Friday, 28 March 2014

Recent Meals #1

Besides bump photographs, I've found that my most popular Facebook posts generally relate to food in some way. As such, I thought it would be fun to start sharing our recent food adventures, and how successful they were. 

Broiled salmon and roasted garlic cream noodles with crispy cauliflower and toasted pine nuts
Source: How Sweet Eats (Simon and I are slightly addicted to this website)
Who Cooked It: Rachel, although Simon helped with the salmon at the end, when he got home from work
What We Changed: We used regular spaghetti instead of whole-wheat, grana padano instead of parmesan (cheaper!), and since half-and-half is hard to get in the UK, we used 1/4 cup of semi-skimmed milk and 1/4 cup of single cream.
What We Omitted: Onion powder. We either use real onions or we don't.
How Easy Is It? This recipe isn't overly time-consuming, but it does require a lot of multi-tasking, since you need to roast the cauliflower and garlic, grill the salmon, as well as cooking the spaghetti, pine nuts and sauce on three separate rings on the hob. It can be managed in a small kitchen, if you don't get stressed out by doing multiple things at once, and if you clean up as you cook.
Verdict: This meal is definitely worth the time and effort! We loved the combination of flavours and textures, and we'll probably be stealing some aspects of it for other dishes, like the salmon coating and roasting cauliflower, which I'd never thought to do before. We highly recommend it. 

Korean Stir Fried Rice
Source: This recipe used to be on Jamie Oliver's website but disappeared recently, but you can find it here. You don't have to follow the brands stated on this website.
Who Cooked It: Simon
What We Changed: We used less eggs, and we'd recommend using Sriracha chilli sauce rather than sweet chilli.
What We Omitted: Nothing
How Easy Is It? You need to cook the brisket beforehand (we did it overnight in the slow cooker and used half of it for another meal) so you do need to plan ahead, unless you happen to have leftover brisket already in your fridge. Otherwise, it's not terribly complicated.
Verdict: I'm not a big fan of mushrooms, but we both really liked this meal. We nearly always serve our egg fried rice with fish of some sort, so this made a nice change. It's definitely a good way to use up leftover brisket. I think Simon probably liked this more than me. Unlike a lot of recipes that claim to make four portions, this one really did, so we had the leftovers later in the week.

Cullen Skink
Source: Simon made this recipe up, but it's pretty similar to this one here.
Who Cooked It: Simon
What We Changed: We used smoked river cobbler rather than haddock (cheaper!), lots more parsley than recommended, as well as thyme, tarragon, cornflour, some tinned sweetcorn and garlic.
What We Omitted: I don't think we used as much water as this recipe suggests.
How Easy Is It? It's a reasonably simple recipe, especially if you make a lot of soups.
Verdict: This is one of Simon's favourite comfort meals, and I really liked it as well. It's very filling with the thickness of the soup and all the potatoes. 

Spicy Chimichurri Burgers
Source: Simply Scratch
Who Cooked It: Rachel, although Simon came home in time to cook the burgers and insisted on doing that part. 
What We Changed: We used a full (but not particularly big) onion in the burgers instead of half, three bird's eye chillies instead of one serrano, cheddar instead of pepper jack, and only 500g of minced beef (but we were only serving two people--you might want to use more if you're feeding more people).
What We Omitted: We decided not to have avocado on our burgers as we were using avocado in something else the next day.
How Easy Is It? You need a food processor for making the chimichurri, but otherwise it's just a case of throwing together the burger mixture and cooking the burgers. We used our griddle pan, but you could also cook them under the grill or fry them in a frying pan. 
Verdict: Excellent! We've done a lot of veggie burgers recently, so it was nice to have something more traditional, although the chimichurri sauce definitely jazzed them up. We served these with corn on the cob (wrapped in foil and roasted for ten minutes) and onion rings (from the freezer--we don't do everything from scratch!)

Butternut Squash and Black Bean Enchiladas
Source: Skinny Taste
Who Cooked It: Rachel
What We Changed: We used this enchilada sauce (without the stock), three bird's eye chillies instead of a jalapeno, regular tinned tomatoes instead of Rotel, plain tortillas rather than whole-wheat, and our black beans were ones that came dried in a bag and I cooked in the slow cooker (tinned black beans are expensive and hard find in the UK). You can follow the low-fat recommendations in this recipe, but if we start using low-fat cheese you should probably assume we've been replaced with cyborgs--we used extra mature cheddar, and probably less than this recipe recommends. 
What We Omitted: Nothing
How Easy Is It? It takes a while to cook the butternut squash, but you don't need to watch it constantly, so you can put it on to cook while you wash dishes, etc. And chopping a butternut squash can be challenging! But otherwise, if you're used to making enchiladas, this should be pretty easy. You can even cheat and buy prechopped squash or a jarred enchilada sauce to cut down on prep. time.
Verdict: We love enchiladas (especially vegetarian ones) as they're cheap, filling, easy to prepare and make good leftovers, and this will definitely be going on our list to make again. Squash is one of the few vegetables that grows in Britain over the winter, and it's fun to find creative things to cook with it. 

Sweet Potato, Cauliflower and Spinach Curry
Source: Simon made this recipe up, but Jamie Oliver actually has a similar one on his website
Who Cooked It: Simon
What We Changed: Compared to Jamie's recipe, we used sweet potatoes rather than regular, and more chillies. We also added in spring onions. Simon reckons we at least doubled the spices.
What We Omitted: We skipped the chickpeas, and served it with naan (Tesco Finest, not our own) rather than yoghurt and lime.
How Easy Is It? It might take a while to chop up the veggies and cook them, but otherwise this is an easy curry--you can pretty much throw together leftover vegetables that you have sitting in your fridge. You could easily use regular potatoes instead of sweet, or kale instead of spinach, etc. 
Verdict: This was a really nice curry. I'm not sure why, but we always seem to gravitate towards meaty curries, so we need to make stuff like this more often. 

Baked Pasta with Roasted Peppers and Zucchini
Who Cooked It: Rachel
What We Changed: We didn't use an entire head of garlic (maybe six cloves), and we used spirali pasta as that's what was on hand. Instead of mixed Italian herbs, I used a combination of different dried herbs. We probably used less cheese (cheddar and grana padano).
What We Omitted: Cannellini beans and parsley. We aren't a big fan of herbs as a garnish (it seems kind of a waste), so they either go in the recipe or they aren't used.
How Easy Is It? This is another one that you need a food processor for, and it does take a while to grate the courgette, but it's a pretty simple pasta dish that you can "hide" all sorts of vegetables in--I've added grated carrots in the past, when I've had them on hand. 
Verdict: We've actually made this one several times already, and Simon often requests it, which is funny as he claimed he wasn't a fan of pasta when I met him. It's a relatively simple, easy meal for the end of the week when you don't want to buy too many ingredients, and it can be served with a salad and some garlic bread to make it go further. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

21 Weeks

How far along? 21 weeks & 5 days
Total weight gain/loss: I've actually gained 5lbs! Finally. 
Maternity clothes? Definitely. I only have a few tops that still cover my stomach, so I think it's time to invest in some maternity tops.
Stretch marks? None
Sleep: Better this week, but I'm struggling to go out in the evenings as I start to feel drained about 6pm every night. I can stay awake, but I don't really feel like doing much.
Best moment this week: Technically this happened last week, but since I didn't do a blog post, I think I can count this here ;) Our best moment was definitely getting to see our baby again at our 20-week ultrasound! It was really exciting to see it moving around (not doing somersaults like last time, but it was kicking its feet) and seeing how it was growing. It sounds weird, but it's pretty cool getting to see its bones and heart valves and stuff like that. 
Movement: The baby is getting more and more active, and I actually got worried that it was being too active at one point, but apparently that's not something to be concerned about ;) Sometimes it kicks me quite hard, and at least twice we've felt it having hiccups. Pretty exciting!
Cravings/Aversions: I've been craving sweet things this week, which is actually good as we still have tons of Christmas chocolate left ;)
Gender guesses: You guys can keep guessing, but we already know! ;)
Labor Signs: None, although I did have a dream about going into labour last night, so clearly it's been on my mind.
Belly Button in or out? Still in, but I don't think it'll stay that way for much longer.
What I miss: Having more than two pairs of jeans to choose between ;)
What I am looking forward to: Buying baby things! I've managed to hold off buying too many baby things until now (everything we've got so far can literally fit into a plastic carrier bag) but now that we're more than halfway there I'm starting to peruse the clearance rack in the Baby section of Tesco for tiny t-shirts ;)
Weekly Wisdom: It is totally acceptable to delegate floor sweeping to your husband so you don't hurt your back. 
Milestones: Over the last two weeks, we've had a lot! 20-week ultrasound, hearing the baby's heartbeat, buying some baby clothes together, finding out the sex of the baby, deciding on a name, and my bump has officially got to the stage where nothing I wear will hide it. A pretty exciting couple of weeks, all in all :)

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 11: A Few Important Thoughts that Will Transform Your Schedule

In today's challenge, Tricia talks about different issues you can consider and ponder that can alter your schedule, and hopefully make your life more enjoyable and your work more effective! I really liked the suggestions she gave. Here are where my thoughts took me:

1. Take time to ponder where you’re falling short.
At the moment, I'm not having any trouble tackling my housework. There might be a few on-going tasks that get left to the end of my to-do list, but these are usually "I'll do these when I get to them" tasks like cleaning the windowsills or washing our chair-covers, not essential tasks like laundry or cooking. I think I'm doing pretty well in this area of my life.
However, I do find myself getting too wrapped up in housework (even non-essential housework) and pushing my writing to the side. When I was battling morning sickness, I allowed myself to do this, as I just couldn't focus on anything non-essential, but now that my health is a lot better, I'd like to make more of an effort with my writing. I think I need to schedule time each day for writing, and I'm trying to set aside 3-4pm each day for this.
I also need to be more effective with my editing work for The Christian Manifesto. I used to schedule an hour for this as well (at different points in my life this has been at different times: when I was a student, I used to answer emails, etc, between 8-9am, and when we graduated I moved this to directly after lunch, 1-2pm). I need to pick an hour that suits me and stick to it, rather than getting distracted by emails later in the day when I should be writing.

2. Take time to build teamwork in your family.
I'm learning to accept that even if I am a housewife, that doesn't mean that I need to do all the housework. There are some things Simon has always done, like emptying bins, but I'm learning to ask for help in other areas on the occasions where I'm too tired or nauseas to do something. And also to delegate tasks that I just can't manage any more; bending over to sweep the kitchen floor is getting uncomfortable. I need to remember that asking for help doesn't mean that I'm failing in my role as a housewife.

3. Take time to prioritize.
This is definitely something I've been working on a lot lately. Yesterday I even highlighted several items on my to-do list that I know I really want to achieve this weekend, which means the rest can wait until Monday. Prioritising makes life so much more manageable and lists seem a lot less overwhelming. 

4. Take time to praise.
There's always something to praise God for and be thankful for, even if you're having a bad day. Even just starting your prayers by thanking God for one, small thing can make such a difference. 

Right now, I'm thankful that Tricia took the time out of her busy life to write Balanced. I've been really blessed by this book, and I think I read it at the perfect time in my life. I'm sure I'll gain even more wisdom if I come back to read it when I our little one arrives and I'm balancing even more. 

I truly appreciated the concluding chapter of Balanced. Tricia writes:

"Balance isn't the ultimate goal. A quest for balance leads to frustration and exhaustion. I never have a day when I achieve the perfect balance of work, family, God, and friends. It's impossible. There are always interruptions. If we are working with real-life people, we cannot schedule our time as if we were simply sitting at the computer all day."

Honestly, I think I need to write those words on a sheet of paper and stick it to my desk. Balance doesn't mean perfection, and I'd hate to ever view my husband or children as interrupting my life. If anything, they are welcome interruptions. I feel truly blessed that I can work from home, even if it means I don't have a traditional 9-5 schedule. In fact, on nice days like today, being able to leave my desk to hang up the washing outside is definitely a nice distraction, because I get to enjoy the wonderful weather ;) And I definitely don't feel left out because I don't have to put on a suit and sit on a crowded bus for half an hour every morning! 

If you're a work-at-home mum, or you're thinking about becoming one, I definitely recommend Balanced. As a writer, I particularly appreciated Tricia's advice on that topic, and reading this book has encouraged me to get stuck back into my writing after several months of pushing it to the side. I might not have the perfect, efficient schedule for approaching my writing, but I'm determined to try.

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Balanced Challenge: Day 10: How to Say “No” (And 8 Things to Say “Yes” To)

The story that Tricia shared on her blog today definitely struck a chord with me. She talks about forcing herself not to volunteer for a certain activity at church, even though she knows she's capable of doing it, because she knows she can't stretch herself too thin. One of the recurring themes in Balanced is about how sometimes an opportunity can look good (either in its benefits for us or for others) but it might not be the right thing to do. Perhaps the timing is wrong, or you'd have to give up something more important. I know that I can be guilty of almost volunteering for something simply because a) I know I can do it, or b) I know it's important and no one else is volunteering. But honestly--are those the best reasons to do something? Nowhere in there did I say that I almost volunteer for something because I want to do it. And that's the crux of the problem.

I loved Tricia's challenge for this week, and even before taking notes or blogging about it, I discussed it with my husband over dinner. We had fun trying to come up with our "Eight Life Themes". Eight seemed like a lot initially, but after we discussed them it was pretty easy to come up with eight things that are important to each of our lives. Here are mine:

  1. Being a Christian
  2. Being Simon's wife
  3. Being a mother
  4. Writing
  5. Being a housewife
  6. Editing at The Christian Manifesto
  7. Reading and reviewing books
  8. Cooking and baking
I feel like identifying these eight themes will be helpful in figuring out what to say Yes or No to. If the opportunity doesn't line up with any of the issues that are particularly important to my life right now, should I really pursue it? Or is my time and energy better spent elsewhere? Even something seemingly good (like volunteering at church or for a charity) might not be overly beneficial if it takes away from my time with my family or my writing, or even the things that keep me relaxed and sane, like reading and cooking.

Identifying these themes also helped me and Simon to decide how we're going to approach the ways we serve at church once we have a child. At the moment, I work with the young children and serve on the hospitality team, while Simon works with the older children and plays in the band. Because of how the rota system currently works, we're each serving two out of four weeks every month. While we're comfortable with this right now, we've decided to take time out at the end of June, so we can enjoy a few more weeks (maybe even a month!) just being in church, before our baby comes. After that, we'll have plenty of time to figure out how much time and energy we can devote to serving with a little baby (getting to the centre of Edinburgh for 9:30am to set up church might be a challenge with a newborn!) Ultimately, even if we know we're doing something good in volunteering at church, our family should always come first. And we also don't want to be volunteering so much that we don't have time to just be in church and enjoy the worship, sermons and fellowship.

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 9: How to Find Inspiration

Chapter 9 of Balanced started out with a quote that definitely spoke right to my heart:

"Most of all we just need permission. Permission to slow down. Permission to discover our deepest purpose. And permission to follow God-breathed dreams even when we still have kids at home."

I think a lot of work-at-home parents must be struck with conflicting feelings over whether to follow their dreams (even just for fifteen minutes) rather than tending to household chores or devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their kids. Does it make me a terrible wife or mother if I choose to write for an hour rather than tackling the ironing pile? 

I imagine that this conflict will get stronger when we have a little one in the house. In fact, having seen how friends with babies and small children are getting on with their lives, it seems like life is more challenging with a child who is toddling around, attempting to walk, and climbing or reaching into awkward places every time your back is turned. At least a newborn sleeps a lot and can't go very far, right? ;) 

In the midst of housework and raising children, it can be hard to find inspiration. Tricia shares the ways in which she opens herself up to receiving inspiration on a daily basis on her blog today. It made me think about how ideas come to me, and I'm not sure if I'm quite so intentional about making myself ready to find inspiration. Maybe it's because I'm not battling several small children to get to my desk and write, but at the moment, I tend to have ideas come to me quite easily. 

In particular, over the last couple of months, I've often woken up with ideas in my head--not just snippets, but often rough storylines and distinct characters. I haven't had this happen quite so much recently, but it was a great encouragement to me in the days when I was battling morning sickness and barely felt up to washing the dishes, let alone sitting down to write. When I did feel up to being creative, but only had a few minutes at my disposal, I would type up these ideas that had come to me in the waking hours. I'm not sure where I'm going to go with these ideas (currently sitting in a OneNote notebook provisionally and horribly titled: The Princess and the Security Guard, Professing Love, Rockstar Roommate & The Other Boy Next Door) but they're there when I'm ready for them. Sometimes I do end coming back to ideas years after I first scribble them down. Just the other day I found my original, paper notes for the novel I'm currently editing. Although it's changed a lot since I first came up with the idea in 2009, the original setting and some of the characters are still the same.

Two nuggets of wisdom particularly stuck out to me from today's challenge. First: dedicate your writing to the the Lord each day in prayer. Second: Write something, every day. Even if it's a scribbled idea on a post-it or a single paragraph of your current work-in-progress, just write something.

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Balanced Challenge: Day 8: 3 Ways to Make Today Amazing

Balanced talks a lot about putting joy into your day, or being joyful in everything you do, no matter how mundane. It might sound bizarre to be joyful while hanging up laundry or shopping for groceries, but it definitely beats dwelling over all the other things on my to-do list that are still waiting for my attention. Having a joyful heart can really out a positive spin on the outcome of every day, and I'm trying to remember to insert some joy into every day.

Today, Tricia suggests three ways in which we can add more joy into our lives: Be thankful, play, and give. Here are some ways in which I try to add these things into my life:

  1. Be Thankful. I've tried keeping thankfulness journals and other written methods of recording my thankfulness and none of them have been entirely successful. Instead, Simon and I make an effort to pray over our evening meals and, out of habit, we always list two things we're thankful for (often things that are on our plates!) We also always start our evening prayers listing those things we're thankful for.
  2. Play! While we might not have little ones to play with yet, we do enjoy playing games together. Simon has been amassing a rather large board game collection over the last few years, and we try to play a game together at least once a week--sometimes a quick, smaller game like Carcassonne or Lost Cities, or a longer game that takes all evening, like Ora et Labora or Tales of the Arabian Nights. We've also played video games together, including LA Noire on the computer (not technically a two-player game, but we work through it together) and Little Big Planet and NHL14 on the PS3 (much to my surprise, I'm actually pretty good at virtual hockey. Racing games are an entirely different story, sadly). We have fun researching games and figuring out which ones we'll enjoy playing together.
  3. Give. We periodically donate clothes, books, films, CDs, ornaments and miscellaneous items that we're no longer using to charity--or to people we think will benefit from them. Since my brother is about the same height as Simon (but skinnier), he often gets Simon's old clothes, and we've made up bags of duplicate kitchen items for both of our brothers over the years (Simon's brother is just finishing university and mine is just about to start). A few months ago we found a collection of unused folders that had previously stored my work from high school and the first two years of university, and we managed to find students in our current church who could use them. Not only does it feel great to make space for the things we need (particularly with a baby coming soon!) but it's encouraging to know that items that are sitting unused in our house will be appreciated in their new homes.
Not only are these items beneficial to me, but having an attitude of thankfulness, playfulness and generosity will hopefully set a great example to my kids someday. 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 7: Chores for All the Family

I've read a lot of Amish fiction over the last few years, and while there are some things about their lifestyle that I don't agree with, I definitely admire the way that the whole family works together, including young children. I remember tidying my room when I was young, and washing dishes and ironing when I was in my preteen years, but other than that I don't think I was particularly involved in household chores. By the time I left home at eighteen, I knew how to cook some basic meals and operate a washing machine, but I don't think I'd ever scrubbed a toilet, mopped a floor or cleaned an oven. I had a lot of learning to do in my first year of university. Based on my experiences, I'd like to involve my children in household chores from a young age so that they can gradually build up their ability to manage housework.

Since my own child won't be born until August, I don't have any advice to give on age-appropriate chores, but Tricia lists some great examples on her blog. Even three-year-olds can be involved in something as simple as putting laundry into a washing basket or carrying dishes to the sink. They might not be terribly efficient or tidy to begin with, and this is something I'll have to learn to let go of. Sometimes I ask my husband to help hand up laundry, and I find myself readjusting half the clothes because they're not hanging in a manner which is going to help them dry quickly, but I know he tried and that the clothes will dry--eventually. More importantly, he took a burden off my shoulders by helping! It's the same for children--they won't learn how to do something if we take the task away from them and do it for them because they're not doing it perfectly the first time. Tricia talks a lot about letting go of unrealistic expectations in today's chapter, and I particularly appreciated her comments about how having a desire for perfectionism at all times not only sets us up for failure, but it can also damage our spouses and our children if they don't feel like they measure up. 

Another reason I'd like to involve our children in housework from a young age is so that it becomes part of the natural rhythm of family life. Instead of seeing their assigned activities as "chores" that they have to do in order to be allowed to play outside or watch TV, I hope that in participating in such activities from a young age, our children will see that helping around the home is part of being a family, and something we do to help each other. They might not necessarily look forward to washing the dishes or sorting socks, but hopefully it won't be something they dread either! 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Balanced Challenge: Day 6: How to Find Time to Clean During Your Day

Unlike Tricia, I don't have a houseful of family members to chase after while trying to tackle housework. My husband might not be the neatest man on the planet, but I do usually manage to do a fair amount of housework each day. But that doesn't mean that I don't value the importance of finding a few moments here and there to undertake small tasks that, when added up, can feel overwhelming. In Day 6's challenge, Tricia asks:

How do you use those random minutes throughout the day to clean?

Here are some I came up with:

  • If I need to run errands outside the house, I try to join them together to save time. I go grocery shopping on Mondays and Thursdays, and I often visit the library or the bank on my way there, so I don't have to take time out of the day to walk that direction again the next day. Since my midwife appointments fall on Mondays, and the GP's practice is on the way to the supermarket, I combine these also.
  • I always wipe down the counters in the kitchen after doing the dishes. We might only have one and a half counters to clean, but even if the floor still has crumbs on it and the hob needs a good scrub, clean counters make the kitchen look so much nicer.
  • It's amazing what you can achieve while waiting for the kettle to boil or toast to pop. Sometimes I take the recycling outside, sweep the kitchen floor, refill pasta jars, etc.
  • I used to have a rule that if I was going upstairs or downstairs, I'd take something with me--a mug to put in the kitchen, ironed clothes to take upstairs, etc. Now that we live in a one-storey house, I don't have this rule, but since our dining-room and study are combined, I try to take any dishes that are leftover from breakfast or lunch back into the kitchen every time I get another cup of tea or check on the laundry. 
I'm often a bit intimidated by people who have colour-coded spreadsheets or calendars where they schedule a different item for each hour of the day. I've found that some tasks are helped by scheduling (like writing, which I often neglect in favour of laundry or cooking dinner) and others can be loosely scheduled (I always shop on Mondays and Thursdays, but not at the same time each week). Even if a detailed schedule works for Tricia, I appreciated her advice that, "It doesn't matter what system you use, as much as the fact that you're doing it." Find something that works for you, and stick to it. If this means giving up on a system you've been failing at for months and years, try something new and see if it suits you better! Perhaps different systems suit different periods in your life. Right now I don't need to find hidden moments to fold laundry or wash dishes, but I'm sure I'll appreciate nap time when I have a newborn! 

My favourite quote from today's challenge is this: "Do what you can, when you can." Sometimes we beat ourselves up for not achieving as much as our friends or neighbours, or even as much as we achieved last week or last year. But the important thing, which we often forget, is that we're trying and we're achieving something, no matter how small. Maybe it's not at the time we'd planned or hoped for--sometimes I do wash dishes at 10pm at night on a busy day!--but we're doing it, and that's what counts. I think this is a quote I need to add to my whiteboard on my desk in big, red letters so I don't ever forget it.

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 5: Balancing Your Calendar

Some parts of Balanced have been challenging, forcing me to rethink the way I'm approaching a certain situation or topic. Others, like today's chapter, are encouraging and make me think, "Huh, I'm already dealing with this quite well." 

I'm not the kind of person who schedules every minute detail of my life on a calendar, as I've already revealed. But that doesn't mean that I fall prey to accidentally overscheduling myself either, and I'm thankful for my mum's lessons in this. I don't follow my parents' examples in everything, but one life lesson that my mum did teach me (perhaps even unintentionally) was that it's okay to say "No" to opportunities, even if it is something that you like the sound or know will benefit someone. I remember a point in my childhood when my mum was doing a lot of things--working full-time, helping me and my brother with our homework in the evenings, shouldering a large part of the housework and volunteering at church, among many other things. She hit her breaking point, and I remember her making a big deal about learning how to say "No" in the future to stop herself getting over-stretched.

Tricia's challenge for today was to go through my schedule and split items into those I need to do (housework, grocery shopping), those I should do (attend church, spend time with extended family), those I want to do (write, work for TCM) and those I feel obligated to do. The last category is namely for things I do because I feel guilty if I don't do them, or I do them because they make me or my family look better. And thankfully, I couldn't think of a lot to put in there. I could think of a few times I've been given the chance to volunteer in a certain area at church, but I've turned these opportunities down because I know that I'm already serving in other areas that are better suited to my skills and time. I've already experienced how horrible it can be to be so over-stretched in volunteering at church that you don't even look forward to attending any more, and as such, I've made a consistent effort to not get into that situation again. 

Tricia also suggested cutting down on items in the third category (things I want to do) if you're feeling overwhelmed, and this is something I've already been examining in advance of our baby coming this summer. Right now, I'm able to mostly cope with writing, working for TCM, writing reviews and serving at church. But when summer comes, it'll take me a while to get back into my usual patterns, and there might be some things I have to set aside for a season. I have to be picky about what I really want to commit to. For now, I've decided that writing is my top priority, and the one thing I want to definitely get back to once we're settled in with our baby. As such, I'm already training a couple of the writers from TCM up to cover a few tasks around the website. Even if it's something small like updating our social media pages or uploading reviews, it takes some burdens off my day. I've also not committed to writing any reviews or serving at church past the end of June. That's something I'll have to reassess nearer the time. 

I'm not perfect. There are times when I'm sure I overcommit--I volunteer to cook or bake for a certain event when our week is already busy or it's near the end of the month and our food budget is already stretched. I consider signing up to something at church that needs extra helpers because I know I can do it--but do I really want to do it? I like Tricia's advice that "The first step in figuring out your priorities is cutting out what are not your priorities so you have space for what's important." If something is going to take time away for those things that matter most to me (my husband, my baby or my writing) then perhaps it's time to rethink why it's part of my schedule. 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Balanced Challenge: Day 4: How To Know God’s Call For Your Life

I think it's very easy to question whether or not we're following the right path, especially when things don't go as expected or we meet failure and rejection. As a writer this is definitely something I've experienced, especially because it's not always easy to see concrete evidence of the progress I've made. People in other lines of work might have plaques or awards to signify how far they've come, or even something as simple as a change in job title or extra numbers on their pay check. Me? I've written two full-length novels in two years (as well as some unfinished ones and many, many ideas for potential novels). I've participated in two online editor pitches and submitted one full manuscript and one partial. My full MS was rejected, but with encouragement from the editor, who said she'd be willing to look at another novel in the future. The second response was even better--the editor gave me the chance to edit the chapters and resubmit them. 

This second offer was open-ended. The editor didn't tell me when she wanted to see the edited chapters, just that if I wanted to make changes, she'd give them a second look and let me know if she wanted to read more. This opportunity, which I received back in October, was exciting. I hadn't even finished the entire novel by this point, so I spent the rest of October finishing my rough first draft. I planned to participate in NaNoWriMo in November and work on something entirely new to give me time away from my WIP, then go back to it in December and begin editing.

But things didn't go entirely to plan. By the time December rolled around, I knew that I was pregnant, and morning sickness seriously kicked in. Combined with extreme tiredness and Christmas craziness, I didn't get a lot done in December. My morning sickness only seemed to get worse as we moved into the new year, and it's only now that I'm actually feeling like I have the energy and concentration to get stuck back into editing. I don't want to submit a shoddy second draft to this editor, so I know it needs some serious attention before it's ready for her to see. It's also the first time I've been asked to submit edits, and I want to make sure I do it right.

Still, I have found myself doubting what I'm doing. Can I really call myself a writer if I'm barely writing anything? Is this really what I'm meant to be doing with my life if I'm struggling with it? Am I a bad writer if I'm considering setting my writing aside for a time while I cope with pregnancy ailments and a new baby? If writing is what God has called me to do, am I failing at my calling right now? 

Chapter 4 of Balanced definitely had some encouragement for me. If anyone knows the stresses of balancing motherhood and writing, it's Tricia Goyer, so I appreciated her words on this topic. Especially the encouragement that: "God has a plan for both aspects of our lives! The trick is balancing them--not being overwhelmed but trusting God for the outcome." 

I'm sure I'm not the only person who struggles with trust. Right now, I'm trying to trust that I will be able to balance writing and being a mother, and that I won't neglect either part of my life. I know that, when it comes down to it, I can set aside my writing for a season if I need to--my kids will only be young once, but my books will wait. But still, I trust that this is something I can balance. I trust that writing is something I'm called to do, and that as such, I will see one of my novels through to publication some day. It might be through this current opportunity with this editor, or maybe I'll revise my first novel and submit it elsewhere, or maybe it'll be something entirely different. I don't think God would have placed the gift of writing in my hands and provided me with time to write if it wasn't meant to go somewhere, so I just need to wait and see where it takes me. 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 3: How My Family Benefits From My Work

I wrote up my notes from yesterday's chapter last night, but I didn't get the chance to format them into a blog post until today. I guess that's all part of being flexible, right? ;)

When I read the title of Day 3's challenge, I did wonder if I'd be able to come up with something to write. Tricia's blog was entitled How My Little Kids Help Me In My Work, and since my little kid is still in utero, I don't exactly have any examples of how I'm able to do that just yet. I definitely have some ideas of ways in which my kids could be involved in my work, but since I don't have a whole lot of experience in this area, I decided to change today's blog post very slightly. Instead of answering the question of How do you involve your kids in your work?, I'll be talking about how I anticipate my family benefiting from my work at home.

Deciding to work from home definitely wasn't a spontaneous decision, but it was an easy one to make once Simon and I realised that we could afford it. We'd always talked about me being at home once we had children, and not just because it would cut down on childcare costs. My kids might not have my complete and undivided attention when I'm at home if I'm writing or doing housework while they play (and it's probably a good thing that they know they're not the centre of my universe) but I like knowing that I am there if they have a problem or something they want to talk about, and that I can witness their growths and achievements first hand, whether they're taking their first steps or learning to play an instrument. In fact, I kind of feel sad that Simon will be out at work for nine hours a day and might miss out on an exciting development with one of our children!

Besides the obvious fact that I'd be instilling a love of reading and writing in them from a young age, I hadn't really put too much thought into how my chosen career could impact my children until now. Since Tricia is also a writer, she made some great points in the third chapter of Balanced, many of which I could relate to. Here are some points I finally decided upon:

  • Through seeing me work on my novels, edit them, submit them to publishers, revise them, and hopefully eventually get them published, my children will see first-hand that it's possible to achieve your dreams--but that you have to work hard to get there. 
  • I might not have any immediate plans to interview people as research for my novels as Tricia often does, but my kids will still get to connect with other writers and artists, as well as fellow book-lovers from my work at The Christian Manifesto. My colleague Shondra sent me a lovely card all the way from Indiana, when I told her I was pregnant, and she's taken on some of my usual tasks for TCM to help ease my work load. Even if my kids don't get to meet mummy's "internet friends" in person, they'll definitely know that they have love and support from all over the world!
  • In turn, they'll also learn about how hobbies and interests can connect a community of people of all ages and races, all over the world. I might not have any local friends who write Christian Fiction, but I've met plenty online--and this will also open up conversations about internet safety!
  • Reading and writing can help us develop compassion and empathy, so not only do I hope that my work makes me more patient and understanding with my children, they'll get to learn equally important lessons through their own reading. Hopefully this will open up some great discussions topics, as well.
  • Since my husband has a more typical 9-5 job with an annual salary, while I'm going down the artistic route of following my dreams even if it doesn't make any money right now, we can demonstrate to our kids that following your dreams can look different depending on your skills and interests, and that each of our routes are equally valid options. We can show them that doing something you love is more important than making a lot of money, gaining fame or meeting other people's expectations. 
  • And in turn, we can show them that it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to get to the place of fulfilling your dreams--getting a book published doesn't happen overnight, and because of the career path I've taken, we don't have a second income right now. 
  • Hopefully, as my career develops, my kids will have opportunities to go on research trips with me, or at least visit museums and libraries and develop a love and respect for history. 
  • We can show our children that mummy and daddy contribute to the family in different but equal ways.
Towards the end of Chapter 3, Tricia writes, "When you spend a lot of time together, kids follow what they see. They also ask questions. A lot of questions." I hope that, through seeing me work and asking me why I'm writing all the time, my kids can learn some valuable life lessons which will eventually enable them to make decisions about their own futures and careers. 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

19 Weeks

How far along? 19 weeks & 6 days
Total weight gain/loss: I've finally gained weight! However...this puts me at exactly the same weight I was before I got pregnant, since I lost half a stone in the first trimester. But hey, it's better than not gaining anything at all. 
Maternity clothes? For trousers and some dresses, and I might want to start investing in some tops soon as most of mine are starting to look too short.
Stretch marks? None
Sleep: Better, but I'm needing a lot more of it. I start to feel drained about 6pm every day.
Best moment this week: I finally put on weight? It seems kind of lame, but I have been worried about that. I also had several days with absolutely no nausea, which is an absolute first for me--I've literally been feeling nauseas every day since the start of November.
Movement: The baby has been really active this week. Instead of just little flutterings here and there, I'm feeling it consistently for relatively long periods of time. Sometimes it's definitely doing a jig on my intestines or kicking my lower abdomen, which I am not a fan of. The movements used to only be noticeable in the evenings, but I've felt it several times during the day recently.
Cravings/Aversions: Nothing right now, since my nausea is mostly gone.
Gender guesses: We're getting so close to finding out that I'm not sure what I think any more! Simon's the same.
Labor Signs: None
Belly Button in or out? Still in
What I miss: Being able to bend over to pick things off the floor without hurting my back.
What I am looking forward to: Our ultrasound on Monday! Not just because we might get to find out the sex of the baby, but getting to hear it's heartbeat and finally see it again.
Weekly Wisdom: As soon as you have an obvious bump, people will start looking at you warily and questioning whether you should be lifting or carrying anything. This makes grocery shopping so much fun. 
Milestones: Putting on weight, for the first time in about six weeks, and managing a few days without any nausea. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Balanced Challenge: Day 2: How to Make Working from Home Work

While I know some people who would love the chance to work from home every day and spend more time their their family, I also have plenty of friends who look appalled when I talk about working from home. They couldn't concentrate at home, they tell me--there are too many distractions. They need to work in a location where other people are also working, to keep them accountable--an office, or a lab or a library. Or they simply can't handle being at home on their own all day, only seeing other adult human beings when the postman arrives. 

I'm entirely the opposite--I don't get much work done in a busy coffee shop, and I never spent more than a few hours at a time working in the library when I was at university. Unlike my husband, it doesn't take me ages to get into the "zone" of working, and my work isn't drastically altered if I'm interrupted by a distraction. It's not impossible for me to tear myself away from answering emails or writing my novel if something else requires my attention. In fact, while I was writing yesterday's blog post I stopped twice--once to hang laundry up on the washing line (because I knew it needed as much sun as it could get if it were to dry, and couldn't wait!) and again to make myself some lunch, as I've recently learned that hunger pains can quickly turn into nausea if I put off eating for too long. 

That said, I do sort of have a typical 9-5 workday schedule. Simon leaves for work around 8am every morning, and I try to make sure most of my responsibilities are tackled before he gets home around 5pm in the evening. There are some things I know I have to do every day--answering emails, washing dishes, tackling some sort of laundry-related task (washing it, ironing it, putting it away), writing, and making dinner. I tend not to schedule these tasks on a calendar, but I do aim to have dinner ready (or almost) by the time Simon gets home from work. 

Tricia shared her calendar on her blog post today, and I'm afraid that mine isn't quite as full or colourful. In fact, I'm sharing my calendar for the entire month because there just isn't enough on this week to make it look interesting! 

I don't schedule events that are weekly or daily occurrences, like attending church or home group, or going grocery shopping, because I'm not likely to forget them. The things that I do schedule are special or one-off events that Simon and I need to remember, such as having friends over for dinner, serving at church, dentist or midwife appointments and birthdays. 

I do have a constant to-do list sitting on my desk. I've tried different methods of keeping track of my to-do list, including splitting it into tasks for each day, or making it clear which tasks need to be done today, this week or just when I find the time. Neither of these have really worked for me--making daily tasks went out the window when my morning sickness started, as it just made me feel guilty about everything I wasn't getting done, and my daily and weekly tasks often overlapped or became repetitive. Here's what my current to-do list looks like:

Some things are merely reminders (I have an Audible voucher that expires soon), others are small tasks that I don't want to forget to pregnancy brain (requesting a book to review) and the rest are normal, daily tasks.

Today's Challenge
Working home from definitely isn't for everyone (I don't think my husband could drag himself away from fixing a bug to spend 10 minutes pegging up laundry!) but it definitely suits me. In today's chapter of Balanced, Tricia asks, "What are some benefits from working at home that you've experienced?"
  • Compared to the last four years that I've spent studying at university, my life has stress and pressure, which has vastly improved both my mental and physical health. There are definitely deadlines to meet and tasks to complete on a regular basis, but the atmosphere of working from home has made a big difference for me. I've struggled with IBS and SAD for several years, and both conditions are aggravated by stress, and my change in working lifestyle has definitely benefited both of these. 
  • I've learned to be flexible and deal with change and the unexpected. I don't plan every second of my day, so I can deal with new tasks that pop up and require my attention.
  • Having a flexible schedule also means that I can meet up with friends who also work from home or have atypical work lifestyles. I can make space in a morning or afternoon to pop into town and have tea with a friend. 
  • And as a result of this, evenings and weekends are freed up for spending time with my husband! That's not to say that we don't meet up with people during these times, but if I can meet up with someone on an afternoon rather than an evening, I will, as it means more time with my husband. Especially with a little one on the way, we value every moment we have together, even if we're just hanging out in the same room reading or watching a film. 
  • Not every day is the same, and I appreciate this. I like some continuity, but I'm not sure if I could handle doing the exact same things every day, to a schedule. 
  • I'm learning flexible time management, and although I know I do need to improve this (I'm considering scheduling a specific hour into my day to write, as I often neglect this over other responsibilities), I'm mostly happy with my time management. 
  • We have a healthier, calmer lifestyle. Essential housework is nearly always dealt with before Simon gets home from work, meaning that we don't spend our evenings cleaning or doing laundry. We have time to relax. While Simon cooks at the weekends, I handle meals during the week, meaning that I have time to cook healthy, balanced meals for us. This is especially important for me, because my IBS is diet-controlled. Yes, we eat frozen pizzas occasionally and hot dogs with onion rings and corn on the cob is one of our favourite quick and easy meals, but I'm grateful that we have the time and money to eat healthily.
  • We don't have to worry about additional travel expenses to get me to and from work, and childcare won't cost us a penny, since I'll be at home! 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Balanced Challenge Day 1: Looking Ahead to Tomorrow To Set Goals for Today

I have a confession to make. Although I read a lot of books (29 so far this year) in a variety of formats (paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook, etc), I'm pretty terrible at actually finishing a non-fiction book. I have at least three non-fiction books on my Currently Reading shelf on my Kindle that I've reached 25% on and then unintentionally abandoned when I got distracted by a novel. I think this may be a side-effect of studying at university for the last four years--I simply cannot read a non-fiction book without taking stopping to take notes, which makes my reading experience last a lot longer than it normally would, were I reading fiction. 

Unless I change my non-fiction reading habits dramatically, I know I'm going to struggle even more when there's a baby in the house. Even so, I've aimed to read at least ten non-fiction books in 2014, and I've already managed to knock four books off that challenge. Balanced: Finding Center as a Work-at-Home Mom by Tricia Goyer will hopefully be book #5 in that list.

When Simon and I learned that I was pregnant in November, I will admit that I began to worry about how I was going to balance all my responsibilities--housework, writing, reviewing, editing, and now a baby. To make matters worse, I pretty much abandoned my writing altogether when my morning sickness kicked it up a notch in early December. We had only told a few people we were pregnant at this point, so whenever anyone asked me how my writing was doing, I lied and told them I was in the editing stages of my current novel. Editing is boring, so no one tends to ask much about it, but I felt guilty--should I really be managing to write and edit novels right now? Or is getting the dishes washed without puking enough of an achievement? 

One of the non-fiction books that I've been dipping in and out of for the last few months is Opening the Door to Your God-Sized Dream, a 40-day devotional by Holley Gerth (see what I mean about procrastinating on non-fiction? This book should have been finished way back in 2013 if it only takes 40 days to read!) One of the devotions that I read in early January was about not having to pursue every opportunity that comes your way and not feeling guilty about saying "No" to certain things. The phrase "You don't have to do it all" popped out at me (one which also appears in the first chapter of Balanced!), and I decided that "Balance" should be my word for 2014. Shortly after reading this devotion, I saw Tricia's new book being advertised, and I had a feeling that now would be the right time to read it. I might not be a mum yet, but it's never too early to start thinking about how I'm going to balance all of my responsibilities.

Since I'm horrible at sticking with a non-fiction book, Tricia's 11-day challenge seemed like the perfect motivation to get me to read this book in a reasonable time-frame.

About the book:
Since Tricia is a stay-at-home mother and writer, I can relate to her journey a lot. (In fact, today I learned that she began her full-time writing career at twenty-two, just like me!) However, a lot of the skills required to balance housework, childcare and writing can be applied to other work-at-home careers. This isn't exclusively a book for writers, but it is a faith-based book, so non-Christians may struggle to relate to some of Tricia's experiences or advice. 

Today's Challenge
In the first chapter of Balanced, Tricia talks about how deciding what we want to achieve as a family can help us to determine what steps to take, and avoid feeling overwhelmed or stressed out by unnecessary responsibilities. By determining principles, values or activities that particularly matter to our family, we can make better decisions by pin-pointing whether a certain opportunity would benefit our family, or stop us from being able to focus on what really matters.

Since we don't have children yet (still 4.5 months to go!), it's difficult to decide exactly what's going to matter to us the most when we have children, but there are some things that Simon and I have long felt are important to us. These might not be things that are important to your family, as every individual and family has different values they put specific emphasis on. 

What do we want to achieve as a family? What will matter five years from now--ten years from now? What will mold our children into God-serving adults? What will bring peace--not stress--to our home?

  • Although we don't yet know how we're going to educate our children, we want to be involved in their education. We want to encourage them in the skills and activities that they enjoy, to make learning fun for them, and take advantage of our own skills to help them learn. 
  • While we want to encourage our children in their natural talents, we don't want to force them to devote extra time to activities they don't enjoy, even if it is something they're good at. Sometimes it's better to focus on something we really enjoy, even if it's harder for us to grasp.
  • We want to make sure our children have time to play, spend time with their family and friends, and generally enjoy being a kid, even if this means only taking one extracurricular activity at a time. We don't want to be a taxi service to our children's activities--and not having a car will probably help us achieve this!
  • We want to have breakfast and dinner together as a family every day (excluding special occasions or date night), and encourage conversation and prayer at these meals.
  • We want to encourage our children to try new foods, and even revisit ones they've previously thought they didn't like. We want them to be involved in cooking from a young age, to develop adventurous tastes, not be scared to try new foods, and learn that our tastes can change (especially since mum didn't used to like onions at all!)
  • We want to involve our children in household tasks early on, providing that they are suitable for that age (no ironing for the three-year-old), and to make them see that this is part of being and serving your family, not a "chore".
  • We want to be an active part of our church, although how we are active might change over the years. (Right now Simon and I both help to lead the children's church, and Simon plays guitar in the band while I serve on the hospitality team).
  • We want to encourage a love of reading, as well as other methods of storytelling and art forms. We want to read together as a family each night, even when our children are babies. 
  • And most importantly: We want to be open to change and unexpected opportunities, and to not be too set in our plans for the future.A year ago, Simon was planning to study for his PhD while I worked as a teacher or a librarian, and we didn't think we'd be starting our family until we were at least 25. Now Simon is working full-time as a software engineer, we're expecting our first child just a month before my 23rd birthday, and I've been able to focus on my writing for the first year post-graduation. Sometimes life takes you on an entirely different route from the one you anticipated! 
Since our post-graduation future ended up being so incredibly different from the one we imagined (but also so much better!) it's hard for me to answer questions like, "Where do we want to be ten years from now?" I try not to set too many concrete plans for the future, but I do know that ten years from now we'll both be around 33. We'd like to have two or three children by this time, and have bought a house. For me, I'd like to have published my first novel. I'm not sure if we'll still be living in Edinburgh, or if Simon will have embraced a different job opportunity that takes us away from this city. For now, we're happy here, but we're not scared of change.

The thing that struck me most about the first chapter of Balanced is that the values that matter to you should influence the direction your family takes; not what values others promote. Sometimes we find ourselves contemplating X or Y because someone in our family or church or workplace is doing X or Y. Will it make us a worse wife/mother/writer if we aren't doing that too? I know that I've missed some online writing pitches or competitions because the timing wasn't write--we were moving house, I had another project to work on, or I was simply too busy puking. But I've also taken advantage of other ones where the timing was better, and those worked out well for me. 

I can't take part in every opportunity that comes my way, and the same goes for our family. Because our family is our top priority, this affects certain activities we take part in or choices we make. Sometimes we say "No" to an invitation to a party, because Simon and I want to have a date night together. Sometimes we say "No" to serving in a certain ministry at church because we already serve in other ways that are more relevant to our giftings. Simon has turned down job interviews for companies that might have a more popular name or better pay because his current job is flexible for someone with a young family, has a reasonable commute, and won't require us to move. While we could afford to buy a house right now, packing, moving and decorating would be too stressful with a baby on the way in a few short months. 

We might have friends who are changing jobs, buying houses, attending writing conferences, starting new ministries, etc, and we wholeheartedly support them--while also being aware that we don't have to do all those things too. As Tricia says in Balanced, "Too often we compare our weaknesses with other people's strengths, only to find ourselves coming up short." A friend might be buying a house or a car, but they're not expecting a baby, or paying off their student loans. X works for them, while Y suits us right now. 

Of course, there is no perfect balance. Today I've managed to tackle a lot of housework and editing responsibilities, but there have been days when I've been too sick to do more than wash the breakfast dishes and order groceries to be delivered. I'm learning more and more (thanks to my pregnancy) that flexibility is sometimes key to finding some sort of peace in my current situation. Balance doesn't necessarily mean making a colour-coded schedule for the day and following it to the letter to ensure that I've spent equal amounts of time on my writing, housework, editing and family. For me, balance means trusting that I'm doing what's right for me and my family at the moment. 

This post is part of the Balanced challenge with Tricia Goyer—and you can join, too!