June 29, 2015

Six Layers of Love (Or: Confessions of a DIY-Challenged Mom and What Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Bars Have to Do With Any of It)

Hello, my name is Elizabeth, and I am home-improvement impaired.


My sweet husband, by his own admission, is similarly stricken. Based on our fixer-upper fitness, we should at most own a condo in the city.

Instead, we own a two-story, 100-year-old farmhouse with three outbuildings and an historic barn on 10 acres in the country. I know.

We love the house, but there is always some project that's trying to beat us down. The most recent beat-down came from my younger daughter's bedroom floor.

Our house has several wood floors that were painted when we bought the place and are not worth refinishing. Before my younger daughter, Anna, was born, we didn't know if she was going to be a he or a she, so we did the room up in blue, raspberry, and, on the floor, dark green. You'd have to have been there, but it made some sense at the time.

Once my 11-year-old figured out she was living in a pseudo-gender-neutral room, she complained, and together we picked out a fabulous midnight blue to replace the army green on her floor.

I slapped two coats of the new on top of the old and called it good.

Except it wasn't.

Because the old green was oil-based and the new blue was water-based.

Take-Away Tip #1: You've heard the saying "oil and water don't mix"? Truth, mamas. Take it from me, and don't try to put them together on your daughter's bedroom floor and think you're somehow going to be the exception to an immutable law of physics or chemistry or some other subject I don't understand.

The blue paint almost immediately started peeling off like a giant pore-tightening mask.

If Anna stood barefoot in one spot too long, she came away with a blue-paint slipper. She was not a happy middle-schooler. (I mean, I know "happy" and "middle-schooler" are often mutually exclusive terms, but her ill-tempered floor pushed my girl right over the edge into tween angst.)

I tried sanding and recoating, to no avail.

I went back to the home-improvement megastore where I'd bought the blue paint and confessed my stupidity. The paint-counter expert told me I should have initially applied a "bonding primer," which would basically convince the old green oil-based paint and new blue water-based paint that they could and should get along.

I bought a quart of the primer and started scraping off peeling blue paint in preparation for a do-over. Because I was not and am not going to do this again. Am. Not.

I scraped. And sanded. And scaped. And sanded. In due haste, I reached "I don't care" status and decided to just start throwing down primer...two coats, taking me up to four and counting.

Then I started painting. For the record, I despise painting. It's too messy. The only thing fiercer than my hatred of painting is my love for my daughter.

Midway through, I had a eureka moment, thank goodness. I'd been dipping my paintbrush directly into the quart can, which was a drippy hassle because I was using the biggest brush I could employ TO GET THE THING DONE ALREADY, and it barely fit. Bristles kept getting bent. The whole thing was a mess. (See "too messy," above.)

I decided I needed to pour the paint into something else for easier access. Absent a single one of the Cool Whip tubs that normally self-reproduce in my cupboard but which, inexplicably, had vanished when I needed one, I pulled a hinged Styrofoam food tray off the shelf.

And (Take-Away Tip #2): genius. I poured paint neatly into the larger well, which left smaller spots free for my wipe rag and bits of floor debris I fished out of the paint. The host can sat safely in the open tray lid, and when I needed to put down my brush, it rested securely with the handle protected from slipping back into the paint (see "too messy," above). The whole tray went right into the trash when I was done. Really, this could change my life. I'm sure DIY-divas have been employing this trick for decades, but it was possibly my DIY-challenged self's finest hour.

Two coats of blue brought the project total to six layers. The new paint seems to be staying put in spite of a summer so humid we could be growing rice in the living room carpet. 

And hallelujah, the room is done. No more peeling. No more paint socks for Anna. A room that's all her.

As for the Gluten-Free Chocolate Peanut-Butter Bars and what they have to do with any of this? This is a bit of a stretch, but here it goes:
  • Out of love for my daughter, I put a total of 6 coats of paint or something like it down on her floor. 
  • And have you heard of those bar cookies called "Seven Layers of Love"? (They're sometimes called "Seven Layer Magic Bars.") Well, these are not them. But they are layered. And you might love them. 
  • Do layer peanut-butter crumb cookie mixture with chocolate-fudge goodness.
  • Don't layer oil-based and water-based paint without a bonding primer go-between. 
I promise these bar cookies are so much better in real life
than they are in this photo. (See "Blog Backstory," list at end, #9.)
Gluten-Free (Or Not) Chocolate Peanut-Butter Bars

1 (~ 15 oz.) yellow cake mix, gluten-free if you want your finished product to be so
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup peanut butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk (fat-free, low-fat, or regular...just make sure you aren't accidentally using a can of evaporated milk!)
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
2. Coat a 9x13 baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. 
3. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, melted butter, peanut butter, and eggs. It'll be a stiff dough...use some muscle (or an electric hand-mixer). 
4. Press about two-thirds of this batter into the bottom of your prepared pan. Bake for 5-7 minutes, just until barely starting to set in the center. 
5. While this is happening, pour the chocolate chips into a large microwave-safe bowl and dump the sweetened condensed milk over them. You don't have to stir at this point. Microwave on high for 45 seconds. Now stir well. If the chocolate is not melted after you beat vigorously for a few seconds, heat for about 10 more seconds, and give it another try. Once your milk and chocolate have become one deliciously fudgy mess, stir in the vanilla. 
6. When the peanut-butter base has finished its pre-bake, remove it from the oven, and pour your chocolate fudge loveliness evenly over the entire surface. It's easier to distribute by pouring rather than spreading, so take your time and disperse the chocolate mixture as equitably as possible over the base. Don't neglect the corners and edges. Use a knife (or an offset spatula, a.k.a., My Very Favorite Kitchen Utensil) if you need to coax the chocolate mixture a little. 
7. Use your fingers to scatter small bits of the remaining peanut butter dough evenly over the surface of the chocolate. 
8. Bake for another 10-20 minutes, just until the cookie dough is barely set in the center and the chocolate mixture is starting to crack. Under is better than over here, doneness-wise. If you err on the short side, you can call these "gooey" and "melty." Whereas if you err on the long side, you'll have to just go with "hard" and "dentally damaging." 
9. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Store airtight. You can refrigerate these if you want to, but serve them warm or at room temperature. Or almost-hot right out of the pan five minutes after you yank them from the oven.

June 21, 2015

Faith Lessons from a Country Garden (Or: Shoot! That Wasn't a Weed!)

I am not a gardener.

(See "Grumpy Gardener Girl.")

This is my garden. The best part about it is that I get to wear these boots when I work in it.

This is my idea of gardening: I do nothing; pretty stuff shows up in my yard. My mom planted everything by the little stone house. We inherited the peonies when we bought the place. I think they were supposed to make up for the plumbing.

If you stopped by this blog because you were (mis)led by promises of flowery language and deep-rooted spiritual revelation, I apologize. But I hope you'll stay anyway, because I think God has planted some truth among the weeds here.

A few weeks ago, I was out tending the scrappy vegetable patch my master gardener-level mom very kindly put in for me. It was early in the season, so the fledgling beans and corn were just poking through the soil. The beans clearly set themselves apart from the weeds, but the corn plants so closely resembled the grass-like invaders I was trying to eliminate that more than once, I scraped at something, only to reveal a corn root. Drat.

Then I remembered why I dislike gardening so much (see "Grumpy Gardener Girl"): weeds. And weeding.

The problem was that what I wanted and what I didn't want were almost the same size.

It occurred to me that if the weeds were bigger and more obvious, it would be easier to recognize and get rid of them.

Which led me to think, "Well, THAT isn't going to end up as a blog post: 'Let the Weeds in Your Life Grow So They'll be Easier to Spot!' " Um, no.

This is the point where the Master Gardener (and Master Everything Else) broke into my brain with some clarification: "Elizabeth, it's not about letting the bad grow so you'll know what to pull. It's about letting the good grow so you'll know what to keep."

Oh, right. 

Through the prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship with other believers, I need to be tending my spiritual garden. With God's help...

I need to grow love and pull hate and apathy.

I need to grow joy and pull discontentment and wallowing.

I need to grow peace and pull worry.

I need to grow patience and pull hasty action.

I need to grow kindness and pull self-centeredness.

I need to grow goodness and pull pride.

I need to grow faithfulness and pull doubt.

I need to grow self-control and pull self-indulgence.

If the fruit of the Spirit in me is bigger and more robust than the fruit of me in me, I should be able to more readily recognize what needs to go and what should stay and be fed and watered.

I need to keep battling the weeds in my garden. (And it cannot possibly be a coincidence that, Scripturally speaking, weeds symbolize "the sons of the evil one" in the end times and that "the enemy who sows them is the devil"--see for yourself in Matthew 13:38.)

I also need to keep battling the weeds in my mind and heart.

None of this is going to turn me into a gardener (see "Grumpy Gardener Girl"). But it just might turn me into a little patch of this kind of garden:

The LORD will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." (Isaiah 58:11)

June 15, 2015

How to Help Your Hurting Child (When Everything Isn't Going To Be Okay)

My 12-year-old daughter looks like she just lost her best friend. Probably because in a way, she has. Actually, she's lost her two best friends.

Her BFF from school and her BFF from church are still very much alive, and both still want to be my daughter's friend. Thank goodness on both counts.

But her school friend is leaving to go to a different school, and her church friend is leaving to go to a different church. Both will still live nearby, but Anna won't see them every day or every week "Can you believe what so-and-so did?" will give way to "you'll never believe what so-and-so did!" The minutiae of middle school and the chatter of church will need to be merged via text and chat and FaceTime.

I've been all the way around on the tween Ferris wheel once already with my now-teenage daughter, so I know this much is true: how a middle-school girl feels about her closest friendships is how she feels about life in general. 

I'll never forget the look on Anna's face when she walked in the house the day she learned about her school friend's departure. I wish I could. But then I'm glad I can't because what kind of mom wants the ease of forgetting her child's pain while that child is still in that pain?

I held Anna while she cried, and she told me, "Please don't tell me everything will be okay, because it won't." 

I'm finding my way along here, figuring out what will help Anna through this season of loss and change. Here's what I'm telling myself a lot these days...

Let her feel what she feels. Our American society favors a short list of emotions: happy, cheerful, optimistic, and fine. People who are sad or discouraged or upset are encouraged to get over it...now. On top of this, as moms, we yearn to heal what is sick, mend what is broken, and right what is wrong. When our children are hurting, we want to ease their pain immediately if not sooner. But I know I have to let Anna walk through, not around, what Ecclesiastes 3:4 calls "a time to weep and a time to laugh."

I told her we would be patient while she processed the new reality she was facing without her friends as she had enjoyed them in the past. And Anna herself warned us not to brush off her sadness by telling her she had other friends. She helped us see that friendship is not like a scale: as long as the balance of friends stays the same, all is well. Instead, Anna's close female relationships form a puzzle: incomplete when one piece is taken out. 

In addition to striking "everything will be okay" from our stock-phrase vocabulary, we're also learning not to say "cheer up!" or "what's wrong?" When in doubt, we do what everyone knows you're supposed to do to comfort someone who has lost someone they love: hug them and say "I'm sorry."

At the right time, direct her mind sometimes away from The Thing toward Something Else. I'm not trying to rush Anna past the reality of what she's losing. If I do, I'm dishonoring her feelings and the friends she's saying a kind of goodbye to. She's got to mentally process the situation. But there comes a point when continually stirring The Thing That's Bothering You around and around in your head serves no purpose and accomplishes no good. 

I gave Anna an assignment: come up with Something Else to redirect her brain toward when it had spent enough time on The Thing. Something Else could be a Bible verse, a prayer, a list of what she's looking forward to this summer, the lyrics to a favorite song, or a review of the available flavors at our favorite ice cream shop. Whatever--as long as it gave her mind somewhere safe and comforting to land.

Check in...but allow her some space. A couple days into our journey, I told my daughter I thought we needed a plan and a code. I could not spend the next several days or weeks or (heaven forbid) months constantly asking her, "Are you okay? What's the matter." I knew she wasn't okay, and I knew what the matter was. But neither did I want to ignore her if she needed to talk again or if something else had come up (heaven forbid). 

We settled on two guideposts: 1)if something else was wrong or if Anna wanted to talk further about The Thing we already knew was wrong, she would tell me so I wouldn't have to guess what the look on her face meant; and 2)if I wanted to confirm that the look on her face was because of what I already knew was wrong, I could mouth or whisper "friend thing?" just to confirm and acknowledge.  

Give her good medicine. The day Anna officially found out about her school friend's departure, she was scheduled to help out at a class function. I took her to it, hoping the activity would distract her from thinking, but she was bored and had plenty of time to think. On the way home, her face was heavy with sorrow, and I was scrambling through all my mom tricks to figure out what I could do to help her. 

A few minutes after we walked in the door, my older daughter, Lydia, called from our family room, "Anna! Come out here! I have to show you something." Anna went to her sister (grudgingly), and within a couple minutes, I heard both of them howling with laughter. Lydia had dug up an old camera she hadn't used since her pre-iPod days and hooked it up to her laptop to play a slide show. While she and Anna watched old "modeling" videos they'd made and clicked through pictures of their elementary-aged selves, they laughed...and laughed...and laughed. From the other room, I could hardly reconcile the sound of Anna's delight with the despairing look I'd seen on her face minutes before. 

At the computer, listening, I typed a Facebook post thanking Lydia for her big-sister gift. She said to me later, "Did you hear how I had Anna laughing? I knew those pictures would do it," and I told her, "I just posted about it." I loved how Lydia's idea beautifully proved the wisdom of Proverbs 17:22 ~ "A cheerful heart is good medicine." 

Focus her vision on the future. Soon after The Day, the mom of Anna's school friend emailed me asking if we could schedule some time for our girls to spend together. She said she wanted to give her daughter "something to look forward to in the near future." Smart mama. We made the date, and I promised Anna there'd be more to come. Weekly dinners or donuts before school. Sleepovers. And in the category "Things I Never Thought I'd Say": God bless texting, tweeting, and messaging for their power to keep our girls emotionally connected even when they're physically disconnected.

Go the distance. When our children are hurting, the crisis often passes quickly. (Thank God.) More times than I can count, my girls have come home distraught over some issue with a friend, but a few texts and a few hours later, they're over it. This, though, is not that time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I have to keep reminding myself that, while I am getting used to the idea of Anna's new arrangements with her friends, she's still not used to the reality of it. There's no quick fix here. There's only patience and grace and time, and I've got to commit to the long haul.

For the most part, I've clamped my mouth shut on "everything will be okay." Instead, I'm telling my sweet girl a couple things that are probably more true.

It will get better (but you might not realize it until a little ways down the road). 

Things will not be the same. But they can still be good.

Mama, if you've got a child who's hurting, my heart goes out to both of you!
Maybe what has helped in our house will help in yours. 
And if you've got an idea I should add to my list, pass it on in a comment 
or post it on Facebook. Thanks in advance for sending your wisdom my way!

Gratefully linked with:

June 10, 2015

Oh, Mama, You are Not a Failure (And That Thing You Didn't Do Is SO Not a Mom Fail)

A while ago, one of my Facebook mama friends put up a post saying she thought she might be the only mom around who hadn't taken a last-day-of-school picture of her kids. She hashtagged her post "mom fail." 
Um, no. That's #beingtoohardonyourself.

know this mom, and she is amazing. She cares about her kids. She's enthusiastic and involved. I've never seen her when she wasn't smiling. (Note to my children: no, you cannot have her instead of me.)
I also get that she probably wasn't really being that hard on herself. But maybe she was? The pressure to be the best moms we can be is huge because we know a terrible, wonderful truth: THIS JOB MATTERS. And because it does, we want to get it right. Or, at the very least, we want to try to get it right most of the time.

My struggle--and it's one I know other moms fight against--is that getting it right can get out-of-control. In her mom must-have, Tender Mercies for a Mother's Soul, Angela Thomas warns, "The 'right thing' can be good, and then it can be oppressive and consuming. The 'right thing' can become more about keeping rules and performing for others. Doing the right thing can become a substitute for Christlikeness."

In Christ, we are covered by grace. But if never failing as a mom becomes a goal we pursue at any cost, it is an idol. And Jonah 2:8 is starkly clear that grace and idolatry cannot live together peacefully in the same spiritual house: "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs."
I don't want to give up grace that could be mine. I don't want you to give up grace that could be yours.
It never actually occurred to me to take a "last day of school"
shot of my girls. Until I realized, "Hello! Your older daughter is DRIVING
now. This might be the last time they ever wait at the bus stop together.
Cue the Panasonic Lumix ASAP!"
Missing a kid photo-op, whether it's the first day of school or the last day of school or some day in between, does not mean you have gotten motherhood wrong. It doesn't make you a failure as a parent. And I, personally, don't think these supposed mom misses qualify for the fail hashtag, either:
1. Not serving a vegetable with dinner once in a while.
2. Serving ice cream for dinner once in a while.
3. Telling your kids "not right now...I'm reading a book" when they ask you to play a game with them. (This is most especially NOT a mom fail when the game in question is Princess Memory. Really. The last time I had a memory high-functioning enough to tell all those girls apart AND keep track of them, I had my maiden name and got 8 hours of sleep every night.)
4. Letting your kids watch TV for a little while.
5. Loving your alone time.
6. Letting your kids have pop/soda once in a while.
7. Letting your kids quit piano lessons. (After they've given it a good effort.) Even if they "show promise" and could be amazing. And play at Carnegie Hall. And perform a song they dedicate out loud to you.
8. Not sending your kids to summer camp. Ever. Because you just never got around to figuring it out. (Sorry, girls.)
9. Telling your kids, "No, you can't have that thing everyone else has. It's not in our budget right now."
10. Telling your kids, "Your father and I are going to watch this movie while you're still awake because we're too tired to wait until you go to bed to start it. No, you can't watch it with us. We'll do family movie night another time."

11. Not remembering what your firstborn's first word was. 

12. Not creating beautiful, heirloom-level scrapbooks chronicling every small and large moment of your children's lives. (Now. To those of you who love this and do it: good for you! What a gift you are creating! Your children will rise up and call you blessed! But I, personally, am driven to tears by the mere thought of scrapbooking. And while I am far from the smartest mom around, I know that my girls are a lot more bothered by seeing me cry than they are by their scrapbook-less existence.)

13. Not packing school lunches that are organic, colorful, healthful, sugar-free, fiber-full, well-balanced, and so appealing that when other kids want to trade with your child, your child turns down the offer.

14. Feeling overwhelmed by the task of choosing "appropriate" bread and yogurt at the  grocery store. And giving up and just buying Dove bars.

15. Yelling, "Seriously?! There isn't an example or an answer key in this math textbook? Are you kidding me?!" while trying to help your elementary student with her homework. (It goes without saying that you--and by "you," I mean "me"--are not even attempting to help your middle or high-schooler with her math homework.)
And on it goes, but you get the point. Of course, you know what real mom-fails are. Never telling your kids you love them. Never hugging/kissing/back-rubbing them if they'll allow it at all. Calling them derogatory names they'll never get out of their heads. (As my girls would say, "Full-body shudder.") Not doing your best to keep them safe and healthy. And maybe being too proud to ask for help when you get overwhelmed by this incredibly hard but unbelievably important calling called motherhood.
If you're the kind of mom who's worried enough about doing a good job to give yourself a mom-fail hashtag, you're probably not doing anything to deserve one. 
In fact, I think you deserve ice cream for dinner. (Or those Dove bars you bought instead of bread and yogurt...see #15.) You could even share some with your family. I'll bet they'd call that a #momscore.

What do you think should be stricken from the list of alleged mom fails? 
Let me know...I'd love to add it on!

Gratefully linked with:

June 3, 2015

What I'm Hoping to Do This Summer (A Post in Progress)

(Summer 2016 update: if you've been around Guilty Chocoholic Mama for the last year or so: 1)thank you; 2)THANK YOU! 3)this list might look familiar. Because this is last year's post, just with a few updates. What I hoped to do last summer is still pretty much what I hope to do during this one, so I figured, why reinvent the wheel? Okay? Good. Also, thank you.)

I am not a summer person. 

There. I said it. 

Yes, I hear that "whaaaat?!"

I love winter. There. I said that, too. 

The reason I love winter is a subject for another post. (Working title: "Why I Love Winter.")

But oh, summer, you give me hope that I might...

1. Sleep. Also, sleep in.

2. Not pack school lunches.

3. Not administer after-school therapy to my daughters.

4. Not quiz my high-schooler on her chemistry notes over breakfast.

5. Eat ice cream. Repeat.

6. See Michigan's Mackinac "Mighty Mac" Bridge. Possibly while eating ice cream.

7. Eat s'mores by the campfire. And remember: if you only have one, it's not a s'more. It's only a some. Don't settle for some.
 wink emoticon
8. Hang out with my girls someplace other than in the van.

9. Try that "family dinner" thing I've heard so much about.

10. Listen to "Trust in You" and pretty much everything else by Lauren Daigle.

11. Read. Possibly a novel. At least a magazine.

12. Go the lake. Stop for ice cream on the way. (Recurring theme alert.)

13. Go camping with my parents. Their philosophy is, "We'll do all the work! You just relax." Yes, I am spoiled rotten, and no, they are not available to loan out.

14. Do Bible studies with my girls. (Full disclosure: totally shameless plug for Sweet For Your Soul.)

15. Hang sheets on the clothesline and inhale the clean-air scent when I slide into a freshly-made bed that night. Joy upon joy.

16. On one of the season's hottest days, slurp Peppermint Patty Frozen Hot Chocolate while watching Frozen with my daughters. (Just throw about a cup of crushed ice, 1/2 cup very cold or partially frozen milk or--even better--evaporated milk, a couple tablespoons chocolate syrup, one or two chopped peppermint patties, and a couple drops peppermint extract into the blender. Whir up and add more ice or milk as needed to make it slushy. Pulse in a little or a lot of frozen non-dairy whipped topping if you're not opposed to that sort of thing. Pour into a glass, top with whipped cream from an aerosol can if you're not opposed to that sort of thing, and drizzle on some chocolate syrup.) No central air? No problem! 

17. Tie-in to #16: listen to The Piano Guys 100% fabulous version of "Let It Go."

18. Not have to worry about what kind of day my daughters are having when they're away from me at school.

19. Make absolutely to-die-for-even-though-it's-not-chocolate lemon frozen yogurt.

20. Sit on the porch swing during a rainstorm and listen to the rain on the roof. 

What's on your summer hope-to-do list? 
Add it in a comment or over on Facebook

**This post may have been shared at some of these blog bashes.**