The other names

24 March 2022

This is a post years and years and years in the making.

It will likely come as no surprise that names are one of my favorite topics to think and talk and write about, but though I’ve devoted many words to discussing the names we actually chose for our three children (June, John Shepherd, and Susanna), I’ve never talked about the runners-up. Like, not ever. We hold our names close to the vest – even speculatively, and even in casual conversation, I’ve kept pretty tight lips when discussing future children’s names… forever.

But now that we have closed this chapter and all our names have been given out, discuss this topic we shall! I’m excited to talk about some of the other names we considered for our kiddos, and other names I love.

A few days before Annie was born, I clicked over to Nameberry to pull a few details for her name post. While there, I got sucked into their Baby Name DNA quiz, which labels your naming personality. (Take it here, if you’d like!) I was labeled a Charmer-Romantic, and I found it to be quite accurate:

This description reflects a lot of what we valued when choosing our kids’ names: that they are easy to spell and pronounce, that they’re not too “out there,” that they are “slightly rarer with a touch of whimsy,” and – ding ding ding! – that they are “personally significant to you in some way.” Here are the names Nameberry suggested a Charmer-Romantic might like:

I do, in fact, like most of these names in a general sense, and as you’ll see below, a few of them were even on my short list! Interestingly, I wouldn’t have chosen most of the names on Nameberry’s list of “names similar to Annie” (though I am, of course, partial to my own :))

With that background, what names were on our short list? Boys first, since, as you know, that was a much shorter short list!

William | This one was on my radar since high school. It’s classic, friendly, simple, sharp. I like the nickname Will. However, we had little personal connection to it, and it is a bit more common than I’d like.

Robert | My beloved Dad’s name! We would have gone with his nickname (Rob) over all the other options. However, it can sound a little harsh (you know, bank robbing and stuff), and is one of those names that sounds kind of funny on a baby :)

Hugh, Tate, and August | I’m lumping these together because they all fall into the same category for me: friendly-sounding, simple, classic names that I liked and jotted down over the years. I have no negative connotations with them, but also no personal connection to them. And August was pretty much out since we knew we’d have a June.

Washington | Before we knew Annie was a girl and we were kicking around potential names for a second boy, this was our top pick. It’s pretty bold, and we couldn’t really figure out a good nickname (Ash? Asher? Neither are really our style), but we loved its unabashed patriotic flair. (Of course everyone knows about George Washington, but I gained even more appreciation for him after I read His Excellency. Highly recommend!)

Aaaaaaand… that was it! Onto the gals!

Here are a few other names we considered for our daughters:

Mae | I absolutely love this name – sweet, simple, classic, lovely – and it would have been my top pick for a second girl if our first had not been named June. Without going full-on calendar theme for our kids, though, this one was unfortunately out.

Glory | We didn’t seriously consider this as a first name (a little too out there for our taste) but it was down to the wire as a middle name for Annie – we even had a pros and cons list debating our final two options. We loved the resonance for our faith, similar to Liberty, and just thought it was such a bold, confident, elegant choice that could guide our girl as she grew into her calling.

Sadie, Sally, and Scout | These three ring similar bells for me! Throwback in feel, sweet, fun, confident, simple, cheerful. Scout, of course, is plucked from my favorite book of all time, which makes me adore it, but in the end it was a little too off the beaten path for us. I think Susanna definitely fits in with this crew!

Claire | Another favorite! Lovely, simple, and strong, this is “one of those special names that is familiar yet distinctive, feminine but not frilly, combining historical depth with a modern edge,” as Nameberry puts it. I couldn’t agree more! Happily, my sister- and brother-in-law chose this for their daughter, so I still get to enjoy it in our family.

Eliza and Liza | To me, these could be described the same way as Claire – familiar yet distinctive, feminine but not frilly, historical depth, etc. Both get bonus points for nodding to my beloved Mom (though she spells her Elisabeth with an s). Since being added to my list Eliza has inched ever closer to the top – in an alternative universe, if we were to somehow have another child in a few years, I might put my money on this one.

Louisa | This one has such strong literary associations, which endears it to me. It feels elegant and strong but also lends itself to bubbly nicknames.

Swannanoa | A total wildcard to round this list out! We never seriously considered naming a child this, but bantered it around as a whimsical option :) It’s inspired by the Swannanoa River that runs through Asheville, a place that holds so many memories for us, and the poet in me loves its lyrical sound. Just try saying it out loud! So lovely. Annie could have been a nickname here, too.

And there you have it! This feels a little like baring my soul, ha. If you’d like to bare yours, please comment with some of your top name contenders for future children, your name runners-up if you already have children, or just plain names that you love. (Of course, from personal experience, I’d also understand if even typing them in the comments of a random blog post feels too revealing! :)) Let’s have at it!!

Photos from Annie’s newborn session by Anagram Photo

Tips for eating at restaurants with young kids

18 March 2022

Since our first baby, we’ve gone out to eat as a family. The experience of eating out is something John and I enjoy, and so, like other things we enjoyed pre-babies, we want to fold our kids into this aspect of our lives and are willing to put in the work to make it happen. And though there are moments of fun and joy and ease, make no mistake – there are also meals that feel like straight-up work. Teachable moments abound! :)

We have found the work to be worth it, though. I also can’t help but love that dining out is a distillation of so much we’re trying to teach our kids – kind of a fun pop quiz along the way! They’re learning to have patience, show respect to the people around them, converse with their fellow diners, flex their manners, and grow in confidence as they speak up and order their own food – among other things!

Today, I thought I’d share a few of the super-simple strategies that have helped our kids (currently 6, 3, and 8 months) enjoy restaurant meals alongside us.

First things first: I do not have a list of magical toys that keep my children quietly occupied and in their seats for hours. I wish!! Activities and toys at the table can sometimes be helpful, but in our experience, they can also be more trouble than they’re worth: the toys can quickly clutter the table, causing things to be knocked onto the floor. The kids might bicker over who gets which item. And sometimes our kids will cycle rapidly through the options and lose interest, only to seem more antsy than before.

For better or worse, what keeps our kids happy and behaving well at a restaurant is our pure, unfiltered, full-strength attention. You saw that one coming, yes? :) At these sweet ages, having our undistracted attention is precious, and they completely soak it up. Does this mean we have less time for grown-up conversation? Yes. Does this mean we are on our toes throughout, and the meal is a bit less relaxed? Yes. But again, for us, the extra effort on our parts is worth it – and when we go in with the expectation that we’ll be engaging as a family instead of just enjoying grown-up company, it usually is a very sweet and memorable experience.

So what do we do together as we wait for our meals, eat, and wait for the check? Here are a few of our favorite super-simple activities:

I Spy. A classic!
Favorites. Take turns asking each other “favorite” questions, like favorite color, restaurant, fruit, book, etc.
Vacations. This is similar to Favorites, but travel-themed! Reminisce on past vacations and chat about favorite destinations, meals, activities, etc. for each person at the table. Start lots of sentences with, “remember when…?” :)
The Alphabet Game. Choose a category (animals, foods) and name something in that category for every letter.
Places. If you have spellers, go around in a circle, each saying the name of a place (town, state, country, whatever) that starts with the last letter of the previous place. For example, France –> Edmonton –> Nigeria.
Animal sounds. Be careful with this one, because it can get rowdy in the wrong hands, but the gist is: one person makes an animal sound, and everyone else has to guess the animal.
Guess the object. Go around the table. One at a time, have each person close her eyes, then place something in her hand and have her guess what it is.
This or that or would you rather. Ocean or pool? Brownies or chocolate chip cookies? Would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice?
Circle the letters. If there’s a paper menu, have them circle all of a certain letter one at a time (all the B’s, then all the M’s, etc.).
Conversation cards. Cultivate makes my absolute favorite and – spoiler alert – there’s a kids’ version coming soon :) But the OG is still great for kids, too!
Names. See if they can remember the full names of loved ones – grandparents, cousins, etc. First, middle, last! Birthdays are fun, too. This often spirals into talking about memories with each person, which is perfect.

A few other random tips that have helped us:

We make our expectations clear before we arrive at the restaurant, because they can’t meet an expectation they aren’t aware of. We remind them we’re on the same team and how much we love having fun experiences with them – and that one of the reasons we’re able to have these experiences is because they do such a nice job when we go out. John and I get to set the tone and build them up!

Don’t have the kids’ food come first. If necessary, pack some Cheerios or give them a snack in advance, but if the kids have long since eaten by the time the grown-up food arrives, you’ll be stuck trying to eat and entertain them at their antsy-est.

Look for a loud restaurant. Even though the Sunset Terrace was upscale, it was bustling and almost boisterous, so we weren’t worried about every little noise our kids made. We learned this lesson at The Obstinate Daughter when June was only a few months old, and it has served us well! Noise level matters a lot more than level of luxury.

A short walk can help a long wait. Better to get a few wiggles out, or reset sibling dynamics, before things get bad than wait until we’re at a boiling point. We’ll usually send out one parent-child pair at a time while the others hold down the fort at the table. Of course, some restaurants have full lawns or places to play while waiting, and we’re all about taking advantage of those when available.

We are not above having our children watch something on a phone if the circumstances are beyond our control. For us, this usually means we’re at a leisurely dinner with loved ones we don’t see often and want to be able to soak up conversation. That being said, we will still resist this as far as it’s possible – building these skills are just that important to us (even more important than in the car!).

Some meals will go poorly. Some will be magical. What we have found – gratefully – is that people seem to appreciate when an effort is being made. It is SUCH an encouragement when another diner leans over to issue a compliment, and I try to pay it forward whenever I see another family doing their best with small (or big!) kids.

Friends, I’d love to hear: what helps you and the kids you love enjoy dining out together? Any other fun non-toy-based games to throw in the ring? :)

P.S. Screen-free road trip tips with preschoolers

Our weekend trip to Black Mountain, NC

7 March 2022

An annual getaway to the mountains is a beloved tradition for our family, dating back to our first fall in North Carolina. As Asheville has become more and more popular over the last decade (and more crowded, and more expensive…), we have enjoyed branching out a bit to nearby mountain towns: Highlands in 2021, and last year, Black Mountain! We’ll always remember this trip as our first big adventure as a family of five (John and I to each other all weekend: we’re actually doing this!!), and for that reason and more, it was truly magical. I’d love to tell you about it and share a few photos today!

And friendly PSA: if you’re considering an NC mountains trip this fall, right about now is when we like to book our stay! Things book up quite quickly for peak leaf weekends.


Black Mountain is a small mountain town just a hair closer to the Triangle than Asheville (about a 3.5-hour drive for us). We loved that it has its own distinct culture, but is only 15 minutes from downtown Asheville (meaning we could still hit some of our ride or dies). We headed west right after school on Thursday, arriving in time to make a drop at our Airbnb and feed Annie before driving the three minutes into town for a late dinner on the patio at My Father’s Pizza. It wasn’t too fancy – your standard pizza and pasta joint – but it got the job done when we needed a quick crowdpleaser.

As always, John did a fantastic job scouting our Airbnb. It had three bedrooms on the main level and even more room in the basement if we had needed it (though I’m glad we didn’t – it was sliiiiightly creepy, ha!).

Perhaps our favorite part about it, though, was that we could easily walk into town on the sidewalk along the main road, which we did for breakfast the next morning! Being able to walk to destinations on vacation is my favorite – it invites us to move at a more leisurely pace, and just makes the days feel so set apart from our normal life… so vacation-y :) The sky was perfectly blue and the leaves were beautiful on our walk!

Our breakfast destination? Four Sisters Bakery, tucked into a neighborhood of cute old homes. We split several pastries and ate them in the sun while the big kids played on the lawn and climbed trees. While chatting about our plans for the weekend, we got a wild hair: what if we had dinner at the Grove Park Inn one night? We hadn’t locked in any of our dinner plans because we weren’t exactly sure what our schedule would be, and though I was doubtful they’d have any availability on such a prime weekend, we figured it was worth a shot.

I called up the front desk and, lo and behold, they had a table for four at 6:45 (just past sunset!) the next night!! The concierge was as surprised as me it was still available, ha! As soon as I hung up the phone the nerves about taking two little kids and a baby to a fairly fancy restaurant bubbled up, but we were thrilled to have the opportunity.

After walking back to our Airbnb, we hopped in the car and drove just a few minutes away from downtown into Montreat. Montreat! Such a delightful, strange little spot! It is a town of about three square miles with fewer than 500 residents, and seems to mostly be taken up by a Christian conference center and a tiny college.

And, as it turns out, a wonderful hike – Lookout Trail. It’s a moderate out-and-back with some scrambly sections that took us a little less than two hours with a five- and three-year-old (and a baby on John in the Ergo). Also, Shep and I worked together to carry this large stick up the whole hike at his behest:

The kids enjoyed pretending to roast s’mores at the top :)

From there, we drove into Asheville for lunch at White Duck Taco. For our family, literally no trip west is complete without a stop!

After lunch, we walked along the river to the River Arts District. I had read about a pysanky egg artist with an open studio in Our State, and wanted to pay a visit given my family connection. Though nerve-wracking to squeeze amongst so many breakables with two small children, it was SO fun to see all of the beautiful designs. I splurged on an egg to add to my collection in honor of my grandmother, and can’t wait to nestle it next to my heirlooms when we celebrate Easter in a few weeks.

Next, we popped over to Asheville Bee Charmer in downtown for a quick honey tasting. They were in a new storefront since our last visit, but the honey bar was intact and a highlight, as always. We took home a custom trio of our family favorites: Meadowfoam, Orange Blossom, and Sourwood.

It was late afternoon at this point but not quite time for dinner, so we drove back to Black Mountain and stretched our legs at a playground we had majorly rubbernecked in Montreat earlier in the day. Y’all, this was one of the coolest playgrounds I have ever been to!! Little islands of wooden playground equipment were dotted between rocky streams, making for a magical play experience. The water was too cold to wade into during our October visit, but during the summer I’ll bet it’s heaven.

We could have stayed for hours, but eventually packed up and drove the few minutes into town for dinner at Black Mountain Bistro. Even with chilly temps, it was cozy on the patio under string lights and heat lamps.

We finished the evening with chocolate treats from Kilwins and a turn in the hot tub. Yes, this was a major attraction of this Airbnb and June and Shep were SO EXCITED to finally take a dip after 24 hours in its vicinity.

The Thomas clan is often slow going in the morning. On Saturday, we opted for a late brunch at Open Oven Bakery. It was quite busy, so while we waited for our table, John took the kids to play at the church playground across the street while I walked around the corner to Sassafras on Sutton, a truly delightful bookstore and toy store. John’s physical therapist had actually suggested it to us, and I figured I’d pick up a few… incentives for our Grove Park dinner that night. I got that and more – it is exactly the kind of spot I look for throughout the year to help fill stockings!

After brunch on the patio (delicious!), we drove out on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Orchard at Altapass.

We were lucky to have another absolutely gorgeous day and enjoyed the mountain views as much as ever.

I’m sorry to say our Honeycrisp-sweetened taste buds mostly turned up their noses at the humble apples of Altapass, but everyone enjoyed the act of picking, “bowling” fallen apples down the paths, and the apple ugly, slice of pie, and cup of cider we shared.

We had just enough time to hit a short hike on our way home in the late afternoon – Roaring Fork Falls. This hike was a delight, and perfect for kids: it’s flat, took us less than an hour, and culminates in an impressive waterfall.

And then to the big event of the evening: dinner at the GPI! The grand lobby with its massive fireplaces was hopping, as you’d expect on an October weekend, but we were shown right to our table on the Sunset Terrace at 6:45. The sun had just set over Asheville, and the sky was still on fire. A pinch-me kind of moment!

From the cost of valet parking to the actual food itself, this dinner was our biggest splurge of the trip, but it was a truly special and memorable experience. The kids did a great job (including Annie, who slept through part of the meal in her carseat under the table, nursed, then sat in my lap for dessert) and even got commendations on their behavior from an older couple sitting nearby. Proud parenting moment :)

This experience has actually inspired me to write a whole post on dining out with kids – hopefully this month! We are not experts and neither are our kids, but we have been eating at restaurants with them since they were born (pandemic notwithstanding) and have figured out a few simple tricks along the way. Would love to be able to encourage anyone for whom this sounds intimidating!

On Sunday morning, our last morning, we had planned to try Louise’s Kitchen for brunch, but the line looked truly epic, so we happily headed back to Open Oven and might have ordered the exact same thing on all sides of the table.

Our last adventure before driving home was a hike in Newland: the Upper Creek Falls Loop.

It was noticeably longer and more challenging than our two previous hikes – it clocked in at about 2.5 hours and required several stream crossings as well as navigating steep and rocky sections. It was even rated “most difficult” by the Forest Service according to the sign at the trailhead, though to be fair that description seems a little overblown.

This little hiker guy with his Halloween socks kills me.

Just a little casual Highlights reading break mid-hike :)

Everyone except our intrepid driver was very happy to snooze on the drive home, grateful for an incredible trip and memories made!

If you have any questions about a mountain trip or anything here, I’m happy to answer! And thus concludes my 2021 travel recaps – on to 2022! :)

March 2022 goals

2 March 2022

What a heavy time, friends. As freedom-loving people – as people, period – John and I have been watching what’s unfolding in Ukraine with horror. We’ve been buoyed by the glimmers of unity and energy in response, but knowing what’s happening halfway around the world has added a hard, sad edge to my days. I’m sure you’ve felt it, too.

Given all that’s happening, it can feel wrong and strange to chip away at my goals or write about them here… but the freedom to do what matters is a freedom that democracy provides. Along with praying and donating, I can celebrate what we have here, and part of what they are fighting for over there, in a small way.

A win that must be celebrated this month: we think we have found a church home, per my first and most important 2022 goal. I am 2/2 for crying on Sunday mornings so far, which we can ascribe to taking communion after two years, worshiping with other believers, and/or the state of the world right now, but mostly, just… feeling like we’re home. It has been a long, tender road to get here and I am so grateful. Thank you, Lord.

On my calendar this month:
— The Survivor Season 42 premier! Falling on Wednesdays as it does, this show is such a bright spot in the middle of our weeks.
— My very favorite kids consignment sale, returning after a two-year hiatus.
— Some St. Patrick’s Day after-school snack fun, like this or this.

What I’m loving right now:
This post is from last year, but since I think God used Val to speak to me about returning to church, it seemed appropriate here. If you’re a believer and are struggling with this decision from any dimension, I think you might appreciate her comprehensive and gracious thoughts on this topic.
— Why are non-tee, non-fussy short sleeve shirts so hard to find?! I recently snagged this one and it is GREAT – breezy, easy to wear, pretty. You can see it on me here!
— Reader Meghan recommended this episode of Laura Tremaine’s podcast on “time anxiety” on a recent post and I enjoyed it, too. It’s in a similar vein to an EFM reader favorite, but she takes the topic in a few different directions.

As a reminder, you can find alllll the things I’ve loved over the last few years neatly organized right here!

What I read in February:
The Evening and the Morning: This is the prequel to the Ken Follett Kingsbridge trio I’ve read over the last few years, and it did not disappoint. Set in 997 (!), it is as rich, layered, and enjoyable as the books that come after it – and sets them up so beautifully, it makes you want to roll right into re-reading them.

My reading list for 2022, if you’d like to follow along!

Revisiting my February goals:
Finish culling and sorting 2021 photos + print our favorite Instagram photos from 2021 (Went to do this last minute and it seems something is wrong with their software to pull photos from IG?!)
Morning time with New Morning Mercies on Mondays and Fridays (Eh. I did this a few days but was reminded why I almost always prefer to go all or nothing on habits – it’s harder for me to make something a habit when I’m trying to remember to do it just a few days a week!)
Lay out 2012 in family album (Yes!!! This has been a goal since last spring!)
Lay out 2013 in family album (Got the photos loaded!)
Complete the second month of our fam Peloton challenge
Make and/or approve a kitchen design board
Finish the Best of EFM page (More progress, but not done yet.)
Make plans for June’s summer (Almost done!)
Memorize a first selection of scripture with the kids (Done! June and I memorized four verses from 1 John.)

March goals:
— Cull and sort the first six months of 2021 photos
— Lay out 2013 in family album
— Lay out 2014 in family album and send it to print!
— Finish the Best of EFM page
— Complete the third month of our fam Peloton challenge
— Do PT exercises daily
— Visit two community groups
— Follow the Matthew reading plan
— Memorize another piece of scripture with June
— Buy a small freezer for our garage (!)

As a reminder, many of these are drawn from my 2022 goals! Affiliate links are used in this post.

Sending love to each of you. xo