My Masterpiece

Growing up, I had plans. Plans to succeed, to create. Plans to use the brain God gave me for something big.

I was sure these plans would lead to happiness. I would make something of myself. I would write my own success story. I would do well by worldly standards–big house, nice car, great shoes–and all would be well.

Yet here I sit, a very well educated stay-at-home mom to five very young kids. If I wrote my resume today, my special skills would include watching plays that don’t make sense, preparing meals no one eats, and negotiating household peace.

I would be lying if I said that this is exactly where I imagined myself at 36. Even in college, I remember recoiling at the idea of being “just” a mom. And I’m sure I’m not alone. I think many moms end up on a path that takes them a bit by surprise.

But I don’t believe I took the wrong road. I don’t regret a single choice. I’m not unfulfilled. In fact, my soul is more full than my childhood visions could have possibly imagined.

You see, I’m certain that at this particular moment I’m creating exactly what I should. I’m creating a stable home for our family. I’m creating a place of joy and peace for my kids. I’m making fun and rest and adventure. I’m cultivating five little spirits, five people that can grow up and add good to our world.

Hopefully I have many years ahead of me. My success may lie outside our family in the future, and perhaps I’ll be creating something more closely aligned to my old dreams at some point.

But no work I’ll ever create will compare to the work of raising these kids. These five kids, these five incredible people, are my masterpiece.

Opryland Soundwaves Party Room

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We finally had the chance to check out Soundwaves (the indoor/outdoor water park) at Gaylord Opryland Nashville, and we had an absolute blast! Because it was winter we only experienced the indoor portion,  but there was more than enough to keep us entertained for the day. We loved the five slides (42 inches got you on 3 of them with an adult), the two lazy rivers, the lily pads, the wave rider, and just playing together in the pool! There was a large little kid area with a padded splash pad and a play structure, which felt safe for our 20-month-old but also was fun for our older kids to hang in for a bit. As a parent, I loved that the park felt super clean and offered towels and comfy life jackets.

There are two ways to get access to Soundwaves: 1) spend the night at the hotel and purchase a Soundwaves package or 2) rent a party room. I think staying the night and going to the park two days in a row would be awesome, but with seven people in our family we needed to book two rooms, which felt a bit expensive. Instead, we opted to rent a party room for our family, which was perfect for locals!

Here are some tidbits that we loved about the party room, as well as some tips we learned:

  • We booked the room from 10-1, but on the day we visited the park didn’t open until 11. We opted to play for an hour then come back and eat the pizza that came with our room rental, but if we did it again, we would eat before going to play. It’s not super easy to go back and forth from the room to the park (do-able, just not ideal) as you have to exit the park with your bands and go downstairs to your room.
  • The party room came with pizza and sodas, and it was honestly really good! The fact that the room included one of our meals for the day made the room an even better value for us.
  • The party room can be booked for as few as 6 people, so just one or two families can easily use this option. Since we weren’t spending the night, we didn’t have to worry about things like a dog-sitter.
  • The party room was very clean and had a TV with cable, so if you wanted to watch a ballgame you totally could!
  • We loved that our wrist bands gave us access to the park all day, not just during the party room hours.
  • The party room came with free parking, which also added to the overall value!
  • If you do book a party room, don’t forget to bring some cash to tip your room host.

We loved our day at Soundwaves Nashville and can’t wait to go back when the outdoor area is open! I would highly recommend it for both out-of-town visitors and local families looking for a stay-cation.

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Family Thanksgiving Activity

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November 1st is just two days away, so today I’m prepping our family’s thankfulness activity. Every night of November, we will each write one thing we’re grateful for on a cut-out leaf and pin it to our bulletin board. There are lots of ways to practice thankfulness as a family, but we choose this way for a few reasons:⁣

🍁 We like to use a daily practice rather than a weekly one, as it seems to sink in more with the kids. Using November to truly dwell on gratefulness is a sweet annual practice and also a wonderful way to start the holiday season.⁣

🍁 There are lots of us, and lots of nights in November, which leads to LOTS of leaves. The bulletin board allows us to add as many leaves as we want!⁣

🍁 This format allows us to read the leaves easily, which I do many times throughout the month. We label each with the first initial of the person who said it, and I get so much joy from reliving some of the responses! We also keep the leaves in an envelope with the year on it at the end of the month.⁣

🍁 This gratitude practice is budget friendly! I had to replace the board this year (this one was $22 at Target), but the leaves are just construction paper and the pushpins can be used year after year. Once you have your board and pins, you’re set for years to come!⁣

I know I have shared this activity in the past, but it is so dear to our family (and so easy) that I can’t help but encourage others to adopt a similar practice. The moments around the dinner table sharing our gratitude are seriously some of the highlights of my year. From the funny (one year my 2-year-old said the same thing every night) to the surprisingly poignant, I love hearing what springs to my kids’ minds when they think of gratefulness.

Does your family have an annual gratefulness activity? If not, try one this year and see how it positively affects your family’s overall mood!

Guide to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party for Very Young Kids

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We recently attended Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party for the second year in a row, and while we loved it the first time around, this year was truly incredible! What was the difference? Planning! Like so many things at Disney World, a little planning can go a long way towards making the most of your time at the parks.

Having been to both the Christmas party and Halloween party at Walt Disney World, our family has decided that the Halloween party is our favorite. From the smoky feel in Frontierland to the characters in their own Halloween costumes, we love all that this party has to offer!

We took all five of our kids, ages 8, 8, 6, 4 and 1. Having been the year before, we tried a few new things that worked really well. Below I’m sharing what worked for us as a big family with little kids. I hope some of these tips help you have a a wonderful visit to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP)!

  • Consider skipping the park and having a resort/hotel day the day you are attending the party. While older kids can power through, young kids can really only enjoy so many hours of go, go, going. Last year we went to Epcot, took a break, then went to the Halloween party, which was fine, but I much preferred going only to the party. Our kids were fresh, rested, and ready to rock! Your party ticket allows you to enter Magic Kingdom at 4:00, so you will still have a good bit of the day to enjoy rides and characters. Plus, saving one day of park admission will go a little ways toward covering the cost of your party tickets!
  • Take advantage of the 4:00-7:00 window! The party doesn’t officially begin until 7:00, but they start asking non-party guests to leave Magic Kingdom at 6:00. For two years now, we’ve found the lines for rides start to really shorten around 5:00. Even major attractions like Big Thunder Mountain and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train tend to have far less than average wait times right as the park is transitioning to MNSSHP.
  • Make a plan! Review the party brochure before you visit and decide what your family priorities are. Is there a character that your kids REALLY want to meet? Is there a ride overlay that you just have to do? Your time at the party won’t allow you to do everything, so think through what’s most important before you go. For us, we knew we really wanted to meet Stitch, so we jumped into his line around 6:30. I grabbed hot dogs and we ate dinner while we waited (which worked out really well). Stitch started greeting people around 6:50, and by 7:05 we had accomplished one of our big goals for the night!
  • Also make a plan for which stage shows you want to see. Last year we skipped the villains stage show, but this year it was a must-do. Before we even entered the park, we knew the times of the show, parade, and fireworks, so we worked the rest of our evening around those set times.
  • Get your castle picture early! While you may love the idea of a night castle picture, remember that the Main Street area gets very crowded before parades. I recommend getting a family picture in costume around 5 or 6. The lighting is great, and no one has started stripping off pieces of their costume yet! You can always stop for a picture as you exit as well, but nothing beats a shot when the kids are awake and excited! Also, don’t be afraid to ask the photo pass person to take an individual shot of each of your kids. We have shots of each of them in their costumes in front of the castle, and they are true treasures!
  • Dress up! I know that dressing up is not some people’s thing, but I promise that almost all other families will be in costume, so NO ONE will be looking at you. In fact, you might feel more out of place without a costume! Even if you’re not a dress-up fan, your child will love the memory of wearing a family costume to Disney World.
  • Don’t worry about hitting all the trick-or-treat stations! There is SO MUCH CANDY at this party, and you can really collect plenty by hitting up 3 stations. Remind your child that you’ll trick-or-treat again at home, but that you can’t do rides and characters later.
  • Consider watching the parade somewhere other than Main Street. While Main Street is amazing, the Halloween parade has a different feel, and we really enjoyed watching it in Frontierland. My husband walked over to the route about 30 minutes before it started (while we viewed the stage show) and was able to score us front row seats! I don’t feel like we missed out at all by watching it there, and we were actually able to duck through the tunnel that connects Frontierland to Adventureland as soon as the parade ended and be the second family in line to meet Jafar!
  • Don’t push your kids too far. One of my number one Disney tips for families with very young kids is to know your own limits. You know all those kids you see throwing tantrums in the park? They’ve been pushed way beyond their limits! They’re tired and over it. While I understand the desire to get your money’s worth, know when it’s time to call it a night. For us, last year that meant leaving as soon as the first parade was over. This year we watched the fireworks from the top of Main Street, then we headed straight for the exits. Leaving before anyone lost it was definitely worth missing some of the attractions that we would have enjoyed.
  • Finally, on a very specific note, since we weren’t going into the park this year before the party, we booked a 2:00 late lunch at Chef Mickey’s. This was the best decision ever! It gave us character time (it’s our all-time favorite character meal), and it also allowed us to park and walk to the party. When it was time to go, we walked the short 10 minutes back to the Contemporary rather than dealing with the transportation center. This strategy would work for any party (as long as you could get a reservation), and was well worth the money for us.

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Our NICU Journey

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Three of our five kids were NICU babies. That’s 60%. And while we were lucky to never stay longer than three weeks, those NICU days still stand out as some of the hardest, most stressful days of my life.

When you picture having your baby, you imagine cuddling in the hospital room, taking a zillion pictures, introducing your new little one to family and friends. For NICU moms, that storybook hospital stay is quickly interrupted, replaced by extra wires, tubes, and monitors. You’re thrown into the deep end of a pool you didn’t ask to swim in, forced to learn a different language and how to advocate for your child. Worst of all, you are separated. This being who has been a part of you for nine months is no longer within reach. Being discharged and leaving your baby behind at the hospital is gut wrenching.

Our twins were born at 34 weeks at 3 pounds 13 ounces and 4 pounds 15 ounces. They stayed in the NICU for three weeks as they learned to eat, breathe, grow, and maintain their body temperature. We held Barnes for the first time when he was four days old, and Frances at eight days old. Those eight days were excruciating.

Ellis was born via c-section at 38 weeks. He was scheduled for 39 weeks, but I had a broken rib and honestly couldn’t take the pain an extra week. When he came out, he seemed perfect, but that night he ended up in the NICU on a roller coaster journey due to a pneumothorax (an air leak in his lung). His 7 days in the NICU were a different kind of difficult than our days with the twins. For one, we had three very young children to take care of at home. Also, he was there due to an actual medical condition rather than just prematurity, which was honestly much scarier. I will never forget the morning that the neonatologist told us that he was the sickest baby on the unit. We were not allowed to touch him or to even talk to him, as any stimulation could upset his condition, and there was a chest tube kit by his bed constantly at the ready.

Now Barnes, Frances and Ellis are all thriving, perfectly healthy children, and we couldn’t be more thankful. We are forever grateful for the care they received, and so glad they were born in a time where medicine could give them the extra boost they needed in their earliest days. We are also mindful that many families’ NICU days don’t have such a happy ending.

Having had two different NICU experiences, I learned a little about what was and wasn’t helpful. If you have a loved one with a child in the NICU, I hope this short list can help you support them.

  • Remind the mom that it is not her fault. So many NICU moms deal with extraordinary guilt. We feel like we could have kept the baby in longer or done something different in pregnancy that would have lead to a better result. Speaking truth into a NICU mom’s life and encouraging her to release her guilt is a huge gift.
  • Give the mom (and dad) grace. A NICU mom has just been through labor, experienced a million hormone changes, is probably engorged, and has had her baby removed from her care. Expect her to be a little difficult, and offer her grace upon grace upon grace.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, try to point out the benefits of the NICU. I still remember people saying things like “at least you can sleep as you recover” or “at least the NICU will get them on a schedule.” These comments are definitely not helpful.
  • If the family has older children, offer to help with them. Balancing the desire to be at your baby’s side with the needs of your other children is tough. Offer to take the big kids to the park or out for ice cream and give the parents a guilt-free afternoon with their newborn.
  • Give them gift cards. Meals are wonderful, but when your baby is in the NICU your schedule gets super whacky. Knowing that you need to be home to receive food or get it out of a cooler in time can actually add stress. You know what doesn’t add stress? Gift cards. Think about places near the hospital or near their home where they can swing by and grab a snack. Chances are they are putting their physical needs last, so a gift card to a place with a drive through (or delivery) can be a Godsend.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer to visit. The thought of visiting a NICU can be intimidating, but sometimes NICU parents could really use a friend to chat with. Our days with the twins were long and quiet, and I still remember the friends who came to just sit with us. We even had two friends drive 3 hours to meet our babies, knowing they couldn’t hold them yet! Having someone bear that weight with you for even a few minutes is priceless.

Kid-Friendly Indianapolis

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This summer we had the opportunity to visit Indianapolis for a few days, and I was quickly reminded of just how family friendly and fun this city is! We lived an hour north of Indy years ago, so we’re somewhat familiar with what the city has to offer, but going with older kids was a whole new experience.

With great family attractions and wonderful public spaces, Indianapolis is the perfect destination for a short get-away or long weekend. Here are a few of our favorite things to do in Indianapolis:

Conner Prairie: With historical villages, a giant tree house, trails, indoor play spaces, seasonal events, and even a hot air balloon, Conner Prairie is a must do with elementary-aged kids! My kids loved pretending to purchase nails in the general store and learning from the historical actors.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: This is truly one of the best children’s museums you will ever visit! The museum offers hours of fun with both its permanent and visiting exhibits, as well as a huge outdoor area featuring different sports for kids to try, like football, baseball, and hockey. My kids particularly loved the sports fields! One great thing about the museum is that it has a food court, which allows you to eat lunch without loading back into your car and spend the entire day exploring this gem.

Indianapolis Zoo: Indy has a state of the art zoo, including unique animal experiences, a few rides, and even a dolphin show! Don’t miss the butterfly area outside the gates.

Canal and White River State Park: Plopped right next to downtown Indy is a really cool canal with a 3-mile loop around it that you can walk…or you can rent a surrey bike! We took our entire family of 7 around the loop on a bike, and it was hard work but a super fun memory. Along the canal, you can find popsicles and ice cream, as well as paddle boat rentals, and there’s a great park on the shore with really interesting play equipment (Colts Canal Playspace). The canal is an excellent place to spend an evening with kids!

Monument Circle: Monument Circle, along with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, is a great place to explore. We like to stay downtown, eat dinner, then head to the monument during the gorgeous evening hours. South Bend Chocolate is located right on the circle, and it has a huge variety of sweets and ice cream with outdoor sidewalk seating.

There’s tons more to do in Indianapolis, and every time we’ve visited we have found the city to be clean, welcoming, and very family-friendly. If you’ve visited and have additional recommendations, let us know below!

Star Wars Birthday Party!

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What do you do when your son asks to take all his friends to Jedi Training at Hollywood Studios? You bring Jedi Training to your house!

For Shepherd’s fourth birthday, he wanted to have a full Jedi training course, complete with the chance for each child to fight Darth Vader. Andrew dressed as the Jedi trainer, and then we booked characters from a local company to come as Darth Vader and a Stormtrooper, and it was honestly INCREDIBLE! The kids learned a little sequence, then Darth Vader came out and they each got to spar with him. At the end, they sent him back inside using the force. So fun, so memorable, and such a special day!

Food:

  • The R2D2 cake and Star Wars cookies were really the showstoppers here. They were incredible!
  • We ordered a Darth Vader and Stormtrooper bucket and served some food in those, which was super cute.

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Decorations:

  • We had a birthday board done, which was part of our tablescape.
  • The decorations for this party were minimal, but we did print cute favor tags and had a banner on the porch where the Jedi Training took place.
  • The favors for this party were cute little Star Wars art/activity boxes–all we had to do was tie on the tag!

Activities:

  • Hello Jedi Training! Each kid got a Jedi robe and lightsaber, and they all really enjoyed this activity. We bought a smoke machine for the porch, which added to the fun atmosphere.
  • After the training, kids could meet and take pictures with the characters. We had a back drop for pictures, and the kids were really into it.

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This was hands down the most fun party we’ve thrown! It was so unique and interactive, and kids got really into it. We made sure to not make it scary, and we would definitely recommend it for your next kids’ birthday!

Kids Concert Birthday Party

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When our twins turned five, they wanted to have a local kids musician play at their party, so we decided to turn it into a little music festival. So. Much. Fun. Five-a-Roo was a huge hit with kids and adults alike, and I would highly recommend a music-themed party for young kids.

Food:

  • We kept it easy with a nugget tray, cookie cakes, and some other light snacks.
  • The decor behind the food table really set the stage for the whole party. We featured a blue and a pink dreamcatcher, then added some feather prints and bunting.
  • We also hired a snow cone truck, and EVERYONE loved getting their own frozen treat!

Entertainment:

  • The main entertainment was the musician. He played for about 20-30 minutes, ending with Happy Birthday and the candles being blown out.
  • We also had tattoos for the kids and a space for them to pick out their own necklaces and headbands. We ordered the headbands, but we made the necklaces with components from the craft store.
  • After the concert, we put out a kids karaoke microphone, and several kids took turns singing their own songs, which was adorable.

Decorations:

  • The main decorations for this party were the wall behind the food plus some bunting on the front porch where the musician performed.
  • We made a directional sign, which turned out cute and added a little personalized flair to the party.
  • For favors, we gave each child a toy microphone–the kids loved them!

This party was fairly easy to put together, and it was definitely memorable. It was different in a good way, and our kids still talk about their music party!

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The Altar of Busyness

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Mom 1: “What do you have going on this weekend?”

Mom 2: “It’s going to be insane. We have three games, two parties, and we’re volunteering at church.”

Mom 1: “Oh, us too. We have family visiting, four games, a music lesson, a baby shower, and we’re digging for dinosaur bones Sunday.”

Does this sound familiar? What mom hasn’t been caught in one of these conversations? The kind where you’re both lamenting how busy you are, yet also somehow competing about who is the busiest? Be honest, we’ve all done it. We’ve all listed our commitments, trying to sound exasperated with our lack of free time but also feeling a little boastful of just how busy our family is.

Fellow moms, may I make a proposal? A suggestion that might free us all a bit? Let’s stop worshipping at the altar of busyness. Let’s blow out the candles, remove the crowns, and move past the concept that busyness is a goal for which we should strive.

We all have commitments. Some are unavoidable, some are voluntary, and many fall somewhere between the two. But let’s stop believing that commitments are gold medals meant to be collected as some sort of badge of honor.

Friends, some seasons of life are going to be busy. Super busy. There will be seasons when you need three different color-coded planners just to make sure you don’t forget a kid. But other seasons will bring calmer waters. Easier afternoons. More time for slow walks, board games after dinner, Saturdays with nothing on the docket. Let’s learn to bask in those slow seasons. Let’s learn to use them as a time of rest and rejuvenation for our families, knowing that busy seasons will inevitably return.

When our life gets less busy, let’s not try to fill all the holes. Instead, let’s leave room for spontaneity, for family dinners, for utter quiet. Let’s walk away from the altar of busyness, recognizing the disconnect it can so often bring, and let’s choose to embrace the slow when we can.

 

Daniel Tiger Trolley Party!

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Believe it or not, we’ve actually had TWO trolley birthday parties in our family, and both were amazingly fun for the kids! The second was a Daniel Tiger Party for our 3-year-old, and that’s the one we’re featuring here.

Food:

  • This party was mid-morning, so we we had fruit, donuts and muffins, but we also had a HOT DOG CART! And, the hot dog guy came dressed as a hot dog–how fun is that?!?!
  • The cake was the main focal point of the party table, and it turned out adorable. We had a local baker decorate it and we purchased figurines and a trolley to place on the cake.

Decorations:

  • We kept everything super colorful and fun for this party! We used lots of fabric bunting in blue, red, yellow and green, which always looks great.
  • For the table backdrop, we printed Daniel Tiger characters and attached them to fan-style decorations.
  • We added Daniel Tiger hats and blowers, plus stickers, rings and candy for the favor. Super cute and easy!

Activities:

  • Hello, trolley! The main activity at the party was trolley rides. The kids loved riding around the neighborhood and dancing on the trolley!
  • We also had a face painter for the kids who were awaiting their turn, and we brought a small playset into our front yard.

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We highly recommend a trolley party, as kids of all ages think it’s fun to go for a ride. If your little one enjoys Daniel Tiger, this party theme might be a perfect fit!