Design Mom » Amy Hackworth The Intersection of Design & Motherhood Thu, 29 Sep 2016 15:28:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Chores and Children Tue, 26 Nov 2013 14:00:02 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

Teaching kids to help with household chores seems like the perfect primer on work and responsibility — to me, two of the most daunting and most important lessons I hope to teach our children. And research shows that involving children in chores teaches “a sense of responsibility, competence, self-reliance, and self-worth that stays with them throughout their lives.” The same study concluded that young adults in their 20s were most successful when they’d participated in household tasks around ages 3-4. Fascinating!

One of my earliest attempts at working together as a family was cleaning our hallway bathroom with our two boys. I remember standing next to our six-year-old while he cleaned the mirrors above the sink. Only instead of cleaning, he was making silly faces in them. Many, many silly faces. And instead of teaching him responsibility, I was teaching him what happened when I lost my temper. I took deep breaths for as long as I could and then said through clenched teeth, ”Clean the mirror. Just clean the mirror!”

A few months later when I heard a home management coach give a presentation about children and chores, I asked her about my frustration with my son. “Your six-year-old is not ready to be a great worker yet. Stop expecting him to be.” That may be the best parenting advice I’ve ever received. In my resolve to instill that sense of responsibility, I’d ignored the importance of helping him be successful. I’d also micromanaged him, hovering over him until the mirror was clean. And I suddenly saw that instead of teaching him the value of hard work, I was damaging our relationship (not to mention my blood pressure) by expecting him to do things that were beyond his ability.

The home management expert encouraged me to see that my son was still in a very creative stage of life. He’d be ready to work when he was a little older, but until then he could continue to work on the mirrors if that’s what we decided was best, but I would need to lower my expectations and appreciate his efforts more than the outcome. Small, quick jobs would teach him to enjoy contributing to our family and build his self-confidence. That’s what I really wanted for my son. A sparkling bathroom could wait.

Please share! How are you teaching responsibility and handling chores in your family, from little ones to older children? Any tips for making chores fun and rewarding (and keeping parental tempers in check)?

P.S. — Knowing what to expect from kids can be tricky, but keep in mind that, as Elizabeth Pantley, parenting author, points out in this article, “A child who has mastered a complicated computer game can easily run the dishwasher.” See several suggestions for age-appropriate chores here. And more great advice here about what to do when you have to ask a million times, how to avoid scolding (which doesn’t help), the very helpful “Grandma’s rule”, and offering praise for great effort.  

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Being Ourselves: The Best Kind of Service? Tue, 19 Nov 2013 16:30:23 +0000 Design Mom

Be Yourself. Hand lettering by Emily McDowell.

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Emily McDowell.

I was inspired by my friend Christine last weekend as I watched her serving others: she helped with a fundraiser at our local elementary school; planned, prepared for, and executed a surprise party for a friend who needed some love; and volunteered to design, bake and decorate a three-tiered fondant-covered super fancy Tinkerbell cake for the nonprofit Cake Smiles. And that was just the weekend!

Her kids are in after-school gymnastics and piano and soccer and their serious allergies and asthma mean they’re visiting medical specialists several times a month, and quite possibly the emergency room, too. My point is that she’s got as much on her plate as anyone I know, yet she always seems balanced, calm and genuinely happy, and she’s consistently helping others.

I resisted the temptation to compare myself to Christine, but I was motivated by her example to think about how I could open my eyes, heart, and life to others more often. As I talked with another friend who’s a great example of reaching out to others, she taught me a new way of seeing service. Elizabeth shared that her kindness and help to others is rarely a conscious intention of “service”, but more an organic extension of her natural gifts. “I used to think I always had to do for people,” Elizabeth explained, but that led to stress and worry and feeling that she could never do enough.

Now, Elizabeth tries to honor and care for herself, and finds that when she’s open to helping others, she trusts that opportunities will appear, and they do. What’s more, they fit seamlessly into her life because she’s using her gifts with purpose and intention. This seems true of Christine, as well. Both women are making time for others, but because they’re being wise with their inherent gifts, the help they offer isn’t a burden or an obligation, but just a part of who they are.

And so, what if our best service to the world — to our families and friends and co-workers and communities — has everything to do with being who we truly are and the natural opportunities that arise? What if being the best version of ourselves, with all that flows authentically from that, is the best kind of service we can offer?

P.S. — I thought these prints of Emily McDowell’s were particularly appropriate. And of course, planned and organized service is so important, too! Remember the brilliant and well-planned Summer of Service? And have you heard about Giving Tuesday coming up just after Black Friday and Cyber Monday? It’s another great way to reach out.

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The Moment of Commitment Tue, 12 Nov 2013 14:00:39 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Ship blueprint available here.

A few days ago I attended a dinner at a business conference for entrepreneurs with my husband.  A man we sat near is happily working in a field he loves, but said that twenty years ago he would never have dreamed he’d be doing what he was doing now. It’s his third career, and his working life has been full of the unexpected, as many (most?) of our working lives are.

I love hearing about the paths people have travelled that have led to a perfect job or a dream fulfilled. It’s reassuring to hear happy endings when I feel I’m still in the middle of my own story. It seems that certain elements almost always emerge in these happy endings: a chance meeting here or a random connection there leads to a conversation that leads to a realization that leads from one opportunity to another. And somewhere on the journey is often a decision — seemingly simple but with far-reaching consequences— to pursue that work.

I love this passage about committing to a decision by Scottish mountaineer, W.H. Murray:

“Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

Isn’t it wonderful to think that once we commit ourselves to an idea, a project, a purpose, or goal, that things begin to work in our favor, things we could never have dreamt would have come our way? And how thrilling to watch as one thing after another falls into place toward the fulfillment of that decision.

Do you see the moment of commitment as an essential step to success? Have you seen this kind of magic happen in your own life? Inspire us with your stories, please!

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The Importance of Children’s Hospitals Tue, 05 Nov 2013 15:30:51 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Images by Kirstin Roper.

Imagine your daughter’s flu-like symptoms turn out to be something much more serious and within hours, you learn she’s in heart failure and will need a transplant. Or your little equestrian is kicked in the head by a horse one afternoon at the trainer’s and suddenly you’re only thinking of the next minutes and hours of her life, questioning the hope of coming days and years. Or imagine that a sudden bulge in your daughter’s cheek turns out to be an aggressive Stage IV tumor, the thing you feared most when you took her to the doctor.

Now imagine that as your world is being changed forever, as you are sobered and overwhelmed and frightened, your child is being treated at a facility that’s specifically designed for pediatric care — a children’s hospital that can meet all of your needs, from the best possible care for your little patient to the most supportive and helpful environment for your thousand-and-one questions and fears. As medical protocols and procedures become part of your everyday vocabulary, the children’s hospital where your child is being cared for begins to feel like home, and the staff begins to feel like family.

These are the stories I heard a few weeks ago when I joined the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals on a trip to celebrate their Champions — a group of kids and their families (one from each state) who are heroes of bravery and courage. Morgan’s heart transplant was successful, and two years later she is the whirlwind of energy you’d expect any 5-year-old would be. Greer was fortunate enough to find the world’s foremost pediatric craniofacial expert at her children’s hospital, and less than a year after her accident she is literally back in the saddle, riding and competing again. And darling Jordyn is in complete remission now, looking forward to a baby brother in January and planning a career in medicine.


These are just three of the stories I heard, and the forty-seven others represent thousands of kids across the country. Some of them have overcome a devastating injury or illness; others are still recovering. They’re kids who’ve gotten better, and some who won’t get better. Many of these children are in remission or fully recovered, and many of them will continue to face challenges everyday of their lives, but they keep up with their snowboard competitions, go to cheer practice, apply for college and pursue their dreams.

They are stories I couldn’t listen to without wide eyes and a few tears, and they are kids who amazed me with the bravery and joy that radiated from their brightest, happiest smiles. I learned so much from these kids and their parents about life, health, happiness, tenacity, attitude, faith, courage, joy, love and miracles. And I gained a new appreciation for the incredible role that children’s hospitals play in our communities. Receiving treatment at a children’s hospital means every aspect of your child’s care is being delivered by staff who are experts at caring for children—not just their medical needs, but their emotional needs, too. These families spoke about their local children’s hospitals with appreciation and reverence, and I can understand why.

I also learned that our communities’ children’s hospitals survive on charitable donations, most of which happen a dollar at a time. Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals alone provide an incredible amount of charitable care: $6500 every minute, which totaled $3.4 billion in 2012. That’s a lot of money! And that money is serving kids and families in significant ways, like buying needed equipment, providing funds for pediatric research, respirators and monitors for the tiniest of newborns, dedicated pediatric CT scanners, genetic programs to identify hereditary conditions, insulin pumps, and necessities like distraction toys for painful treatments and craft supplies and support programs, not to mention financial help for underinsured families.

All of those things are purchased with donated dollars, and there are so many ways to help! Those checkout donations at grocery or drug stores add up to billions of dollars each year, and go directly to the nearest children’s hospitals. Dance Marathon is a great way for high schools or universities to have an incredible time raising money for great kids. Families can also raise money by playing video, board, or outdoor games as part of Extra Life. You can create your own holiday fundraiser, too — a bake sale or art sale or babysitting service and donate the proceeds directly to your children’s hospital. Or simply join an advocacy group that will help you know when to reach out to legislators as they make key decisions about children’s health issues.

If you’ve had an experience at a children’s hospital, I hope you’ll share it, and your ideas about supporting and funding our communities’ children’s hospitals.

P.S. — You shared so many great ideas about supporting our friends whose children are in the hospital in this post a few months ago.

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Over-Committed Wed, 30 Oct 2013 21:27:26 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Limited edition print by Aletha and Ruth on Minted.

After feeling kind of lousy for a few days last week, my energy was back over the weekend. I felt great, motivated, and determined so I created a to-do list a mile long and dove in for all I was worth. Full-steam ahead on yard work, personal work, family projects and housework! It was both exhilarating and exhausting, but by the end of the weekend… it was just exhausting.

I’d overdone it. I went full-steam ahead until I ran out of steam, and then, boy, did I run out of steam. By Sunday night I was so tired I couldn’t even think about the things I needed to prepare for a trip the next morning. I was beat. (Not surprisingly, Monday morning was a fairly unpleasant, hectic rush.)

This sparked a memory: a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago, an a-ha moment that I’m still trying to assimilate and live. She was life coaching me at the time, and she asked me a simple question about what’s really happening when I try to do too much.

It suddenly struck me that when I overloaded myself in the name of responsibility, the result was just the opposite. I was being irresponsible when I agreed to more than I could handle. I became ineffective (see above!) or some commitment went untended. I either let myself or someone else down, and in both cases I was disappointed and sorry. I’d developed a belief that doing more was equivalent to doing better, and it felt almost moral to fill my plate just beyond capacity. Yes, I can do that. I can do that, too. I’m sure I have time to do that. Probably, at the root of it was that misconception that I had to somehow earn my worth, rather than simply trusting in it.

Making unrealistic to-do lists is an old habit that has been hard to break. Our minds simply work faster than our hands, so it’s easy to imagine doing more than we can actually do in a day. Trial and error teach us what’s possible and what’s too much, and paying attention to those lessons, I think that’s responsibility.

What have you learned about keeping commitments realistic? Does cutting back improve your personal, family or professional work?

P.S. Last week Gabrielle wrote about the concept of “satisficing,” which certainly applies to those grand to-do lists. 

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Helping Children Develop Talents Tue, 22 Oct 2013 14:30:47 +0000 Design Mom

Little Artist. By Eugeni Balakshin.

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Eugeni Balakshin.

I’m fascinated by natural ability — how some people can expertly sketch from memory, or play a tune by ear, or instinctively understand math, or show seemingly effortless compassion, or handle a soccer ball with native skill and energy. I believe we were all born with these kinds of gifts, though some are more obvious than others. These innate gifts amaze me, and one of the most exciting things about parenting is watching them unfold.

I’ve always hoped to support our sons in developing their gifts, to help them find expertise and joy in learning more about the things that come naturally to them. But so far, I haven’t been terribly successful.

One of our sons has some obvious natural ability with drawing and sculpture, and a pretty active imagination to go along with it. During free time in first grade last year, he made some remarkable 3-D creations with paper, crayons, and glue. In the spirit of good parenting, I was thrilled to find a great art class taught by the world’s sweetest teacher, and I signed him up for after school lessons where he could learn more and experiment with different media. And he hated it. Every Monday afternoon I reminded him that he loved art, and he insisted that he didn’t. It was discouraging to realize that my great intentions had significantly missed the mark as we argued about going to class each week. (But you agreed to go…I’ve already paid for it…You love art!) For a time, I insisted, but our little boy was so unhappy. Eventually, we cancelled lessons.

Another well-intentioned flop gave me some perspective: a friend of mine enrolled her daughter in piano lessons at age 8, and the daughter dutifully practiced for a while, but didn’t enjoy it. Her mother insisted that she continue practicing (can’t we all hear the refrain from adult friends, “I wish I’d never quit piano…”), and the daughter’s resistance grew. Her experience with the piano ended poorly. When the daughter became more interested in music around age 12, she was already burned out on the piano, and my friend has wondered if she’d waited a few years for lessons if her daughter might have flourished. Maybe we’ll revisit art lessons again when the timing is better for our son.

All this is to say, it’s not always as simple as I thought it might be to help our children develop their skills and find joy in them, though I know plenty of parents have. How have you managed it for your children? Have you moved past resistance and found a place where your children appreciate lessons? Have your kids experimented with lots of different things before they found a great fit? Does your own childhood experience inform how you approach this aspect of parenting? I’m looking forward to your wisdom!

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The Myth of Worthiness Mon, 14 Oct 2013 16:00:39 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

I’ve watched Dr. Brené Brown’s 2010 TEDx talk on the power of vulnerability more than once, and I imagine many of you have, too. With over 11 million views, I think it’s safe to say the issues she discusses have struck a chord that resonates with how we think about ourselves, our mistakes, and the need for authentic relationships.

I recently came across a series of clips from a piece she did with Oprah, and there are little bits of wisdom in each one. I’m especially interested in her ideas about how we perceive our “worthiness of love and belonging.” Do we believe we’re worthy of caring relationships? That we’re worthy to be loved, and to love ourselves?

Dr. Brown, here, asserts that we do deserve these things, not because of anything we’ve achieved or accomplished, but because we live and breathe. These are fundamental privileges that accompany living, not special favors we earn by being perfect or even by being great or good. “There are no pre-requisites for worthiness,” she says.

And yet. We often act as if there are. “Sure, I’m pretty worthy of love and belonging,” she suggests we might believe, “but I’d be super worthy if…” We can fill in our own blanks: “if I could lose that last five pounds”, “if I worked harder,” “if I managed work and family just right,” “if I didn’t waste so much time,” “if I could just meet this or that goal.” Often the x to which we assign our worthiness isn’t even an attainable or realistic standard, which ensures that a sense of being enough is continually at arm’s length.

But that’s a myth, friends. We don’t need to wait until things are perfect (because they never will be!) to feel that we are worthy of loving ourselves. We deserve that because we’re here. Now let’s enjoy it.

How do you nurture a sense that you’re enough?  How can we help each other embrace life as it is instead of an unrealistic perfection that isn’t?

P.S. Brené Brown’s 2012 follow-up TED talk is here. And we talked about her ideas of vulnerability and courage several months ago here.

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Renewable Resource: Energy and the Afternoon Nap Mon, 07 Oct 2013 17:35:18 +0000 Design Mom

Sweet Dreams. By Shop Homegrown on Etsy.

By Amy Hackworth. Sign by Shop Homegrown on Etsy.

My husband has been blessed with the gift of napping. He has the ability to nap at almost any time of day with both depth and length, and still get a full night’s sleep. It’s a trait he inherited, and among my favorites of his family stories is the time Justin’s aunt remarked that she didn’t know adults took naps until she married into the family. If you’ve ever felt a little guilty for sneaking an afternoon nap, vindication is yours.

Turns out, the gift of napping has significant benefits for productivity, performance, and overall health. Arianna Huffington extolls the virtues of the nap in this story on the growing presence of nap rooms in corporate America, pointing out that “sleep makes us more productive, creative, less stressed and much healthier and happier.”

Tony Schwartz is a productivity expert leading the charge toward relaxation and renewal as legitimate means to improving performance. In a piece for the New York Times earlier this year, he makes a great case for changing our commitment to exhausting schedules that leave us regularly feeling tired and overworked.

Time is a resource, he notes, but (as we’re all too aware) it’s finite. Since we can’t generate more hours in the day, Schwartz suggests we look instead at the resource of energy, and by using it wisely, accomplish more in less time. This means taking regular breaks: research shows natural energy highs and slumps about every 90 minutes when we’re awake, much like the 90 minute sleep cycles we’re more familiar with. “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously,” Schwartz says, “Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” Instead of turning to food, caffeine, or the natural chemicals generated by stress to keep us moving through the day, Schwartz and others suggest a simpler, more natural solution: take a break when you’re tired. Nap, meditate, walk or run at regular intervals. While you might be tempted to think of those precious minutes as time lost, you’re likely to make up for those minutes through energy gained. And who couldn’t use a little more energy?

Are you in a work or family culture that accepts (or possibly celebrates) napping? Do you notice that taking regular breaks from work increases your productivity? What are your favorite ways to step away from busy-ness?

P.S. — Interesting profiles and great suggestions of how busy people make time to relax and renew here. And some video of Tony Schwartz discussing the topic here.

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Reserving Judgment…Of Ourselves Mon, 30 Sep 2013 17:42:32 +0000 Design Mom

deep breath

By Amy Hackworth. Poster by Evajuliet on Etsy.

A few years ago I was working with a life coach who pointed out my tendency to notice a fact about my life and jump to a negative reaction about that fact. In the moment, I’d made a comment about how my house was a mess, and how annoyed I was by it. She helped me separate the fact (that my house was messy) from my strong negative reaction to it (that having a messy house was an annoying burden). A messy house isn’t inherently negative; the negativity was a judgment I chose that actually made the challenge seem greater than it was.

This was my introduction to the value of delaying judgment — of noticing first the fact or feeling or experience, and holding off on my propensity to immediately label it as good or bad. This non-judgmental approach is also a tenet of mindfulness, which is simply defined as “a state of active, open attention to the present.” If only it were simple to implement…

In her book called Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (geared to classroom educators), Deborah Schoeberlein writes, “Purposefully taking a mental step back, in order to notice what happened without immediately engaging with intense emotions and reactions, provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses and the self-criticism that can slip out and make a hard thing even harder.”

“Unconstructive responses” includes labeling ourselves bad mothers when we’re impatient with our children, or berating ourselves for feeling ungrateful when we’re less than appreciative for our good lives. These judgments and their negative feelings overshadow opportunities to learn about our ourselves and shortchange growth for frustration and irritation. When I untangle my self-judgment and instead notice what I’m experiencing, I’m more thoughtful, rational and definitely more effective when it comes to considering solutions.

Have you noticed that self-judgment makes “hard things even harder”? What helps you mentally step back before diving into emotional responses?

P.S. Some interesting research about how mindfulness can decrease burnout in medical professionals and interesting suggestions (pause, presence, proceed) that apply to more than just doctors here.

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Expectations and the Unexpected Mon, 23 Sep 2013 19:59:53 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

Our family went on a little road trip last week, and I had some pretty specific ideas about how we’d spend our travel time. Things didn’t work out how I’d planned. It was nothing big or tragic that waylaid my ideas, just some unexpected events that changed the outcome of our trip (and truthfully, only slightly).

And yet, it stung. It was difficult for me to let go of the hope I’d felt in creating my expectations for our time together. The altered prospects were nothing too challenging, and actually presented some lovely opportunities. But it took more than a few miles down the road before I felt like acknowledging those opportunities.

Expectations have value, certainly, and help us manage our own and our family’s lives. But holding onto them so tightly didn’t do me a bit of good. Not surprisingly, being upset that things hadn’t gone differently didn’t change my circumstances. In fact, as long as I begrudged the loss of my unmet expectations, those expectations crowded out the good that was right in front of me—until I let them go. Once I was willing to accept what was instead of what I’d wanted, there was suddenly space to enjoy our days as they unfolded.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your expectations and the unexpected?

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Choosing How to Spend 168 Hours Mon, 16 Sep 2013 14:30:35 +0000 Design Mom

Hourglass charm by Freshly Fig on Etsy.

By Amy Hackworth. Hourglass charm on etsy.

Do hourglasses give anyone else a little anxiety? Though I think they’re beautiful, I’m haunted by their relentlessness. Nothing can stop those little sandy seconds from turning into minutes and hours and days and years, and will I ever finish (or even start) all the things I hope to?

Perhaps it’s this anxiety that draws me to Laura Vanderkam’s work about time management. Among other things, she researches and writes about making the most of the 168 hours each of us has in every week. Her book is called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

Vanderkam’s first step to reclaiming some of that extra time is to keep a time log for a week. It’s the beginning of her “time makeover” (see all the steps in this pdf). Tracking a full week’s 168 hours can teach us a lot about how we’re using — and misusing — our time, she says. It’s the starting point to creating a life that includes family time, work, exercise, hobbies, creativity and leisure, plus a full night’s sleep!

“Think about every hour of your week as a choice,” Vanderkam writes. For me, this is a liberating idea. I’m in the habit of talking about what I “have” to do on any given day, without acknowledging that all of those “have to’s” are actually things I’ve chosen, and gladly.

The demands of motherhood and family and running a household and having meaningful writing work are all things I hoped for and readily agreed to. Remembering these were choices, and therefore the hours of my week that they consume are choices, too, changes how I feel about those especially demanding hours. Instead of claiming, “I don’t have time,” Vanderkam suggests the more honest, “It’s not a priority.”

There are certainly hours in my week that I’m not spending very deliberately and plenty that don’t accurately reflect my priorities. This week, I’m setting out to find them

Are you interested in trying it or does it seem too detailed? How do you manage the many choices of your day? Time management experts, please share!

P.S. I highly recommend Laura’s recent blog post about which minutes we choose to remember our lives. And another of her books about productivity suggests making the most of early morning hours; read a funny review here.

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Choosing Cheerfulness Mon, 09 Sep 2013 17:16:39 +0000 Design Mom

New York Portrait sessions

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

We have a family friend who is effusively cheerful. Every time we see him, he is all smiles, eagerly asking about our projects and our family. When our children are with us, he kneels to their eye level and asks genuine questions about their interests. He is enthusiastic and engaged. I’ve watched him interact this way with a roomful of people, offering equal amounts of cheer to every person he speaks with.

There was a time in my life when I would have found this sunniness just a little too bright for my taste. Could he really be that interested in everyone he talks to? Could he really be that happy?

But it’s obvious he’s not putting on an act. He’s genuinely and enthusiastically interested in people around him, and the temptation to question his cheerfulness ended when I realized how talking to him made me feel. It was great! I felt important and valued. I felt like I had interesting things to say. And I couldn’t keep from smiling. His cheerful glow seemed to transfer to me after our conversation, and I was more inclined to see the world as a rosy place. I liked it.

I haven’t yet found a way to match his kindness, but when I think of him, I am motivated to try. Sometimes I think of our friend when I’m checking out at the grocery store after a long afternoon, and I’m tired, and I’ve already made a second trip to the very back of the store because I forgot something the first time I thought I was ready to check out, and now I’m running late, and did I already mention I’m tired? And hungry?

The clerk offers a polite hello and sometimes I muster the energy that our cheerful friend has, and I answer genuinely, instead of replying with a meaningless “fine, thanks,” in a tone suggests otherwise. And I’m beginning to wonder if my friend has solved an interesting equation — by making other people feel good, something wonderful happens to us, too. When I choose cheerfulness, at the checkout or with my family, I stand up taller, I feel a surge of energy, and I’m genuinely interested in other people.

The clerk and I are chatting now. Soon we’re both smiling. I’m offering kindness, and it’s doing something for both of us.

What happens when you choose cheerfulness? And who are the cheerful people in your life? How do they make you feel?

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Being Gentle to Ourselves Thu, 05 Sep 2013 04:42:29 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image: vintage Laura Ashley via The House That Lars Built.

In the past several weeks, we’ve talked about supporting our friends as they go through the hardest things. Some sorrows are deeply serious, but others are simply the sad moments of life. It might be the bittersweet milestone of kindergarten that’s got us down for a bit or a fractured friendship or an injury. Or just one of those inexplicable days when the odds seem decidedly against us.

For most women I know, a typical response to a sad day would be to soldier on, though that’s probably not the advice most of us would offer our friends in their times of sadness. I find I’m often disappointed in myself when I’m not feeling up to par; I feel frustrated and wish for the emotional energy to get off that rocky road as quickly as possible. When I’m feeling down, I often ask more of myself than I would on other days.

A few months ago, when my dear friend Meg shared a challenging day on Instagram, one of her friends suggested gentleness. “Be gentle with yourself,” Meg’s wise friend counseled, and Meg responded with appreciation, and the realization that gentleness was exactly what she needed. I’d had a similar experience — yes, that’s what I need! — when a friend offered the same idea to me a few months earlier, and the two experiences got me thinking about how this simple approach of being gentle might be difficult to apply to ourselves, though — again — we’d readily suggest it to our friends.

Why it doesn’t come easier is a bit of a mystery, but I feel sure it’s a skill, or perhaps an art, that we can learn if we’ll let ourselves. Do you know the book Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy? It’s a treasure published in the mid-90s, and author Sarah Ban Breathnach shares a pretty great idea for treating ourselves right when the world seems wrong. She calls it the “comfort drawer,” and suggests a designated drawer, lined with pretty paper and good smells, where you can “stockpile small indulgences throughout the year.” Her comfort drawer holds things like chocolate truffles (wise), bath salts, a satin eye mask, a personal scrapbook, unusual teas, good magazines. We know those rough days are coming, so why not be prepared with a cache of soul soothing luxuries?

Do you have the equivalent of a comfort drawer? What are your tried-and-true methods for dealing with personal sadness? Your favorite comforting indulgences? And are you as good at being gentle with yourself as you are with others?

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Improving Families (Lessons from Software Development) Mon, 26 Aug 2013 17:50:19 +0000 Design Mom

Successful Family

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

If you’re a software developer (any software developers out there?), you’re probably familiar with the philosophy of “agile”. I’m no expert, but I was introduced to the idea by Bruce Feiler’s book Secrets of Happy Families, when he reports on his visit to the Starrs, a family that applies the workflow philosophy to their family.

As I understand it, agile in the workplace takes decision-making and organization from executive management and puts both in the hands of the team doing the actual programming. It utilizes day-to-day personal and team accountability and sets small, incremental goals to move projects forward. Agile’s been incredibly successful in the business world, dramatically improving project completion rates and reducing workplace mistakes.

As I’m turning my attention toward establishing successful routines with our boys at the beginning of a new school year, I’ve been thinking about the Starr’s system. You can read about Feiler’s visit to the Starr family here, as well as in his book. And I recommend reading David and Eleanor’s own pdf paper detailing their family’s experience here.

I’m especially attracted to two elements of the Starr’s routine. The first is the self-directed checklists they’ve established for their kids. No more repeated reminders about grabbing the lunchbox, brushing teeth or remembering your backpack. Kids consult the daily checklist, check something off when it’s completed (feels so good!) and then move on to the next item. This seems like an extremely simple and extremely effective way to make mornings flow more smoothly.

The second aspect to their approach that I’m drawn to is their weekly family meeting. Everyone gathers on Sunday nights and answers three reflective questions:

1.     What went well this week?

2.     What things should be improved next week?

3.     What will we commit to changing this week?

Everyone has a chance to weigh in, and just like agile shifts power from management to the workforce, a certain amount of control and “say” shifts to all members of the family. The Starrs report, “Discussing common dysfunctions, like arguments or raising one’s voice, together as a family has genuine impact on individual behavior.”

The Starrs write, “While increased productivity is a valued outcome of this process, the real value has been in the increased communication between family members. Setting aside time to talk about how we function as a family has been instrumental in improving behaviors and satisfaction with being part of a family team.”

Have you implemented checklists as part of your family’s daily life? And have you had success with family meetings? What other victories in the realm of family routines have you scored?

P.S. — Bruce Feiler also reports on fascinating research regarding child resiliency and knowing family stories. I wrote about that topic here

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Supporting Friends Who’ve Lost Children Mon, 19 Aug 2013 14:30:12 +0000 Design Mom

Never Empty Handed - by Clare Elsaesser

By Amy Hackworth. Painting, “Never Empty Handed,” by Clare Elsaesser.

Although I’d always felt sympathetic when I heard of a child who’d passed away, my heart ached a little more fiercely when I heard about such tragedies once I’d become a mother. Before I had a chance to push it away, the thought of losing one of our children made my chest tighten and my stomach drop.

And then one of my dearest friends said goodbye to her almost-two-year-old, and I came a little closer to understanding the grief that comes with losing a child. I learned that the sympathy I’d felt for other parents before watching my friend Molly lose her little Lucy in 2008 had been wholly uninformed. I’d had no idea of the heartbreak, the emptiness, the despair, the reality of grief. And still, I don’t really know what a grieving parent feels, but I have watched from a closer distance now, and my sympathy has matured.

For this small series on supporting our friends when they are hurting (see previous posts here and here), Molly and her husband Vic shared some of the things that helped them most when their little Lucy passed away. The first thing Molly said was that it really is the thought that counts, but it only counts if the person knows you’re thinking of them. Reaching out in almost anyway helped Molly: Facebook notes, texts, cards, emails. Imagine how hard it must be to think that the rest of the world is going on with life while you are truly heartbroken. And then imagine how comforting it must be to know that friends have not forgotten you, but remember your suffering and send their love. A friend of Vic’s from law school whom Molly has never even met sent them a handwritten card every week for a few months, then once a month for two whole years, offering her support in a very real and very consistent way.

Vic shares that when you don’t know what to say, it’s perfectly all right to just say, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you, I’m thinking about you.” And when you can’t lighten the emotional burden, lighten other burdens like laundry, dishes, meals, grocery shopping, and babysitting.

Molly’s quick to warn that this wouldn’t help everyone, but I’ll always remember the story of her friend who knocked on Molly’s door one morning in the first few months after Lucy passed away and got Molly out of bed. “Grab your swim suit,” the friend said, “we’re going boating.” They spent the day on the lake with a small group of friends and the support and summer sun were just what Molly needed. I think I remember and admire this story so much because it’s the kind of thing I’d be too timid to do myself.

In this poignant story from NPR, two parents respond to Newtown and share their experience with grief after losing their 20 and 24-year-old sons in a car accident. The first comment corresponds with something Molly said about giving friends the opportunity to talk about their loved ones, and I’ve heard other friends share this idea, too. Part of the comment reads, “The standard response to hearing of my brother’s death is ‘I’m so sorry,’ followed by an awkward silence. I have found that the response I’d really like to hear (and almost never do) is ‘I’m so sorry…What was he like?’ What a joy it is to get to share about his out of control hair, how he perfected the art of playing a practical joke, and how his teenage exterior never fully disguised his tender heart — to get to focus on how he lived his life, not how he lost it.” What beautiful advice. Molly, too, relishes the chance to talk about Lucy, and loves hearing others’ stories, too. “Tell me a story about Lucy,” is a phrase Molly especially appreciated. “I love to say her name or hear other people say her name,” Molly said. “It’s almost like taking your favorite word out of your vocabulary. You can never fill that void in your heart, but hearing the sound of her name helps.”

Our hearts ache for friends who have lost their children. How have you helped support your grieving friends? And if you’ve been there — oh, we all want to hug you and cry with you. What helped you most in the moment? What’s helping you now?

P.S. — Molly received a book on grief called Tear Soup, and it’s become her guide for grieving and loving those who grieve. She turns to it for its accurate and comforting advice and wisdom for herself and for friends.

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On Hurrying Children Mon, 12 Aug 2013 19:33:52 +0000 Design Mom

family portrait photography

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

When our oldest was two and we’d walk down the street to the community mailbox, he was in no rush to get there. He wandered, meandered, stopped, sometimes turned around. I realized then that he was definitely not destination-oriented. Most young children aren’t. In fact, the concept of hurrying baffles them. For little ones, an outing is much more than trip to the mailbox and back; it’s a wonder-full exploration of the world around them and they’re pretty much experts at taking their time to enjoy those wonders. There’s so much to admire about children.

When we first became parents my husband bought a book called Trees Make the Best Mobiles, and although I loved the title and the premise of simple parenting, I confess I didn’t ever read it. But an idea that Justin shared with me has stuck with me for years. It’s this, or something quite like this: hurrying children is a form of violence. Yikes. It’s stuck with me all these years because it’s a pretty bold statement, but I’ve come to see how true it is.

To a little wanderer whose days are not controlled by minutes on the clock or appointments or deadlines, suddenly having an urgent rush imposed on his exploration does seem quite traumatic. Little ones don’t even have a context for something like “being late” and hurried parents are often harried parents, with small stores of patience and short tempers that are confusing at best and downright harmful at worst. When I realize that most of our hurries stem from my lack of planning (and a deep-seated denial that it actually takes us 15 minutes to get into the car), I recommit to thinking ahead. Things like asking for shoes on, asking for supplies to be gathered, bathroom trips to be taken, and drinks to be had well in advance saves us from that frantic hurry that leaves all of us feeling empty.

Do you agree with this idea that rushing a child is a form of violence? How do you keep frantic rushes at bay as a parent? Have your children taught you to slow down and savor simple things?

P.S. Thanks to my dear sister-in-law Carisa for sharing this lovely post by Rachel Macy Stafford, which got me thinking about this topic. The article is about Rachel’s evolution from a hurried parent to a more deliberate one, and is well worth a read. A real gem from Rachel’s post about accepting our parenting mistakes: “As my child looked up at me waiting to know if she could take her time, I knew I had a choice. I could sit there in sorrow thinking about the number of times I rushed my child through life… or I could celebrate the fact that today I’m trying to do things differently. I chose to live in today.” Oh, that we can all be so wise!

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Supporting Friends with Children in the Hospital Mon, 22 Jul 2013 14:43:53 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image here.

A couple of months ago we discussed what to say and do for our friends who are hurting, and I’ve thought a lot about the helpful and insightful comments you left. There was a general agreement that we’ll never be too far off base if we reach out in love, and it sparked an idea to share ideas about how we can help in specific situations.

My sister Lisa’s two-year-old son, the youngest of six, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January, and Lisa and her family have had first hand experience receiving kindness and comfort from many friends. Little Noah has responded well to treatments over the past six months and his prognosis is very hopeful, for which we’re so thankful. But it certainly hasn’t been easy, and Lisa and Dave recently shared with me some of the most thoughtful things friends have done for their family.

With Noah’s compromised immune system, extra clean hands for the whole family became a top priority, and knowing this Lisa’s sister-in-law sent a case of pleasant smelling hand sanitizer and soaps, with a note that she’d heard they’d be needing to wash their hands a lot. They’ve also received gas cards to help with travel costs to the children’s hospital four hours away, gift cards to the hospital café (a great idea when the hospital has good food), and a sweet note with money just for a date night. One of Noah’s favorite gifts was from a neighbor, who thoughtfully ordered a DVD just for him from the American Childhood Cancer Organization about a heroic boy with cancer. For any sick child, a stuffed animal is a sweet and cuddly gift, but for a child with cancer stuffed animals must be washable. If a child throws up or has an accident on a non-washable stuffed animal, it simply has to be thrown away. Just think of the heartache that can be avoided!

My friend Dianne’s teenage son was seriously ill for years, and she spent many, many days at a children’s hospital with him. She also shared a few of the kindnesses her friends and neighbors offered to her, and was quick to say there were thousands of others. One sweet gift was a hospital care pack, with non-perishable snacks and a roll of quarters for the vending machines, as well as a paperback book for her, 3-D puzzles for her son and, again, nice smelling lotion. Although she and her husband were both employed with good insurance, incidental expenses still added up, and the anonymous $100 bill they received was a blessing. Her son loved the gift certificates he received for Blockbuster (back in the day) and a nearby pizza delivery place, plus visits from his friends where they could just act like friends — play games, watch movies and talk like teenage boys.

Dianne also mentioned how valuable regular friendship was to her. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “it was wearing to answer too many questions, day after day, and it was a relief to simply do regular things with people. For example, my running buddy still ran with me whenever I was home and not at the hospital. We went on our regular route, and we would talk about ordinary things. She was great to listen to medical details if I wanted to talk about them, but honestly, it was a relief not to live in that theme all the time.”

Doesn’t it make sense that every so often, you’d just like to be part of the regular world? And also laugh. Although Dianne couldn’t offer a formula for humor, she said that was one of the most helpful gifts they received.

If you’ve had a child who’s been seriously ill, I hope you’ll give the rest of us some good advice about the help that meant the most to you. And if you’ve shared a kindness with a friend in this situation, I hope you’ll tell us about that, too.

P.S. — More advice from parents who’ve been there about What To Do When Words Fail Us and more thoughts from Dianne about the great work at their local children’s hospital, including how they helped her son have prom in the hospital.

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The Parent of All Virtues Mon, 15 Jul 2013 14:30:30 +0000 Design Mom


By Amy Hackworth. Image by Hisaya Katagami.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all others.” — Cicero

One of our most consistent bedtime routines with our children centers around remembering our favorite things from the day. We each try to list three wonderful things that happened in an effort to cultivate that virtue of gratitude. Sometimes our sons prove their very short memories and seem to only be able to remember the previous twenty minutes. Other times they are more thoughtful and their lists stretch well beyond three items. Time with friends usually tops our boys’ charts and the best jokes of the day as well as family activities make frequent appearances.

Although our boys’ responses are sometimes casual or even flippant, I hope we’re helping them develop a mental muscle, teaching them the practice of feeling grateful every day for the good that happens in their lives. Our initial motivation for helping our boys develop gratitude wasn’t based on research, but there’s actually a growing body of scientific evidence on the benefits of gratitude.

Dr. Robert A. Emmons has pioneered the field of gratitude research at UC Davis and summarizes some of his incredible findings in his book, Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, he writes, “When people regularly cultivate gratitude, they experience a multitude of psychological, physical, interpersonal, and spiritual benefits. Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait — more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion.” Additionally, “people who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health,” including benefits to blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Amazing!

Although most personality traits remain stable throughout our lives (I’m looking at you, procrastination), Dr. Emmons has found that developing the practice of gratitude can drastically change us in a relatively short amount of time.

I’m curious if you’ve ever had a moment of gratitude significantly influence your happiness? What helps you and your family practice gratitude in your lives? What are the things for which you’re most grateful?

P.S. — Mara’s post about gratitude in the face of failed IVF is a beautiful demonstration of this concept.

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Preparing for Joy Mon, 24 Jun 2013 13:30:28 +0000 Design Mom

Alt Design Summit 2013 photographed by Justin Hackworth

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth for Alt.

In a series of tips about joyful living in July’s “O Magazine,” a little piece by Chef Thomas Keller caught my eye. He writes about the idea of being prepared, in the kitchen and in life, and uses the term mise en place. It’s French for “put in place” and refers to preparations and arrangements required for the night’s cooking: ingredients and tools, and even, Chef Keller suggests, a mindset that’s on the lookout for potential snags, fixing problems before they can happen.

He shares that this sort of habitual preparation in the kitchen has spilled over into his everyday, and he’s thinking ahead, double checking, and planning carefully in all aspects of his life. This way, he’s minimizing bumps along the way, and he’s as ready for the unexpected as anyone can hope to be.

Because “joy” connotes a sort of spontaneous delight, the idea of preparing to maximize joy is an interesting one. When I think of those occasions I’ve been unprepared—anything from last-minute birthday party prep to dashing around the house looking for my keys—I can certainly see preparation as the foundation for a less stressful life. Though I’m sometimes most brilliant (though most frantic) at the last minute, I’m up for the challenge this summer of developing the habit of mise en place.

How about you? Do you already have mise en place routines that fuel a sense of joy in your life? Do you think it’s true that careful preparation creates a space for enjoying life more fully?

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Form & Function Mon, 17 Jun 2013 13:30:14 +0000 Design Mom

Marie Watt's Blanket Tower

By Amy Hackworth. Image here.

When I happened upon Marie Watt’s Blanket Tower at the museum recently, I marveled at the 12-foot stack she’d created (how?!) of wool blankets. Blankets are universally functional, and I love that Watts created a piece of art celebrating such a meaningful staple of our homes.

I was struck with this homey feeling of comfort, which seems appropriate since blankets offer physical and emotional warmth. They’re utilitarian, but often develop a strong emotional component. More than just practical household items, blankets can be family treasures, too, and sometimes carry a sort of provenance the whole family knows and a nostalgia the whole family feels.

The tower is more than twice my height, and that’s a striking number of blankets, many of them contributed by families for the project. I felt a strong sense of community, thinking that each blanket represented a different family—their picnics, guest beds, sofa snuggles. Though each family is different, we all need and use many of the same practical items to create our individual lives and homes. They’re woven into our separate family histories, but also have meaning across our shared experiences.

So many things pass through our homes over the years. Which are the items that share both function and meaning in your family? Which are the keepers? And what other household items gathered en masse would make an interesting art exhibit?

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