Thursday, June 30, 2011

Garden Update: First Harvest

I started a garden a few months ago. It was a rather singificant investment of time and energy. It is a hobby of mine, but I set out to garden with an eye to at least breaking even on the money investment with the return of fresh produce. So far the harvest hasn't been bountiful. We've harvested enough pole beans for about six meals, which is probably the equivalent of a bout 6lbs of beans. The pole beans were Cascade Giant. Their beautiful green and purple flecked skin was beautiful, and they tasted great. The pole beans on the teepee are spent. The cost of growing the beans was just about $2 worth of soil amendments. The seeds were old seeds that I bought a few years ago and had sitting around. We've harvested one small head of purple lettuce. We've also been picking strawberries and blueberries as they ripen, just a few at a time. We had something attack most of the lettuce so that has been a loss. The tomatoes and cucumbers are looking good. Some of the tomatoes are starting to ripen. I'm hoping we'll soon be supplied in all the tomatoes that we need for the summer. It's a good thing too because tomatoes are at least $2 a pound right now. All told, we've probably harvested about $16 worth of produce from the garden. It hasn't been a great savings to our budget, but it has been a tasty addition to the dinner table.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paid vs. Unpaid Work

Our society places a great deal of importance on paid work. When someone you meet asks you what you do, they aren't asking you how you like to spend your time; they want to know what type of paid work you do. When you are someone who is not getting paid to work, you may have to sheepishly admit to being a stay at home mother or wife or unemployed.

As I've bumbled my way through in the past few months, trying on this new role of stay at home mother and wife, I've discovered the need to have some work and purpose beyond the walls of my home. I've looked into some volunteer opportunities working with foster youth. It hasn't worked out so far. Some of these organizations want a significant time commitment due to the cost of background checks and fingerprinting.  Since I have the care of my children for most of the week, it isn't possible to give that much time. My other option is to find some type of part-time paid position where I could in turn pay for childcare for my younger daughter during part of the week. I've vacillated between pursuing each of these routes.

I like the idea of doing volunteer work, but I realize that I'm fairly constrained during the week. I also like the idea of finding a paid position that might enable me to enroll my younger daughter in preschool part-time. I have more looked more extensively for paid positions because of how paid work is elevated in our society. If I were to say that I was a stay at home mother and volunteer, people would probably envision me watching the soaps and eating bon bons (for the record, I do not watch the soaps but have been known to consume the occasional bon bon). If I have a paid position, I could easily identify myself as an employee of this organization with such and such title. There is a not so subtle difference in how these different types of work are valued and looked upon in modern society. So I am prejudiced against volunteer work even though it might enable me to pursue more interesting and compassionate work than paid work will allow me to do.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Life's Passion

As I prepared to leave the working world a few months ago, one of my main goals during this hiatus from paid employment was to seek out and explore things that I am passionate about. The intention was to do this with an eye to the future and finding a second career revolving around something I am passionate about. Two months later, I can't honestly say that I've discovered any new interests or developed any current interests into a life's passion. I've continued to enjoy what I enjoyed before: cooking, reading, and afternoon naps. I've done little with the things that I wanted to explore further like writing, sewing, and deep relaxation/hypnotherapy. I have found that there isn't a lot of free time with my new occupation. I could organize my time more efficiently, use my quiet afternoons during naptime to do some writing or sewing. However, this new lifestyle requires more physical energy and stamina so that I've found it necessary to rest when the kids are resting.

Since it doesn't seem that this type of "life work" gets done without significant effort on my part, I think that I may need to set myself some small goals and outline some steps to get there. I am very interested in writing. I have several novels that I've begun including one half-finished novel from National Novel Writing Month. It was a very successful exercise for me last November to set myself a daily goal of 1500 words and just write until I got it all on paper. These types of small, micro-goals are what helps to keep me on track. I can try to do something small every day but find it difficult to face down some large dream like writing a 50,000 word novel. I need everything cut down to sizable chunks. So I'm setting myself some micro-goals for July. July will be explore my passions month. I'm focusing on three interests that I have: writing, deep relaxation/hypnotherapy, and sewing. My goals will be to write 500 words per day, spend 15 minutes in some type of deep relaxation exercise, and spend two hours per work sewing. Rather than focusing on completing something, I'm committing to practicing these activities on a regular basis to see how interested I really am in these things and whether there is potential for them to turn into something more than just a hobby.

Perhaps, for some people, definitely for me, life's passion doesn't just appear out of nowhere as some type of compulsion. Life's passion might just be a spark, an interest in something, that needs to be developed through time and personal effort. Since my passion hasn't found me, I need to go and find my passion.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Working Moms vs. Stay at Home Moms: What is Better for the Kids?

I met up with one of my old coworkers this weekend for coffee and a long walk. He has a philosophical bent. We talked from everything to unions and the future of the middle class to my recent departure from the paid workforce.

I admitted to him that I now am uncertain about whether or not working or staying at home is better for my children and myself. It is true that I am home and present and able to participate more fully in their everyday lives. However, my attention is often not focused completely on them as I have a house to maintain and family life to organize. I also have interests outside of them and often find myself distracted. I'm also not able to provide all of the enrichment that the girls previously received from preschool or aftercare or just having the disposable income to enroll them in various lessons/classes. Another key part of the equation is that since I am with them all day, every day, I am not as enthusiastic about spending time with them or playing with them. When I used to get home from work, I was hungry to spend time with them. I missed them. Now, I look forward to time without them.

The jury is still out in my opinion. My dear friend characterized it like this. I'm testing and experiments with these different roles and different lifestyles to see what rings true. Do kids do better with a stay at home mother? Do moms do better when they don't have to split their time between work and family? Or is it a wash? Or do children do better with two working parents?

In truth, either way, I will have no regrets. I have been able to have it both ways now. I can see from both sides of the battled armament between stay at home and working mothers. I honestly can't see  why there is such tension between the two groups. Being a mom is hard work no matter how you frame it. When I worked I was exhausted from work, commuting, fitting in cooking and housework and quality family time. Now, I am exhausted from attending to my children all day, cooking, and cleaning. At least I've learned this: no mom has it easy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting in Shape: Finances to Fitness

I'm in the best shape that I've been in many years. I'm not the thinnest, but I'm certainly have the most lean muscle and have more stamina than I have in a long time. It's been a couple of months of exercising every day and watching what I eat. During this time, I've seen how the same principles that I've applied to my finances also apply to fitness.

The first step for me is always forming the habit. It's hard to break old habits, but sometimes it's even harder to start new, good ones. I'm more of a sedentary, quiet individual. I'm not a rough and tumble sports playing kind of girl. The hardest part for me was establishing a daily exercise routine. It's taken me about two months to get to where I feel strange if I haven't exercised in a day. The momentum of my daily habit is carrying me now. I don't have to push myself to exercise. I don't dread it. It's just part of my life like brushing my teeth and taking a shower. It was the same way when I was trying to get our finances turned around. It was hard to stop spending money. It was even harder to start putting money in savings and leave it alone. The good financial habits just like good fitness habits are hard to start, but they have a life of their own once you get them in place.

The second step for me is accepting the slow and steady progress that it takes to get your body in shape or your money in order. It's taken us years--years to get our financial house in order. This isn't to say that we are in a perfect financial situation, but we know how to live within our means and we are continuing to pay off the debts of our past. In the same way, it's taking a long time to lose weight. I had a weight loss goal in mind when I started to focus on getting in shape two months ago. I haven't reached that magic number yet. This is partly due to the lean muscle that I'm building. I've lost inches, but I'm only down about nine or ten pounds. I know that weight will come off eventually, but it's hard to watch the scale inch down ever so slowly.

The third part is to take the setbacks in stride and keep on going. We all have setbacks. It doesn't take much to knock me off my horse. A sick child, a major unexpected expense, or a long family visit to disrupt my good financial and fitness habits. It's just part of life. There are bumps along the way. It isn't important to focus on what didn't get done or the money that didn't get saved or those eight oreo cookies that I ate yesterday driving home from my parent's house (yes, it's true). It's important to get up the next day and look forward, focus on that goal, and get yourself back on track.

So maybe I haven't reached my fitness or my financial goals yet. I still have about five more pounds to lose and ten thousand more in credit card debt to pay off. But I'm wearing a bikini this summer, and I'm going to rock it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Where is Your Focus?

I've come to the realization over the past several weeks that I would like to find some part-time work. I think that I am a better person, wife, mother, and friend when I am engaged in work outside of the home. I've felt the pull to find work stronger and stronger every day. I'm now spending at least 1/2 hour to an hour each day searching for jobs.

I read something over on Get Rich Slowly that started me thinking about why it is that I'm now feeling the urge to go back to work. After all, just a few months ago I felt pretty strongly the need to focus my time and energy into my family and our life together. It's not just because I dislike housework although that is probably part of it. Laundry will forever be my nemesis. I think it more has to do with the fact that I never really turned my focus into my family. My focus stayed outside, while I began spending my time inside my house. I'm here physically, but often my attention is drifting somewhere outside of this. I have trouble being present in the moment. After years of splitting my time and attention between multiple worlds of family, work and school. I find my frenetic focus is having trouble coming together on one thing. My husband said the other day that I quit because it was what I needed that he and the kids were doing just fine when I was working. It's not that they don't enjoy having me around, but they would be fine if I was still working too. It's true. There wasn't some great transformation when I quit. Life continued much as it had before. I am much happier away from my last job. The kids are still the kids.

I feel somewhat ungrateful or even perpetually discontented that I need to be constantly changing my situation. That's why I'm going to recommit my focus back to my family. I also have a big job coming up in August. I'll be taking over coordination of my daughter's school garden and garden docent program. It's volunteer work, but I'm hoping that it will give me more of a sense of purpose outside of daily dish washing and laundry.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Using Savings

I have a dentist appointment today. Something I've learned to dread far more than the discomfort and pain of dental work is the hefty bill that often accompanies it. We have fairly good dental insurance, but even then our portion of the bill runs into the hundreds of dollars. It's one of the major shortcomings of our healthcare system in this country. Dental insurance is perfectly fine if you never needed anything done, but once you do you can plan on spending a large chunk of change. Today, I need two restorative crowns to replace some large fillings that are no longer doing the job. The bill for this is a cool $1200. I've delayed getting this done because of the cost, but it is now a matter of some urgency.

Despite the fact that it gives me heart palpitations, we'll be dipping into savings to pay for this. I hate to use my savings. Once the money has been deposited into the savings account, I like to think of it as securely off limits. I do believe that it is a justified use of our money. If not treated, I could end up with more costly dental bills in the future. However, I just cringe at using the money. I know how difficult it is to save that money and how long it will take to replace it.

I hope that in time when we've built enough savings that I won't need to feel this way over spending money on needed things like dental treatment. However, until then I'll just hand over the check while cringing and hope that the dental pain stings less than my pocketbook.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

ComiCon and Summer Jobs

My husband has some big plans for the summer. He is attending ComiCon with his younger brother and sister. This is the third annual ComicCon family fest for him. He bought the tickets last year, but he has been concerned over the past few months about not having enough spending money for ComiCon or money to buy tickets for next year. The tickets sell out a year in advance. He is a teacher with an eleven month contract so we always have a month without income in the summer. He was fortunate to get a session of summer school which will help cover the short month. We'll still have to dip into savings to pay for some of our regular expenses in August though.

So he started looking for alternative ways to raise some cash. He started applying to tutoring companies and even posted his own ad on craigslist. He spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks doing this. It finally paid off. He has a tutoring job for the next six weeks that will more than provide him with enough spending money.

I was really proud of him for doing this. It really shows a shift in how our family approaches money. Our relationship with our finances has really evolved over the years. Seven or eight years ago, if we didn't have the money for something we thought we needed, then we'd pull out the plastic or get another student loan. Five or six years ago, we would have just used money set aside for something else to pay for these "necessities. And starting four or so years ago, we would have used cash and made sure to budget for it. Now, with our limited income, we've had to prioritize the real necessities and more often than not there really isn't money left over for these extras unless we find an alternative way to pay for them.

It takes time to learn and then adopt and apply financial strategies in your life. It's take us several years to get where we are. We're budgeting, living within our means, saving, and not stressing about our finances.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A month in review

It's been a month, more like a month and a half since I last posted. I found myself caught up in a new rhythm of life that just didn't allow for extra time on the computer. I have, in fact, spent less and less time using the computer over the past several weeks.

So what has happened in the last month and a half? Nothing has really changed. My eldest finished out the school year. Summer has now set upon us. It's a welcome respite from the rigid, daily school schedule. I enjoy morning outings with the girls and quiet afternoons.

The biggest change has probably come with me. I've realized a few things since I've quit my job. It's been nearly two months now since I left. As a full-time working mom for seven years, I used to fantasize about quitting my job and spending more time with my kids. As my work situation continued to deteriorate over the years, the fantasy grew and my focus on it continued unwavering. I had built it up so that it was out of touch with reality. I know now that my expectations were a bit overdone. I expected to have a perfect house, gourmet meals on the table every night, laundry washed and folded before anyone noticed it in the hamper, and constantly happy, smiling children. Maybe I didn't completely admit it, but it was part of the fantasy.

My life is far from that idyllic lifestyle. The house does get cleaned more regularly, but we are also home messing it up constantly. I am cooking more. I do love to cook. This produces lots of dirty dishes, which I spend an inordinate amount of time washing every day. The laundry is still a problem. Sigh... The kids are happy but not any more so than before. In short, life is good. I do enjoy it but--there is something missing. I miss a greater sense of purpose of contributing to something of doing something every day that doesn't get undone in the morning. I miss working. Yes, I said it. I miss working. I do not miss my previous job. That was a very unhealthy situation for me. But I do like to work. I feel like I am a better me when I do have somewhere other than the park or library to go to every day.

I have been looking for a part-time job, something I can do two or maybe even three days a week. I would like something meaningful that pays enough to make it worthwhile (childcare, work clothes, commuting). I haven't found anything yet, but I'll keep looking. When I do go back to work, whether that is next week or two years from now, it will be on my terms. I'm not making sacrifices of myself or my family for my career anymore. It needs to fit into my life and not the other way round.

In my journey of discovery, I've learned what I am and what I am not. I am a mom. I love my kids. I also love some time spent away from my kids too. I am an educated person with skills and abilities that should be put to use. I am slowly realizing that maybe I can be all of these things at the same time in the right balance. It's up to me to make sure that happens.