The “Secrets” to Seven (more of my favorite Mom-systems)

I am often asked how Aaron and I balance raising seven young ‘uns when we both work full-time, our jobs require us to travel, we’re both working on our graduate degrees and we’re active in our local church.  My primary response is to note that I believe God gives each of us grace to handle whatever it is He has coming our way (more on this…).  In addition, I think He has given us all different gifts to manage the everyday, and one of my primary gifts is that of creating systems.

Though all of us must learn to be organized, some of us just see the world in a wide variety of systems.  Case in point- when my daughter, Angela, was only two years old I found her organizing a set of bags in even rows with the printed side of the bags all facing the same direction. My little systematic heart skipped a beat. 🙂  So, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite, time and sanity-saving systems. 

The Toddler Closet

ImageI used to dread walking into my toddlers’ closet.  I always knew what awaited me behind that door- piles and piles of clothes. The neat stacks I had placed in drawers or clean shirts on hangers would be strewned on the floor mixed with yesterday’s underwear and pudding-stained polo.  Ugh! Then there was the issue of matching.  No matter how I placed the clothes together, it still seemed Jaraan could walk downstairs with green shorts and a blue shirt.

I had tried sweater stackers and hanging cubes, but one day I saw this shoe organizer in my daughter’s closet and had an epiphany.  There were enough compartments to hold over 2 weeks worth of outfits, solving the “refill” problem.  They also hung over the door, saving needed closet space for the off-season clothes I hate packing and unpacking each season (there are really only 2 seasons in Texas). 

Now my toddlers can grab a matching outfit with socks and underwear included out of a pocket in the morning without disturbing the other ones.  I know they’ll match, and there isn’t a match. It makes putting clothes away easy, because I just fold into outfits, stack and put away. YES!

The Board

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Meals, chores, who is doing what which day….it all goes on the board. We used to “meal plan,” but now we MEAL PLAN. This isn’t to say we stick to this like glue each day, but we don’t go a week without planning out our meals. We basically have the same set of breakfast and lunch items that we just rotate, and we probably have about 20-25 different dinners that we switch around.  I know. It sounds boring, but it works for us! We spice it up now and then, trying out a new recipe or modifying common ones. 

In addition to meals, our chores keep the house functioning.  Everyone contributes. No one- not even the 3-year-old- is excluded. Taking out the recycling or helping match socks are easy chores for a toddler to do.  Sophie has learned how to empty the small trash cans in the house and organize the front closet.  We used to pay for chores, but now we’re operating under the philosophy that everyone contributes to the mess, so everyone contributes to getting it clean.  The reward is being part of a family who works together to get the job done.

This huge blackboard hangs in our living room, and we change up the design and features every month or so.  It’s been a fantastic tool to make sure everyone knows what’s going on, I am not asked 20 times what we’re having for dinner, and no one can say, “I can’t remember what my chores are!”

Colored Towels

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I could never understand why we didn’t have any towels.  Then I found a pile of towels at the bottom of one kid’s hamper, and I was fed up.  It was my husband, though, who came up with this fantastic idea.  Every individual in the house has a different colored towel.  They each have two, and we rotate them out every couple of days. I never hear, “I can’t find a towel!” anymore.

I hope this helps someone as much as it has helped me!!

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Paleo, wha??? My favorite paleo resources

If you have been following my story for a bit, you know our family made an effort to go paleo at the beginning of the year. If you, like me a couple of years ago, have NO idea what in the heck paleo means, just click that link in the previous sentence or google it. The gist of the paleo diet is this: no grains, no sugar, no legumes, no processed food of any kind (there are some who go farther, but this is a big first step). If you want to know why I would subject myself and my family to such torture, you can read this old blog

Even though we’re not as hard core as we were in January, eating has definitely changed in our family. And, this funny thing has happened. I realized the other day that our kids don’t really get sick any more. They have seasonal allergies, the occasional headache, but I can’t even remember the last time one of them needed an antibiotic. My husband, who was having one migraine per week- and they were BAD, vomiting, miserable migraines- has maybe one per month, and no vomiting. 

SO- I’ve been asked lots of questions about what I eat, what my favorite resources are, etc., and I thought I’d dedicate this blog to sharing my favorite paleo stuff. If you’re not much of a meat person, but you’re trying to eliminate grains, this stuff is still helpful.  Feel free to ask questions or, if you’re a paleo fan, share your advice or favorite resources in the comments section. 

Grocery list. (Remember, I have 9 people in my household, and some of them eat like 2 adults.)

Our “regular” items are chopped kale, spinach, LOTS of carrots, cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, avocados, tuna, salmon, berries, apples (3-5 pounds/week, people), bananas, chicken, almond butter, raisins, almonds, pistachios, local honey, pure maple syrup, LOTS of eggs, bacon and sausage. We have salad first at dinner time every night, and I still let the kids have rice-based cereals and almond milk sometimes. 

 

Favorite websites.

Paleo Diet Lifestyle

Whole 9, creators of the Whole 30 

Paleomg, BEST recipes for treats, EVER

One of my FAVORITE go-to recipe books for family meals and treats is Eat Like a Dinosaur. Best paleo chocolate chip cookies EVER! (and all of paleo is gluten-free, so that’s a big win for my 6-year-old)

 

Resources.

The Whole 30 shopping list

The Whole 30 meal-planning template – Oh my gosh, this helped me so much. It helped me see that I was not eating nearly enough at meals, and when I get to eat more I’m a happy girl!

Wheat Belly – If you don’t really get why grains are a problem, you need to check out this book and blog. I promise- I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I just trust research and what works for my body. 

 

Products.

Brianna’s Salad Dressing – this is literally the ONLY dressing on the shelves we could find with no sugar that was super yummy. We buy it in bulk.

Ocean Spray Sparkling Cranberry drinks – these are juice and sparkling water. That’s it. No added sugar, and they’re yummy! Nice alternative when you have eliminated soda, sweet tea and lemonade from your diet. 

Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips

I hope if you are dealing with health issues that physicians cannot solve or you’re just exhausted, overweight or dealing with chronic pain, you can find some hope in all of this. I feel the best I’ve felt in years, and I am in control of my health and wellness. It’s worth the discipline!

Learning to cry…

A few years ago I started seeing a counselor again to work through some of the… residue from my past. I wasn’t specifically struggling with anything severe, but I realized that mental health, like physical health, takes intentional effort. I’m sure each of us has “crossed wires” here or there, as my friend Andrea explains it. These are things we don’t even realize are affecting the way we look at the world and live our lives.

One of the first things my counselor assigned me to do was to write an autobiography. This story of my life had to be thorough, beginning at my first memory and including the years up to the moment it was being written. Once completed, I began to read this aloud to my counselor, and boy was I unprepared for what that would be like.

There is a drastic difference between thinking through your life and talking through it with someone else. Every detail, every pain, every memory becomes more vivid and real. Memories that played out like flat movie scenes in your mind replay in three dimensions in front of you, bringing back the smells, the sights, the feelings you experienced so many years ago.

This forced me to realize what a profound effect many of these seemingly small things had on my psyche and to process through those effects on my current state of life.

I suppose the most shocking revelation came when I clearly saw the pattern of how I handled pain. As a little girl experiencing things I couldn’t understand or wrap my mind around, I searched for an outlet. I tried confiding in my older sisters, but they were dealing with their own burdens, pain and process of trying to heal. My parents were in the same state. Friends, quite honestly, were just too young to help me, and my first tastes of betrayal taught me quickly how to NOT trust. The few adults I sought out became sources of manipulation and abuse. It seemed the world just didn’t have space for my tears.

So I stopped crying.

I learned to hide my sorrow in the dark of the night where no one else could see it or use it against me. I learned to harden my heart so I wouldn’t be vulnerable to more hurt. I learned to keep people at a distance, lest they discover what truly was inside of me or add to the heap of pain I already couldn’t handle. I don’t know which I feared more…

And somewhere deep inside a little girl, a false truth was planted that grew and grew and grew into a tall tree of intimidation and fear that still stood tall in a young woman’s heart:
“There is no space for healing in this world.
Your pain is insignificant, so stop wasting your time mourning the loss of something that will never be retrieved.
Move on.
Grow up.
Suck it up, and quit crying.”

When I stared down this mammoth lie at the center of my soul, I honestly couldn’t believe it was there. How did that grow without me noticing?? How had I been living with this lie for so long? The truth is that I might not have planted that seed, but I fed it. I watered it with my tears and fed it the little rays of hope that broke through the clouds occasionally. I bowed to it’s height and allowed it to keep me in the dark, because I had learned to find safety and protection in its limbs.

But now, as a mother and wife and woman, I saw how this lying weed was poisoning every relationship in my life. I couldn’t build healthy, intimate friendships, because I had to hide within this thicket of false protection. I had to take the pain and weakness in my life bury it in the dead soil, and, above all, I had to appear strong. There was no space for weakness.

It was time for that tree to come down.

So, with those closest to me, I began chopping away. It sometimes felt like I was cutting away parts of myself in the process. It was painful, and I sometimes felt naked to the world. I had emotional moments that I had taught myself to despise. I cried in public, which I swore never to do and still struggle being okay with. And I’m still chopping away today. Some days I wonder if that seed will always be part of me. Like a stubborn weed, refusing to go away, hiding beneath the ground until just the right time to appear once more. It waits for my weakest moments and then beckons me to find safety in it again.

But… each branch cut is a small victory for me. Since beginning this process, I’ve begun to feel those rays of warm hope on my face again, and like the sun on a rainy day, they remind me that all I see is not all there is.

Quick Esca Update

I’ll be honest- it has been a rough summer. Not hopeless or fun-less or “I’m-calling-it-quits” rough, but there have been lots of tears, sleepless nights and prayerful, anxious days.

It turns out that adoption isn’t a blissful process of folding your once neglected children into your arms and feeling them melt into you, loyal and in love with you for the rest of time. SURPRISE!!!

No, it’s more of a two steps forward one-and-a-half steps back deal. There have been those beautiful moments when Aidan lays his head on my shoulder and says, “I love you, Mommy, SO, SO much,” and I know he means it. And there have been nights when he climbs out of his bed in the middle of the night and wanders the house with his broken collarbone outside it’s protective sling while he goes into each family member’s room waking them at 3AM.

There have been weeks of daily calls from the sitter with sweet Sophie kicking, punching, screaming and calling nasty names in the background because the sitter tried to lay her down for her nap.

There have been days that 9PM rolls around and I realize I have yet to have a meaningful conversation or even make eye contact with the bio kids.

But, quite honestly, the worst part has been the mental torment of second-guessing every move I make, every standard, every moment of discipline, because for some reason I feel like I have forgotten how to be a parent. The plethora of attachment training sessions, adoption books and doctors who seem to know more about my child than I do all feel like dozens of fingers pointing at me in condemnation.

“No, not that way. THIS way.”
“Don’t say that. Say THIS.”
“I know that worked with YOUR children, but THESE children need THIS.” (As if ALL my children aren’t MINE.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for all of the resources and training available to us. But eventually I just feel like having so many voices in my head drowns out the one voice I need to be listening to.

After all- who knows better how to parent my babies than their Creator?

The one place I have found great support and encouragement has been in the online community of foster and adoptive parents. Take this blog by Jen Hatmaker, for example. I also find solace in the Facebook support groups I am part of.

So, we’re taking every day as it comes. Aaron and I are beginning to adjust to turning down lots of invitations and opportunities, because right now our family needs us more than anyone else does. We’re looking forward to the return of school routine, and we are trying to see the beauty in the mess of this crazy life. We didn’t sign up for normal or predictable or easy. We took the path with the warning about blood, sweat and tears with the belief that lower valleys simply mean higher mountaintops.

Please share if you are an adoptive or foster parent- or if you are feeling that nudge that won’t go away to become one. We are here to support and encourage one another as we follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

Rejoice in the Little Wins

So, if you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you know my family kicked off one year of Paleo eating on January 1 of this year. (If you want to know why, click here.). We “eased into it” by eliminating all grains and sugar. Yeah- no ease in that, folks. It was BRUTAL. Sugar is in EVERYTHING!!
Ranch dressing
Ketchup
Chips
Peanut butter
Almond milk
“All natural” fruit spread

We threw out and gave away any food that didn’t fit the profile, and we drastically changed our meal plan. Aaron started stock piling the one salad dressing we could find without sugar, just in case they discontinued it. We got used to eating lettuce taco shells, lettuce-wrapped burgers, and I even started to like mustard.

But I’ll be honest- the hard core stuff faded after a couple of months. I became discouraged in April when we found ourselves eating out again and popcorn had worked its way back into our pantry. I had been trying to lose weight, and I’d been utilizing an app to track what I ate. One day, I found this report that showed the foods I ate the most, and what I saw surprised me.

What were my top five foods? Tomatoes, chicken, eggs, lettuce, and kale.

Whaaaa??? That’s a pretty major shift for me. That evening was an even bigger encouragement, when I noticed my kids asking for seconds on salad and no complaining when we had hamburgers without buns. Prior to this, my 5-year-old would not touch a vegetable unless he was dared to.

The truth is, we had made some serious progress in our path toward healthy eating. If I had just stopped to notice the little wins in the day-to-day, I would have noticed that we came much further than I thought.

We only drink organic cow’s milk or almond milk
We only get bread on special occasions
The kids’ lunches are made up of 2 proteins (eggs, beef jerky, bacon), 1-2 veggies (my kids eat celery!), 1 fruit, and 1 starch
Our favorite breakfast is eggs, bacon and fruit, not chocolate chip pancakes and syrup
We rarely have sweets in the house.

All of these “little” wins add up to something really big for our family, and I began to wonder if there were other people who were discouraged like me, overlooking the steps they had taken in the right direction.

Life change doesn’t happen in leaps and bounds. Babies learn to walk one tiny step at a time. Doctors attend 16 semesters of study before they’re qualified to take an exam to get a license. Kindergarteners learn to read by memorizing sounds, patterns and site words. We may hear it a lot, but our western, microwave culture has trained us to expect quick results and, ironically, has numbed our senses so we fail to perceive how important the “little decisions” are.

Look at the obesity epidemic. Do we get 100 pounds overweight overnight? Do people PLAN to become unhealthy? NO. It’s a slow fade. If we want to live healthy lives, have healthy relationships, enjoy our work, get out of debt, it isn’t going to happen by leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Think “hike” rather than “run.”

What are your little wins?
Look back at the steps you have taken. How far have you come?
How are you celebrating those?
How are you encouraging others in their little wins?

Don’t miss the opportunity to look at your child when she followed your instructions for the first time today and applaud her. When that “set in her ways” team member tries something new, celebrate! Don’t let the speed of life blur the beauty along the way. Stop and smell the flowers. Celebrate the little wins, because they are adding up to something really big.

Don’t tell me what you can’t do

Wow…it’s been awhile. Over the past month I’ve been consumed with writing for my two graduate classes, and- to be honest- I just haven’t had any creative energy left over.

Our family has been enjoying our summer vacation together, and we’re chugging along, taking life day by day. The past two weeks we were able to visit family and friends in my home state of Illinois. It was a wonderful trip, and it was our first with the newbies. Seeing them play with their new cousins, light sparklers at Nana and Papi’s house and put on an Escamilla Talent Show was worth the 14-hour drive in two separate vehicles (we don’t have a large van…yet…).

The older kids were happy to visit people and places they have been missing, and the little ones were excited to make new friends. We were excited to share all the new things happening in our lives, with my new job, Aaron’s foreign travels and all the kids are doing. About the fifth time I was asked, “How do you guys do it with seven kids??” I had to stop and ask myself the same question. I mean, my usual responses revolve around the systems we implement and the incredible servant attitudes my husband and older children have. But these weren’t ringing true in my heart, and I questioned why.

Then I realized that I was completely leaving God out of the picture. Oh, Sara

The truth of the matter is, we can do what we do because God gives us the grace to do it. That isn’t a trite overly-spiritualized answer, people. It’s the truth. If you would have asked me five years ago if I could work full-time, raise seven children, live on a paleo diet, and pursue my graduate degree I would have laughed in your face.

Now, some of you look at my list and think to yourself, “I wish I had it that easy!” My incredible friend and mentor, Alicia Britt Chole raises three children with special needs while pursuing her doctorate degree, staying in great physical shape, mentoring women around the world, writing, studying scripture and running two non-profits. But the stunning thing about Alicia isn’t her long list of completed to-do’s. If you ever get the chance to meet her, you’ll encounter someone who lives completely in the present, listens intently, worships sincerely and has a peace that is beyond our world’s understanding. How does she do it?

Supernatural GRACE.

Just think a moment about something you currently do that you previously said you never could.
Did you run that marathon?
Did you take the position?
Quit your job?
Live on less money than you thought previously possible?
Go on that missions trip to Africa?

Let’s just be honest, here. We don’t do these “undoable” things by simply sucking up the self-discipline and making it happen. There is more at play. In the unseen, where our weaknesses and flaws are visible, there is a grace that covers them, giving strength to the soul in need.

Don’t tell yourself (or others, for that matter) what you can’t do. That’s insulting to a God who has been dreaming about you since before you were a thought in your mother’s mind.
Don’t glance covetously at someone else’s life and ask why you can’t live that way.
Own your choices.
If God has put the desire in your heart to be a mother to seven children, YOU CAN DO IT. It may take all of your blood, sweat and tears, and then some, but God will give you the grace to accomplish what He has given you to do. That gap between our first step of obedience and the fulfillment of the dream is filled with loads and loads of grace. Accept it. Let go of your old expectations. Shed the confining skin of the old dream so you can wade in the new one.

It’s more than a verse. It’s truth: You can do all things through Jesus who gives you the strength. [Philippians 4:13]

End of a mini-era

I’ve been listening to the audio book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” for the past nine months. I don’t get an extensive amount of time to myself, so I listen to the book when I’m driving (I travel for work) or completing big projects (like painting the bathroom). This book is so fascinating, in many ways, but I think my favorite part has been getting to hear a bit about Bonhoeffer’s theology.

If you aren’t familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend a study of his life. This book is probably the best one out there. Bonhoeffer also wrote a few books during his short life, and, though I have not read them yet, I learned quite a bit about them by listening to his life story. When speaking of how we approach ethics, Bonhoeffer said we must lay aside our initial questions of “What is right?” and “How do I do what is right?” Instead, we must ask ourselves, “What is God’s will?”

This brought me great comfort last week, as Aaron and I made one of the most difficult decisions of our lives. I cannot share details, but through a series of events, we had to determine whether our home was still the best and safest place for our foster son. At first glance, this seems like a cruel decision to be made. I can’t say that it didn’t feel cruel in the moment, either. But, when faced with our commitment to our own children and an understanding of our own limitations, what was the right decision??

This is where I always get hung up. I debate myself into the ground, playing the devil’s advocate with my own conscience, and questioning every motive in my heart.

WHAT IS RIGHT?

No. What is God’s will? What is God’s will for my family, my children, my marriage? Can I really break every decision down to a moral black and white call? I cannot. There comes a time when it seems we’re choosing between “a lesser of two evils,” and it almost feels like there is little choice at all. For me, this means indecision becomes my hideaway, and I find myself procrastinating as I debate inwardly.

But- when it is all said and done, there is only One I live to please. His choices for me will always be “right,” and though I may occasionally misunderstand Him, His grace is always present to help me back onto the path He designed for me.

And, so, with tears and a heavy, heavy heart, I packed up my foster son’s room, and our family went on the Arrow Foster Family Hold List.

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This empty room is a symbol of the space I feel in my heart. I didn’t realize how difficult this would be. This foster parenting stuff- it isn’t for wimps, guys. I’m mourning the loss of a son who was never really mine to begin with. He belongs to God, and I had him on loan for awhile. Never have I found it more difficult to trust that God has things under control, though I do not.

Obviously, we still have our “3 newbies,” and we definitely need some time to pour into and attach to them. It blows my mind continually that it hasn’t even been one year since we met our kids, and we’re still getting to know them in so many ways! I’m trying to let go of the plan I had and find joy in this one.

When I look at my children, I can’t help feeling blessed beyond what I could ever deserve. And, forever and ever, I’ll be like Oscar Schindler, reminding myself that there are always more who need to be rescued. The journey doesn’t stop here. There is still an empty room, and there are stories that must be told. There are children who need loving shelter and a healing home. Now, perhaps more than ever before, there’s a fire in my bones to tell their stories to the masses. Maybe because now, the stories are written on my heart.