I fell off the blog-wagon there for awhile and it’s because I was spending every free the-girls-are-finally-asleep minute making this:

Harper's Dollhouse

Harper’s Dollhouse

I’m not even going to pretend that I don’t think it’s that cool because I’m really quite pleased. Harper has been into dollhouses since her cousin Ava shared hers one afternoon a few months back while we were at their house. Matt and I decided that we’d give Harper a dollhouse for her 4th birthday (which was earlier this month). We are both partial to the wooden, realistic-looking variety of dollhouses, but have you priced those things out recently?? Holy cow. Finished for youKit that you put together. Soooooo…Matt and I did what we usually do when we want something that is too expensive. We tried to make it ourselves. Every DIY attempt doesn’t always end up looking right, but this one did.

Matt found a big, deep drawer at ReStore for 97 cents. That became the main structure. He then went to Home Depot and found a nice big piece of scraped (clearanced) plywood for about $9. After that, he used his man-intuition (along with a tape measure and saw) to build floor levels (which he also stained), room dividers, and a pitched roof (also, the little front door porch). After that, I added the color and detail. I used scrap book paper (plus modge podge to seal it on) and paint for the walls. On the outside, I hot glued popsicle sticks and used more scrap book paper to make windows/embellishments. Oh – I also had wallet sized family pictures printed, which I “framed” and modge-podged to the walls. We bought little roof shingles at Hobby Lobby, which I hot glued to the plywood. Including supplies that I already had at home, we did not spend more than $25 to build this thing and it is S.T.U.R.D.Y. This last weekend, we had a “house-warming” party for Harper with family and everyone contributed to furnish rooms in the house. Harper was totally surprised and, I mean, LOVES the dollhouse. And I quote, “I love it! Thank you, everyone! You guys are the BEST!” We still have a couple more rooms to put furniture in, but she’s having a blast with her little family and their space. And now, a picture tour of the process.

The drawer on Day 1

The drawer on Day 1

Starting on the rooms

Starting on the rooms

With Matt's roof attached

With Matt’s roof attached

All the rooms "colored"

All the rooms “colored”

With shingles ... this step made a world of difference!

With shingles … this step made a world of difference!

Resting between windows

Resting between windows

Views from the outside

Views from the outside

finished 004 finished 005

finished 007

Views from the inside

Views from the inside

finished 016 finished 015

Harper's Dollhouse

Harper’s Dollhouse

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Hands Free Mama

Hands Free Mama

If you don’t know the Hands Free Mama yet, you’re missing out. Her name is Rachel Macy Stafford and her blog inspires millions of people each month. Most of those people are mothers, including myself, who Rachel offers the gift of affirmation, encouragement, camaraderie and, most importantly for me, the feeling that I’m normal when I feel overwhelmed as a mother. She courageously puts herself out there, using stories of her worst moments as a mom, so that the rest of us don’t have to feel isolated when we struggle with yelling, anger, distracted parenting or whatever your vice is. It’s been done before.

What isn’t done often is exactly what Rachel’s book Hands Free Mama is all about. She starts out specifically addressing how the digital age has negatively impacted our families with distraction – all of the devices with their chimes and reminders that keep our eyes and attention glued to screens. Unfortunately, this often means that we’re missing out on real moments – RICH moments – with the people we love the most. The “Hands Free” motto refers to letting go of our daily distractions and things that don’t really matter so that our hands are free and open to grasp meaningful moments, life, and deeper relationships.

I knew by the third page that this book was written for me. Maybe it was written for you, too. Does this sound familiar?

“As I was making lunch as usual for my younger daughter Avery, my laptop was open on the kitchen counter and my phone was an arm’s length away. The devices battled for my attention with their respective dings and beeps. I answered their demanding summons with instant obedience. Between incoming texts and email messages, I hurriedly applied peanut butter to a slice of bread. The sooner I could make my child’s lunch, the sooner I could address a few pressing matters on my to-do list…

…For some reason, I looked up. I knew my child was there, but this time I noticed her, really noticed her. My precious curly-haired daughter sat on the sofa sucking her thumb while gently rubbing her nose. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. For the first time, I felt a new kind of urgency…Time was running out.

I sat down next to her and placed my arm around her shoulders…What happened next was something no one had ever done to me. She brought my hand to her pink lips and ever so gently kissed my palm. As my eyes filled with tears, I knew this was it…I wanted more tender moments like this. But first I had to admit that they wouldn’t be so rare if I would simply stop for a moment. The truth is: No matter how much she wants to, needs to, or would love to, my child cannot kiss a moving target. Living distracted had cost me countless precious moments, but thank goodness I didn’t miss this one – because it changed everything. My moving target days had officially come to an end.”

Rachel’s book is packed with moments like that one, snippets of life as a parent that so many of us can relate to and learn from. Hands Free Mama is structured like a how-to guide with instructions and suggestions on how to curb distracted living and bad habits. Rachel offers a “Hands Free Weekly Intention” after each life lesson she outlines. Weekly intentions include suggestions like turning your phone off in the car so you can sing, talk to, and interact with your kids; Impacting a stranger’s life with kindness and letting your child participate; Envisioning how you desire your most important relationships to be in the future so you can better discern if you’re on the right path now. Don’t let words like “guide”, “instructions”, and “outline” scare you off, though; the book is anything but sterile and boring! The Hands Free Mama managed to masterfully combine endearing, poetically-written, true-life stories while extracting positive insights out of negative behaviors, which she passes along to her readers through realistic and attainable goals. Truly, Rachel puts so much of herself into this book that, by the end, you feel like you’ve been reading a personal letter from a dear friend.

“Hands Free” isn’t just a set of life rules; it’s a new mindset and attitude about where and how you want to invest the best of yourself. And if at any point during the book I wondered if it was “worth it”, this descriptive excerpt near the end of the book put everything into perspective and confirmed that a Hands Free life is, indeed, worth it.

“Reach for his hand and remember how it feels in your own. It will be bigger a year from now. Listen to her sing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Close your eyes and memorize her voice. It will not sound so childlike a year from now. Watch her sleep as she awaits a visit from the tooth fairy. She will believe a little less in magical things a year from now. Let him help in the kitchen. Taste much and laugh often. You might find he is no longer your shadow a year from now…”

I wish it was easier to live like that. However, thanks to Hands Free Mama, we have a vision of what it looks like and what it takes to get there. Whether you have babies, kids, teens, or grown children – even no children at all – the message is a universal one: There are magical moments waiting to happen between us and the ones we love most; do not waste this time by being distracted, harried, and stretched too thin.

Put this book on your reading queue; you will not be sorry you did! Buy it at Barnes & Noble or Amazon or directly from the Hands Free website. Enjoy your read!

Harper has quite a few red letter days on her social agenda coming up. Not the least of which is the Princess Ball this Friday. If you live in the Dallas area and know a father/daughter duo who would enjoy an evening of dancing, dessert and just making little girls feel awesome about life, it’s not too late to RSVP! Our church is hosting. Go here for further details and/or to save your spot.

Starting January 1st, and for every night since then, Harper and her Papa have been practicing their box step (complete with dips even!). Although Harper is definitely more expressive (her first sentence to me every morning, “Is the Princess Ball this day yet?”), I think they’re both looking forward to it.

Not my grandma.

Not my grandma.

Sorry to anyone who clicked on this to read an actual list, hoping you could maybe get a clue as to where exactly it started going south during your conversation with a former friend who happens to match that exact description. That’s a weird coincidence.

But have you seen these types of lists circulating? I’ve seen a ton. There is one for every group and sub-group of human being, from “pet owners” to “teachers” to “women who had a C-section.” I was seeing so many people post these that it started making me nervous to have a conversation with anyone who had any type of life experience for fear that I’d accidentally offend them.  I’d read through the lists and discover comments of two varieties: Genuine but mis-communicated concern OR evidence of plain ‘ole self-absorption (projecting personal or preconceived feelings or reflections onto the receiver of their comment). Even so, I kept thinking to myself, “Are people really getting all worked up over something like this?”. Not having ever been a teacher, C-section mom, and just barely a new pet owner (hey, Frankie!), I just took it on good faith that these were legitimately insensitive words. One day I saw someone post about 5 Things You Should Never Say To A New Mom. Finally! I have been a new mom, so I followed the link, prepared to be super angry at what calloused things some heartless goon would let pass their lips onto the delicate ears of a new mother like me. And then nothing happened.

Not my daughter.

Not my daughter.

I get how, “Are you breastfeeding?” could be too personal a thing to bring up, but one of the things on the list was, “Are you loving it?” Really? I’m sorry, but if someone asking if you are enjoying being a new parent makes you steam, then maybe you need to take a breather. Maybe the commentor can’t remember how hard this phase is or maybe the commentor has never actually been in this phase. And I’ll be the first to echo every mom out there trying to make the rest of the world understand exactly how insane parenting makes us (this blogger’s description of her “day” SO resonated with me!). However, after reading a list that I could identify with, my initial hunch was confirmed (at least in my own head) that maybe instead of presuming that all of our so-called friends are deep-down-mean, we’re sometimes just a little too easily offended.

Not being easily offended could be something you have to work on. Like the other attributes of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13, not being easily angered or irritated may not come naturally. I have to work like CRAZY on being patient and not being proud. Those are mine. But don’t let a well-intentioned comment mess with your head.

There is a flip-side. I’m definitely not advocating that there is no need to pay careful attention to your words; I’m not saying that being offended is always the fault of the person who got their feelings hurt. Two – no, make that three – instances are coming  to mind of times where I said something really insensitive and stupid. Cringe-worthy, in fact. Thankfully, the people on the receiving end of those thoughtless remarks were proficient at grace and forgiveness. Being on the goon-side of insensitive comments helped me overlook an instance when, in my third trimester, a relative told me that I “didn’t really look pregnant, just bigger all over”. Who knows why she said that! Ha, I mean, really. I think we could all probably agree you don’t say that to a pregnant woman. Be that as it may, the comment caught me off-guard, but it didn’t offend me because I know she loves me and her comment was certainly not meant to be an attack on my self-esteem. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I tend to assume that most people are generally well-meaning. Or maybe I should just say that I’m not looking for reasons to be mad or resentful toward the people I interact with. Because, for real, mad and resentful is no way to live.

I look pregnant to me...

I look pregnant to me…

Ok, here are some math jokes to win back your excitable, one-legged, former math teacher friend. Good luck.

This is likely the first and last time this will happen on my blog. Where I make up my own recipe. Maybe there’s this exact recipe floating around out there somewhere and I just have no idea – I haven’t looked. Feel free to tell me I inadvertently copied someone if that’s the case. Much like composing original music or painting beautiful abstract art, making up recipes seems impossible to my brain. If you are able to do one of those things, know that you have reached genius status in my opinion. I guess you can hone that talent and develop it; all I know is that I don’t have a knack. So, when I say “made up my own recipe”, it would be more accurate to say that I used years of following other peoples’ recipes to put together some ingredients that ended up tasting delicious to me.

I love sweet potatoes. They’re healthy and they’re on the clean 15 list. We eat them regularly in various forms (Matt prefers this application). For a not-so-sweet recipe, we’ll make a variation of this hash, usually adding something spicy. The other night I was in the mood for sweet potato casserole, but the recipes I’ve previously used were typically heavy on the sugar and butter. And then I saw a vanilla pudding mix in my cupboard. From there, a wonderful thing was born.

In case you've never seen a sweet potato before.

In case you’ve never seen a sweet potato before.

Heads up, this is a sweet potato casserole. In fact, I would call it a dessert, as opposed to a side dish. My tolerance for sweet things has no maximum so I loved it. Matt, on the other hand, definitely liked it. But he’s more a savory kinda guy. Here’s what I did.

Ingredients

Casserole:
3 medium sized sweet potatoes (cooked, skinned, and smashed)
3 eggs (beaten)
1/2 cup milk
1/2 stick melted butter
1 T vanilla
1 package vanilla instant pudding mix (3.4 oz)
Pinch of salt
 
Topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 T cinnamon
4 T solid coconut oil (you can use butter if you don’t have coconut oil; the CO is just healthier)
 

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease an 8X8 baking dish. Combine all the “casserole” ingredients and pour into the baking dish. Combine the brown sugar, oats and cinnamon. Sprinkle on top of casserole. Crumble coconut oil (or butter) over the topping so that, when it melts, it will coat evenly. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes and then leave it under the broiler (on low) for 5 minutes so the topping crisps up.

That’s that. Sorry no pictures of the dish. It was devoured long before I thought I’d be writing about it on here. However, I do have a couple pictures of the can opener I rolled over on in the middle of the night, hidden in the cargo pocket of my sweatpants. Also pictured, the culprit who likes to hide things in there while I’m cooking. I know, I know. My bad for still wearing pants with cargo pockets. You won’t be sorry for following that link.

Looks nice and sharp, doesn't it?

Looks nice and sharp, doesn’t it?

Blaming it on Minnie.

Blaming it on Minnie.

Still alive. And making appearances, in fact. He was invited to visit the kids at Hayes School of Wonder next week, so he’s kind of a big deal. I’m just glad he’s going to work and not just bumming around here like a free-loader. Just kidding. He’s the best. These pictures were taken about 10 minutes ago and were just so cute, I couldn’t wait to get them online.

Harper + Frankie = Love

This is love.

This is love.

I'm saying constantly, "GENTLE! Don't squeeze too hard."

I’m saying constantly, “GENTLE! Don’t squeeze too hard.”

Basking in the sunlight.

Basking in the sunlight.

I'm so afraid she's going to Lennie him. #ofmiceandmen

I’m so afraid she’s going to Lennie him. #ofmiceandmen

frank 015

I can't read this bunny language? Playing dead so she'll leave him alone?

I can’t read this bunny language. Playing dead so she’ll leave him alone?

This girl was getting after her blackberries last night, as you can see from her purple-stained face. But don’t let that sweet little smile fool you!

She likes blackberries. And eating in general.

She likes blackberries. Well, and eating in general.

Cortland is so spicy lately. If you’ve spent any time around Cortland, you know her face is rather expressive. When she was really small, she mostly showed us happy, smiley faces. Now that she’s older, she has added several more faces to her arsenal, and a big chunk of them are meant to display displeasure.

Offended face Cortland

Offended face Cortland

And the things she tries to get away with! Examples:

She looks me in the eye and bites me as I’m feeding her (if you know what I mean), watching my face and waiting for the inevitable “OUCH!”. Then she’ll furrow her brow and duck-face her lips, whining at me like she’s offended that I reacted to her heartless chomp. I have to stroke her cheek and comfort her to get her to go back to eating. Yesterday, while we were at a store, she kept angry screaming. Not crying-screaming. Super high-pitched shrieks to broadcast to fellow shoppers that her mean mom wasn’t letting her chew on the cardboard box of an item we weren’t buying. You should hear how many times a day, “No, mam!” is said in her direction (and often followed up by Harper piping in, “See, Mom? I told ya Tortland was a naughty baby!”).

Maybe I’m passing spicy on through the milk because I’m definitely more reactive and irritable after my second child than I was after Harper (who was the most chill baby E.V.E.R.). Cortland has been sleeping through the night since her second month, but the last two weeks she’s been waking up between 3am and 4am. I’m thinking (hoping) she’s cutting teeth or growth-spurting…something that will come and go quickly. Anyway, I am cranky (terribly cranky) when I haven’t had enough sleep. I went to bed last night at 10:30 and C woke up at 11:30. So I fed her. And then Harper woke me up at 2:30am to help her in the bathroom. And then, right on schedule, C woke up again at 4:00. I pitched such a fit when I heard her at 4am. First, I let her cry for about 20 minutes before getting afraid that she’d wake H. When I decided to finally go get her, I scooped up the blankets off my lap and threw them back down on the bed with an exasperated, “humph!”. I stomped so angrily out of the room that Matt actually got up in a hurry to slow me down and monitor me. I brought the baby back to our bed, where she proceeded to bite me THREE times without remorse. Sheeeeeeeshhhh.

Upside-down Cortland

Upside-down Cortland

And then she’s as much sweet as she is sour and I forgive all her antics. She’s a wild one, though. An envelope pusher, if you will. It is obvious she knows when she’s about to do something she knows she shouldn’t; she does it anyway. While looking me in the eye. Lord, have mercy. The flip side of her expressiveness is that she’s so spirited and happy most of the time. She’s the most friendly, “conversational” baby I’ve ever seen. And she gives hugs on purpose…out of love. As in, she’ll give me a big, thankful hug when I rescue her from her bed. Or she’ll give Matt a big squeeze with a gappy-toothed grin when he gets home from work. She howls laughing at all of Harper’s jokes and funny faces in the backseat. Awh, and look at those sweet, soft curls. Sugar and spice, that one.

Curly Cue Cortland

Curly Cue Cortland