Seeing love

The minute I start thinking about how much work I’m getting done, whether I’m accomplishing enough in my business, if I’m on target to complete my goals for the month or year, or how clean the house is, I’ve lost the ability to exist in the present moment with my child. Worry robs me of enjoying life with Maggie. You’d think that acknowledging that would be enough to permanently rid me of obsessing over work, future plans, past failures, or to-do lists. But no. I still find myself wide-eyed with locked jaw, focused on matters which I know will not matter one single bit in 10 years… maybe not even in one year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we inch closer to the day she starts preschool—she’ll only go three mornings a week, so it’s not like she’s walking out the door and never looking back, but it still feels big to me—I am reminded that we’re turning a significant corner as a family. Every time she asks me to go sit on the porch with her in the evening to watch her turtle, a little box turtle my husband found for her, which she named, “Said,” I don’t want to say no. But I hesitate, knowing I have a client waiting for a resume. I hesitate because a friend is coming to stay with us for the weekend, and the house is far from clean or even sanitary right now. But I try to leave my worries behind and play anyway because I know I don’t say yes often enough.

There are too many times I’ve hesitated in the past or said no. And I have carried regrets for all of those times over the past few years. I refuse to carry regrets with me related to saying no to my daughter and her requests for my time, love, and attention. Will I say no to her when she asks for material possessions, demands freedom to explore unsafe areas of the world, and permission to push boundaries which are in place to protect her? Absolutely—I will always say no if it’s in her best interest. But I will say yes, yes, yes if she’s begging for more of my love.

I once heard a speaker say, “Whatever the question, love is the answer.”

The other night I was feeling pushed to my limits with Maggie. She had a hard day that day, and I’d had one, too, dealing with repeated frustration with her demands and defiance. I took a breather and stepped out of the bathroom while she finished her bath. I glanced at the wall and saw an old portrait my dad gave me years ago hanging on the wall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScripted on the portrait were the words, “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do You love me?’ And Jesus said, ‘This much.’ And He spread His arms and died for me.”

I took a deep breath and went back into the bathroom. Maggie splashed around in the water with her bath crayons happily and asked if I wanted to see the pictures she’d drawn of imaginary sea dragons, birds with their mothers, and Mama, Maggie, and Daddy. Of course I did.

I needed to see that portrait. I needed a reminder of just how much God loves me and my little Maggie, and to be reminded that there’s nothing I can do to mess that up. I needed to be reminded that there’s nothing Maggie can do to ruin my love for her and that’s all she needs to hear and see from me every day is a reminder of that Great Love, the kind of Love that holds out its arms all day long for us.

2016 gift list

If I had a dollar for every cynical, ungrateful, and whiny social media post I’ve seen about 2016, I’d be covered in cashmere (and feeling fabulous). I’m baffled by the overwhelming negativity. Sure, things often don’t go our way. But what’s new? As Frank Sinatra crooned, “that’s life,” champ.

I’m quite certain that with the exception of a few people in dire circumstances, most of us are surrounded by beautiful people who love us and have all our needs met (and then some). A little gratitude goes a long way, baby.

Each year I create a gift list as I reflect on how God–and the world, the people in my life, and my circumstances–have given to me generously in various ways over the course of the year. Here’s my list for 2016.

 

1. I learned to take better care of myself.

While answering reflective questions earlier this year, I was asked, “Who modeled self-love for you as a child/teenager?” I felt stunned. What is this self-love you speak of? Really. I didn’t even know where to begin. I couldn’t think of one single scenario which might serve as an example of “self-love.”

Obviously, self and I had our work cut out for us in 2016. We forged ahead. Nine years ago when I began on my journey in recovery, I knew taking care of my own needs wasn’t my strong suit. I didn’t understand the depth of my deficit until this year. Thankfully my mentor helped me find ways to grow and learn to develop not just a better awareness of the problem but to practically improve, too.

556271_541819897282_1739318553_nI implemented nap time at home, which we call “rest time” because Maggie melts down at the word “nap.” For 20 minutes each afternoon, I relax in my own bed and read or close my eyes. I started spending time by myself in the morning, even on mornings when I don’t wake up before Maggie. I simply get her going and then tell her I need a few minutes to read in my special blue chair in the office. It’s amazing that she actually respects my time to myself (kicking myself for not starting that sooner). I’m choosing to call my mentor or friends when I need to talk instead of bottling up my feelings. I began taking better care of my back and neck. And I eat an orange every day.

I’m sure I’ll continue to take better care of myself next year; progress, not perfection, is my goal. That’s another way I’m taking care of myself today.

2. I stopped holding my breath.

In early 2016, I decided to break down and pursue help with my back pain from a local chiropractor who is also a friend. Chiropractic care wasn’t painful or harmful to me. It provided some temporary relief, and the staff in the clinic are fabulous, fun, professional people. It just didn’t turn out to be the magic solution I’d hoped for. However, as I told the chiropractor in my exit interview after my plan of care ended, what I learned through the process was probably more beneficial to me than anything I could have gained in terms of medical progress. I’m not sure if that’s what he wanted to hear as a medical practitioner, but you know me; I cannot withhold my truth.

The best thing I gained was something I hated at the beginning—three 10 or 15-minute timed intervals during each visit (on machines or on tables) which required me to be absolutely still (well, for the most part). While whining to my mentor about this, she suggested I focus on my breathing during this time. What I noticed during the very next visit is that I wasn’t breathing at all; I was holding my breath almost the entire time and tensing my entire body, almost lifting my body up away from the machine or board. I don’t know if I did that because I was in pain or because I carry so much stress constantly. That epiphany brought me to tears.

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Since then, I’ve worked on awareness of my breath and on breathing exercises. I still find leaning forward when I don’t have to, lifting my entire torso off the bed for no reason at all, or tensing other parts of my body for unknown reasons. I never knew how much my body reflects my state of mind until this year.

3. I invested more in what matters and less in what doesn’t.

In keeping with my own blog’s theme, I pull back when I recognize I’ve sunk time, energy, or money into irrelevant, unkind, toxic, or useless projects, people, or organizations. I also do the positive opposite—I pour energy, time, and resources into people, projects, and organizations I deem worthy, ethical, fulfilling, loving, and satisfying.

This year I pulled back from many things I discerned were interrupting my ability to live life in the most fulfilling way possible.

I noticed my babysitter was taking the most adorable pictures of Maggie during the day…. Pictures of her hiding behind a tree while armadillo hunting, finger painting at the table, or swinging with her eyes closed and hair whipping in the wind. I loved and treasured those photos. But I wanted to be present in her life. So I made that happen. I quit working full-time and started taking the pictures myself.

I started my own business and began applying everything I’d learned over the years about careers, the workforce, teaching, consulting, advising, and helping others. When people ask how it’s going, I usually smile because my definition of “success” has changed wildly. I have certainly not produced lots of income this year, but I still feel successful. I’ve stopped living my life by other people’s standards and determining success by others’ definitions–that’s freeing, I tell ya. I’ve forged a path, narrowed my focus, formed partnerships, and helped many people do more of what they love. And I love that.

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I’ve also invested more time in relationships I was neglecting. As a mom, I often find myself short-changing friends. I reconnected with several old friends and forged friendships with people I’d noticed but never made time to connect with, too. Even if I can’t meet up with every woman I know once a month over muffins, I know I’ve done better this year than last year.

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4. I trusted God with outcomes.

Many events and circumstances in 2016 didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped or planned. Before you skip this paragraph and roll your eyes, thinking I’m going to whine about how things didn’t go my way, slow your roll. Keep reading. That’s not what this is about.

This year was my year of joy; joy was my chosen word of the year. I expected to focus on finding and focusing on joy throughout the year. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult, honestly. What I discovered is that I couldn’t produce more joy in my life simply by focusing on it, by pinning quotes, by refusing to look back at sad memories or grief, or by being more grateful or positive. That just wasn’t cutting it this year. A few months into the year I learned if I wanted to find joy, I had to pursue it with no less determination than Frodo’s grim commitment to destroy The Ring.

Part of “accepting my life as it is” this year meant accepting my absolute lack of control over outcomes. I tried to make the best of a job with a company I loved, but it wasn’t for me even though I’d had my heart and mind set on it working out. I then thought I was meant to return to teaching. I applied for my former position, which hadn’t been filled yet, at a local community college. I wasn’t even interviewed for the position. I was crushed. After talking to my mentor and a few colleagues, I realized it was the perfect time to start my own career coaching business so I did. Starting a business while staying home with my daughter has been slow going, but it’s going.

And making the decision to stay home with Maggie while starting my business and teaching part-time has been a huge financial adjustment and lifestyle change. But I’m ultimately happy rolling with the punches because I watch the sunrise in my own office every morning while my daughter sleeps. I make her breakfast without rushing off to work. I take her to story hour at the library every week myself and clumsily glue tiny objects to construction paper right along with her. I’m living life with her rather than paying someone else to live life with her.

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This year I finally not only stopped trying to play God and manage outcomes, but I also simply stopped thinking about outcomes. I can’t explain why this happened except I know this: I have learned to practice trusting God by placing people and things and situations in God’s hands. The more I place what I love in God’s hands and watch Him work magic, the more likely I am to give Him what I love next time around.

5. I loved.  And I gained.

In 2015, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death with my friend Tara as her father went on to that High Resting Place. I watched him suffocate slowly in his last days from mesothelioma which he acquired from asbestos exposure, having never smoked a single cigarette. I felt very bitter about his death. God and I had some words over that one.

I didn’t know God was teaching me how to let go of great men like Jerry throughout 2016; Tara is one of my closest friends, and we talked about her dad, her family’s experience with grief, and her own grief almost every week.

When my favorite dad left this world and joined Jerry on December 2, I knew how to grieve a father.

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Big Jim (what I called my father-in-law) and I had what I like to believe was a unique bond and special relationship. We talked about some quirky and interesting things. Sometimes I liked talking to him about pretty deep subject matter but only when it was just the two of us. I don’t really want to write about details because I’d rather keep them between the two of us.

Big Jim kept his God thoughts pretty quiet. When we were spending time one-on-one, I asked him what he thought about spiritual things. Instead of giving me direct answers, he told me stories, kind of like that great Carpenter and Fisherman we all know and love… stories about Vietnam or growing up poor with lots of kids or football. It didn’t take many stories for me to figure out we were on the same page about what matters. This is one reason I had no questions or feelings of anxiety about his departure from this world when he died a month ago.

When great people die, we tend to feel a hole.

My life was better with Big Jim as a daily, living part of it. That’s obvious. In that sense, I’ve certainly lost out. We all have.

But one of the greatest gifts he gave me–and this is just one of many ways I gained by loving him–is a rugged determination to look on the bright side, find the funny, and to live my life in today. I already valued those principles before I met him, but that man lived that way with such ease—but who knows, maybe so doggedly he made it look easy?—that I want to live that way, too. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Doing

14358915_618953765392_1589227780450859615_nMaggie will turn four in November. I watched her sleeping tonight (since I couldn’t seem to fall asleep myself). She was wrapped up in my fluffy gray throw blanket, her golden auburn hair almost glowing against the darkness.

I wanted to keep her this way forever—peaceful, still, and breathtakingly beautiful. And tiny.

But of course I can’t. Maggie is moving, growing, learning, and thriving—and I’m grateful. She fluctuates between telling me she wants a big girl cup and asking for milk in a baby bottle at bedtime. Even though she’s been potty-trained for almost one year, she still requests a “Celly-grelly diaper” (that’s Cinderella pull-ups) when she wants to pretend she’s still a baby. She knows all her numbers and loves practicing counting, and she loves reading even though she resists learning about letters.

I could go on and on. I’m in love.

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Maggie, August 2013

When I was pregnant with Maggie, I quit working as an academic advisor due to pregnancy complications. I didn’t return to work until Maggie was about 14 months old, and then I only worked part-time as an adjunct English instructor for one year before accepting a full-time faculty position.

During my stay-at-home mom days, I will be honest—I struggled. It was the hardest job I’d ever done; the work never ended, and the client was often unsatisfied with my performance even though I did my darndest to please her. I felt insecure about my lack of financial contribution to our household even though my husband gently reassured me that staying home with Maggie was much more significant and helpful than any salary I’d ever earned.

It was tough to be where my hands were. I’m all about productivity; I like to make things happen. Being a mama is not about making things happen; it’s about letting things happen. Sigh.

Sometimes I found myself daydreaming about more enjoyable things to do while changing diapers or nursing Maggie. Even though I often wished for Calgon to take me away, I felt fulfilled knowing I was with the most important people doing the most important things on my to-do list every single day. When I had the opportunity to teach full-time, though, and to put my degree to use, I couldn’t resist.

The day I drove away from my house to teach full-time for the first time, I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

“You’re going to regret this someday.”

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One of the rare afternoons we spent together during my first semester of teaching full-time

That inner voice was partly correct. Although I thrive in the classroom and felt I’d found my niche teaching English to college students whom I still adore, I have many regrets about that time during our lives. My first semester of teaching full-time was like running the gauntlet. I taught too many courses—my fault for agreeing to do so—and too many writing courses which required countless hours of grading (not my fault since I didn’t select my own courses that semester). In the fall of 2014, I rarely arrived home in time to spend more than 15 minutes with Maggie and James before the sun set. I don’t recall cooking dinner once, but I’m sure I did… didn’t I? During the peak of my daughter’s cuteness, I slaved away to prove myself in academia.

But I found this to be true: if I’m excelling at work, I’m probably sucking at home, or at best, barely holding the pieces together while gritting my teeth and smiling, pretending to have it all figured out.

At the time, my remedy to missing Maggie’s life was to spend more money on her. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maggie, Mama will bring you something cool today, okay?” She loved getting a fun gift—maybe a new rubber duck or a balloon—but sometimes she had tears in her eyes when I left for work.

I regret that.

I can’t change the past—not even God can change the past.

If anything has proven true in my life, it’s that God always gives me second chances and redeems the worst decisions I’ve made. He redeems outcomes.

I left teaching in December 2015 to accept a position as content manager of a small business I’d admired for over a decade. Two months later, I felt incomplete even though I was certainly making things happen and doing a great job. I missed my students; I missed teaching and applied for my old job. But I didn’t get the job, and even though my student evaluations as an instructor demonstrated 99% positive feedback, and my faculty evaluations boasted almost all 5’s, I wasn’t even granted the opportunity to interview for the position. Just a few months before, when leaving the college, I’d received an email from my boss stating that, “People talk about the ‘five percenters,’ but that category is not fitting for you – you are a ‘one percenter.’”

This 1%’er felt baffled, disappointed, and hurt.

I got over it.

I got over it because God gave me a new dream—to launch my own career coaching business and to harness my passions for career development, serving others, and mentoring. And thanks to my long-time mentor, my spiritual mentor, and professional friends and colleagues, I received ample encouragement and reassurance that I was more than qualified to help job seekers find their dream jobs. When I questioned whether I had enough experience to be considered an expert, and wondered if I should wait another five years before launching my business, my friend Dr. Steve Lindner said, “No, you’re ready now.”

I got over it because I found that since I have always believed in the power of networking, I’d made great alliances with various friends connected to other colleges and universities; these connections came through for me, and I was able to secure the chance to teach college part-time while growing my career coaching business.

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Maggie, spring 2016

And I got over it because while working as a content manager, I fell more deeply in love with my daughter. Each time our babysitter sent me photos of Maggie finger painting, hunting for armadillos in the woods behind our house, or eating Cheerios, I longed to be the one taking the pictures. I missed her.

And so I made right my wrong. I leaned out.

While listening to Natalie Merchant’s “Giving Up Everything” one day while driving home from work (in the dark, of course), I exhaled and made the decision to do just that.

I came home.

Today, I don’t earn enough money to spend extravagantly. I certainly don’t earn enough to buy myself an extensive fun wardrobe (complete with fabulous dresses with pockets) or trendy nail polish each season. Maggie rarely hears me say, “Mama will bring you something home.”

I’m already home, and I wouldn’t exchange time with my one precious girl for anything right now.

Instead of buying Maggie gifts, I’m giving myself to her.

When she wakes up in a few hours, I’ll say to her, “Mama has something fun for us to do today.”

Today we’re doing. We’re not buying.

And I’m feeling rich.

Choosing not to

When my friend Bruce invited me to his concert next weekend, I was stoked—and then immediately felt totally bummed. His band, Living Sacrifice, has impacted me spiritually for a decade and a half. I’d love nothing more than to watch them perform again on their home turf.

IMG_8757But I can’t. Not this time. My daughter, Maggie, is barely a year old and has not mastered bottles or cups yet. She still relies on me for some of her sustenance, and with a baby latched onto me (literally), I’m limited to what I can do and when. She has yet to fall asleep without first nursing and listening to me sing God songs to her, enveloped in my warm arms.

So I just can’t.

I can’t.

For the past year, those are the words I’ve chosen to use each time I’ve declined an invitation to a show, a party, a conference, or a big to-do. It wasn’t until I responded to the invitation to attend Bruce’s concert that I realized that those words weren’t completely honest.

Me at 26, with my friend's baby girl

Me at 26, with my friend’s baby girl

At age 21, I was an independent, strong-willed, adventurous young woman who proclaimed that she had no desire to have children. At 26, I seriously contemplated sealing the deal medically and making it impossible for me to conceive—that’s how sure I was that having a baby wasn’t the right life choice for me.

Then I met my husband. And everything changed. I began envisioning the beauty of creating life together and the joy of taking our child along with us while climbing mountains, watching sunrises, devouring Waffle House hash browns while traveling down Route 66, praying and reading classics aloud before bed, and catching trout on the White River. I began to imagine sharing our lives.

With my husband, 2010

With my husband, 2010

I changed my mind.

We began making choices to put our family in the position of being able to spend as much time as possible together in the future before we even knew that Maggie was on the way. I made different choices about jobs and turned down opportunities to interview for positions requiring me to spend lots of time away from home. I went back to school and earned my Master’s degree with the sole intention of teaching at our local community college—something I’ve always wanted to do. We found a great church. We bought a home and renovated it, even though we underestimated how much space we’d need when two became three.

We got ready.

Good thing, because before all our plans were cemented, Maggie came along and blew my expectations for what life could be like out of the water. I love being her mom more than anything. I didn’t have to stop working, but I wanted to. I didn’t have to nurse her, but I wanted to. I didn’t have to stay so close to home last winter in the midst of cold and flu season, but I wanted to. As I reflect on the past year, I feel at rest knowing I have tried to make the best choices.

When I was pregnant and unsure about whether to stay home with Maggie and for how long, my friend Vicky, who is a little older and much wiser than I am, said something that’s become a mantra.

“You may regret a lot of things in life, but you will never regret the time you spend with your kids.”

She was right.

I’ve missed out on some pretty wonderful opportunities since becoming pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t walk across the stage to receive my diploma when I graduated with my Master’s degree after working my tail off and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. One of my high school friends got married, and I missed quite possibly the most fun ever had at a wedding, complete with a live band and oodles of cowgirl boots. Right in the middle of Maggie’s worst teething crisis, I had to cancel plans to spend the weekend with one of my closest college friends and missed out on some Damgoode Pie pizza and beer and plenty of quality time. I had lunch with some of my friends from across the United States prior to a women’s conference I hated to miss, but a few short hours with them flew by, and I found myself missing them the rest of the weekend.

I’m sorry I can’t put Maggie first and still participate in every exciting event in life.

IMG_1744But I don’t regret putting my baby first, and although I have missed some special moments in my loved ones’ lives because of catering to my baby’s schedule and putting her health and well-being first, I don’t regret it. I can’t put my child on hold—she’s here, and today’s the only second day of December in her second year of life that I’ll ever get to spend with her.

It’s not that I can’t find a babysitter and check out for a few hours while watching a movie. It’s not that I can’t send Maggie to daycare tomorrow and go back to work full-time. It’s not that I can’t go to my friend Bruce’s awesome show on December 6th.

I just choose not to today.

Not wasted

Canning pickled tomatoes from our garden, 2011

Canning pickled tomatoes from our garden, 2011

My husband changes the oil in our vehicles himself. When his brake pads need to be replaced, he borrows tools and goes to work. When we decide to install major appliances, run duct work for central heating and air conditioning, or redo all the plumbing and wiring in the quaint old home we’re slowly renovating,  he recruits a few handy volunteers and hammers away after reading DIY books and scouring  forums and websites. When I point out the need for a new desk, bookshelf, or storage unit, my husband bypasses the prepackaged kits and designs and builds them himself. When he loses a button or rips a hem, he breaks out his miniature sewing kit and repairs it. Himself.

I am impressed by his Renaissance-man-meets-Survivor-man nature. I am grateful for the tens of thousands of dollars we have saved over the past three years due to his willingness to expend hours of effort to complete intricate tasks that other men would never consider tackling. And I am, honestly, simultaneously annoyed by his ability to find satisfaction—even joy—in seeing tangible results materialize after conquering tedious, time-consuming projects.

I just don’t get it.

I’m not exactly the Proverbs 31 kind of gal, at least not in terms of burning the midnight oil to darn socks, knit potholders, design scrapbooks, grind my own wheat, or milk goats, all with a pleasant grin plastered on my deliriously exhausted face.

I tip my hat to women who have more effectively honed their domestic prowess and still seem to have excess energy. I feel worn out just writing about being so busy.

I’d rather purchase slacks that can be tossed in the dryer than spend my time—even seconds—slaving over a hot iron. I love baking fresh bread when I have a hankering for it, but I don’t want to commit to waiting for dough to rise every few days before slapping together a simple sandwich. I don’t mind going camping, but as I told my husband the first time we met and discussed it, I want to sit around the campfire and appreciate nature. I don’t want to piece together tent poles, cook real meals over a fire, or do anything that would really require exertion. I love handmade cards, home decor, and scarves—but I have no desire to spend hours learning these trades myself. That’s what Etsy.com is for.

In short, I want to spend my time on things I enjoy. Otherwise, I feel like I’m dropping seconds into a bottomless pit, wasting time I can never get back.

My obsessive desire to avoid wasting time is both a character defect and an asset. If I keep it in check, this desire fuels me to watch only the television shows that make me laugh and teach me new things; I don’t find myself sitting on the couch watching reality shows while scarfing down chips and dip anymore. This desire helps me choose friends wisely. If someone doesn’t build me up and contribute positive meaning to my life, I probably won’t feel the need to invest much time in that friendship. The desire to spend my time wisely keeps me focused on what matters most, most of the time.

However, when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, my obsession with spending my time wisely makes me cranky as I try to rush through the minor tasks in hopes of having time to mark more items off my ever-present to-do list. I find myself lending half an ear rather than fully listening to my family members on the phone, my mind swimming in a sea of unmet goals. Ironically, when I obsess about every second spent on something I deem unnecessary or unimportant, I miss the beauty of the moment.

For three years, I’ve had a note tacked to the bulletin board above my desk with a scribbled phrase smiling back at me.

“Time enjoyed is not time wasted.”

While watching my husband carefully measure a board yesterday, I noticed the subtle smile on his face as sweat trickled across the creases in his eyes. He’s not working, I realized. He’s enjoying what he’s doing.

He has an uncanny knack for finding the sweet spot in life. He doesn’t avoid mundane tasks. He just chooses to take pleasure in doing them himself. He would rather do hard work himself and reap the reward of satisfaction in a job well done than save time by hiring someone to do it. He likes saving money, but I think he likes creating and building and fixing things even more.

Because he chooses to enjoy what he’s doing, he never wastes his time.

Maggie, August 2013

Maggie, August 2013

Last night, I nursed my growing 10 month-old daughter to sleep. She fussed and did her best to fight off the urge to close her eyes but finally succumbed to slumber. I held her little sticky hand in mine, sang her some of my favorite songs, and watched her eyelashes flutter.

I spent 30 minutes propped up in the recliner, singing and caressing my baby.

Having nursed my daughter for 10 months now, I have spent at least 45,900 minutes nursing Maggie—and that’s not taking into account the early weeks when she nursed more often and for longer periods of time. But who’s counting?

Soon, she will drink from her own cup and run away from me, toddling around on her adorable chubby legs. A few years later, she will want to talk to her friends instead of babbling with me and her father. Before I know it, she will be waving goodbye and pulling out of the driveway in her own car rather than sitting in my backseat, sipping on apple juice.

It’s easy to let myself fret the entire 30 minutes each time I feed her, and believe me, I’ve done so plenty of times.

A better option is to enjoy being where my hands are, whether I’m nursing my baby, grading students’ essays, or sweeping up rice puff piles from the kitchen floor.

Because time enjoyed is not time wasted.