Creating a Life Free From Chaos

School is Back: Here’s Your Survival Guide

The following is an excerpt from my book, Mommy Simplicity: Finding Calm in the Chaos.

School. I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with school.

In September, I’m completely obsessed with school. I love shopping for new school supplies, the smell of fresh crayons and newly sharpened pencils delight me. I love getting my boys their back-to-school haircuts, freshening their wardrobes and spiffing them up after a summer of chlorine-filled pools acting in place of their daily showers (I know I’m not the only one…). I’m filled with relief and a sense of freedom as I drop them off at school, giggling as I head out for a coffee-laden wander through Target child-free (again, I know I’m not the only one — we’re in there clinking coffee cups as we pass in the aisles). I eagerly look forward to every piece of paper that comes home, read every word the teachers email us and enjoy looking for new ideas to make lunch boxes fun.

By May, eegads, are we over it. I haven’t signed a folder in a month — and I’m not even sure the first grader knows where his folder is. We forget to pack snack at least twice a week, and I cannot wait for summer break just so *I* can have time off from the terror of 4th grade math homework. Teacher emails with the subject line “special project!” make me want to hurl my laptop across the room. My neighborhood mom friends now meet for margarita lunches instead of morning coffees. The lunch boxes are dusty in the cupboard, and I’m pretty sure they’re eating ice cream and French fries for lunch. From the looks on the teachers’ faces, I think they’re just as over it as I am, and I’m bringing Sonic Happy Hour drinks up to the school with prayers that it’s not my kids making them consider early retirement.

Homeschooling mamas, I really don’t know how you do it. My hat’s off to you.

School doesn’t have to be this stressful, of course. Planning ahead and going into the school year with a game plan can make the whole year go smoother.

Get the right supplies.

It can seem like schools are sending out longer supply lists every year, but it’s important to remember these lists are the tools your children will be using all day, every day, for at least nine months. Before heading to the store, check your home stash to see if you have any of the requested supplies already on hand. Do the bulk of your supply shopping kid-free if possible, especially if you have younger children. Most kids gravitate toward the pricier or fancier options not on the list, and it can be challenging to argue prices and required lists with kids in the middle of a crowded shopping aisle. They’ll grab whatever they want, whether they actually need it or not. After you get what they really need, take the kids shopping for a few fun supplies that can really show their personality.

It can seem like schools are sending out longer supply lists every year, but it’s important to remember these lists are the tools your children will be using all day, every day, for at least nine months. Click To Tweet

Don’t stress the back-to-school wardrobe.

Many parents feel like they *have to* rush out before school starts and buy their child a whole new wardrobe. You don’t. In many places, the first month or two of school is still summery weather, so they can continue wearing what they already have. In Texas, it can be months before my kids even need a long-sleeve shirt.

Instead of springing for an entire new closet of clothes, evaluate what they already have. Get rid of anything outgrown or too stained and holey to wear in public. Check that shorts, skirts, tops, and tank tops fall within the boundaries of school dress code policies, and make sure you have one or two pairs of pants and a jacket that fits in case cooler weather sneaks up. Then don’t stress. Pick up what your child needs as she needs it — it’s much easier on the budget and less wasteful of perfectly serviceable clothing.

Plan a homework spot at home.

Put together a homework station, just a simple caddy, drawer or shelf of extra school supplies. Include a nice selection of sharp pencils, a pencil sharpener, a large eraser, a few pens (including a red pen for marking), presharpened color pencils or fresh crayons, loose-leaf paper, and a ruler. I also keep a few sheets of poster board and a bin of construction paper, blank index cards, glue sticks, white glue and markers for last-minute projects. I prefer to keep these separate from our regular art supplies, since my kids love to do art on their own, and I like to have fresh supplies ready for school projects to avoid late-night trips to the store.

Plan ahead for school lunches.

If your children buy lunch at school, go ahead and fill up their lunch account with money or keep an envelope of small cash set aside for the inevitable cry of “I need lunch money!” If you have younger children, check into the option of limiting what they can buy if they have access to sugary treats in the lunch line. My children usually bring lunch from home, but I always keep a few bucks in their school lunch accounts in case we forget to grab the lunch box or if something unforeseen happens. If you send lunch from home, check your supplies to be sure you have a sturdy lunch box, reusable containers, and even small cloth napkins for your kids to use. Consider putting together a week or two worth of lunch menus or a choose-your-own lunch chart with options for sandwiches, finger foods, side dishes, beverages, and healthy desserts to make putting together a healthy lunch fast and easy. Older kids can make their own lunches, but a menu or chart of options can help them make healthy decisions.

Decide in advance what extracurricular activities each child will participate in.

As much fun as sports, music, and clubs are, too many activities can wear both you and your kids out, and school work can suffer. Sit down before school starts to discuss what activities each person wants to do, and create a calendar that shows at-a-glance who has what activities each day. Your daughter’s soccer schedule and your son’s band practices affect not just them, but their siblings and you too, so it’s important to consider each person’s schedule for the simple sanity of the whole family.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Mommy Simplicity: Finding Calm in the Chaos. If you found it helpful, please check out my book on Amazon. It’s available in both print and Kindle versions.

A Lazy Girl’s Simple Guide to Exercise

A Lazy Girl’s Simple Guide to ExerciseThis is a guest post by Dr. Tracy Papa.

We all know we should be exercising, right? We all know that exercise improves high blood pressure and diabetes, boosts energy, and lifts our mood. So if we all know this, why is it that most of us do not have a regular exercise habit? As a physician, here are some of the reasons I hear most often from my patients:

  • I don’t have time to exercise.
  • I’m too tired.
  • I can’t afford gear.

On a personal level, here is what I find frustrating about exercise — I read articles all the time that tell me that this new exercise is better than whatever I’m currently doing. For instance, I was on board with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) when I read about Tabata training. According to the cool kids, Tabata was soooo much more effective than just HIIT. And I was having fun with Zumba when I heard about hip-hop and barre and Bollywood dancing classes. And what about TRX training, suspending yourself with straps? Kettlebells? Aero bars? Shake-weights, anyone?

Enough already! Quit trying to keep up with the sexiest new exercise trends, and just land on a routine that you can live with. One that’s simple so that you have no excuse not to do it every day (although I still don’t manage to do it every day). Here are the answers to the most frequent questions about exercise, my fellow time-crunched friend.

What kind of exercise should I be doing?

It doesn’t matter. If there is a form of exercise that you enjoy (or that you maybe just don’t loathe), do that. The more important priority is to be doing something nearly every day. It doesn’t always have to be the same something. You can ride a stationary bike while watching “Fixer Upper” or a TED talk. Take a brisk walk with the kids or the dog. Walk on a treadmill and listen to a podcast. Stressed out today? Go to a yoga class and zone out while you stretch, strengthen, and breathe. Most studios sell multi-class passes, so you can drop in when you want to.

How much time should I spend?

It doesn’t matter. The truth is, any exercise is better than none. Some people are more comfortable with a slower, steady pace for 40-60 minutes. If you are impatient like me, high-intensity intervals make sense — I work hard, but I don’t have to do it for as long. There are tons of HIIT workouts on Pinterest, and they combine cardio with strength training. Scroll through and choose some to try. Personally, I skip past any workouts that involve a lot of Burpees. Don’t know what a Russian twist is? Google it. You may alternate HIIT workout days with easier workouts. But whatever you do, pour it out every time. Go home tired.

Should I exercise in a group? By myself? At a gym? On a team?

It doesn’t matter. You know what kind of person you are. If you like the camaraderie (and the accountability) of a team, look for a running group or a basketball/soccer/softball league in your area. Or try what I did: I signed up for a cycling event with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. I joined a cycling team and trained for a 100-mile bike ride. And completed it, I’m proud to say. I loved having an event to train for, a team to show up for, and a goal to achieve that helped both me and a great cause. If you’re not much for teams but like the idea of a goal to stretch for, there are plenty of ways to train for individual events. Do some 5K walks in your area and try to beat your personal best time with each race. The question of where to work out is also an individual decision. I like the gym because there is nothing to do there except exercise. When I’m at home, I tend to get distracted by laundry, clutter, and family needs. If the expense or the inconvenience of a trip to the gym is not your thing, exercise at home or in a local park.

That’s about as simple as it gets. You’re overthinking this. You don’t need special clothes or equipment. If all you have is a few minutes, dance it out your favorite song. Do more if you have more time or energy on any given day. The secret is getting some activity in every day. Even a little bit, in the way that best suits your abilities, budget, and interests. And see how much those little sessions add up to big changes!

Tracy PapaTracy Papa is a board-certified Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist (perinatologist) in Fort Worth, Texas. She blogs about pregnancy issues of all kinds on her website,

Why Simple Living is Eco-Friendly

Why Simple Living is Eco-FriendlyI don’t remember exactly what enticed me toward eco-friendly living. It might have been the PSAs on TV about conservation, or the growing number of eco-friendly tidbits in my favorite magazines, or the posts popping up in my Facebook feed, or even Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, that I watched one afternoon while recovering from a kidney stone.

I do remember when I started though: when my first son was born. The thought crossed my mind that my child will inherit a dirty planet, and that was heartbreaking.

Around the same time, I was reading books about how to simplify my increasingly chaotic life, and I was changed. I believe that simple living and eco-friendly living go hand-in-hand. The “simpler” your lifestyle is, the more eco-friendly it probably is. And if you’re a greenie, you’re probably following the first R, “reduce” anyway, by default living a simpler lifestyle than someone who isn’t eco-minded.

I remember when I started my simple living journey: when my first son was born. The thought crossed my mind that my child will inherit a dirty planet, and that was heartbreaking. Click To Tweet

An important part of modern simple living is to cut out all the unneeded “stuff,” which also reduces your ecological footprint. On a global scale, continued over-consumption of the world’s natural resources by wealthy nations means fewer resources for the world’s poor. Not only is this incredibly unjust, it’s unsustainable.

Just this summer, our family went on one of my “bucket list” trips — a cruise to Alaska. I wanted to see, wanted my kids to see, some glaciers before they all melt and are gone. And they are melting, at an alarming rate. While cruising through small icebergs and up to see one of the bigger glaciers from the ship, we went on an excursion from Skagway, Alaska, to get up close and personal with one. We canoed out to the site, then hiked all the way to the glacier. It looked deceptively close when we started the hike, and the glacier looked small. But after hiking much longer, much further than anticipated, we were right there, in front of a huge glacier. The kids got to see ice calving off the side and picked up a giant chunk of ice, but a just a tiny bit of the larger picture.

Why Simple Living is Eco-Friendly

The earth’s natural resources are limited, and ecosystems can only absorb so much pollution and lose so many species before the damage becomes irreparable. On an individual level, the endless pursuit of “more” is stressing out families, who work and commute long hours to afford the big house in the suburbs and all the “gotta have” possessions. We have less time for the things we claim are most important: our families, our friends, our faith, our hobbies.

The endless pursuit of 'more' is stressing out families. We have less time for the things we claim are most important: our families, our friends, our faith, our hobbies. Click To Tweet

Instead of expending all your efforts into paying for, storing, and maintaining all your possessions, why not eliminate the things that are unnecessary? I’m frequently asked, “where do I start?” My answer: start at home, right now.

The simplest way to make your current home more efficient, eco-friendly and clutter-free is to go back to basics: the 3 R’s. The first R is the most important: reduce. Reduce your possessions by eliminating the non-essentials and only keeping what you truly use and love. You don’t have to go minimalist overnight, so don’t go crazy thinking you have to do it all right away. The important part is to get started.

The second R, reuse, is the next most important. Before you run to the store for every “I need,” take a look around and see what you already have that you can repurpose or “multipurpose” to get the job done.

The third R, recycle, is your reminder to take care as you shed extra possessions and get rid of the excess responsibly. Sell or give away usable items to people who need them, and recycle as much of the rest as possible so that it doesn’t wind up in a landfill.

We do not inherit the earth from our parents — we borrow it from our children. Living a more sustainable, earth-friendly lifestyle is not about doing without –- it’s about having enough.

Why Simple Living is Eco-Friendly

Simple, eco-friendly living should be about what works for you and your family. If each of us did a little something every day, if we each made one small change in our lifestyle, the collective impact would be immense.

We do not inherit the earth from our parents -- we borrow it from our children. Living a more sustainable, earth-friendly lifestyle is not about doing without –- it's about having enough. Click To Tweet