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This festive season I am seeing the stress all over the place, not least on Facebook posts about Elf on the Shelf and reverse advents and a book a day for December. Here's some thoughts on how we can make this festive season a little less crazy.

1 - Pick one special family day or event

Don’t feel the need to attend every Christmas light switch on, Christmas fair, pantomime and special event going.

There’s no need to do more than one Santa trip, or watch every lights switch on you can think of. Pick one good quality event for your family to go to in the run up to Christmas AND THAT’S IT!

If you do Santa (we don’t) then you’ll probably want to go and do a Santa visit with your kids. There are some amazing ones out there that include storytelling, crafts, tractor rides or carol singing if you want to make more of a day of it. If we did Santa I’d totally do one of those Santa steam train rides.

For our family Christmas trip, we go to the Spirit of Christmas Past at the folk museum. It’s a Sunday afternoon when you visit the folk museum and the houses have Christmas traditions from Victorian times in them – you get to sample food, listen to traditional carol singers, and brass bands. It’s an enjoyable afternoon that is that bit different from the usual Santa based events and isn’t too loud or scary like the way a Christmas light switch on would be. (not that I find light switch ons scary, you understand, but Daniel isn’t a fan of busy crowds and loudspeakers)

2 - Don’t say yes to everything you’re invited to

Or much at all, really. On top of school nativities and your usual activities’ Christmas parties, there will be school Christmas fairs, church carol services, invites to friends’ houses, family get-togethers, work dos and you just don’t need to do them all.

Some will be priorities, but others might be things you just feel you have to go to and you can choose to say no. Could others be rescheduled to the new year?

Maybe not the carol services, obviously, but my siblings and I go out in the new year instead of the Christmas period; I’ve heard of more and more January work Christmas dos; and if your family live locally, why not have a new year gathering to cheer up those miserable January nights?

3 - Simplify what you can

If your children are still young you could decide to step back from the rat race of buying lots and decide to reduce the number of presents they get before they notice!

Don’t feel the need to do Elf on the Shelf or a crafty daily advent devotional with your child if you’re already overwhelmed, or do simplified versions of them. Pinterest is NOT your friend at Christmas, it makes all of us feel inadequate, doesn’t it?! Or find someone who has blogged some ideas or created a Pinterest board of a simple version if you really feel the need to do it.

If you’re cooking Christmas dinner, how about reducing the prep by buying premade parts of the food. You can get trays of honey roast parsnips and roast potatoes, pre made stuffing, even a turkey crown. These shortcuts will reduce the time needed to prep for Christmas dinner and honestly, no one will notice!

For me this year I think I might go simple on the Christmas decorations. Is that crazy talk?! I just can’t face all the cleaning and clearing required to get the decorations up. We don’t have a dumping room anymore as our three bedrooms are occupied so I can’t easily shift stuff around. It feels like leaving some of the decorations in the loft is so wrong, but this year, it may be the thing that saves Christmas from being overwhelming!

Plus the thought of trying to stop the crazy 17 month old from pulling the tree over, climbing on the tree, eating the lights…ugh!

4 - Prioritise what you enjoy

What do you normally like to spend any free time doing? Spend some time in December doing this! If it’s going to gigs, get tickets for something. If you love knitting, spend an evening or two in by the fire. If it’s playing board games with friends, invite them round and have a night with some red wine and Settlers!

Don’t think that the run up to Christmas has to mean pausing normal life and doing exclusively festive activities. Do what normally brings you joy. Even if that is sitting in with a glass bottle of wine by yourself!

5 - Think about the true meaning of Christmas

For many Christmas is all about spending time with family and friends. Maybe it’s thinking about those less fortunate and donating to charity or volunteering with a charity. For others it’s all about the food and drink. For us, it’s about celebrating Jesus’ birth and remembering that first Christmas.

Once you’ve thought about what Christmas means to you, you’ll know where to spend your time and money. Don’t get stressed out if there are things you can do to reduce the stuff you have in the diary and in your mind.

And if you're a Christian, let's not lose sight of what this season is really about. Love came down at Christmas to us in the arrival of Jesus as a baby and because of what He has done for us, we are to be a light in this world. Think about how your attitude to Christmas, the things you prioritise and how you spend your time - may it be for God's glory.

So let’s not start the festive season feeling like we need to create the perfect advent or Christmas experience for our kids.

 

 

Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning's End

    

It’s day 31, I’ve actually written something every day this month! When I came up with my blog name I was thinking about how I longed for contentment in my home. A feeling that often wasn’t there at the end of each day. The joy in parenting and homemaking wasn’t there. I just felt so discouraged. I read blogs where life at home with children was presented as a series of quirky vintage tea cups on a perfectly clean kitchen island unit. Or a perfectly put together outfit for the school run. This is not my reality, and I don’t think it is for many of us. My life is chaotic, messy, fun, exhausting, relational, filled with more love than I ever thought possible but also more frustrating than I ever could have imagined.

I wanted to encourage women that there is contentment, happiness, joy to be found in being homemakers and mothers to young children. To encourage parents of children with special needs that our homes can be as full of joy as everyone else’s. (I’ll let you in on a secret, I actually think our lives are happier because of our special children, but that’s for another post!) To think about how as a Christian, God has called me to a new life in Him, that my identity is not in being a mother or a homemaker, but in a daughter of the Living God and that this brings the deepest joy.

This month I looked at various things that made my home happy over the month, from hobbies to people to activities we’ve done. I don’t know exactly where I’m going from here but I’m excited that I’ve finally taken the first move with my writing.

It does the heart good to focus on the positives. Our brains are malleable and by recalling things we’re grateful for each day we can rewire our brains to be happy. Our homes can be like this too. So let’s start by being thankful for the small everyday things like our children giggling, or time spent with our best friends who know exactly how we take our coffee. What can you be thankful for today?

My Parents

    

Quite honestly, I’m struggling. I’ve started writing entries for today (well, yesterday) on 4 different subjects. Having to write about things that make us happy as a home hasn’t actually been that easy. Some days were but many were clouded by the difficulties of day to day life. Our home is in chaos right now thanks to my inability to clear clutter. There are piles everywhere. I feel overwhelmed and a poor stay at home mum. I’m not great at any of the tasks that role tends to cover apart from cooking. Cleaning, playing with children, organising a household, clearing clutter, making appointments in a timely fashion. When I’ve had a bad day (I have plenty) it can be hard to reflect on any positives or things that made our home happy that day.

So today I’m writing about my parents. On Saturday evening we had a dinner to celebrate my mum’s ‘retirement’ (she finished work this summer at 57, so it’s not traditional retirement!). It made me think I should write about her and my dad because I had a very happy childhood and look back to those happy memories and hope that I can replicate some of that for my own family.

My mum won’t read this, so I can say the things she’d be too embarrassed to hear! Our house is happier because of the love and example my parents showed me, and also because of all that my mum and dad do for us. It’s not your traditional parental help. We’ve never done the ‘go round on Sunday for a roast’. Instead, my mum and dad have built understairs storage, hung wallpaper, done the architectural plans for our extension, cut our hedge, laid carpets, taken down sheds. Basically, if there’s a manual job needing done, my parents probably came to help us with it! My mum has a work ethic I couldn’t even come near. She rises early, does half an hour of intensive physiotherapy (she has severe scoliosis and was wheelchair bound six years ago), then starts into work. And for her now, finally, that work is at home. At the moment they’re doing a big building project at their house and living right in the middle of it as well as doing as much of the work they can themselves. Their energy and commitment to just keep going is incredible. I get so distracted when I try to work hard around the house and wish I could have my mum’s determination and my dad’s selfless attitude. And for just general life at home, I never remember my mum acting like she was bored at home with us - she to make every day fun and yet perfectly ordinary. And now as grandparents, my parents bring happiness to our home in that role and I only hope I can bring some of the qualities they have in parenthood through to me being a parent. 

That was the week that was....

    

This was the week that was…

…the week we had our first detailed meeting with Daniel’s teacher and we couldn’t be happier. The school are renowned for their inclusive approach and they have been fantastic at integrating Daniel into all the class activities while also ensuring he gets the support he needs for speech development, gross and fine motor skills and making friends and interacting with others in the class. I loved that the start of his draft plan for the year started off with a list of positive points about him, “Daniel is a delightful, engaging boy” was the first one. How wonderful to hear this about my precious boy!

…the week I did some planning for our Woods family holiday to Centre Parcs at Easter. I am very excited! My mother and father in law are treating us all to the holiday which is incredibly generous and I’ve enjoyed spending some time collating everyone’s responses to what activities they wanted to do. Called for some serious Excel spreadsheet usage! I miss using Excel every day. That is serious geek admission.

…the week our Homestart volunteer started. This is a wonderful service that supports families with young children who are struggling. It took me a long time to admit I needed help (Rory was 10 months before I finally asked for as assessment) but now a wonderful lady will be coming every Friday morning for two hours to play with Rory and allow me to get Daniel’s paperwork up to date, make phonecalls, chase hospital appointments, declutter, do some cleaning all while Daniel is at nursery. She is lovely and already Rory adores her, he was laughing away when I wasn’t in the room so it’s a great fit and I’m very excited about how I’m going to get our house running a little better!

…the week that my sister in law and her husband got a little Beagle puppy. He’s called Harvey and he is so darn cute! We had a dog for 5 years and I miss him so very much even now two years on, and I am excited to get to spend some time with Harvey, Rory loved him too!

…the week that Colin and I eventually got out for dinner to mark me leaving work last October! We used a voucher to go to a local restaurant that we love and had a lovely child free wine fueled early evening dinner while my brother looked after the boys and gave them their dinner at home. Fab!

Donkeys

   

I’ve never been much of an animal person. I certainly never got the horsey types. And donkeys are just their poor relative, aren’t they? I mean, cute to stop and feed at the roadside in Donegal, but not an animal I had much interest in.

Then, I had a son with special needs. Turns out there’s a whole charity just for rescued donkeys and providing donkey assisted therapy for children with additional needs. Even then, I wasn’t convinced but last summer Daniel was having real issues out and about with noise or places that were busy in particular. He would refuse to get out of the buggy or car and was really upset. I decided to start taking him to the summer drop in sessions they do and despite being quite scared when he first went on the donkey, by the time he finished Daniel was a foot taller. I saw confidence in these sessions that I’d never seen before and as the winter months went on, he used to ask to go from pretty much the day after he’d last been.

The sessions on Wednesday afternoons also allow siblings to ride and Rory has been riding since the start of the summer and also loves it. They do a wee curriculum with them both – Rory is learning colours at present and Daniel is learning about different concepts using donkeys as the central point so today was the concept of weather and seasons (sun and rain and where the donkeys stay when the weather is different and the difference between wet and dry). They use Makaton sign language and it’s great at bringing Daniel’s speech and learning along.

Therapy also involves groundwork like grooming the donkeys or making.their bed

Therapy also involves groundwork like grooming the donkeys or making.their bed

I’ve said a few times about how Daniel’s extra chromosome actually makes our life so much more interesting and it’s true. Fortnightly donkey assisted therapy. And it’s free (although we make donations to them, and here’s a link to their website if you’re interested https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/visit-us/belfast ). Our lives really are enriched by this therapy and it’s a real highlight of our lives. 

A Special Guest Contributor!

  

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
— Abraham Lincoln

So tonight, with no little fanfare, I am pleased and somewhat nervously welcoming a guest post from my husband, Colin. I have literally no idea what he has written about and he's posting this himself so it's with faith that i hand over my lovely blog for the evening! (The quote is his too; *rolls eyes*)


As you might have gathered from the many entries in this blog, there are a million different things that make our home happy. There is however a consistent theme running through them; two themes really but they’re not entirely independent of each other!

The first theme is…… Nicola!

As you can tell from her writing, my wife is a thinker. She spends a lot of time and effort thinking about what is good for our family and our home. She reads countless books, articles, blogs and more. She reads about God’s plans for a family, about homemaking and housekeeping, about educating children with special needs, about disciplining children in a gentle and loving way… the list is practically never ending.

When we were going out (‘dating’ for our American visitors!) she used to tease me about how much harder I had studied than her just to get up with same classification of degree. (She actually revisited that theme only yesterday! Have to let her get her victories where she can nowadays!). Now that we’ve been married over eight years though the shoe is now very definitely on the other foot. I have developed an intellectual shortcut over the years – I’ve learned from extensive experience that if Nicola has read up on a topic that she cares about, that not only will her views be well formed but they’ll also be persuasive and compelling. She really does take time to know what’s she’s talking about and what she thinks that means. All of this means that there is often no need for me to do anything like the same amount of research on a given topic. I have confidence in the opinions and ideas that she forms as I’ve seen how time and time again, they’ve been proved sound by time and events.

 

Cloth Nappies – an evidence based, well thought out decision that I am glad to have been persuaded of!

Cloth Nappies – an evidence based, well thought out decision that I am glad to have been persuaded of!

 

Of course, no-one is free from mistakes – I’m sure she has it in her to get it wrong from time to time. But it’s not common!

You can see from a quick browse through the pages of this blog all the different ways that this body of thought has been applied in our lives. All these little things that make our home happy come from the same source – Nicola. Me and the lads are just here for the ride!

 

The second theme is….selflessness.

It’s easy in the midst of the chaos of every day life to find yourself getting caught up in what is best for me, and losing focus on the people and things around you. Whether that’s not wanting to be the one who has to get up at stupid o’clock AM when our youngest son decides that the day really ought to be getting started now, or the one to go back to the dinner table once the boys are in bed and begin the painstaking process of cleaning, wiping, brushing and otherwise removing the residue of another chaotic mealtime!

At this time in our family life, I go out to work, while Nicola stays at home and raises our children. Believe me when I say that although there are many days when I’d like to be the one to stay home and take them to one of the many inspiring and engaging activities Nicola has planned, there are equally plenty of days when I burst free from the house and run for the shelter and relative calm of my office; hot coffee on tap, adult conversation and intellectual stimulation.

 

A good day to be in the office!

A good day to be in the office!

We’ve been parents for just over four years now and now, more than ever, it needs selflessness to keep things running smoothly. I’ve suffered from ill health for years now and when I’m going through a period where I’m particularly unwell, my ability to contribute plummets. At times like that, and day to day, Nicola has demonstrated an unending capacity for selflessness. I find that both inspiring and a little intimidating. It’s not easy to stay on message all the time. But having said that, I know from experience that the days in which my selfish desires for rest or my own entertainment creep to the fore, are the days when home life does not function as well, and is not as happy, as it could be. A happy home is one where the load is shared, where each person feels valued and appreciated and where people do their best to put the needs of the others before their own.

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness

   

Every day I mess up. I am selfish and look out for my own interests. I stub my toe on another toy and say a word I probably shouldn’t in front of my children. I am running late for the school run (my own fault) and hurry the boys along with a short fuse. I waste time looking on my phone at nothing and then say I have no time to clean. These are flaws I know of and work hard to try and improve on. I’ll have a few days in a row where there’s no swearing, or a week of smooth school runs, but life always returns back to the imperfections that come from being sinful and selfish. But you know what? Our family thrives on kindness in spite of the flaws. If Colin followed each of my mistakes up with a berating I’d be devastated, and not just because my love language is words of affirmation. There is a place for rebuking of a sinful heart or correction if the person is unaware of the impact something is having on others around them but for day to day flaws I’m only too aware of, I don’t need more criticism. There’s already plenty going on inside my own head. And yet, much as I value this kindness from Colin, am I as quick to be kind back? How about with the boys? With friends and family, particularly when they’re not there?

Kindness, warmth and affection towards those we love is so important and yet often they’re the people that get our cruel comments and apathy. We wouldn’t meet up with a good friend and slate them or act disinterested in what they’ve been up to, yet all too often this is the way people treat those they live with.

This article explains the importance of kindness in marriage.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/

I was so struck by the part on responding with overt hostility when your partner wants to share an interest of theirs. I know there are times I’m reading or writing and Colin keeps talking about a tackle that’s just happened in the rugby, or a decision the ref made he disagreed with and I can respond like that with a sigh or disinterested comment. How important it is to be kind to each other. It makes us happier with ourselves. It makes our homes happy. It gives our children such a positive start in life and sets them up for being kind in their relationships outside of our immediate family too.

Let’s start with those closest to us. 

Bathtime...ish!

   

 

Bathtime is not a frequent occurrence in our home, except when I’m pregnant (I was known to bath 3 times some days when pregnant with Rory, it was the only time I felt vaguely comfortable!) but finally today we had a pleasant and uneventful bathtime. Daniel has only let Colin bath him for years, any attempts I’ve made have resulted in either no bath or a kicking and screaming match and certainly no hair washing. Rory loves a bath but it’s hard to find a time to give him one when Daniel isn’t around so it just ends up being a rare event.

But back to today and something that makes our home happy. Bathtime was a happy occurrence. (mostly)

And then I realise this wasn’t just about having a pleasant bathtime for the first time. It’s the fact that it showed me that Daniel struggling with something doesn’t have to be a lifelong concern for us. He’s currently on thickened liquids for his dysphagia, but this might not be for life. His speech sounds have been very basic, but recently there are some very clear sounds.

And then I start to understand it’s not just Daniel that shouldn’t be put in a box when he can and does change with time. I realise I can too. So tonight I go to bed happy that I may be able to change. I can get better at running at household, it will just take time. I will get the house decluttered. Just because these are struggled for me today doesn’t mean they always will be. And so it is for all of us.

Plus there’s the added bonus that a smooth bathtime makes for cute photos…

 

Bullet Journaling

   

Bullet journaling may just have saved me. Big moment here as I admit to something I don’t talk about. I have attention deficit issues. I suppose everyone knows it as ADHD. I try so hard to just survive as an adult, and often feel like I cannot keep on top of anything. When I was working, it took all my effort to make that my focus. When I had just one child I could focus on that, but having two children with different needs to look after all day took so much of my brain power to keep on top of that the housework suffered. Daniel’s therapy schedule suffered. My brain was packed full of stuff and honestly I felt, still do feel, like I was failing as an adult. If Colin wasn’t here I’d be bankrupt from disorganisation. A diary was never enough for me to keep on top of to-do lists and our schedule, particularly when Daniel arrived as he had therapy and medical appointments so I used big desk weekly planners that you can buy in Paperchase to write down what was on and my to-do lists, and had a monthly meal planner that I wrote out by hand at the start of each month.

Neither of those systems were particularly portable though so when I read around the new year about bullet journaling I decided it was worth a go. It has been so much more than just a journal/planner, it genuinely makes me functional and therefore happy.

For those of you who don’t know what it is, the initial bullet journal plan is having a clear analogue system (ie an actual notebook) that you customise for yourself, so it includes a future log (a long term planner for dates in the medium length future, like a concert you’ve tickets for), diary, to-do lists, noting eventful things that happened, anything you want, using a set key, numbered pages and an index. However, there are some hilariously over the top bullet journals out there. If you look on Instagram and Pinterest you’d think some people were full time bullet journalers their beautiful pages must take them so long to create.

A screenshot from the bullet journal website explaining how the key works. You might notice the ADHD right there with my web browsing and how many tabs there are! I normally have about 25-30 tabs open on my phone, and on each web browser on the laptop too!

A screenshot from the bullet journal website explaining how the key works. You might notice the ADHD right there with my web browsing and how many tabs there are! I normally have about 25-30 tabs open on my phone, and on each web browser on the laptop too!

To be honest though, for me I need a visual weekly planner like my old Paperchase ones, so I draw them out each week (takes about 5-10 minutes to set up) and some weeks the week gets away from me and I don’t do dailies, other weeks I do a mixture. I have seasonal to-do lists, a page outlining Daniel’s settling in hours at nursery, did a planner page for my mother-in-law’s 60th which I organised, had a two page spread of things I wanted to watch at the Olympics, just a big variety. I often have weeks when nothing gets added to the weekly layout over and above the dates I had sorted at the start of the week, and a few ‘memories’ pages have two or three things written on them and that’s it! Still, it’s not meant to be perfect and it is working at keeping me on top of things. Mostly.

This week's layout

This week's layout

Personally the intricate layouts that entire blogs are built upon now aren’t really the point of the system so while they’re nice to look at, that’s just too much work and I know I would spend all my time creating fancy pages and not doing any of the tasks I was writing about!

Daily Entries

Daily Entries

So for most of this year I’ve finally felt like I’m treading water not drowning thanks to my bullet journal. Plus, it’s an actual miracle it’s not been flooded by water or coffee yet! My hope is that I will be able to get Rory minded a few hours a week and I can get some decluttering and cleaning done and hopefully by the time I’m 33 I’ll finally be a functioning adult. 

Music

    

Music is one of those things that almost everyone gets enjoyment from. It’s been proven to have positive effects in increasing IQ, aiding heart disease and improving mood. So how can we use it in our homes to make them happier places? For me, it’s about having music playing regularly, although not all the time – our brains need quiet to think. Both live music, making it ourselves and listening to music made by others. We have a Spotify (music streaming service) subscription and have various playlists that we use to set the atmosphere in our home. I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of them and what’s on them:

-          Have a Great Day! Songs like You Make My Dreams Come True, Walking on Sunshine, Don’t Stop Me Now – classic popular songs from over the years. We play it in the mornings to start the day off on a bright note, and I love the fact the kids are getting to know songs from other decades that we grew up with. Nothing sophisticated I know, but good old fashioned pop songs that make you happy!

-          Dancing With Daniel: a playlist of songs since Daniel got up on his feet that we noticed he particularly loved dancing to. I am slightly embarrassed to admit some of the hits on here like All About That Bass, Moves Like Jagger and Get Lucky are some of the favourites. I love that he can ask for his own music to be played (and the fact it’s not nursery rhymes on tape!)

-          Operation Sleep: the playlist we used with Daniel when trying to get him over to sleep and that we still use some evenings in the ten minutes before bed. I used to be able to judge a bad night by which song we got to before Daniel fell asleep! It’s some lovely piano music.

-          Folk Off You Folking Folker: guess who named this playlist? And yes, it’s folk music! Upbeat stuff for car journeys or Saturday afternoons while cooking.

-          Piano: a collection of some beautiful piano pieces, composers like Einaudi, Beethoven, Bach, which I like to listen to if I’m working (as background noise)

Then there are days that I put a worship CD on while the boys are playing and we sing and dance to it or just use it as background music (but those words settling in deep to their hearts).

There is something special about real live music making in your home though. As I play the piano, the boys are fans of coming to the music room with me and Rory will sit and play to my left and Daniel to my right while I try and practice in the middle! Colin has a harmonica which doesn’t get played nearly enough. And then there was the term I tried to take up cello which had been a lifetime dream, then discovered I was pregnant with Daniel so may have that as a hobby when the children are learning how to play instruments themselves, I could sit at the back of their class cramping their style!

My boys' own pieces that I play with them

My boys' own pieces that I play with them

Great music can make a fairly normal day turn into a happier one and all helps create a special atmosphere in the home. Do you have any funny playlists on your phone or Spotify?