mindset

Life in the Busy (or The New 4:00 Hour)

In “The Habit” newsletter this week (a weekly email devoted to writing), Jonathan Rogers wrote:

 “If what you're looking for is an excuse for not writing, the busyness of your life is a good one. I should know: I use that one all the time. But having more time or a better desk probably isn't going to help as much as you think if you're not already using the hour or two you have at that little desk in the corner.”

It struck me. Since the school year began - really since August hit with all of its NO-ACTIVITIES-FOR-YOU business - I’ve felt pretty dried up. The kids sapped most of my energy in August. Then school hit, along with ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Dance and religious education started. I’ve said “yes” where I used to say “I have three small kids so NO”: to volunteer positions, a writing class, a leadership position at church. Things I feel I have some space for now.

At night, I often stare for awhile at a blinking cursor, with a blank mind but a full brain. At my own little desk in the corner, I struggle to find something to say. 

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And I wonder how much is hiding behind the busyness and how much is actual...busyness?

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The hour from 4:00-5:00 pm used to be the single longest hour in my entire day. To survive for one more hour until the clock flipped over to 5:00 felt like an eternity.

4:00 was about the time I gave up for the day. Where I plopped in the grass and willed our neighbors to come over and play. When I lay down on the couch, to hell with the quantity of toys scattered across the floor or whoever was wailing about a minor bodily injury around me.

Really, I don’t think 4:00 pm has ever been a great time for me. It was the least productive time in my professional life. I often tackled busywork tasks like sketching out floor plans or scanning tile catalogs. I dreaded phone calls during the 4 o’clock hour, when my brain was fried and my introvert side was all d-o-n-e.

I’m still ready to be done for the day at 4:00 pm. But since that’s the time Caden and Brooklyn’s bus pulls up to release them back to me, 4:00 feels less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and more like entering another tunnel.

“It felt like I went from a nine-hour day to a twelve-hour day,” a friend said to me recently, regarding the transition to full-time-all-day-every-day-school. That hit me as exactly right.

While my day was far from over at 4:00 pm previously, the end was in sight. Another hour until there was another set of hands to help wrangle small children. I could begin my mental check-out from the day, devote time to dinner and dishes and not much else. (Tyson had bedtime duty.) I was almost free for the day - free to leave the house to write, to do yoga. (*ahem* to mindlessly scroll Instagram…)

Now at 4:00, it feels like my day starts all over again.

There are new nighttime responsibilities added to the ones that already existed: filling water bottles and snack bags and tucking them in backpacks, checking communication folders, planning lunches for the next day. I often do bedtime now with Caden and Brooklyn since I don’t see them all day. These duties, unlike many of my other nighttime tasks, can’t be pushed off. The toys, if need be, can still be scattered across the front hall all day tomorrow, but those lunches need to be packed and ready to go by 8:15 am.

And morning comes with its own chaos. Breakfast for three kids (plus me, hopefully), unloading clean dishes from the dishwasher, loading the freshly-dirtied breakfast ones. Drinking coffee before helping Nolan find clothes, supervising Caden and Brooklyn (make sure they’re actually getting dressed and not distracted with half a sock on somewhere). Brushing three sets of teeth and doing Brooklyn’s hair. Packing up those lunches and triple-check to see that everything is in their backpacks. On preschool days Nolan and I have to be out of the house by 8:25 am. Caden and Brooklyn catch the bus at 8:45.

It’s fine. The mornings don’t bother me so much. I thrive on routine. And with three kids who often wake before the sun, it’s not a mad dash the way I know it is for other families.

Plus, after the morning rush three days a week, I return home to quiet.

Quiet is rarely a word that can be applied to our evenings.

Dinnertime spills over into bedtime which seems to be where all those Big Kindergarten Emotions come out. They’ve held it together all day and now they’re home and they’re safe and their energy bubbles over into one more endless round of giggles at the table, whining about a LEGO they’ve lost, or sobbing that they want their room painted blue again because they liked it when it was blue and I didn’t even ask them if I could paint it white. (1: I totally did ask and we all agreed on white and 2: you’ve literally never brought this up before. Can we please talk about it at some other time - any other time - when it’s not already 43 minutes past your bedtime?)

My day feels stretched out, beginning with that four o’clock hour. And my evenings feel like they’ve slipped away.

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I sit down at the end of the day, my later-than-usual, stretched-out day. I’ve felt so caught up in those lunches and remembering drop-off and pick-up times. I’ve scribbled Post-It note reminders to bring sandwich bags to Nolan’s preschool, to pick up ingredients for the church potluck, to send money for the back to school dinner. I send an email to the teacher, place the book order, cross off items on my list, and make another for the next day: wrap presents for the party, revise that document, make a phone call, write this post for that deadline.

I don’t know if it’s busyness as an excuse or actually being busy. I see how I could get lost in this phase of life, maybe even more so than in the baby stage. Where I don’t have naptime to fall back on and more often than not have a (non-napping) three-year old around. When 4 o’clock hits and our house explodes into chaos and emotions and dinner to make and backpacks to clean out.

Maybe I am busy.

Maybe I’m hiding behind it sometimes.

Maybe that’s okay.

Maybe I’ll learn to make the most of that blinking cursor during the single hour I find in the evenings, in my own corner of my bedroom. Maybe I’ll find a way to energize myself during the 4:00 hour. (Hahaha.) Maybe it’s okay for awhile if that cursor blinks at me more than I would like. Maybe I’ll find life in the busy and return here to put it all down on the page.

A Week in the Life

On Monday, they have VBS. I drop the kids off in the church basement, which is decorated for a journey into both outer space and scripture. Even Nolan, at three, is old enough to join his brother and sister. They all wave to me cheerfully, hardly a half-glance back after I sign them in. Their friends greet them with smiles as they race to their spots on the floor to learn a new song and hand motions. 

“Have fun!” the volunteers tell me before I escape. I give them both a smile and a silent prayer of thanks for their willingness to step in here so I have a morning to myself. They’ll spend the next three hours singing, dancing, creating, snacking, and laughing while I run errands, write words, and rotate loads of laundry in a quiet house.

I walk up the steps and back out into the sunshine. It’s amazing how much easier I can breathe without six little hands pulling on my arms, my shirt, bumping into my legs, without little voices asking for a snack, if they can go to a friend’s house, wondering where the moon is during the day.

Tuesday afternoon, we set up a lemonade stand at the end of the driveway. I’m sure we’ve become a familiar sight to the neighbors, since we’ve been out here at least once or twice a week for most of the summer. Caden’s cries of, “Lemonade! Lemonade! Who wants lemonade?” reverberate around the neighborhood.

A lawn crew drives up and stops. They walk over and contribute two whole dollars to our cause. Nolan pours wobbly cups of lemonade and my daughter hands them out. The nine-year old from around the corner stops by, too. She passes her quarter to Caden and says she told her friend we were outside, that she would be over soon to drink lemonade and to play.

It doesn’t take long before we’ve gathered an entire group of neighbors in the front yard. Kids ride back and forth on the path in front of our house on scooters, balance bikes, and skateboards. Another mom, a friend from just down the street plops in the grass beside me. Some of the older kids race around to the back of our house to play on our playset and Nolan follows. I’m grateful for these pre-teens. I need a break from his energy, and they can wear him out better than I can. I take advantage of their enthusiasm until it’s time to go inside for dinner.

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Wednesday, I text with a group of friends from the twins’ first year of preschool. We text often and still see each other occasionally for playdates or cocktail hour. They’re an easy group of moms to be with—they’re funny and easy-going. I can tell them that my kids are jerks and receive commiseration, not judgment. They understand, they’ll say, since their kids are jerks, too.

“I may have set a world record for the number of curse words said in a single morning,” I send out one day.

“It’s something in the air!” one replies, “I called my mom and dropped them off with her so I didn’t hurt them yesterday!”

“My husband and I have nicknamed our five-year old ‘the little twerp’ this summer,” another responds.

I’m in good company here. Despite these text threads, no one takes anyone else too seriously. We still think all of our children are lovely, intelligent, delightful human beings. Except for the times they’re not. And then it’s nice to have the space to vent without fear of judgment.


Read about the rest of my week in the life over on Kindred Mom.

Rest and Routines and Afternoon Target Runs

“What about this silly thing?” became a game during the last five minutes of our Tuesday afternoon Target run.

“What about this silly thing?” one would ask, and then make a goofy face or point at something, like a rack of clothing, which looked innocent to me but sent all three kids into peals of laughter. The first twenty minutes of calm vanished almost instantly as their energy bubbled to the surface. They weren’t naughty per se, but they weren’t exactly model children, either. They were mostly loud. (As one might expect with two five-year olds and a three-year old who don’t suffer much from shyness.)

We made it through the check out lane (barely - one kid was banished from the cart aka banished from being in close proximity to his siblings) and out to the car. They were nearly hysterical with laughter at this point. I tried to map the quickest route to the dentist in my head, our next stop, as I loaded both kids and Target bags into the van.

“Guys!” I finally cried, pulling out of the lot, “Be quiet! I just need to think!”

Their giggles filled our minivan and set my teeth on edge. My fingers gripped the steering wheel tighter than was necessary. I took what I thought was the turn for the dentists office and realized almost immediately I’d turned one intersection too soon.

“Why did you go this way?” Caden asked, giggling now at my mistake.

“Because I can’t think!” I said. “You can run around and be loud when we get home but right now I need you to figure out how to control your energy!”

And that’s what they should have been doing before this dentist appointment: running around the backyard, being loud. Needless to say, an afternoon trip to Target is not a part of our normal routine.

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Our days have followed a pretty set pattern during the past five-and-a-half years. Routine anchors our days. I’ve read how rhythms and routines are so important for small children, seen how my own kids are thrown off when our groove is broken. Really, though, I’ve created these routines as much for myself as for anyone else. (Enneagram 1, anybody?)

The kids have glommed onto these rituals, too. They know that a 7 on the clock in the am means it’s time for breakfast, while at night it equals bedtime. An 8 indicates it’s time to get ready for the day and a 5 in the late afternoon means dinner is imminent.

They know the pattern of our days: eat breakfast, dress and brush teeth, outing or activity, home for lunch, nap/quiet time, screen time, playtime at home, dinner, bed. They know that Wednesday is grocery day, Saturday mornings are for video chatting with Grandma and Grandpa, that we eat tacos on Tuesdays.

Lunchtime is an important anchor in the day for us all. The kids eat before I settle them in their bedrooms with crayons, paper, puzzles, and LEGOs for quiet time. Occasionally, all too few and far between these days, Nolan takes a nap. I retreat back downstairs to sweep the crumbs off the counter and make my own lunch, sit down and read a book where there was chaos only moments ago. 

These fifteen minutes or so are all mine and I savor every bite. It’s the one meal each day where I’m not interrupted with requests for more water, or more pasta, or more of anything. There’s no spilled milk, no reminders to please sit on your butt facing the table, no pleading to eat just one more bite.

Our post-quiet time TV-watching emerged from my reluctance to let go of the quiet. To return back to Earth and the chaos so suddenly once the clock gave them the go-ahead to stampede back downstairs. Instead I turn on the TV and they watch a show or two to ease our return to the real world. I often join them on the couch again with my book or (reality check) some laundry to fold.

 I hold tight to these daily rhythms, afraid that if I let them go I’ll lose myself altogether.

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Target became a part of our afternoon on Tuesday after Nolan acquired the fifth and final sticker on his quiet time chart, earning him a LEGO set of his choice.

“Let’s go to Target! Let’s go! Let’s go!” he cheered. I couldn’t deny his excitement, especially since we had the time before their dentist appointments. And Target is only a four-minute drive from the dental office, after all.

That Target trip/dentist combo wasn’t the only thing to disrupt our schedule this week. Our routine was also thrown off by afternoon swim camp. Combined with two nights of early evening t-ball games it feels as though our days have both been cut short (dinner at 4:30!) and stretched out longer (bedtime at 7:30...if we’re lucky). I’ve been scarfing my lunch down with the kids, quiet time has been nonexistent, the book I’m reading sits abandoned until I fall into bed at night. 

“I haven’t had any time to myself this week!” I told Tyson on Wednesday night, overwhelmed with writing deadlines and grocery orders and emails - things I usually tackle after lunch during the remainder of quiet time. Instead I was with the kids (including a particularly unruly three-year old) from morning to night without even a screen time break. The only time I had to myself (theoretically) was during swim lessons, where I kept one eye on my two swimmers in the water and another on Nolan in the adjacent activity room while also attempting to create a grocery list with the swim school’s spotty Wi-Fi.

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I realize now that I’ve structured our days to facilitate rest, both for myself and for the kids, to help prevent any of us from getting burned out. The middle part of our day is so important: the lunch/quiet/screen time part. A breather from the morning hours before tackling the afternoon witching ones. Our routine gives me stability just as much as it does them. When these habits are interrupted it throws me off, as though my very center is off-balance.

This week showed me that my fear is a valid one: once I let go of our daily anchors my day does become unhinged. And so do I.

I had a professor in college who would remind us, during particularly challenging courses, that the semester was only sixteen weeks long. “You can do anything for sixteen weeks,” she would tell us.

It’s only for this week, I remind myself. I can do anything for a week.

And I can. I did. We made it to Friday. The next couple of weeks sit heavy in front of us, without much on the calendar before school begins and we fall into an entirely new routine. But at least in the next two weeks there will be time for regular lunches, normal quiet times, and even — glory hallelujah — daily doses of screen time.

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This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Rest."


What Writing Looks Like

“Mommy,” Brooklyn began, as I helped her get dressed. (In a jumpsuit. Five-years old and those can be difficult.)  Her hands were on top of my head, even though I’ve told them all 432 times to use my shoulders for balance instead. “Mommy, when we press on your head, does it push all of your ideas out?”

I laughed and said no, I still had my ideas. She grinned, crinkling up her newly-freckled nose, gave me a hug, and scampered away. 

I thought more about her question as I carried a load of laundry downstairs. Small, marker-stained fingers in and of themselves don’t push out my ideas. Though sometimes it feels that way.

It’s hard to explain writing to someone who isn’t a writer. The struggle to pull together a sentence, add a period, the debate to use a comma vs. a semicolon. The drafts and the edits and the agonization over word choice. I’m not sure I know of a single writer who actually, really, truly enjoys the writing process itself. It’s arduous. To do justice to a story, plodding forward in an attempt to tell the truth, to get to the essence of an idea; it’s work.

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Jen Hatmaker has talked on her podcast about how writing is like dredging up words from the bottom of the ocean. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, says that the act of writing looks like this:

“You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

Throw in picking up your phone to scroll through Instagram for awhile and this is 1000% accurate.

Glennon Doyle talks about a famous writer who was asked if she loved writing, and her response was, “No, but I love having written.”

That sounds about right to me.

Anyway, back to those small children with their sticky, dirt-covered hands who ask about pushing ideas out of my head.

Sometimes writing looks like trying to put words down on a page but my brain has absolutely no ideas and it is all the children’s fault, not because they used my head to balance, but because the only thing I can think of is the LEGO Movie 2 The Second Part Original Motion Picture Soundtrack because it’s on repeat at our house and even when it’s not playing the children are running around singing it at the top of their lungs: “THIS SONG’S GONNA GET STUCK INSIDE YOUR HE-AAAAAD” and it is, it IS stuck in my head and I haven’t had an original thought for two straight weeks.

Writing looks like sacrifice. It takes time and energy. Sometimes it takes money in the form of a writing class or an editor. More often it’s in the form of a $5.35 latte. Mostly, though, it’s time. Since I am not, never have been, and never will be a morning person this often looks like rushing out the door at 6 pm right after dinner until the coffee shop closes at 9:00. It’s time on the weekends when I would truly rather be lounging around the backyard or going on a family adventure but if I don’t take advantage of the next two or three hours who knows when I’ll get a decent stretch of writing time again.

One of my writing spots is a coffee shop, just a five-minute car ride away. It’s quiet. Not that it isn’t busy, but the overall atmosphere is studious. I realized recently that there are virtually no children there. Like, ever. One day I saw an eight-year old in line with his mom and it dawned on me: this is the first time I’ve seen a kid here. Mind. Blown.

I’m not against kids (I managed to have three of them) but they’re not exactly quiet. If I could concentrate with small children around I wouldn’t have to leave the house. Their babbling words interrupt the ones I’m working to construct in my head, so it’s hard to concentrate on things like writing an entire coherent sentence

I do enjoy watching the high school students who congregate here, though, the teenagers who are thoughtful and friendly, showing their friends their latest Snapchat (or whatever, I mean I don’t really know) and giggling. They sit with their large extra-pump-of-caramel frozen concoctions at their sides because they don’t need to worry yet about ingesting that amount of caffeine or sugar at 8:30 pm.

Other times writing looks like heading to my favorite spot in downtown Minneapolis. It looks like double-checking that I’ve locked my car because there are signs warning me to: “LOCK YOUR CAR. HIGH PROWL AREA”. But it’s worth it because then I enter into the most magical workspace in town, where they make chocolate croissants as big as my head and the eggs benedict is the best combination of salty/sauce-y/butter-y I’ve ever had and it takes all of my restraint to not order everything on the menu. (Those days writing costs me about $18.46.)

Writing looks like creating my very own writing nook. I’ve been sitting here often now, despite the children, instead of heading to the coffee shop. Sometimes a little boy sits on the floor next to me and plays with his LEGOs, and every time he starts to talk, I say, “Mommy’s working remember?” and he says, “Oh yeah I forgot” in a whisper.

There used to be times when writing looked like typing up words at 2:32 am, since I was awake anyway and it didn’t matter whether it was 2:32 in the morning or 2:32 in the afternoon, I was probably nursing a baby, either way.

Sometimes writing looks like rushing home from the store and abandoning the groceries on the kitchen counter so I can rush upstairs to type up the narrative I’ve been constructing in my head the whole way home. It looks like not being able to keep up with the rush of words and hoping I get them all down on the page in the exact order they came to me on University Avenue in my minivan.

Other times it looks like not being able to abandon the groceries, because they really do need to be put away so we can eat lunch, and by the time I get to a computer hours later, they’ve completely vanished. “I’ll remember this later,” I lie to myself. But I never do.

Sometimes it’s leaving myself a voice message of an idea I’m certain is genius and then listening to it later and wondering what on Earth I was talking about.

Some of the best times are when I leave a draft for my friends, the fiercest, strongest group of women and mothers I know, and they leave me comments and edits. And depending on the piece, sometimes I hate them for awhile and I abandon writing for awhile (forever, if I get dramatic in my head) until I come back to it and realize they were all so very right. Entire essays have been born because of them. Entire essays have been saved because of them.

There are nights I can’t wait to escape, where the day has been long or a deadline is looming or a story is in my head and it’s all I can do to not plop the kids in front of the TV to type up some words.

Other days all I want to do is stay home, to do the bedtime routine and snuggle them in. To answer questions like, “Is the sun always a star?” and read their books. Sometimes writing looks like being surrounded by children and stuffed animals as I take note of the rhyming patterns in “Rosie Revere, Engineer” or the foreshadowing in Harry Potter.

Those ideas in my head get pushed in and poured out all the time. Sometimes it’s like grasping at air to try to reign them in, to put them down on the page to create something meaningful and intelligible and maybe even beautiful. And sometimes those ideas are initiated by a little freckle-face five-year old wondering if she’s pushed all the ideas out of my head, and instead I can say, no — you’ve added to them.

Not A Summer Bucket List

I’m a One on the Enneagram and an ESFJ always and forever according to Myers-Briggs. I’m your typical straight-A, type-A firstborn child with a penchant for meal plans and lists. In fact, I specifically researched and then purchased a very particular paper calendar because it had a built-in spot for daily to-do lists. I like a meticulously crafted schedule, boxes just waiting to be checked, recipes with instructions to be followed. I’m a born planner, through-and-through.

So you might think a summer bucket list - a specific collection of summertime “to-dos” - would be right up my alley.

In reality, it stresses me out.

I love the idea of a summer bucket list in theory. In theory, it sounds like fun to create a list of places to go, things to see, foods to eat. I can picture the list in my head, meticulously crafted with multi-colored sharpies on brown kraft paper, hung on our pantry door with rainbow-colored Washi tape, peeking out now and then in the photos I post to Instagram. (I’m such a planner, I’ve even planned out the thing I’m refusing to ever make. I seriously can’t make it stop.)

The truth is I know my rigid, planner-by-nature type would adhere to that thing like there was no more summer tomorrow. What’s that kids? You want to get ice cream today? Well, too bad because this list (which may as well be written in stone) says we’ve already eaten ice cream and today we need to fly kites!

I would feel compelled to carry out every activity to the Nth degree. I’d carefully research each destination and determine whether to pack or purchase a lunch. I’d prepare matching outfits and appropriate snacks. I'd run out to purchase multiple graham and chocolate options for s’mores night and refresh the weather forecast to find the perfect rainy day for a movie.

(Can I just add here that I’ve seen on Pinterest that some people actually write their summer bucket lists on popsicle sticks and put them all in a jar and they pull a random one out each day? And then they go do the thing it says? The idea of surprise summer bucket sticks freaks me the heck out. I need a solid four days just to wrap my head around taking three kids to the zoo. But I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard for me to let loose when there are lists involved. A list - even of the bucket sort - is a sort of challenge for me. Let’s jam-pack this schedule of ours. Just how fast can we complete this list? First to get all their boxes checked wins!

All this research and planning is just the opposite of the relaxation that is supposed to be summertime.

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Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog.