Men vs. Women: Why Who Leads Matters

why who leads mattersIf there was ever a stereotype more negative, more degrading, and raised more eyebrows, it’s probably the one surrounding men bearing the title of “stay-at-home-dad.” In the eighties, “Mr. Moms” were made rather famous by Michael Keaton’s portrayal of just that. His character highlighted all the reasons men usually don’t want to be a Mr. Mom: The whole reason Keaton becomes one is because he loses his job at a car manufacturing company and is beat out by his wife who lands a job in an advertising company quicker then he can find another position. He fights to gain respect from her new jerk-face boss who picks her up for a business trip in a suit and a limo while Keaton struggles to control the vacuum, the plumber, the baby, the laundry…and his temper. The new roles he and his wife play are clearly unnatural and they start to bicker, resent, and envy one another.

Of course we’ve come a long way from the Mr. Mom of the eighties. Now many men are choosing to stay at home not because they “failed” and lost their jobs, but simply because the woman is earning more and when a couple makes the decision that they would like one parent home full-time with their children, the natural choice for who is going to kick the 8 to 5 is obviously the one earning less. Yet, there’s still something a little strange about it: call it lingering prejudice, ok, or call it entrenched, disgusting stereotypes–but whatever you want to call it, the uncomfortable aura the title “stay-at-home-dad” conjures up has to be acknowledged and investigated.

In a recent episode of HGTV’s hit show Love it or List it, where a real estate agent tries to get the featured family to move and “list it,” while a designer tries to re-do their current home and make them stay and “love it,” the couple featured was a working mum and a stay at home dad who ran a daycare business out of the home. Just watching them interact was a bit off-putting. The mum was cold and very business-like calculating. She openly admitted she needed space away from her husband and all of the kid’s toy paraphernalia he had for his business, and quickly became irritated by his needs. At the same time, her husband was really rather whiny, yet quickly caved to her demands and was anything but masculine. Now of course they had issues that all can’t be blamed or perhaps none can be blamed on their obvious role reversals. If the roles had been reversed (the dad the cold, distant parent, working away from home, the mom the stay-at-home whiny pushover), I still would have been uncomfortable, labeled him a jerk and her probably a sad, trampled woman. Yet, is it strange of me to wonder if his whiny, seeming personal insecurities did not in some deep, perhaps subconscious way, stem from his position in their family as, well, the stay-at-home dad? And was her cold, distant air simply part of her (unfortunate) personality? Or, did it spawn from her disrespect for a husband who wasn’t exactly exemplifying very many, um, masculine attributes?

Clay Parker, a stay-at-home dad, recently wrote an article for “Lean In” –the site I mentioned last month in It’s Just Natural— defending his role as something contrary to all the negative stereotypes. In the article, he tackles many of the battles stay-at-home-dads have to face (a list much longer than their female counterparts). He makes some good points in his piece: The way he writes about being an involved father figure makes it a role of strength (as it should be) instead of weakness, and further, he highlights that the role of a stay at home parent (male or female) is an enormous contribution to the family unit and shouldn’t be a position ever to feel degraded about. Good points, yes? The title of his article “Stay-at-Home-Dads: We are Leading Men,” followed by the tagline, “forget the rubbish that men should always be ‘heads of household,'” however, begins a juxtaposition of ideas that never quite work themselves out in his piece: He is in essence saying that the idea men should be leaders, heads of households, primary bread-winners etc. is an outdated, inconsequential notion: “rubbish.” Yet, his primary argument in support of his role is convincing himself–and other Mr. Moms–that they are still “leading men.” I’m already confused. He says that he has “come to view [his] role as a ‘stay-at-home-dad” as a kind of ‘Best Supporting Actor’ role, absolutely essential to our story.” He then whips out his number one piece of evidence (from Wikipedia might I add) to help him come to terms with his role, saying that he doesn’t mind being a supporting actor because on Wikipedia it says “that there is sometimes controversy over whether a particular performance should be nominated in the Best Actor/Actresses or Best Supporting Actor/Actress category.” Ah ha! I smell jealousy of that #1 spot. His masculinity is showing! Stop that! Though he seems to want to be okay with being the one stepping down from the leader of his household, he attempts to twist every shred of evidence he can to make himself feel as if he still is…I wonder if it’s because it’s just…more…natural?

It’s quickly obvious that he knows his role is rather unnatural and the nontraditional reversal of roles is less than ideal. In fact, interestingly enough, he lumps his unusual household makeup with his “daughter’s neighborhood friends” who has “two moms.” He says that those moms “love and nurture [their son] as fiercely as any other set of parents.” Yet, he knows there is something unnatural, something less than ideal about his own situation as well as the boy with the two moms because, he follows his defense of non-traditionalism by saying that he has “no doubt that children lacking either a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ presence in their home find-and are found by-such role models in either a broader family context or the world at large.” In essence, in the middle of his defense of gender role reversal and nontraditional, same-sex parents, he is admitting that the ideal family is one in which children grow up with strong masculine and feminine role models. And, for those who don’t have them (when dads are at home, mums are away, or two moms/dads are in charge) they must look outside the home to meet this essential need.

So what? So what if the home is less than ideal and children must seek these “ideal” role models outside of the home? Clay Parker says the process of how one gets to the end goal of parenthood (“to raise happy, healthy children who will someday move in the world autonomously and with confidence”) doesn’t really matter…it’s the end result. But, processes do matter. In fact, most end results are a direct reflection of the process it took to get there. Processes are so important in fact, many can be patented. And if companies protect their processes so carefully in order to make the perfect end result every time, I’m not really sure why we are trying to change the way we’re raising children and gambling with the results of an altered process. Ideals aren’t always attainable, but it really does matter who’s in the lead of a family. Simply hoping the little ones will happen across them elsewhere is a process I wouldn’t like to toy with.

– <3 A. 

Life With Mother

mothers day

mothers day vmmvHappy Mother’s Day Week to all of you lovely mothers, but most especially to my own dearest, most beautiful mother. She has always been and always will be my number one lady to look up to, admire, try (very hard) to be like, and look forward to laughing with. I’ve never seen such a tiny woman have so much power: power to love, to teach, to lead, to be content, to follow when necessary, to endure, to create, to learn, to adapt, and to be forever and always my incredible mother. I know everyone thinks that their mum is the world’s best mum, and I’m ever so glad that they do, but I am also happy to announce that I’m sorry, but I think I still have everyone beat. Love you mum.

– <3 A. 

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Guest Pinner: If Mrs. March Pinned

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marmee image via / all repins via

When Louisa May Alcott wrote the character of Mrs. March (or, “Marmee”) for her novel Little Women, Alcott succeeded in creating arguably one of the most beloved mother caricatures in literary history.  Besides being kind, loving, and the stalwart supporter of her four daughters, Marmee also has endless monologues teaching her girls the importance of education, independence, and equality for women, in a time where those things were nothing to aspire to for “well-brought up” ladies. Marmee exuded love and devotion to her husband and family, standing as the heart of one of the coziest, most adorable family portraits ever put to paper. The March family life was simple and rustic yet in its quaint raw-ness, it was overwhelmingly beautiful, for Alcott wrote a story of what family life should be, what motherhood is, and what all girls can be. I think if Mrs. March pinned, her boards would be something to see.

– <3 A. 

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  Anne of Green Gables                    Beatrix Potter

The Mother of All Resumes

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I’ve written many times on the topic of working women. And the debates are endless about whether women should or shouldn’t work when the next generation comes along: Is it cruel to have a child and then never be around to raise it? Is it archaic to think modern households can tread water without two incomes? Do we even want to stay home anymore? Is it better for them? Is it better for us? But… what about if you don’t have a choice? What then? Even if you’re a staunch supporter of the stay-at-home ladies or an ambitious arguer for the go-out-and-live-and-work-and-have-a-family women, whatever side of the proverbial fence you’re on, doubts from the “other side” always seem to creep in don’t they? Claire Gutierrez, in her article for Elle magazine last Tuesday, took the stance that she is happy to have to work when she becomes a mom, not because she’d rather have a career than have more time to spend with her family, but because she has to have a career in order to raise a family. Though married, her partner doesn’t bring in as much income as she does, and besides that, her job has the ever-important benefit card going for it. In a nut-shell, Claire makes the point that for her, removing the option of to work or not to work was like having a weight lifted off her shoulders because she would have something to say if and when someone ever asked, or if and when those “bad-mother” doubts began to creep in and cry, “why are you leaving your kids again?” She could simply say, “because I have to for them to survive.”

She hits on an interesting point, that is that ladies should only feel guilty about choosing career over a family if they don’t have to have a career. That is, less choice equals less guilt. If you have to be at work for your kids, it’s not so “bad” as if you’re just working for you. If she stopped at that point, she might have something. But, she went on to muddle through the argument that all anti-stay-at-homers fall into, that is that motherhood isn’t anything to aspire to, that desiring to be with your children is like a teen girl never growing out of, or maturing from, the Friday night babysitting phase. She says that her own mother encouraged her daughters to “not be like her” because they were “too smart.” Further, she states that no moms with daughters that she knows hope their daughters will cast aside their ambitions to be “just a mother.” She then references (and is seemingly agreeing with) a young girl from Hanna Rosin’s now famous article The End of Men, when the young girl asks her own mother a rather disturbing question:

Why is [my education] important if I’m just going to grow up and be a mommy like you?

Motherhood doesn’t have a very good reputation, maybe it never did, maybe the good mums have always been under-appreciated because many times many mothers really are just baby-sitters: wanting to dress up little ones, decorate nurseries, organize play-dates and not deal with, or prepare for, shaping a small life. That’s kind of what Claire makes it sound like…at least when she says that though she has no choice not to work, she actually finds great relief in, and joyfully toasts “(her) good fortune not to have to change quite so many diapers, not to have to push the swing for quite so long, not to have to read Green Eggs and Ham a thousand times.” So, if that’s how our culture sees motherhood, then maybe we should toss the job to the guys and tell our little women to grow up and do something else more estimable. Who wants to be a 35 year-old baby-sitter anyway?

But, what is “just” a “mother”? If you look it up in the dictionary, one explanation is simply “a female parent.” Ok, that’s a given, but other explanations give a little more insight into what the term means:

MOTHER: (n)  (2.) a woman in authority; (3) something that is an extreme or ultimate example

Wow. “To be an extreme and ultimate example”? Holy crap, that’s quite the job description, a job that you should enter as well-equipped as possible.  That’s why education, ambitions, and achievements are important if you are, will be, or want to be a mum. The idea that if you “just” want to be a mom then you don’t have to be educated or have your own desires, goals, and life-achievements is a very upside down view of motherhood. In The End of Men article that Claire references in her own monologue, the article retells story after story of how young women who have degrees, goals, and good-jobs, are anticipating letting their current or future boyfriends, fiances, and husbands “play around with the kiddies at home” since the men in their lives are essentially failing in the grown-up world.

Ok, sure, so caring for a three-year-old doesn’t require a law degree. Raising a child doesn’t require a degree at all. Sure, if the one parent who happens to have the law degree is the mum and the dad chooses to stay home then great, but what I’m saying is, what does raising a child well require? What does the idea that… if dad is kinda “the dumb one,” well, he’ll raise our kids…do to the kids? When you graduate from college and head out into the world for whatever job you’re seeking, don’t you want to be the over-qualified one? Hardly anyone gets hired by just having the minimum listed on their resume. Don’t you want to know what to do in every circumstance? To bring experiences, knowledge, and insight into situations that someone else doesn’t have? Why wouldn’t you want to do that with your own child? Since when has motherhood become the janitor job? The unqualified position? The GED optional job? Since I guess girls started being told that being a mother is “just” something to do. Since our culture stopped looking up the definition of motherhood. Since mothers stopped at “just” being a female parent instead of an extreme and ultimate example. And, since motherhood became a choice instead of a privilege.

If you are the breadwinner for your family then good for you. If you have to work, and that’s the best thing you can do for future or current little ones, then it’s wonderful that you have that opportunity. But, if you have to, or even if you want to work, don’t ever let the least qualified raise your kids and don’t ever become the least qualified that will be raising your kids because you won’t “just be a mommy” you will be embarking on setting the “extreme and ultimate example.”

-<3 A. 

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The Dalloway Complex

image via folio society

In last month’s edition of Elle magazine, Daphne Merkin tackled a review of the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ new book Missing Out:  Praise of the Unlived Life. From Phillips’ book, Merkin quotes that the “idea of the unlived life-or, as he calls it, ‘the myth of our potential’- is more prevalent now than it once was, because affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options.” The quote struck something in me, for post-college life has made me uncomfortably aware of the enormity of the consequences of decisions I now make. For the first twenty odd years of my life, my “plan” seemed murky at times but the fog always eventually cleared into a straight forward line. From elementary you trudged through middle school, from those troublesome years to high school, and from high school you went to college, and then from college you went….where? Now, every decision eliminates certain paths, dreams, and desires, for I fully believe you can only walk down one, if you want to walk it well, despite the modern addiction of “having it all.” As I began to read Merkin’s article, “Who’s Sorry Now,” the ever-present female struggle between self, ambition, and the woman’s inherent nurturing nature reared it’s head yet again. Not more than two paragraphs into her article, Merkin says that Phillips’ book forced her to conjure her own life regrets wherein she discovered that her biggest was her failure to fully fulfill and see through a traditional role as wife and mother:

One of my sharpest feelings of regret involves a vision of myself as Marmee in Little Women. These range from an ongoing feeling of nostalgia for my daughter’s early years and a pained sense that I hadn’t fully appreciated them, hadn’t been sufficiently alert to every gurgle and adorable bit of phrasing.

She goes on to detail her regret over being a single mother of an only daughter who “loves me one minute and despises me the next,” and woefully describes another imaginary life where she dreams of she and her ex-husband working things out and being the happy friends in marriage as they now are outside of it. Seemingly frustrated by the relationships in her life, Merkin finds comfort in Phillips’ theory that “all love stories are frustration stories,” and the unlived or “wished for” lives that paralyze our potential decisions or fill our current decisions with regret aren’t really bad but “are as important to us as our real existence-if not more so- because they provide us with a metaphysical safety net, allowing us to consider transgressive urges and ungratifiable impulses without necessarily acting on them.” Here though, as a fellow woman, I have to disagree with Merkin and ask her if this constant consideration of transgressive urges and “wished for” lives are not the reason for her current regret, if those things actually distracted her from fully appreciating and being “sufficiently alert to every gurgle” of her daughter’s youth, creating instead a young woman who grew up ever-conscious that her mother’s life with her was not complete enough to stave off other, “wished for” lives.

mrs. dalloway image via foliosocietyProbably the most archetypal source for this now mainstream story of female struggle and regret is Virginia Woolf’s protagonist in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is a frustrated, bourgeois housewife, struggling, as many were post World War I, with personal identity and a crisis of life purpose. Troubled and feeling stagnant in her role as an aging wife and now unneeded mother, her present life is constantly interrupted by remembrances of her childhood friend Sally Seton who represents in Clarissa’s memory what Clarissa had always wanted to be: an independent woman, staving off the repressive institution of marriage, and carefree of tradition, societal norms, and reputation. Her vision of Sally as she last knew her stands in stark opposition to the reality of her own life:

But often now this body she wore, this body, with all its capacities seemed nothing-nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress…this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.

folio societyTo Clarissa’s shock however, when she again chances across Sally Seton, the wild-child Sally has transformed into the elegant Lady Rosseter, wife to the self-made Lord Rosseter, mother to five boys, and yet, still exuding her individual, independent self. Unlike Clarissa, Sally was happy in her choice, she had committed to her marriage and family and in her full commitment to one choice had not lost any of herself in these mental wanderings of “wished for” lives as Clarissa had done and as Daphne Merkin now does. She had chosen a path and had used all that she was to make that choice everything it could be. She had not lost herself nor regretted what could have been because she was fully involved in what was. She would never have to regret not being “sufficiently alert” to her children’s youthful gurgles, nor was she haunted by feelings of a lost self, being “invisible; unseen; unknown,” because the present was all that she lived in.

We all digress into regret now and again. Especially as modern women there are myriads of lives we have the opportunity to choose, to dream about, and to live. Yet, I have to disagree with Adam Phillips, Daphne Merkin, and Clarissa: I don’t want to lose myself into even the imaginings of “wished for” lives even if I never act upon them. I’d rather not lose myself to the Dalloway complex of always wishing, longing, regretting, and imagining a life better or more fulfilled. As Clarissa found out, what she imagined someone else’s life to be was not always what it was, so why imagine another life from your own? Just live what you’ve chosen the best way you presently can.

image source: the Folio society

– <3 A. 

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I have lots to celebrate today. For one thing, its the first monthiversary of the blog! It seems both much longer and much sooner than a month ago that I began. Thank-you to everyone who has been reading along and commenting, its so great to hear feedback of what you’re enjoying most.

It is one of my main intentions with this blog to offer to all of you some examples of women who embody the definition of a classic woman: one who is graceful, kind, seeks to lead by example, is able to love and be loved, supports, inspires, is ambitious without being aggressive, and selflessly nurtures when called upon to do so.

It’s easy to pick out muses like Grace Kelly and Sandra Dee for their impeccable style; to quote authors like Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf; or to point to fictional characters like Mrs. Gigglebelly, Kathleen Kelly, and Mary Poppins for their life lessons.

Perhaps you say though that this still doesn’t prove it can be done in the modern world; that this style and way of life is archaic. That the modern world necessitates that we re-think how women dress, act, achieve, and live. You even may say that the era of golden girls like Grace and Sandra is long gone, and Mary Poppins’ lessons are fine and dandy for when you’re five years old, but what about when you grow up and its 2012? What then?

It is possible though. I am convinced because I see it acted out everyday. The muse is a real woman; in fact, she’s a modern woman, and I offer her to you as a perfect example of what it means to represent femininity at its best.

My Mom.

She’s my real life Grace Kelly, my Mrs. Gigglebelly, my Mary Poppins. Everything that fills my life with joy and beauty, I first learned from my mother:

I learned about Jane Austen from her copy of Pride and Prejudice, placed always on the dining room bookshelves and read so often the binding was falling to pieces. I learned that reading the entire children’s section of the Beale Memorial Library was not impossible. I learned that writing was fun; that Doris Day and Cary Grant are the best on-screen couple. I learned that the most powerful job you can have is being a wife and mother; that showing love is not measured by dollar signs but often by a handmade gift, always (willingly) showing up to every dance rehearsal, putting someone’s hair in the perfect bun, or racing home to fetch the forgotten essay. I learned that arguments are settled by conversation, and that there won’t be arguments if there is conversation. I learned that you don’t have to know what you’re doing to decorate a room, you just try it and love it or hate it and change it and have so much fun in between. I learned that being selfless makes you the most precious, that laughter is the most beautiful sound in a home, and what reliability looks like.

Most of all though, what I learned from my Mom is how to love. How to show someone that they are your whole world, that you cannot imagine a life without them, and how you never regret anything that is for them. So, thanks mom, for being a muse far better than any other woman, real or fictional, and for effortlessly acting out what it means to be a wonderful woman. Oh yes, and happy birthday.

– <3 A. 

A Lesson from Mrs. Gigglebelly

I’ve got birthdays on the brain. Mostly because some of my heart’s dearest people have birthdays peeking just around the corner at me and I want to celebrate them right so early preparation is a must.

In my head, I see visions of grandeur: elegant decorations designed to themed perfection…a party to end all parties:

Yet, too often, life happens and the perfect party does not. My desire to create birthday-love is born out of memories of my own childhood parties, hosted always in the backyard and focused around a theme of my choice. I believed this to be a common childhood memory: something to grin about and look back at hilarious pictures of red Kool-Aid smiles, ridiculous prizes, and happy, exhausted children. Yet, a few weeks ago I overheard a small-talk-office-conversation about birthdays becoming “so expensive to do right” that it seemed simpler just to skip right over a child’s first few birthdays (“since they won’t remember all that money I spent on them anyway”-said a mother) in order to “go all out” for them later. I know what they were referring to- they were talking about the birthdays I’m sure everyone has attended-complete with hired catering, expensive gifts, entertainment for children and parents alike, perhaps hosted at the increasingly popular children’s birthday playland-extravaganza where suddenly the planets are realigned to center around the grumpy little one who, they were right, doesn’t realize the over-the-top birthday bonanza created in their reluctant honor.

“I don’t really like this” 

 It was as if I had stepped into a scene from the movie “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character is caught in the identity crisis of wanting to be a successful career woman while simultaneously also wanting to create the memories for her children that the other stay-at-home-perfect-moms seemed to be able to create.

While they brought homemade, culinary perfection to a school bake sale, Kate (Sarah Jessica Parker) remembers the sale too late after a business meeting to bake anything herself and instead squishes a store-bought pie into an oversized pie pan, covering her hideous good intentions with powdered sugar in a pathetic attempt to “do it all…well.”

In the movie, as in the conversation I overheard, showing love had become a competition. If you couldn’t be at home to create magic, buy it (for whatever the cost), and if you can’t buy it, skip it.

Yet, if you had listened to the women I overheard, there was something in their tone that made me incredibly sad: there was an absence of love. In all of their attempts to do everything they seemed to have forgotten why they were even trying so hard-because they loved someone. It’s easy to do. Sometimes, emotion is the easiest thing to throw out the window when stress, deadlines, needs, and personal ambitions all seem to compete for the number one spot on your priority list. So, how do you do it? If you want to do it all, and do it all well, how do you not end up first giving up on love?

A lesson from Mrs. Gigglebelly

Mrs. Gigglebelly Is Coming For Tea has always been one of my favorite books. Written by Donna Guthrie, it is, quite possibly, the cutest yet simplest story of a mother’s love for her daughter. In the book, “Elizabeth Ann” announces to her frazzled mom that “Mrs. Gigglebelly is coming for tea.”

Subtly alluded to throughout the story, it can be assumed of course, that Mrs. Gigglebelly is none other than Elizabeth’s mom in disguise. And today, Elizabeth’s mom obviously does NOT have time for that. Vainly, the mom tries to persuade her daughter that Mrs Gigglebelly is too busy, but Elizabeth doesn’t seem to get the hint and, confident in Mrs. Gigglebelly’s love for her, assumes she will somehow make it happen:

Despite all of Elizabeth’s mom’s obstacles, Elizabeth has an answer for everything. If she can’t have tea in the parlor, they will “have our tea outside in the rose arbor”:

And if her mother “can’t make tea or bake a cake,” then Elizabeth will “serve lemonade and crackers with grape jelly.” While Elizabeth innocently waits for her beloved Mrs. Gigglebelly, her mom continues about her busy day:

Finally, her mother stops, and, putting aside her to-do’s, she shows in the simplest way how much she loves Elizabeth.

Putting on a lampshade as a hat, a tablecloth and table-runner as a skirt and blouse, and a curtain tie as a scarf, her mom, disguised as the magical Mrs. Gigglebelly, arrives to share a moment with the enraptured Elizabeth Ann. When Elizabeth cries in delight, “I knew you’d come!” She simply replies, “of course, I always have time for tea with you.”

At the conclusion of the story, the book shows Elizabeth’s mom back at work, now with her costume pieces strewn back in their places, as the blissful Elizabeth walks through.

When her mother asks if Mrs. Gigglebelly stopped by, Elizabeth says happily, “of course, Mrs. Gigglebelly always has time for tea with me.”

Silly? Perhaps. Adorable? I think so. Elizabeth’s mom made her daughter’s imaginative play come to life and showed Elizabeth she could rely on the people who loved her. She didn’t spend hundreds of dollars creating a fancy party-she put a lampshade on her head. She didn’t throw a huge bash where family and friends could rate her love based upon the bill she paid-Elizabeth herself didn’t even know her magical friend was her own mother. All she did was spend a few moments loving and her daughter’s world was filled with joy.

In the film “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s character comes to a similar conclusion: that, if she wanted to do it all, the only thing she should really want to do well is love her family and just spend a moment showing them how much-not with money, not with grand parties, not with hours and hours spent creating a pie, maybe just with your hair in a bun and the kitchen a mess.

Those parties I remember and love the most? They were simple, but made so magical by my parents putting their love into a backyard party.

I’m hoping to offer some ideas for some homemade birthday magic this week. They’re easy, inexpensive, and will make you be someone’s Mrs. Gigglebelly, promise.

-<3 A.