The Making of an Amateur Minimalist

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So that post I wrote last week? That was my rock bottom, at least as far as the state of my house is concerned. I just can’t handle it anymore. Something needs to change. Something big.

Little changes aren’t going to work. These issues are entrenched. They are symptoms of much larger issues in my life, of my ways of coping and my habits of consumption. No mere system of staying organized is going to help me; change needs to happen at my very core.

I started reading a book about becoming a minimalist. That word wasn’t in the title–in fact it seemed like a simple little book that I didn’t really expect would offer any new or helpful ideas–so I was surprised to find it was almost entirely about living a minimalist life. At first I didn’t think much of it–how could I ever become a minimalist?–but the more I read the more I realized that all the reasons I thought I couldn’t make these changes were the exact reasons why I had to.

I need to own less stuff–significantly less stuff.  I need to fundamentally change the way I buy things. I need to alter my understanding of what is necessary. I need to drastically simplify my life.

So I’m changing my attitude, and in time I will change my actions. I know this is going to be hard–sometimes it will feel impossible–but I also know that I have to do this. If I don’t there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY anything will change. I will continue buying too much stuff. I will continue spending too much money. I will continue owning more than I need and more than I can manage.

The amazing thing is, adopting this attitude will address two of my biggest issues: money and clutter. If I can do this, my life will be 100 times better. I’m sure of that.

It’s going to take a long time to get there, but I truly believe that I’ll arrive at my destination because I know, deep in my soul, that I have to. Every time I have to make a difficult decision about what to keep and what to get rid of, I will remind myself of what keeping stuff ultimately does. Every time I think not buying something will make me unhappy, I will remind myself of how unhappy buying stuff eventually makes me.

Of course I’m starting small. A major overhaul like this is going to take a looooong time. It will most likely take years for me to completely change my habits. But I need to start somewhere, and I have a plan for my first steps. For the next six months I will do the following:

1) Plan my consumption. I will not buy anything at all during the month (except consumables that are REPLACING something we already have and use and have run out of). I will write everything I want to buy down, along with its price and where I can buy it. I will rank prospective purchases in order of importance/desire and at the end of the month, I’ll go over them all with my husband. He is already a minimalist at heart (I didn’t realize this until now!) and he will help me decide what we really need. He will also help me determine what will go out if a new item comes in. (See below.)

2) One in, one out. I will be instituting a one in, one out policy. This applies to ALL THE THINGS. It’s straight forward enough when it comes to clothes (if you buy a shirt, you get rid of a shirt) but I’m hoping to do it for other stuff as well, like kitchen utensils and furniture.

3) Culling the crap. For the next six to twelve months we’re going to need to seriously reduce the stuff we already own. We’ll be getting rid of WAY MORE than the stuff that is leaving to make room for something new. We need to bring our total number of belongs down considerably, in ways that it makes me uncomfortable to think about. Already I’ve marked a LOT of my kids toys for donation, stuff I never would have considered letting go of before I made the decision to change our lifestyle. It’s going to be hard to get rid of some of this stuff, but I know I have to. Keeping it around is making me way more unhappy than saying goodbye to it will.

{One concept in the book is the Power of One, the idea being you don’t need more than one of any specific thing. The author suggests trying to live with just one sweatshirt for a week to see if you can get rid of all your other sweatshirts. I thought he was fucking crazy. I have something like seven sweatshirts and I will be hard pressed to get rid of all but one of them–at least right now–but I know I can start small. When I talked to my husband he suggested maybe just one sweatshirt for each of the hooks on the sweatshirt rack (there are currently 2-3 sweatshirts on each hook). That seems doable and I’ll be going through them tomorrow. I’m sure in a year I’ll be able to live with even fewer sweatshirts, and some day the idea of having two might be preposterous. But I’m certainly not there yet.}

4. Immerse myself in a minimalist lifestyle. I’m going to need to keep drinking the Kool Aid to stay on track with this stuff so I’m going to search out blogs and books about a minimalist lifestyle. If you have a recommendation, please let me know.

I’m sure there are those of you who think I’m crazy, or that this is just a fad I’ll eventually abandon. A small part of me worries about that too, but honestly, I really do think I am ready to make this change. I hit my rock bottom. I have come to understand, with absolutely clarity, that I have to change. I recognize that the way I’m living does not make me happy and I really believe that these changes will improve my quality of life. I’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked. I have to do this.

I will do this.

{I plan on writing more about this journey as I hit pot holes and celebrate small victories. I’ll be using the badge above to mark these posts and curating them on a separate page. I hope in the end I’ll have a record of my transformation for others and for myself.}

Have you ever considered drastically reducing your stuff? What do you think would be most challenging about doing so?

Where I am

I have not been participating in this community in the ways that I want to. I want to be commenting more. I want my presence on friends’ blogs to be felt, and I know it’s not when my words are missing. The blog reader/commenter I am currently is not the blog reader/commenter I want to be, and I’m brainstorming ways to  make sure I comment every day–it’s a top priority for me right now.

I am sorry have been absent. I am still reading, and my words will return soon.

I was a little disappointed in myself for my last two posts. I have wanted to avoid that kind of ranty, venty type of writing in this space and I’m trying hard not to publish when I’m feeling that kind of overwhelmed desperation. I’m still let myself write about those kinds of things, but I’m convincing myself to do it in a journal, to keep my words away from this space until they can be more productive. I don’t know quite what came over me when I put up those posts.

Actually I do know. It was panic. The state of my house, and my life, has been weighing on me and I was struck but how I am perpetually in this place of frantically treading water in a terrifyingly strong current. It is no way to lives one’s life, and yet I’m not sure how to swim out of the current. I guess I keep expecting the water to slow, or even eddy in a quiet pool, but clearly that is never going to happen and I am recognizing that I have a responsibility to myself and my family to change directions and swim with all my might to the shore, or else I’ll eventually get pulled under.

So I sat down and I wrote. Like I used to. And the words came, fast and easy. And it felt good to get it out there.

But it didn’t necessarily feel good the next morning, when I realized my words were actually, out there.

Writing here has been hard–harder than I expected it to be. I struggle with what topics to tackle and how to approach them. I struggle with finding the right words.

I might not ever be the writer I want to become. I read articles that are so well written, that make me think and want to comment, that change my perspective or feel validate and understood and I think, I am not sure I could ever write that well. It’s an uncertainty I’m not accustomed to, not because I assume I can do whatever I want as well as I hope to do it, but because I have never pushed myself to achieve such a nebulous goal.

The big things I’ve tried to accomplish had definitive endings: I knew when I had arrived at my destination. I trained for a marathon and then I ran one. I applied for a graduate school program and earned my Masters in Spanish Language Education (while working full time, managing the emotional turmoil of TTC and an ectopic pregnancy and then having my first child). Those goals were clear and I had physical proof that I met them. But this goal of becoming a better writer, it’s ambiguous and undefined. It’s subjective.

It’s a matter of opinion.

And whose opinion matters most?

It probably should be mine, but human beings are social creatures and we all know it’s more complicated than that. I’m just not sure. I can’t really imagine that I’ll ever feel like I’m as good a writer as I want to be, or as a good a writer as I feel I need to be to start using my words in more ways than this one.

Moving to this blog and the personal change it represented for me has been so much more complicated than I expected. I don’t regret doing it, because I know something had to change, but I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been a more positive experience for me. (And please know this is all internal, and has nothing to do with anyone’s participation here. You have all been amazing and I am thankful that you read and comment each and every day).

I miss writing more. I miss the words flowing like they used to. I miss processing life through my words. I miss writing just to write.

I miss knowing who I am in my own space.

Heck, I miss knowing who I am, period.

Change is hard. It will get better. I’m try not to get disillusioned and most of the time I succeed.

Most of the time.

Inevitable Failure

I have been entertaining a terrifying thought of late: What if I can’t be the person, or parent, I expect myself to be? What if it is simply, and inexorably, not possible?

As I read the comments on my last post, I was struck by the certainty of their message: You should be able to do this. You can make this work.

It was in being struck by their certainty that I learned I am paralyzed by my own uncertainty. I didn’t realize it when I wrote that post, but I have finally arrived at a place of being categorically unsure of my own ability, as a mother, as a teacher, as a spouse, as a woman. Up until this point I always assumed that if I tried hard enough I could make it work (whatever “it” might be). But now, with two children, I’m grasping the startling truth: I may actually be incapable of some things. And they are really important, non-negotiable type things.

The prospect is terrifying.

Now that I’ve had this realization, I’m kind of shocked it took me so long to recognize–or  accept–the truth. I have an entire lifetime of empirical data supporting this hypothesis but since it wasn’t the hypothesis I was trying to prove, I never perceived the patterns. I was so sure that I was the master of my own destiny, that I could mold myself into whatever I felt–or society dictated–I should be. The fact that I hadn’t actually managed to do those things with any regularity–or at all–didn’t seem to register. I was so busy trying to mold my findings to fit my preconceived beliefs that I never registered the data that was completely contradictory.

My house has always been messy. I use that word, because it’s socially acceptable, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the reality. My house is a disaster area. Truly. It looks like something horrible has happened. My kitchen is disgusting. Really. That is the appropriate word. My entryway, that people see when they come over to pick up there kids, is a shit hole. It’s covered in sand and dirt and cat hair and trash. The state of my house is abysmal.

I have always believed that if I just tried hard enough I could keep my house clean, or at least presentable. I figured that if I cared enough, I could manage it. I assumed I just hadn’t found adequate inspiration. My mother is impeccably neat; there is no way her daughter could be incapable of at least a modicum of cleanliness.

But I have been this way for 16 years–my entire adult life. My living space has always been a disaster area. I have NEVER been able to keep it neat or clean. My classroom is similarly disorganized. I have tried numerous systems and none of them has ever worked, not even for a short period of time. I have literally NEVER been able to keep my room or classroom or apartment or house clean. NOT EVER.

And now I really want to be able to do it. I want to invite people over, or at the very least have my daughter’s friends over for play dates, which means their parents have to come to pick them up. I don’t even need my house to be presentable most of the time, I just want to be able to make it presentable when I need it that way. At this point I can’t even manage that. I thought I could just let go of society’s expectations and have people over anyway, but even when they are just in the entryway helping their kids with their shoes, I can see the way they look around, I can feel their judgement radiating.

I get it. I really do. I would judge me too, because a functioning adult should be able to keep their house together. They should be able to do a WAY better job than I’m doing.

And then there is the cooking. There is no one thing that is more important in this life than buying, preparing and eating healthful foods. I can’t do any of those. I have NEVER been able to do them. I fail miserably in this area of my life. The way I feed my children… it feels criminal. It feels like I am abusing my children every time I offer them something to eat.

These two things are the pinnacle of womanhood. Keeping a clean house and feeding our families–that is what women are meant to do. Sure we’re trying to change that, to redefine womanhood and what it means, but it’s going to take a long time to erase or rewrite the expectations that have defined women for entirety of the human race.

So what happens if a woman can’t do those things? What happens if I don’t just miss the mark, but am not even facing the right direction?

The truth is, I am struggling. Mightily. We both are. Just to make this work. Just to get through each day. Most of the time we are not the parents that we want to be. I don’t respond the way I should to my children. I get frustrated. I get exasperated. I get angry. I sigh. I grumble. I yell. My daughter’s new signature phrase is, “Are you mad at me?” Evidently she has reason to suspect I am about 100+ times a day.

I’m trying to do better. I’m trying really, really hard. And I’m failing. Every. Single. Day.

I don’t know if I can be the parent I want to be now that I have two kids (to be fair, I wasn’t succeeding most of the time when I only had one).

I don’t know if I could have been the woman I wanted to be even before I had kids. I’m pretty sure there is no hope for me now.

I’m sure there will be those who will assure me that I can do it. That I just haven’t tried the right system, or put forth adequate effort. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs–I used to believe them too. But what about the 16 years of empirical evidence? What about all the times I’ve tried, and failed?

And maybe I can figure it out, at least well enough to get by in a society that sets certain standards. The effort required would be gargantuan. Every day I would be fighting against my nature. It would require intense discipline and dedication. It would be utterly exhausting.

I look around, peering into the lives that surround me and no one seems to be failing in these ways. I pick up my daughter at immaculate houses where healthy meals bubble on gleaming stove tops and I drag my tantrum-ing four-year-old into my car with promises of this or that if she’ll just stop, only to negotiate piles of crap all over our house while we wait for the butter noodles to be done for dinner. This is my life, and it doesn’t look like the lives of the women around me, or the ones I’m friends with on FB and other social media.

I have a plan to try to remedy the situation, but honestly, I’m approaching it with a half-heartened sense of obligation and almost no hope for success. I’ve tried all these things before. I’ve read the books, headed the advice, and nothing has ever changed. I’ll try again, because what choice do I have?

But I can’t change who I am. Can I?

The Bill Has Come Due

{More on loneliness to come next week. Thank you all for your insightful comments on those posts.}

It feels sometimes like the stakes are higher since I had kids. Physics teaches us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, but since becoming a parent I’ve found that the reactions seem grossly out of proportion.

This weekend I visited an old friend in Atlanta. It was an amazing trip and I was so glad to be there. I got 48 hours to recharge, both physically and emotionally. I slept more in those 48 hours than during a typical work week. I got to hang out with other adults, engage in thoughtful conversations, eat in amazing restaurants, shop in actual adult stores and even read quietly in bed. It was just what I needed to fill my cup and restore my faith in myself as a friend.

Then I came home and had to deal with the fallout of being away. My husband was harried and stressed from his first 48 hour jaunt solo-parenting (fair enough) my kids were over emotional messes (fair enough) and my house looked like a tornado hit it (fair enough–and it should be noted that it didn’t look that great before I left). I’ve spent the whole week trying to give my husband the time and space he needs to recharge while triaging my kids’ panicked abandonment issues. My daughter has been having an especially hard time, being extra-whiny and demanding more than it is physically possible for me to give.

I spent my 30 minute commute today singing my sobbing daughter songs and assuring her that I’d be with her every minute of the weekend. It was the second time I had to do that this week. Even my son–who has previously seemed unaffected by my absence–has had a hard time falling asleep, requiring extra snuggles before he’ll finally lie down and drift off. My husband has barely spoken to me and there is a strange film of anger and resentment coating all our interactions.

Basically I filled my cup, only to have it emptied at two or three times the normal rate and I’m worried I’ll actually be worse off after paying for the consequences of my absence than I was before I left.

I spent the first half of the week grappling with some pretty intense mommy guilt and wondering if I needed to end my commitments to personal endeavors like the magazine or my creative non-fiction class so that I can give more time to my kids and partner. I already work 40 hours a week, maybe there just isn’t enough time left over to devote to myself, at least not now, while my kids are young.

Since the mommy guilt subsided, I’ve been left with the heavy realization that I just can’t do the things that are most important to me personally. It just is not possible to juggle work, my marriage, my kids and my own interests. Something has to give. I already spent less time than most with friends, but even my monthly magazine meeting and managing the two columns seems to be more than my family can absorb. I’m already getting less than six hours of sleep a night (usually five) and I can’t seem to nap on the rare afternoons when I’m so exhausted that I’m willing to sacrifice my lunch hour to do so. I’m drinking coffee every morning–something I’ve never done before–and eating horribly. My house is more of a disaster area than even I can stand and my marriage endures days, sometimes weeks, of almost complete neglect. I guess my point is, I have been attempting to include writing in my life, and commit a certain amount of time to myself, and it’s making me miserable. So I guess I’m miserable either way, committing the time to myself or just giving it to my family.

This is sounding more dire than I intended it to. My attitude about all this is one of quiet resignation. I know this time in my kids’ life won’t last forever, I know there will be more opportunities (in maybe five years?) for me to focus on myself. But right now, and in the foreseeable future, I just don’t see how I can manage it.

That means I will be sacrificing a good ten years (counting the past five) of my own personal growth to my family. During that time the majority of my own interests will be put on hold. That is a very significant amount of time, especially considering it’s in the “prime” of my life. We should really be having more conversations about this cost, because it’s substantial and it might have been easier to hand over this decade of my life if I had realized the bill was coming due.

I’m trying not to do the math and figure out how old I’ll be when I can commit to myself again. I’m trying not to think about how entrenched I’ll be in a 15 year teaching career and how hard it will be to make changes. I’m trying to tell myself that I can fill my cup reading a good books and writing here when I find the time. I’m trying to tell myself that I can do anything if it’s not forever.

But sometimes, I’m not so sure.

Loneliness {Part 2}

In her book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White categorizes loneliness in four ways. On one axis are emotional and social loneliness. Social loneliness relates to the absence of a network of close friends or confidants and emotional loneliness involves internalized emotions and the inability to share your thoughts and feelings with others. Researchers initially identified these two types of loneliness while studying two groups of women in the Boston area. Housewives were identified as suffering from social loneliness—they had a husband with whom they could confide but lacked a circle of friends they could call on for support. Women in the group Parents Without Partners were dealing with emotional loneliness because, while they engaged in a large supportive network they lacked someone with which whom they could share their most intimate thoughts.

On the other axis are trait loneliness and situational loneliness. Situational loneliness is dependent on a set of circumstances—a divorce, illness or recent move—while trait loneliness is a pervasive feeling that exists despite the external reality. People experiencing situational loneliness are lacking a network of friends due to some identifiable factor outside of themselves, they can point to a cause for the loneliness. Trait loneliness (often referred to in the book as chronic loneliness) is harder to pin down because it is woven into the perception of the person experiencing it.

In her book, White often calls on the experiences and insights of others. One man explained his loneliness this way: “Even with close friends, even with people I’ve known for decades, who I still know, it’s just sometimes…something’s not there.” Another women said, “When I think about loneliness, I think about just feeling like I don’t have intimate connections that touch on all the different aspects of myself. And it’s not that I don’t have intimate relationships. It’s that I don’t have ones that cover all of who I am.” White describes this kind of pervasive loneliness this way:

It’s feelings of distance and disconnection, of not being fully engaged and present, that lonely people highlight when they talk about their loneliness—and these feelings emerge despite the fact that lonely people often have support networks and significant others in place.

Learning that loneliness is characterized in different ways, and that loneliness isn’t only situational, was incredibly eye opening for me. While I have become situational-ly lonely in parenthood, and especially in the last few months, I recognized the feelings above from much farther back in my past. The lack of connection described in the book is something I’ve always grappled with. While I’ve created strong bonds with some of my closest friends, I frequently feel like I can’t share the things that are most important to me, or that they aren’t sharing those important things with me. As an adult I’ve been starting to wonder if maybe I am defective in some way, that I can’t participate in relationships the way others can.

While White can certainly point to specific events and circumstances that triggered her loneliness, she believes there is a genetic component to it as well. White thinks that loneliness would have found her regardless of the ten year gap between her and her sisters or her parents’ divorcing before she entered grade school; she is certain that she is predisposed to experience loneliness.

I’m starting to wonder if I am too.

I’ve returned many times during the reading of this book to my marriage. I have spent a significant portion of my time with my husband fearing that he doesn’t love me. I have no specific reasons to worry–he has never been unfaithful or said anything to suggest he doesn’t love me–and yet I can’t shake the anxiety. My head seems pretty convinced that he cares for me, and greatly, but my heart is not so sure.

I’ve chalked this discrepancy up to our disparate love languages. I rely on touch to know I’m loved while my husband cherishes quality time. The problem is that he’s not much of a “toucher” and I’m incredibly distractable so we both struggle to give the other person what they need. I’ve focused on this with my therapist (who has also worked with my husband and I in couples counseling so I respect her opinion on our relationship) and I’m feeling more confident in our marriage than I have in a long time, but it took a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy for me to get there. It definitely feels like this was a bigger issue for me than it would be for other people and I wonder if it’s my own predisposition for loneliness affecting the way I experience important relationships.

A friend and I recently had some frank discussion about who I am as friend–my expectations of myself and others–and what this person had to say was alarming. That insight, plus what I read in White’s book, has me looking closely at how I experience relationships with other people. I’m starting to believe that maybe I process connection differently than most of the people around me. Perhaps that is why I’ve felt I lingered on the periphery of social situations all my life. Maybe the feeling of disconnectedness that has always haunted me is actually a genetic lens, coloring my life without me realizing.

{Continued soon…}

Loneliness {Part 1}

Lonely is not a word I identified with much. I’ve always had friends and things to do. I meet people easily, consider myself social and have felt I belonged in various groups.

As I got older, the easy camaraderie of sports teams, school, dorm floors, and graduate school cohorts became a thing of the past. The groups I belong to broke up and faded away. My close friends moved across country.

I was already finding it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships even before becoming a mother, but since having children I have really struggled. Still, I never really considered myself lonely. I had friends, even if they were far away. I had a loving husband that I spent time with. My family remained close and I saw my mother frequently. The staff at my work are warm and supportive. How could someone who was almost always around people be lonely? The word didn’t seem to fit.

And yet I’ve always had the feeling that I don’t quite belong, that while I’m a part of the group, I remain on the periphery. In swimming I was the one who never got the qualifying times needed to compete at a higher level. In drama I couldn’t sing and wasn’t in the spring musical. In high school I was either the AP student hanging out with the partiers or the partier hanging out with the AP students. During senior year my two best friends actually started dating and I became the awkward third wheel.

In the dorms Freshman year I was the one who lived in a triple down the hall from my two best friends who were roommates (though we later would live together for two years). I couldn’t participate in my university’s study abroad program so I had to go to Spain with students from a couple of small colleges in Texas and on the East Coast. My first teaching job was at a district about 30 minutes away, making it harder to socialize with the staff after the school day. Even within the tribe of women struggling with infertility that I met online, I was the one with the fewest losses and the least amount of time spent trying to conceive. I didn’t even have to use ART to eventually get pregnant.

I admit that at least some of the feeling of being on the periphery, or not really belonging, was in my own head. My swimming friends would probably say I was at the epicenter of our social group, but I wonder if I worked so hard to stay there because I was so worried they’d all leave me behind (as they did in the pool). In high school people saw me as belonging to many groups and having tons of friends, whereas I saw myself sitting at the edge of them all, not really belonging to any of them.

And sometimes things happened that cemented my belief that others didn’t feel as close to me as I felt to them. Once I logged onto Facebook to find all my work friends on a rafting trip that I hadn’t been invited to and knew nothing about. I never found out if I was purposefully excluded or they had simply forgotten to include me. Seventeen of my colleagues were invited to a fellow teacher’s wedding recently and I wasn’t. I also haven’t been invited to a couple of weddings of college and high school friends that the “rest of the group” went to. So while I do believe that some of that feeling of not belonging is in my head, I have the evidence to argue that it’s not entirely imagined.

I have always attributed this feeling of not belonging, and my struggles with cultivating and maintaining close friendships in general with depression. When you’re depressed it’s hard to really put yourself out there, both physically (actually going to social events is draining) and emotionally (it’s almost impossible to share your deepest thoughts when they are so bleak). I assumed the emotional distance I felt between myself and those who were physically close was a direct result of depression, just another one of its shitty symptoms manifesting in a life that was, in so many ways, already dictated by the disease.

But now I’m reading the book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White and I’m wondering if that perceived distance is actually loneliness. I never considered myself lonely because there were usually people around, and not just any people, but people I considered friends. I didn’t think you could be lonely under those circumstances, but evidently you can.

{Continued tomorrow…}

In Search of Family Dinner

This is a piece I wrote for the magazine. I haven’t asked what their policy is on posting pieces elsewhere (this will be printed and our content is currently unavailable online–that is supposed to change soon), but I figure it’s fine to do so here because it will never get back to them. I might take it down in November, when the issues goes out. Until then, enjoy (and comment if you’re so inclined, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic).

Family dinners were a big part of my life growing up. Every night we came together around the table to connect with each other and enjoy my parents’ incredible cooking. The table was always impeccably set, the kitchen somehow already clean before we even sat down to eat, and the meal perfectly balanced and homemade. Despite her full-time job and my father’s frequent business trips, my mother made it seem effortless to assemble all of us around the kitchen table. I grew up taking delicious family dinners for granted.

Fast forward a couple of decades and suddenly I am the mom whose job it is to get family dinner on the table. Despite the increased presence of fathers at home, the majority of cleaning and cooking remains in the purview of the mother—and I am failing. Miserably.

I will admit, family dinner was a torch I was never interested in receiving, though I knew it would eventually be passed. Almost immediately upon leaving home I realized I had no interest in cooking for myself; I was completely content to heat up a can of soup and eat it in front of the television. Nothing about cooking was enjoyable and the fact that it took three or four times longer to prepare a meal (and then clean it up afterward) than to actually eat it solidified my aversion. Cooking required way too much effort, and the stuff out of a package tasted pretty darn good.

This was all fine and good when I lived alone, and when I got married, thankfully my husband never seemed disappointed in my lack of culinary enthusiasm or skill. It wasn’t until I had children that my distaste for all things cooking really became an issue.

Now, with a four-year-old poised to internalize our routines, I recognize that I am failing at one of my most important jobs as a mother. Increasingly, this gaping hole in my parental resume causes shame and a significant amount of guilt. Something has to be done.

The Pinnacle of Good Parenting

In my attempt to address this shortcoming, I have come to believe that family dinner is the ultimate embodiment of good parenting, and I panic over the distressing fact that we are not having it. If I can rectify this one glaring, daily mistake, maybe I can silence the judge and jury in my head that have already declared me unfit to parent. At the very least, I’ll have better evidence on my side when I make my formal appeal.

I’m not sure if I am reaching back into my own childhood when I put family dinner on the ultimate pedestal, or if my dinner worship is based on those vague notions we read and hear enough that they eventually become parenting gospel. Either way, I am sure family dinner is the cure to all possible parenting failures. Sitting at the intersection of balanced nutrition and quality time with kids, family dinner is the apex. The problem is, I don’t think I will ever reach the summit of this towering behemoth. My anxiety is considerable, my attitude bordering on defeatist: How can I possibly make family dinners a regular occurrence when my preschooler doesn’t want to eat anything, my husband gets home from work late most nights, I work full-time, and, most importantly, I really don’t want to cook?

So, I do what I always do when I am facing a personal crisis: I start reading, talking to other people, and reading some more. I must know anything and everything about family dinner, and it turns out, people have a lot to say.

Falling in Love with Family Dinner

Early in my search, I am directed to Dinner, a Love Story, a blog (and now book) by Jenny Rosenstratch. Ugh, I groan. Who creates a whole blog as an ode to family dinner? But Jenny’s blog is more welcoming to culinary-phobic mamas like myself than I am expecting. On her “about” page, she lists all the reasons she knows I will want to “fly the white flag” and I find myself nodding my head in vigorous agreement.

“Your kids refuse to eat anything, your fridge is full but your brain is blank, you don’t know how to cook, you have no desire to cook, you have a big project due tomorrow, you have no help with the cooking or the planning, you can’t even get everyone seated at the table at the same time, let alone eating the same meal.” Yes! I think. This is an impossible endeavor! I begin to wonder if maybe family dinner isn’t worth all the sacrifice and that we would do better to focus our efforts elsewhere.

Except that Rosenstratch absolutely thinks it is worth the effort. In fact, she made a promise to herself after becoming a mother that she would only work full-time if she could manage to get food on the table most nights of the week. Obviously, she isn’t struggling to make family dinner happen, but her blog—full of quick, healthy recipes and useful tips—makes it clear that she is a powerful ally for those of us who want to commit to family dinner but don’t quite know how to execute it.

One of the reasons family dinner scares me so much is that it is presented, at its most basic, as a meal with at least one vegetable artfully integrated into a cohesive whole (that a preschooler will supposedly eat). As a woman who only overcame her picky eating tendencies in college, I have zero experience creating healthy meals, let alone the kind other people (ahem, preschoolers) might want to eat. The whole enterprise—finding recipes I can tackle, keeping fresh fruit and vegetables stocked, and actually preparing it all in a pleasing way during the limited time I have every evening—seems downright impossible.

The Stress of Cooking

It turns out I am not the only one who finds executing the many components of family dinner stressful. Recently, a study called The Joy of Cooking? came out of North Carolina State University. The authors argue that the time it takes to cook, and the burden of pleasing all members of the family, makes it increasingly difficult for mothers to create the home-cooked meals that are idealized by public health officials and the media. A quick synthesis of prevalent messages today suggests that home-cooked meals are the solution to most childhood health problems and to the current childhood obesity epidemic, and mothers are responsible for providing them. As the authors of the study put it, “one could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.”

It helps to have definitive research corroborating my theory that there exists an ideal vision of family dinner and that mothers are expected to provide it. (See? I’m not just making this stuff up!) I’m even happier with the author’s suggestion that we should re-imagine family dinner “outside the kitchen” and envision “more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families.” Maybe without the pressure to make this all happen in my own kitchen, I won’t be so afraid to attempt it myself.

It’s Not What You Eat, It’s What You Say

The thing is, I don’t just want to attempt family dinners—I want to eventually excel at them. Fortunately, not everyone believes the foundation of family dinner is a perfectly balanced, home-cooked meal. In fact, there are those who believe that a successful family dinner is more about quality time with loved ones than quality cuisine. If that’s the case then maybe, just maybe, I stand a chance.

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler agrees that family dinner is essential—he cites research showing that children who eat dinner with family are less likely to do all the things we don’t want them to do (drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, or develop eating disorders) and are more likely to have all the things we want them to have (larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and high self-esteem). Evidently, there is even research indicating that how often children eat dinner as a family is the “single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems.”

Luckily for moms like me, it’s not what we eat, but how we spend the time eating that makes family dinner so crucial. Feiler argues that it’s the time spent together, the connections made, the family history shared, the conversations had, and the “intergenerational identity” created that makes family dinner an indispensable tool in the parenting arsenal. He also offers that many of the benefits of eating together can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night.

My informal polls of friends and GGMG members suggest that most parents already seem to understand this. When I ask other moms what they hope to achieve during family dinner, almost nobody mentions eating an organic, home-cooked meal. Instead, most parents want to check in as a family, hear about everyone’s day, connect with their kids, engage in meaningful conversation, talk about current events (if not while their kids are young, then when they are older), and solidify a family identity and belief system. Teaching table manners and including children in setting and clearing the table are also goals. It is clear that for most people, the traditions that are forged are what really matter, not what is served.

Most moms I talk to are similarly open-minded in their expectations of what family dinner looks like. While some families only consider a meal “family dinner” if all members of the family are present, most moms assert that if one adult is sitting at the table with the kids, it “counts.” Other common expectations are that dinner be a technology-free affair (no TV, phones or iPads present) and for all family members to participate, even if someone is not hungry. As for where family dinner takes place? While most families agree that when at home, family dinner takes place at the table, restaurant meals and even picnics in the park are considered family dinner if everyone is there to enjoy them.

The more I talk with other mothers about family dinner, the more confident I become that I can actually pull it off. Already we have migrated most of our meals to the dining room table (we used to feed our daughter mostly at her smaller table, or—gasp!—in front of the TV) and we are maintaining our new no-book-reading-at-the-table rule (though off-the-cuff Batman and My Little Pony stories are still requested). During every meal we share our highs and lows as we help our daughter develop her recall and conversation skills. We have the basics down; we just need to make it happen more often.

How to Make it Happen

Thankfully, almost everyone I talk to has great tips for how to make family dinner more accessible, even for the busiest, most culinary-averse families.

Keep the pantry and freezer stocked. Be sure to always have staples on hand, like oil, basic seasonings, dry pasta, canned sauces, pre-cut frozen veggies and easy proteins (frozen chicken or tofu).

Plan ahead. Keep a calendar of what and when you plan to cook and shop accordingly.

Enjoy leftovers. If what you’re making freezes well or will keep in the fridge, double the recipe and enjoy it a second time.

Embrace one pot wonders. Include a couple of one pot meals that incorporate all components into the rotation; if it can be ready in the Crockpot when you get home, even better.

Combine prepackaged and fresh foods. Add chopped veggies to a canned sauce or thawed chicken to a frozen stir fry. The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook series has great ideas for this.

Have breakfast for dinner. Serve Sunday morning breakfast on Wednesday night. It’s easy and everyone will love it.

Enroll support. Get help from a food service like Munchery, which does the heavy lifting (chopping and measuring veggies, etc.) for you.

Eat when your kids are hungry. If that means dinner is earlier than you used to eat it, so be it. If your kids are hungry, they’ll probably eat.

One of the best tips I got was to stop focusing so much on family dinner and start thinking about family meals. If the most important aspect of family dinner is to connect, it doesn’t have to happen in the evening. We’ve been enjoying big family breakfasts on the weekend for a while now and it’s nice to know that those are just as effective at establishing a family identity and belief system. I appreciate concentrating on when we can all come together instead of succumbing to the pressure to make family meals happen after long days of work and school.

Months after our commitment to embrace family dinner, we’re getting there. Now we have a white board for planning out two weeks worth of meals before we go shopping; it helps to see where my husband and I will be every night and know when we’ll be able to eat as a family. I ordered a Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s cookbook (we shop there almost exclusively) and we’re making Sunday trips to the farmer’s market part of our routine. They are baby steps, but we’re taking them in the right direction and for the first time in my life as a parent, I don’t feel like I’m failing at one of my most important jobs.

Family dinner (or better said, mealtime) is absolutely an integral part of every happy family’s dynamic, but for reasons and in ways different than I originally suspected. It doesn’t matter when or where you eat it, or how long it took you to make; it’s not the quality of the food that’s most important but the quality of the conversation. Basically, the most important part of “family dinner” is the first word—not the second. For that, this mama is thankful.

Friendship Without Common Ground?

I’ve been thinking, and reading, a lot about friendship lately.

One book is all about dealing with the loss of an important friendship. There is a lot about why friendships fail and one of the biggest reasons is that one or both of the women’s lives change, leaving them with less in common.

And is has me begging the question: Can we be friends with women who aren’t like us?

The answer is obviously yes, it can be done. But is it done that much? Ultimately, at the end of the day, do we have a lot of friends who are very different from us? Do those friendships last?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I try to make new friends. In my attempt to get to know more women in my area I invited all the mothers of kids in my daughter’s preschool room to a monthly dinner date. This spring most of the kids in her class turned four and suddenly we were going to birthday parties every other weekend. After two years “together,” I finally started getting to know the other parents and realized that I enjoyed their company. But it was hard to really get to know them at a chaotic birthday party, especially when I had to manage my own children, so I set up the dinner date hoping to befriend some of the moms that way.

The moms in my daughter’s class seemed like a great place to start making friends because we already have so much in common. Of course there is the obvious similarity–we have all have four-year-old children–but there are other correlations as well. Because my daughter’s school is open from 8am to 6pm, most of the families are dual earning and the moms work outside the home. I tend to find it easier to relate to other WOHM because we are dealing with analogous issues and have complementary schedules. Also, most of the families live relatively close to the school (or at least on the same side of town) which means they lead similar lifestyles (*cough* make about the what we do) and none of them are particularly hard to meet up with.

These are of course very basic parallels, but they feel important to me, and I can’t really imagine how I would meet women who didn’t share these basic experiences, let alone build a friendship with them.

I’ve even been noticing myself drifting away from women who are different from me in the blog world. When we were all dealing with infertility and/or loss, if seemed like we had so much in common and our shared struggles–and feelings of marginalization in mainstream society–allied us. Now that infertility is not the main focus of our lives, our differences are becoming more apparent. I’m realizing the these women lead very different lives, and sometimes have very different beliefs, and  I wonder if I have much to contribute to the conversation, or if my point of view will always be welcomed and valued.

It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with people who are different. I do, and I am. Life would be boring if we only spent time with those who share comparable experiences. I cherish friendships with women who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, with political and religious beliefs that don’t mirror my own. I am friends with women who aren’t mothers and never plan to be, who work in fields that diverge significantly from teaching, who make decidedly more money than I do (though very few who make considerably less…). Yes, not all my friends are exactly like me, and yet…

And yet as time marches on, I see and hear less from the people whose lives have diverged from my own, and I gravitate more toward the people whose lives are comparable to my own.

At the end of this month I’m spending the weekend with a friend from college who now lives on the opposite coast. We’ve seen each other annually since we graduated over ten years ago, but never for more than a dinner alone. I have to admit, I’m nervous to spend 48 uninterrupted hours with her. Our lives are so wholly different: she doesn’t have kids and doesn’t plan to, she works in a field I know little about, she enjoys a dual-earner-no-kids life with a significant disposable income and she travels around the world constantly. Our daily lives are so divergent I worry we will find no common ground. What will we talk about for all that time? What will we do?

I think the reality is, you have to have at least one big thing in common to be friends with them, preferably more. For a lot of mothers that one big thing is motherhood, but I suspect that as your kids get older, there need to be other commonalities for the friendship to flourish instead of falter.

Making new friends is hard. I find that if just one thing doesn’t match up it becomes almost impossible to build a friendship. One colleague at work lives too far away for us to get together (plus her daughter is already in 3rd grade, so her schedule more open than mine) while another doesn’t have kids and doesn’t plan to, and spends most of her free time with her husband. A third has a son my daughter’s age, and lives two blocks away, and even dealt with infertility (and she is awesome, I love her) but she’s an introvert and a homebody and she rarely wants to meet up. Through my daughter’s school I’ve met a few mothers that are potential friends, but one is stuck at home because her husband works long hours, another cancels a lot, so it’s hard to make plans. A third already has a ton of friends and is always busy and a fourth isn’t great at following up. There is even a woman who has two kids the same ages and sexes as my own, she lives close by, she is a teacher, and she is always game to hang out, but we just don’t seem to hit it off.

Everything has to line up just so, and even if it does, a friendship may not happen. It makes me want to throw in the towel and give up. And it makes me wonder if it’s worth investing in friendships with women whose lives are really different from mine. Can we engage in a constructive dialogue? Can we ever really be friends?

Do you have a lot of friends whose lives are significantly different? What brings/keeps you together? What eventually pulled you apart?

The New Me

In the past three months I lost 25 lbs, got an IUD placed, bought (and was gifted) a whole new wardrobe (and even some new jewelry and shoes), tried in earnest to make some new friends, started a new blog (and shut down my old one), enrolled in a writing class and created a new nom de plum. I didn’t notice it at the time, because the decisions were made months ago and the time it took for them to manifest was considerable, but these were all related. It took months for the weight to come off, to make an appointment with my GYN, for me realize I liked how I looked enough to buy new clothes, to choose a URL and start a new blog, for my writing class to finally start, to decide on a new writing identity. None of these things happened quickly, there was careful deliberation involved, and a lot of work. So maybe it’s not so ridiculous that I didn’t see what was happening into recently, when it all became so glaringly obvious.

I have been trying to reinvent myself.

The problem is, I’m not sure who I want to become. And I’m floundering as I attempt to figure it out.

There was already a shift happening. What spurred all this change was organic, really, the obvious next steps as I moved away from a massively transformative time in my life to whatever comes next. The past six years have been all about building my family, but after my son was born we decided we were done having children. As I got to work reclaiming my body, I ceremoniously stripped my wardrobe of the maternity clothes I had worn (or held on to) for the past five years and got down the pre-pregnancy staples I used to love. Most of them were from before I had my daughter and were dated, both in the general sense and in the way I see myself; they just didn’t seem to fit with the person I’d become after so many years of family building and parenting.

It was a theme I started seeing everywhere.

A lot has happened in the last six years. We bought a house, had two kids, got married, and made professional commitments. We set ourselves on a certain track, made decisions about what our future will look like, and who we want to be moving forward. After my son was born I felt like I was setting out on path of the rest of my life, that the decisions I make now will determine my direction and ultimately, where I end up.

I enrolled in a creative non-fiction class because I wanted to focus on my writing. I started a new blog to attempt blogging with a new intention. I made plans with potential friends in the city to fill the gaping hole in my social life. I bought new clothes to present a more polished version of myself. I got an IUD to formally distance myself from family building. I did all of this with purpose, with the future in mind. In the absence of building my family, I set about building my new life. Without the wave of change that family building provides, I tried to paddle myself out of the doldrums.

Except all that paddling is exhausting. I am struggling. Considerably.

The friendship explosion didn’t help. That bomb went off right as the wave of the last six years crested. At a time when I was least sure of who I was and what the future might hold, someone close to me decided they didn’t want me in their life. That wave hit when I least expected it, knocked the wind out of me, dragged me under the churning water, and spit me back to the surface, gasping for air. I’ve spent the last few months determining my orientation, trying to figure out where the shore lies.

For all the intentional choices I made setting out, I now feel lost. Without my trusted agents to guide me, I am floundering. Right now, at this critical juncture, I’m totally and completely unsure how to proceed. I doubt myself, and my choices, at every opportunity. I have no idea if my efforts will eventually provide adequate returns. I consider going back to my old ways of coping, even when I know they don’t suit my situation. I long for the familiarity of my old life, the habits that felt comfortable, even as I recognize they are no longer relevant. I just want something to be easy.

Because writing here? It’s not easy. Keeping up with my writing class? Is really challenging. Making new friends? Is terrifying. Even laying out a nice outfit every night is starting to feel hard. None of it is familiar. None of it is comfortable. But I am committed to doing it all because I’m terrified of where I’ll end up in ten years. I’m scared shitless that all this paddling will just take me farther and farther out to sea, and I’ll look around one day and realize I haven’t seen land for years and years, that there is no hope anyone will ever find me.

Is this what the future looks like?

Twice this week my daughter has asked for something and when I informed her that I didn’t know where that particular thing was, she told me it was fine.

The first was the baby elephant, whose mommy elephant was splashing in the bathtub.

“Hey Mom, the baby elephant isn’t in here.”

“Huh, I brought in all the safari animals, I’m not sure why it’s missing. I’ll take a look in the box.” A few minutes later, I had confirmed it was not in the box.

“I don’t see it,” I called back into the bathroom, bracing myself for the irritated command to locate it, at any cost.

But no such command was issued. “Oh, okay,” she replied mildly, as I stood in her room, dumbfounded by this completely unexpected response.

Two days later she was on the toilet and needed a book (yes, my four-year-old daughter requires reading material, just like her dad).

“How about Uuk y Gluk?” she suggested, when I asked her which one she wanted. (We are deep in the Dav Pilkey canon right now–I tell myself it’s okay because we’re reading them in Spanish.)

“Shit, I muttered under my breath. “Where the **** is Uuk y Gluk?”

“I don’t know,” my husband shrugged, relieved that it wasn’t his problem. “Maybe in her room on the floor?”

Except, of course, it wasn’t. “I don’t know where that one is my love,” I called back to her.

“Okay, then bring me another book,” her voice rang out, dripping with an exasperated air of “duuuuuh” that is becoming quite common.

I raised my eyebrows at my husband, who was similarly astounded. Did our four-year-old just tell me that it was okay I couldn’t find a book? Was I not being commanded to locate said book, and threatened with a major meltdown should I fail?

I grabbed some other Capitán Underpants books and handed them to her. “Oh! Capitán Calzoncillos! I love this guy!”

And that was that.

“Is this what the future looks like?” I asked my husband, incredulous, as I settled into the couch.

“Possibly,” he mused. “Of course you still have to go in there and wipe her butt.”

Touche.