The List I Should Have Made For January

The List I Should Have Made For January

Mom w shovel and cocoaJanuary began. I made my New Year’s Resolutions that first day, a task-slash-process I take seriously. I like this ritual. I think about it for weeks. Some years, I write a long, specific list. Other years, I pen a short and somewhat more ethereal list. Anyway, I began the year caught up in the hopes a list like this stir up—and just a day from the kids’ return to school.

The return to school that wasn’t, due to weather. The return to school scheduled for January second that didn’t occur until midmorning January sixth and by then with a great deal of angst for the fifth grader, loath to return to school. In the meantime, on January third, I twisted my ankle quite badly (carried laundry, missed a stair). Three days in bed followed. There was a sense of the long, social holiday period ceding to the long convalescence and then the school refusal. Oh, and January brought bone-chilling cold all over, the kind of cold that’s settled deep and that makes us all brittle—skin, bones, and spirits.

I’d forgotten January could do that to you. Even a day of thaw here or there didn’t override the sense that we’d become frozen in our winter selves, and our wintry lives.

Rambling preamble to say my New Year’s Resolutions and all that ensued thereafter made me forget you need a list of reminders for January or you can get lost between the bitter temperatures, the cabin fever and the slap routine makes after all those holiday gatherings. Here’s what I should have remembered:

1.  You’re not the only one swept up in the aura of your New Year’s Resolutions. The Y parking lot becomes a traffic jam of epic proportions and the Y fills up with people you won’t see weeks from now. Everything is crowded. Every regular is grumpy.

2.  New Year’s Resolutions can have an adverse effect on some people. They get cynical or self-loathing. Keep your happiness about your own process to yourself. Also, even after you seriously twist your ankle and must take to rest-ice-compression-elevation glimpse your list. Stick to it. Trust it.

3.  As eager as parents are for routine, kids may be equally resistant to it. There’s some law in physics about equal and opposite forces. Whatever that is, it may apply in early January. The snow days’ bonus only made this truer.

4.  Many kids thrive on routine and feel glad to be back to it and to their friends. Still, routine after no routine is exhausting. Post-school, kids are spent, out of sorts, and everyone must accommodate until routine again feels … routine.

5.  This month has been SO VERY FRIGID. Natural consequences: less activity, more cabin fever and the long cold month feels even longer (and colder). Take this into account all month long.

6.  Do not underestimate the power of citrus.

7.  Television is a reasonable escape. Travel sites and desperate searches for deals to leave town before the end of the month are not.

8.  Even if you tire of One Direction, get your daughter to play it—often, loudly. She is happier when she dances.

9.  Try not to be thrown by the fact that everyone starts to discuss summer camp options during the absolute coldest stretch of weather. That’s aspiration or magical thinking, mixed with a little self-hatred. It is not vindictive so do not hate your friends for raising the subject. Despite the grumbles at the return to school, remember that for many children happiness and routine are often intertwined. If there are camps with lotteries, sign up on time.

10.  Practicalities you should remember: hats, mittens, wool socks, leg warmers, neck warmers, fleece, boots … cold weather gear is for cold weather and January’s cold. Wear it.

11.  The promise of hot cocoa is incentive for kids to go outside. So is payment for shoveling snow. In other words, if ever there was a time for bribery, it’s January.

12.  Do note that the light has begun to last later and start earlier by the end of January. January is a very long month and February’s the shortest month. Remind yourself that by the end of February, you’ll practically taste and smell spring. That’s just four weeks from now, regardless of an old groundhog.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

IMG_0167With the New Year now underway and the snow now falling (and falling and the temperatures plummeting, no school for the rest of this week, as originally promised), I find myself thinking about how to make the most of a couple of housebound days after so many relatively house-and-people-bound days.

Side note: the visits and parties and hanging out of kids and teenagers and a few grownups here and there besides has been lovely. We’ve really, truly hung.

However, as I imagine some more truly snowbound time, with work knocking at my door and the wish to move my body knocking at my knees or heart or abs or something, I find myself on the morning of Snow Day Number One 2014 in a cartoonish battle with my New Year’s Resolutions.

Alongside “Take care of myself” and “Set firm, clear boundaries” are “Trust the other person’s process” and “Love ’em all loads.” Does this mean I should let the kids watch endless television so I can work and clean up and work out? Does this mean I should demand some help with the ongoing clean up? What about the towels my teenager used and left on his floor? Please picture a mountain of towels, not a molehill. Who washes those?

Aptly, I read an article this morning about how long it takes to form a new habit. Numerically, it’s between twenty-one and two hundred days. The wide range has to do with how difficult the behavior is for the habit former to acquire: to drink a glass of water is easier than to do fifty sit-ups after breakfast, at least for one water drinker and one sit-up doer. I read the article with hopes that from it I’d divine answers to my pressing question, which is whether to make everyone help clean up the house today since we are housebound and since the house can use some help—and so can I—or to let them be and do my thing (which will include some house re-orderliness).

Our housebound-ness has come all too soon, long before I can grapple with the inherent juxtapositions amongst my New Year’s Resolutions. For example, I’d expected today to be a school day, during which I’d do my work and some laundry in relative peace and quiet (for the first time in nearly two weeks) and at a pace that allowed for a few breaths.

Instead, here comes a crying five-year-old child. One who isn’t at school and is upset and now … cue the mama picking up a crying five year-old child. (In real time, I picked her up, quieted her down and decided that we both needed a few minutes to ourselves).

Voila, I am back. The television is on upstairs for one twenty-minute show. Inhale. Exhale.

What I’ve realized over this suddenly elongated holiday chute is this: friendships are critical and my kids do have wonderful friendships. I count as examples the small children here and the time my small child has ended up at other people’s houses or activities. I count the many teens here for long stretches. I count the sleepover on New Year’s Eve during which my fifth grader fell asleep and my husband, myself and my tenth grader entertained the still-awake fifth grader. And on like that. We, the adults, have wonderful friendships—and it turns out that our lives are rich and full right there, full stop. We saw people at parties and gatherings and just here and there and also around kids and we are categorically in the top one percent for good friend fortune. Since we are much older than our kids, I know for a fact now that as long as they have friends, their lives will pan out—and those skills, the ones that make friends and work through playdate mini-drama and adolescent drama (melodrama or otherwise) will ensure a level of happiness that lets me breathe about my children’s wholeness and wellness and will enable me to let go to watch them sail. That’s all the most important “stuff.”

But then, there’s today. In terms of this resolution to set firm, clear boundaries, I won’t clear the dishes that taunt me on the dining room table from last night’s late night teen snack nor the brand-new Panini maker on the kitchen counter. I will insist the teens deal with those. I’ll unload the dishwasher and make sure that there is more bread, cheese and milk today (but I probably will send the hubs to get it or do so on foot; I don’t think I’ll drive). I think I’ll wash some of those towels. The article on habit formation explains that acting without thinking, which in science is called “automaticity” is the “central driver of habits.” It’s January second and I have a long way to go to set clear, firm boundaries without a second thought. At least the year is young. And at least the towels are out of my sightline.

Reflect, Resolve, Then Keep It Small

Reflect, Resolve, Then Keep It Small

NinaBadzinThe process of making New Year’s resolutions speaks to me. I like the excuse to reflect on the time that’s passed and to think about the year ahead. It helps that my birthday falls at the end of December, giving each January an extra layer of potential above and beyond the new number on the calendar.

As a self-diagnosed resolution junkie, I’ve learned that the best ones are both small and measurable. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to choose lofty goals that sound like positive changes. Take the ubiquitous word “mindful,” for example. People everywhere are promising to eat mindfully, shop mindfully, parent mindfully and more. A term like “mindful” quickly becomes a feel-good buzzword to the point of meaninglessness when the promises attached to it lack any discernible milestones.

Similarly, so many of us make the same resolutions year after year. We will eat better, work out more, keep the house organized, force the kids to follow through with their chores, stop buying clothes we don’t need, volunteer more (or less in some cases), and be better spouses and friends. To name a few.

Those resolutions fail because they’re too big and too nebulous to succeed. What does it take to become a better friend? It could entail, for example, picking up the phone instead of only relying on texts. Another positive step is making sure to initiate plans instead of always waiting for friends to ask. Both ideas are specific and therefore doable improvements. However, I still argue that guaranteed success in this case would likely require even more clear-cut habit changes. How about resolving to call a different friend each week instead of texting and emailing? Or every other week? Even a phone conversation with someone different once a month would strengthen a friendship if it’s one more call than zero. “Small and specific,” that’s my motto.

What’s more hopeless about some resolutions is that they do not always represent what would add happiness, purpose, or meaning to our lives. This is where taking the time to reflect before making a resolution could turn the rote act of New Year’s goal setting into a life-changing exercise, or at least a year-changing one.

Maybe we’re already eating as “mindfully” as we can realistically maintain. Maybe the house is organized enough. Maybe the kids help as much as they can between their activities and homework. Instead of making big promises to myself like I used to in the past (I’ve spent half of my life promising and failing to completely cut out sugar), I now ask myself what small change could improve the year ahead.

My most recent experience with a small habit altering my life more than a big, nebulous intention began during the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) in the fall of 2012. (Yes, this resolution junkie gets two opportunities in a year to implement new behaviors.) That year I had vowed to stop using my cell phone on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday.

“I’m being mindful about how much time I’m using my iPhone” was a nice thing to say, but by January 2013, I had made little progress. Twenty-four hours without my phone was more than I was ready to do. Furthermore, what I truly needed was a way to spend less time on my phone every day instead of focusing all of my efforts on one long stretch.

To fix that problem, I identified the two places where forbidding any family cell phone use would vastly improve our lives: the bedrooms and any table where a meal was involved.

These two seemingly minor changes fundamentally altered my year. Charging my phone in the kitchen instead of the bedroom eliminated any late night and early morning texting, emailing, and glancing at Facebook. I’ve read more at night, talked to my husband more, and found myself dressed faster in the morning. And without my phone on the table during meals, I’ve felt like a less distracted wife, mom, and friend. I’ve certainly felt less rude.

My 2014 resolutions are not terribly exciting, which is why I know they’ll work. Because I want more time to write, I’ve resolved to add one more early morning writing session to my schedule. Because I want to continue feeling less attached to my phone and more focused on the people I care about, I’ve resolved to maintain the phone-free boundaries from this year. And because I know that overly-ambitious resolutions generally fail, I’m finally done making grandiose promises to cut out sugar. Nobody likes a liar anyway.

My older two kids (nine and seven) said at Rosh Hashanah that they would work on getting along. I suspect that their promises haven’t worked so far because I forced that goal on them rather than encouraging them to think about their own hopes for the year. They also never identified small ways they could work harder to avoid fighting. I tried not to make the same mistake for this second chance to get it right. I admit that I forced them to recommit to their promise to get along. (Maybe I’ll add less helicoptering to next year’s list for myself.) But together we came up with a few concrete ideas of how each one could be kinder to the other, and therefore fight less. We’ll see how it goes!

What small change are you making this year? Have your kids come up with resolutions too?

Illustration by Christine Juneau