Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Indoor activities for kids

Image source: Mermag
It's not really a snow day--what's going on outside is too wet and gross for play. And the Christmas toys have all been played with--again and again. Now, it's the day after Christmas and your kids are bored. Here are a few ways to keep them busy, and most can be made with things you have on hand already:
1. Make paper snowflakes: When my sons were smaller, they hated it when I took down the Christmas decorations. The house looked so plain. So my younger son would spend hours the day after Christmas crafting paper snowflakes, making so many that I ran out of places to hang them. If that's the case in your house, send some to the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the New Year, the students won't return to the school where a gunman killed 26 people. They will attend a new school nearby, and the Conneticut Parent Teacher Association wants a winter wonderland to welcome these students on their first day. So they're asking people around the country to send in paper snowflakes by Jan. 12 to: Connecticut PTSA, 60 Connolly Parkway Building 12, Suite 103; Hamden, CT 06514.

2. Make paper New Year's Eve hats: Get the kids excited for the next holiday by making hats to ring in the New Year. These hats are pretty festive, but if you don't have the right supplies on hand, you can make them with paper and simply decorate with stickers, markers and crayons.

3. Put away the toys: It might not sound like fun, but this is a great time to get the kids' stuff organized. Try these tips for organization. While putting away the new toys, have your kids get rid of any toys they haven't played with in a while.

4. Build a fort: Use blankets, pillows, chairs, couches, etc. Build a cozy fort, and eat a picnic lunch inside.

5. Make a monster sock puppet: Sometimes the best way to unwind after a hectic holiday is with an oldie but goodie.

6. Balloon tennis: Need to get some excess energy out but don't want the kids throwing balls in the house? This game uses paper plates for rackets and balloons for balls.

7. Ring toss: This game uses a cardboard paper towel roll, and paper plates cut into rings.

8. Bubble wrap painting: You probably have a bunch of bubble wrap lying around from your holiday shipments. Use it to make some really unique artwork.

9. Make a newspaper fort: As a reporter, I have to encourage people to get the paper. And this really cool fort is definitely worth the subscription.

10. Make your own Play-Doh: This recipe uses Jello to make the play clay colorful and scented.

11. Make your own velcro catch game: Use those cheap, stretchy gloves, Velcro dots and wiffle balls.

12. And get ready for Valentine's Day by making heart stamps out of toilet paper rolls.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dreaming of a chalky Christmas

If I'd been planning this baby, I might have had her a month or two earlier. That way, she'd be sitting up a little bit better and wouldn't be so awkward for the Christmas card photo. But I think she's cute enough to pull off the awkward look.

I totally jumped on the chalkboard bandwagon. I'd had a much different idea in mind. But then this popped in my head, and I ditched the first plans. I just got the cards back from the printer (I use Bay Photo, they're great), and I can't wait to send them out. I'd hoped for something a little bit more spectacular, but this is the best I can do on two hours of sleep each night.

Here's the back, by the way:

And here's a more generic card I designed while playing around:
You can download a template to use in Photoshop here.
Don't have Photoshop? Here's a card I made in jpeg, so you can print it out and just glue on a photo:

Stocking Stuffer Ideas for Teen Guys

Stockings have always been a big deal in my family. Often, they're even better than any of the big gifts. When I was a child, they were filled with cassette tapes (I still remember the year I got "Joshua Tree" by U2 in my stocking, best stocking stuffer ever), candy, small toys and a gift card. And when my guys were small, I loved shopping for their stockings. Now that they're teens, I find the stockings to be the most challenging part of the holidays. I rack my brain repeatedly.
Knowing how hard finding stocking stuffers for teen boys is, I'm sharing my list with you. And if you have any ideas, please share them with me. Together, we might just come up with the best stockings yet.
Some ideas: sunglasses, key chain, gloves, ear buds, cologne, a Magic 8 ball (I did this last year, and it was a hit. Also, the ball predicted the Redskins would have a mediocre season, which seems to be accurate), iTunes gift card, chapstick, candy, an atlas (my younger son loves maps, so he gets a new atlas each year), a book (my sons aren't big readers, but I picked up a copy of "Moneyball," which happens to be my younger son's favorite movie), socks.
My son also loves change--he likes to go to Coinstar once a month to turn his change into bills. So I made him this. Here is a downloadable bag topper file, so you can print one out and make your pocket change into a festive stocking stuffer.
Here are some ideas I found of stocking stuffers you can order online:
Pick Punch: At $25, this might be a bit pricey for a stocking stuffer, but its coolness factor could mean you can get away with fewer stuffers. This gadget is basically like a hole punch in the shape of a guitar pick, and the product description says it can cut picks out of thick materials like old credit cards or unused gym membership badges.

Nose Pencil Sharpener: Something that's functional and fun, if not a little bit gross. It costs $1.69 at You can find a lot more gag-type stocking stuffers at the website
Drumstick pencils, $12, are pretty much what they sound like--pencils shaped like drumsticks, perfect for your favorite teen drummer.
Or how about a bacon wallet? My teenage sons could eat bacon 50 times a day, if I'd let them. So this could be perfect, for $12.
While we're on the bacon theme, there's also bacon frosting, $8. Which combines my younger son's two favorite foods.
Or Like and Dislike stamps for the Facebook fan in your life, $14.
Coal Soap: For the past few years, I've been tempted to pick up one of those bags of coal-shaped bubble gum the stores all sell at Christmas time. But for the fourth year in a row, my son is still wearing braces. This soap, at $12, is a good substitute.

Monday, November 12, 2012

God's providence

One day, I was chatting with a pastor who asked me how we can know about "God's providence."

I asked him, "What do you mean?"

"Well," he replied, "would you like to know why God gave you two autistic sons?"

Of course I would, and I began to get excited, thinking this pastor was finally going to be able to answer one of my biggest struggles.

Instead, he replied, "We may never know. But we know what God expects of us, he's made that clear. And there aren't any asteriks, or exceptions for people who have hard lives. So we don't need to question what God has done, we just need to ask, 'What do we need to do?' and the answer to that is simple: Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.'"

Sometimes I forget, so I made myself a reminder. You can get one for yourself here.

Stylin' Burp Cloths

Walk in my house these days and it's a given, you're going to see a burp cloth over just about every chair. When you've got a baby who spits up as much as ours does, you need one of these things within reach at all times. When I learned I was having a girl, I wanted some feminine burp cloths. But I didn't want to shell out money for something that would be covered in spit up most of the time.
So I made them--and spent $2 for a dozen burp cloths. I got two receiving blankets from Rappahannock Goodwill Industries' thrift store. They happened to be 50% off the day I was there, so I got two for about $2. Then, I cut up an old pair of my pajama pants, and used some fabric scraps I had laying around. I also cut the receiving blankets (I had one that was a hand-me-down, in addition to the two I picked up at Goodwill) into rectangles of 18"x 8". I sewed the wrong side of the fabric from the scraps and the pj pants to the wrong side of the receiving blanket rectangles. I left about an inch open, so I could turn them inside out. Then, when I turned them inside out (which is really the right way), I sewed over the top of the burp cloths. And voila! I had stylish burp cloths.
You may be thinking, "That's a great project, if you sew." It just so happens that I am a terrible seamstress. When I was a kid, my friends and I would make Barbie clothes. My friends sewed theirs, and handed me Scotch tape and a stapler for my creations--I was that inept at sewing. My mom signed me up for a sewing class and the instructor quickly picked up on my lack of ability and completed the project herself. So, really, if I can do these burp cloths, anyone can. In fact, some of them are a bit misshapen, but Harper doesn't seem to mind when she's spewing onto them.
If you, by chance, can sew in a straight line, these would make awesome baby gifts. They're something every parent needs plenty of--and it's awesome to get burp cloths that look a little different from the usual baby prints.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Praise God...

Lately, I've been really stressed. When I start to get anxious, I just head downstairs and peek at my Thanksgiving mantle. It sounds corny, but it really does remind me to count my blessings and remember that I have so much stress because I have so many blessings.

The mantle's a little rough this year, I apologize. I constantly struggle with what to do with that ugly silver circle. See, this isn't a fireplace. It used to house a wood-burning stove. For about 30 years. Then we bought the house and suddenly the insurance company decided it was a fire hazard. We could keep it if we moved the stove a few feet from where it stood. Which would have placed is smack dab in the center of our small family room. So we had to get rid of it. I bought this awesome mantle at a wonderful antiques store called Old Lucketts Store. If you live anywhere near Virginia, you should check this place out. Anyway, I love decorating the mantle but the circle remains an issue. I made an awesome chalkboard that I'll show you later, and that is tall enough to hide the circle. But this sign, which I love, is not.

The sign, by the way, was super easy to make. It's made from two old boards in my parents shed. They're nailed together with a long board in the back. Then, I painted the whole thing with white craft paint, just one coat because I wanted it to look a little bit rough. I cut out the letters for the sign with my Silhouette (wishing I had the newer version, because I would have liked them to be just a little bit bigger). I cut them out of vinyl, then laid the vinyl on the sign and painted over the letters with a walnut stain. I painted two coats of the stain, let it dry overnight. Then I peeled the vinyl letters--and the leaf design, also cut from vinyl--off the sign. That took some patience. The last line, for some reason, didn't come out so well. I had to go over it with white paint, and it looks a bit rougher than I wanted. But I still love the sign. I think the flaws give it character and they remind me that sometimes, blessings aren't perfect. Which is a great reminder when your blessings are stressing you out.

Some other aspects of the mantle: The pumpkins in the jar on the right are made from scraps of scrapbook paper. I hunted for every scrap with orange for this project, using this tutorial to turn the scraps into little pumpkins.

And I made this pumpkin my taking Modge Podge and old book pages to a ceramic pumpkin. I finished it off by hot-gluing some faux fall leaves near the stem.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stealing Joy

We have a lot of photos on our walls. Call it poor man's art. Or an arrogant belief that our kids are really, really good-looking. I love looking at their photos.

But the displays in no way resemble this amazing photo display from House of Smiths.

Or this lovely gallery display from Pottery Barn:
In fact, it looks like this:

Yes, Martha Stewart told me I needed to design a template on my floor first, to make sure the frames would fit and would be evenly spaced. But really, who has time for that? If those pictures were going to get on my wall, I needed to just get them up.

And most days, I'm pretty happy with the gallery. No, the portraits aren't color coordinated. Most come from The Picture People or the JCPenney studio, not professional photographers. But these are the people I love. And I love to look at them.

But then I get on Pinterest. Or into the blogosphere. And I see what a gallery wall should look like. And suddenly, that wall of love turns into a wall of shame.

And it's not just walls. I look at these blogs and my house feels shabby. Messy. Poor.

I console myself by remembering that most of these lifestyle bloggers don't have kids with autism.

Then I stumble onto the autism blogs. And those moms are making sensory tables. Doing serious advocacy work. Totally rocking the autism life.

So I remind myself that most of them don't have demanding, but low-paying full-time jobs.

But the damage is done. On its own, my life is pretty good. I have three awesome kids. A home that's still standing (which is pretty miraculous some days). A sweet gig in the career track I chose as a second grader. Money is a struggle, but we have enough to live on.

But then I compare my life to other people. They get to have vacations. Family pictures with smiling kids. Mornings that don't include poop smeared on walls. Time for workouts or 5-mile runs every day.

And it's even worse when I compare myself to other people. Women who are skinny. Moms who don't seem flustered. Career women who take everything in stride. Women with coordinated accessories and outfits.

But mostly I compare myself to other moms. Those who are doing fun activities with their kids, decorating their homes for every holiday, coming up with out-of-the-box strategies to get their kids to do their homework and their chores.

I look at myself: A good 40 pounds overweight, exhausted, going to work in clothes that have baby spitup on them, popping in a Stouffer's lasagna for dinner, every night fighting with a teen to do his homework, vegging out in front of the TV while nursing the baby...

You get the picture.

The truth is, I'm doing the best I can. And most days, it really is enough. Amazing, even. So I need to stop comparing.

I made myself a little reminder that I printed out and tacked to a corkboard:
Then I compared it to this really cool print on etsy and felt bad. I guess some habits are hard to break.

If you'd like to print out your own reminder, click here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Expecting grace

I pictured this moment thousands of times. In my fantasies, my hand was dry. But in reality, a warm sprinkle of urine landed on my left wrist.

Perhaps that is what dampened my enthusiasm. Instead of the unmitigated joy I'd expected, I felt a numbing sense of shock. And a creeping panic.

For 10 years, I had prayed fervently for a positive pregnancy test. Now that the streaky blue positive sign was in my hand, I could only pray "Dear God, dear God, dear God." I'm not even sure what I wanted to say.

I was going to have a baby. And I was terrified.

For 10 years, I had prayed fervently for a positive pregnancy test. But in the past year, I'd changed my mind. The past year had beaten any desire for another child out of me. For 12 long months, my life spiraled out of control. Whenever I thought our family had hit rock bottom, we dropped some more, free falling down a cliff that never seemed to end.

We were still climbing our way out. And now we'd climb with an extra weight.

Just two months before I found myself sitting on the toilet with a plastic wand in my hand, my husband had admitted he couldn't handle a third child. A year earlier, I would have been devastated to hear those words. This time, I understood completely. And while a third child had been my greatest desire for so long, I was willing to give up on that dream. So willing that scheduling a hysterectomy was on my to-do list for the week. But every morning, I woke up sick and exhausted, too nauseous even to make the phone call.

I'd been there before. In the past 10 years, I got nauseous often. For the first eight years, I always assumed my prayers had been answered. But dozens of negative pregnancy tests showed me that my body just didn't react well to stress. I had felt pregnant so many times that I wondered if my body could fake an entire pregnancy, move outside of the morning sickness phase and into a belly bump.

So I took this pregnancy test with no expectations.

For five days, I kept the news to myself. It didn't seem real. I would forget about it for hours at a time. And then suddenly, it would pop in my head--I was going to have a baby. I would look at my family and correct myself--we were going to have a baby.

Just months before I learned I was pregnant, I hit a wall. Our year had been rough. I felt like a failure as a mother. As a wife. As a housekeeper. My body literally stopped working. I had been running 5 miles a day but suddenly couldn't complete a mile. I couldn't stay awake for a full day of work. Sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself, I looked around. And hated what I saw.

Our house was from the 70s. We'd bought it eight years earlier. It was the best we could afford, and we told ourselves we'd fix it up, brighten up the overpowering brownness, a dreary decorating scheme broken only by the strangely multicolored bedrooms--orange and teal in one, green and pink in another. But we'd barely touched the house. And it was still depressing.

I looked at my kitchen--with its heavy brown cabinets, wheat-themed wallpaper and peeling floor tiles. No wonder my life was a mess, I thought. My surroundings were terrible. For years, I ignored them, telling myself I had more important things to concentrate on.

Suddenly, my kitchen seemed like a metaphor for my family. If I could fix what was ugly there, I could fix my family. Soon, I would have an extremely rare child-free five days. One son would go to the beach with Grandma while another went to summer camp. I decided to take a week off of work and paint my kitchen cabinets.

The project was a nightmare that left me in pain and in tears. But at the end of the week, the dark cabinets were a cheery white. Look closely enough and you can see paint drips and dents. But overall, the kitchen looked much better. I tore down the wallpaper and painted (with a lot of help from my mom) the walls a cheery aqua. My mom made me a valance out of my favorite black and white striped material. I made a sign to hang above the window. The kitchen was coming along.

And slowly, so was my family. We were all in counseling. Look closely and you'd see the effects of our year. But we were starting to resemble a family again. I began to believe we'd make it. I was determined to redeem us and I started making a plan.

And then I got pregnant.

At first, I saw this as a detour. But I began to see my growing belly as another metaphor. This baby would be living proof of God's grace, a reminder that things always change. And that God answers prayers--even 10 years after you ask.

After an exhausting pregnancy, and 25 long hours of labor, we welcomed a daughter into our family. She does indeed serve as a daily reminder of God's grace. And she reminds me of all the dreams I once had for our family. Determined to reclaim those dreams, I'm chronicling our life improvement in this blog.

This will include the mundane--small creative projects to relieve stress; the shallow--decorating to improve our surroundings; the profound--dealing with two teenagers on the autism spectrum; and the divine--improving my relationship with God.