desert mum revisited

I properly started this blog around four months ago. Recently I’ve been thinking about what it was intended to be about, and whether it’s still doing that (or if I want it to). My conclusion is that I do want it to do what I set out for it to do – but maybe I need to revisit the concept of ‘desert mum’ in order to get things straight for everyone.*

I named this blog because I was struck by how arid one’s spiritual life can become during the first stressful few years of motherhood. It’s an experience shared by many of my Christian friends as we seek to be disciples of Christ through the haze of nappies, sleepless nights and toddler tantrums. Church services are often spent entertaining our offspring, being on creche duty, or simply being too tired to focus. Evening cell groups become near impossible to attend: children won’t settle well enough to leave the house, or spouse works too many evenings to make it viable, or you’re just too tired (spot the trend?). Personal quiet times are a huge challenge because…well, you try working the words ‘quiet’ and ‘time’ into a small child’s schedule.

And I don’t wish to be exclusive: things are problematic for Christian Dads too. Often they are the ones chasing offspring round the church on a Sunday morning, giving mums a break. They struggle to get to evening groups, perhaps out of guilt that they’re having an evening ‘off’. As to quiet times: I can only imagine what it’s like to work a full-time paid job, then return home to be flung into job no.2, with little personal space.

So how do we continue discipleship during this time? How do we ensure that we become even more distinctive and Christ-like through our parenting experiences? Because this is my issue. I can see how my life, since becoming a mum, might have turned out differently. The problem would never have been a loss of faith – but more that my faith wouldn’t have gone anywhereAs if stored in a bottle, my faith would have been intact, but there would have been no growth. And, as we’re all called to be disciples of Christ, we cannot afford to have a few years ‘off’ while we rear children.

Several things are helping me through, which I hope to share here over the next few months. But I’ve also blogged on ‘regular’ aspects of parenting – of creativity, of failing, of celebration, of hum-drum-ness. This is all part of ‘desertmum’. God is in the practical and the everyday, the down-to-earth and the ugly. Through blogging about these things, I get to share some of the fullness of life with Him. These more ‘frivolous’ blog posts are not asides to the story. They are the story. My prayer is that you will be encouraged and provoked by this blog, and – ultimately – that you will join me as we journey through the desert together.

Therefore…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 

(Philippians 2:12-13)

* You may have noticed that I’ve changed the tag-line on the blog header to something which I feel better sums up the purpose of this blog. Feedback very welcome!

toy storage

Not the most glamorous title, I know, but it’s something I’ve been chatting to friends about recently, and it seems we all struggle. One friend reckons toy storage should be taught in antenatal classes, it’s so tricky. I have to agree. (At this point, apologies if you don’t have kids. You will find this post immensely dull. Don’t even try. I hereby give you permission to stop reading now and go and have fun instead.)

How to store toys in a practical, space-saving and easily accessible way, without having them take over your house (life), is something which occupies my brain far more than it should. I’m not sure I’ve cracked it, but I have learned a few helpful things along the way, and I offer them now as nothing more than somewhere to start. Each family’s lifestyle and home-layout will be unique, so I’m not claiming the following tips to be generically useful to all, but maybe there’ll be one or two nuggets in there…

This is ‘tidy’ at the end of a Thursday. (Note, the definition of ‘tidy’ gets progressively more creative as the week goes on.)

Never attempt to sort through toys when your kids are around. It just doesn’t work – I’ve tried it. Always chasing a democratic household, I offer Joel a choice as to which toys will go upstairs, and which will stay downstairs. The former pile is non-existent, while the latter grows. Toys he hasn’t played with in months – or ever – suddenly become his new favourite thing. Sometimes a dictatorship is the only way to go.

Be honest about the toys your kids are actually playing with. Not the ones you’d like them to play with (because they were expensive/look nice/came from the cute toy shop on Gillygate/all three).

Make the most of ‘wasted’ space (e.g. under beds/cots, tops of wardrobes…) to store less-played-with toys. A good investment for us was some under-bed storage boxes on castors. They’re easy to get out, so the toys are still very accessible, but it frees lounge space for the ones that are played with regularly.

Charity shop unplayed-with toys. Unless you’re saving them for a next child. Even then, be selective. Does your next baby need 16 different teethers?

Group like toys together. Again, an investment in some sturdy plastic boxes, or storage baskets, will pay dividends. We have boxes and baskets for musical instruments, cars, Duplo, animals, to name a few.

Drawstring bags!!! I’m excited by these. Can you tell?! We have so many toys which consist of multiple small-ish parts – an indoor croquet set, Mr Potato Head and his various facial features, jigsaw puzzles and so on. We need a way of keeping the pieces together (as much as is reasonable to expect, in a household containing under 3s) – but boxes are bulky and take up too much space in a toy box. Bags need some way of closing, so things don’t fall out, but also need to be easily opened by your kids. Drawstring bags are the solution! I’ve made loads of these for toy storage, and they work brilliantly. Instructions to follow in a future blog post…watch this space!

Remember: toys migrate. They just do. No point scolding your kids about it – toys are just constantly on the move from one room to another, and so far I’ve found I can do absolutely nothing about it. My solution? Have a box in each room into which toys can be thrown when attempting to tidy up.

Travel bag. We have a plethora of small toys which get lost at the bottom of toy boxes: party bag gifts, free toys from cbeebies magazine, etc. Our kids LOVE these tiny things, but often can’t find them in a (relatively) huge toy box. A seemingly unrelated problem is that whenever we’re going on a long-ish journey, or to a place where we know there won’t be toys, we scramble round the house, desperately trying to find suitable small toys to take with us (whilst simultaneously changing nappies, finding lost gloves, Google-Mapping the route etc.). My solution is, when I find these toys, to pop them in a bag which we keep in the hall. The tiny toys don’t get lost – and we have a ready-made bag we can grab quickly on the way out the door when we need to. Two problems solved.

Our travel bag. Yes, that really is a Smarties tube in the top left hand corner. Don’t ask.

Dump and run. At the end of the day, we all need a ‘dump and run’ toy box – something into which all the miscellaneous items can be thrown. A box, if you like, with no agenda. This is our main toy box in our lounge. It has a lid and, although I rarely slim down the contents enough for the lid to fit, the idea was always that it would help to make the space a bit more ‘adult’ for the evenings. The thought’s there, anyway.

The ‘box of no agenda’…
…with the lid that barely gets used.

Finally – flexibility. Kids change – learn to adapt. Every few months I find myself needing to re-assess things. Younger-age toys must be put away, space needs to be found for new things my children are getting into. Don’t get comfortable.

Those are my tips – what are yours?

three is the loveliest age

Each year, as my children get older, I shall probably change my mind about this – but, for now, I think three is the loveliest age to be. Today Joel turned three. He had just the right level of awareness – enough to enjoy his presents, his party, his friends and family; enough to keep him bubbly all day – but not so much that it turned into the giddy hysteria I imagine he’ll suffer from in a couple of years’ time. (You know the type: it’ll start around 5am when he’ll bound into our room, demand to open presents now, and perform a trampoline display on our bed…)

Today was perfect.

He enjoyed all his presents. He actually did. Ours was a joint present for him and Lois, a labour of love which I’d intended to finish a week or two back. It finally made it into the lounge on Saturday morning:

Something about my kids inspires me to get creative. I’m not very good at making things – kind of like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but without the ‘all trades’ bit – more like a ‘jack of two or three trades’. But it’s fun to have a go, and it’s fun to see the look on my kids’ faces as they see, for the first time, a handmade toy, card or cake. Here’s the card I made for ball-mad Joel:

And the cake:

Notice the dip in the middle – classic sunken sponge. Classy. See previous paragraph.

Joel had a ball party – what else? The second toy he ever played with was a colourful, noisy soft ball, which he still has. As a small baby in the bouncer, he loved to kick this ball around with his knees. Once he could walk, he developed a penchant for football – no idea why, as his parents can’t stand the sport. More recently, he has discovered a plethora of other ball sports: tennis, cricket, basketball, croquet, skittles, table tennis, badminton, golf. I set up a few of these round the house for the dozen little people who came to celebrate with us today.

We ate ball-shaped food – mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, blueberries, dough balls, sausage balls, chicken pops, Maltesers. We played ‘Pass the Ball’ – a variation on Pass the Parcel – and Musical Balls. Predictable but fun!

I made some not-so-disastrous cake pops for the party bags. They were intended to look like tennis balls and basketball balls (basketballs? I never know). The tennis balls worked – ish. The basketballballballballs fell off the sticks as soon as I tried to pipe the lines round them, so I gave up. Here are the tennis balls:

Notice the real ball in the background. Not a bad colour match, eh?

The day ended with church – our congregation meets at 5pm. Originally, this was a tricky time of day to get used to, but now I like the fact that Sundays end with celebration, particularly today. I take nothing for granted – many children don’t reach their third birthday. Tonight I praise God for giving us Joel, and for sustaining him thus far. Happy Birthday, little man!

A post-party golf swing. With obligatory post-party carpet stain.

days like these

Yesterday I had one of those Days. There were no tantrums, no trips to A&E, no breakages of major appliances. It was just one of those Days.

I felt severely lacking in creative ideas. Joel spent the morning at pre-school, while Lois napped, so I had both kids awake and needing to be entertained from 12.30-7.00pm. Al was at work till late, so it was just me. We usually swim on Thursday afternoons, but the kids have had dodgy tummies so we cancelled. The weather was awful – no chance of a cycle ride or park trip. A bit of rain doesn’t frighten me or Joel, but with Lois not yet fully walking, it’s just a bit too tricky. If I hold her, I haven’t got hands free for Joel. If I carry her in the sling, she gets frustrated that she’s not able to move.

Before motherhood, I dreamt of a family utopia where afternoons would be filled with creative activity upon creative activity – baking, painting, glueing… Again, while Joel is keen for these things, Lois is at the ‘wrong’ age. Too old to sit in one place and watch, too young to participate. Likewise, Joel enjoys playing games and doing jigsaws, but we usually save these for Lois’ nap time, as small cardboard pieces and a one-year-old just don’t mix.

So the afternoon dragged. It wasn’t boring, it didn’t make me want to pack it all in, apply for teaching jobs and research childcare options. It just felt I was letting my kids down by not being able to come up with any interesting pursuit.

Now, before you feel sorry for me and write affirming messages of “Don’t give up!” “You can do this mothering thing!” and so on – please don’t worry. I don’t think I’m a terrible mother. I’m telling you this for two reasons. Firstly, I hope it connects with other mums who have days like this – to reassure and encourage you that we can’t all be exciting and creative all of the time.

The second reason is this. One of the things I did while Joel was at pre-school and Lois napped was read my Bible and pray. I’m shocking at spiritual discipline, so it had been a while, and I was pretty hopeful that God would realign my priorities, give me peace and generally sort things out. But the day was still a bit of a wash-out. My point is that we shouldn’t spend time with God in order to gain something instantly. We need to come to Him regularly and trust that He is working in our lives, however gradually. I can’t say that yesterday I experienced much of the peace, motivation or creativity I know God has in abundance for me. But it doesn’t matter. Firstly, God owes me nothing anyway. Secondly, I believe He wants to bless us with all these things and more – but it happens over time.

I would love it if there was some immediate connection every time I read the Bible. But, actually, I’m pleased there’s not. Because, conversely, that could suggest that God was not willing to connect with me in those times when I’m not reading His word. And that would mean that my relationship with God was actually one of legalism, and not one of grace.

I think when I have another one of those days, I’ll try and remember God’s continuing grace and His never-letting-go arms around me and my family.

thank goodness for february 29th

Tomorrow, Lois is one. ONE? Already? How did that happen? When did I suddenly have two kids, the youngest of whom is a WHOLE YEAR OLD?

Today I’ve found myself massively grateful that this is a leap year. If it wasn’t for February 29th 2012, my little girl would have turned one today. As it is, I was treated to one extra day of her being my baby – delaying, by twenty-four precious hours, the agony of her ageing.

Of course I don’t wish her to stay a baby forever – I look forward to seeing her grow and develop and learn new things and find new interests. I look forward to books and homework and school traumas and boyfriends and shopping and friend fall-outs and baking and music. I look forward to her being interested in none of the above because she’s a real, God-knit human being, and not simply a product of my imagination. However Lois turns out, I’m looking forward to it.

But it’s agony because the last year has rushed past, and its moments won’t return. It’s pointless beating oneself up about missed opportunities, of course, but I hope that I’ve enjoyed and appreciated Lois’ first twelve months as much as I could have done.

Day 1: Lois looking particularly angry

To start with, Lois’ birth was one of the most relaxing moments of my life. It might have been the birthing pool, the Entonox or the deserted maternity ward at York Hospital, but I suspect what actually did it for me was a few hours away from my lovely-but-demanding toddler. Childcare always makes the world look a brighter place. The pool was nice too, of course: between contractions, I could have imagined I was in a hot tub in some luxury villa. Of course it also hurt a fair bit – Al will contest this post if I don’t mention the pain – but I’ll gloss over that for now. The human race might not survive if women who’d been through labour were honest about it.

Then, of course, there was the first smile. I still remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when that happened: “Oh, thank God, she LIKES me!” The few weeks prior to the smile suggested that our little girl was particularly angry about something – being born? Being a girl? Or was it us? Were we a disappointment to her? The parents she hoped she’d never have? But then came the smile. Phew.

There have been the landmark moments – learning to sit, crawl, climb out of her car seat – but also the moments which would be insignificant to anyone but me – the contented sucking, the sleepy head, the chuckling face, the arms stretching for a cuddle.

Tomorrow, Lois is one. She will not care, or fuss, or remember in years to come. But I care, and I will fuss, so that I will remember for years to come what my beautiful daughter was like on September 11th, 2012.