children's heads day and night.

The Golden Dress accomplishes something far more difficult: it's a story that shines truth.

I have read to my mother. Now I read to my daughters and, when he's older, my son. With every word I'm speaking stories into life, hoping that with enough rereads, the most important of our bedtime stories will stick in a beloved childhood memory somewhere. 

And if they don't stick, if they fade and wear away like mine almost did, maybe those words I read over and over again will have stacked up, layer upon layer, into the sturdy foundation that makes a child into a lover of stories.

 I received a free copy of The Golden Dress from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

See Mom Write

"How do you make time to write with kids?"

Like this. 


May 23, 2018 

3:30 p.m. One kid is complaining of boredom, one kid is unfolding my laundry, and the baby is sleeping.

The ants were here before the kids were. They came with the house, which is built on a hill held up by block retaining walls. It's a veritable ant heaven. 

3:42 p.m.. The children are now leaning over the arm of the couch, peering at my writing and asking why I haven't started dinner because if I don't start soon, they'll surely starve.

That first year, the ants came streaming through the back door in a tidy line. I kept vigil at the kitchen table, looking up from my freelance work every few minutes to suck them into the handheld vacuum we'd been gifted for our wedding just a few months earlier. 

3:49 p.m. Baby is awake and toddler is throwing modeling clay at me. Time to give up for today?

May 24, 2018

9:20 p.m. Finally alone in the quiet . . . never mind. Husband just sat down and turned on TV. Will try to write anyway.

Back then, seeing the ants offended me on a personal level. Who were these tiny things to imply by their very presence that my house wasn't clean? I spent an entire afternoon hovering near the back door with the vacuum. No one could say I wasn't devoted to cleanliness. 

9:35 p.m. I don't like this. Is writing about ants stupid? Yes, yes it is. I'm going to knit instead. 

May 29, 2018

9:25 a.m. Literally watching the ants crawl by as I write this.

They appear in the center of the living room like our faded Target rug is hiding a vortex directly to the nearest anthill. "The sucker," as Hadley calls it, has become a permanent fixture in the room so that anyone sitting on the couch has only to lean over and push the button when they spot a crumb mysteriously walking across the floor of its own accord.

9:33 a.m. Paused for diaper change

It's a losing battle with the kids around. We Roomba daily, I sweep after each meal, and we've tightened up the rule that we only eat at the table. But still, the ants are marching on, and I'm losing my patience.

June 2, 2018

10:21 a.m. What am I trying to say with the ant essay? Maybe I can [This sentence unintentionally left unfinished. No idea what I meant to say.]

8:57 p.m. Just finished nursing the baby. He's not sleeping quite yet, but hopefully soon?

So when I spotted a steady line of ants tromping across the rug and disappearing between the coffee table and couch, I assumed one of the kids had snuck away from the kitchen to enjoy an illegal cracker or granola bar. I grabbed the vacuum, already mentally preparing the speech I'd make to the kids about how, no seriously, DO NOT EAT FOOD IN THE LIVING ROOM.

I followed the line of ants and discovered . . . a piece of popcorn from the bowl my husband and I had shared the night before, after the kids went to bed.

My mental rant died in my head.

Isn't that always the way it is with kids? I think things are their fault, that they're somehow interfering with my progress, when in reality the problem was me all along.

June 3, 2018

Have I written about ants before? I have deja vu. 

[Flip back to the beginning of the journal.] Oh, here it is. I have tried to write this before.


May 20, 2017

5:02 p.m. Cooking dinner

Sugar ants exist to make you think you're insane. Their tiny, gross little insect bodies blend with everything so that you only catch glimpses of them out of the corner of your eye while you're otherwise occupied, bent over the open oven door with your hands full of a piping hot 9x13 Pyrex. 

Do you sacrifice dinner to kill two ants? No. But it's tempting. 

Instead, slam the casserole on the stove, ditch the oven mitts, lunge toward the vacuum plugged in in the corner. But by then the ant is invisible again, marching merrily out to tell his friends about this great floor with all the toast crumbs on it. 

May 21, 2017

8:22 p.m. Kids are finally (finally!) sleeping. Is today's ant incident a better story than yesterday's?

I put "spray ant stuff" on my to-do list a week ago where it remained the only item not crossed off the list, taunting me from the fridge door. I figured I'd get to it. It stayed there for a week like a battle cry. And then, the rain came. Our ants always mobilize in the rain.

I should have seen them coming. I've lived here long enough to know their patterns. Instead, they caught me off guard in the bathroom. I was perched on the edge of the tub, once again waiting tedious minutes to tick by while Hadley's bladder weighed the pros and cons of going tinkle in the big-girl potty. 

8:37 p.m. Hadley is up requesting water. What have I done to deserve this slow torture of children not going the heck to bed?!

Reagan crawled in during our potty-training session and immediately took interest in some tiny speck on the floor that was surely a choking hazard.

But no, it was an ant. My nine-month-old was chasing a sugar ant across the bathroom floor. The bathroom! They've never breached the bathroom before. This isn't good.

I scooped the baby up and deposited her in the hall so I could investigate and round up my poisons of choice. Where there is one, there are many.

8:51 p.m. Too dramatic for ants? What's the point of all this anyway, other than that I can't remember the last time I washed the bathroom floor?

May 26, 2017

10:00 a.m. Kids are at Nana's. Blessed silence. I should be working. Or at the very least cleaning my house so these damn ants go away. Where am I going with this? Try a new angle.

I've never been one of those people who doesn't believe in killing ants. Sure, they're God's creatures (say the Christians) and it's bad karma (say the Buddhists) and who are we to take a life out of the universe (say the New Agers)? 

No one. I am no one. But ever since childhood, I've gone out of my way to step on ants. I guess that makes them angry or something, and word gets around the anthill eventually.

So now they are here in my house, and it's war. I'll turn a blind eye to our friendly spider colony, but never the ants. 

I've battled them ever since our first summer in this house. They came streaming through the back door like I'd issued an invitation. I'd sit at the kitchen table, glancing up from whichever manuscript I was editing to suck up the whole line of them every few minutes. 

10:18 p.m. Resuming while watching a bad movie

I tried everything: cans of poison that kill on contact, sprays that are deemed safe for kids and pets after it dries, and granules you shake out of a bag that claim to create "an unbreakable bug barrier." I hid the non-slip shoes I wore to work at the coffee shop, the ones with the layer of sticky flavor syrups adhered across the top. 

None of it mattered.

10:34 p.m. I'm so tired. Is this why everyone tells you to do important work in the mornings? 

May 28, 2017

1:40 p.m. I think I'm giving up on the ant thing. Are they a metaphor for something? Doesn't seem worth going after whatever thread this is anymore.


June 4, 2018

11:08 a.m. Rescued an old journal from my crayon-wielding toddler. I'll flip through just for fun.

May 27, 2016

8:40 p.m. 

There's a pineapple on the table, my hands are too clammy to knit, and the ants. are. back. 

I should write about those stupid things.


June 4, 2018

Two years. I've been writing about the ants for more than TWO YEARS?! That's it. I'm done. This ends here.


June 5, 2018

8:17 p.m. Outside. Typing quickly in the hopes that this years-long essay will actually get written before the baby wakes up. Husband is trying to talk with me, like reasonable married people would. I'm half-listening, trying not to be annoyed because I'm this. close. to. finishing.

If you've read anything I've written in the past four years, this is probably how it came to be. 

How do I make time to write?

I really don't. But this is the best I have to offer, and you can't stop me from trying.

 

April Book Report

April had all the things: Last-minute client work! Another round of colds for the kids! A historic blizzard! A new baby! 

Those last two things happened in the same weekend. Baby Conlin arrived happy and healthy a week early on Friday the 13th, just as the blizzard was turning from freezing rain into snow. I was also a spring snowstorm baby, so it's basically a family tradition now! Conlin and his big sisters are all doing well, and I'm adjusting better to baby #3 than I have during any other postpartum season. 

That's probably why my reading didn't dip too much, even with a new baby on the scene. Which book did I love, which books were meh, and which book didn't I finish? Right this way to the April book report! 

This post contains affiliate links.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

 

Deep reading category: Makes me think; teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

I'm a huge personality framework nerd (you can get all the details on that in this Chasing Creative episode about personality and creativity). The typing system I'm getting the most out of these days is hands down the Enneagram. Because the Enneagram has been around for thousands of years and is steeped in spiritual tradition, it's an incredible tool for not only becoming more self-aware but for actually doing something about the way we see the world and interact with other people.

Unfortunately, that rich history also means the Enneagram is complicated. That's where The Road Back to You comes in. It's not the first Enneagram book I've loved, but it is the best starting point I've found for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the Enneagram without getting totally overwhelmed. The authors do an excellent job at connecting each type with anecdotes about actual people so you can see each type in action. Another highlight is the lists at the beginning and end of each chapter to help you identify your type and begin moving toward a healthier version of yourself.

Bottom line: It's a must-read for personality geeks or those interested in self-improvement or spiritual transformation. You can also listen to the authors' podcast to get a feel for the Enneagram before diving into the book.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Deep reading category: Makes me think; has outstanding writing

Star rating: 3 stars

The house on Yarrow Street has seen the Turner's thirteen children raised and grown. But after fifty years as the Turners' residence, the house is now worth far less than its mortgage thanks to the declining Detroit housing market. With the family matriarch in failing health and each of the Turner children facing problems of their own, the family has to make a hard decision about the future of the home, even as it brings up painful memories of the past.

This is one of those literary fiction books that doesn't feel too high-brow. It's easily readable and incredibly well written; I especially appreciated the realistic dialogue and complex family dynamics. The description may focus on the house's upside-down mortgage, but that's just the framework for the real point of the story: the way various characters have carried their pasts with them into the future, and the impact of racial disparity on the entire city of Detroit. 

Bottom line: Despite such good qualities, The Turner House was a slow read that I never felt like I HAD to finish. I struggled to power through it, especially with my mind distracted by little things like my impending labor.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: N/A, did not finish

The summer of 1969 begins as boring as any other---until the four Gold children hear a rumor that a psychic has come to town. Even better, she can tell anyone the date of their death. Curiosity gets the best of the siblings, and they each spend the remainder of their lives holding her predictions in their minds as they try to spend their days well.

This new release has gotten a lot of buzz and good reviews, so I was excited to see if it lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, it did not. After the opening scene, the book follows each sibling individually until the date of his or her death. I only made it through the first two before giving up. The writing was well done, but I didn't particularly like any of the characters or the choices they were making. There was also some sexually explicit content I didn't think needed to be there. (As Modern Mrs. Darcy would say, the book needed an 8-line edit.) 

Bottom line: Despite the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies, which always intrigues me, I'm voting hard pass on this one.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Deep reading category: N/A, pure fluff

Star rating: 3 stars

Jessie's life isn't exactly stellar after her mom dies, but when her dad drags her across the country to live in Los Angeles after he elopes with a near-stranger less than two years later . . . well, let's just say she's less than excited for junior year at her new prep school. Just when Jessie is sure she'll never fit in, she gets an anonymous email from Somebody/Nobody offering to be her spirit guide to Wood Valley High. It isn't long before she's falling for her anonymous friend. But is SN really who she thinks he is? 

I give myself a few exceptions to my deep reading aspirations, and the months after having a baby are one of them. This YA novel was unadulterated fluff, perfect for nursing a baby in the middle of the night. There was a lot to love about Tell Me Three Things. It could easily have been a five-star book if it weren't for a few downsides: 

  1. Jessie constantly makes negative comments about her appearance, including everything from her weight to her acne. Normal portrayal of teenage insecurity is okay with me, but a never-ending stream of unflattering self-talk that doesn't end until a guy tells her she's beautiful? Not cool.
  2. The whole premise of this book was the mystery of SN's real identity (which was pretty predictable from the start). I wasn't exactly on pins and needles waiting to find out who SN was, so it was disappointing when the book ended almost immediately after the two meet in person. I would've liked the meeting to be a little earlier so readers actually got to see their relationship develop beyond the screen.

Bottom line: Not bad as far as fluff goes, but it's nowhere near some of my favorite YA reads.

What are your favorite fluff books?

Let me know in the comments! I'll need a few more to get me through these hazy postpartum days. And of course, summer is the best time for fluff. :)

Catch up on what else I've been reading this year in my past book reports.

5 Good Things that Happened When I Gave Up Podcasts

For the first time as an adult, I made a conscious decision to give something up and take something up for Lent. I spent the 40 days before Easter setting aside the endless chatter of podcasts and taking up the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer.

(And no, the irony of being a podcast host who gave up listening to podcasts isn't lost on me.)

I've been listening to podcasts since way before they were a thing (circa 2010), but things really kicked up a notch in 2014. This was both the year Hadley was born and the time that podcasts started becoming more mainstream.

Transitioning into motherhood was tough for me. Hadley wasn't the world's easiest baby, and my emotions were all over the place. I felt like I'd lost myself as a person for much of her first year.

Podcasts filled a void for me during those early days with a baby. They gave me a hands-free way to stay connected to the outside world, to remember the things I was interested in as a person. If I'm being honest? On my worst days, I used podcasts to escape from the real, hard work of taking care of a baby.

Eventually that tough season ended and I adjusted to motherhood, then adjusted again when Reagan was born. But the podcasts never left. I listened to them more than ever, particularly business podcasts. With two kids and no child care, I was drowning in work and unwilling to step back from the career I'd worked so hard to build.

Listening to business podcasts was a way to feel like I was "working" even when I wasn't. They gave me a twisted hope that I could keep building and growing in an area where I was already stretched too thin.

I eventually got smart enough to realize that business podcasts weren't healthy for me anymore, and I cut them out of my feed last summer . . . only to replace them with even more shows, particularly those about motherhood and running a household. 


Is it clear yet that I don't know when I've taken a good thing too far? 

I entered this Lenten season feeling frantic. I'd cut back on work, so why was life still crazy? Why was I still snapping at my kids all the time and never feeling like I had a chance to sit down? 

My constant podcast listening was a huge factor. It's like I thought that listening to other moms talk about raising their kids counted toward me mothering my kids . . . when in reality, I was ignoring them.

It's one thing to have a podcast to keep you sane when you're nursing a baby for the millionth time in a day. It's another when that baby is suddenly a preschooler with her own thoughts and ideas and questions about the world.

My kids are now at an age where they don't just need me to keep them alive, they need me: my focus, my energy, my time. 

These things are hard for me to give, and for too long I've been using podcasts as a barrier between myself and the messy day-to-day with young kids. The result is that I've unintentionally been sending the message "I don't want to talk to you" to these little people in my care.

With all that in mind, I shouldn't be surprised that giving up podcasts brought an immediate change to our family. These are just some of the good things that have come from a Lent without podcasts.

1. We listen to more music.

Music doesn't demand as much space as a podcast. It feels like another way to infuse our day with art, and the kids love it. Now there are Disney music dance parties, shuffling around the kitchen to old country songs while we make dinner, and soothing piano tunes to calm the kids when they're getting rambunctious. Where podcasting was a solitary activity I was trying to cram where it didn't belong, music connects us and sets the mood throughout the day.

2. I have fewer ideas and more clarity.

Having fewer ideas is 100% a good thing for me. I've always been an idea person. If I'm not careful, I'll end up chasing projects that aren't right for me and getting distracted from what actually matters. Podcasts fed into that in a big way as I listened to the innovating things other moms and entrepreneurs were making time for. How could I not have a million ideas when I spent all day listening to other people talk passionately about the crazy dreams they were bringing to life?

But those million ideas weren't all meant for me. My brain was working in overdrive trying to think through the logistics of things that shouldn't have even been on my radar. I've had markedly fewer ideas since giving up podcasts, but the ones I have had have been more focused and aligned with what I actually want from life.

3. I'm more efficient.

Listening to a podcast can be a great way to make chores more fun, but it's still multitasking. Cutting out podcasts made me realize that I'd been subconsciously folding clothes more slowly so I could hear more of my episode before turning it off, or reading a recipe three times because I wasn't really paying attention. I still let myself indulge in an episode here and there when I clean the house, but now I'm aware that music is a better choice if I really need to get things done.

4. I'm a better mom.

It's annoying when you're trying to focus on something and you keep getting interrupted. That was basically my entire life before I gave up podcasts. I'm so much more kind and patient with my kids when they aren't pulling me away from a podcast. It's a truth I've recognized but tried not to acknowledge for more than a year, and the reason is this: I get really bored playing with little kids, and podcasts give me a distraction. 

It's a gross thing to admit, but there it is: without podcasts, I'm more likely to actually be present when my kids need me. I don't spend that much time actively playing with my kids, so they deserve my attention when I do join them in creating a MagnaTile tower.

5. My podcast feed is more intentional.

Despite all the pros of not having podcasts around, I was more than a little excited to get back to my favorites after Easter. I took the opportunity to cull my feed and get rid of anything that was truly distracting or unhelpful in my life while seeking out new-to-me shows that are genuinely worth listening to. Here's what made the cut:

  • The Next Right Thing with Emily P. Freeman
  • The Simple Show with Tsh Oxenreider
  • The Nuanced Life with Sarah and Beth of Pantsuit Politics fame
  • Elise Gets Crafty with Elise Blaha Cripe
  • The Mom Hour with Meagan Francis and Sarah Powers
  • The Lazy Genius Podcast with Kendra Adachi

I don't have an addictive personality with things like alcohol or gambling, but give me chocolate, carbs, and podcasts and there's the very real possibility that I'll never stop. Giving up podcasts has made me more aware of how hooked I was and how to recognize the signs the next time I need another hiatus . . . before things get out of hand.

What role do podcasts play in your life? Have you ever felt like they're a gateway to consuming too much media?

March Book Report

March brought with it another round of colds for the whole family and way too many sleep deprived nights. The only upside was afternoons spent reading because it's the only thing I could muster up enough energy for! 

This month was heavier on nonfiction, both because of library holds coming in and because I know my time for concentrated reading is running short. I'm secretly looking forward to the excuse to read fluffier books once the new baby is here, but it's been good to knock a few more deep reads off my list first.

I'm focusing this year on reading with more intention and focus rather than gravitating toward what everyone else is reading. As always, you can check out my criteria for "deep reads" in this post, and you can catch up on past 2018 book reports here.

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Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four stars

Decision-making has always been tricky for me. I'm very close to straddling the line between Judging and Perceiving on the MBTI (P wins out, but only barely). That means I like decisions made relatively quickly, and I hate the stress of drawing out a decision . . . but I also like to explore all my options to make sure I'm making the best decision, which takes time. Combine that with my strong Feeling type that bases decisions off emotions more than logic, and I'm basically a mess.

Decisive is the perfect resource for changing all that. The Heath brothers dig deep into the statistics and psychology of decision making for everyone from big-shot CEOs considering a corporate buyout to your average twenty-something wondering if she should break up with her boyfriend. They provide straightforward steps anyone can take to evaluate their decision and make the best choice possible.

My only problem (and the reason I docked a star) is that there are SO many steps to evaluate a decision from all angles. It's impractical that anyone would remember all of them, much less have time to apply them to every major decision they face. I wish this book had shared more practical tips for day-to-day decision making, those little things that aren't groundbreaking but that can add up to a big impact over time.

Bottom line: Worth a read for anyone interested in the topic. I guarantee you'll learn something, whether you make decisions logically or intuitively.

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Five stars

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books after my podcast cohost Abbie gave it a rave review, and I'm so glad I did. Food narratives hold a special place in my heart, but their structure can vary quite a bit. Some lean more heavily toward being a traditional cookbook, while others are basically essays with a recipe tossed in every now and then for good measure. Rosenstrach strikes the perfect balance in Dinner: A Love Story, with a nearly 50/50 split between recipes and the stories of how they came to be.

The best part? These are the chronicles of a foodie and a mother, someone who's survived the unglamorous reality of trying to make a halfway decent dinner with a screaming baby on her hip and lived to see the other side. Her recipes are nothing if not family friendly. The vast majority are actually simple to cook, and my kids have willingly eaten all of the five or so recipes I've tried so far.

Bottom line: If you want to re-spark the joy of cooking and are living with tiny humans, this one is a must read.

Finish by Jon Acuff

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four-and-a-half stars

This book has been on my library hold list since it first came on my radar a few months ago, but I wish I'd shelled out and bought it instead. Acuff is already famous for titles like Start, which gives readers the kick in the pants to get going on a project, but Finish is what many of us creatives really need. How often do you jump into a new idea before seeing the last one through? (This is me raising my hand over here.)

Acuff breaks down all the sneaky ways perfectionism stops us from finishing the projects that really matter and how we can push through to the end anyway. I've never thought I had a problem with perfectionism, but Finish was a real eye-opener to all the ways perfectionism can disguise itself behind fear, "responsible" decisions, and other excuses. This book was a quick (and hilarious!) read that's perfect for dipping into whenever you have a moment.

Bottom line: Highly recommended for anyone, creative or otherwise, who has trouble completing goals or projects. (For more on this topic, check out the Chasing Creative episode on getting unstuck at the beginning, middle, and end of a project.)

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

 

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Three-and-a-half stars

The Hazel Wood is an un-put-downable YA novel that takes readers into fairytales dark enough to rival the original Grimm brothers themselves. I'm a sucker for both YA and any sort of fairytale spinoff, so this new release was a no-brainer for me. Plus that cover earns all the heart eyes! 

I was utterly taken in by the first half of the book, where we follow Alice Crewe, granddaughter of mysterious fairytale author Althea Prosperpine. Alice and her mother have never set down roots, always trying to escape the bad luck that seems to be chasing them. But things are taken to a whole new level when the mother-daughter duo receives word that the grandmother Alice has never known has died---and when creepy characters from Althea's stories start showing up in the real world.

The first half of the book reads like the best type of urban fantasy, but the second half takes readers into territory I wasn't crazy about. Let's just say there were some character choices that had my head spinning (nothing makes me crazier than character action that doesn't align with their previous behavior). Albert's writing style also devolved into purple metaphors that don't actually describe anything, probably in an effort to make the setting seem more atmospheric. This tactic didn't work for me in Caraval, and it didn't work for me here. 

Bottom line: This is a perfectly creepy Halloween read for fans of dark fairytales, but I feel like a lot of the book's potential was lost. The author is currently working on a sequel, but the jury's still out on whether I'll be continuing the series.

When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

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I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again.