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Some people assume I was neat from birth. There probably was some latent gene there, but I do remember a point in time when I was not neat. I actually remember THE turning point when I decided to get my act together and become neat.
I was 11 years old, very nearly 12. Being from a family of 7 living in a 3-bedroom rancher, naturally I shared a room with at least one sibling for most of my years. At the time, I was sharing the bunkbeds with my younger sister, M.
There was a boy named Chris who was a friend of the family. He would come over every so often and I would (believe it or not) sit on his shoulders while he rode his bike. Good times. Anyway, I was so pleased to have Chris as a friend. One day, he wanted to see my drawings. I was an avid artist. So, he walked down the cramped hallway to the hurricane disaster scene that was the bedroom I shared with M. I could not merely lay my hands on my drawings, as they were every-which-where. I dragged a tangle of paper, gym shorts, odd socks, hair bows and a missing library book out from under the bed, hoping to find some of my drawings in that mess. Which I did, but not before I noticed him regarding my room with an embarrassed horror.
“So – this is your room.”
“Well, M sleeps in here, too.”
*cue chirping crickets*
It’s the first time I recall feeling seriously ashamed of the state of my room. It was also pretty annoying to not be able to find what I was looking for quickly.
It was like a switch was flipped. When Chris went home that day, I cleaned that room like my hair was on fire. It was never messy another day in my life. It was the catalyst. Positive peer pressure. Someone on the outside not saying, but obviously thinking, “Good grief, girl! Get your act together! The good people of the world don’t live in a mess like this!”
I remember reading an article written by a woman who had lost well over a hundred pounds. She had a catalyst situation that flipped the switch and made her decide to get thin. She rode a roller coaster ride at an amusement park, but couldn’t get the safety bar properly seated over her large waist. Embarrassed to mention this, she rode the whole ride terrified she would be flung to her death because she was too big for the safety restraints. That was her moment. She decided (there’s that word again – “to cut off”) that she would become smaller no matter what. (I no longer recall the source of the article; it was many years ago.)
If you’re trying to get out from under a mess, or too much padding, or whatever else it is, I ask you, what will be your catalyst? What will be the turning point that makes you decide you must act to reverse an unhappy situation? If you really want to use a scenario like this to your best advantage, don’t wait for it to actually happen, just visualize it. Visualize it until you can fully feel how miserable you would feel if your boss (or your mother-in-law, or your snobby cousin or the lady that heads the homeowner’s association) dropped by unannounced and you had to retrieve a proposal from under somebody’s bed. Or whatever. Just something to make you decide. Then take the next step: decide. Then work on your decision every day. Form a new habit.
If you do make a new decision, I’d love to hear about it.
I’m sure I’m about to alienate all my dear buddy night owls, but here goes. Turns out Ben Franklin was correct. Productive people of the world get out of bed early. Studies have actually been done on this and the evidence comes down squarely on the side of the world’s early risers.
Now, I know there are those who would say their natural disposition is to stay up until 2 in the morning and then sleep until noon. Vampire hours. To them I would say: get over it. You can train yourself to get up as early as you need to. Have you ever had to get up very early to catch a plane for vacation? Take a bus to New York City? I bet it wasn’t hard. You knew there was no alternative if you wanted the pleasure of your planned event and then you made the decision to cooperate with that plan.
I love the word decision. It has the same root as incision and scissors. The literal meaning of the word decision is “to cut off.” Just as an incision is a surgical cut and scissors are tools for cutting, making a decision means you cut off the alternative choices.
When you make the decision to get up early as a matter of habit, you cut off the cycle of vampire hours. You redefine yourself among the people who accomplish much. It trains your mental discipline, which then makes you feel good about yourself. If you get up early, you are ahead of the chaos of the household, which will set the tone for your day as calm, organized and in command of yourself. You will gain hours in your week that you are currently wasting. Here are a couple of practical tips if you are ready to make the decision to get up early.
1. If you currently get up at no particular time, but just sleep until whenever, then the first step for you is to decide to actually get up on purpose at a given time. If you currently go to bed beyond midnight on a regular basis, you probably should not decide to start going to bed at 10:30 pm. You will only lie there, not feeling tired, thereby “proving” to yourself that you are a night owl and this whole idea is a waste. If you start regularly getting up early, you will naturally soon begin to be tired earlier in the evening, so it works better to start moving your sleeping time back only after you are experiencing tiredness in the evening.
2. Decide on your goal wake-up hour and work back from your current wake-up hour gradually. So, if you now stay in bed until 8:00-ish, but you want to get up at 6:00, start getting up at 7:30 or 7:45 consistently for several days or a couple of weeks and then move back in small increments until you’re getting up at your desired time. Do this without first deciding to go to bed earlier; let the earlier sleeping time come about naturally.
3. Make a mental agreement with yourself before you go to bed. Tell yourself you have decided to get up at X:00 am. You can even visualize yourself having a board meeting where you’re announcing the new policy will be to get up at X:00 am. (Yes, I have actually done that.) Doing this mental exercise before bed not only makes it easier for me to carry out what I planned to do, but it is not rare that I naturally wake up within a couple of minutes of my alarm ringing. It’s like I’ve programmed myself on a subconscious level and my body responds automatically.
4. When your alarm clock rings, train yourself to respond right away. Push the covers off, sit to the side of the bed, open your eyes or whatever else it is that makes you tell yourself, “I am getting up now.” Do not beg yourself for five more minutes! Don’t “snooze.” If you need extra help making yourself get right up, train yourself like Pavlov’s dogs. You can run through it at a non-bedtime hour and actually practice responding to your alarm clock as soon as it rings. Go through it ten times, tracing a route in your neural pathways that says, “Hear alarm, move to get out of bed.”
5. Lastly, do something enjoyable with your new-found time. You should reward yourself so that you aren’t sorry you got up early. I spend that time writing or reading. It is so calming and centering. You could spend it:
Anything is valid if it is calming and centering. It will benefit your mental and spiritual health far more than another half-hour or hour of sleep.
Now – I will grant you, there are some people who should not be disciplining their wake-up time this much at their current life-stage. I am a mother. I raised three babies to something approximating civility. I never had those insta-babies who can be laid in a crib at 7:00 pm and have to be roused up twelve hours later. There were years when I can’t be sure I got 5 whole hours of sleep a day , even if I count falling asleep in the car at a stoplight. So, if that’s you, or there’s another reason outside of your control that accounts for late-sleeping, vampire habits or poor self-discipline, well, then give yourself a break and keep this post in mind for sometime in the future when things are less crazy.
But you other folks – you know who you are. You really just need to train yourself to get your ass out of bed early and see what you’ve been missing. You might even come to like it. Getting up and having even just a half-hour (but an hour or more is better) of time to get your head in the game before the frantic grab for shoes, keys, instruments, lunches, waffles, dog food or whatever else happens in your house – it’s very rewarding. You couldn’t pay me to stay in bed and miss my “me” time now.
See ya in the morning.
Nine years ago, I happily packed up the car, stuffed my huge, pregnant body into the van and headed off to give birth to my third child. Three hours later, my beautiful second daughter was born in shattering stillness. No heartbeat. No cry. No breath.
I entered a dark world, the world every mother hopes she’ll never get to know, the world we’ve glimpsed before when some other lady lost her child, buried her baby. Somebody else’s reality, the one we’ve skirted nervously past when we’ve glimpsed it before, thinking, “God, don’t let that ever be me!” Now I was a part of this awful club.
For a long time, that Dark Spot was everything. After a lot of years, it faded some. It’s a mass of scar tissue there now; patched up as well as one could expect, but still noticeable if you look.
When The Worst happens, it’s hard on the grieving, but it’s also hard on those who care about the bereaved. The friends and family – they want to do the right things, they want to help, but it’s so hard to know what to do. I wouldn’t have known how to help, when I was still safely on the other side, before I was in the awful club. Some people did the most lovely things; some still do them, 9 years later. It’s desperately precious to me. Some people did or said the most horrid things. I wish they had just sewn their lips shut and vanished from my life.
Here are the ways you can help a friend who loses a child:
1. Impose No Expectations: This is by far, number one, the most loving and useful and worthy thing you can do. Give the grieving your unconditional acceptance with no expiration date. The worst thing you can do is to “should” on them. You should get out more. You should be moving on. You should have another baby/not have another baby/wait a long time to have another baby. You should pray more often/more fervently/with more conviction the next time around. You should go to counseling. You should be “open and honest” about how you feel. Blech. I detested every expectation. To truly love your friend, meet them where they are and wait for them to heal. Wait forever if necessary; don’t look at your watch.
2. Understand Their Relational Style: People process grief differently. Some people want a lot of people around them. They want a lot of contact, want someone to talk to them often. Others retreat to lick their wounds alone more of the time. Respect whichever way your friend operates.
Oddly, some people make their friend’s loss about themselves. They behave like they want to win the Biggest Help Award. They’re visible with their ostentatious “sacrifices” every time you turn around. One “friend” called me on the phone and then, once the conversation was going, told me she was missing an appointment, but that it was worth it because I was more important. Gack. Nauseating self-centered “help.” Please don’t do this. If you’re that immature, leave your “friend” alone and get your own therapy.
3. Help In Practical Ways: In the early months after a tragedy, your friend needs practical help. Often, the best way to give the practical help is just to give it, not ask when or how or under what conditions you can give the help. (But do consider point #2; intruding too much on an introvert isn’t helpful, either.) When Lydia died, we were also three days from moving into a new home. The friends who came and just did were of unspeakable value. They just came and did what was needed. They figured out how to get everybody fed. They put the beds together and got the clothes put in the dressers. It’s a good thing because I barely remember it. When I think back on it, it’s like I’m watching a poorly-filmed video without my glasses; there are some shapes and sounds, but I can’t really tell what’s in the picture.
4. Accept That You Can’t Fix It: This may be the hardest thing. People want to make it all better. They want to say something or do something that will be healing. Most attempts to do so will fail. It’s not going to be all better no matter what you say. It’s not okay with me that Lydia died, even if she’s “in a better place” or she “never had to know this messed-up world” or “God can bring good out of tragedy.” And don’t even get me started on “God’s will” and how that conundrum plays out! The best thing you can do is sincerely say how sorry you are that it happened. Say how you wish you had magic and could make it all better. And then just accept that your friend will hurt for a long, long time and you cannot fix it.
5. Don’t Tell Your Friend She’s “Strong”: I don’t know if this is some sort of wishful thinking or if it just goes back to #4 above, but, especially in a faith community, people want to comment directly or indirectly that the bereaved is “strong,” or “has a strong faith.” Please, please do not project this onto your friend. When people said this to me, I just made a check-mark in my head confirming that this was a person who could never learn the ugly, messy truth about how shattered and ruined and decimated I now was. Sometimes, ironically, it was the very people who were always touting the gospel about being “open and honest” who simultaneously conveyed their unwillingness to see anything in me except how supposedly strong and faithful I was. Folks, I wasn’t strong and faithful. I’m not now, either. I was totally wrecked by losing Lydia. It turned me inside out. I was a walking tangle of exposed nerves and a bleeding, broken heart.
I hate to say, I hear this same refrain said about other people who have joined this awful club. “Oh, So-And-So…what a marvelous Christian! She is so strong! She just buried her baby and yet she is so strong!” It’s all baloney. If the friend appears strong, assume it’s an act. If the friend appears messed-up, just get to know your new, freshly messed-up friend because that is who they are now. If you loved them when they were actually “strong,” you love them when they’re messed-up and sloppy. Let them heal if it takes ten years. If it takes twenty thousand. Be a loving friend and don’t project attributes you wish they had so that you don’t have to look at what actually is.
6. Don’t Criticize Their Medical Team If There Was One: It’s safe to assume that every parent who has lost a child feels some level of guilt that they were not able to protect their child from death. Why add to your friend’s misplaced guilt by suggesting that they did not have adequate care or medical teams did not make the right decisions? If there truly was medical malpractice that caused the death, leave it to the lawyers to sort that out. Just assure your friend that she did everything she thought would be best for her child, even if it didn’t turn out well.
7. Remember Their Child: Some of my dear friends give me acknowledgements of Lydia from time to time. I don’t think anything could communicate their care for me more fully than this. Once, a friend mentioned my youngest child as, “…your fourth child…” I was so touched at her giving Lydia a “count” as my third child. Giving your friend a card or other acknowledgement on important dates will be so appreciated, especially in the years to come, after the initial incident is over.
On my baby girl’s ninth birthday, I ask that we all just spread a little love around. If all my advice was distilled down to one word, it would be Acceptance. Accept your friend and find the courage to just sit with the helpless sorrow you feel around her. Love her and don’t rush her grief journey. It may take many years for her to come around to something resembling herself again.
“How do you keep your house clean?” I have been asked this a lot of times in my adult life, especially since I became a mother. There are a few contributing factors besides the obvious one, which would be that I clean it.
1. Big houses look clean more easily than small houses: People often think the opposite. In one sense, it’s true that a big house has more surfaces to clean, and clearly it takes longer to clean five bathrooms than it would one or two bathrooms. But in a big house, there are more places for things to spread out or be stored, while in a smaller house, more things are bound to be right in your line of vision, which seems messier. If your house is on the small side, it is even more important for you to reduce clutter in order to feel freer.
2. Reduce visual clutter: “Messy” and “dirty” are not the same thing, but they are close buddies who travel together. Some people think that if a room is messy, it’s okay as long as it’s not actually dirty. This is a myth. If it’s messy, it will soon be dirty by default, because it is so hard to clean in a mess, most people don’t do it. When people remark on my house being clean, the main thing they are responding to is lack of visual clutter. It’s not like they went around sniffing the toilets to see how clean they are.
What contributes to visual clutter? The state of your horizontal surfaces factor into this heavily. Do you have a lot of knick-knacks? Do the kids strew their belongings everywhere? What happens to their school papers, hats, jackets, baseball gloves, books, water bottles and stuffed animals when they walk in the door? You must train them not to walk in like a tornado of junk and shed it everywhere. (This is not easy. If they are already teenagers, you might just have to bide your time for a few more years instead.)
Process papers quickly. Throw away the junk mail very soon; pay the bills very soon; process everything to complete.
3. Reduce hidden clutter:
This means your closets, drawers, pantry, etc. Just focus on one if it’s too overwhelming to consider them all. Pick one closet that would greatly improve your life if it was not stuffed to the rafters. Spend 30 minutes (or two hours) pulling down everything and deciding whether it’s giveaway, throw away or keep. If it’s throwaway, put it in a trashbag and take it out of the house. If it’s giveaway, put it in the car to take to a charity, or call a charity right away for pick-up. Or list it on Freecycle. Whatever. Just get rid of it instantly, so you don’t start thinking about what you banished and let it creep back in . Aim to have at least one shelf completely clear. Remember that Feng Shui thing I said before about keeping an open shelf.
4. Use routines to keep clean going:
Set up a particular pattern you can stick with pretty closely for when you will empty the dishwasher, do the laundry, pay the bills, make the bed, and so on. I empty my dishwasher in the morning, so it will be ready to accept dishes throughout the day. We run it in the evening after dinner, no matter if it’s full to the top or not. If I waited until it was always totally full before running it, then it would run at odd times and be full of dishes at times inconvenient to empty. I do the laundry on a regular pattern, too; usually Wednesday and Saturday.
5. Train the kids:
I have a friend whose philosophy is that the children have their schooling and their sports and activities and therefore should not help with the house or the meals. I disagree with this view. Children will one day have a place of their own (sometimes it may seem that day will never truly come…) and they need to know how to take care of their things and prepare food. Besides, even with schooling, sports and activities, kids still have some time to contribute to the household, even if it’s mainly on the weekends.
It can also be a problem if you are too picky about how everything must be carried out. Don’t do that – and that’s coming from someone who is a perfectionist with a smattering of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If it’s going to make you nutsy, give them jobs that won’t make a gigantic big deal to you. My boys sometimes have jobs like pick up all the branches and sticks in the yard, fill the birdfeeder or groom the pets. It’s not going to make me crazy if they don’t do it exactly perfectly. I leave bathroom mirror cleaning strictly to myself. 😉
6. Make it simple to clean
How many times have I heard this in my life, “Well, I’m not spending hours a day cleaning my house; I’m out taking my kids to the park or reading to my babies or going to Disneyland.” In other words, the speaker feels badly that they don’t keep their house orderly, so they create a false dichotomy as if there are only two possible choices: enjoy your family and have a trashed house or be a militant shut-in who scrubs the floor 10 hours a day. Though my house is pretty clean and orderly most of the time, I spend a minuscule amount of time actually cleaning it during the week (more on the weekend) and I still go on many park days and library runs. (Although I’ve never been to Disneyland.)
If you have obeyed the clutter rules and you have trained your kids to help, you will only need to spend about 30 total minutes a day during the week and perhaps 2 hours on the weekend to have a house that looks good and is reasonably clean. If your house is small and you’re very ruthless about clutter, it could be less. If you’re determined to dust around a ton of stuff, it will be more.
Here’s another thing that matters: pets. Blue Collar Guy grew up on a farm, so in his mind, there was a place for animals. It was called the barn. He did not grow up with dogs and cats sleeping on the bed. When I first met him, it was pretty weird to me. After a couple of years living without indoor pets, though, I could really see his view clearly. Pets should be outside as much as possible, if you live in a space where it’s possible. Our dog and cats sleep in the garage at night, or during inclement weather. The rest of the time, they have a yard and ten acres to explore. I don’t need to clean cat hair or muddy footprints off of anything. I will say, though, that I know people love their pets and I have no expectation that you’ll turn your pets outside if you were sleeping with a Labradoodle on your bed up until now. That’s fine. Just know that there’s a price to be paid in cleaning for every pet who spends times indoors.
7. Lastly, be realistic: The people who remark about my house are invariably seeing it when I was planning to have guests. It doesn’t look that way 24-hours-a-day (or 25! 😉 ). I do maintain the house with a continuous eye to order, but it’s not neat as a pin from sun-up to sun-down. There are five people living here and two of them are not going away for school every day. There are constant minor messes from food preparation, science experiments, lego engineering and artistic inspirations. And mail. God, how I hate coping with the mail. Just know that because someone’s house is clean when they have you over for dinner does not mean it looks exactly like that all the time.
If your house is not neat or clean right now, decide to make it that way. Once it’s clean, it’s easy to keep it that way. I expect to be expanding on any or perhaps all of the topics above, so if there’s anything you’d especially like me to speak to more fully, just let me know.