Friday, September 4, 2015

Some housekeeping. On keeping house.

One of my deepest desires in this season of busy motherhood is to cultivate joy, gratitude and peace in the midst of our hurried and chaotic lives, particularly when it comes to my home.  To be one of those mothers.  You know the type; the ones who make this mothering thing look, maybe not easy, but full of life and blessing and opportunity.

As opposed to wearychaotic and messy.

Which, I'll be honest, is what I feel my home and our lives all to often reflect.

As I'm writing this post, I can't help but be reminded that in the last year, I've been doing an awful lot of solo parenting.  Casey left in September last year when Olivia was almost six weeks old, and was gone all but a few days until after her six month birthday.  He was able to take March off - which was such a blessing after that long absence! - but since then, he has been away fairly consistently with only a few exceptions.

I had to go back and actually count it out (mostly because I was curious), but I was a little surprised when I did.  Because the numbers?  They show that my husband was away eleven days shy of 9 months out of the last 12.

Whew.  Does that look as exhausting on paper as it has felt here in my world at times?

Now, I know I can't complain - and that's not what this post is about, in case you're getting ready to push send on that hate mail you're penning.

Whether we're working full time, have husbands who leave before the kids get up and come back long after they've gone to bed; whether we're homeschooling or trying to run a household in between the school bus's visits, I don't think there is any arguing that this small person phase of life is a handful.  So many needs press in on us in the short hours of daylight, it can often feel as if we're literally fighting to hang on to the joy we're supposed to feel in growing our families.

I know I'm not alone.

In my house, the challenge is that my people never go away.  Like, never.  Ever.  Which of course is part of the joy and point of homeschooling.  But all that togetherness can have two unpleasant side effects: big, constant messes and short tempers.

So today, I'm sharing a few things that help bring order and grace to our day, and help allow us (me) to get through all the things we (I) need to do, right in the middle of that messy thing called life.

Managing the mess
I don't want to be a slave to the keeping of my home, but I also want my home to be full of warmth; a peaceful haven where we can come to be refilled.  Which sounds great, but keeping house while homeschooling three littles on my own?  Sometimes I just hang on and try to ignore the little cloud of dust that rises from certain areas like Pigpen in Charlie Brown.

To help me manage this, I created a little checklist:

Pardon the shiny photo - I laminated it and put it on the fridge so that I can check off the boxes every day without re-printing.
These are the tasks that must be done regularly in order for our house to run.  It doesn't include those big tasks like organizing clothing or cleaning out the garage.  It doesn't cover the annual tasks that have to get done at the beginning or end of a season.  It simply helps me schedule out my day, and divides the tasks that must get done throughout the week so that no single day is too overwhelming to manage.

Another critical element is ensuring that I am not the only one doing the work of running the household.  To that end, I created this little game.  I wrote age-appropriate chores on popsicle sticks, and then threw in a few that are a little more fun.  Leah's sticks are pink, Logan's are green.

We play this game every day as I'm making dinner, and it is a GREAT way to engage the kids.  They absolutely LOVE our "helper jobs," and come back time and time again asking for more.  The key is this: all the jobs are quick and can be done independently in less than five minutes, but really do contribute to keeping the mess managed.  There are also lots of fun, high-energy breaks built in - you never know whether you're going to draw a stick that asks you to gather all the towels, or do 10 jumping jacks.  That unpredictability helps keep the excitement up.

Another note on contributing around the house: I know that it sounds counter-intuitive, but when kids are given the opportunity to do meaningful tasks in the daily upkeep of life, it doesn't just help me as the adult.  It helps them in real and powerful ways.  It helps them feel valued.  It helps them feel capable.  It helps them feel like they are a meaningful part of a team and develops family unity.  I have been amazed by how very willing and eager they are to get in and help.  And I love it.


Put simply, my parenting philosophy is about modeling, training, and empowering my children to make good and godly choices.

Although we do have discipline in our home, I am not hot on the idea that it should be employed all that often.  Yes, my kids do go to timeout.  Yes, I have to cop to losing my temper and raising my voice.  But none of that is anywhere near as effective as lovingly coming alongside my children with empathy, kindness and understanding to teach them, guide them, and give them specific feedback that will help them grow into truly fantastic people.

Discipline is my last resort.  My entire offensive line is filled with tools and strategies designed to prevent us from getting there in the first place.

I utilize many systems throughout our day, but one of my favorites is this chart, created to help shape my children's hearts in the way of obedience.

A few steps to this chart:
1) They must make eye contact with me when I speak with them, so that I know they've paused to hear my requests.
2) They must say, "YES, MOMMY!" to acknowledge that they've heard my instruction.
3) They must complete the task or request the first time, with a willing spirit.

If they do those things, they get a check, which in turn translates into a penny for their banks.  For the record, we are NOT a fancy family.  We made their banks out of old plastic lemonade containers that they decorated with stickers.  Because that's how we roll.

It does take some managing, which can be tough to remember in the midst of the busyness of life.  My kids typically end up with about 50 cents per week, but more importantly, the habit of pausing to practice and reinforce obedience and cooperation creates a peace in our home that is truly priceless.

I also implemented what we call the "Warm Fuzzy Jar" (aka: a mason jar filled with cotton balls.  I'm telling you, simple, simple, simple).  This jar gets utilized any time one of the children goes way above and beyond in their acts of service toward one another.  Something out-of-the-ordinary that gives me "warm fuzzies."  It's an incredibly simple, incredibly effective way to recognize good choices.  When the jar is full, they get to choose a special activity.  We have done a few big things like going to the stock show, going on a train ride around one of our local shopping centers, and taking an outing to a local bounce house.  But the vast majority of the time, they simply choose a family date night to get ice cream.

Playing as a team

The decision to homsechool inherently brings with it some joys and challenges in the way of togetherness.  Because, well, we are together all the time.  To that end, one of our greatest areas of training has to include how to interact with each other, value our relationships and take on the difficult task of remembering to put the needs of others ahead of our own.

One great way to do this is by developing our sense of family identity and belongingness.  When we all understand that we are a team, that working together for the success of our family is good for us collectively and as individuals, it creates an environment that cultivates respect, cooperation and fun.
I could go on and on about this, but instead I'll just tell you my very favorite thing that we have incorporated into our weekly(ish) routine: Sunday dinners.

While we eat together at every meal, Sunday dinners are different because they are set aside; they are intentionally special.

Unfortunately, with Casey gone as frequently as he is, I only have the hands/time/ability to do it when he is in town.  But any time he is, we make it a really big deal.  For starters, Sunday dinners happen in the dining room instead of at the regular kitchen table.

They involve candles and flowers, beautiful place settings and glasswear (which is a big deal for us, as we almost always eat and drink out of reusable plasticwear - it's just easier with our kids who tend to have the dropsies!)

I spend pretty much the entire afternoon in the kitchen making delicious food: pot roast, mashed potatoes, vegetable casserole and biscuits from scratch.

Everybody has a job to make the dinner come together.

But the magic really happens when we all gather around the table to the tune of beautiful, soft music playing in the background.  We take time to have conversations about our hopes and dreams.  About what we value in one another and what we're grateful for.  It is very much like a Thanksgiving dinner, but - even with Casey gone as often as he is - we manage it at least once a month.

These special, set apart times build our family community.  They help us to lay a foundation that sets us up for success so that the rest of our togetherness is filled with joy, friendship and respect.

Plus... well, it's delicious!

There is no single recipe for what a "successful" family looks like.  There is no such thing as perfect, and many ways to do it well.  I hope that someday, when my children look back on their childhoods, these individual efforts will stand out as strands that make up a beautiful, cherished tapestry.

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