Saturday, May 14, 2022

When I wrote out my life: Changes I made for greater peace and mental wellness

I was overtired, overworked, and stressed. 

The months of early postpartum life with a newborn had receded into the past, and I had been "doing life" with three young kids fairly successfully--so why was I feeling so overwhelmed? As I previously mentioned, rather than trying to push down and ignore my stresses and confusion (while continuing to repeat my normal routines), on this occasion, I chose a different path: I wrote out my life. 

I listed everything that I did (or needed to do) each day, week, and month. I went over the list with my husband, and soon after, I went through a coaching session with a therapist. I made some perspective shifts, and I implemented some specific changes. Over the next several months, it was remarkable to observe how life grew more peaceful and my mental health improved. It's been a process, and one that I'm still learning. 

In fact, just a couple months ago, I went through a day where I seemingly forgot every single thing that I have learned in therapy and my journey of wellness. While I halfheartedly tried to do a few things to keep myself sane and functioning, I did not care for myself the way that I needed to, and by dinnertime, I was pretty much a disaster. Several apologies and a sacramental Confession later, I realized that-as embarrassed as I was/am to have had that experience (shouldn't I practice what I preach?) it was a good, humbling way to recognize that I am still very much learning these things. I am not an expert by any means, and I am still growing, changing, and trying to improve. This experience also was a gift, because it vividly showed me (and my family) that the changes I've implemented make a difference--because when I forget to do these things, everybody notices--and it's not pretty. 

I want to share some of the specific steps that I've taken to cultivate more peace in my life. However, I want to give the caveat: these are very specific to me and my situation, and I in no way am a professional. Yet, I want to offer these thoughts as a jumping-off point, in case anyone out there is looking for ideas on simplifying life and cultivating peace.  

I made prayer a priority. While my prayer time doesn't look Instagrammable by any means, making time to be in conversation with God needs to happen, no matter what. We do family prayer in the morning and evening, couple prayer in the evening, and I carve out moments to sit for personal prayer at midday and in the evening, as well as throughout the day. It's all got to start with prayer--but at the same time, I've found it important to pair prayer with actual life changes. 

If you want to know what my prayer time looks like, look at this picture and remove 
the water and the coffee cup, and add my delightfully rowdy children,
who are running in and out of the background as I prayerfully reflect on Scripture.

My husband helped me nail down specific problem areas. That way, we could pick one thing to focus on. As we talked it out, I realized that a big stressor for me was the mornings. It often was a chaotic jumble of kids waking up and rushing to our room and demanding breakfast and needing help with bedtime diapers or pajamas-all while I was still rubbing sleep from my eyes. So, I decided to clear out a low cupboard in our kitchen and stock it with dishes for the kids and snacks or breakfast bars that they could serve themselves. Before going to bed at night, I started putting cereal or granola on the counter, within their reach. That way, in the morning, my oldest child could easily assemble breakfast for himself and his siblings, and really only need us to pour the milk. Sometimes, if I really have things together (haha!) I'll prepare individual mason jars of overnight oats to stick in the fridge-this way, my kids don't even need to assemble breakfast, they just need to open their jars and grab a spoon in the morning!

(Admittedly, I recently have gotten forgetful about stocking that low cupboard with food, but by this point, the kids have become much more capable of getting themselves ready and grabbing breakfast that it's not a huge deal if we don't utilize the "kid cupboard" every day.)

I also implemented some boundaries with our schedule. After the initial "Covid lockdown" phase of the pandemic, I sprang into "Carpe diem" mode. A friend asks if we want to meet at a park across town? Carpe diem! Of course we will! A museum just relaxed Covid restrictions? Carpe diem-let's go visit! Another person is free to do a playdate that week? Carpe diem-let's do everything! We'd still have a week or so thrown in the mix with very few activities, but more and more, I was operating under the view that "if we're all healthy, we need to do everything-embark on big outings or meet with friends-now, while we can. While this can be a very fun way to live, it's not sustainable for me and my energy levels. Even one week spent like this will wipe me out. When there are multiple weeks like this in a month, I become completely exhausted. At the encouragement of my therapist, I intentionally thought through our week and figured out just how many mornings each week we could go on outings-and to respect this boundary. So, if a friend reaches out and wants to visit a park or a museum, my wall calendar may technically have an open spot-but if we've already committed to a certain number of outings that week, I've learned that it's OK to say "how about another week?" 

I began including daily "worktime"/"recharge" time in our schedule. Previously, I would plan on doing some sort of restful activity or writing work when kids napped in the afternoon. On days when naptime was not successful, I'd be stuck with a cranky child and no quiet time in which to work or recharge...and that could get stressful and frustrating very quickly. However, when I insert a small chunk of time dedicated to this (even if it's only 30-45 minutes) into our morning, I know that I'll have a short time to recharge by myself, even if kids refuse to stay in afternoon rest time. 

We also began to write our daily routine/schedule on a white board in the middle of our living room. This way, everyone--kids and adults--knows what's going on in the day. When I'm heading into "worktime" or about to do dishes, I can refer the kids to the whiteboard, remind them of what we'll do when I'm done (The kids won't know if I don't tell them!). My children know that each morning, we eat breakfast, read Scripture, and then read library books before I begin "work time." Some days, we'll read a bunch of books, but other days (especially if we have an outing planned) we'll only read one or two books. Having this consistent routine--written out on our board and practiced every single weekday--is hugely helpful for my kids and I. 

In addition to recognizing my need to recharge, I also began to grow in awareness of my physical needs. We are not robots; as human beings, we are each a unity of body and soul. Our physical and mental states are integrated and affect each other. Quite often, multiple factors may be involved when I'm hitting a lot of stress, and I need to care for myself accordingly. Whether a child is dropping a nursing session, or I've hit a wall of pregnancy fatigue, recognizing the various conditions that may cause anxiety spikes helps me seek out the extra rest that I might need. I've also learned to make sure that I am fed. After all, in the hustle and bustle of the day with young kids, it's very easy to forget to actually sit down and eat food. But, in order to take care of the kids, I need to take care of myself--and that means eating good, nourishing food. 

I also began to prioritize sleep. It's amazing how much sleep affects our mental and physical wellness-yet, often, in my attempts to "get stuff done," I'll put sleep on the backburner. However, whenever I've come to a therapist for help with anxiety or depression, one of the first things I'm asked is "how is your sleep?" 

I simplified meals and began weekend batch-cooking. I don't love to cook like some people, but I do try to make and serve nourishing, homemade meals to our family...and I began to realize that it's OK to be "boring" and make lots of super simple, non-creative meals (chili, slow cooker chicken nachos, slow cooker pork, oven chicken thighs, deconstructed lasagna casserole...you get the idea). I also began carving out time on weekends to make a big batch of something-soup or a casserole-for us to pop in the fridge and eat during the week. It's been really helpful for me. (My husband just bought me a 14-quart soup pot, so please share ALL the awesome freezable soup recipes, because mega-batches of soup are in our future and I am thrilled!)

We really focused on the clutter. Our wonderful house doesn't really have storage (or a basement), and at under 1200 square feet, stuff piles up quickly. I've learned to concentrate on keeping the main areas tidy-the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom-because these places are where I spend the most time. If these places cluttered it's a lot easier for stress and overwhelm to begin piling up with all of the random papers and toys. We do toy and book purges as needed, and make sure that pickup happens daily. While our kids are still getting a hang of picking up regularly and immediately, it's amazing how motivated they are to clean up when they know that the faster the house is tidied, the sooner they'll get to play games with my husband in the evening! 

I also threw out my planner. I realized that looking at my long "to do" list in the planner was making me feel accomplished, but it also increased my stress as I saw just how many things I did or needed to do each day. So, I got rid of it. Instead, I made a short list of three things that are priorities for our family to do each day: Pray together, read together, and get outside. I focus on these things, on making sure everyone is rested and fed, and making sure that our regular chores get done (dishes, sweeping the floor, and laundry day once a week). If I realize that I need to make an appointment or if we have a commitment, I put it on the wall calendar, but that's it. I know a lot of people love planners, and I may go back to using a planner someday. But, honestly, getting rid of mine was fantastic!

A few other things I want to note: 

A lot of conversations about raising small kids place a huge importance on childcare, and I get it-having childcare help is amazing! We don't have family in the area, so when one of my friends thoughtfully offered to help me figure things out, I hired her daughter as a Mother's Helper. It was a huge blessing and joy to have this girl come and play with my kids while I worked, caught up on chores, or just drank coffee. The only problem was all of this depended on everyone being in perfect health. One day, shortly after she arrived, one of my kids began running a fever. There were a couple of other times when someone in her family or our family would get sick. So, I realized that as wonderful as regular childcare help is, I needed to create systems and changes in our home that we could use even without outs

In all of these things, I've learned to be consistent and to give everyone time to adjust. Especially when I implemented daily "worktime" in our schedule, it was hard for my kids to grasp that concept. I'd swoop to the office or a bedroom to work, and five minutes later, they would all come running through the door. Over and over, I gently reminded them of the new schedule, and after doing this every day for a couple weeks, it finally became normal to them. I'm also learning the value of creating specific objectives and steps, no matter how small they are. 

As I write this out, I'm struck by how it looks like a lot. However, even just making a couple of changes at a time adds up! Working towards a simpler, more peaceful life has been a gradual process for me, but it's been really good. There are still areas I need to declutter, and big things we want to eventually figure out for our home and family, but we'll get there. Little by little, month by month, and step by step, I've come a long way in the past year. It's been a beautiful journey of healing and discovery! 

4 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. We were in a relatively "thriving" season of life with my three littles prior to this pregnancy. Now I'm still doing those same routines/habits/meals etc and finding that it's just not working out the same with a different, lower level of energy and physical ability!! I'm sure the same will happen with a newborn. So your ideas are good for me to reflect on. I really need to take the time to write out some thoughts and ideas for simplifying meals and household work. We don't go many places so I'm grateful for lots of home time, but our home time could still be simplified, you know?

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  2. Wow, this was amazing to read! I love that idea of having food on a low cupboard that the kids can reach, also the idea of making boundaries with outings during the week - I tend to want to get out every day but often end up feeling frazzled if it happens too much. And yesss to simplified meals!! These are all great ideas. Thanks so much for sharing, AnneMarie!

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    1. This is Elisabeth btw, used a diff account

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  3. I just love this. I’ve been in carpe diem mode this spring and just told my husband this morning I need to make some firm boundaries on how much we socialize, because though my children live for outings with friends, I can’t function if I’m wiped out from socializing so much.

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