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Turns out it IS who you know that counts.

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Used by permission of erinbrownart.com

By Chris Little

One of the things I’ve loved about being a stay-home mom, and then a stay-home “off the merry-go-round” writer, is getting to stay home! I love it when the kids are shambling around the house doing their own thing, being a little loud and making a mess. And I love it when I’m home alone and the house is tidy and quiet (except for the washing machine, always the washing machine …).

That said, one of the things I’ve really struggled with as a stay-home mom and writer … is being home so much! It can be lonely, especially when the kids are off at school. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I wish I had a full-time job to go to, just so I’d have access to a water cooler to stand around and chat with coworkers! So when I’m alone a lot, I create my own water cooler—I force myself to have ten real live conversations a day with friends or extended family members—emails and texts don’t count!—as a way to reach out of my isolation. It never fails to make me feel better.

But every downside has an upside, right? I like to think that my bouts with this largely self-imposed solitude give me a greater appreciation for the people in my life. I mean: I don’t spend a lot of time wishing people would leave me alone! And I don’t typically crave the opportunity to get away by myself.

So this article by Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic offered me some reassurance that I’m on the right track, as I lean less on my work and more on my family and friends for my happiness. Smith describes journalist Rod Dreher’s book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, in which he relates the life and untimely death of his sister Ruthie. Dreher contrasts Ruthie’s choice to work as a schoolteacher in the small Louisiana town where their family had lived for generations with his own decision to leave town to travel the world in an ambitious pursuit of career success.

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As Dreher accompanied Ruthie through her struggle with terminal lung cancer, he came to appreciate the beauty of her network of friends: How her neighbors pulled together to take Ruthie to her doctor appointments and cook meals for her kids. How they raised money to help cover her medical bills. How they were there for her husband after her death. Ruthie’s life may have been small, even invisible, compared to Dreher’s comparative fame as a respected journalist. But her life was deeply, richly interconnected with the lives of the people around her. And she wasn’t the only one—Dreher saw that anchoring sense of connection to family, friends, and neighbors in everyone he talked with back home in Louisiana. It was something he was lacking in his own life—and he realized it was something he missed. Dreher and his wife eventually decided to move home to Louisiana with their three children.

I love this story—it’s a good antidote for those days when I question my decision to step away from a career-centered life. In her article Smith cites a study that finds that ambitious people, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to seek more education at more prestigious schools, and to make more money at more prestigious jobs, than less ambitious folks. But, she notes, the study fails to find a similarly clear correlation between career success and life satisfaction. In fact some studies suggest that the pursuit of money and social status can lead to a lower overall sense of well-being, she writes.

Bayou Conversation

It seems that it’s not our careers but the strength and number of our social ties—those messy, compromise-ridden, sometimes-difficult relationships like marriage, family, and close friendships—that best predict our happiness, our satisfaction with our lives, even our physical health.

Now certainly, we can work full-time and have those rich relationships. Having a spouse or children aren’t prerequisites, either. The most important thing is probably the simplest one—just recognizing how deeply satisfying it feels to be held in a web of relationships. To have those ten conversations (or more!) each day. After that, placing a priority on sustaining and enriching those ties comes naturally.

So how about you? How do you feel most connected with your family? With your friends and neighbors? Do you find that you intentionally create opportunities for those connections? Or do you struggle to find the time and energy?

News flash: This week National Public Radio ran a fascinating segment on Rod Dreher discussing his sister Ruthie, their home town’s practice of community, and his new book. You can listen to it here.

Images: Some rights reserved by NJ.. and Editor B.

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A Dog Named Blue

By Karen Hendricks

little-boy-blue-cover

Photo Credit: KimKavin.com

One of the most moving books I have ever read is Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth. Last fall, coincidentally, as my beloved greyhound was dying of bone cancer, I devoured this book, stunned at the statistics and moved to tears by the state of our nation’s animal shelters. Author Kim Kavin, a fellow journalist/writer, did an amazing job of chronicling her experience adopting her dog Blue, interweaving her narrative with eye-opening research.

My fellow blogger Ruth wrote part one of her family’s story of pet adoption, The Adoption of Fletcher, last week. Stay tuned for her next post… but in the meantime, I thought I’d open the discussion on some interesting topics that Ruth touched upon, as they intersect with the book Little Boy Blue.

If you’re an animal lover like me, I highly recommend you read the book… but if you’re a busy mom like me, here’s the basic synopsis without giving away too much of the story: Kavin found Blue through an online listing via Petfinder and applied. Blue seemed to be close by her New Jersey home. In actuality, he was at a shelter in the south, rescued through a network of volunteers and brought north. Curious, Kavin spent months retracing the circumstances that led to Blue’s adoption and discovered he was lucky to escape a North Carolina  “high-kill shelter” equipped with a gas chamber. Blue’s story is similar to many other dogs’ tales:

America is spending more than a billion dollars a year to operate animal shelters.  Some of these facilities are functioning like actual shelters, meaning sanctuaries and places of safety, while others are killing more than 80 percent of the dogs and cats entrusted to their care.  That’s four out of five dogs, all but dead on arrival at the doors of the shelters like the one where Blue was found.  Fully three-quarters of those dogs are healthy and adoptable as opposed to sickly and vicious, but only one of four dogs who end up living in our homes come from shelters in any given year.  Most people get their dogs from breeders or from pet stores while perfectly wonderful puppies and dogs are left to die in shelters every single day.  Those statistics were bad enough, but the one that got me in the gut is this:  If just two in four people, instead of one in four people, went to shelters instead of breeders or pet stores to get their next dog, then the entire problem of killing dogs like Blue would be statistically eliminated across the country. (page 55)

Blue turned out to be a sweet, loveable prince of a dog, which makes Kavin’s story all the more heart-wrenching. To think what might have happened to him… routinely placed inside a gas chamber had Kavin not stepped forward to adopt him. But the gas chamber is, in fact, the fate of other shelter dogs every day.

Kavin does a great job at presenting all the statistics in an understandable way. Later in the book, she references an article from The Wall Street Journal, which quotes John Hoyt, former president of the Humane Society of the United States, who says that American shelters in the mid-1970’s were killing an estimated 85 percent of the dogs and cats who came into their care.  By his guess, that was nearly fifteen million would-be pets a year.  Our nation’s current estimates, as many as five million dogs and cats being killed every year, are a step in the right direction—and are a credit to the people who run excellent shelters that save far more dogs than they kill.  But it’s wrenching to learn that taxpayer-funded shelters like the one where Blue found himself are still moving backward.  If you don’t count the help of rescue groups, they’re killing dogs at an even higher rate than dogs were dying across America thirty-five years ago. (page 248)

Blue - at 18 months. Photo Credit: KimKavin.com

Blue – at 18 months. Photo Credit: LittleBoyBluethebook.wordpress.com

You can follow the latest news and progress made, in the wake of Little Boy Blue being published, through Kavin’s website/blog. The very shelter that once housed Blue is starting to turn itself around. Just this past January 2013, officials dismantled and removed the gas chamber.

If you’re thinking about pet adoption, I highly encourage you to visit your local animal shelter or SPCA. Our family has adopted wonderful cats from shelters over the years. In a future blog, I might address the special plight of one breed of dog in particular–greyhounds in need of adoption. My family provided forever homes to two greyhounds over the past 15 years and I am hooked on their sweet, gentle nature. They are almost always adopted from rescue groups specializing in that breed. But after reading the story of Blue, I’d be open to adopting a shelter dog.

Other ways you can help, besides adopting:

  • Educate yourself about your local shelters. What are their procedures?
  • Volunteer at your local shelter and lend a hand. Good volunteers are almost always in short supply.
  • Donate money or resources to your local shelter. Find out what they need: pet foods, cleaning supplies, etc.
  • Consider fostering animals until permanent homes can be found, either through your SPCA or local adoption/pet rescue groups.

Click here for a YouTube preview of  Little Boy Blue. To learn more, go to The Little Boy Blue website and read the first two chapters of her book for free. Warning: This will probably hook you! You will probably end up purchasing and finishing the book—or check your local library.

Food for thought: If you spend three days reading the book, then in that same time period, as many as 42,000 companion animals died in American shelters.  (page 299)

I encourage you to join me in trying to reverse this trend.

More Resources:

Click here for the ASPCA website

And click here to visit Petfinder.com

Rediscovering the Margins in Life

By Karen Hendricks

ikea clock

Photo Credit: Ikea.com

This week marks a milestone of sorts… it’s been exactly a year since I left a (more than) full-time, wonderful but crazy position in public relations. And during the past 365 days, my life has gotten back on track. My health is healthier, my family feels closer, my friendships are deeper, and my home-based business and  freelance work is extremely fulfilling. What an amazing turnaround. And it all revolves around TIME.

How often do you think about TIME during one day? It’s not on our side! Is there ever such as thing as having “extra time” in today’s fast-paced life? (Rhetorical question!) Time goes by too quickly, and those of us with children growing right before our eyes can attest to this fact on a daily basis. (Thank goodness the weather is getting warmer and I don’t have to see the bottom of my son’s jeans creeping ever higher into ankle territory. Shorts are becoming  a part of the daily wardrobe, yahoo!)

My children are growing up, like yours, in a fast-paced, digital world. There isn’t a need for good old-fashioned notebook paper that often, although we do keep a stock in our house for homework. I remember going through reams of notebook paper during my school years! So the word “margin” will forever be tied to an image of notebook paper for me.

One of the wonderful additions to my life, during the past year, now that I have a more flexible schedule and a few pockets of TIME for myself… an amazing women’s group that meets weekly at my church. What an inspiration this group is! Right now we are reading the book Margin by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. The subtitle is Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Wow, who couldn’t use some of that advice?! No wonder it is a best seller… given our hectic lives and crazy calendars.

Swenson calls “margin” that “space that once existed between ourselves and our limits…. When you reach the limits of your resources or abilities, you have no margin left.” Some of the best stuff in life happens in the margins, in our unstructured time. This is the time where families enjoy time together or friends pick up the phone or stop by. Basically, relationships grow, within the margins of our lives, according to Swenson.

Think about the margin you enjoy… or are lacking… in your daily life. Do you recognize or ignore your limits? Do you schedule your entire day from start to finish? Or do you have some wiggle room, down time, time to just BE?  My margin is probably not as wide as it should be, but I do have a sliver. And I’m holding onto it!

notebook paper

How wide are the margins in your life?

 

Prayers for David

By Karen Hendricks

Copyright (c) www.123rf.com

Copyright (c) http://www.123rf.com

It’s hard to find the right words to say when someone dies…  especially when that someone is a child. One of my children’s classmates died yesterday. David was an 8th grader diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks ago. It seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.

His mother and I were pregnant at the same time, comparing notes on our growing babies, about 15 years ago. David was born a few weeks before my daughter and soon they were sitting in our laps next to one another at toddler story time at our local library. Before long, they were in grade school together, learning to read and count, running and laughing on the playground. I remember David as a child who was always happy and smiling. He was one of “my kids” several times as I chaperoned school field trips. Then the awkward middle school years began and it was no longer cool for my daughter to admit she was friends with “boys.” But they had many classes together, including this year during 8th grade on the same “team.” David was hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer about three weeks ago. His classmates made stacks of cards and told him how much they missed him. When the tragic news came yesterday, my daughter said time stood still in the classrooms–talk and tears revolved around David for the rest of the day.

The only words I know how to express at a time like this are words of Christian love and faith. I pray that David’s family can find healing in time, taking comfort in the happy memories that David left behind. There is no doubt he is now an angel, pain-free, in heaven.

In the book When Mothers Pray by Cheri Fuller, there are 17 chapters that address the many different types of prayers that we as mothers can offer, as a way to guide our children on their paths through life. Chapter 4 is “The Toughest Prayer: The Prayer of Release.”  Fuller writes, “ It doesn’t matter what you call it—relinquishment, release, letting go—when the situation demands it or when you sense a nudging to give your child to God, it’s a scary proposition and one of the most difficult problems we face in prayer. We moms were made for nurturing our children, not relinquishing them.”

Prayers of release, Fuller writes, can be offered for children with medical conditions, those needing surgery—basically in times when our children’s problems are too large in scale and scope for us as parents to manage and control them. It’s a tough point to reach. But ultimately, Fuller says, it’s a reminder that our children truly aren’t ours but God’s. While it’s our job to care for our children as best we can, all children are gifts from God. We entrust their care to God when we can no longer do so on our own.

Please say a prayer today for David’s family, for all families touched by cancer, for all families grieving the loss of children. May our words bring help and healing.

Peace, love and hugs to you…

To learn more about cancer in children, from the American Cancer Society, click here

For a list of resources recommended by the American Cancer Society for families who have lost a child to cancer, click here

Prayers in the Wake of Newtown’s School Shooting

By Karen Hendricks

Today is the first day of school since the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  The impact of this event has sent emotional shockwaves across America and many of us still feel a sense of profound loss and sadness.  So today, I offer a prayer for all parents and children who are fearful of going back to school, fearful of what the future holds, fearful for our society.  This is a “prayer for protection” from one of my favorite books, The Power of a Praying Parent by Stormie Omartian:

Lord, I lift (name of child) up to You and ask that You would put a hedge of protection around her (him).  Protect her (his) spirit, body, mind and emotions from any kind of evil or harm.  I pray specifically for protection from accidents, disease, injury or any other physical, mental or emotional abuse.  I pray that she (he) will make her (his) refuge “in the shadow of your wings” until “these calamities have passed by” (Psalm 57:1).  Hide her (him) from any kind of evil influences that would come against her (him).  Keep her (him) safe from any hidden dangers and let no weapon formed against her (him) be able to prosper.  Thank You, Lord, for Your many promises of protection.  Help her (him) to walk in Your ways and in obedience to Your will so that she (he) never comes out from under the umbrella of that protection. Keep her (him) safe in all she (he) does and wherever she (he) goes.  In Jesus’ name, I pray.  Amen

Art teacher Eric Mueller sets up 27 wooden angel cut-outs in memory of the victims of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.  Photo Credit: Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY


Art teacher Eric Mueller sets up 27 wooden angel cut-outs in memory of the victims of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Photo Credit: Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY

Torn Between Family and Career

By Karen Hendricks

Mother’s Day, 2005 – while I successfully balanced motherhood with a part-time position in radio.

It’s probably the most controversial, emotional, gut-wrenching decision every mother will make:  Should I continue my career or stay-at-home with my family?  There is no easy answer, there is no right answer, and sometimes our answer to this question changes through the years.  Personally, my answer has changed what feels like a gazillion times.  I left a full-time position as a television producer—a job I absolutely adored—to stay-at-home with my first daughter.  But a part-time job as a radio newscaster was too wonderful to pass up.  Enter my second daughter and my son. I continued working in the radio business, with a very flexible and understanding employer, until cutbacks ensued.  A part-time position as an event coordinator/PR director was the perfect fit for a while.  That position morphed into a full-time opportunity as a PR director and although I loved the position, it was extremely challenging to be the kind of mom I wanted to be at the same time.  The position demanded more than 40 hours of work per week, and after five years, I made the decision to put my family first and wrestle back control of my time.  Lucikly, I had formed my own LLC a few years earlier, even had a few clients on the side (in my “spare time,” ha ha), and I was able to transition to working at home, for myself.  It is a wonderful feeling being able to set my own schedule, work load and focus.  I think I have finally struck the right balance, allowing me to continue the work that I love, but also being able to devote time to my growing family whom I love more.

I recently picked up the book Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood by Samantha Parent Walravens.  What an amazing collection of dozens of short essays by mothers who have all struggled to answer the career vs. family question.  It was perfectly-timed reading material, as I was developing the idea for this very website/blog, Off the Merry-Go-Round.

Many of the essays tugged at my heart-strings, as I could relate to the writers.  The author/editor of the book, Walravens, sets the scene for the essays to follow, in her introduction:

After ten years of changing diapers and chasing toddlers, helping with homework and volunteering in the classroom, I decided to reach out to other women like myself to see how they were dealing with the disconnect between motherhood and professional ambition.  … Whether at work or at home, they reported feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, most, if not all of the time. 

I saw an opportunity.

By admitting they couldn’t do it all, women could achieve a sense of freedom.  By writing about it, they could achieve a sense of community. …

As these stories illustrate, there is no perfect mother, nor is there a perfect balance when it comes to kids and career.  Caught between the heady “have it all” idealism of our feminist foremothers and the rigid realities of the corporate world, women today are creating new paradigms to navigate the conflicting worlds of paid work and parenthood. 

Her motivation was right on target with my motivation for starting Off the Merry-Go-Round.  The rest of the book was a page-turner for me!  I’ve gathered a few highlights that especially spoke to me:

My four years of motherhood have taught me that there is no such thing as a perfect balance, particularly for those of us who have been both blessed and burdened with a first-rate education and a work life we care about, or need.  We cannot help but think about the road less traveled.  Stay-at-home moms will wonder about where their career might have gone if they had continued to work, and will encounter the economic vulnerability that comes with not working.  Women who work full-time will feel the guilt of being absent for so many of the tender moments that childhood brings, as well as the pressure to try to “do it all.”  Those of us somewhere in the middle – part stay-at-home mom, part career mom – experience some combination of the two:  regret about not doing more at work, regret about not being fully engaged at home.  (Carrie Lukas, page 22)

The days are truly long but the years are short.  I started to think about all the times I answered an email while my children told me about their day at school or was too busy working to read them a bedtime story.  And while at the time what I was doing seemed so necessary, so important, I was ignoring the posted speed limit for that particular place and time.  (Sara Esther Crispe, page 41)

Today, with the advent of blogs and all other forms of online communication, millions of moms are rewriting the definition of success by telling their own stories.  The real stories from the trenches of motherhood have emerged. (Alaina Sheer, page 81)

Then, there are the people who tell me that with today’s economy the way it is, it is no longer a viable option for women to be home with their children.  I’m here to prove that it is still a wonderful choice readily available, especially for women with intellectual prowess.  We live simply, but with a much higher quality of life…. (Bracha Goetz, page 93)

Learn more about the book Torn by visiting Samantha Parent Walraven’s website.

How have you answered the career vs. motherhood decision?  What happened as a result–regrets, fears, support, contentment?  We look forward to reading your words of wisdom and building a sense of community on Off the Merry-Go-Round.  Please leave your comments and replies below!

How to Help Your Child Become a GREAT Reader

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

It is that time of year when we mommies are getting another school year underway. If you are like me, your little one is heading off to preschool for the first time; others of you may have the whole back-to-school thing mastered.

As parents we all want the best for our children throughout their school years – and beyond. Part of their success in life begins with a good education, the foundation of which is based on the ability to read well. I spent close to 10 years teaching reading in various elementary schools both as a classroom teacher and as a reading resource instructor, so I have a few tips I can share with you.

Whether you are completely “off the merry-go-round” as a stay-at-home mom, or still “on the merry-go-round” to some degree, these are tips that all parents can work into the daily routine.

Reading is a process and each child develops the skill at a different pace. Try to avoid comparing your child’s reading ability with other children – reading is so much more than being able to read words on a page. A “great reader” can also read with appropriate expression, demonstrate understanding by answering comprehension and higher-level thinking questions, and connect his/her reading to other text and to real-life experiences. So, let the reading process evolve naturally for your child, and enjoy watching (and hearing!) his/her success along the way.

Ideas to consider:

  • Introduce reading early – From birth is best; I know some mothers who have even read to their children while they were in the womb!
  • Begin and end each day with reading – Then, no matter what happens in between, you will have gotten in that precious time! Some mornings, my son will ask me to read him a book as soon as he gets out of bed. Reading and cuddling in his ‘reading nook’ is always a wonderful way to start our day.
  • “Squeeze” reading into unique times of the day – I keep a book basket stashed with some of my son’s favorite books next to the potty. During bath time, he likes me to read while he splashes in the bubbles.
  • Model reading – Let your child see you reading! I use breakfast and dinner as family chat times yet when my son and I are eating lunch, I put on a story cd for him while I scan an article in The Economist.
  • Put the focus on reading – Reading is much more beneficial to your child’s developing brain versus screen time.
  • “Act out” stories – This can simply be talking in a character’s “voice” or “mimicking” a character’s actions.
  • Read stories of interest – Grab your child’s attention and foster a love for reading by reading books about things your child enjoys.
  • Incorporate activities – Retelling a story, doing a related art project or craft, going on a scavenger hunt to find something from a book, taking a field trip to the book’s setting – anything counts! In Harold’s Circus, a lemonade stand is mentioned and since my son had never tasted lemonade, I let him take his first swig. My husband helped him build a crown and scepter out of Tinker Toys – just like the character Max has in Where the Wild Things Are.
  • Do “closed” reading – While reading familiar books pause once in awhile to let your child fill in the word that comes next.
  • Give hints – Help your child figure out unknown words through picture and context clues.
  • Ask questions to gauge understanding – Begin with literal questions (“What is the boy holding in his hand?”), then slowly progress to comprehension questions (“Why did the family move?”) and higher level thinking questions (“What do you think the girl will do next?”). Doing this with my son from a very early age has him already making predictions and connecting what he has read to other books, his life, and the world around him.
  • Reading from memory is reading – My mother always tells me, “You were reading from the time you were 2!” Yet I was “reading” from memory – I knew the text “by heart” from having the same stories read to me over and over. However, this is indeed the very foundation of reading. From about 20 months old, my son was reading text word for word and turning the pages to match. He has a strong aptitude for memorization and recitation, and I too consider him a “reader;” I just recognize that he is only at the beginning of that journey.
  • Share reading – Alternate between you and your child reading one page or paragraph.

The best way you can help your child become a great reader is to foster a love of reading. Teach your child that books are treasures. Help them learn to respect and care for their books. Then, when you are finished with them, pass them on! As Jen’s boys got older, she had a hard time parting with some of their most treasured childhood books so she gave them to my son. Now they have become an important part my family’s life. Reading is a process – one that develops slowly over time. Yet, if introduced early and nurtured carefully along the way, your child will not only become a “great” reader – he/she will enjoy it as a life-long gift.

For more tips, check this link to the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) website.  And please feel free to share your reading tips below as well!