Creating an intentional family culture.

SPring2018-1I am not prone to waxing poetic about the newborn stage, as I would unequivocally take these wild toddler days over that unpredictable and bleary-eyed period of months where I felt like all I did was nurse and will sleep to happen. But one thing that is nice about the first months/ almost year of parenting is that every day is a clean slate. So you failed at everything – your baby has no memory of it. So you lost your cool and cry-yelled while your infant wailed and ate nothing but ice-cream straight from the freezer and didn’t put on clean clothes- they have no clue what is happening. You can get everything wrong almost every day for a very long period of time and your child has absolutely no clue that they are in the presence of a total failure.

But eventually, that ends. This past fall I became increasingly aware that Henry was mimicking my actions, anticipating repetition, awaiting routine. I realized, with a mixture of delight and horror, that everything in our home and our lives was seeping into his sponge-like brain and defining how he understood not just our family, but our world. And with that realization came a second one, even more terrifying: we were still winging it.

I like to think that family culture just happens, that the lessons and values inculcated in children stem from a cheery outflow of their parents’ balanced and ordered lives. I like to imagine that my children will glean all I want to teach them by osmosis and observation with a dash of rational reasoning – that they will hear me yell angrily at the driver who cut me off and internalize “mother prioritizes quality motor skills,” instead of “MOM IS LOSING IT!” But that isn’t how it works. What I awoke to last fall was the terrifying task of parenting, not in the sense of keeping Henry alive and fed, but the whole task of building a family culture that inspires the right values and habits, and admonishes the wrong. This, for the majority of people, doesn’t just “happen.”

And so, James and I started having conversations about the family culture we want to intentionally craft. We talked first about some of the disciplines we wanted our children to have learned by the time they leave our house, and then worked backwards to what habits need to happen now for that to happen. For example, I hope our kids choose to invest in meaningful church community once they are no longer dragged to services every week with us. That means establishing Sabbath rituals now, and talking about them as a gift and joy, not a task. It means making attendance an absolute priority and modeling involvement.

We talked about concrete goals that would stem from a larger family culture  that communicates the value of people, both to our own family and to God. A family culture centered around time with each other, time spent investing in our faith, and time spent extending hospitality. I want our family culture to nurture creativity, independence, health, and adventure (helloooooo- playing outside in any weather!). That is the lofty bit, and it sure sounds pretty. But in reality, it has meant a lot of hard conversations about what this actually looks like, and how to get there. Imagining the family culture you want to intentionally cultivate involves a lot of careful thought, but implementing it is the bigger issue. I find there are two major obstacles.

First of all, we all live less-than-ideal lives. We imagine that our families would communicate our values if only our lives were more conducive to that. We could be patient if only our kids slept better, and they would sleep better if only we had more space and everything was quiet, and we would have more space if only we made more money, and we could make more money if only we lived in a cheaper city, and we would move if only the perfect career existed elsewhere… and so in, indefinitely. We imagine that we will start building intentional family culture once we have finished school, switched jobs, saved more money, moved, gotten past a big work deadline, made better friends… and that list goes on too, indefinitely.

But the truth is that I look at Henry and I realize that he is absorbing everything now. You can either create an intentional culture, or let life create it for you while you wait for things to change, but you can’t push pause on children soaking up the environments we place them in.

And the fact of the matter is that it is easy for me to imagine the things that block the family culture I want. I, like many people, have internalized the idea that family culture happens around the dinner table, and everyone being able to say good night to each other after hours where all phones were cast far from our sight, and lots of quality time having cookouts on summer evenings. This is not a reality in our lives. James works a job that demands really late hours. We do not eat dinner as a family most nights of the week. I do a lot of solo parenting on weekdays, and the concept of banning all phones from our hands while our kids are around is simply not currently possible for his work especially.  We don’t have a yard to fill with friends on summer evenings. We are not unique in this city, as many of our friends share similar work schedules and difficulties. The first step of establishing our intentional family culture meant looking at what we can’t change, and finding a way to carve out space all the same. It meant, for instance, that we have made breakfast the family meal- even if James doesn’t actually like to eat breakfast and sometimes it is cups of coffee over Cheerio’s. I don’t hold breakfast to the same standard as dinner, and we eat simple food with no fuss- but we are there, all three of us, starting our day together with prayer and scripture and a moment to remind us of what our family values.

The second enemy to intentional family culture is simply letting our lives become consumed by other stuff. Once you reconcile the reality of your family logistics with the culture you want, you have to look at the more pernicious obstacle of daily frustrations and stress. Because the truth is that while we would probably all love to fill our days with intentional efforts in regards to raising our children – we’re tired and there are mountains of laundry and dishes and messes and tantrums and groceries and work and  those things become the focus of our days because they are the focus of our energy.

Simply put, our family cannot uphold and teach what I want it to if our life is governed by stress, exhaustion, irritation, and anxiety — all of which are qualities that dominate more of our lives than we want to admit.

Over the past couple months, James and I have been having lots of conversations about how to proactively protect and promote our family culture, and a lot of them have actually been about really mundane household things and parenting practices that make our lives feel less out of control and more rooted in the values we want to teach. The daily success of intentional family culture is found in developing a laundry system, in scheduling grocery delivery, in figuring out a simple meal planning routine, in having set routines to when we clean and sleep and play. Yes, it is also found in bigger decisions, like some things we have decided about my career goals to make our family function the way we want. But I think we often let those big gestures obscure the million ways every day that we make decisions that either help or hurt our ability to have our families look the way we wish they could.

And so, I wanted to devote some posts to the unexciting and undramatic pillars of daily life that allow us to have the intentional family culture we want. Things like everyday life hacks, meal planning methods, picking your parenting hill to die on, and maybe even the much-debated topic of sleep training. My blogging as of late has not exactly been consistent, but these are things I’ve been mulling over lately and want to sort out. Obviously, this is a highly personal subject in the sense that every family can and should make different decisions about what makes them achieve their intentional family culture. But hopefully in the process of sharing really unlofty things that are working to make our lives easier in support of how we want our family to function, they shed a little light for you too.


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A morning at the Wharf.

This week it feels like we are back in the throes of winter, but on Saturday, for one glorious day, it became summer so quickly that the oppressive DC humidity and mosquitoes didn’t have time to catch up and so we got the best of summer with the residual blessings of winter.

It is no secret how much I love this city in the summer, even with its swamp-like nature. We spent much of last summer living at Navy Yard, and I can’t wait to get back to the splash pad, though I know an infant will make summer outings a little more complicated. A new waterfront area opened up a couple months ago called District Wharf, but I hadn’t made it down yet. A perk of young children is that you can beat most brunch crowds by making it out around tiny person schedules, so we headed down early with my brother and sister-in-law to wander the Wharf, soak in the sun, and eat all the tasty treats.

Here are some pictures from our summer morning in the middle of April… just a glimpse of what is to come in a couple months and I couldn’t be more excited.SPring2018-2Of course, since it has been not at all spring-like, I hadn’t even thought about getting summer clothes for Henry. When the temperature was supposed to be in the 80’s, I dug around and finally found one pair of still way-too-big overall shorts, which meant that Henry looked like an adorable cartoon character from the 80’s going to summer camp and I LOVE IT.SPring2018-4Guys. THE WHARF. Splash pad! Shady area with aesthetic rocking horse things! Pier with giant swings! Boats! Airplanes constantly flying overhead! Free ferry over to Haines Point! Allllll the tasty treats! SPring2018-5SPring2018-8Ok, also a total absence of barriers to stop your toddler from diving into the water, which makes things exciting.SPring2018-9This kid is ridiculously lucky in the aunt and uncle department.SPring2018-12SPring2018-14SPring2018-15When you think you are taking a dreamy family photo but actually it looks like you’re eating your hair and you kept the lens cap in your pocket. Oops. SPring2018-17Also, James could give a tutorial on never changing your facial expressions during photos. It’s scarily impressive.SPring2018-18SPring2018-19SPring2018-20Maybe because the Wharf has been under construction the whole time we have lived here, or maybe because we are both from landlocked states, and thus very timid about seafood, but we had never been down to the fish market that predates the Wharf renovations. I always see it when we drive over the 395 bridge, but had never ventured down. So fun! Henry kept asking to “Hold fish! Pet it!!”SPring2018-21Ruth insists that these were some of the best oysters she had ever eaten…SPring2018-22…while Henry and James remain skeptical.SPring2018-23SPring2018-24That kid and his cheeks. I want to EAT HIS FACE.SPring2018-25After checking out all the options, we impulsively got brunch at Dolcezza after seeing two girls carrying out tater-tots. It did not disappoint. Because frankly, Henry’s face is how we all secretly feel when faced with tater tots:SPring2018-27SPring2018-28New favorite picture of my boys? Absolutely. SPring2018-29We went back outside after Henry woke up from his long post-Wharf nap. We stayed out past bedtime, playing in parks and talking with friends, and Henry had skinned knees and smelled like sunscreen. The whole day was so good for my soul and had all the things I love about life right now. Looking forward to more days like this in the months to come!

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An Easter Egg Hunt.

Easter2018-2Eastertide is upon us!

We have camped out on our early morning Easter breakfast tradition for the past 5 years, feasting on monkey bread with the same posse of friends and family. But this year the majority of people who usually join us were out of town, and we switched to the earlier service when Henry dropped to one nap, so the logistics looked a little tricky. We decided instead to haul the monkey bread along to a laid-back brunch with friends who also have toddlers. I find that the best way to manage little person chaos is just to multiple the numbers and create such a ruckus that everyone ceases to care.

Our Easter morning was chaotic in another sense. The Hot Cross buns I made to deliver to neighbors turned out barely edible (good recipe anyone?), and we missed the change in service times, barely making it to church on time… only to find out we were half an hour late already and had missed the marvelous Easter hymns I anticipate all year. I was pretty crushed, though we stuck around for the opening of the following family service, and Henry breaking it down with an egg shaker and then trying to rush the stage twice did almost  make up for it.

After church we headed to brunch and managed to only get one photo of us together to prove we can clean up, and even then Henry isn’t really smiling. But as he’s not grimacing, I call it a win. I didn’t snap any pictures of the awesome food, as the kids (ok, and pregnant/recently postpartum moms) started snacking before we even finished putting out food and ruined the tablescape. We weren’t sure if the kids, most of whom are around 2, would be able to figure out the concept of finding Easter eggs, but we were mistaken. It’s like the need for sugar is engrained in them and even kids who usually avoid following instructions (Henry) were intent on gathering those eggs. They also managed to eat way more candy than any of us realized, and we ended the day with some seriously wired kids.

Easter2018-4Easter2018-5Easter2018-6Easter2018-7Easter2018-8Easter2018-9Easter2018-10 Henry was content to search for eggs until he found a tennis ball, and then abandoned his basket to go give the “egg” to the dog, very pleased that he had discovered a special puppy egg.Easter2018-11Easter2018-12Easter2018-20This picture makes me so happy, as we have an almost identical one of James from my brother’s wedding:View More: boys. They make my heart explode. Especially when they are in bowties.Easter2018-18Easter2018-16Easter2018-13Easter2018-32Easter2018-24And now begin the attempts at wrangling all four kids into one picture.Easter2018-29Easter2018-25Easter2018-27I guess we will call that a success?

Happy Easter!

PS: Loved this article about “The Easter Effect” in the Wall Street Journal, and some of my favorite Easter quotes here, as well as my favorite Good Friday quote.

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This & That.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetEntered the third trimester this week, and while I swore that I would be more chill about trying to not go 40 weeks the second time around, I’m not. Already begging my doctor to guess my chances of another 38 week, no contractions-but-dilated-7cm delivery again and dearly hoping that I have 10 weeks left of this pregnancy instead of 12. While I dragged you through Henry’s pregnancy in excruciating detail, I dropped the ball on any type of formal bumpdates this time around, but I’m happy to turn over that mirror shot above, as it was taken on a day of good hair, good clothes, pre-breakfast, and thus makes the bump look way more glamorous than it truly is. You’re welcome.

Other things, mostly of the material and superficial variety.

If I was willing to drop more money on a maternity dress for Easter, I would get one of these, even though Kate Middleton has already ruined it by looking impossibly good in like half of them. But as I’m not, I’m hoping to just tie this nonmaternity one that I already have looser and call it good.

Interesting words on working from home in front of your kids. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about screens and their role in our family culture, but I appreciated her more practical and compassionate approach than what is often the norm.

I’m just basic enough to be excited about cheaper Hunters. I’m in love with my boots, and snagged a pair for Henry with a gift card and to say he is addicted is putting it mildly. I was dreading shelling out full price when he outgrows these, but I also love how well they have held up on all our winter adventures. Hoping to snag a replacement pair before they sell out!

Speaking of things that sell out quickly, I really wouldn’t mind some Kennedy Center Hamilton tickets when they go on sale Monday!

Megan compiled a list of great places to stay in northern Michigan and has me dreaming of a lakeside summer vacation. When I went to Traverse city a few years back, I was stunned at how little I had heard about this dreamy place.

Taking dinner to a friend with a new baby today and making this for the dinner, and one of these to leave for breakfasts over the coming days. And of course, made one for myself too because I had forgotten how much I love it. Henry and I made a couple loaves of this earlier in the week and I’m leaving one of those too. Banana bread is my favorite toddler baking project, as Henry is a pro at smashing bananas and this recipe makes a relatively healthy snack for days afterwards.

All of these emotions plague our home on a regular basis. Although lately, we would need to add “Total complacency about the baking of household electronics” to the list. RIP remote.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Happy weekend friends!

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No bad weather.

Winter2018-28When you travel after having kids, even if you are traveling without them, you notice all the ways that your destination appeals to children, or prohibits them. You instinctively think about whether you would want to bring your child somewhere, and you notice how a new culture integrates children into adult society. Americans are especially obsessed with this, eternally insecure about our parenting and devouring books like  (the interesting but laughably and ridiculously not-universal) Bringing up Bébé. I wanted to read the book on Swedish parenting during my trip, but alas, I’m still on the library waitlist. The title comes from the Scandanavian proverb that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.


Obviously, my 3 days in Stockholm makes me an expert on Swedish parenting… not. But, I can 100% testify to the total truth of that proverb. The weather was, by our mid-Atlantic American standards, bad. It was 10-15 degrees with snow that alternated between flurries and driving white out conditions the entire time. It was the sort of cold, snowy, and icy weather that shuts life down in DC, not to mention many other places I have lived or visited.

But in Sweden, people seemed unfazed by it, undeterred from heading outside as normal. The kids were outside at recess, adults walked the street, everyone just carried on as normal. I was fascinated by the children, as parks in DC are empty when it drops below 30- without so much as a flurry. Kids filed through the park, pulling either the sleds their parents had used to drop them off at school, or little hand sleds passed out by their teachers. They all wore slight variations of suits like this– none of this fussing around with normal coat and pants. Just zip the entire child inside and send them out into the snow. When we took the same ferry as a group of elementary school students, one kid actually pulled an adult sized thermos out of his bag and started pouring some hot beverage into the waiting travel mugs of his classmates.

Oh, and that myth I had heard about people just leaving their babies outside of shops? Winter2018-30Verified- on several occasions. Winter2018-36Winter2018-37Winter2018-38Winter2018-40Winter2018-43Winter2018-44Because to avoid venturing out in bad weather would mean, for those in Sweden, committing to missing out on the beauty of much of the year. Stockholm was magic in the snow, and I love that I got to see it in its winter glory.Winter2018-48Winter2018-52Winter2018-53Winter2018-55While traveling without Henry was so easy and fun, see Swedish parents and kids making the most of their city in every weather made me wish I could have explored with him. We have doggedly played outside every day all winter, in any weather. We have explored the park and city alone in frigid temps and heavy winds, because Henry is a kid who needs fresh air and space to run. He, like many children, realizes instinctively that there is no bad weather, no bad days for exploring, no bad spaces for play. Just a world that sometimes requires a little extra gear.

Winter2018-65Winter2018-66Stockholm, you were a snowy dream, in any weather.

(And a big thanks to my brother Zach who took many of the pictures in this and the last post! Traveling with him means I get in substantially more photos.)

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Winter2018-20Back in September I came across some ridiculously cheap plane tickets to Stockholm, where my  brother and his wife are living this year. One of the big advantages of East Coast living is that you can travel really inexpensively to Europe, though admittedly, on carriers and airlines that don’t always seem exactly transatlantic-ready. I convinced James that I should take a dissertation-moon to celebrate completing, and because he’s a supportive saint, he agreed and I booked a solo trip to Sweden for late February. There is no motivation for finishing a massive project like the promise of an international trip… without a toddler. Traveling with Henry last summer was so much fun, but also involved so much workTraveling by myself? A breeze. Packing for one adult? Did it an hour before leaving. Logistics to consider in advance? Almost none. The flight, even with a layover and the cheapest airline ever with no tvs and not even free water offered? LUXURY.

We didn’t know when we scheduled the trip that it would also morph into a babymoon, a celebration of this moment where things like this feel doable, before a new baby has us trying to find our footing again. There were a lot of moments this pregnancy where I felt like the trip wouldn’t actually happen. When we thought we had miscarried and then I was on pelvic rest, when I was sick constantly, when I couldn’t walk so much as half a block because of crippling sciatic pain- I couldn’t foresee it actually working out. But last month I finally started feeling a little bit better, was cleared for normal activity, and a couple sessions of deep tissue prenatal massage had my sciatic nerve back in line.

And so, off to Stockholm I went!Winter2018-6Winter2018-7Winter2018-9Winter2018-10My SIL Liz started texting me pictures of the impossibly tasty looking Swedish buns last fall and operation “buns from the oven for my bun in the oven” took shape. We ate an insane number of Kardemummabullar and Semlor, and I have no regrets. WHY are there not Swedish bakeries in the States? I love French ones, obviously, but Swedish pastries were something else altogether and I see no reason we should limit ourselves. Winter2018-14Winter2018-15Best hosts ever! I am usually the intense trip planner, but for this trip I got to sit back and let someone else plan and orchestrate everything. Winter2018-18Winter2018-19Winter2018-24Stockholm blew me away. The immaculate streets! The colors! The doors! Maybe it is just that they have to endure so many months of darkness and cold, but the Swedes know how to fill their city with color and warmth. Winter2018-25Winter2018-27On top of being great hosts, Zach and Liz have the dreamiest little snow globe apartment where we spent our evenings cozied up and catching up on the (most dramatic season yet of the) Bachelor. Winter2018-49Winter2018-50Winter2018-54Winter2018-56I really hate to use the overused, pretentious, nausea-inducing catchphrase of Kinfolk-reading bloggers everywhere- but spaces in Stockholm were all so well-curated. Every aspect of the decor felt intentional, a careful minimalism that didn’t feel stark. So many spaces seemed orchestrated around maximizing light, with lots of color and greenery to further warm things up. But whereas this aesthetic comes across as repetitive and unoriginal in the 9 million identical Instagram feeds where I frequently find it, every iteration in Stockholm felt both consistent, and original and natural. Winter2018-57Winter2018-59Again with the pastries- I want to go back in time and eat them all.Winter2018-61Everywhere we went- everywhere- there were open flames. None of this hiding candles under a bushel- NO. All the flames burning freely in all the places, making everything feel extra cozy.Winter2018-62Winter2018-67Winter2018-68That’s it- next winter I am really going to embrace plants. It just conteracts the winter gloom so well!Winter2018-69Cozy sweaters and hearty grain bowls- a Swedish morning must!Winter2018-70Winter2018-71I couldn’t have told you anything about Swedish food before going, beyond of course, what I have gleaned from the Ikea cafeteria. But I was blown away by all the simple and fresh meals, hearty foods, and dreamy sauces. I’m still thinking about a parmesan cream sauce we had one night at dinner.Winter2018-72One day Liz and I went to go visit Prince Eugen’s house, and following a visit to the museum, we trekked off into the snowy woods where Liz promised we would find a greenhouse full of tasty soup and bread. I was skeptical. The paths weren’t marked, the snow was intense, and there wasn’t exactly a lot of civilization around. But then we came around a hedgerow and saw this magical sight:Winter2018-73And inside-Winter2018-75Winter2018-76Winter2018-77Winter2018-78Winter2018-79Tables laden with candles and flowers and cake! Baskets of unlimited bread and butter! Toast spread with creamy cheese and bright veggies! Cats curled up on chairs and cozy blankets! Chandeliers hung with candles! Wood burning stoves! MORE CAKE. Winter2018-81Winter2018-82Oh, and the promised soup, which was hearty and warmed the very core of my soul. Winter2018-84Winter2018-85Winter2018-87I was only in Stockholm for three days, but we packed so much cozy exploring into that time. Beyond thankful for James who held down the fort at home, and Zach and Liz who made the trip so wonderful!

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The Doctor is In.

Someday I might blog things other than pictures of me holding my dissertation.Processed with VSCO with a6 presetToday is not that day.

Because yesterday, I had my oral defense which means that the doctor is officially IN. The defense was way more intense than I anticipated, but it felt really good to actually defend, to dig into the trenches with my 300 page baby and fight off every attack. I’m really proud of this dissertation, of this degree, of the past 5 years. They have been crazy and demanding, but I am proud of coming out the other side with some extra letters behind my name- not to mention two kids. I started actually writing my dissertation in January of 2016, a couple months before Henry was born. My entire dissertation process has been dominated by juggling pregnancy, a newborn, a toddler, and more pregnancy- with the second time being way more brutal than Henry’s breezy pregnancy. Finding time to write meant having to jealously protect every nap time, every spare weekend moment, every babysitting opportunity. It meant fighting to focus through exhaustion and nausea and pain these last months especially, and it means I can calculate an actual dollar worth of this project, because I paid a whole lot to babysitters to make it happen. I did not have the luxury of taking my time, though I realize that to those not in academia, 2 years might not exactly seem like a rush.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetBut even as I am inclined to feel really proud of myself for this accomplishment, I am humbled to think of the army of people who have stepped up in our lives over the past couple years. The obvious ones, like my academic advisors, got big shoutouts in my defense. But that’s not the whole story. People like my college roommate, who flew across the country when Henry was 8 weeks old to watch him for a week so I could try to get back into writing. My parents, who have come to visit on multiple occasions, throwing me out of the house to get as much work done as possible. My siblings and their spouses, who have done everything from watch Henry, to provide me with critical resources for my research. The friends who answered my panicked texts Tuesday night about what to wear to my defense, one of them being brutally honest that one outfit looked like “a pregnant politician’s wife,” and another telling me I needed to “beg, borrow, or steal a blazer.” My Capitol Hill girlfriends, who raided their closets and drove over a selection of blazers at 9pm so I could dress confidently.  And James. James, who never begrudged the cost of endless sitters, who happily committed to several years of weekends where I disappeared all day Saturday and he chilled with Henry while I wrote. James, who read multiple drafts of each chapter – in spite of the abundance of French quotes. James, who put up with my rather emotional responses to every editing suggestion and pushed back on my ideas, forcing me to make them better.

A lot of people have had a lot to do with those letters getting added behind my name, and I am so, so thankful. I know they just did it in hopes of lavish gifts once I make millions as a French professor – but still. I feel beyond blessed by the people who helped push this milestone.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetNow then. On to celebrating! Yesterday I returned home and reveled by… folding 6 loads of laundry, eating Chick-Fil-A, and watching This is Us. The evening continued in similar fashion with UberEats and The Bachelor. What can I say? OFF THE HOOK PARTYING. My big celebration was going to Sweden last week, and now that I’ve defended, I can finally get those posts up. I know you were just biting your nails in anticipation.

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