40 BAGS IN 40 DAYS

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW before jumpig in.jpg

During my college years, 20s, and early 30s, I gave up chocolate, candy, coffee, soda, or the like in observance of Lent. Recently, however, I have gravitated away from “giving up” in favor of “adding in”. I have also looked for opportunities to broaden my and my family’s horizons, simplify our lives, and/or improve the lives of those in our community. Along these lines, a few years ago I decided to take on the “40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge”.

The challenge was originally created to coincide with Lent – however there is no reason it must – and involves cleaning out the clutter that keeps us from being able to truly enjoy and appreciate our lives. The focus is on letting go of stuff, but also on making small sacrifices. According to the Simply Catholic blog, “it should hurt – not a lot, but a bit. There should be some small sense of having to sacrifice or maybe some small bit of contrition at how much we hold onto things” (when we could redirect that time and energy elsewhere). An added benefit to the Challenge is that at the end of the 40 days you should have 40 or so bags of clothing, toys, books, and household items to donate to a family in need or a local nonprofit organization.

If you visit the Mama Bear Dares blog regularly, you may recall a post I wrote a few months back about making New Month’s Resolutions rather than New Year’s Resolutions. I made this shift back in September, and since then have tackled quite a few different kinds of resolutions, from setting a reasonable bedtime for myself and reading aloud to my children every night to drinking more water and writing daily in my gratitude journal.

In January I resolved to clean out all of the closets in my house, and in February I added cleaning out all of my cupboards. As I tackled these projects, I flashed back to the 40 Bags Challenge. I recalled how empowered and refreshed I felt when I completed it the first time, and an online search for why I felt this way led me to an article on the website Bustle. In a way that helped me better understand the benefits of decluttering, this short but informative piece summarized the results of a number of scientific studies and advice from professionals in related fields:

  • Better concentration. A study by Princeton University neuroscientists found that whether we realize it or not, clutter forces our brains to multitask. “Physical clutter…competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress."
  • Increased creativity. This one seems up for debate as some creative types swear by a messy desk or workspace, but the same idea as above applies: for most people, “dividing attention between multiple stimuli…often results in increased stress and decreased creativity and productivity”.
  • Better sleep. A sleep study out of St. Lawrence University found a connection between messy bedrooms and sleeping problems; cluttered bedrooms can contribute to sleeping problems like “trouble falling asleep at night and experiencing rest disturbances”.
  • Improved mood. Researchers at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families found that “clutter has a profound effect on mood and self-esteem, especially for women”. They discovered a direct relationship between the density of household objects and the stress hormone cortisol: higher density of objects translates to higher levels of stress.
  • Ability to let go of the past. I found this benefit particularly interesting. Feng Shui experts explain that determining an item’s status as clutter has to do with how it feels – or makes you feel – rather than how it looks. “…Get rid of anything that drags you down” to avoid unpleasant memories or becoming dragged down by emotional baggage.
  • Clearer focus. This one is most relevant to me personally. “We hang onto far more objects than we need, and, instead of motivating us, they become talismans of guilt and shame.” The article suggests keeping only items that bring inspiration or motivation.

I won’t necessarily complete the 40 Bags in 40 Day Challenge during Lent, but in search of the benefits list above, I will take on the Challenge this spring. If you would like to join me, check out the printables and instructions on White House Black Shutters. Organizing Moms also shared a few great links for those who would like more information about decluttering in general and/or a simpler, smaller-scale version of the 40 Bags Challenge called 40 Items in 40 Days.

Williams Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” What a beautiful sentiment to help us embrace the idea that sometimes, caring for ourselves is about caring for the spaces in which we exist.


Mama Bear contributor Erin Ferris is a wife, mother, and writer living in College Station, Texas. She loves snow, tulips, donuts, cowboy boots, kittens, musical theater, college football, crime dramas, young adult fiction, and the color red. After working for the American Red Cross for nearly 10 years, she stepped away from the nonprofit world to focus on her favorite part of that job: telling meaningful and impactful stories. She contributes a monthly “Mama Bear Self Care” post to the Mama Bear Dares Blog, and you can find her at Chasing Roots.

Stuff Your Own Stocking

 Photo and Post by Erin Ferris

Photo and Post by Erin Ferris

Nearly every Mama Bear I know approaches the holiday season energized and inspired. In the weeks leading up to the big day, she gives 110% of herself as she decorates her home to make Joanna Gaines proud; selects and wraps gifts perfect for the 713 family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, and community helpers (as my daughter would call them) on her list; and carries on traditions started decades earlier. She schedules family photos, assembles holiday cards, coordinates travel plans, and prepares for out-of-town guests. She throws parties, bakes cookies, and somehow remembers to move “The Elf” every single day. In short, she creates the magic.

But when the holiday itself finally arrives, nearly every Mama Bear I know drags herself across the finish line exhausted and empty.

Now before you label me a curmudgeon, you should know that I absolutely LOVE this time of year. I adore decorating and shopping and wrapping and baking. I look forward to losing myself in the magic of Christmas every December, so much so that I have considered creating a pre-advent calendar counting down to when I can finally start using my actual advent calendar. That doesn’t mean, however, that when December 25th arrives I don’t feel a little like the title character in Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.

Mama Bears deserve to enjoy the season as much as everyone else in their family, and I have learned – the hard way – throughout the last few years that at least two ways to accomplish this exist. The first is to keep the season simple. Embrace only a few important traditions, start shopping early and shop online for gifts (or just shop less and give fewer gifts), and say “no” to the events, activities, and relationships that don’t enhance the holidays.

The second is to, on occasion, indulge. To “stuff your own stocking”, if you will. When you start to feel your spirits or holiday cheer wane, treat yourself to a small pick-me-up, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, time with friends, a quick workout at the gym, or something fun from the list of pampering goodies below.

Apply this rosemary mint foot cream and tuck your feet into these cozy socks before bed and wake up the following morning with soft, smooth, and hydrated feet.

Indulge in these chocolate, candy, and sprinkle-covered pretzel rods when you find yourself in need of a sweet treat. From toffee and gingerbread to birthday cake and PB&J, there are flavors to suit every craving.

Diffuse natural and pure essential oils throughout your home – or add a drop or two to bath water – to support healthy immune systems and a healthy home. Essential oils can also, depending on your mood and emotional state, help increase energy, calm nerves, improve concentration, and lessen anxiety.

Pour yourself a steaming mug of this delectable peppermint hot chocolate, or if you’d prefer to skip the calories, wash away the day’s stresses with these adorable homemade hot chocolate soaps.

Draw yourself a hot bath and add one of these natural, organic, vegan bath bombs; the set includes Grapefruit, Lemon, Coconut, Lavender, Red Rose, Peppermint, Chamomile, Jasmine, and Vanilla, all of which can offer a luxurious escape from the hustle and bustle.

Sit back, relax, and let the beautifully fresh scents of these candles whisk you away to somewhere other than your living room. The Teakwood Currant and Sugared Birch are particularly unique and delicious.

Fend off those chilly temperatures and biting winds – or just snuggle up on the couch – in a cozy blanket scarf or fringe wrap. This multicolored plaid version is on sale and would layer beautifully over a long-sleeved tee, sweater, or vest.

Mama Bears, I see you. I see you creating the magic. I see you singing the same three holiday songs over and over and over again. I see you climbing out of bed at 2am to move that ridiculous elf. And so this holiday season, I’d love to also see you taking a few minutes to stuff your own stocking.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Holidays, Happy Winter, and Happy New Year, Mama Bears!

Practicing Thanks

AustralianOutback.jpg

When I found out I was pregnant with my second, I immediately waged a preemptive strike on the postpartum depression that flattened me after my first was born. In an attempt to keep the fear, anxiety, and despair from once again taking over my life and driving a wedge between me and my baby, I started seeing a therapist and writing in a gratitude journal.

I "journaled" periodically throughout my tween, teen, and college years, and while reading through these journals offers up a walk down memory lane, the walk is anything but pleasant – nearly all of my journal entries center around angst and heartbreak. 

The goal of a gratitude journal, however, falls at the opposite end of the spectrum. In each entry, you are required to write about something – anything, big or small – for which you are thankful. Instead of dwelling on how many times you put your toddler in timeout, you focus on how thankful you are that your partner came home from work 20 minutes early to relieve you. Instead of dwelling on how you spent an entire morning cleaning someone else's bodily fluids off the bathroom floor, you focus on how thankful you are that your baby’s afternoon nap lasted just long enough for you to take a shower.

According to researchers at UC-Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, the benefits of practicing gratitude span nearly every aspect of life. Study results show that people who take time to notice and reflect on the good in their lives experience more positive emotions like happiness and optimism, fewer negative emotions like loneliness and isolation, and less depression. These people also sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and have stronger immune systems.

Taking a moment at the end of every day to acknowledge and say thank you for a moment, experience, or person who made the day just a little bit brighter - even when the best you can come up with is "coffee" or "bedtime" - is one of the most positive coping mechanisms around.

By the grace of God, I never experienced a single symptom of postpartum depression - or even the baby blues, for that matter - after Hallie was born. I'll never know if the steps I took while pregnant or the way Hallie came into the world (Will's birth was pretty traumatic, while Hallie's birth was pretty perfect) made a difference, or if I was just given a pass the second time around. Either way, after writing throughout my pregnancy with Hallie and the first few months of her life, I was hooked on gratitude journals. Nine years later, I still keep one every November and every Lenten season.

As we embark on this season of Thanksgiving, I invite you, my fellow Mama Bears, to join me in keeping a gratitude journal. You certainly need not write in your journal every day throughout the month of November; instead try just writing every Sunday in November, or every day during the week of Thanksgiving. Whatever the case, I hope keeping a gratitude journal helps you stay strong and faithful and grateful for the simple gifts in life, just as it does me.  

Summertime, and the Livin’ Is Easy…I Hope

For years I struggled to find balance – between scheduled and unscheduled, activity and rest, work and play – during the summer months. I tried different kinds of color-coded calendars, bucket lists, and chore charts, all of which worked…about 20% of the time.

Tired of feeling defeated and disappointed in myself, last spring I decided to no longer simply survive summer with my kids. Their childhood years were racing past me in a blur, and I wanted to love summer with them…before I was all out of summers with them. I spent the entire month of May reading blogs and scouring Pinterest so that when the bell rang on the last day of school, I had a plan.

Said plan came with plenty of ups and downs, but overall, our summer went smoothly. Both kids and I rested, relaxed, had fun, learned new things, and rolled into August feeling good about ourselves and our relationships with one another. And because I imagine many of you find yourselves in a similar situation – intimidated by the summer ahead and wondering how to emerge on the other side feeling happy and fulfilled – here are a few of our tried and true ideas for making this season one you and your kids will not only remember, but cherish.

  1. Create a schedule. The summer schedule needn’t be as rigid as the school year schedule, but kids thrive when their days have at least some semblance of order to them. Approximate wake-up, bed, and meal times as well as regular lessons, classes, or camps will provide predictability, stability, and comfort.
  2. Create a calendar. Like the summer schedule, the summer calendar can be looser than the school year calendar. But creating a physical calendar on which each day’s plans have been noted is worth the time…and will prevent you having to field 100+ “what are we doing today?” questions before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee.
  3. Block off down time. After adding swimming lessons, art classes, and sports camps to the calendar, take note of where you have blocks of free time and designate them as just that – free time. Reserve a couple of mornings, afternoons, or even days each week for spontaneous fun: family day trips, outings to the movie theatre or swimming pool, or even just staying home and letting the kids run wild in the backyard.
  4.  Give them jobs. When the kids spend more time at home, they should have more responsibilities at home. Perhaps they take on an extra chore or two, or if they’re a little older, they can care for younger siblings or help out with meal planning and preparation.
  5. Keep them on track academically. Do your future self a favor and make sure your kids stay on track academically with some kind of bridge book and daily quiet reading time. When fall rolls around and you’re back to helping with homework and projects, you’ll be glad your kids won’t need to relearn anything from the previous year. And quiet reading time is good for everyone’s sanity.
  6. Bend the rules. On occasion, throw those schedules and calendars and responsibilities out the window. Skip the chores and head to the beach. Bail on the academic work and watch cartoons. Ditch dinner at the kitchen table and have an outdoor picnic or a picnic on the living room rug.
  7. Take time for yourself. Whether a quiet morning at the coffee shop, lunch with friends, or even a weekend away, periodically step away from the kids and spend some time alone or with those in your life who rejuvenate and energize you. Mama Bears can’t keep everyone and everything else running smoothly if they haven’t first shown themselves a little love.

Bonus tip #1: Don’t want to spend money? Make popsicles, visit the public library, play in the sprinkler, turn your living room into a movie theatre, set up play dates, sign up for vacation bible school, and look into Kids Bowl Free.

Bonus tip #2: Tired of your kids asking to play with their electronics? Create a checklist like this one. It only takes a week or so for kids to remember to check the list before asking, and usually they get so caught up in doing something on the list that they forget about the electronics all together!

Nothing about this list is perfect, complete, or workable for everyone (nothing every is when it comes to kids…), but knowing I have a plan in place makes this Mama Bear excited to kick off summer vacation.

Mama Bear Self Care: Bake for the Health of It

 Photos and baking wizardry by Erin Ferris.

Photos and baking wizardry by Erin Ferris.

I learned my way around the kitchen under my mother’s wing. Wearing an apron that hung nearly to my ankles and standing precariously on a wooden stool, I inched closer and closer until I all but crowded her out of the head chef’s place at the counter. As we created salads, soups, and casseroles, she taught me the formal techniques I would one day use to feed my family as well how to express my creativity in the kitchen and the art of preparing and presenting food with love.

Fifteen years later and as a newly-relocated (read: friendless) newlywed whose other half worked 14 hours a day, I decided to build on what my mother taught me and improve my baking skills. I told myself I took on the project for the sake of our future children, who would of course someday need me to contribute to their schools’ bake sales … honestly, I really just wanted an excuse to lick the bowl and indulge in a few sweet treats myself.

As I whipped up banana bread, brownies, lemon bars, and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, I realized that each recipe – even halved – produced more than my little family could consume. Rather than dump the extras into the trash, I started sending them to work with my husband or taking them to my office. My husband’s graduate students sent thank-you emails for the homemade cookies. My coworkers’ faces lit up when they found trays of cupcakes on the break room counter. And with that, a cycle began: I baked, my baked goods made other people happy, I felt happy, and I baked again.

I didn’t always love the process, or the cleanup, or the frustration that crept in when I attempted to tweak recipes with disastrous results, but I kept baking because it made me feel good about myself.

The cycle continues today, another 15 years later. Despite my family doubling in size and my time commitments doubling in number, I still bake for my husband, kids, friends, and friends’ kids. For sporting events. For school functions. For Fridays. At times my inability to turn down a request for baked goods – no matter how full my schedule – baffles me.

And then last month I came across this article. As the choir sang “Alleluia,” the heavens parted and a beam of light illuminated my stove like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Suddenly it all became clear.

Should your busy schedule keep you from reading the article in its entirety, here’s a summary: making other people happy makes us happy, and when we care for others, we care for ourselves.

  • Baking provides a creative outlet. Research has found an inverse relationship between creative expression and stress, meaning the more we express ourselves creatively, the lower our stress levels.
  • Baking provides a way to communicate feelings and emotions. When we struggle to express how we feel, food can help us share our message. Explains Julie Ohana, a licensed medical social worker and culinary art therapist, “In many cultures, and in many countries, food…is an expression of love, and it’s actually beautiful because it’s something we can all relate to.”
  • Baking promotes mindfulness, which has been connected to increased happiness and decreased stress. Because baking requires physical and mental focus and attention to detail, it requires us to be present in the moment. Ohana also explains that baking promotes balancing the moment against the bigger picture, something that can be difficult to master.
  • Baking with the intent to gift the finished product is altruistic. Donna Pincus, an Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, describes the cycle I mentioned above in more detail: “Baking for others can increase a feeling of wellbeing, contribute to stress relief and make you feel like you’ve done something good for the world, which perhaps increases your meaning in life and connection with other people.”

Of course these benefits to baking apply only if you feel comfortable in the kitchen. If baking causes you stress, steer clear…but then find your gift and put it to use in the same way many of us use baking. A friend of mine is an incredible knitter and she loves to make scarves and hats and mittens for friends. Another friend creates beautiful leather bookmarks and pops them into books when she lends her favorites. These Mama Bears enjoy their personal creative outlets and appreciate the feelings of accomplishment and happiness that come from caring for others.

Though I didn’t realize it until last month, for 30+ years I have measured, mixed, and decorated as a way to work out my creative energy, let others know how I feel, and spend time alone with my thoughts. Now that I know the benefits, I anticipate another 30+ years of the same.

Perhaps we should talk about exercise next month…


Mama Bear contributor Erin Ferris is a wife, mother, and writer living in College Station, Texas. She loves snow, tulips, donuts, cowboy boots, kittens, musical theater, college football, crime dramas, young adult fiction, and the color red. After working for the American Red Cross for nearly 10 years, she stepped away from the nonprofit world to focus on her favorite part of that job: telling meaningful and impactful stories. She contributes a monthly “Mama Bear Self Care” post to the Mama Bear Dares Blog, and you can find her at Chasing Roots.

Mama Bear Self Care: Make the Dream a Reality

The Dream: after the kids fall asleep, Mama Bear settles in to relax and enjoy what remains of her evening. She shuts off her computer and phone, pours herself a glass of wine or a cup of tea, takes a warm bath, and finally climbs into bed with a good book. Eventually she too drifts off to la la land, waking ready to face the day after a refreshing eight hours of slumber.

The Reality: after the kids are FINALLY in bed, Mama Bear’s work begins. She cleans up the kitchen and loads the dishwasher. She gathers dirty clothes and starts a load of laundry. She puts away toys and books and shoes. She makes lunches, packs backpacks, and sets alarm clocks. She checks and answers emails, writes a to-do list for the following day, and pops over to YouTube to see if April the giraffe has given birth yet.

Admittedly, these two scenarios fall at the far ends of the bedtime routine spectrum. But if your days and nights look anything like mine, you find yourself closer to “the reality” rather than “the dream”.

Back in February I reached my breaking point. Despite feeling exhausted, at the end of the night I couldn’t relax and fall asleep. My brain kept churning, and as a result, my hands continued to pick up my phone to jot down a note or send another message. Around the same time, I realized I hadn’t finished reading a single book since last October. I considered the possibility that these two situations were connected (that when I stopped reading as part of my bedtime routine, my schedule went haywire), and decided to attempt to make my nights more positive and restorative…with a reading challenge.

I committed myself to reading 10 pages of a book – no magazines, no online articles – every night for the entire month of March.

At first I would climb into bed at or after 11pm and begrudging read my pages before going back to my phone to wrap up the night. But as time went on and I began to lose myself in my book, 10 pages became 20 pages became 40 pages. I found myself managing my days more efficiently with the goal of lessening my evening workload and increasing the amount of time available for reading. I stopped picking up my phone for one last message. I started falling asleep more quickly once I had finished reading and sleeping more soundly throughout the night. I woke better rested and without the neck ache I had been dealing with for months. One small change to my bedtime routine dramatically impacted both how I slept and my life as a whole.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep affects our mood, energy level, and overall health and well-being. And while we know and understand sleep guidelines and recommendations, getting enough sleep – especially as Mama Bears – can be tough. We can’t do much about babies who need to eat, toddlers who have bad dreams, or preschoolers who wet the bed in the middle of the night. So instead, let’s focus on what we can control. We can exercise daily and limit caffeine in the afternoons and evenings. We can stick to a regular schedule, sleep in a comfortable bedroom (low light, low sound, cool temperature), and sleep on a comfortable mattress. We can turn off all of our electronic devices an hour before we would like to fall asleep and open a book instead. Just as we create calming, restorative bedtime routines for our kiddos, we can create calming, restorative bedtime routines for ourselves.

“Make sleep a priority…don’t make it the thing you do only after everything else is done – stop doing everything else so you get the sleep you need.” The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation makes sense, but if completely overhauling your evening and bedtime routines feels too daunting, just make one small change. Take one stressful task off your evening to-do list, or add one relaxing activity to your bedtime routine…even if it’s just reading 10 pages of a good book every night. The benefits will eventually reveal themselves, and Mama Bears deserve every single one of them.

Mama Bear contributor Erin Ferris is a wife, mother, and writer living in College Station, Texas. She loves snow, tulips, donuts, cowboy boots, kittens, musical theater, college football, crime dramas, young adult fiction, and the color red. After working for the American Red Cross for nearly 10 years, she stepped away from the nonprofit world to focus on her favorite part of that job: telling meaningful and impactful stories. She will contribute a monthly “Mama Bear Self Care” post to the Mama Bear Dares blog, and you can find her at Chasing Roots.