I'm in the middle of one now. As I type it is 5.30 in the morning and the rest of my house is still sleeping. Outside, it is dark and refreshingly cool. I've made a cup of tea in my green mug. Usually I choose my favourite stoneware mug (you'll recognise it if you follow me on Instagram) but, on mornings when I am extra tired, like today, I'm realistic about the increased likelihood that I might just knock or drop my cup, so I choose a less-precious alternative. The tea still tastes good. Really good. And almost-but-not-quite unbearably hot.
I like to be up before the family every day. In the glorious chaos that involves parenting two small children, non-responsible alone-time is premium. Some days it is worth more, even, than sleep. I say "non-responsible" because on the days the children go to daycare I am technically alone, but those are my work days, and my time and mind belong to someone else. I'm on the clock, and I don't take a minute of those days for myself.
These mornings, on the other hand, belong exclusively to me. It doesn't matter what I do with them, as long as it is for myself. Sometimes I work on my book, other times I paint, others, like now, I write my blog. Make stickers, make mail, write postcards, read a magazine. Do a French lesson online. Always, there is the tea. (If there is time, I have more than one cup).
My early mornings are a deliberate pause before the whirlwind of the day begins, like a galvanising hand on my shoulder and a little voice that I trust, saying, "you got this." By the time the children wake and start calling for me, I feel settled in my mind but also satisfied, because I have done something I enjoy, whether it is furthering a project or simply indulging an interest.
Now, with the children awake, I am free to be (joyfully and without impatience) all theirs.
Yesterday during my morning ritual I began cutting out dozens of little handmade stickers, rsvp labels I have drawn to enclose as gifts in some of the mail I send. While I was cutting, I listened to podcasts. There was an episode of The Slow Home Podcast with Brooke McAlary, in which she and her husband Ben were answering listeners' questions. Someone had written in to say that with small children at home, decluttering felt like an impossible task: what other things could she do, instead, to "slow" her life and home?
They both had some useful responses, but Ben spoke briefly about rituals and this really resonated with me. He was referring to checkpoints or important moments that we can build into our routines, that encourage mindfulness, or gratitude, or just help us be "present" in what we are doing and who we are with. These are spiritual or social slowing-down activities that are structured into the rest of our week as habits, and they can be done no matter how busy our lives are, and no matter how many Hot-Wheels cars or Sylvanian Families pieces roll and crunch under foot on the way to the bathroom.
As I listened, I realised, "I'm doing that!" My husband and I love creating traditions and appreciating the small things, so maybe it comes naturally enough to us to do this, but I realised we had unintentionally built a number of rituals into our lives that help us connect as a family, despite pretty insane hours put in by both of us.
My alone-with-my-tea mornings are one such ritual. And in case you're interested, here, in no particular order, are some others.
Every Sunday we have tacos for dinner. The children help make it so we all cook together, and then sit around the table with little self-serve bowls of taco-filling in the middle to pass to one another, while we crunch and chat. The tacos aren't fancy: we get the probably-very-unhealthy versions that you can buy in a kit. But they are quick and easy to make (so easy, a four year old and a three year old can do it). Nutrition isn't the priority of this particular meal, it's family. Mr B's hours are so long - he is often at work before 6am and home after 8pm - that he can go days or even a whole week without seeing his children. On Sunday nights, we reset the week with the millennia-old practise of cooking together and then sitting down and eating together, and it is our favourite meal of the week.
Making the beds
There are all kinds of research studies about the benefits of making the bed, and I know for me the day feels more "under control" once my bed is made, and I get genuine pleasure from seeing it all nicely made up (nerd alert).
Recently, my children got new "big kid" beds. Previously they slept in cots that had been converted into toddler beds, but these new beds are the real deal. That also meant new bedding because they old cot-sheets didn't fit, and a bit of a clean-out and rearrangement of the room they share, because it is a small room. You've never seen two children more eager to go to sleep at night than they were the first night they got to snuggle down in those new beds and a fresh new room. But the point of this is that it is super easy for them to make their beds (just a sheet and a doona), so I simply incorporated that habit into their mornings. We don't leave the room to start our day until the beds are made.
The best thing that happened today
This is not actually one of our rituals yet, but after listening to another of the Slow Home podcasts, it is about to become one. It is a question to be asked around the dinner table (or in our case, to be asked while the children eat dinner and I supervise them): "What is the best thing that happened to you today?" Sometimes when they come home from daycare and kinder it is so hard to learn about what they had been doing and how they were feeling all those hours we were apart. "What did you do today?" "Don't remember." The "favourite thing" question takes the pressure off. It is positive, so not fraught with anxiety, and it is just one thing, not a whole day's worth of things. On its own, this is a lovely little gratitude exercise. But I'm also hoping it will lead to more openness and sharing between us.
"Mummy magic" is our word for a kind of Reiki-style meditation that I do over the children before they go to sleep. It started a few months ago when one of the children was afraid of returning to a nightmare if they fell asleep. Now, it is an indispensable part of our bed-time routine. After bath and brushing teeth, we read some stories, and then the children each get into bed. One at a time, I "lay hands" over them, without touching them. I pat my heart then hover my hands over their hearts, focusing my mind on just how much I love them. Then slowly I pass my hands over their whole body, from head to toes. At the toes, I kind of flick my hands and imagine I'm pushing all the toxins (physical or emotional) out, and then work my way back up their little bodies, trying to pour all my mama-love (mummy magic) back in.
Sending postcards from holidays
Who does that any more? The Bulger family, that's who! Every time we go on holidays, even a weekend break, Mr B buys postcards to send to some of the lovely donors and supporters of the charity he works at, to let them know he's thinking of them. (Imagine how good it must make them feel to have the Executive Director of the charity writing them a personal postcard! I don't know anyone else who does that, but then maybe I am biased because I think I married someone pretty amazing). Following his lead, the children like to write postcards, too. So over a breakfast meal at some point in the holiday, we all sit down and think about what we have seen and done and what we enjoyed and what stood out to us, and we write those things down, put a stamp on them, and send them to someone we care about.
One lovely habit Mr B has to counteract the long hours he works is to leave little notes for us to find when we wake up in the morning. Notes telling the children how much he loves them, and what he hopes to do together on the weekend. Notes telling them how much he loved the drawing they did for him, or how the video I sent of them made him so proud. Notes telling me how much he appreciates me. Last week I opened up my recipe book (the one in which I write or paste all my favourite recipes) and discovered a beautiful letter from Mr B tucked inside the pages, from September last year.
Those letters, scribbled on the backs of envelopes or receipts or shopping lists, are keepsakes. I keep all the letters he writes to the children in a little book, so that one day when they are older I can show it to them and they will know (if they don't already) how deeply they are loved.
Circling back to my alone mornings, my children have a morning ritual too. I have taught them how to read the clock, and, no matter what time they wake up, they know they are not to call out to come downstairs until the clock reaches 7am. Often (although not always), they wake up a lot earlier. Any time from six in the morning, they could be awake. But I have learned that if I bring them downstairs when they first wake, the day rarely goes well. They are tired and grumpy and bicker with one another and with me. Burst into tears for no reason.
But their mornings, while they wait for 7am to roll around, are slow and lovely. Downstairs enjoying my me-time, I listen to them on the monitor. One wakes and says in a croaky sleep-voice "Do you want to cuddle?" Then you hear rustling and the pad-pad of little feet, more rustling, and they have snuggled down in one of the beds together. Everything goes silent for a little while. Then slowly, the talking begins. Games, questions, ideas for the day. Sometimes Scout pulls out books and reads to Ralph (she can't actually read, but can recite many of their books word for word). Other times, they start a tickle game, or play with the soft toys in a basket in their room. It is a gentle, slow waking up that gradually becomes louder and more rambunctious as the morning continues and, by the time the little hand points to the 12 and the big hand points to the seven, they are excited to start the day.
Now it's over to you. Tell me about your rituals!
(ps. That beautiful window is not in my house, it's from a country home I visited recently that has me dreaming about a tree-change. It just so happens to be for sale if you want to wake up to that every day!)