Friday, 31 August 2012

Living on less - how to prioritize

Obviously, these last few years have been difficult economic times for everyone. We weren't hit nearly as hard here in Canada as our friends to the south - actually, I don't know a single person who lost their job or home or anything like that - but it's been enough to make us think.

The biggest change I noticed was the change in mortgage rules - banks are just a little less eager to extend absurd amounts of credit after what happened in the States; but I can't honestly say I believe that's a bad thing. Why should people qualify for a mortgage with no money upfront? If you can't save enough for a downpayment on a home, perhaps you shouldn't be buying a home. I have about a half-dozen friends in that position: they bought a home beyond their means (well, just barely within their means assuming nothing ever has to be done and there are no disasters or emergencies or unforseen whatevers...which really just doesn't happen in real life) with next to nothing down and are now stuck with such an enormous monthly payment they can't afford anything else - no new furniture or renos for the house, no vacations, no evenings out or little treats. I have been that house-poor, and it's not a nice way to live. Then there are those with the house beyond their means who do still renovate and vacation and have nice little nights out fairly frequently. How do they manage this? Credit.

I despise credit. Oh, I understand it's a necessary evil - you can't book a hotel room without a credit card, if you want to register your kids for a sought-after space in a sport or swimming lesson you need a credit card to book online the moment registration opens or you're out of luck - but I simply don't believe in using credit to buy things that you couldn't otherwise afford. If you don't have the cash in the bank for it right now, you shouldn't be able to buy it.

We have one credit card between the two of us and we keep its limit low. We don't use the card for anything other than those credit-required scenarios, and we pay it off immediately. If there's something we want for the house or a family vacation we want to take, you know what we do? We save up. Crazy, antiquated notion, I know. But it keeps us within budget, it keeps us from being awake at night worrying about money, and it saves us having to make monthly payments to God-knows-how-many creditors of sixty-five dollars here and three hundred dollars there until all our disposable income is eaten up. Our only debt is what we have left on our mortgage. I know so many people stuck in the credit repayment cycle, and all for what? A slightly bigger house? A fancier car? The biggest TV they can find, the highest-end appliances, a week in Cancun? Not worth it, in my opinion.

Our home is small. We live in a townhome - a three bedroom townhome for the five of us. This was a choice we made. We chose our house very carefully. Having moved so many times since buying my first house a dozen years ago or so, I've learned what I like and don't like in a home, what's important and what doesn't really matter in the long run. To me - to us - how the neighbourhood feels is very important. Neighbourhood matters. Neighbours matter. The view matters, the backyard matters. Certain aspects of the basic layout need to be there - it needs to feel homey, and it's simply not practical to undertake moving a staircase or something like that if the layout really doesn't work - but everything else about the inside of the house can be made to fit your wants and needs, if not right away then eventually. So we settled on our priorites, and went to work finding a home that met those priorities. And we found it, within our budget, here in Pleasantville.

It's absolutely perfect. Teeny-tiny, but everything we want and everything we need. Our two oldest boys share a bedroom - they absolutely wouldn't have it any other way. All three bedrooms are fairly small, but more than enough room for what we need. The basement is finished and has a walk-out to the backyard, making it feel more like part of the rest of the house than the average basement. It's the playroom right now, filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with the kids' toys. Possibly the funnest room ever. The main floor is cozy and warm with just enough room for what we need, and no more - there is no separate dining room for formal entertaining, our dining area is our dining area and there's just the one; there is no home office or library or random extra room for a home gym or piano or anything. But our backyard is to die for, we back onto a park, and the view from our windows is nothing but green. Our neighbourhood is the stuff of fifties small-town happy-family-fantasy. This, for us, was perfect, what we knew would make us happy, what we knew would keep us happy, and was exactly what we wanted for our children to grow up in. And, we could afford it. Would it have been nice to have a fourth bedroom? Absolutely. As the children grow, we will probably have to renovate, adding an extra bedroom in the basement or a small home office. But would it have been worth the squeeze on our pockets to shell out the extra money for the not-absolutely-necessary space? No way.

We have a priority list for our lives, as well. Mommy being an at-home, hands-on Mommy is number one. Spending a lot of family time and taking the kids to the zoo, the Science Centre, the fairs & festivals, all those traditions that are so important to us - those are big. Our annual trip to Disney World is a must. The kids need to be able to participate in all the sports and extra-curricular activities they want, and their education funds are set in stone. And if we want to go out for the occasional dinner or take the kids to a movie or spend a sunny summer afternoon on a patio we want to be able to do that without feeling like it's an unnecessary expense. A big home, brand-new car, fancy furniture and lots of new clothes and accessories are not anywhere on the list.

How do we do it?

Well, I am fortunate enough that I can be a stay-at-home Mom and still earn an income. I own a small fitness company. Once my oldest two were school-age and before I went on maternity leave with my youngest (from which I never returned...) I taught the majority of classes myself. As both the business owner and the staff, I earned quite a healthy salary; now that I am paying another instructor to teach classes at the facility, my income is reduced, but still reasonable - and I only work about three hours a week, all from home. I know that not everyone can do this and I am lucky beyond words.

We still had to make sacrifices, though, in order to continue to live the way we wanted on a reduced income. Because I am at home myself, we are obviously saving a fortune in daycare. Since the school, parks, shopping and banks are all within walking distance, we only need one car, saving not only the cost of the car but the insurance, maintenance and gas as well. Because I don't work out of the house anymore, my wardrobe budget is minimal. And with just these few savings we've cut out the difference in income between before Baby and after and we are able to afford all those little luxuries that make us feel rich.

I am able to drop off and pick up the boys from school every day. By the time most parents are getting home from work and picking up their kids from daycare, we've already meandered home and discussed their days, done homework and reading, gone for a bike ride or to the park, played soccer and sandbox in the backyard or chalk and bubbles on the driveway, and dinner is on the stove. That's why Mommy being home is our very first priority - that's a lot of hours out of the kids' lives that I'd otherwise be missing while someone else raised them.

And because we have no debt eating away at our monthly budget and a nice small mortgage payment we are able to save everything that's left over at the end of the month to spend on treats and luxuries like nights out and nice dinners and family vacations and our many, many "traditions" and day trips. I feel like the richest person in the world and haven't lost a moment's sleep to money troubles in years (of course, with three children, I'm not really getting all that much sleep to begin with...) and that's simply because we were able to figure out our priorities and stick to them.

The problem so many people have is that with no priorities in place, everything becomes a priority, and there simply is not enough money for everything. Choices have to be made - and as long as it's your choice, it'll be a choice you'll be happy with.

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My little townhome love!
Money lessons for kids
Play it forward
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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Stay-at-home vs. working moms

This is one of the most debated parts of parenthood, and there seems to be a great deal of argument in the media of late between the proponents of having one parent stay at home to raise their children full-time and those who choose to have both parents working out of the house.

Like most parenting issues, the decision to keep one parent at home with the kids or to send them to daycare while you both go to work is an extraordinarily personal one and one which is completely individualized for each and every family.

For some, it's not a decision to be made or a choice at all; for single-parent families, it's not an option to give up one income to stay home - one income is all there is. For many - particularly in parts of the country where the cost of living is so disproportionately inflated - it's simply not possible for a family to live on one income without enormous sacrifices most are not willing or able to make. For others, the associated costs of returning to work after maternity or family leave - the astronomical cost of daycare, transportation costs for a second vehicle and insurance and gas - cut so far into the extra money earned by the second income earner that it doesn't make sense not to just stay home.

But for those families for whom it is a choice, the decision to be a stay-at-home mom or to return to work can be complicated, heart-wrenching, guilt-ridden and, almost always, judged by every other parent out there.

There are valid points to be made for both options.

Having one parent stay at home full-time to raise the children provides the benefit of hands-on parenting for both parent and child, a strengthened bond, more memories, more moments, more time together. In my opinion, there is nothing more important - for me as a mom, for my family and for my children, I can't imagine choosing to send my kids to be cared for by someone else for most of the hours of the day while I miss out on these short, precious years that they are babies, toddlers, preschoolers, children and young adults. This time is so short - in just a few short years my baby boys will be young men off to university and this phase of their lives, of my life, of our life as a family will be over. In my mind, the financial sacrifices we have to make - and we have most certainly had to make some sacrifices - are nothing compared to the idea of losing this time with my children. There will be lots of time to work in a few years once they are grown.

But that's my choice for my family, that's what works for me and for us, that's how we see our priorities. And the sacrifices we have had to make in order to accommodate the choice to have me stay at home are significant. We have become a one-car family, sacrificing the convenience of a second vehicle in order to save the costs of a second car payment and insurance payment. It means that I have to walk the kids to school every day, even through the pouring rain and slushy snow and blistering twenty-below wind, and that errands have to be done within walking distance or saved for after my husband gets home from work. Eating dinner out at a restaurant is now a once or twice a month treat where once it would be the easy after-work solution a couple of times a week - now I meal plan every week and grocery shop accordingly, squeezing as many days out of the food budget as possible. Even the home we live in was purchased with the intent that we could carry the mortgage on one income if absolutely necessary. We're very lucky in that my job allows me to still earn an income while staying at home full-time to raise our children, so we haven't had to put our single-income budget to the test, but we have still made many sacrifices to live on our reduced income.

Even if having two incomes in the household is not a financial necessity, there are many moms who choose to return to work after maternity leave for other reasons. For some women, their career is a part of their identity that they are not willing to lose. Particularly for those who have waited until their thirties or even forties to have children, being a lawyer or a teacher or an accountant is an important part of who they are as human beings. Giving up that career to stay home with their children after maternity leave would be cutting out a part of themselves. For others, the notion of being at home all day every day with their children is simply not something they'd be capable of doing. I have a girlfriend who decided after having her first son that she'd likely not have any more children because she found her time at home with him during maternity leave difficult. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for her to be able to say this out loud, but I have an immense amount of respect for her for being self-aware enough to realize and acknowledge that fact about herself. Not everyone is able to Mommy all day every day, just like not everyone is able to work in a high-pressure corporate environment. Everyone has different strengths and abilities.

Personally, I have been in virtually every working-and-parenting scenario imaginable. I have been a stay-at-home mom in a two-parent household; I have been a working single mom with my kids in daycare; I have been a working mom with a job that worked around school hours to avoid the necessity of daycare; I have worked from home as a single parent, raising my kids during the day and working online into the wee hours of the morning, sacrificing almost all sleeping hours in order to keep my kids from having to go to child care; and I am lucky enough now that I am able to be a stay-at-home mom in a two-parent household again while still earning an income. For me, this is the ideal situation, because for me, the importance of being at home with and for my kids while they are still kids is critically important - I couldn't imagine only seeing my boys for a few hours an evening. For my friend, her situation is ideal because her son receives all the nurturing, care, learning and peer interaction she wants for him at daycare while she's at the office, and when she picks him up after work she's able to give him a couple of hours of dedicated, devoted, quality mothering because she feels fulfilled as a human being.

The reality is that there's no "right" answer to the question of whether it's better to stay at home to raise children or to work outside the home and send them to child care. The right thing to do is whatever's right for your family, and the choice is one no-one else can or should make for you or judge you for; unfortunately, it seems that judgement goes hand-in-hand with virtually every parenting decision we make. I hardly think, however, that either the decision to stay at home with your children or to work out of the home and send them to daycare will result in a generation of delinquents; if a child is being cared for in a nurturing environment it shouldn't matter whether that environment is at home or in a daycare centre, if a woman feels happy and fulfilled it shouldn't matter whether it's from Mommying in sweats all day or brokering deals on Bay Street, and if a family works the way it is it's no-one's business if they live on one income or two, own a five bedroom mansion or rent a nine-hundred-square-foot apartment, spend all day together or only a few quality hours at night. The right choice for your family is what feels right for you.

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Living on less - how to prioritize
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Monday, 27 August 2012

Kids in sport: how active is too active?

Kids sports, kids activities, sports, active

Coming off the final weekend of summer sports, which involved three tournaments for two different sports in three separate locations at overlapping times, I find myself wondering: how much is too much?

A lot of people thought we'd overdone it when we told them the kids' summer sports schedule - four evenings a week between the two boys and often a Saturday morning practice, plus tournaments. And I've read a number of articles lately lamenting the plight of the over-scheduled child and heard many remarks about "too many activities, too little time to just be a kid." While I couldn't agree more if we're talking about the fourth-grader who goes from school to karate to piano lessons to hockey practice all year round, I simply don't think that applies in the summertime.

During the school year, the school day is the kids' structured time. That's when they get their socialization time with other kids, a little physical activity during recess and gym, and their days are completely scheduled and organized for them. Throw in a Wednesday evening swimming lesson and Saturday morning indoor soccer and that's probably enough. But it's an entirely different story when we're talking about the summer.

My kids spend their summers at home with me. Their days are far from scheduled - I mean, we follow a loose routine, there's a breakfast-and-board-games, backyard play, bike-rides-after-lunch, splash pad/park/library sort of loop to our summer weekdays - but we also have days when we have ice cream sundaes for breakfast and stay in our jammies until three o'clock in the afternoon. When a quick watering of the garden turns into four hours of sprinklers and bubbles and watergun fights. When we get distracted in the basement playroom en route to the backyard and kill an entire afternoon playing Lego. When a brisk morning walk turns into a meandering, all-day explore through the trails of the local arboretum and ravine.

Our days aren't very scheduled.

So I don't feel like a sport in the evening is too much. It's the only time of day that we actually have to be anywhere at any particular time, and I think it's important to keep that. Because at no other point in their lives will they ever again have endless stretches of weeks and months without school, jobs, appointments, meetings, commitments, places to be and people to see, when time actually has no meaning whatsoever.

On top of which, of course, there are the myriad other benefits of sport: socialization with other kids of the same age group (I'm Mom, and I may be fun for a Mom, but let's face it - I'm still Mom. I'm old.) the discipline of learning and following rules, having to listen to and respect adults other than parents and teachers, the health benefits of a physically active lifestyle, teamwork and fair play and competition and winning and losing.

I think sport is incredibly important to a healthy, well-rounded childhood. And I have a hard time believing that my child, running up and down the field dripping in hard-earned sweat and calling for his teammate to pass the ball, or searching out my eyes from across the diamond to make sure I saw that hit, a huge grin plastered across his face, is getting less of a chance to "just be a kid" than the one sitting on the couch playing video games.

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Friday, 24 August 2012

Kids' birthday craziness

My oldest was at a birthday party this afternoon - at his friend's house. Not the wave pool, the hockey arena, or the indoor play place; not the bowling alley, the batting cages or Chuck E Cheese. The party was at his home. His parents didn't hire a petting zoo, a magician, or a half-dozen bouncy castles for the affair; the invitations - homemade by the birthday boy - told everyone to wear their favourite hockey jersey and bring their sticks and they spent the afternoon playing street hockey.

I didn't know people did that anymore. I didn't know it was acceptable to do that anymore.

Remember when we were kids? Back then a birthday party was a dozen of our classmates coming over for pizza and cake and ice cream and a couple of hours of games in the basement or backyard. Now, it has to be at a location - one of the zillion or so indoor playplaces popping up on every street corner, or the local pool or skating rink or soccer dome or bowling alley. And there has to be a theme. No longer is it acceptable to buy a chocolate ice-cream cake and stick the appropriate number of candles on top. Now it must be in the shape of the child's favourite character or activity. The balloons and pinata and napkins and tableware and take-home loot bags must also be coordinated. This is how it's done these days.

Our kids have their first "friend party" at five years old, so we've been doing this for a few years now. We have had parties at Chuck E Cheese, at the bowling alley, and at the public pool. We have had a Transformers-themed party, a Star Wars-themed party, a pirate-themed party, a soccer-themed party, and a couple of Cars parties - with coordinated cakes, balloons, loot bags, and swag. The kids have been invited to parties at all the same locations, plus the hockey rink, the soccer dome, the Science Centre, various indoor playplaces, and the odd rental hall where there's a hired reptile show or a clown and a magician or a bunch of carnival games and bouncy castles. This is the first party we have ever been invited to at someone's home.

When did it all become so extravagant? We all love doing as much as we possibly can for our kids - but is there some point at which it all becomes a little bit over the top? Should planning a children's birthday party take as much coordination as a small wedding reception?

My son had an absolute blast at his friend's party. They played street hockey and basketball. The cake and hot chocolate were served right there on the front lawn. The loot bags were filled with a mish-mash of un-themed toys and candies - the kind of junk kids love. And the mom probably spent all of an hour and a half shopping, planning and decorating for this party. I'm jealous beyond words - and possibly rethinking our plans for next year's birthday celebrations.

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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Kids party ideas

Children's birthday parties can be an absolute gong show, and once your kids are of the age that they're invited to a friend's party every couple of weeks or so you really begin to see just how many options there are out there and how easy it is to go over the top with locations and themes and money, money, money spent.

But it is possible to throw an amazing, memorable party at home that the kids will absolutely love without having to bankrupt yourself. Children don't need inflatables or hired entertainers or a rented indoor playplace to have fun. They want their friends and family and a party atmosphere - and there's no reason you can't achieve that in your own living room or backyard. The key is in the planning.

I like to plan my kids' parties around a theme - it's easier to keep on plan and on budget if there's a plan in the back of my head when I'm shopping or searching out ideas online.

InvitationsYou don't need to buy themed invitations from a party store - supplies can be purchased at the dollar store and your little birthday princess or pirate can help by decorating the invitation with stickers and glitter glue. Use your imagination - a scroll for a princess party, a treasure map for a pirate party, cocktail umbrellas for a beach party - be creative! Make sure the invitation reminds your little guests to dress up according to the party theme!

Decorations:  Again, forgo the party store and consider the dollar store. Balloons, streamers, ribbons, confetti, plastic table cloths, paper plates and napkins, glitter, craft supplies. Fill the entrance and the area of the house or yard you'll be using for the party with as many balloons and streamers and tissue paper puffs as you can - a balloon arch for the birthday boy or girl's seat, clusters of balloons in every corner, swags across the doorway or the fence, anywhere you can squeeze them. Nothing gives kids a sense that a party is a party more than party decorations - remember, with kids "more is more." Coordinate a colour theme and tie everything together with one splurge like a couple of helium-filled balloons with an appropriate character on them, or a themed cake or pinata if you don't feel up to making them yourself.

Some easy, affordable party themes and ideas - and some fabulous photos for inspiration - that are guaranteed to get big reactions from your precious little birthday boy or girl:

Pirate party
Games & Activities:
Becoming buccaneers: set up a station for each child to outfit themselves with a pirate bandanna, eye patch, clip-on earring, sword and "stubble" using eyeliner (all available at the dollar store).
Treasure chest craft: let the little pirates' imaginations run wild decorating wood treasure chests from the dollar store with paint, glitter, gems, and stickers. Fill each chest with chocolate coin "treasure" for the pirates to take home with them after the party!
Treasure hunt: divide the children into teams and give each a bottle with a rolled-up treasure map inside. Each team follows the clues and map to find the hidden treasure!
Pin the patch on the pirate: each pirate gets a construction paper pirate patch, is blindfolded, spun in a circle, and has to stick the eye patch on a pirate poster (like Pin the Tail on the Donkey).
Walk the plank: set up a board as a balance beam for the pirates to walk along. Put pillows underneath to break the fall.
Shark attack: place "islands" of brown craft paper around the floor or yard. The pirates walk around the newspaper until "shark attack" is called, when pirates have to run to an island. One "island" is removed each round and torn smaller until only one pirate remains.

Pirate party, kids party themes, kids birthday party
pirate party, kids party, kids birthday party, tablescape, pirate decor
Pirate party, kids party, kids birthday, cupcakes, pirate decor

Pirate party, kids party, kids birthday, pirate decor

pirate party, kids party, kids birthday party, dessert
pirate party, kids party, kids birthday party

pirate party, kids party, kids birthday party, party food, desserts

Princess party
Games & Activities:
Royal Salon - enlist the help of another mom or hire a neighbourhood teenager to give the little princesses "makeovers" - a little princess make-up and a temporary butterfly tattoo on the cheek will make each little princess feel special.
Tiara craft - each child can let their imagination go wild decorating their own tiara with glitter and paint and plastic gems to wear the rest of the afternoon and take home with them at the end of the party.
Jewelry craft - plastic thread and brightly-coloured plastic beads with sparkles are a fun and easy way to make princess-worthy bracelets and necklaces for party-goers to take home with them.
Find the Glass Slipper game - treasure hunt to find Cinderella's missing glass slipper (a hidden high-heeled shoe) with a dollar-store princess prize for the winner!
Kiss the Frog game - each princess gets a big pair of construction paper lips, is blindfolded, spun in a circle, and has to stick the lips on a giant frog (like Pin the Tail on the Donkey).
Princess Bingo - create your own Princess Bingo set out of cut-up Disney Princess Valentine cards.


Fairy Tale Princess Birthday Party - Princess Party

Magical Sleeping Beauty Party - Sleeping Beauty Party

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Monday, 20 August 2012

Play it forward

I love this little club of sharing and passing-it-on and paying-it-forward that we suddenly gain automatic membership to as soon as we become parents. Nobody tells you about it before you have kids, but as soon you announce your first pregnancy it's like this whole community opens their arms to you - "Oh! Perfect timing! Don't buy baby gates, we just took ours down and can't wait to get them out of the house." "Let me know if you're having a girl, I've got three boxes of girls' clothes with your name on it." "Do you have a baby gym? Our little guy's outgrown his and it's taking up half the basement."

Now, unfortunately I missed out on that with my first two - I was pretty young when I had my first son, a good four or five years before any of my friends and family, so there really weren't any hand-me-downs for him, and when his brother was born only a year and a half later we were already pretty well stocked baby-wise. But by the time Baby was born last year, I had given away a lot of my stuff during one of our many, many moves.

Clothes we kept - clothes don't take up a lot of room. And I was one of those moms who WAY over-bought for the first baby, so at this point (three boys in) I could probably clothe a full classroom of pre-schoolers comfortably for a month without ever having to do laundry. Smaller items, or ones I didn't want to replace - the rocker, the playcentre, the Bumbo, the Snugli - we held onto those. But we got rid of most of the bigger stuff - crib, change table, swing, strollers, safety gates, bathtub, all the larger items. Those sorts of things take up a lot of room. And though Baby was always in the plans eventually, well, eventually is a long time away when you're packing up a moving truck and trying to save space. One of my best girlfriends had her baby shower literally days before one of our big moves, and she hit the jackpot, baby-equipment-wise. I was fully prepared to buy all new everything for Baby.

But I can't believe how generous everyone was. The crib we bought new, and the furniture for his room - I've always loved the Seuss-iness of the Ikea Mammut kids' furniture, so that was always in the plans. But the stroller came from one of my husband's colleagues. The safety gates and exerciser from my brother. The bathtub, booster seat and swing from various girlfriends.

And this is how it works.

Aside from the massive baby-shower-slash-moving-my-God-this-couldn't-be-better-timing hand-off a couple of years ago, I've hand-me-downed zillions of items over the years. Bags and bags of clothes to my brother and sister-in-law. Toys for the cousins (especially those big ones that take up half the bloody playroom), the bassinette and baby clothes and a couple of baby seats to a church drive. Every year we do a purge of the playroom and give everything the kids haven't played with in a while away.

And so does everyone else I know who has kids.

It's not just baby stuff, although because baby stuff is only useful for such a short period of time there seems to be a lot of it floating around - it's toys as children outgrow them, books and DVD's they're no longer interested in, bikes and sleds because they're ready for the next size up. People are willing - eager - to hand off their things to someone else who can use them.

It's as though once we're a part of this community of parents we're all in it together - so why not pool some of the expense and share the cost of raising all these children? Membership to the club is free, just make sure you pass that toy on to someone else who can use it when you're done with it.

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Friday, 17 August 2012

Best friends

There's something so special about a best friend.

Mine is the best - the one human being in the world other than my husband who I can tell anything and everything, who will listen to me bitch and moan and agree with me, then turn around and agree with me when I say the exact opposite in our next conversation. Various best friends moved in and out of my life over the growing up years, but I didn't meet my real bestie until university. We were in residence together in our first year and partied together on occasion, but were really just friendly acquaintances moving in mostly different circles and coming from vastly different backgrounds until we somehow ended up getting an apartment together in second year sort of accidentally and by default. And immediately became the very best of best friends for life.

I don't know what I would do without her.

When we finished university and I moved out, she said it felt like we were getting divorced. After a few years of living together, it really was like cutting out a part of ourselves to have to separate and go start our real lives a couple of hours away in opposite directions. But of anyone I know, and more than anyone I know, she has remained my real best friend ever since - new friends come and go (although I'm not much for new friends - remember that Seinfeld episode? "When you're in your thirties it's very hard to make a new friend. Whatever the group is that you've got now, that's who you're going with. You're not interviewing, you're not looking at any new people, you're not interesting in seeing any applications...When I meet a guy...I'm sure you're a very nice person, you seem to have a lot of potential, but we're just not hiring right now." That's pretty much me.) I've met some lovely people through work and the kids, I still hang out with the same people from high school and through the magic of Facebook have reconnected with old friends and grown closer to a lot of old acquaintances. But my bestie is my bestie and the only one I'm sure will still be my bestie when we're old and grey and getting together for tea and Metamucil instead of cocktails.

Best friends are a much less permanent idea for kids. For little kids, the whole notion of friendship is very fluid and based on much more lenient criteria than teens and adults. You like to ride bikes and play soccer? I like to ride bikes and play soccer! Let's be best friends. Oh, wait, you sit beside me in class? You'll be my best friend!

My kids have had some wonderful besties over the years. My eldest's best friend in kindergarten was about a foot and a half taller than every other kid in the class, built like a rugby player and often mistaken for a fifth- or sixth-grader, but was the softest-spoken, sweetest little boy in the world. They used to hug good morning and good-bye every day in the yard at school. Heart-melting. The next year they were in different classes and his second-best friend moved up in the rankings because he was in my son's class. Those two could play soccer for hours without a break and when they got a fit of the giggles it seemed like they'd never stop. By the end of every slumber party they'd be finishing each other's sentences like an old married couple. I was heartbroken when we moved and only saw his old friends once or twice more before they sort of drifted away, but I had a much harder time with the idea than he did. Eldest Child is one of those easy, breezy outgoing kids who attracts friends as easily as his breathes. He met his new best friend his first day at his new school and they've been inseparable ever since. Middle Child is quite shy by comparison, but he has one little best buddy who shares his love of superheroes and Star Wars. They play together every recess. I was walking past the school during lunch hour the other day and saw them running down the big hill in the school yard, holding hands. I could have died - too cute.

Best friends are so important. A best friend gives a kid the confidence to be goofy, to try new things, to screw up. Best friends help kids develop an identity outside of Mom & Dad and brothers. Best friends teach kids about loyalty and sharing. A best friend gives a kid a port of safety in the world outside the safe harbour of home and family, a sense of belonging and acceptance. I'm so glad my kids have found themselves some best friends. And even though their best friends will probably change a dozen times before they find a real best friend for life, every one who passes through their lives will help them learn and grow and become better little people.

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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Phone dates with my bestie

I became a mom many years before anyone else I knew, and because I had kids and my life and schedule and responsibilities were so dramatically different from theirs, I almost completely lost touch with most of my girlfriends for a while.

Busy with my first baby while my girlfriends were starting their careers and planning their weddings it was easy for the months to slip by before we even realized that we hadn't spoken in half a year, let alone met for a visit. Married to a man I was miserable with, stranded in the town he moved us to an hour away from anyone I knew, raising my baby all on my own without the option of a half hour's relief for a coffee date with a friend, I often felt lonely when I'd hear about the glamorous, grown-up, independent lives my girlfriends were all living and the freedom they had to meet one another for after-work drinks, go out for a nice steak dinner with their husbands, make party plans for the weekend with other friends. I loved, and still love, being a mom more than anything in the world - my boys are the centre of my universe and they are what give meaning, shape and form to my entire life - but in my first few years as a new mom I felt very isolated and alone.

Realistically, things haven't changed that much in terms of personal freedom - I'm still an at-home mom and a very hands-on mom and despite now having a husband who's a real partner and parent in every sense of the word I don't have any more time to myself, time for us, or time for friends than I ever did.

But in the last few years I've realized just how important girlfriends are as a connection to reality, a connection to the outside world, a connection to our non-mom selves, a connection to other women and other moms (now that some of them are). Even if it's only a few texts or Facebook messages every week or two and you only manage to get together for a coffee every couple of months or meet for Christmas cocktails once a year, those quick messages back and forth keep you connected to your adult self, the non-mom you who likes to giggle and gossip and dress up and go dancing.

Once a week - actually more like every two weeks, to be honest, since we're both always busy and time seems to just slip away - I have a phone date with my best girlfriend. I only see see her once a year (which is shameful - she only lives an hour and a half away - it's just that it always seems so impossible to find the time...) but I have a closer connection to her than to anyone else in the world who lives outside this house because of our bi-weekly marathon phone dates.

These phone dates are, in essence, my social life these days. I don't really like to leave my kids with a sitter - these years when they're young, this time with them when they actually want and need me just seems so short that I'd hate to waste any of those hours when we're not busy with work, school, sports, playdates, birthday parties or any of the other things that seem to take up so much of our time as a family by leaving them with someone else. I've been told time and time again that it's necessary, that you need it for your own sanity, for quality time to yourself or as a couple or with friends. But it's just not something I've ever been able to reconcile myself to. My alone time, and quality time with my husband, is at home after the kids go to sleep at night. And I'm absolutely fine with that.

But girlfriend time is harder. I have a couple of close girlfriends who have children now, and we'll do a coffee-slash-playdate at one of our houses or the park or an indoor playplace perhaps twice a year. I have a couple of close girlfriends without kids who I meet for coffee - usually with at least one kid in tow - every few months. In the summer we have a big group of friends over for a family-friendly barbecue in the backyard, and every Christmas season we have a night-time cocktail party - the kids sleep soundly through it all. But these social activities are fairly few and far between, and if it weren't for my bi-weekly phone dates with my best girlfriend I feel like I'd be in real danger of losing touch with the outside world and the reality of life outside what takes place within the walls of our home.

My phone dates with my bestie have grown over the years into two or three hour marathon sessions, and I look forward to these dates the same way I would to a rare child-free outing. We plan them out a day or two ahead, booking them for a night when she'll be home from work at a reasonable hour and we'll be home from soccer early enough for a normal bedtime and we warn our husbands in advance. After I get all three kids down and she's finished her (much later, grown-up-time dinner) with her husband I pour a glass of wine, settle down on the couch and call her.

We get all of our "what's new" news over with in the first ten minutes or so. The rest of the phone date is devoted to ramblings, gossip, heartbreaks little and big, happy moments and the general insignificant nonsense that makes up most of what goes on in our heads most of the time. These phone dates remind me of our years together as roomies in university, of all the ups and downs we've shared over the years, of life as an individual rather than a wife and mom, and they are what keep me in touch with life outside the bubble of family life in Pleasantville I live in. And I love them.

best girlfriends, adult friendshipsI know that one day my kids will be old enough for me to have a real social life again, to go out for coffee dates and meet for drinks after work and go to cocktail parties and have dates outside the home with my husband - but until that happens, it's these once-every-week-or-two phone dates with my bestie that make up my social life, and they make me very happy.

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Monday, 13 August 2012

Movie nights with the kids

There's something so special about the quiet, lazy little moments we share with our kids. As active a family as we are and as against the idea of extensive screen time for kids as I am (our house rules include a "no Wii on weekdays" policy and a one-hour daily TV viewing maximum) there are very few things I love as much as our family movie nights.

We have a spare mattress that we keep in the crawlspace under the basement stairs just for movie nights. We move the coffee table out of the way and set up the mattress between the couches in the living room. The boys change into jammies and grab their pillows and a favourite stuffy each from their bedrooms and set them up side-by-side on the mattress while my husband pops a big bowl of buttery popcorn. I tuck the kids in with the great big fleecy blankets we keep for cozying up on the couch. We close the shutters on the windows, turn off the overhead lights and all snuggle up together for an hour and a half of lazy family fun.

I've never been a movie-goer - I've never understood movies as a date-night activity, sitting in silence and staring at a screen rather than looking at and talking to each other - or even a movie-watcher. I just don't have the ninety-minute-plus attention span and get very impatient sitting and doing nothing for an hour and a half. I'm much more of a TV-as-background-noise kind of girl. But there's something about those family movie nights with the husband and kids. I love it when we all laugh at the same parts, seeing the kids' sense of humour develop as they grow and develop their own little personalities. I love it when they quote their favourite lines back to me or act out their favourite parts or ask the whys and wherefores of the backstory behind what's happening on-screen. I love the cuddles and snuggles. That time just seems so special, a cozy little break from reality and the rush of normal family life.

So although I much prefer active play out in the yard or at the park, creative play with crafts and make-believe or engaging play with board games over spaced-out screen time, I love our lazy family movie nights snuggled up as a family while fantasy plays out on the big screen in front of us. These moments are among my favourite memories.

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Friday, 10 August 2012

Under the Sea pom-pom creature craft

crafts, kids crafts, epic crafts

This is a super fun craft - pom-pom water creatures and an underwater ocean scene!

Homemade pom-poms are a fun and easy craft for little ones old enough to use scissors.

crafts, kids crafts

To make these pom-poms, wrap the end of the wool around your fingers forty times (larger loops for larger pom-poms, smaller loops for smaller pom-poms).
crafts, kids crafts

Carefully slide the loops off your fingers and tie tightly in the middle with a small piece of matching wool.
crafts, kids crafts

Then cut the loops and trim the ends until you're happy with your pom-pom.

crafts, kids craftsWe made a bunch of pom-poms in various sizes and colours, glued on googly eyes, and cut out shapes from coloured paper for fins and claws. Once we had our pom-pom creatures (a lobster, a whale, a shark, an octopus and a school of multi-coloured fish) the boys coloured an ocean scene and decorated it with seashells, crystal gems, glitter and sequins.

crafts, kids crafts

An epic craft for a long, snowy weekend at home!

crafts, kids crafts
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Rainy-day paper mache

We haven't been doing nearly as many arts and crafts projects in the last year or so as when the kids were a little younger, but when we do it's not just a matter of pulling out the construction paper and crayons anymore; when we craft now, it's a major production. Paint, glitter, sequins and coloured stones, foam cut-outs and ribbon and fabric and pom-poms, popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners in every colour of the rainbow, paper and cardboard and scissors and glue. Plans are discussed and discarded and refined with the attention to detail of engineers until the final project vision is determined.

Our most recent rainy-day project was paper mache. I thought it would be a great, fun project to keep everyone busy and entertained for a few solid hours; I forgot how messy it would be, particularly with Baby so desperately determined to do everything his big brothers do.

We did a great paper mache project a couple of years ago on another rainy day stuck indoors. The boys made a pair of bowls; simple and straightforward. We covered the dining room table in newspaper and turned a pair of kitchen bowls upside-down on top. The bowls were covered in plastic wrap, then the strips of newspaper dipped in the paper mache goop (1 part flour, 2 parts water) and placed on the overturned bowl. The boys got messy, there was goop everywhere, the bowls got covered, and everyone had a blast. Once everything dried we pulled the paper mache off its mold and the kids spent another happy afternoon painting their bowls. Small-scale project, simple concept, containable mess, no Baby underfoot.

kids crafts
Paper mache bowls

kids crafts

So I decided to try it again. This time, though, I asked the kids what they'd like to make. No parameters. Eldest Child wanted to make a platypus and his brother decided on a pirate ship. No problem.

To make the base shapes, we needed some good, rigid cardboard for the mold - thick enough to hold a shape and stand up to the moisture from the goop, but not so thick that it would be too hard for us to cut it and shape. We don't have a ton of cardboard just lying around the house, so we used beer cases. Classy, I know.

kids crafts

I probably should have considered the difficulty level of the feat of engineering involved in the shapes the kids picked before undertaking the project, but I didn't. I should also probably have given some thought to size and scale. I did not. But thanks to enormous quantities of masking tape we eventually had our molds made and began applying the newspaper strips and goop.

The paper mache portion of the project ended up taking two full afternoons because of the size of the projects and the awkwardness of the shapes - and even so there were patches of beer logo showing through in the end, which I thinks adds a real je ne sais quoi to a children's art project.

As an aside, if you are ever going to do a paper mache project with an infant in the house, keep the goop out of reach and be sure to pay attention to where any small drips might be; if there is any on the floor whatsoever, it will end up on the infant, and paper mache goop dries significantly faster on skin than it does on paper. And does not wash off that easily.

Once the projects were dry it was time to decorate.
Paint. Glitter glue. Stick-on gems. Pom-poms. Sparkles.
This was one blinged-out pirate ship and platypus.

And table, and floor.

And two children and one baby.

The sparkles wash off skin much easier than the paper mache goop, but they're never really gone. I am still finding glitter in Baby's hair, on the boys' (several-times-laundered) clothes, on the floor under the table, in the seams of the chairs. Craft glitter is like Christmas tree pine needles: it doesn't matter how many times you sweep and vacuum and scrub, it will never go away.

But every time you find some you'll smile remembering the fun.

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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Art from the heart

Every Mommy wants to keep all of her little angel's masterpieces. From the first scribbles with crayon through all the fingerpaintings and macaroni-and-glue creations, the people with heads and arms and legs but no bodies and that one unidentifiable drawing we all have that looks unsettlingly like male genitalia (, sweetie, what's this you drew? A rocket ship! Of course it's a rocket ship...)

It would be wonderful if we could keep every tiny scrap to document every step of their growing-up years. But after a few kids and a few years of school, faced with a growing mound of papers - artwork, homework, stories, projects, worksheets, reports, paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures - at some point it becomes obvious it's all a bit too much.

I've developed a system. I throw everything they make into one of those plastic drawer towers, one drawer per kid - drawings from home, paintings from art class, everything they bring home from school, it all gets tossed into the drawer. Once a year, somewhere around their birthdays, I pull everything out and go through it.

It's much easier when faced with such quantity to develop a little bit of perspective and say, yes it's sweet that he's spelled his name out properly in great big letters across a piece of construction paper, but do I need forty similar pages to remember this stage? I don't have a very scientific method - I go through each piece item by item; if there's any heartstring-tugging whatsoever, I keep it. If not, it gets tossed. If I feel any guilt, it gets put back in the keep pile. I usually end up keeping about half.

But why just keep their art in a box in the basement where it will never be seen? Now, there's nothing wrong with the magnet-on-the-fridge method of children's art display. That's where we keep the most recent homemade cards and the like. But I prefer a more permanent display, so before I pack away the keep pile for each age I pick out a couple of our favouritest favourites to be hung, gallery-style, in a collage on the wall of the family room. A couple of choice pieces - the best of the best favourites - are framed and hung in the main living area of our home.

Art is meant to be looked at and loved. Art should evoke a feeling when you look at it; it should give you pleasure to have it near you. Art is personal - there is no such thing as "good" taste in art, just your own taste. What you put on your walls should be what makes you happy, what makes your house feel like a home. It puts a smile on my face every day when I see my kids' masterpieces hung proudly on the wall, and no amount of money in the world could buy that same feeling, even if our walls were plastered with Picassos and Monets.

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Gallery wall

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Monday, 6 August 2012

Precious moments

There are so many moments when your kids are young.
I just hope I can hold on to these memories when they are all grown-up.

The big ones are easy, and usually well-documented (those readers that know me know that I am a leeeeetle obsessive about photographing everything) - the family vacations, the birthdays, Christmas morning, family get-togethers, camping and cottaging, family field trips and special excursions.

But it's the little moments - the ones you almost don't even think about - those precious moments that make you feel warm and cozy and just oozing love and happiness - that can slip by before you notice.

The weekend mornings playing board games around the kitchen table, when everyone is still shlumping in their jammies at 11am and everyone is happy and relaxed and comfy and well-fed and no-one has to rush anywhere for any reason. The walks home from school every afternoon, when the boys all have kisses and hugs for each other and slip their little hands into mine and we walk across the street from the school and through the tree-lined path home and they tell me all about their day. The times I just sit and watch them playing together, in awe at the incredible bond they have with each other - finishing each other's sentences and stringing out a story while they play pretend, each picking up the other's thread and carrying it on and out. When they say, "Mommy, remember when...?" at some little snippet of memory I'd forgotten about, a moment in time that's embedded itself in their minds and their memories that brings tears to my eyes. Our after-dinner walks through the neighbourhood trails when husband and I walk hand-in-hand while the kids bike on ahead and we can hear their laughter echoing back at us, the sun setting over the water of the pond in our perfect little Pleasantville paradise. The mornings when the kids all climb into our bed and want nothing more than to snuggle. The bedtime talks when I find out all the things that go on in their heads. When I tiptoe into their rooms late at night and watch their sweet, smooth faces as they sleep.

These moments are so precious, and fill me with so much love and happiness it actually breaks my heart.

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Friday, 3 August 2012

They grow up way too fast.

It's absolutely crazy how very little time we have with our kids while they are still kids.

You always hear about how the high school years are the best years of your life. I get it - no responsibilities, disposable income being actually disposable, friends being the centre of your universe, the warm nurturing cocoon of home and family to fall back on when you want or need it. But really? I don't know anyone whose teenage years weren't filled with angst, heartbreak, unnecessary drama and fear. And at that age, everything is still on a trajectory toward the future - "I can't wait to move out, I can't wait for more freedom, I can't wait for university, I can't wait for the next step."

Then there's the university years, that weird limbo between high school and real life, where you're living away from your parents for eight months then move back into your childhood bedroom for four; living in residence with hundreds of other horny, irresponsible kids or an apartment with someone you barely know, the safety net of "back home" always there where you can go and curl up for a weekend of much-needed nurturing; a four-year suspension of reality where the future is a vague, far-off notion and the present is so bizarre that you can't fully comprehend it.

And suddenly you're in your twenties, expected somehow to be a fully functioning adult with a clear comprehension of responsibility and how the world works. All of those things that you've always associated with adulthood are now available, but out of reach - you finally have a career and a real income, but it's nowhere near enough to finance the life you want right away; you have your own place, but you can't afford the kind of house you grew up in, the one that always featured in your vague fantasies about the future; you have freedom and independence, but the responsibilities that go along with it are enormous; and there's still that vague, unformed feeling in the back of your head that you're still waiting for something, you're not quite there yet. Because how do you make clear, definite arrangements for life when most of the aspects of that life have still not fallen into place? You know that you will one day have a family, get married and have children - but they're not here yet, so how do you organize your place in the world and how you fit into it when you don't know any of the particulars like when and where?

For me, it wasn't until I met and moved in with my now-husband that I finally had that sense that all plans moving forward were permanent. The home that we found, the roots that we put down, the way that we organized our lives - these were all choices that we could make with the sense that they were long-term decisions, plans for our future rather than just our present. Without this feeling of permanence in planning for the future - and I am very much a planner - I've never been fully able to enjoy or appreciate the present. The sense of freedom and satisfaction that comes when you can enjoy every aspect of your present because there's no niggling feeling in the back of your brain that this is just for now, just until the next step - it's indescribable.

But now that we have that feeling that we're definitely in the now, that we're where we're supposed to be and living our lives exactly the way we want to live them, there's that inevitable sense of impending loss, the fear of everything coming to an end. It's that same little let-down you feel at the end of every Christmas season, or when summer vacation ends, or when you're back home from a family holiday you've been planning for months. The expectation and anticipation, the excited planning and shopping and the joy of the actual event itself - there's always a little sense of loss when it's over, and the feeling that you don't want it to end but know it eventually has to.

That's where we feel like we are in our lives right now.

I believe that this, right now, is the best time of my entire life. When I am happy and comfortable in my own skin, with who I am as a person and the decisions I've made in life. When I enjoy what I do for a living and don't feel like it's just a stepping stone to the next big thing, to what I really want to do. When I love my home and don't feel like it's a starter, fine for now but not forever. And, most importantly, when my kids are in their growing-up years, when they're being kids and love me and need me and I get to watch them and help them learn and grow and become the little people - and eventually big people - they're going to be, when they're saying and doing things that amaze me a hundred times a day, when they want to tell me every little thought and dream that goes through their heads and every little thing that happens to them during the day, when they're learning new things every day and I'm learning so much about the world from the way they see it, when every moment is a memory in the making and I feel like I just want to hold on to it all forever.

I know this won't last forever, and I'm sure the next step will be wonderful too - when I can watch them growing independent and making decisions for their own future, when they go off to lead their own lives separate from the one tied to my husband and I and our family home, when I can talk to them as I would with other adults instead of as children - but I want their childhoods to last forever, and the time is going way too fast. How did my wee special firstborn little baby boy turn into this confident, athletic little eight-year-old guy, trying out for rep sports, reading Harry Potter books off my shelf, a crew of buddies following him around at school? How did Middle Child - Baby until his baby brother was born last year - my roly-poly, squishy little ball of smiles, turn into a great big boy of six who I can trust to watch and look after his baby brother with complete confidence while I shower? How is Baby - who, I swear, was born not five minutes ago - almost a year old already? Where did the time possibly go?

I'm trying to cherish every possible second of this time. I love the moments when my eldest still wants to snuggle, his long, skinny limbs all awkward as he tries to curl himself into my lap and we have long talks all about what's happening at school and the books that he's read and what's going on in his head. I love it when his brother holds my hand and asks a thousand and one questions about everything he sees and hears and wonders about the world. I cannot get enough of squishing my chubby little Baby and will do anything for that beautiful, dimpled smile or a big-bellied baby laugh. I'm trying to appreciate every moment.

There are absolutely days when I would do almost anything for fifteen minutes to myself. When my husband and I look at each other over the heads of our whining / sulking / screaming / crying / fighting brood of boys with wide eyes and wonder what happened. When we sit, at night, with a glass of wine after everyone's asleep and fantasize about retirement and travel and, well, a few hours alone together. But I wouldn't give up this time in our lives for anything.

And I'm trying hard not to spend this time fearing for its end - but time does keep inevitably ticking on, and these children simply grow up way too fast.

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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

My little townhome love!

So I have decided to begin a blog.
My bestie (who blogs at sweetieandjoy) - with whom my weekly phone dates have been extending to two- and three-hour marathons since the advent of homes, husbands, children, and other grown-up-type life things - has been telling me for ages that I should start a "Mommy blog," to which I have always replied "Right, in all that spare time I have." But why not? I've got all these useless hours overnight that I'm just WASTING on sleep (when I'm not frantically trying to cram in some housecleaning or nursing the baby or escorting one of the other children to and from the washroom - not because they need my help, simply because they'd prefer my company). Why not blog?

My little mommy blog is going to be about life, lived well, on little more than love. Life can be lived well without all the extra stuff. All you need is happiness.

I have such a wonderful life. Truly.
I love my husband. I am married to the man of my dreams - literally, the man of my dreams. The guy that I lusted after in high school from afar, who when I met and married him many years later post-disastrous-divorce I actually couldn't believe my luck - the sweetest, kindest, smartest, sexiest, most creative, generous, loving man I've ever known.
I love my kids. We have the three most beautiful, incredible children who amaze me every time I turn around with their sweetness, their cleverness, their incredible sensitivity and capacity to love, and who fill my days with so much joy and laughter and love it actually makes my heart hurt.

I love our house. It's the homiest little home. Just a teeny-tiny little townhome - but it's the only home I've lived in out of...(dear God I've lost count, having moved every two years since heading off to university I-don't-want-to-tell-you-how-many years-ago) that has really and truly felt like home in that warm, fuzzy, this-is-where-I-belong and all-I-need-in-the-world-is-right-here kind of way.
I love our neighbourhood. We live in a perfect little Pleasantville - I can't even explain to you how perfect this little slice of the world is.  It's the sort of neighbourhood that only exists in movies of 1950's small-town-suburbia - children bike riding of an evening, dads grillling on the barbecue, neighbours gathering in clusters on the road and in the park, sidewalk chalk painting great swaths of the narrow tree-lined streets in pink and yellow and green and blue, lululemon-clad stay-at-home-moms pushing strollers with cooing babies through the carefully maintained trails of the nature preserve whose paths wind through and around this peaceful little slice of suburban heaven. Teenagers, walking by, look you in the eye and smile politely or say hello. Neighbours you've never met before turn off the lawnmower for a few moments' chit-chat when you pass. Park moms invite you for coffee and swap backyard playdate invites. A noisy evening means the sounds of children laughing and calling out and the rustle of the wind in the trees, not sirens or traffic or loud music. This town, this neighbourhood, is Pleasantville - and, to me, it's perfect.

And, to top it all off, I'm lucky enough to get to enjoy this incredible life all day every day because although I am a working mom - I own a small fitness company - I am able to run my business from my own home and take care of the administrative end of things from home, at night, on my own time after the children go to bed on my teeny-tiny little laptop.  I get to be a stay-at-home mom without having to sacrifice the perks of a second income.

I have the most amazing life. Though I am not wealthy, I am rich in every way that matters; and I am thankful every day for everything that I have.

So - in short - after a very rambling, lengthy introduction - this blog will be about house and home, family and children, and life lived well on little more than love. 

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