Shep’s first birthday party

30 September 2019

After the semi-disaster of June’s third birthday party, Shep’s first go-round was a sweet relief! Simple, fun, and spent with our favorite people, it was everything we were hoping it would be. Thankfully, the birthday boy seemed to feel the same way :) I have a few pictures to share, if you’d like to see!

Pullen Park carousel ride

Right off the bat, Shep, as opposed to June, has one major thing going for him: his birthday is in the summer. Yes, it’s hot in North Carolina in July, but we’re used to hot. In January, you could get a 65-degree day, but if you don’t, you can’t very well ask people to gather outside on a chilly 40-degree day. So, an outdoor party is pretty much out for her, and indoor parties can get reeeeeeally overwhelming really quickly in our house. The open concept of our downstairs is great for our family, but when you add 5+ guests (especially kids!) into the mix, it’s a lot.

Pullen Park birthday party

All that to say – the best part about this party from the start was that it was NOT at our house: we rented the Carousel Pavilion at Pullen Park. Pullen is a Raleigh city park with an adorable carousel (built in 1900!), little boats June loves, a train, a wonderful playground, and more. We love visiting as a family and knew it would be the perfect fit for this party!

Pullen Park Carousel

From Our State Magazine

We invited 25 guests and about 20 could come, which was wonderful! As you might expect for a first birthday, the guests were mostly family members and our friends, since Shep doesn’t really have friends :) Both sets of our parents, my sister and her fam, and several of our dear family friends joined us.

On the agenda? Drawing with chalk, blowing bubbles, playing in the trees next to the pavilion, and eating. We also took a mass ride on the carousel before cutting into the cake (the tickets were in lieu of a party favor!), and that was a big hit.

chalk message

The party was from 11-1, and this was our menu: pizza from our favorite Oakwood Pizza Box, homemade fruit salad, applesauce pouches, cut veggies and dip, cake, and little Bluebell cups of ice cream. We also had water, juice boxes, and LaCroix in a cooler.

chocolate birthday cake

The cake was a lucky find: we had been to a bridal shower earlier in the month that served a multilayer chocolate and vanilla cake covered in chocolate ganache (like this!), and it was delicious!! The hostess shared with me the unlikely source: an IGA grocery store! For $20, it was ours – and every single bite was devoured on-site.

first birthday smash

We went with a very light carousel theme to match our location, and balloons, a few tablecloths, fun star plates (inspired by the ceiling of the carousel), and party hats rounded out the decor. The crowning glory, though, (and really the only detail of note) was my party hat animals. These guys turned out SO CUTE! Playing off the invitation (which played off the carousel animals themselves), I crafted the tiniest party hats for our Schleich collection. It was surprisingly easy – I just made a little template to pump them out assembly-line style, and attached them to the animals with hot glue (they came right off without a hitch after the weekend).

party hat toy animals

I’ll finish with that invitation. I went with a sweet postcard from Minted – they always have the perfect design for everything, no matter what I’m looking for! Love them so much.

carousel party invitation

Thanks for taking a peek, friends! Currently debating whether we’ll do a fourth birthday party for June in January… I was pretty set on not doing one this year, but after experiencing Shep’s, she’s hot on the idea. Fingers crossed I can convince her to do something fun instead with just one friend or her cousins!

Affiliate links are used in this post!

Simple toy storage in our family room

23 September 2019

One of my 2019 goals was to complete our family room – updating the aesthetic and making it function better for our family. We’ve been chipping away at it little by little all year, and I’m happy to say it is just about done!

Our family room is the main play space for our kiddos, and a big part of this goal was finding a better storage solution for their toys. Previously, the toys had been just kind of lined up around the edge of the rug. It was fine, but visually cluttered, and hard for June to put anything away because there really wasn’t an “away.” The before:

A new storage piece was in order. I searched for months and continually came up short (everything was so expensive!). Then, late last year, I spotted the piece below at HomeGoods:

I snapped it up right away. I thought you might like to see how we use it, especially if you, also, don’t have a dedicated play room!

toy storage

This piece stood out to me because it was mostly closed storage, and I wanted the least amount of fuss – a system that looked good on the outside and was easy for our kids to maintain. (This is why I wanted doors, not drawers – it can be hard for a three-year-old to open and close drawers herself!)

On the inside, you’ll see everything has a general “spot,” but things are not “just so” – and that’s great with me!

closed toy storage

Rainbow stacker, rug, and lamp

For example, here’s the lefthand side. On the top left is a stack of our current rotation of puzzles and games, including some chunky puzzles for Shep, June’s Lite Brite, and her favorite matching game. Next to that is a stack of coloring books and loose-leaf paper, with a little caddy of stickers, tape, scissors, a magnetic pad, and other art supplies (markers and crayons are in a bucket on the coffee table).

In the bottom cubby is the Babbler play kit from Lovevery Baby. John’s sisters got it for Shep for his first birthday, and it has been a BIG hit! The toys are Montessori-based, great quality, and perfectly tuned to his developmental age. SUCH a great gift!!

As you can see, everything is pretty loosely organized – but it’s also clear to June where everything lives, so she can easily help put things away.

basket storage

In the middle, we have a basket for Shep-specific toys – this was particularly great when he was really little, because I could easily pull it out and bring it to wherever we were doing tummy time. As I took these pictures, I stopped to switch out a bunch of the toys, since he’s not so little anymore! Current favorites include his xylophone and these cars.

book storage

And of course, BOOKS! We have books throughout the house – in our bedroom, in their bedrooms, in the loft upstairs – but we keep a rotating selection of our favorites here.

magna tiles storage

On the top right, we have general storage for cars, trains, and bulkier toys, like the bus and music cube. Again, it doesn’t look the prettiest, but as these are taken out CONSTANTLY, it’s way more important that they can easily be put back than they look perfect behind closed doors!

On the bottom we have bathroom cups (they are a favorite!), a cash register, and the pride of every toy collection – a big basket of MagnaTiles. Yes, everything everyone says is true – these get played with pretty much daily and are just as fun for Shep to knock over as they are for June to build with. (We also have the less-expensive kind, and they are great, too!)

cloth basket storage

Off to the side, we have a basket for building toys – Legos, wooden blocks, etc. all jumbled together! (This drives my sister nuts, ha!) The other basket is for stuffed animals, and a car play mat is rolled up in the back.

And there you have it! We have toys and books elsewhere in our house, but this is the main stash. It’s a tightly-edited collection, and I continually rotate things in and out as they grow and their interests change. I hope this little peek behind closed doors has been helpful! :)

P.S. Two gals whose toy storage I was inspired by: Rhi and Valerie! Affiliate links are used in this post!

Dating after kids

16 September 2019

Thanks for your sweet comments on this mini series, friends! It’s been fun to write and especially fun to have John contribute. (He contributes often behind-the-scenes, but doesn’t usually get the byline!)

Today, I thought we’d wrap things up for now by offering a few thoughts on how to date your spouse, especially after having kids. It’s been an evolution over here, and I have a few tips you might like to try!

To back up a little bit: going on dates wasn’t really a “thing” in our early marriage, pre-kid life. For one, we were on a VERY tight budget ($135/month for dining out and $30/month for entertainment!). We spent a ton of time together and did lots of fun stuff, so it was kind of like we were constantly “dating,” but we very rarely went on traditional sit-down dinner dates. Instead, our weekends were an abundance of together time with lots of inexpensive fun all running together: a morning hike followed by a visit to the State Farmer’s Market followed by a country drive followed by a $3 outdoor movie.

Then, we had June, and we still went on adventures, but they felt even less like dates since we now had a third wheel. As she began to be more and more interactive, we enjoyed her company even more, but also felt the pinch of time for just the two of us. So, we tried something new: official dates!

From about her 1.5 birthday to now, with a short break when Shep was 0-8 months or so, we have gone on a dinner date every month – and it is our favorite!! A few ways we make this work well for us:

1. We mostly use high school babysitters that we know from church or our neighborhood. We pay them $9-$13 an hour depending on how many kids they’re watching and whether those kids are awake or not :)

2. Our kids are for the most part VERY reliable sleepers, so once they’re down, they’re down. Especially when they were younger and I was either breastfeeding or they could be trickier to put down, we would put them to bed a bit early, have the sitter come at 7:30 once they were already asleep, and head out for an 8pm reservation. This worked SUPER well for us.

3. Another reason we liked this plan: it maximized our time with our kids. As working parents, it can feel hard to voluntarily spend more time away from them (even though we know it’s a good thing!), so we liked that with an 8pm reservation we could still spend the whole evening with them and put them to bed – but also fill our marriage’s cup.

4. For the last few years, at the beginning of the year, we have taken out $600 from the bank and put it in a special envelope. This started one year when one of us got an unexpected bonus. As intense budgeters, it would have been very easy for us to just fold that amount into our annual budget, where it would have immediately been swallowed up. Instead, we never entered that amount into our budget, and instead took it out in cash. Every month, we use $50 of the cash toward our dinner out. (If we spend more, we just pay with a card and put it in our normal dining out budget.)

Note that this is PURELY mental gymnastics – all the money is ultimately coming from the same pot – but it FEELS different, and when it comes to money, you can’t discount feelings! From the beginning of the year, setting aside this money makes us feel like we’ve already planned for these dates, and it makes us look forward to them even more!

As I mentioned in my last post, our dates are almost always dinner out – we tend to alternate between a new spot in Raleigh or Durham and an old favorite. Either new or old, we always make a reservation – again, this helps build the anticipation, and just like with travel, the planning is half of the fun!

In addition to our dinner out each month, we try to plan one date night IN each month, as well. This is a money-saving concession at this point in our lives, since we obviously don’t have to get a babysitter! We mark these dates on our calendar just like we do for outside reservations.

What do we do? Most commonly, we’ll get takeout from a favorite spot after the kids go to bed, then choose a new-to-us movie to watch together. No phones or laptops – which it makes it feel different and special from our typical evenings. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s funny how fun a simple dinner and movie can feel when you plan in advance for it and call it a date! :)

I’d love to hear: what do you usually do for your dates? Any brilliant ideas to share with the rest of us, either for going out or staying in?

P.S. More from our wedding, because it never, ever gets old. Tanja is the best!

Marriage Q&A, Part 2

12 September 2019

Welcome to part two of our marriage Q&A! (Part one here!) A note here at the start: a number of your questions nosed around the idea of overcoming challenges in our relationship, and you will notice I haven’t really answered any of them. This is not to say we are perfect or our marriage is perfect – just that we have been inordinately blessed to find our best friend in each other – and so I don’t have much to offer on the subject of overcoming major challenges in a relationship.

Thankfully, there are many people out there who have compassionate, vulnerable, insightful advice for folks looking for light. Here, I like to think of this and the rest of my marriage musings as helping to “optimize” your relationship – giving you little tips and insight as you take it from good to great, or great to legendary :)

Let’s continue!

What was the transition to marriage like for you two? Easy, hard, challenging, surprising?
John: As Emily alluded to above, it was pretty easy. We come from the same background (we grew up in the same town and have similar family experiences) and share the same outlook on life and the same core values. Another piece of Adam Hamilton wisdom: he’s said that “compatibility” is not important in a marriage, in terms of having the same personality or liking to do the same things – but having reverent respect for the other person is, and sharing the same core beliefs. We’ve found that to be true (though we do enjoy doing things together, and happen to have similar personalities, as well…).

People often talk about how marriage is so hard, but we’ve found it to be the most comfortable and best thing ever. I think the world (and people thinking about marriage) need to hear more messages about how great marriage can be and we are happy to do that.

How do you prioritize each other with two full-time jobs and two babies?
John: One thing we do is divide and conquer jobs and responsibilities around the house, especially in the evenings, so we can get it all done fast and enjoy each other’s company once the kids are in bed. As I mentioned in the first post, something we both believed in at the outset of having kids is having our marriage remain at the center of our family, not our kids. On a recommendation from a Craig Groeschel sermon, I try to always kiss Emily first when I walk in the door, then kids. We’ve also invested in some great two-person games which gives us an easy and enjoyable option when we want to do something together.
Em: Something that we did not regularly do until June was about one, but now do with great regularity, is have a date night every month. We are fairly predictable – we almost always go out to dinner – but with so many amazing restaurants in the Triangle, can you blame us?! This has become something we look forward to SO much and would now consider crucial to our relationship. Spoiler alert: more to come on this topic tomorrow :)

We also regularly take walks together in the evening after our kids are in bed. Walking and talking is a treasured connection point in our relationship (I agree completely with TJ’s perspective). As for the logistics: we have an unlimited range video monitor, and just walk in a little loop around our street :)

We also are not afraid to leave our kids from time to time. We’ve really only left them overnight twice since June was born, both times with family, but this extends to leaving them with babysitters, as well.

It sounds simple, but we always ask each other how our days at work went and really take interest in the answer. We have also learned enough about each other’s jobs, coworkers, regular challenges, etc. that we can really understand the answer and offer insight.

Finally, John specifically prays for my work every day, which means so much to me. (I try to do this, too, but I know it’s a regular practice for him!)

What are you glad you did before having kids?
John: Travel travel travel. Obviously we have traveled since having kids, but we had way more flexibility before them. We were able to experience locations in ways that are harder now, and some trips would be nearly impossible at this stage (for example, our Pacific Coast Highway road trip, where we were driving every single day, all day).
Em: Travel for sure – and not just big travel but smaller adventures, too. Day trips, if they involve long stretches of driving, are usually just not worth it in this stage of life, whereas we used to take them all the time. We also did a TON of hiking (mostly just local stuff!) before kids, and I’m so glad we have all those memories! I’m looking forward to incorporating more as our kids get older.

What’s the best gift your spouse has ever given you?
John: We are not huge gift givers to each other, in general, but when I got my new job, Emily did two things that really touched me. She had my car detailed (it’s from 2011, so that really shined it up) and picked out a really great briefcase. Her gifts spoke to her pride in me, and that meant a lot.
Em: For Mother’s Day two years in a row, John got me pairs of pink shoes that he picked out all on his own – Jack Rogers and Nike sneakers. Our respective clothing budgets are pretty tiny, so these extravagant (for us) gifts wowed me.

What about your spouse makes you the most proud?
John: It seems appropriate to say here, but I am really proud of Emily for keeping up this blog for 11 years when it’s not a business at all. Selfishly, I love looking back at posts and really appreciate this repository of memories from our life together.
Em: I am proud of so many things, but what comes to mind first is what he has made of his career. Fun fact: both John and I have worked at the same companies our entire working lives. He started on pretty much the lowest rung in the middle of the recession (after being unemployed for about a year) and after many years, he is an expert in a job he LOVES in a field he’s passionate about. He stuck it out for many boring and unexciting years and is now reaping the rewards, and I think that’s pretty amazing (and wildly unpopular in today’s culture).

What’s your favorite trip you’ve taken together?
John: France. It was beautiful and really fun, with amazing food. Plus, it was the first time to Europe for both of us and we had taken French class together in high school and college, so it felt like a full-circle moment.
Em: California. We really did it up at a time when we were much more budget-conscious than we are now. It had everything – great food, beautiful scenery, memorable accommodations. I’d do that exact trip over every year if time and money were no object!

What is something most people don’t know about your spouse?
John: Emily’s favorite genre of movies and shows is government conspiracy/action thrillers. Favorites include 24, Bodyguard, Enemy of the State, Homeland, Air Force One, Casino Royale, and all of the Mission Impossibles.
Em: Back at the very beginning of my career, I helped plan weddings with the company that preceded Southern Weddings (it phased out a few years later). John was often hired to help on-site on wedding days, and his special contribution was tying chair bows (he even originated a knot we used many times over!). He’s tied hundreds of chair bows.

Tomorrow, we’ll be answering a final question: recommendations for dating your spouse when you have kids (low-cost and at-home in particular!)? I touched on it above just a bit, but it’s a topic we’ve never really covered here, and I’m excited to dig in!

There’s a lot to unpack here: any other movie thrill seekers? Chair bow enthusiasts? What trip would you take over and over again if you could?

P.S. More from our wedding, because it never, ever gets old. Tanja is the best!