Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 In Review

Ah, 2014.

It was the best of years. It was the worst of years.

Really, I had some awesome experiences this year. I went back to grad school and started a master's program this year (oh, and aced my first semester with a 4.0!). I got pregnant and gave birth to the sweetest little boy imaginable, and had an awesome and redeeming birth experience. I got to spend a lot of time with family, I made some new friends, and overall had a very blessed and wonderful year.

Unfortunately, there were some terrible parts to this year as well (more of which I'll discuss in my next post), and in consequence this was not the best year reading-wise for me.

When I set my reading goals at the beginning of 2014, I anticipated some of the craziness and was thus pretty lenient with myself. I only set two goals: 1.) Finish John Adams and 2.) Read 12 books for pleasure. And while it was still a pretty pathetic reading year compared to 2013 (where I read close to a book a week), I did manage to blow goal #2 out of the water and read 25 books this year. (I failed on goal #1, but we don't need to discuss that right now).

One of my favorite things about using Goodreads (that I discovered last year) is that they track my reads and provide me with a nice little page of statistics and charts and bar graphs about all the books I read every year.

Looking at this just makes me super happy. And also motivates me to read more books just so I can see more titles on this bar graph.

I've mentioned most of these books in separate reviews or monthly round-ups, but I'd thought I'd give some highlights. Here are my Top Ten listed by category.

Favorite Favorites

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist. I mentioned this one in my November round-up, but I really need to do a full review. But I want to read it again first. This one inspired lots of thoughts. It was just lovely.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Another one that inspired lots of thoughts and that I plan to read again and mull over. This book deserves its own review post too, some day when I have time to process it all.

Favorite Non-fiction

It's a rare year when both of my favorite favorites are already non-fiction, but honorable mentions go to:

The Gift of Giving Life by various authors. This one is so good, and was especially soul-filling for my 2014, the Year of the Difficult Pregnancy.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior. Really interesting parenting book. Can't stop thinking about it.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Because obviously.

Favorite Fantasy/Fiction

It was a strange year for me in that I read way more good non-fiction than fiction, but there were still a few good ones for this category.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary. I debated between this one and Flavia de Luce (my most recent read), both about young girls who are too smart for their own good. In the end I chose this one, because I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. Not exactly happy, but good.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. I wasn't sure if this one would stay with me when I first read it, but with a new baby of my own I find myself thinking of it frequently. And it does have some beautiful writing.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. Delightful, fun, adorable little read.

Favorite YA

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Beautiful little middle-grade novel. I cried (but I was also pregnant).

Bomb! by Steve Sheinkin. This was a fascinating read. Sometimes I even forgot it was supposed to be YA.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Enjoy Every Moment" - Or Don't. Because Parenting is Hard

My husband went back to work full time last week, after eight weeks of paid paternity leave.

I've been reluctant to talk about just how awesome all that paternity leave was, because I know that this type of benefit is extremely rare (I only got six weeks of paid maternity leave when I was working with my first baby, and even that required a combination of using all my accrued sick and vacation allowances). I know a lot of other women who have recently had babies, and all of their jaws have dropped when they found out my husband was home with us for eight weeks. Most men only get a couple of days, maybe a week. So anyway, I know I've been lucky.

However, the point of this post is not to brag about my husband's awesome benefits (actually, most of the benefits at his company really suck, paternity leave is seriously the only good one). The point is to talk about all the thoughts and reflections I've had about parenthood in the past week, as I've soldiered through all the meltdowns and dirty diapers and "sleep training" alone.

Now, this may not be a revelation, but lately I've been thinking about how parenting is not very fun.

In her book All Joy and No Fun, which I read last June, Jennifer Senior writes about all the studies in recent years that have shown how parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The statistics on this are kind of mind numbing, because it's been shown in study after study after study that having kids tends to increase stress, decrease life-satisfaction, and damage marital relationships (for another interesting and shorter read on this topic, check out this New York article)

Senior goes on to discuss and analyze many of the reasons why parenting is such a miserable task, everything from the extreme pressure to produce perfect children (a societal shift in parenting in the last seventy years), to the simple drudgery of spending time with small irrational creatures who want to sing the same song over and over and over four hundred times a day.

The point that really resonated with me was when Senior talked about the concept of "flow." This concept was developed by some famous psychologist (I can't remember the name, and I don't have the book, so I'm just talking about what I remember from reading this six months ago), and essentially what he posits is that to truly find pleasure in work, you have to develop "flow." That is, you have to get to a point where you are completely absorbed in some process, and this usually takes hours and hours of uninterrupted time devoted to your work. Kids interrupt "flow" in their parent's lives. They have short attention spans, they have needs that must be met immediately, they are constantly interrupting and disrupting. These interruptions make it nearly impossible for parents to develop any sort of "flow" when they are around their kids.

This has been so true for me lately.

Take this morning for instance. My only goal this morning was to get the dishes done. We had a big dinner with family last night, and the dishwasher was full so many of the dishes got left on the counter over night. I found a moment of peace after breakfast and started working on unloading the dishwasher. But then the baby started crying to be put down for a nap, and then my older child had a poopy diaper, and then he wanted to play a game, and then there was some melt-downs over balancing a baseball hat on a fire truck (speaking of irrational creatures), and then the baby started crying again, and then the laundry needed to be switched out, and then it was lunch time, and just as I was getting back to the dishes, it was time to feed the baby again.

Somehow I can't seem to get even one load of dishes done in a given three-hour window. But what about when I want to read a book? Write a blog post? Take care of any one of the five million projects on my to-do list?

Forget about it.

And most days, I just don't even start because I know I won't finish. I lose all of my motivation to work on things when I know I'll be interrupted and won't be able to finish. This is the single most frustrating part of parenthood for me right now. I'm not very good at multi-tasking, and this is a serious flaw as a stay-at-home-mom, because heaven knows I'm never going to get two hours of quiet, focused work time. At least not consecutively.

What I'm trying to keep in mind is what Senior discusses at the end of her book with the ideas of memory and meaning. Basically, the studies prove that the moment-to-moment act of parenting is really miserable, but there is still hope, because other studies also show that people who reflect back on their past parenting experiences find a deeper sense of joy and meaning in their lives.

And this makes sense. Most things worth doing in life are hard. Most meaningful things aren't pleasurable in the moment. Getting a graduate degree? Hard and miserable. Running a marathon? Really hard and miserable (I do not know this from experience). But when you get to the end of your life, these are the things that fill it with meaning, and meaning brings joy.

Why should parenting be any different?

So the next time some older, seasoned grandmother tells the young mother battling her rambunctious children in the check-out line to "enjoy every moment," feel free to completely ignore this advice. You are not going to enjoy every moment of parenting. It's hard. At times it's downright miserable.

But it's also meaningful. It just takes hindsight to realize that, so grit it out for a few more years.

Someday I will have all the time in the world I want to do the dishes.

(It took me all afternoon to write this post, and there were plenty of interruptions in the middle, along with some awkward one-handed typing while I nursed. But look! I actually got it written! Although those dishes are still sitting on the counter...)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Books I Read in November

I know November is a month devoted to gratitude, but mostly I'm grateful that November is over. That month just about killed me. November was the month of the never-ending recurring cold (the combination of newborn sleep deprivation and breast-feeding seems to have shot my immune system and destroyed any ability my body has to fight off infection) and the infamous six-week peak in fussiness. If my sweet little Baby #2 doesn't have colic, than I don't know what colic is, because the crying! The hours and hours of inconsolable crying! November was just about the perfect storm of physical and mental torture, and I barely survived with my sanity (and marriage) in tact. It was a rough month.

But there were still a few quiet hours of nursing where a little bit of reading got done, so I'm back here to report.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

I've developed an interest in food books recently, and this one? This one is a huge winner. This is my most recent favorite book of ever, and I want to own it. I've decided that if I ever write a book, this is the kind of book I want to write. It's a bit hard to describe, but this book is a collection of memoir-type essays focusing on the spiritual, communal, and nurturing aspects of food and meals in Niequist's life. I loved Niequist's perspective and voice (I'm pretty sure she's read Daring Greatly), and I found myself really inspired to throw some dinner parties and cook good food for my family. Bonus: there were recipes included at the end of almost every chapter, and I've already tried (and loved) about half of them. This was simply a lovely book, and I may have to give it a full review some time soon. (P.S. This would make a great gift for any foodie in your life, or anyone who just enjoys good, thoughtful writing).

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I know, I know, I'm way behind everyone else on getting around to this bestseller, but I knew it was going to be a depressing slog, and I just couldn't bring myself to put it on hold at the library until my virtual book club picked this one for November. And I was right, it was a completely depressing slog. Every time I thought my colicky baby was going to drive me insane this month, I would think, Well, at least I'm not in a Japanese POW camp. Way to put my small trials in perspective. And in the end, this story truly was inspiring and hopeful and really, really beautiful. I definitely see what all the fuss was about and I'm glad I read it (although I still can't decide if I want to see the movie).

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This was my second Kate Morton book this year, and while I still found her ability to craft such an intricate plot to be incredible, this was the exact same formula as The Secret Keeper, and I found myself less impressed. Also, I listened to The Secret Keeper as an audiobook, so I didn't realize until reading this one how many unnecessary sentence fragments Morton uses. It pretty much drove me insane. Honestly, who was the editor here, and why didn't they fix this? Also, there were a few characters in this one that I felt were underdeveloped and their motivations weren't explained well. That being said, I still enjoyed this, and recommend to anyone who enjoys a good story.

And now for one in the inauspicious category of Did Not Finish:

Outlander  by Diana Gabaldon

Okay, I know people who love this series, and on the outset it sounded like just my sort of book. After all, I have a weak spot for good historical fiction. But this book reconfirmed why I mostly stick to YA historical fiction. I've actually become a lot less prudish about "adult content" in recent years, but when the main romantic relationship became aggressively violent, and Gabaldon tried to pass this violence off as passionate romance, I just couldn't read anymore. The feminist inside me was too disgusted, because I'm sorry, I don't care  if it is historically accurate that wives were whipped in the 18th Century, portraying that kind of abuse as "deserved" and romantic is not acceptable. Never. No. And that wasn't even the worst of it. I just couldn't read any more. I do NOT recommend this one.

And with that, good riddance to November! Bring on December, with it's Christmas music and twinkle lights and holly and joy! Hopefully December will bring with it less sickness, more sleep, and happier times all around. I'm predicting nothing but good things this month. Here's to December!