40 BAGS IN 40 DAYS

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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.

Top 12 things to do in the New Year to get you healthier and fitter that don’t include deprivation or hours in the gym

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As a personal trainer and group fitness instructor I get excited for January. Every year I see new faces and meet great new people excited about taking their health into their own hands. The energy in the gym is palpable, even the annoyance of the veteran gym goers can’t overpower it.

And then April comes, or sometimes even March, and the energy has died. Most of the January rush has disappeared with only a few strong-willed health seekers continuing on. On social media my new clients or participants in my classes have gone from posting their accomplishments in the gym or in the kitchen to posting pictures of their nightly cocktail or their Netflix binge.

Having been in the industry for over a decade, none of this surprises me. Even in high school and college when I didn’t know any of this academically but just had a legit metabolism and participated in year-round sports, I had friends come to me for advice on how to get active and lose weight. I’ve wrestled with getting healthy, eating healthy and losing weight just like everyone else on planet Earth it seems so some of this advice is stuff I’ve learned personally and others are what I’ve observed from being in the fitness industry.

So here are some secrets to getting healthy in the new year. Some of these you’ve heard and some of these you haven’t because personal trainers keep them to themselves unless you pay the premium to work with us. None of these tips will seem like rocket science and that’s because finding health that’s sustainable is actually not rocket science (training for a fitness competition-rocket science. Training for professional sports-rocket science. Learning how to find and sustain a healthy weight — NOT rocket science.) Accept these with the no judgement and no expectations with which they were written.

Learn Self Love

There’s a reason this is #1 y’all. If you’re starting the new year in the gym because you hate your belly or you hate your flabby arms you will never, ever, ever make it to April. Very few people hate parts of their bodies enough to push through the pain and discomfort that comes with a new exercise routine. If, however, you are starting the new year in the gym because you realize your life is worth more than getting winded going up stairs or sitting on the couch while your kids play basketball outside-you will stick with it. I promise. This rule might require you seeing a therapist or developing a daily journal reminding you of what you mean to the world but it’s essential if you want to genuinely find health in the new year. Even if I don’t know you personally I’m here to tell you that you are loved beyond reason. And that anytime spent exercising or cooking healthier foods is not selfish. I can guarantee you, your family will get more from you when you feel good mind, body and spirit than when you don’t. You are worth it, promise.

Develop a Mindfulness Routine

I’ve already lost some of you, right? I don’t mean this has to involve you sitting on a meditation pillow for 20 minutes in the morning (but take it from me-that’s the very best way to start your day!) This can be taking two minutes while your coffee is made to just sit in silence and breathe. You don’t have to chant or block out mental distractions if you don’t want to but just become aware of your breath for a few minutes. Try to do it first thing in the morning otherwise it’ll continue to be pushed back to make room for seemingly more pressing to-do items. How does this little few minutes make you healthier? It’s scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, boost immune function, decrease pain and decrease inflammation at the cellular level, amongst many other reasons. Go here for some of the studies. The biggest thing that has come from my meditation practice is compassion for myself and for those around me. Remember #1? Meditation has been the biggest thing to teach me how to do #1 relatively effortlessly. Try it. (If you’re looking for help, try the app Headspace. It’s a 10 minute daily practice but I love the guy’s voice and his direct approach to mindfulness.)

Eat More Fiber

Want to lose weight? There you go. This is a little secret I usually reserve for clients. There has been some push back on the benefits of fiber but for me the proof is in the pudding-or in this case-the weight loss. All of my clients who make a pointed effort to incorporate more fiber in their diets lose more weight than the ones who don’t make such a concerted effort. Fiber feeds the good bacteria in the gut in a way that carbs, proteins and fats can’t because they are absorbed by the bloodstream before making it to the large intestines. Changing gut flora is a big deal, one in which I’ll go into next, but for now focus on fiber. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes is where you’ll find your fiber. Try to go by the 1, 2, 3 Rule if you can. One fruit and veg for breakfast, two for lunch and three for dinner. Most days I add a few for my morning and evening snack just for good measure.

Get Your Gut Flora

Perhaps the least sexiest thing to discuss when talking about weight loss and health for the new year but more and more science is coming out on this so it’s got me all kinds of excited. First, I want to urge you to listen to this podcast about gut flora with Doctor Robynne Chutkan, MD. Or check out her book at your local library. There was a study that took the feces from an overweight mouse and deposited it in a normal weight mouse and vice versa. Changing nothing else, the overweight mouse became normal weight and the normal weight mouse became overweight. Why? The gut flora. You may think that your brain controls your sugar cravings and your salt cravings but science proves it’s actually your gut flora. If you want to lose weight-you need to start with changing that. How do you do it? By feeding the gut flora nutrient dense foods as often as you can. The more you feed it healthy, nutrient rich foods the more it craves those and not foods that are bad for you. This doesn’t require you to stop eating sugar or salty foods altogether-though that would make the gut flora change quicker to be sure-this just requires small adjustments on your plate. A quick personal note: I used to be a huge sugar addict. Since learning about the gut flora and making small adjustments to our meals-I no longer crave the stuff at all. And since I cook the majority of the meals, that means I’ve changed the gut flora in my kids and guess what? We made batches and batches of cookies and breads for Christmas and I currently have a few bags left in the pantry as well as chocolates people had gifted to us. My kids don’t even ask for it. Gut flora may be unsexy to talk about but their ain’t nothin' sexier than healthy gut flora. You heard it here first.

Move

If your goal is to get a six pack and deltoids like LeBron it’s going to require more movement than if your goal is to get down to a healthy weight and be able to play with your kids on the regular. Let’s first address movement for health. Start with walking 15 minutes every day. I live in Michigan where the temps can get down to single digits so I understand how you might think this isn’t possible. Well it is. Bundle up and do it. Make it a family event and go after dinner to stimulate digestion. Also, stop making your house so convenient. If you’re enjoying coffee on the porch or at the table, don’t bring the pot to you. Make yourself get up to grab another cup. Same thing for dinner. Don’t bring everything to the table where you can help yourselves to seconds and thirds, keep it at the stove so that you have to physically get up. This small act can be enough to make you realize you aren’t actually hungry for another round. The reason so many of the fitness trackers (FitBit, Jawbone, etc) have a programmable alarm to remind you to get up is because it’s been proven that the people who live the longest just move more. Most of the time these people aren’t doing any kind of exercise routine but they live in areas that require them to get up and out to the garden to bring in their meals. They’ve DE-convienienced their lives. We Americans could take a lessen from them.

Find a Workout You Like Doing

This is for those of you who might want to find some kind of muscle definition in 2018. I’ve put this at 6 because if you don’t do the previous 5, I can almost guarantee that you won’t find any abs or triceps by the end of 2018. Harsh? Maybe. But if you’ve listened to me on the podcast or ever had me as a trainer, a friend, a partner or a mother you know that I’m not great at holding back knowledge when you’ve come to me for advice. You will read articles in the coming weeks that tell you CrossFit is the only way to get fit in 2018, you will also read articles that tell you that running will be the key to unveiling the abs you’ve always desired. You have heard me go on and on about Les Mills fitness classes and how they’ve gotten me in the best shape of my life (which is true). None of that matters if you don’t like doing it. Les Mills classes have gotten me in the best shape of my life because I freaking love doing them. I love the music, I love the moves and I love the people I’ve met through the classes who do them all the time too. This is why CrossFit works for some folks and why people will talk your ear off about their run group. But do not listen to anyone. You need to find what works for you which means trying everything under the darn sun. Spend a little money and time to discover it. And give them time, a few weeks a least to grow on you. You’ll need to push past the soreness and the awkwardness that comes with developing muscle memory to be able to actually gauge if you like the activity or not. NOTHING will be 100% fun at first because it will probably hurt and be too confusing initially. Give yourself a little grace and get back in the saddle as quickly as possible. Once you find what you love doing, stopping no longer really feels like an option.

Be Patient

For God’s sake be patient. Nothing is harder to hear than “I don’t think it’s working, I haven’t seen results.” after 2 weeks of trying something. You guys, it can take 8-12 weeks. You might feel your jeans loosen by week 2 or get a few comments by week 3 but for the real “ah ha” kind of physical results, settle in for a grip. Here’s what I want you to do differently in 2018 than you ever have before. Notice how you feel. You will feel differently right away. The first day you feed your body nourishing foods instead of pre-packaged junk, you will feel so good. Check your energy levels, do you notice how easily you got up and out of bed? Notice how much easier it was to go to sleep? What’s going on with your poop? Yup, check that too. Maybe you’ll notice your constipation is gone and your BMs take that ever-lusted after S shape. Good on ya buddy, that right there is results. This is another secret to sustainable weight loss and health-if you can start to feel good mentally and emotionally, the physical takes care of itself. Why? Because you have the energy to try new things and for longer. Plus, you start to notice that when you don’t exercise or move-you feel pretty dumpy mentally too. Once you’ve hooked into that mind/body connection you are good as gold. Welcome to the healthiest you have ever been.

Stare at yourself in the mirror. Naked.

The first time I told a client to do this she started crying. She told me that it was her very worst nightmare. And look, I get it. I spent far too many years avoiding the mirror myself. But you know when you’re laying in bed and have this weird fear that you left the door unlocked and are convinced someone is going to come in and do something terrible to your family? You know how if you continue to stay in bed because the sheets are warm and it’s bedtime how you can’t go to sleep because you convince yourself it’s legit going to happen and then you’re going to never forgive yourself because you knew it and did nothing to stop it? But if you go and check the door you’ll realize that 1) it’s locked or 2) it’s not locked but hasn’t been all week and you’ve all been just fine. It’s the same with the mirror. You need to just face the music, sister. I promise if you do you’ll notice your belly isn’t nearly as big as you imagined it was in your head. You’ll also probably notice your breasts are quite beautiful and that you actually have a pretty well defined quad. So just do it today after your shower. Take 5 minutes to just check every inch of you out. I will no longer allow you to be your own monster lurking in the corner. If you tell me you want to lose belly fat I want you to be able to describe in vivid detail what your belly looks like because if you don’t know then you’re just running from the imaginary monster. Running from anything won’t get you the health you seek, running towards something will. So instead of losing fat around our triceps we are going to chase arms that allow us to throw up our grandkids when we’re well into our 60s. Instead of losing weight in your thighs so that they stop rubbing together (thighs are meant to rub together. Just enough already with that nonsense.) we’re going to chase legs that have us going on hikes or walking the streets of Paris for hours without complaint. We’re going to face who we are head on so that we can have a better picture of what we actually want to change and not what we think needs to change just because we’ve been too scared to look.

Stop Dieting

I have no earthly understanding of why we are still doing this when every bit of science and anecdotal evidence proves it does nothing in the way of sustainable health and weight loss. Here’s what you do instead: throw away all the crap in your cupboards. Commit to not buying chips, cookies or processed food for 1 week. Your kids do not need macaroni and cheese. Your kids do not need chicken nuggets. There is not a human on earth who needs that so just get rid of it. Buy bread for sandwiches (Ezekiel bread is my personal recommendation. My kids eat it too. Don’t make excuses for your kids. Have them eat it and change their gut flora too. Soon enough they won’t like the sugary, processed breads they were used to eating. Promise.) and as much fruit as you possible can fit in your cart. This way when you’re tempted for something quick and easy the only thing at your disposal is fruit and sandwiches. Once you’ve successfully made it to one week without processed foods in the house, stretch it to two weeks and so on. I don’t care how dedicated you are-we all have days when we’ve been working, the kids are crazy and we’ve been fighting with our spouse and the last thing we want to do is cook a healthy, nutritious meal for us all so we throw in a few frozen pizzas and call it a day. This doesn’t make you weak or lazy it makes you human. If you don’t have access to frozen pizzas, however, you have no choice but to make something healthier. Want to know what I do? I make large batches of rice and quinoa and keep them in the fridge. On days when I have 0 effs to give I make it a “Chipotle” night and throw some black beans in a pan and some cilantro in the rice. I grab our salsa and guacamole and done. It takes me all of 4 minutes which if you’re keeping track is actually quicker than frozen pizzas anyway. Don’t buy the crap food and you can’t eat the crap food. See? Not rocket science.

Make the Commitment for Your Whole Family

Here’s a little secret I’ve learned in my time as a personal trainer: I can tell you with 100% certainty whether you’ll reach your goals or not with one question. How does your family feels about you getting healthier? If the significant other “is supportive but wants no part of it him/herself” Nope. If the kids “will keep eating what they always do and I’ll make myself the healthier meals.” Nope. I don’t know how else to say this-if getting healthier is important to you this year then you need to make it important to your significant others as well. Because otherwise no matter how sweet, caring and kind your family is they will end up becoming saboteurs. They will take a family vote one night and go out for pizza. And then the night after that they’ll all decide that what you cooked just wasn’t enough and they’ll go out for ice cream. This doesn’t make them terrible people, it makes them human. But I know you, mama, because you are me and I am you. You want your kids to outlive you and you want to be doing fun and adventurous stuff with your partner well into your 80s. You cannot do that if you’re all unhealthy. Oh. Heartbreaking words to hear. But true words. So have a family meeting or sit down with your partner. Don’t make the conversation about weight because who gives an eff about the weight on your scale. Tell them your goals for the future and ask them theirs. Really evaluate if those are possible with the way you’re currently going. If they are-awesome, if not-time to change as a family. This generation of kids is the first generation predicted to have a shorter life span than their parent’s generation because of obesity. What a horrifying truth. You getting healthy isn’t selfish anymore-it’s a gift to your family and to your friends. We can do hard things. And for our families? We can do seemingly impossible things. I believe in you.

Engulf Yourself in the Health and Wellness Community

Don’t buy Shape magazine or any magazine that even hints that your self worth is at all tied to your waistline. Instead invest in magazines and books that encourage you to learn more about your passion or your mindfulness practice. My husband is obsessed with Outside magazine. He went on his own health journey in 2015 and I’m so proud of him. His excitement about Outside magazine is one of the things to which I attribute his success. There are so many great articles on movement and health in general that have peaked his curiosity and led him to try new and different ways of getting healthy. I’m a big podcast listener and I’ve found that when I’m feeling “eh” about eating healthy or exercising, listening to one of my health and wellness podcasts always re-inspires me. The reason I like magazines is because it’s a monthly dose of inspiration that often comes just when you need it. Most libraries have a decent amount of magazines you can peruse before you commit to the monthly subscription so try a few out first. Or even better, once you’ve found the workout that’s got you feeling some kind of way-google “magazines great for runners, weight lifters, cyclers, dancers”, etc and go from there. Even though my day job is literally to exercise, I still have days or weeks that I just don’t feel up to it-cough, all of November-cough. Immersing myself in these knowledge-based communities is easily the best way to re-invigorate me.

Don’t Wait Until You Find a “Workout Buddy” to Start

I guarantee this is a piece of advice you will hear every day for the next few months but I’ve found it to be wholly untrue. Here’s more typically what happens: a few women or men come to the gym together. Typically one is more passionate about being there than the other. After a few weeks, the less passionate one stops coming and a few weeks after that so does the one who was so ready for a change. Here’s what you do instead: just begin. If you’re joining a new gym just head on into that weight room or group fitness room. If you’re wanting to try running, try joining an already established running group. Every run group I know has runners from novice to expert so you won’t be the only newbie. Instead of starting with a gym buddy, just start! Your workout buddy will be found when you are doing what you love doing. They will hold you accountable and be there to encourage you when you feel like giving up. The people you find once you’ve already started are also already committed so you won’t have to be convincing yourself and your best friend. This way you can just focus on you-the rest takes care of itself. I just did some quick math in my head and realized that every great friend I’ve made after college has been made in the gym. There might be a few exceptions to that but not many. We aren’t some hulking, roided out group of protein shakin' women—we come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. You will find your people when you start to get healthy. And they will be awesome. Just like you.

A quick hard truth about your health journey: Not all of your friends or family members are going to be supportive. Man, this is tough. If you continue to allow negative thought patterns and negative friends to have a say in your life your life will be exactly the same as it is now. This doesn’t mean you have to write nasty notes or say hurtful things to any friends that don’t support you. The further you get in your journey, the more you will see there’s nothing wrong with them, they are just at a different place. If you are serious about your health, make sure you evaluate who you are letting into your heart space just as much as you are evaluating what you are letting onto your plate. It can have an even bigger impact so this little piece is a vital step. It’s a hard step and will feel impossible at times. But anyone who doesn’t embrace, support and encourage you when you’re trying to be better than you were yesterday just isn’t ready to handle your light. Find the ones who are wielding their own light instead of hiding in the darkness, they’ll be the ones who will celebrate your success and remind you that your failures don’t define you. That’s exactly what you need always, but now even more so.

I come to you as someone who vividly remembers being unhealthy and unmotivated. I can’t believe how much better of a mom, wife, friend and human I am when I’m healthy (still acknowledging I muck it up on the daily). At times I’ve been fit enough to see my abs and quads but I can tell you honestly that it didn’t make me any happier than I am when I’m simply at a healthy weight eating healthy food and associating with positive people. I totally get it if your goal is shredded arms but my hope is that you hook into health first. Because being in the fitness industry I’ve seen my fair share of shredded arms and abs on people who are just unhappy and unhealthy.

My wish for you in 2018 is that you find that sweet spot where you like how you look in your jeans but you love how you feel even more. Get in touch if you have any questions or just need someone to give you that initial “You can do it!” Because you can, and you will. I totally believe in you.

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

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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.  

#momtheology: Jael the Kenite and the ‘Me Too’ Hashtag

In the days of Jael, caravans ceased

and travelers kept to the byways…

Most blessed of women be Jael …

She put her hand to the tent peg

and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;

she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head,

she shattered and pierced his temple.

~Judges 5:6,24,26

Several years ago, at the suggestion of a spiritual guide, I got back into jogging. I woke early every morning and went out on the Spring Creek bike path near our condo and I ran until I was tired, then came back home. More than just exercise, it was a way to sort through what was in my head; to deal with my anxieties, worries, fears. And it worked. I would say that it turned out to be sound advice to run.

But I noticed something every morning. I’d get about a quarter mile from my front door, accelerate up a berm on the trail, and then, struck with some sense of fear, I’d turn around and look behind me, expecting to find someone there. And not just anyone, but an assailant – someone who might push me down and harm me.

I’d think it was just a fluke deal, except it happened every day, and always at that same spot on the trail. I put the image out of my head each day when I got home figuring I was just paranoid or being too sensitive.

But at some point, after weeks of this sensation, I told a clergy friend. “Am I crazy?” I asked, after telling her my story. No, she affirmed. She, too, had experienced this fear and dread when walking alone.

I’m not going to assume this experience is universal, but it seems common enough. To walk or run alone as a woman is to tango with the risk of harm to one’s well-being.

I hadn’t thought about that visceral experience on the bike trail, nor the scripture from the Old Testament book of Judges that I quoted above, in quite some time. But something triggered those recollections. And it is something that has maybe triggered other women’s memories this week, too.

If you hadn’t guessed it, “me too” is trending on social media. This originated after allegations were made that Harvey Weinstein, cofounder of Miramax, had sexually harassed countless women and raped several others, including prominent actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow.

To further exacerbate this recent news, recorded footage of Weinstein harassing women was released and subsequently denied by the accused.

This possibly could be overlooked, explained away as the everyday debauchery of Hollywood, but unfortunately it is a narrative that sounds eerily familiar to another misogynist harasser with power and money. That’s right, I’m talking about President Donald Trump.

So many of us are raising our voices to say it is not okay. It wasn’t then, it isn’t now, and it should not be a part of our narrative in my daughter’s future.

Some of us, you might say, are praying for a reversal.

And for me, all day yesterday, as I read my friends’ "me toos" I thought of a lesser known scripture from the Old Testament.

If you aren’t familiar, during the time of ancient Israel when a Prophetess named Deborah served as judge, the Israelites were being oppressed by the Canaanites in Hazor. Deborah learned that King Jabin’s men, led by a soldier named Sisera, would be heading her way, so she alerted Barak from Kedesh to be ready with more arms, more men, more horses. Sisera was surprised when he advanced Mount Tabor and found his enemy prepared for his arrival. His fleet was destroyed, and the mighty oppressor fled the battlefield on foot, hoping for safety with a neutral family of peasants in the tribe of Heber. Instead, he met his end. Asking Jael, the wife of Heber, for water, instead he was given a warm cocktail. Hoping to rest on his sojourn back home, instead he meets a swift death, his brain penetrated by a humble tent peg. Who could have seen that coming?

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I’m not a man-hater. It’s probably silly that I even have to make that disclaimer. Because highlighting unacceptable behavior on the behalf of some men does not indict all. But it does open eyes that might deny that such a reality exists. I mean, what would cause millions of women to share the two words “me too” publicly, in a flood of Facebook posts?

Here’s what I recall from my own historical narrative of compromised safety and sexual harassment.

I remember hanging around a campfire at the Lake of the Ozarks with my boy cousins and my grandparents’ hired hand, a man who went by the name ‘Dody.’ I thought nothing of it. We kicked logs into the fire and he told a few jokes. But later, when I went into the house, my grandmother was overly concerned. “I don’t want you alone with him,” she said firmly. “He’s not family, he works for us.” I puzzled at her fear. Why were my boy cousins allowed at the fire and I wasn’t? Why was an untrustworthy man allowed to be around the house – if his presence around her granddaughters scared my grandma so much?

I was maybe eleven years old then.

I remember my first supervisor, or one of them, when I was in high school. He was a middle-aged pool salesman, who jokingly suggested one day that I wear something more “low cut” to work.

I was fifteen.

I remember a peer my junior year in high school calling me over to the lockers so he could make a lewd comment about what I was wearing. That day, as per my punky-usual attire, I was dressed in thrift store Levis and a vintage polo shirt. I remember feeling like no matter what you do, as a young woman, you are at the mercy of objectification. I fell to tears in my classroom across the hall.

I was sixteen.

There are other stories, too. In my early twenties, I left an iconic bar in Austin where I had anticipated seeing a quintessential Austin performer, Toni Price, because an overly intoxicated man was squeezing through the crowd simply to brush up against all the women gathered there. I sacrificed that fun night out because I did not want to be harassed.

We may not live in a world of ancient Prophetesses, desert tent-dwellers, and songs heralding the deadly tent peg of a peasant woman.  But I do think for some of us when we proclaim “me too” we are actually praying for a reversal of power. We are tired of expecting compromised safety is the norm, and like Jael’s tent peg, our enumerated “me toos” say: it’s time to listen - we mean it this time.

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.

Mama Bear Self Care: Tea Time, Me Time

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We’ve seen the mugs, t-shirts, and tote bags bearing phrases like “I run on coffee and chaos”, “but first, coffee”, and my personal favorite, “first I drink the coffee, then I do the things”. (Confession: I am drinking a cup of coffee as I write this blog post…)

As Mama Bears, many of us wake long before our spouses, our children, and the sun, not necessarily because we love early mornings but because we know the day ahead requires us to be prepared. We stumble to the kitchen, turn on the coffeemaker, and wait for that liquid gold to fill both our literal and our figurative cups. Soon we feel ready to conquer the day; from drop-offs and pick-ups to practices and lessons to homework and dinner, we know we can accomplish it all when buoyed by coffee.

Coffee has become our not-so-secret weapon in the battle for ultimate productivity, and while there is a time and a place for coffee-fueled busy, there is also a time and place to slow down.

Allow me to introduce you to the new drink in town: tea.

“If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.”

Consider William Gladstone’s words as you picture yourself drinking a cup of tea. You look relaxed, don’t you? Perhaps you’re sitting on your back porch on a sunny morning, feeling a light breeze on your face and listening to the birds chirp. Maybe you’re curled up in a comfortable chair in front of the fireplace, reading a deliciously good book. When coffee encourages us to get moving, tea encourages us to slow down. Where coffee reminds us to tackle that lengthy to-do list, tea reminds us that less is more. Tea is not just a beverage, but a ticket to living a more balanced, peaceful life.

Unbeknownst to many, after water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world: an astounding 3 billion cups are savored daily. And when you consider the long list of health and wellness benefits associated with tea – and that it can be enjoyed hot or cold in any season – it’s no wonder tea has gained such a massive following.

At the very least, tea offers a flavorful way to stay hydrated. Tea is simple and inexpensive to brew at home, and the options are almost endless. Some prefer orthodox tea – from luscious greens to robust blacks and the full-bodied oolongs in between – while others fancy herbal teas made by infusing herbs, spices, and other plant components in hot water. Whatever the case, almost everyone can find a cup of tea to please the taste buds.

More importantly, tea is high in antioxidants, has no calories, increases metabolism, improves skin, soothes the digestive system, calms the nervous system, and boosts the immune system. Some studies have even found a connection between drinking tea and a lower occurrence of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Though used medicinally elsewhere in the world for thousands of years, the health benefits of tea are only recently making headlines in the United States.

As Mama Bears, we need to care for ourselves in order to care for our families. So the next time you feel stressed, overwhelmed, tired, grumpy, or even just uninspired, brew yourself a cup of the finest solution to life’s challenges. Both your mental and physical health will thank you for the treat.

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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.

So, how are you feeling?

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My mom is smart and sensible when it comes to health and nutrition. She and my step-dad have been lecturing me for years on the ways that the carbohydrates found in processed foods like Ritz crackers quickly turn to sugar and have been eating real food long before Whole 30. They believe in grass-fed beef, real butter, and a shot of Aloe Vera juice every morning and are in the kind of excellent health that turn observers into believers. For years, they’ve been wary of my dalliances with vegetarianism and veganism, but have respected my dietary choices, noting that I seem vibrant enough. However, whenever I fall ill with a cough, a sniffle, or an infection, my mom can’t help herself. Her advice is the same each and every time: Eat a hamburger.

This is my mom’s Mama Bear peeking out. I may be in my late thirties and my mother in her sixties, but she still grits her teeth when I call her crying with news such as the fact that my iron levels are extremely low and my doctor has uttered the words “colon cancer” as a possible cause.

That’s just the news I received last week. I’ve since had two other doctors and a physician’s assistant (how lucky I am to have such access!) look at my blood work. These are the labs results that, as I explain in Episode 91 of the Mama Bear Dares Podcast, were ordered over two years ago and have been stuffed deep in my purse ever since. I head to a specialist today* and am currently vacillating between shame in the fact that I have so egregiously neglected my own health while pouring all of my energy into the things that thrive around me (my kids, my husband, my work) and anxiety that this refusal to care for myself at a basic level might have developed into something potentially serious.

Over the last week, I’ve heard from two other friends—both moms with small children—who have told me that they, too, have noticed some abnormalities but have not taken a step toward a physician or a lab. I heard from another friend that she’s been applying figurative Band-Aids to a problem that she senses has deep origin. Have you been paying attention? Have you been keeping up with routine exams? Our health is serious business and we are the ones who must advocate for our body, paying attention to what it needs to be the strong vessel that carries all of that love and compassion through the day. You’re a Mama Bear and that means there’s gonna be some wear and tear!

So, let's speak frankly: How are you feeling? What do you need to ensure your optimal physical health? A physical? A serious observance of a nagging pain? A hamburger? Maybe. A solid step toward ensuring your health and wellness? For sure.

Leslie Klipsch is the co-host of the Mama Bear Dares Podcast and author of Mama Bear's Manifesto: A Moms' Group Guide to Changing the World. She lives with her husband and three children, ages 12, 10, and 7, in the Midwest.

*Editor's Note: Leslie has since undergone a colonosopy and endoscopy. Cancer, ulcers, and internal stomach bleeding have been ruled out. The gastrologist is currently testing for Celiac's Disease and is running a few more tests before giving her a clean bill of health. She thanks you for all the thoughts and prayers during this "weird and scary" time.