Gifts for Em

28 November 2022

How do gifts work in your families of origin these days? For several years, on both sides, we’ve moved to picking names for siblings. A few years ago, we incorporated John’s parents into the picks on the Thomas side. This year, for my family, we’re forgoing sibling gifts and instead getting together and going out for a nice dinner. (We’ll still gift individually to my parents.) I don’t know if we’ll do it every year, but it’s a fun experiment!

Even though I’m giving (and receiving!) fewer gifts this year, I still thought it would be fun to share a few things on my personal wish list while Black Friday Cyber Monday sales are still in full swing. As in the kids’ guide, I’ve listed a few tried-and-true favorites below, as well.

On my wish list:

A new set of mixing bowls | The glass set of 7 bowls we took with us when we moved to North Carolina is down to three. This pretty set would be even better for all the little bakers joining me in the kitchen these days.
— A wool coat in a punchy color | I wear my down parka daily in the winter, but it would be lovely to have a dressier option to mix in. I have looked at these beauties for YEARS without pulling the trigger.
— A tennis dress | John and I have rearranged appointments on Fridays to play together a few times, and I foresee more matches in our future now that June is taking lessons. The green is gorgeous!
— A soft, chunky sweater | Again in the green. This one is a splurge, but I seem to have reached the season of my life where I’d rather buy one sweater every few years and make it an especially good one.
— A dough bowl candle | Love these candles poured on the coast of NC – would look so pretty in the center of our table.
— Sweetest library bag | We visit biweekly at least, and our arms are always overflowing :)

And here are a few things I own and love that I think are worthy of adding to your wish list:

Clothing and accessories:

Maylis shoes | I own and adore the Ella heels (in cream, at top) and the Catherine loafers (in Maylis blue, above). Both pairs are comfortable, beautiful, well-made, and required almost no breaking in. Still in awe one of my bestest friends has seen a dream come to life in this company!
— Julie Vos Penelope Demi Studs | I wear these 95% of days. Classic pearl studs with the loveliest gold-rim upgrade.
Clementine shorts | Made for athletic pursuits but they look cute enough to wear out and about with a tee! I love the green color I own and wish they’d restock it.
Kule tee | My favorite striped tee (below). I have the Classic in cream and navy, but it reads black and white to me.
Hunter Play Rain Boots | I used to own tall Hunter boots and almost never wore them, because they were uncomfortable and hard to take on and off. I received the shorter version for Christmas last year and ADORE them! Perfect for rainy walks and school pick-ups.
— Ugg Classic Mini II Bootie | I was dubious about adding these to my wish list two years ago, but I am fully converted. Priceless for staying warm in the winter, especially with walking June to school and hanging with friends and neighbors outdoors.
— Summersalt swim suit | I have the Sidestroke and the Oasis and I LOVE them both. I would order up at least one size, as I think they run small. Very fun one-pieces and they’re always getting compliments from other mamas at the pool!
— Lake Pajamas | It’s been approximately four years since I’ve worn any other pajamas. I wear the long-longs year-round and they feel so cool and silky.
— Bow sun hat | This hat is going on year seven or eight and it still looks good as new! Packable, adorable, keeps my face protected.
— Shearling slippers | At hours-of-wear, this item of clothing would probably clock in at the top of my wardrobe – they’re my go-to from when I walk in the door to hopping into bed.
— Tree Skippers | These shoes are incredibly comfortable and cute to wear with everything – dresses, shorts, jeans (see below!). Just make sure to wear no-show socks with them, as they are a bit prone to holes.


Half Baked Harvest Super Simple | One of the only cookbooks I actually cook out of. Lots of dogeared pages in this one!
Skin Twin Featherweight Foundation | I wear this daily and love that it evens out my skin without covering anything up. Clean ingredients, too.
Original Bogg Bag | Just me, or did these start showing up everywhere last year? I see them at the pool, the beach, and soccer game days (and we use ours in all of those places), but I think they’re particularly helpful for road trip packing. We were gifted ours by a friend and I’m so grateful!
Block stamp zipper toiletry bags | I picked up the large size while in Connecticut this year. The patterns and colors and great and I think the price is good, too!
— Striped snap tote | I bought six of these for teacher gifts one year when they were marked down to $15, and am SO glad I snagged one for myself, too! They fold up flat and snap open to fit a ton, and I use mine at least weekly!
— Round serving tray | I have the blue design, but all three are absolutely gorgeous. They’re a good size and perfect for corralling things on a dresser or coffee table!
— Boat & Tote bags | Incredibly sturdy and incredibly classic. I like mine open top, in navy, with sans serif embroidery.
PowerSheets | My beloved goal planner and monthly calendar rolled into one. Can’t do life without them.

For the men in your life, don’t forget this post on some of John’s favorites – lots of good ideas in there!

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What we’re actually giving our kids this Christmas

23 November 2022

Friends, I have gone back and forth on gift guides this year! On the one hand, they take a lot of time to prepare, they might in the end be only nominally helpful, and the sheer preponderance of gift guides on the internet feels almost distasteful. On the other hand, I genuinely enjoy compiling them, the delight of helping one of you find a perfect gift is intoxicating, and they do contribute to the cost of keeping my internet home online. A conundrum!

One gift guide I knew I’d share? What we’re actually giving our kids this Christmas! It’s been a favorite post since 2019, when we had a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Below, I’ve shared what each of our kiddos will be finding under the tree this year, along with a few suggestions I gave to relatives. As a sort of gift guide compromise, I’ve also listed a few of the very favorite kid items we already own at the bottom if you’re looking for a few more suggestions.

All three kids will be getting a selection of clothes from my favorite consignment sale. When I shopped earlier this fall, I set aside some of my favorite pieces to place under the tree instead of into their drawers! In addition…

June (who is almost seven) will be receiving:
A mama-daughter camp weekend. We have our eye on a particular sleepaway camp for the future (June looooves to watch their promotional video, ha), and thought it might be wise to dip our toe in before committing to a week in the summer. This introvert is a bit nervous, but also thinks it will be SO fun to spend the weekend with just my biggest girl!
The Penderwicks boxed set, because we both fell in love with the first book earlier this year and I know she’ll be excited to unwrap the full set of these sweet modern classics. I snagged mine on Zulily last month for a steal.
Word search and crossword books. June likes to help my Dad with his NYT crosswords when he visits, and she’s expressed interest in having a book of her own. We picked these up at a toy store in Highlands!
Paper Goods Projects + a craft store gift card, because she’s always cutting, taping, and coloring during quiet time. Kid craft books are surprisingly hard to find, but there’s no one I trust more in this arena than Jodi Levine (a member of Martha’s team for 19 years!)
New sneakers, because her old ones are pulling apart at the seams.

In case you’d like a few other ideas for a gal of this age, here are some of the suggestions I gave to family members who asked: a walkie-talkie set, Sushi Go Party, Bananagrams, a 2023 wall calendar, a cute baseball cap, a gift card to our local paint-your-own-pottery place, and the complete Little House book set.

Shep (who is 4 1/2) will be receiving:
— A fire truck wallet, because the dollars he’s gotten from relatives are floating around his room and he loves June’s. Snagged this on our trip to Highlands, too!
— An art set, because he’s always drawing something. (I think he is going to LOVE this. The carrying case! So fun!)
— A puzzle table. He requested a table and chairs for his room, but since there’s not really enough space, we thought this fold-up surface would do the trick. And we can slide it under the bed when he’s not using it!
— A remote control Batmobile and figurine. This was a direct request :)
— A new winter hat, because Annie has inherited his old one.

Other ideas I gave to relatives: a super hero capes set, a police car “with siren” (another direct request), books, a Paw Patrol Color Wonder, and a dim sum play dough kit (I HATE play dough but this one is too cute!).

Annie (who is 1 1/2) will be receiving:
— A little plush carrier with animals inside, because she’ll love carrying it around and taking them in and out.
— A lunchbox, because she starts preschool soon and will need to pack a lunch!

As the third child and second girl, this gal needs almost nothing and is still so young that gifts won’t make a big impression, so I have very few other suggestions for relatives! The only other thing I’ve seen that looks fun is this color-changing sink :)

A few of our time-tested, very favorite toys and gifts:

— A set of MagnaTiles, because yes, they’re as good as everyone says they are. Played with multiple times a week by all three kids. Definitely add the cars, and remember MagnaTiles and PicassoTiles are interchangeable!
— A big box of colorful Duplos (also played with almost daily by all three!).
— This ice cream play set, which has provided hours and hours of entertainment. FIVE STARS.
— A Micro Kickboard scooter. These are hands-down the best scooters – we’ve gifted them to both of our kids around age 2, and 3-5 is the sweet spot.
— A game you can play together: try Cover Your AssetsTicket to Ride, or Sushi Go Party, all some of June’s favorites at almost 7. (More ideas here!)
— A Yoto, for a tech-free audio book player. The radio station is quite good, too! I’d recommend adding the Yoto Club subscription for a year to build up your card collection, and we also have the card binder. We’re all in, ha!
— The cutest personalized notepads. BIG favorite with June.
— A Priority Start bike. June started with the 16″ at age 4 3/4, and graduated to the 20″ at age 6 (and passed the 16″ to Shep for his 4th birthday!). These bikes are SO well-made and look good, too! :)
— Alice & Ames dresses, because they are the twirliest with the best patterns.
— A Kiwi Co subscription or Highlights magazine subscription.
— The Playmobil recycling truck, which is in constant rotation around our house. I would recommend for 4+, as the pieces are a bit small and finicky.

Whew! I hope that’s helpful! I’ve rounded up a bunch of ideas, but remember, kids don’t need much to be happy – in our family, we’ve actually found that too many gifts can be overwhelming and dull the whole experience. So choose wisely, and with joy – giving our kids good gifts is a really fun part of being a parent! :) And happy Thanksgiving, friends!!

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Working part-time as a mom, part three

21 November 2022

When I started writing this series, I was mainly focused on my reasons for transitioning to part-time work, which were personal, not professional. I was surprised, then (but delighted!), by your many wonderful questions about the work side of this transition, and so it was an easy decision to dive into this angle with an extra post. (We’ll look at how I’m spending my Fridays in the fourth and final post.) Let’s take your questions…

Part One: Background on my work history and some reasons (or not) for shortening my work week
Part Two: Why we chose me over my husband to make this change, why we chose going part-time over other solutions, and the financial impact
Part Four: What my days off have actually looked like (so far)

Annie’s first visit to the Cultivate office earlier this year

Was your decision influenced by Cultivate’s acquisition?

Those of you who have followed closely may be aware that Cultivate was acquired in June of this year. My decision to go part-time was not in response to the acquisition, but it did put a point on the process. After I went back to work following my maternity leave in late fall 2021, the squeeze at home became more and more apparent. By the spring, I knew going part-time was the right decision, and I was eager to confirm my new schedule before the acquisition closed, knowing that negotiating with a brand-new boss could be far more challenging. The new owners agreed to my hours as part of my signing on to their company despite not having many part-time employees, for which I am grateful.

How did you negotiate this arrangement with your boss?

I remember so clearly the first time I broached the idea of reducing my hours – I was standing in my boss’s kitchen, heating up my lunch :) This was in 2016, when I was pregnant with June, and she had mentioned several times that we should talk about what my maternity leave was going to look like. I was nervous to have the conversation, because I worked for a small company with no clear blueprint for leave – I wasn’t sure where we’d land, and it felt like there was a lot riding on the outcome. I also knew I wanted to ask for a shortened schedule (9-4 versus 9-5) at the same time, and I had NO idea what the response to that request would be.

My boss met my requests so graciously, which should not be a surprise to anyone who knows her. With that first change of hours, my promise was basically that I would continue to produce the same amount of work with five fewer hours by trimming “fat” anywhere I could throughout my days – and that’s pretty much what I did.

When it was time to arrange this most recent transition of my schedule, the situation was very different. I did not feel nervous about approaching my boss – we were both in new places in our lives and in our relationship with each other, and I knew she would immediately support this change, which she did. I also knew that if for some reason my request was turned down, I could walk away and our family would be fine – it wouldn’t be what I wanted, but we were in a very different place financially and in our lives than we were in 2016, and so the outcome did not feel as pressure-filled. What did make me nervous, however, was breaking the news later to the rest of the CWM team, as I worried they might feel I was abandoning them in the midst of the upheaval of the acquisition (they, too, were very gracious).

I recognize that my situation is unique: I’m a key (though not indispensable!) cog with a very niche role in a small business. I had major longevity at the company and had demonstrated long-term loyalty. I work for a business whose purpose is to help customers live out what matters most, and wants that for their employees, too. And most importantly, I had a boss who cared deeply about me as a person and is a woman of great compassion, integrity, and love for God. (I know you’re reading, Lara – what a gift you are to me!)

Is anyone watching the fifth season of The Crown? Towards the end of the first episode, the Queen requests funds for refurbishment of the royal yacht from the Prime Minister. He initially balks at the expense, which prompts a forceful response from Her Majesty: “I hope we can agree that as sovereign, I have made very few requests, let alone demands, in return for the service I have given this country. Perhaps the reason I have held back is in the hope that when I actually do, people don’t just take it seriously, they do as I ask without question.” Wowza.

I’ve talked about this before, but staying at Southern Weddings and Cultivate for as long as I have is not an accident – among other reasons, I hoped my tenure would allow for exactly the flexibility, trust, and latitude it has when I needed it most. Though I would never have spoken with such imperiousness (yipes!), I did recognize a bit of my situation in the Queen :)

What had to change in my role, or what has changed, for this to be possible?

This is an astute question. It’s not possible to go part-time in every role, and even if it is, many roles (and individuals, and company cultures!) are just not suited to it. Though I have worked for the same company my entire life, my role has changed several times over the last decade, and when I look back, I can see the ways I consciously and subconsciously nudged it toward a shape that is suited to part-time hours. Here are a few of those ways:

  • I am an individual contributor with long-term projects. My main responsibility is devising and writing the content for our printed products (PowerSheets, conversation cards, Reading Journal, etc. – almost everything!). I interface with designers, editors, and occasionally higher-ups, but it’s largely just me at my computer, writing and thinking. I have very few daily deliverables, as most of my projects take several days or weeks to complete. Since the projects are more long-term, I have more choice over how I structure my time each day.
  • My role is not driven by immediate metrics and generally does not require immediate responses. This is very different than, say, a job in marketing, which has daily data points that might require pivots, changes in strategy, or new initiatives. I also receive almost no email. (Seriously – probably fewer than five emails a month that require responses. I do have Slack to keep up with and chatter in our project management system.) In my Southern Weddings role, by comparison, email was a HUGE part of my job and I responded to (and sent!) hundreds of emails a month.
  • I have bowed out of managerial responsibilities. Over the years, by choice (and sometimes not by choice!), I have shed my more unpredictable responsibilities – namely leadership and HR roles. This has given me more autonomy and control over my time at work, since I am less buffeted by the needs and whims of other people. It also means I have very few meetings.

And here are a few things I have had to accept to make this work on my end:

  • I have to look WAY far ahead in our project management system to see what’s coming down the pike for me. I work on big, long-term projects that can’t just be dashed off in a few hours if I didn’t see them coming. With fewer days and hours, I don’t have as much room for error in planning my time.
  • I live and die by time blocking. At the end of every week, I look ahead at my calendar and in our project management system and block my time in half-hour increments. This is the only way I can be realistic about what I can and cannot accomplish in a week. As I adjust due dates in the project management system, it helps others with expectations, especially since I’m not always available to answer questions. Time blocking also helps me stay on task and avoid distractions during the day, which is always important, but even more so with shorter hours.
  • I have had to release control. As my hours have shortened, I have had to give up projects to other people. I can’t weigh in on as many decisions. I just don’t have time to have my fingers in all that I’d want to, which can be hard. (But it has been good at the same time!)
  • I turn off notifications and don’t check Slack (or anything else) outside of my hours. This is counter-cultural in our world and in many workplaces, but it’s a key to actually enjoying the time away from work I have carved out for myself.
  • I have sacrificed being a star. Though I play a key role and am respected, I am outside the power structure. I’m not a manager, I’m not on the leadership team, my employers know I am not interested in “moving up the ranks,” I have limited hours, I’m not the first one tapped for new opportunities. I don’t think I will ever be the most beloved employee. All of this can be hard, but it’s a trade-off I’m making with open eyes.

How do you structure your six hours on days you work?

I generally block off the first and last half hour as “check in” and “wrap up,” respectively. Because I work shorter hours, there’s usually chatter that I need to catch up on (in Slack, email, and our project management system) that happened while I was out. If a small, last-minute ask comes up, I’ll usually tackle it in those windows, too.

I currently have a one-hour meeting on Mondays, and will occasionally schedule one-off meetings as needed – but other than that, it’s largely up to me how I schedule my time. Depending on deadlines and what I’m working on, I like to have a 2-3 hour block of deeper work – writing a chunk of a longer product or writing curriculum for a class – in the morning, then a break for lunch and a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood with John. In the afternoon, I schedule shorter blocks for blog posts, teaching emails, product descriptions, scripts, and similar tasks. I might use my final wrap-up half hour to finish a task I need a little extra time on, respond to messages, or take care of admin tasks.

I hope this sheds a little light on the other half of this transition! I’d love to hear how our work days are similar or different – it’s always interesting to learn about different experiences than your own!

Part One: Background on my work history and some reasons (or not) for shortening my work week
Part Two: Why we chose me over my husband, why we chose going part-time over other solutions, and the financial impact
Part Four: What my days off have actually looked like (so far)

Bats and Swallows

18 November 2022

I tried hard to get part three of our current series ready for today but didn’t quite get there. Monday! For today, a poem that absolutely delighted me when I saw it in The Atlantic last year. The internal rhyme! The line breaks! I hope you enjoy.

Bats and Swallows
Erica McAlpine

Whatever the difference might be
to one who knows,
we couldn’t see
from where we stood in soft shadows
any signs that they were swallows

or bats. That there were wings
was without doubt;
you could see small pointed things
swooping out
into the gloaming–

and sometimes back.
One seemed almost iridescent
as I tried to track
its crescent
flight across the hill. The lack

of sound suggested
bats to me;
you strained to see if they nested
somewhere below the
terrace, having rested

your case on swallows.
We couldn’t be sure
either way–and so it follows
that neither of us knows.
But since it is in your nature

always to side one way
or the other, you hold
that they were swallows. I say
the question never gets old,
that either, or both, hold sway.

Photo from Warren Photographic