on getting dressed and keeping our sanity.

One of my dear friends recently removed half her daughter’s wardrobe from the closet.

“She won’t wear any of it!” she tells me in my kitchen on a Thursday afternoon, exasperated.

“She only wants to wear Elsa leggings and cat shirts. If I try to get her to wear something else, she throws a tantrum and refuses to get dressed.”

I try not to laugh, but I cannot help myself. My (stylish) friend is 35 weeks pregnant and clearly losing this battle with her strong-willed daughter. I don’t blame her for giving up. You have to choose your battles carefully when you’re that pregnant.

“I’ve got a whole box of practically brand-new clothes sitting in the garage now,” she sighs with an eye-roll.

I make her promise to give it to me if we ever have a girl.

My boys, while not fixated on Elsa leggings or cat t-shirts, are also surprisingly opinionated about their wardrobes. Everett started caring about his clothes around age three, and Carson (adorably and annoyingly) copies everything he does.

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At first, I thought I could just buy them the types of clothes that I wanted them to wear, but then grandparents showed up with Paw Patrol t-shirts and what kind of mom throws out Paw-Patrol t-shirts?

(this mom.)
(just kidding, I’m not heartless, I simply hid them at the bottom of the drawer.)

I know that dressing oneself is an essential life skill that requires practice. I try to embrace this idea when Everett wants to wear a dinosaur pajama shirt with corduroys and light-up shoes, instead of the skinny jeans and striped polo combo I picked out for him. But there is a time and a place for letting kids dress themselves.

And there is also a time and a place for … helping them.

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So here’s a trick we use in our house: I curate; they choose.

On preschool picture day and birthday party days and certainly on church days, I present two options per kid and let them point their tiny finger to the outfit of their choice.

It’s a win-win.

They feel empowered and independent; I feel happy and not embarrassed to be seen with them in public.

(just kidding, I’m never embarrassed to be seen with my kids in public!*)
(*only when they’re misbehaving.)

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My current “we’re-going-to-be-seen-in-public” outfit of choice arrived compliments of Janie and Jack – linen-blend shorts and a button-down shirt for Ev; white pocket tee and suspender shorts for Carson. I mean, look at them. They might be rocking mismatched pajamas and socks behind closed doors, but when they try, they clean up well.

(lollipop bribes help.)

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Here’s to our sweet, adorable, opinionated kids. May we occasionally leave the house looking better than boxcar children.

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This post is sponsored by Janie and Jack, a company we love.

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keeping her valentine.

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I ask the same questions every time.

“How was your day, sweetheart?”
“What did you learn about?”
“Who did you play with?”
“What did you have for snack?”

The ride home from preschool is only four minutes long, so we stick to the basics. His answers are usually the same: his day was good, he forgot what he learned, he played with Benjamin and Isaac, he had apple slices and popcorn for a snack. Occasionally he mentions something specific — a game they played, a song they sang, a worm spotted in the dirt. But generally speaking, his answers are as predictable as the questions I ask.

That is, until he mentioned Caroline.

My eyebrows went up as I glanced at him in the rear view mirror. Who’s Caroline? Benjamin and Isaac are 2/3 of the boy posse that Everett’s been a part of for two years. He’s never uttered a word about playing with anyone but them … let alone a girl.

But there it was, a new answer to the old question.

“I played with Caroline today. She is sooooooooo funny, mommy.”

I was intrigued, but upon further investigation, didn’t learn much. They played in the sandbox; no big deal. We moved on to the topic of snacks (he opted not to eat carrots that day).

Little did I know, Caroline would become a household name in the following weeks. Caroline this, Caroline that. His face lit up like a Christmas tree when he talked about her, a crush if I’ve ever seen one. But is it too soon? He’s only four.

My suspicions were confirmed the day before the Valentine’s Day preschool party, when Everett seemed especially concerned with which valentine Caroline would receive. We sat around the coffee table together Sunday afternoon. I cut printable dinosaur valentines, while he carefully wrote “Ev” on each one.

“Mommy, I want to give Caroline the purple one, because Caroline loves purple,” he told me. I nodded and handed him a purple valentine. He smiled while writing “Ev” along the bottom.

“Mommy, do you think I can put a special sticker on Caroline’s?”

Oh my. 

“Sure, babe … what kind of sticker?”

“A flower sticker, because Caroline loves flowers.”

This was the extent of my knowledge of Caroline: she liked purple, she liked flowers, she had a good sense of humor. Well, and my son was smitten with her.

We finished the rest of the valentines, attaching red suckers to the back of each one with decorative tape. I got up from the table to get ready for a yoga class, but not before Everett grabbed Caroline’s valentine and told me he “just wanted to hold it” for a little while.

The next morning, in our typical rush to get out the door, I was zipping up my jeans with a toothbrush in my mouth when Everett asked if he could wear hair gel. Everett never asks to wear hair gel.

“Why do you want hair gel today, Ev?” I asked.

“Because I want to look handsome for Caroline,” he said with a bashful grin.

What’s a mother to do? I obliged.

We arrived at preschool a few minutes late, and I walked in with him to help put the valentines in the kids’ bags. Carson made himself at home near the train table while I walked from bag to bag with Everett, reading the name of each student to him.

“This one is Benjamin’s … this one is Jake’s.”

Everett reached into his bag of valentines and made thoughtful choices. He told me which kids would like a T-Rex best or which kids preferred blue.

And then we got to Caroline’s bag. I fished out the special valentine with the flower sticker and Everett held it carefully in his hands for 10 whole seconds with a dopey smile on his face before dropping it in her bag in slow motion.

When the last valentine had been delivered, Everett whispered to me, “I’m going to go find Caroline!”

I carried Carson out to the parking lot on my hip, but not before noticing Everett standing next to the playhouse with a little girl in pigtails. She was wearing a navy blue shirt with a pink heart. Aha. I tried to gage the situation. Everett clearly adored her, but did she adore him back? Was the feeling mutual? Did she talk about Everett to her parents, too? My heart ached at the possibility of a one-sided crush.

When I returned around 11:25 for the valentine party, the kids had just finished their cookies and milk. Everett waved at me before pointing to Caroline on the swings and running to join her. I watched them swing in unison, rays of sunshine beaming off the tops of their dirty blond heads.

I snapped a picture for his preschool yearbook.

She hopped off eventually, and so did he. They parted ways for a few minutes; Everett joined a friend on the seesaw and she sat down at a picnic table with another kid. At 11:50, Mrs. Brown rang the bell, signaling that it was time to come back inside to gather backpacks. Everett leapt off the seesaw and sprinted to the picnic table. I watched in amusement as he waited for Caroline to get down so they could walk inside together.

When we got home, Everett couldn’t wait to dump out his valentine bag. He turned it upside down and let all the valentines fall to the floor as Carson let out an excited, “Wooooooow!”

Together we sifted through tiny cards, candy, crayons, and small bags of goldfish crackers. I knew what we were all looking for, even before he asked.

“Mommy, which valentine is from Caroline?”

In a sea of Paw Patrol and Minions store-bought valentines, hers stood out among the rest. A simple pink heart, with a red heart glued in the middle.

Happy Valentine’s Day! From: Caroline

Simple. Handmade. No candy attached. Well played. I handed it to Everett and watched his face light up. I couldn’t help but wonder again: is Caroline looking for Everett’s valentine right now? Did she notice the sticker? 

He carried that valentine around for the rest of the day, stopping to stare at it any chance he got. When all the candy had been eaten, I threw away the bag full of valentines, but not before placing the pink heart in Everett’s memory box.

He has a lifetime of falling in love ahead of him, and I know he won’t always confide in me. Keeping her valentine is just as much for me as it is for him: to remember this first crush, when he was only four and asked for hair gel and wasn’t embarrassed to tell his mom all about a girl.

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***

p.s. The following week, Everett’s preschool teacher sent me this:

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I guess the feeling is mutual.

(I should probably meet her parents soon.)

***

This post was inspired by a writing prompt from The Year Of Creativity. Want to join us? Use ASHLEE15 to save 15% off here. Every month comes with a lesson prepared by a C+C writer, writing prompts, creative exercises, and more!  

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on writing terribly, bathhouses, and a blogging crisis.

Wendy Laurel Photography-20I recently used a couple babysitting hours to visit a bathhouse.

If you don’t know what a bathhouse is, don’t worry, I didn’t either until I showed up. Asha Urban Baths is new in town, and when I saw their name pop up on Facebook a few times, I took it as a sign. Last week I booked a babysitter, threw my swimsuit and coverup in a backpack next to a half-empty spiral notebook, and off I went.

I was the only person there for 90 glorious minutes. The check-in girl commented on this fact, twice.

You’re so lucky, she said.

I nodded silently, not sure if I should feel guilty about this or go buy a lottery ticket.

It felt like I was playing hooky from school, skipping out on my children and my inbox to sit in a gigantic tub of warm water all by myself. With my legs curled up under me on the step, I opened my journal and wrote “New Years Reflection” across the top, followed by a single mantra for 2017: work smarter, not harder.

I set my intentions for the year (slow down, remember to play, create for the joy of creating to name a few), and then I set some actual goals in three categories:

Take care of my body.
Take care of my mind.
Take care of my soul.

Under “take care of my mind” I wrote five things:

Writing night once a week.
Read 17 books in 2017.
Attend one creative conference this year.
More “think” days.
Blog again. 

Blog. Again. Full recognition, on paper, that blogging is no longer a thing that I do.

I (somewhat unintentionally) stepped back from this space in 2016 to focus on growing Coffee + Crumbs, to work on the book, to save my marriage (that’s a joke, or is it?), to see my friends, and to occasionally breathe into a paper bag away from my laptop.

I came back a few times when I had words swirling in my head and needed to put them somewhere. Like here and here and here. And it felt good to get those stories out. Familiar. Like when you visit your Grandma’s house in the woods and it always smells the same and she has chocolate fudge waiting for you on the counter.

But it also felt a little awkward, a bit out of place, like when you slip on a dress you haven’t worn in three years and look at yourself in the mirror. Does this still fit me? Is this even in style anymore? Am I pulling this off? 

By the end of 2016, I was convinced of two opposite conclusions:

1) I need to stop blogging altogether. Make a formal announcement. RIP where my heart resides; you’ve had a good run.

and

2) I need to start blogging again. I miss it. I miss writing here. I miss writing, period.

This drummed up a lot of (first-world problem) confusion.

Where do I go from here?
Do people even read blogs anymore?
(Don’t answer that.)

***

I remember last January making the resolve to cut back on my blogging with an internal pledge: only write when you have something to say.

And for 2016, I think I needed that, to be honest. There were a lot of business dealings in 2016: contracts, agreements, e-mails, new accounts, forms, statements, and on and on and on and on and on. 2016 was the year of the left brain; the year of We Need To Figure Out How To Make Money Or Bust.

But 2017? I want to do things a little differently this year.

I don’t know if people still read blogs. I don’t know if people still read this blog. But I do know that once upon a time, this was my writing home, and I felt comfortable and safe here. I could be honest. I could be silly if I wanted to be. I could write and hit “publish” and go about my day without thinking about it too much. Even more importantly: I felt accountable here. Whether lots of people were reading or hardly anyone was reading, I felt a responsibility to show up. I had a routine. I was disciplined. My attendance record was solid. In the span of blogging from 2009-2016 I even stopped calling myself a blogger and began calling myself a writer.

Come to think of it: that self-professed title change might be one of the greatest values this blog has ever culminated.

And I guess what I’m trying to say is …

I miss it here. I can’t pinpoint when this happened, but somewhere along the line in 2016, I got so bogged down in logistics and spreadsheets and e-mails, that I started to believe I had nothing worthwhile to say. Every time I sat down to write outside of a deadline or specific commitment, I was empty. Every time I sat down to write for me, to write for fun, to write for you, there were no words. Just fear and insecurity (can I call them Satan?) whispering in my ear: do you need to say that? You’re adding to the noise; the world doesn’t want or need your story right now.  

Taking a break from writing is a slippery slope for me. I can only equate this to peanut butter cups. I’m talking about the dark chocolate ones from Trader Joe’s, you know the kind that come in a tub? You pluck one out carefully. Just one. And then one turns into two and two turns into three, and six wrappers later, you feel both shame and satisfaction.

It’s easy for me to skip writing for a day. Eh, I feel uninspired. I’ll write tomorrow. And then tomorrow rolls around and there’s a new episode of This Is Us on Hulu and that for sure sounds like a better naptime plan than writing. I’ll write tomorrow! But tomorrow comes and I can’t think of a good opening line for that essay floating around in my head so I give up on it altogether because the act of starting feels too damn hard. And then one day turns into one week and one week turns into one month and pretty soon I can’t even remember how to write anything anymore because I cannot bear the thought of sitting down and writing something terrible.

I don’t know what happened to me.

This isn’t me.

This isn’t my best creative self, which is terrifying to admit the year I am co-leading an entire course on creativity.

I wasn’t going to complete the course myself because isn’t that backwards for the teacher to become the student? But I went through the January lesson tonight and one of the assignments was to sit down and write two pages without thinking.

So here I am.

These are my two pages of not thinking. And I suppose now that I’m done I can shut my laptop, close my eyes, and dream the night away even though I may have written something terrible.

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the things she can do in a year.

“I think we should just get bunk beds now,” my husband says nonchalantly on a Wednesday evening. I am throwing toy cars into their allotted basket, a futile effort that will surely be undone within the hour.

“But what if Carson stops sleeping?!” I whine back.

A non-napping toddler has zero effect on my sweet husband Monday-Friday. I, on the other hand, often plan my entire days around the glorious hours of 1-3pm when everyone retreats to their respective quiet places. Carson naps in his crib, in his room. Everett plays quietly on the floor, in his room. I work/read/watch TV/scarf down a turkey sandwich with a side of apple slices and chocolate chip cookies, in my bed, in my room.

We have a whole system, and the system is not broken.

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“He’ll sleep fine. They’ll love it. Plus, we can turn the extra bedroom into a home office,” he says.

The idea of a home office is alluring to me (I currently work from my bed + the dining room table), but also seems highly unpractical. We want a third baby, eventually, and I argue that it would be silly to turn a nursery into an office and then back into a nursery again.

“One year is nothing, what’s the point?” I scoff.

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It’s January (how?), and I am starting to feel that nagging need to self-reflect on the past year. I blame Instagram. Every time I open the app, I am flooded with a slew of photos featuring year-end recaps and fresh goals and all of the chosen one little words for 2017. I create my own collage and reluctantly hop on the bandwagon.

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And it is only then, thinking back on 2016 as a whole, for better and for worse, that I realize how long a year actually is. For it was only in one year’s time that, by God’s good grace, I was able to do the following:

-Co-launch & co-host the Coffee + Crumbs podcast 

-Get paid $1,000 (!) to write an article for Women’s Day Magazine

-Sign a book contract (!)

-Write/edit/take photos for/help design an entire book, alongside my C+C team

Travel to Guatemala; launch the Mother-to-Mother Care Collective

-Co-lead two online writing courses (1, 2)

-Hire two new writers

-Launch a Patreon account

-Launch a monthly newsletter

Co-design a calendar

and last but certainly not least,

-Launch The Year of Creativity.

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I am … (to put it mildly) exhausted. What a crazy, busy, wild, creatively-fulfilling year 2016 was. I stand at the start of 2017 with a cup of warm coffee in my hands, a brand new office to call my own, and this simple realization:

One year in the greater span of your life may be nothing, but when it comes to dreaming and hoping and growing and walking through the doors God has graciously opened just for you, one year can sometimes be everything. 

For me, 2016 was the year of everything.

I am tired.
I am grateful.
I am proud.
I am slightly terrified of what comes next.

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Here’s to 2017 – to a fresh start, a new space, this book (!), and opportunities yet to be discovered. Thank you, as always, for supporting me, for supporting us, and for making much of this work possible.

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p.s. If you want to spend 2017 creating alongside me, please consider this your personal invitation. The Year of Creativity is open and ready for you; use ASHLEE15 to save 15% off the yearly price. We’re already making lots of beautiful things. Join us?

p.s.s. I was totally right about the bunk beds, which is why Carson is now napping in a pack-n-play. Worth it, though. I really really really love my new office.

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on fear, criticism, scraps, and feasts.

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I have recently become obsessed with reading Amazon book reviews.

It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.

In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.

I have never been so terrified.

My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.

I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.

And yet.

The Internet still scares the crap out of me.

A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as “a waste of time” and “a huge disappointment.”

The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.

I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.

I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.

And that was the most disturbing part about it.

We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.

The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.

One says, “Your posts are too depressing.”
Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.”
One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.”
Another says, “You’ve become too precious.”
One says, “You talk about God too much.”
Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”

I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)

My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:

“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part.”

Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.

“Look what I made today, momma!”

He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.

“I made it for you!” he said proudly.

I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.

How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?

I suppose it is no different than motherhood.

I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.

He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.

I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.

It’s still tempting, though.

We’re so cozy here.

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.

So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it’s getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s not enough.

And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”

You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.

How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?

This isn’t good enough, God.
This won’t work, God.

Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.

It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.

This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.

This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.

I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.

I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.

I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I’m praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”

Because we did. We made this for you.

Onward and upward.

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