Decembers Are for Getting Sick (And Other Lessons I Learned in 2016)

Hello there! It’s been a while. I hope that you and yours enjoyed a lovely Christmas and that 2017 is seeming all bright-and-shiny new to you, exciting and full of hope.

I guess I’m there? Maybe? I’ve spent the past several weeks feeling alternately over-stressed and exasperated with myself – and cleaning up so! much! vomit! So I think I’m just ready enough to move on that I’m getting excited about the possibilities this new year holds.

Or I’m getting excited about having a crisp, fresh, new planner to fill out. One of the two.

Either way, it feels good to turn the page. And in turning it (so to speak), I thought I’d give you fine people a little dose of my end-of-year processing and beginning-of-year planning: lessons I learned in 2016. Plus some general catch-up stuff and cute kid pics.

I went way overboard writing it, though (length!), so I’m splitting the whole thing into more than one post. First, I give you:

(1) Decembers are for getting sick.

This lesson just about slapped me in the face the other day. At the beginning of December I was all hopeful and dreamy. “We had such a rough December last year,” I kept thinking to myself, “It will be great to actually enjoy this one!” I figured we’d, you know, be able to take care of our preparations on time, maybe bake a few cookies and invite some friends over, enjoy a few cheerful days with our extended family . . .

I don’t know what I was thinking.

Was I thinking that December owed us something? That last year’s bad December gave us immunity for any ailments that might try to strike us this time? That surely, surely we wouldn’t have two sick Christmases in a row?

It took until early January – weeks into a string of stomach bugs and the umpteen-million loads of vomity laundry that accompanied it – for me to remember: “Oh – that’s right. We’ve been here before.”

And in a flash I realized that we almost certainly will be again.

This year (er – 2016) we were mostly out of commission for weeks on end thanks to a long-lingering, family-wide stomach bug.

Last year we started the month with a series of weird pregnancy symptoms for me and ended the month with what was likely a mild case of Guillain-Barré syndrome for my husband. (So scary! So many hospital visits!)

Five years ago I began the month with a sinus infection, had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic I was given for it, and consequently suffered such a terrible, harsh cough that I damaged my vocal chords and was unable to speak above a whisper until mid-January. (So emotional! But I avoided surgery!)

In two of the intervening Decembers I was pregnant, all tired and unambitious-like.

So again – what was I thinking? For this small-kids season of life, at least, I think we should just expect that we’ll need to reserve Decembers for getting sick.

Which means that this year (2017), I want to get most of my Christmas prep work done before December even starts. I want to finish my Christmas shopping by Halloween. (Even the wrapping? Wouldn’t that be amazing?) I want to do a good “fall cleaning” of the house before Thanksgiving. I want to be ready to order my Christmas cards during the Black Friday sales. I want to decorate the house (and return the bins to the attic – somehow this step keeps getting left off) the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Come December, I want to have nothing left to do but decorate the tree and address those Christmas cards. By a roaring fire, preferably. And if we’re somehow able to escape whatever plague 2017 has in store for our neck of the woods, then gosh darn it I want us to be the kind of people who bake Christmas cookies and decorate gingerbread houses. Like those beautiful people on Instagram.

That’s my plan, and I’m totally writing it down in my crisp, fresh, new planner. Because …

(2) Planning is vital.

This one should be obvious – I know it should. But I am sometimes really slow on the uptake and so it is just now, at age 37, that is has clicked for me that life would be simpler if I sat down with my planner and planned things out. What a revolutionary idea.

I’ve only ever used my planner to record upcoming appointments. Never before have I thought to use it to mark out time to prepare for said appointments. Or due dates. Or holidays.

Generally what I do is know vaguely that I need to be preparing for x,y,z but spend my time wrapped up in the more pressing a,b,c items instead, so that when x,y,z comes due I’m startled and yes – unprepared.

But per the above, I’ve already framed out time for next year’s (this year’s? whatever) Christmas preparations in my planner. I need to sit down soon to do the same for other holidays and events. And I’d really like to reserve a weekly time for sifting through my papers and my planner and figuring out what I’ve got to tackle next.

I’m not under the delusion that I’ll ever be perfectly organized and prepared. But I tell you, the realization that I don’t have to go through life feeling startled every time I turn my planner’s page – it feels pretty darned great.

Okay. More lessons next time! ‘Till then, take a look at the front of this year’s Christmas card. (Isn’t he such a beautifully grumpy elf?)

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See you back here soon (I promise! It’s already written!) for the next installment of Lessons That Julie Just Now Learned But Everyone Else Already Knew.

These Walls - Decembers Are For Getting Sick

GoodBYE December, Hello January

Knock, knock.

Anybody there? Remember me – your unreliable blogger? The one with the three little boys and the political opinions and the big ol’ belly?

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This is the kind of shot you get when the 4-year-old mans the camera.

Yes, I managed to fall off the face of the internet again. At first it was, “Okay Julie, you really need to set aside the computer for a bit – you’ve got Thanksgiving coming up and Christmas to begin prepping for and all those jumbles of dishes, laundry, and toys you’ve been neglecting. Mom up.”

But after a few days of happy productivity (Thanksgiving dishes made! Christmas decorations up! House decently neat! Christmas shopping well underway!), we began our decline.

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I have to show off my Thanksgiving tart. Isn’t she lovely?

I didn’t so much notice it as we went along, but as Advent gave way to Christmas and events in our household took a step up in intensity, it really hit me: This month has been hard. I am worn down. And we’re not done.

Allow me to pause here to say to the few of you who noticed my absence for the past (more than a) month: I’m sorry. I do believe it’s been my biggest lapse yet. Until a few days ago, I felt this nagging guilt about it, especially regarding the things I’d left hanging (like my Home to Me blog hop). But now I feel no guilt. Now I realize that we’ve been in survival mode for most of this time. And as far as I’m concerned, things related to blogging simply don’t matter when one’s in survival mode. This is what matters:

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(Well, them and dishes, because if dishes paralyze the kitchen, then the kitchen paralyzes the household.)

So, what’s the deal? It goes something like this: sob story, sob story, icing on the cake, admitting how overwhelmed and worried I’ve felt, then a dose of pull-yourself-together reality.

Sob Story One

In the first week of December, I started to feel faint – like all the time faint, like “Gee, might something actually be really wrong?” faint. So I went to the hospital, where they found my blood pressure to be a bit high, but otherwise gave me a clean bill of health. (I had no markers for preeclampsia, for those of you who know about that sort of thing.) Another kinda-high blood pressure reading the following week won me another round of bloodwork, but that too, thankfully, came back normal. Since then I’ve continued to experience episodes of faintness (not fainting, thank goodness). At first they came every day, but now it’s down to every two or three.

In sum, I started the month by experiencing yet another round of “Julie develops weird symptoms that doctors get worried about until they realize she’s perfectly healthy.” The frequency with which this happens is, frankly, pretty embarrassing, and gives me very little confidence in my own assessment of my health.

Sob Story Two

As my daily episodes of feeling faint tapered off in the middle of the month, my husband began to experience some strange symptoms of his own: His hands went numb. Soon enough his feet did too. And his lower legs. And his lower arms. And he began to experience weakness in those areas. Last week, when the numbness reached his elbows, Brennan took himself to the ER.

The poor guy underwent a barrage of tests, one of which (spinal tap!) he’s been suffering the effects of for a full week. Thankfully, the tests quickly ruled out the scariest possibilities: stroke, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis. But we’re still waiting for the rest of the results. The doctor’s best guess at this point is that Brennan has a mild case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. (Guillain-Barre is a condition in which a person’s immune system attacks his nerves. It causes numbness, weakness, even paralysis – sometimes of a person’s entire body, and can take months to recover from.)

Scary and stressful enough, right?

But then there’s the context: It’s Christmas. (Brennan came home from the hospital the evening of Christmas Eve and felt too unwell to attend Mass with us the next morning, or indeed to make it to any of our family gatherings over the weekend.) We have three small boys. (Daddy was able to read “The Night Before Christmas” to them at bedtime, but barely had the energy to open gifts on Christmas morning.) And of course, we’re expecting a baby at the end of January.

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This pic will always make me a little sad because it shows that Brennan wasn’t with us.

Icing on the Cake

A few days before Brennan’s symptoms worsened, our toddler cut his eye on a decorative metal bucket, the other two boys had keep-you-up-in-the-night-coughing colds, and I started having “real” contractions. When my obstetrician confirmed their “real” work, she told me to take it easy. I laughed. “So… what about me taking three small boys into Baltimore this evening for a visit to a pediatric ophthalmologist? For the toddler? Who cut his eye?”

“After that,” she replied.

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Stupid decorative culprit.

In retrospect, my laugh should have been louder and crazier. It certainly has been in the days since. I’ve been telling my girlfriends that I don’t want to hear the words “You’d better take it easy!” unless they’re accompanied by a live-in nanny and/or housekeeper.

Overwhelmed and Worried

Ever since he came home, Brennan has been weaker than usual, exhausted, suffering headaches, and (in an effort to control the headaches, which come from a lack of spinal fluid) limited from carrying anything heavy or moving in certain ways.

So for me, “taking it easy” has looked like lugging around and wrestling into submission the 32-pound toddler. Through my contractions. It’s looked like three hours of sleep after a late, late Christmas Eve spent wrapping presents. It’s looked like ushering various combinations of three little boys to two Masses and three family gatherings by myself. In and out, in and out of the car, contracting and hobbling and feeling faint, loading and unloading ad infinitum.

Or at least that’s how it’s felt in my woe-to-me worry-fests. (What if Brennan’s symptoms continue to worsen? What if he’s out of commission when I have the baby and I have to manage all three boys, a newborn, and my own recovery without his help? What if he too ends up needing my care?)

Pull! Yourself! Together!

Calm down, Julie.

Honestly, I know the reality is much brighter than my worries would have me believe. Brennan’s health problems seem to be temporary. (Indeed, as of this morning, he was feeling better than he has in some time.) My wonderful dad came to help me with the boys while B was in the hospital so I could focus on him and on our remaining Christmas preparations. We’ve had lots of offers of help in the days since then. (Though, mundane as our needs are, I don’t know how to make use of them!)

And while, at eight months pregnant with my fourth child, I’m contracting all the time, occasionally feeling faint, and suddenly feeling very uncomfortable – I’m healthy. And so is the baby. Even if she comes early (and I doubt she will), she should be fine. Full term is just over a week away, and that’s a great place to be.

Our boys are dealing with nothing more daunting than colds and silly childhood injuries. (The toddler’s eye is healing nicely.) They don’t seem to have noticed our concern over Brennan’s health. (Me: “Daddy’s been feeling a little funny lately. He’s at the hospital to have it all checked out, so Grandpa’s coming to help take care of you.” Them: “GRANDPA’S COMING!”) Our mess of a floor is a testament to the many treasures they acquired over the past week, and they’ll probably remember this Christmas as the one when they sat on the sofa with Daddy to watch their first-ever Star Wars movies.

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Right now I don’t have it in me to write a grand “Year in Review” post. I can’t sit and reflect on the sum of 2015 or come up with resolutions for 2016. But I can tell you that December was hard and I’m hoping January will be better.

I pray yours will be too. I pray that your hurts will heal, your hopes will be realized, and your joys will be amplified. Thank you for reading along in 2015 (except… yeah… for December); I hope to meet you back here more frequently in 2016.

These Walls - Goodbye December Hello January

Under The Wire: Christmas 2014

Happy Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord! (Otherwise known as the last day of the Christmas season, technically speaking.) This morning at mass our pastor asked for a show of hands as to how many people had already taken down their Christmas trees. When half the congregation did just that, he shouted: “Go put them back up!”

Ours is still standing – a withered, crispy version of its former self – not because I’m an ace at following the liturgical calendar, but because I do nothing early and almost nothing on time. Last year I think it was (cough, cough) March before we got all our Christmas decorations down. (I’m hiding behind my hands here. Can you tell?)

Anyway, on Facebook I promised folks a little Christmas tour of our home and I hate to break my promises – I really do. So here are some poorly-executed pictures of my incomplete Christmas decorating, just under the wire.


Well, I did finish the tree. I think it sat for at least a week before I decorated it, but decorate it I did. Lovely. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking at the thing every time I go up and down the stairs – droopy, crunchy, and falling apart though it is.

I took so few Christmas tree pics this year that I'm resorting to showing you one with a shower curtain sticking out from below it. (Makes for a practical tree skirt!)

I took so few Christmas tree pics this year that I’m resorting to showing you one with a shower curtain sticking out from below it. (Makes for a practical tree skirt!)

Cheating here -- this is a pic from last year. But I promise it looks pretty much the same!

(Cheating here — this is a pic from last year. But I promise it looks pretty much the same!)

Unlike our previous two Christmases, I did actually get out all of our Christmas decorations this year, and I did actually arrange things on all (four) of our first-floor mantles. (Win, right?) What I didn’t do, though, is artfully arrange fresh greens among the décor and lace them with lights. Sigh… wouldn’t that have been beautiful?

(I know, I’m being trivial. But my mother always does a great job of decorating for Christmas and for me, that greens + lights thing is what makes it. Sit me in front of one of those softly-lit Christmas-scapes with a glass of eggnog and I’m one happy camper.)

Anyway, here are our mantles, sans lighted greenery.






As to how we celebrated the season(s) itself, I feel like we took a tiny little baby step forward from last year’s Christmas, but we were still nowhere near where I’d like to be. (To be clear, I don’t aspire to have the overachiever’s dream Christmas; I long for Advent and Christmas seasons in which all of our rooms are comfortably useable, nobody’s running around stressed out, and we get to  take the time to sit and enjoy the specialness of the seasons.)

This year our dining room was out of commission for the holidays because it became the dumping ground for everything I couldn’t find time to deal with. (So sad, kind of stressful.) We didn’t do that cool open-a-book-for-every-day-of-Advent thing, we didn’t get to any Christmas baking, we didn’t do any crafts, we didn’t hit the Christmas parade, we didn’t even all head out to look at Christmas lights as a family. (Boo-hoo.) We sent out our cards late.

But we did send out cards.



We did an Advent calendar and we worked on teaching the boys the Hail Mary with a daily (er, we tried to do it daily) recitation while pulling a link off the Advent chain my son made at school. We made it to the Santa breakfast and also to see Santa at the mall. We watched Christmas movies and read Christmas books. On Christmas morning, we ate a “picnic” breakfast in front of the tree and the fire. (That was particularly lovely, but a little confusing to the boys: “Why are we eating on the floor?”)





We did Christmas gifts that were simpler than some, more excessive than others: Santa brought each boy a toy, a puzzle, and a book. The boys each gave one gift to each other and we gave them each a few more. Then of course the grandparents did what grandparents do.




My own favorite gifts are shown here: a beautiful art print from my sweet husband (I love livestock) and a framed series of baby photos of my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and me, given to me by my grandmother.


We had a little sickness, a little rushing, a little not-getting-to-everything, but it really was a lovely Christmas here in our family. I hope yours was just as nice!

Christmas Review, 2013

I know that many (most?) of you have taken down your tree and moved past Christmas at this point, but I’ve been trying for days to fit in one fully Christmas-themed piece before the season officially came to a close (Happy Epiphany!) and I allllmost made it. Almost. So, whatever. I’m posting this rambling thing anyway.


Plus, here I sit (for at least part of the writing of this post), in front of a lovely fire, with my equally lovely (if crispy, because we never remember to water it) Christmas tree in the background for the last time this season. And despite the detritus of stuff strewn about our entire first floor (a result of two consecutive days of Daddy on Duty) and the vaguely bleh feeling of recovering from a stomach bug (which sent me to Labor and Delivery for a not-so-lovely few hours Friday night), I’m still feeling that warm-fuzzy Christmas feeling.


Same set-up, less messy day.

So, here’s a little review of how our family prepared for and celebrated Christmas this year, as well as some thoughts on such things in general, and on how we can maybe do ours a little better next year. (If I write about it here, I can check back on it then, right?)

But, fair warning: much of this post (especially the stuff in the middle) is probably of interest to just one person – little ol’ me. This is how I’m choosing to get it all down, to remember it for next year. If you like pictures of Christmas decorations, details about how other families do holidays, and musings on how one might do holidays better, then settle right in and enjoy. If you find such things B.O.R.I.N.G., then maybe just check on back here in a couple of days, okay?

— Advent —

We… um… didn’t do much for Advent this year.

Last year, I made a little paper candle for each day of Advent and wrote on each the name of a loved one. I taped them to our kitchen mantle and set up a small Christmas tree in our dining room, decorated with nothing but white lights. Each day, we took one of the candles off the mantle, prayed for the person named on it, and hung the candle on the tree in the dining room. I meant to do the same this year. I set up the tree and pulled out last year’s paper candles. But, intending to switch the names around a bit, I never hung them up. Fail.

Last year -- see the candles hanging from the mantle?

Last year — see the candles hanging from the mantle?

I also thought about doing that whole opening-one-children’s-Christmas-book-each-day-of-Advent thing. I even have nearly enough books. But I didn’t get around to wrapping them. Fail.

Didn’t do the advent wreath either. Pulled it out, set it on the table, and never dug out the candles. Fail.

I didn’t even do daily Advent reflections, which I’ve almost always done in the past. Fail!

So, what did we do? It wasn’t much: we brought out the nativity scenes at the start of Advent and we talked about them. For most of the month, we kept our decorations simple and our preparations quiet. We had nativity scenes (with Baby Jesus tucked away and wise men set off to the side) throughout our first floor and we had that simple little dining-room tree with white lights. We talked about Jesus’ birth and we sang Christmas carols.

You know how people display placards and memes admonishing folks to “Keep Christ in Christmas”? I’m a little turned off by them. I always want to answer, “So, do it! Take a look around at your home and your traditions and your stress level and do what you can to focus on the ‘Reason for the Season.’ You – not society at large – are in charge of how you celebrate Christmas.”

Personally (and I admit I’m at a pretty good place in my life for this – just a few years into parenthood), I’m trying to set the course for the way holidays will be celebrated in my home. If I don’t want Christmas to be about materialism, I don’t let it. If I want it to be a season of peace, that’s what I focus on. If I want to keep it about Christ, that’s what I do. I think we should orient ourselves to our goals and just go ahead and live them out the best we can. So, that’s what we did with Christmas. If the boys brought up Santa, sure, we indulged their excitement a little bit. But we didn’t make out that Christmas is about Santa and gifts. We made clear that it’s about Christ’s birth.

Next year, I’d like to have our Advent activities all planned out and ready to go before Thanksgiving. Maybe I should take things down from the attic, dust them off, and set them aside in mid-November, even. Then I could simply set them out the first Sunday of Advent and be done with all the “Ohmygosh I don’t want to go to the attic and dig into bins and deal with all that dusty stuff.” I’m particularly lazy with that sort of thing, so I should probably schedule it on my calendar now.

— Cards —

Cards were and weren’t a kind-of failure this year. On the plus side, we had family photos taken in October (October!) and I ordered the cards on December 4. (Which seems chest-puffingly early to this procrastinator.) On the negative side, the cards were delayed, then delivered to the wrong address, and so re-ordered and delivered to us just before Christmas. Also, blinded by a good Shutterfly sale and free shipping, I went a little overboard with the design. We ended up getting them done, though most arrived after Christmas day. Next year, as much as I hate to say so, we should probably order our cards before Thanksgiving. (Shudder!)



— Parties and activities —

This is where I think we struck the right balance. We did three simple, Christmasy out-of-the-house activities: we went to our parish’s Santa breakfast, we drove around one evening to look at Christmas lights, and we went to our town’s tree-lighting ceremony, where our 3-year-old sang with his preschool class. We attended our usual two family parties: one at my grandparents’ on Christmas Day, another at my parents’ on the previous weekend. We also hosted two parties and an overnight visit: a weekday, brunch-time St. Nicholas Day party for little ones, a post-Christmas open house for friends and family, and a New Year’s Eve/Day visit from my best friend and her family. The activities were nicely spread out over the month and other than pre-party house-cleanings (which are good to do in and of themselves), none were too labor intensive. I’d be perfectly happy if we did the same assortment next year.


I only get credit for the dark chocolate tart and the banana bread.

That's the sign of a good party.

Now, that’s the sign of a good party.

— Decorations —

Well… we put up a tree! A whole week before Christmas! Though I think I might not have finished decorating it until Christmas Eve. We hung our Moravian star on the porch and put candle lights in the front windows, also (ahem) on Christmas Eve. Let’s see… what else… Brennan put up a pine garland over the parlor fireplace. There were the aforementioned nativities and the dining room tree. And stockings. And the Christmas cards we received. That’s it.



Last year I decorated our mantles, which I love doing. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to it this year. Next year, if I can manage it with an 8-month-old underfoot (not to mention a 4- and 3-year-old), I’d love to do the mantles up right again. Plus the assortment of basics we pulled off this year.

Again -- last year!

Last year!

— Gifts —

I have to say, given all that not-focusing-on-Santa-and-gifts stuff, it was pretty darned fun to have a child old enough to get excited about Santa this year. Our 3-year-old had been talking about wanting a guitar for months and he was delighted to learn that he could ask Santa to bring him one. Fortunately, good ol’ Santa Claus did not disappoint. Nor did he (I think) spoil the kiddos. He brought our older boy the guitar and a cowboy costume and our younger boy a fire engine and a fireman costume. He also brought each boy a puzzle and a wooden truck. They. were. thrilled. In fact, once they saw the guitar and the fire engine, they really didn’t care about anything else.


Santa doesn’t wrap our gifts, does he wrap yours?

And it’s a good thing that Santa’s gifts (oh, and Grandma’s too) were fun, because Mommy and Daddy’s were mostly practical: namely, we gave the boys the bedding they’ll need for the big-boy beds they’ll be getting this spring. The boys gave each other a toy: tools for one, a truck for the other. And this year, in a first, I think, my ever-practical hubby (whose past gifts have included a floor mat and a bed pillow) gave me a gift that is pretty. He gave me a lovely art print for our dining room. It’s the first thing we’ve properly hung on a wall in the 1.5 years we’ve been in this house. (Everything else has been stuck on nails that were already there when we moved in, because I’m too chicken to mess with plaster walls unless I’m really, really sure about what I’m hanging.)


Isn’t she so pretty?! I want sheep…

Regarding shopping for gifts, I did most of it at the last minute. Which you would think would be a recipe for high stress. Except that it actually wasn’t, and it even lead me to a new philosophy for Christmas gift shopping. Behold: Shop for tough people (i.e. out-of-town Godchildren, my hubby, and my dad) well in advance. That is, whenever in the year I can find something that suits them. And by Thanksgiving at the latest. But shop for easy people (i.e. my boys, my nieces, and my mom) at the last-minute. Tons of cool things can be ordered easily from Amazon and lots of good sales abound in the last days before Christmas. In short, get the stressful ones over with early and save the fun ones ‘till the end.

— The Christmas Season, Proper —

I’m actually kind of glad that we didn’t get a lot accomplished this year until Christmas itself was right around the corner. I feel like my default is to feel guilty the whole first half of December that I’m not doing more, then desperate to get it all done the week before Christmas, then let down as soon as Christmas day passes. Oh, and then guilty all over again, because I’m nowhere near ready to take everything down, but Christmas is… you know… over.

Except that it’s not. It’s really not. Sure, it makes sense for retailers to start hyping Christmas in November (Earlier? Ouch!) and then pressure you to DO! MAKE! BUY! in the final weeks that lead up to December 25th. And sure, it’s natural for folks who have been immersed in that environment and that hectic pace to feel DONE with it all as soon as Christmas day ends. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not even supposed to. If I view Christmas as a religious holiday, then I should look at it from the vantage of the religious calendar: December is dominated by Advent, not Christmas. Advent is a season of preparation, reflection, and penance. Christmas arrives on the 25th and lasts for twelve days. Epiphany, the feast of the magi, comes in early January.

I feel like we kind of got the tone right this year. Next year, I want to be really purposeful about the days. We’ll still put up our Christmas tree during Advent, but we’ll never be weekend-after-Thanksgiving people. We’ll add to our decorations and shopping slowly, so that we’re ready (but not frantic!) on Christmas day itself. Next year, I want to mark each of the twelve days of Christmas somehow. Perhaps we’ll give our own Christmas gifts to the boys bit-by-bit, stretched over those twelve days. We’ll see. I also want to mark Epiphany next year, maybe with a fun little party for our (fun) little family. We’ll see on that count too. Regardless of how, exactly, we work it all out, I want to teach my boys that Christmas matters and I think that observing it fully will help to teach that lesson.


— This New Year —

I’ve never been a big New Year’s resolution person, nor have I ever landed on a “word of the year.” But this year, I felt like a few things just came to me naturally, that the past few months have pointed me in their direction. So, I guess I’d better pursue them. One relates to what I wrote above: I want to be purposeful about this year’s holidays and liturgical seasons. Another is more basic and more important: I need to (sleep and therefore) rise early so that I can have some quiet prayer time for myself each day. (No, I haven’t been praying daily, which I usually blame on the ever-loving lack of quiet in this house. Unfortunately, it’s become an easy excuse.) And lastly, I have a word for 2014. One that came to me clearly, one that has been coming for some time: Generous. This year, I need to be generous, I need to learn to respond generously, both in my mind and in my actions.


So, there you have it: My look back on Advent and Christmas 2013, my look forward at what those seasons should be in the years to come, and my outlook at the beginning of 2014. May you and yours have a peaceful, healthy, joyful year ahead of you.


Oh, Boys

We had a lovely Christmas, we really did. Our prep, while time-consuming, came off without a hitch. The boys were thrilled with their gifts in the most simple, refreshingly non-greedy way. They had a blast playing with their cousins and wishing everyone a “Mawwy Chwimas!” / “Ma mas!” And we thoroughly enjoyed witnessing their joy. Like I said, it was lovely.


But you know what came next, don’t you? The Day After Christmas. The one that you tell yourself will be great because children will be tired and they’ll have lots of new toys to play with and a couple of new movies to watch. But the problem is, children are exhausted and they have lots of new toys to feel possessive about and a couple of new movies to compete with their shouting matches. Or at least, that’s how it went in our house.

Towards the end of the (LOUD, jarring) day, my fried little brain started asking that unkind question: “Why, oh why, has God seen fit to give me all boys?”



I can only assume that these boys are meant to give my patience and my intellect and my very soul a supreme work-out, because I promise you that I am not the kind of woman who is naturally suited to life with boys.

Don’t get me wrong: my boys are wonderful. They are ridiculously cute, more loving and cuddly than I could ever have hoped for, bright, cheerful, creative, even kind and polite. The cliché rings true: I wouldn’t trade them for the world.


But still, I find life with small boys to be something like walking through an automatic carwash. You’re jostled, you’re sprayed (sorry – that one was too easy), you’re pelted, you’re surrounded by NOISE, you’re knocked down, you’re roughed up, and everything’s coming at you so quickly and furiously that pretty much all you can do is react. And duck.


So, as much as I love, love, love my boys, do you know what comment from well-meaning strangers I find most irksome? It’s not, “You’ve got your hands full!” It’s not even “Treasure every moment!” It’s… wait for it… “Boys are easier than girls.”

I get that all. the. time.

Stranger: “Two little boys!”
Me: “Yep. And we’re expecting a third!”
Stranger: “Three boys! Well, at least boys are easier than girls!”

I’m generally very good at not letting strangers’ comments bother me; I think that most come from kindness or sympathy and I choose to take them that way. But this one bugs the heck out of me.

For one thing, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a girl. Or I was. And I was a girly girl too, so any drama/intrigue that you want to blame on girls, I’m sure I was guilty of at some point. Sue me for being a little defensive of my sex.

For another thing, my desire to someday have a daughter is quite genuine. It’s not so wobbly as to be shaken by strangers’ warnings that girls are particularly hard to parent. I could give you a whole list of reasons as to why I’d like to have a daughter. And cute little dresses don’t even feature prominently among them. (By the way, I loved this post. I loved seeing daughters celebrated, for once. Just because I don’t have girls of my own, doesn’t mean I want them to have a bad rap.)

But mostly, the comment bothers me because, this parenting boys thing? This is not easy. Wonderful in its own way? Most definitely. But easy? Absolutely not.


Boys are LOUD*. They are destructive. They are aggressive, even violent. They think they are invincible. I know that parents bemoan the difficulty of dealing with girls’ emotions, but I personally feel better equipped to pick my way through the emotional morass than to constantly worry if my boys are going to break their necks. My mother used to say of my brother and me: “You have to worry about keeping Julie happy. You have to worry about keeping Eric alive.”

(*Yes, yes, yes – I know that there are exceptions to every rule. I know that there must be some rare docile male specimens out there, as well as some destructive females. But I’ve found that, by and large, there’s a truth to the aforementioned stereotype. Certainly, it’s borne out in my home.)

Boys, as little males, also think rather differently than we females do. And I confess, so often I just don’t get them. They delight in destruction, seeming to build only so they can tear down. (Seriously, why do we even have building blocks – aka sharp-edged projectiles – in our house?) They are often oblivious to others’ pain. Little brother can be lying on the floor, shrieking from a bleeding head wound, and big brother will be trying to tell me a story about how monsters can be scared away by dogs. They are forever in-the-moment, emotionally. The boys and I can have just emerged from a major, dramatic disagreement, involving (them, not me – I promise) wailing and throwing themselves on the floor, and all-of-a-sudden, they’re fine! I’m left all hot and huffy and they’re like no big deal! Let’s eat lollipops!

Would you believe that moments after this picture was taken, they dropped to the floor and started wrestling? At church? In front of the HOLY FAMILY?

Would you believe that moments after this picture was taken, they dropped to the floor and started wrestling? At church? In front of the HOLY FAMILY?

Let me paint you a picture of life in our home: Imagine a writhing bundle of boy, a tangled mess of arms and legs, shrieking as it rolls from one end of the house to the other. Imagine small boys chasing each other in circles, roaring, fangs and claws bared. Imagine a flurry of crumbs flying from their hands and mouths as they eat, because – didn’t you know – they’re sharks, not boys after all. Imagine pirates and lions and bears. Everywhere. All the time.

You try to sit and read them a book; they jump across the sofa, onto you. (Like, actually onto you – and they’re not particular as to which part of your body bears the brunt of their attack.) You hand them an old paper towel roll, it becomes a sword. You hand them a broom, it becomes a sword. You hand them a sword and a “Thefirsttimeyouhitsomeonewiththisitgoesaway!” and you hear screaming in about three minutes.

Imagine that your boy tells you he has made his dinosaur hairy. You’re momentarily puzzled, until you see this:


And you realize he’s done this:


Or even this:


This Advent, I brought out our child-friendly nativity set to try to teach the boys the story of Christmas. Even though I’d really prefer to focus on the few precious moments when my boys were talking about Mary and Baby Jesus and tenderly moving the nativity pieces across the table, I fear that that the BANG! BANG! BANG!** I heard from the family room one day is closer to the truth. Because my boy was, indeed, smashing every figure of the (thankfully, plastic) nativity set to the floor with his (thankfully, also plastic) hammer.

And that hammer-on-Baby-Jesus scenario is regrettably still preferable to the manger-on-little-brother scenario that took place a couple of weeks earlier. Because, yes, my older son threw this:


At his brother’s face. With force. From across the room.


And even though that offense landed him in bed for a full hour, he still went ahead and repeated it the next day. (Though fortunately, that time he only got the little guy on the foot.)

(**Yes, all three offenses were greeted with the appropriate level of Catholic guilt, including stern exclamations that included the words “HOLY” and “GOD” and “CHRISTMAS.”)


Oh, well – you get the idea. I’ve probably gone overboard with my picture-painting. The bottom line is that Boys ≠ Easy. Which isn’t to say that Girls = Easy. My grandmother, a mother to seven, boys and girls included, maintains that a five-year-old boy about equals a 15-year-old girl in difficulty. They’re both hard, she says – just at different times. The other day, my aunt told me much the same, except she emphasized that my hard (assuming I never have girls, that is) will be over in a few years. Girls’ hard, she said, is “a long, slow boil.”

That may well be true. I don’t know what it’s like to have teenaged boys, let alone teenaged girls. But I feel pretty sure that when I get to that point in parenthood, I still won’t think it’s easy. Easier, perhaps, than the little-boy years, but still not easy. One never stops being a parent, never stops worrying, never stops feeling some measure of responsibility. I expect that when I’m a mother to teenaged boys, my mind will be firmly trained on the self-sufficient, moral, responsible young men I’ll soon need to turn out into the world. My daily life may be less frantic then than it is now, but its consequences (other than the keeping-boys-alive thing, that is) will be weightier.

I’ll end on another boys-related comment I received from a stranger the other day. It was the week before Christmas, at the tail-end of our one-and-only mall shopping trip of the holiday season. I was exhausted, the boys were hyped-up. They were strapped into their double stroller, swatting and kicking each other, squealing. We were waiting to check out in always-cramped Gymboree (why in the world doesn’t a children’s clothing store leave more room for strollers?) and strict-mommy Julie had given up on trying to contain the boys’ enthusiastic aggression. I shrugged and gave the other waiting mommies a pathetic glance and said, “There comes a point when you just can’t do anything else.” They chuckled and smiled sympathetically and an older woman, a grandmother, replied, “Boys are different, aren’t they?”

I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Yes. Yes, boys are different. Not better, not worse. Not easier. Boys are just different.



P.S. If any of you are mothers-to-boys, in need of more sympathy and solidarity, be sure to check out Rachel Balducci’s blog, Testosterhome. Rachel is a mother to five boys – and one beautiful little girl. A friend gifted me with Rachel’s book when I had my first son. It gave me great joy, great comfort, and maybe just a little bit of fear too. It turned me on to Testosterhome, which later introduced me to more mommy blogs, which then introduced me to others. All of my favorite reads today can be traced back to Testosterhome, and for that – not to mention all the solidarity – I am sincerely grateful to Rachel. (And to Mary.)

Five Favorites (Vol. 4): ‘Twas the Week Before Christmas


We’ve now officially got LESS THAN ONE WEEK before Christmas. And (don’t let the caps lock fool you), I’m actually not sweating it.

Sure, I’ve still got half of my shopping left to do, all of my wrapping, my tree to finish decorating, all of my other Christmas decorating to do, my cards to send out (once they arrive, that is!), my food contributions to our family parties to figure out, my own Christmas meals to plan, a snack for my son’s school party to make… and a pedicure to fit in before my gift certificate (last year’s Christmas present) expires.

So, I should totally be sweating it. (Except for the pedicure part.)

But I’m not! This year, I am – and I can’t believe I can say this without rolling my eyes – actually enjoying the run-up to Christmas and even feeling peaceful about it. Thank the Lord! (Seriously – thank you, Lord.) I definitely feel like my lack of anxiety this season has been a blessing from above and has had very little to do with my own actions. It certainly has nothing to do with my level of preparation.

Rather, I have a feeling that the following simple favorites from this week have contributed to my Christmasy peace and joy:




We’re not used to getting December snow in this part of the country, so the whole “White Christmas” thing is usually just a fantasy. (Come Christmas Day, it likely will be again: after getting up to a balmy 66 degrees on Sunday, we should enjoy a nice, cool 40 degrees on Christmas.) However, we’ve had snow covering the ground here for a week-and-a-half, and it’s done so much to put me in the Christmas mindset. It’s just so easy to get excited about Christmas when you’ve got snow-covered evergreens and hollies to look at every day.



Breakfast with Santa

On Saturday, Brennan and I took the boys to our parish’s Breakfast with Santa. It was our little family’s first and I think I might have been more excited for it than the boys were. It’s yet another one of those things that makes me pinch myself: Do I really have my own little family now? Are my boys really big enough to understand and enjoy such things? It was such a joy. The parish put on a lovely breakfast, Mrs. Claus read stories to the children, there was a craft center, they circulated a Happy Birthday to Jesus card for the kids to sign, there were some child-sized cardboard nativity figures for little ones to check out, and of course there was The Man himself. My 3-year-old happily sat on Santa’s lap, but was a little quiet and shy about telling him what he’s really hoping for (a guitar). And of course, the 2-year-old wanted nothing to do with Santa.



Our Christmas Tree

As long as it takes me to decorate a large Christmas tree, I just love doing it. There are few things that relax me as much as, one by one, unwrapping years’ worth of Christmas ornaments and finding the perfect spots for them on our tree. The memories, the lights, the smell, the (if I’m lucky) Christmas music in the background… it’s dreamy. And I have to admit, I’m a little greedy about it. I’ve been doing the whole tree by myself since I was a teenager. I don’t like to be rushed through it, so if people are just willing to leave me be, we’re all happy campers. Over the past couple of years I’ve acquired a bunch of child-friendly (mostly fabric) ornaments. This year I set them aside and let the boys go to town placing them (and removing them… and replacing them…) on the lowest branches. I expect the year will come when they’ll want to (and be able to) do more, but for now, this is the perfect arrangement for us.


Driving Around to Look at Christmas Lights

Monday night, I fed the boys their dinner at a decent hour, Brennan came home from work a little early, we got the boys suited up in their pajamas, and we all loaded into the car. We spent an hour driving around, looking at Christmas lights. It. Was. Lovely. Peering out on the ice and snow from our warm car, looking at the thousands of lights in all their joyful/beautiful/tacky glory, hearing the boys’ “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” and cries of “My side!” or “My hide!” as they spotted one decked-out house after another… It was priceless. Too often, my husband and I tend to focus on productivity in our “free” time (we’re the getting-stuff-done type on the weekends, not the doing-fun-stuff type). It was so nice to take a little break, get out of the house for an hour, and just enjoy being together.



Everyone wants to be really, really close to Baby Jesus.

Nativity Play

The other day, our sister-in-law sent a lovely little set of nativity figurines for the boys to play with. As I took them out of the box, I explained to the boys the meaning of each piece and its place in the nativity story. I moved the figures around to act out the story and I reviewed with the boys who each figure represented. They got a real kick out of it. They already had the Little People set and enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’d ever physically acted out the story with them. Now, I keep finding them playing with their nativity figurines and – maybe I’m imagining it, but – there seems to be more meaning to that play than there was before. It’s a real delight to witness.


Enjoy this last week of Advent, everyone. Good luck with your Christmas preparations and don’t forget to do a little “soaking up” of the beauty in this season. (Also, stop on over to Hallie’s for more Five Favorites!)

{pretty, happy, funny, real} (Vol. 6): Snow, (Non) Advent, and Christmas-a-Coming

With Advent upon us and Christmas coming and unseasonably early snowy weather here in the Mid-Atlantic, it seems that this week I have an inordinate number of things to file under {real}. But I’m sure I can dig up some {pretty, happy, and funny} too.

And with a half-dozen half-finished posts open on my computer right now, another that would have been finished if I hadn’t fallen asleep with the thing on my lap last night, and this one written during my new favorite (4am) mid-sleep wakeful hour, I have few words to give to this {pretty, happy, funny, real}. Which is just as well.









My oh my, does he LOVE the snow!


This little guy, however, prefers to be warm and dry.



Yes, I made the boys a flying race car. I have my moments.



Apologies to all you mommas with children who don’t sleep. Mine seem to be perpetually stuck in the “sleep anywhere” phase. I’m sure I have hundreds of sleeping-in-places-other-than-their-beds photos. But even this, THIS was a first — sleeping on your brother. The little one awoke with an “Off me!”


As I mentioned the other day, we picked up our Christmas tree in the middle of our first snowfall Sunday morning. Consequently, we were in a real rush to get it tied to the roof of the van. And since we knew we were looking for a large tree and very few large ones were left, we snapped one up without getting a good look at it.

After mass

After mass

We got stuck coming up the driveway after mass.


And when we finally got the snow cleared off the tree and the tree into the house, we discovered that it was… umm… a good bit bigger than we expected. I think the thing is 12 feet tall and 8 feet across. No wonder it took us 2 hours to get it in and up. I can’t believe my husband did all that work (pretty much) by himself. Pregnant wife wasn’t much good.




Nevermind all the work you put into getting me dressed, Mommy. I don’t LIKE this stuff!

And — still on {real} here — how do I show you a picture of an Advent that has not been observed? Or a picture of Christmas shopping that has barely been started? Or a (tasteful) picture of a whole household with a cold?

I’ve been hopelessly behind with Advent and Christmas preparations before, but then I had decent excuses: a busy month at work, gearing up for far-away Christmas travel, a new baby, a new home, an awful coughing thing that laid me up for weeks and damaged my vocal chords… This time, I’ve got nothing. And the whole thing is starting to get me down.

So today, a to-do list. This week (because there’s no other time!) I’ll get it all done. I’ll just plug away, no fuss, no stress; I’ll work hard until we’re there.

Also for this week: some last-ditch preparation of my soul for Christ’s coming. A few stories for my boys. I think I’ll feel better if I set aside all the other “plans” I had for this year’s Advent; they were hanging me up. I’ll dust them off next year.

So, there’s my {real} right now. The contentment isn’t in the things themselves (or rather, the lack of things), but in the peace I nonetheless feel about it all. If one thing has gone right for me this December, it’s been a feeling of peace. I have had no part in the frenzy of pre-Christmas stress, and for that I am grateful.


I hope you all have a beautiful end to your week. Be sure to stop by Like Mother, Like Daughter for more {pretty, happy, funny, real}.

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