Eight Hacks to Have You Christmas-Ready by Thanksgiving (and Away from the Mall!)

I’ve been doing so well this year staying ahead of the Christmas game, I thought I might share my tips. Now, I know what you’re thinking – Christmas-ready by Thanksgiving? That’s absurd! But, trust me, kids. I’m almost done. And there’s still time for you!


Sneak Around  

Start a sneaky layaway at one of your usual haunts (Target, Walmart, etc…), and while you’re there for your routine essentials/groceries, tuck a few items away. You’ll have everyone on your list checked off without ever having to take an additional trip, and also won’t have to worry about where to hide all those goodies.


Use Zulily

So easy, and products are added daily, but you must act quickly – items run out. I’ve been so lucky with Disney/Marvel items, toys, children’s’ clothes and shoes, and even, ahem, a few things for myself. Plus, once your PayPal account is linked, checkout is a one-click process. Sometimes the items take a bit to arrive, due to the process employed to acquire the items, but you’re always sent a notification when your shipping status changes.


Bake and Freeze Those Cookies!

Holiday cookies, I’ve found, in my ten-plus years of baking, hold up quite well in the freezer, even when decorated and/or frosted. All you need are rectangular plastic containers with covers, wax paper, and room in your freezer. You can mix up a batch during some down time, on a weekend, or after the kids retire for the night, and they’ll be ready and waiting to be arranged right when you need them! I’ve never baked during the holidays any other way.


Photo Cards and Gifts in Under 30 Minutes

Sites like Mpix (my personal favorite), Shutterfly, Tiny Prints, and Minted all allow you to create gorgeous photo cards and gifts. Many of these sites also let you create and save albums and import pictures from Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. The process cannot get much faster or easier, and you generally have your items in hand in less than a week.


Get to Know Subscription Boxes 

I subscribed to Nerd Block for my husband last Christmas, and it’s literally been the gift that keeps on giving. The box includes a (usually sci-fi, superhero, or comic book character) t-shirt in your loved one’s chosen size, along with plenty of collectibles and unique gifts. He loves it, and the kids do, too. Not a nerd? You can order beauty boxes, food boxes, and even pet-focused boxes. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Birchbox Beauty



Try Home Shopping

Say what you will about those sometimes-kitschy home shopping presentations, but you can order large quantities of excellent quality items for small prices – I just scored two 8-piece Lenox ornament sets from QVC for under $40 apiece. That’s less than $5 per gift, and they’re individually boxed and ready to go. Great for teachers, neighbors, hairdressers, service providers, and surprise guests. Home shopping is also great for food gifts such as chocolates and Mrs. Prindable’s apples. Best yet, you can choose the Easy Pay option, which allows you to receive your items right away, yet pay in equal monthly installments. Home shopping is a winner.

QVC Logo

QVC Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Use Credit Card Rewards

If you’re like me, you have credit card points just languishing around in your accounts, collecting digital dust. My husband and I made the decision this year to purchase gifts at sites that accept points, like Amazon.com. Sure, it requires a little creative math, and multiple transactions (for example, you can’t use American Express and Discover points in the same transaction), but you essentially don’t pay for the items at all. What’s better than that?


Think Outside the Box

You can get a remarkable number of tasks accomplished if you simply think outside the box. At the grocery store for food? Saunter down the seasonal aisle and check out what’s available. Running into the pharmacy for some face wash? If an item screams GIFT!, don’t make a mental note, just pick it up. Trust me. It’s faster. And the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you see your list getting dwindling will pay for itself. Take a tip from Michael Jordan and Just Do It! You won’t be sorry.


The only thing I can’t help you with here is wrapping. You’ll have to figure that part out yourself. But I am a big believer in gift bags. Just saying.


So, get out there (or stay in!) and go for it! You’ve still got time! You don’t want to get trampled on Black Friday, do you?

Good Mom, Bad Mom

Once in a while, an adult or a two will enter your personal space, excuse themselves, and proceed to share their impressions of your family.

And they temporarily convince you that your children are, indeed, the most beautiful, well-behaved seraphims, sent from on high, that they’ve literally ever seen. And you thank them, and pat yourself on the back for a moment, and continue on to your car, considering all the factors that went into that ‘excellent’ behavior, like the fact that it was almost 9pm and the kids were literally falling asleep in their macaroni and cheese.

But you take the compliments with a grain of salt, because you just know that a mile or so down the road, you’re going to be “that parent” with “those kids”, like during the Target trip where you only need a birthday gift for one of your kids’ classmates, or that ‘last stop’ you know they can’t handle, but have to get finished.

And then you wonder to yourself, Self? Are my children *literally* the most evolved three- and four-year-olds on the planet, blessed with the discipline of a thousand samurai and the enlightenment of the reincarnated, like some people say? Or are they the very embodiment of Mephistopheles, raised in vain, on a diet of molten metal spikes, sent to earth simply to inflict great suffering upon the human race?

Mother and three children, oil on wood, 38.5 x...

Mother and three children, oil on wood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a game of extremes. And it’s rarely accurate. Truth is, people, my kids are sometimes really great, and sometimes, they’re pretty goddamned awful. Because they’re kids. And the hardest part about it is I can’t always control when each will occur. I can give you a decent statistical probability based on meals, naps, and impending excitement, but, truly, and though you may think we can, we parents can rarely totally control our children.

I know, right?!

Of course, the kids aren’t terribly affected by the awe-inspiring ebb and flow of their own behavior. And they are also rarely blamed for it.

Parents, you know who is, right?

Apologize to strangers if you will, and ad nauseam, but it won’t amount to a hill of beans. Tell them your kids are normally well-behaved, and they will chortle. Explain to them that Halloween’s a pretty big deal, and that they’ve been bouncing off the walls for three days waiting to wear their costumes, and you’re really sorry your son leaned down and gave your becostumed pug a bear hug, but it will fall on deaf ears. It’s like spitting in the wind. There’s not a whole lot you can say.

Now, occasionally, you’ll get lucky and your eyes lock with a parent of three, four, or maybe five kids, who just knows, who knows that it’s 45 minutes past naptime, or that the flashing lights of the video games, or the brightly-colored balloons lining the room, have the ability to set kids off. Or the smell of popcorn. Or long shelves of toys and trinkets lining the way to a cash register. Or any combination of items or circumstances. They just know.

They’ll give you a sympathetic nod as your husband hoists a kicking, screaming, overstimulated child over his shoulder and presses toward the exit. They know. These things happen. That’s life with young children.

Image Credit: Flickr

Image Credit: Flickr

I’d started out explaining to people why my good kids were good when they were, and, conversely, what may have gone wrong to cause them to misbehave. I put my head down, I did the ‘sad face’, I did the aggravated chuckle/head shake combination, or I just looked straight ahead and left wherever I was.

And that evening, when my kids were recognized for being so ‘well-behaved’, actually falling asleep in their dinner, I left the restaurant, called my husband, and explained to him that, “I said thank you and just walked away, because they’d probably be the first people to express their displeasure if the kids were acting up.”

And that’s the way I approach it now. I am, of course, flattered and feel fantastic about our parenting when our children are well-mannered, but I don’t take any of it to heart, because, were it another day, three hours earlier, or the day before a holiday or another kid’s birthday party, we’d be having a very different conversation.

It’s the same way if ever I choose to hit the mall in old yoga pants and a hooded sweatshirt. Scoff, scoff, scoff, they’d say. But if I went home and changed, and returned in my three-quarter length coat, a sparkly scarf, my good jewelry and makeup, and my favorite boots, I’d be regarded – by the same people, mind you – completely differently. And there might be scoff, scoff, scoff, too, but for different reasons.

Perception is reality, but we’re still the same inside.

So, when someone shares with my husband and myself that we have a beautiful family, and our kids are just the cat’s meow, I think back to the day at the dairy farm my sons stuffed a baby cow’s water bucket full with hay, then started after the chickens like a pair of voodoo priestesses. Or when my daughter demanded, loudly and clearly, outside a restroom at Macy’s “Why that lady looks like a man?”, I just laugh. And shrug it off. And maintain my humility.

Because no one knows the whole story, and they never will. My kids are good. But they’re not all good, all the time. Because they’re four and three years old. Their brains haven’t created enough connections yet to hold them back from that inappropriate comment, or the giant Ninja Turtle balloon, or the remote-controlled plane.

And someday, they’ll be well-adjusted adults, gainfully employed and socially savvy. But for today, they’ll obey in the store and then pick their noses in the parking lot. Or they’ll smile at strangers until they’re buckled into their car seats, where they’ll launch into a calculated attack for holiday donuts. Or they’ll just plain get tired, and misbehave.

And it’s okay with me.

Because, overall, my kids are good kids. And it’s too bad, if you didn’t catch us on that day, that you missed it. And it’s sad if you caught them on a challenging day, but, just like there are days I’m dressed to kill, there are others I’m dressed to be sent to What Not to Wear. They have those days, too.

My ‘good’ kids can be bad. And my ‘bad’ kids good. And we, as parents, must accept all of it.

And I think it’s best that you do, too.

S*it My Kids Gave Me and Won’t Let Me Throw Out

I have three preschoolers, and when you have three preschoolers, you collect a lot of junk – uh, gifts. I meant gifts. Given with wide eyes and open hearts, I acknowledge, but we’re not really expected to keep these tokens of affection, are we?

Children are truly hoarders of the worst variety. Anyway, here’s a(n unfortunately) partial list of things that have been quietly making their way towards the trashcan, but haven’t quite reached it yet. Shhhh!


A ripped brown maple leaf


A dime


A cherry my son picked and then scraped a sad face into with his fingernail


Seventy-five to ninety pieces of original artwork


A ceramic bat, painted green, with both wings broken off


A wallet-size portrait of myself from the day I graduated with my Master’s degree


A small bloom of fake purple flowers


A coupon for 20% off at Kohl’s (not even the coupon part)


A broken barrette


Three more cherries 


A cat collar that was stuck inside our couch for over a year


A rubber banana


A “Nice Work!” sticker that no longer sticks



Quick! What do you do with this stuff? They’re not looking.

American Horror Story Freakshow: Making Fear Fun


(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

American Horror Story Season Four, Freakshow, has been very eagerly anticipated (by me, at least), and, during its premiere last night, the franchise failed to disappoint. Featuring a revolving ensemble of actors and the inclusion of artists such as Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, AHS continually reinvents itself, much to its audience’s delight.

A few aspects I enjoyed most about last season’s installment, Coven, was the campiness, humor, phenomenal acting, and intelligent dialogue the show consistently delivered. Despite the plot, the gore, and the magic, the show turned out memorable characters and quotable quotes. I’m actually ashamed to admit that I miss those characters just a little.

As always with AHS, they like to bring you somewhere, drop you off, then kick you two steps beyond your comfort zone. I watched this season’s premiere with my shirt pulled halfway up over my head, covering one eye – sometimes both – and I’ll tell you why: clowns. It wasn’t enough to feature a traveling freak show, of course, so the stakes were raised by a murderous pair of Siamese twins, a bearded lady harboring palpable sexual tension for her mistress, a man with ‘flippers’, who has, let’s say, flipped a few switches, and oh – how could I forget? An evil clown. An evil clown who shows up in your bedroom at night and slices the life right out of you.

If that’s not the stuff of nightmares, I don’t know what is.

There’s always a transition period with this series, the time you sit back with your hand partially covering your face, determining that, this, in fact, is the way it’s going to be. You have to forget the previous season, wipe away the names, the stories, and get in that moment.

And, boy, did I get in that moment, double checking the locks and taking a few quick peeks at my kids before going to bed. AHS truly takes uncomfortable to a most uncomfortable level.

What I love most is how seamlessly the show transitions from adrenaline-secreting to laugh-out-loud funny, and that no matter what’s going on (See: Sarah Paulson, with two heads, conversing with herself), you believe it. Siamese twins? Sure. A tiny dude who bites the heads off live animals? Absolutely. A three-breasted hermaphrodite? Well, why the hell not?

I’ve tried to find the moral fibers that bind the stories, the seasons, together, the lessons to be learned, but the beauty of this show is there are none. The story is always just what it is, the characters who they are, for better or worse, and the scenes, however disturbing, are created simply to be consumed, much like cocktail shrimp on a buffet table.

The best thing about this buffet, though, is that it truly has something for everyone. There’s poison enough for all. Siamese twins not your speed? Try clowns with knives. Clowns with knives don’t do it for you? How about horny carnies? Demons? Witches? Ghost musicians? Deviant psychiatrists? AHS has got it all, all the time. If one thing doesn’t trigger your sympathetic nervous system, another surely will, with breaks to rest, and laugh, of course, in between.

It’s too early to tell how this season’s plot will shake out, but you can bet your fluffy beard I’ll be watching.

Which Came First: Technology or Helicopter Parenting, a Guest Post by Jennifer Cowart

Jen Cowart Bio picture 1Jennifer Cowart is a 40-something wife and mother of three daughters. A former elementary educator, she is a freelance journalist, photographer and blogger. She is the winner of three New England Newspaper and Press Association Awards and a Rhode Island Press Association Award. She was a member of the 2014 Listen To Your Mother cast in Providence, RI. In 2012 she, along with her daughter, was the Rhode Island winner of the White House Kids’ State Dinner/Healthy Lunchtime Challenge contest. Her work can be found at www.cranstononline.com and www.thewholebagofchips.com .

Follow her on Facebook.


As a new parent, and through the years that have followed, I have found myself feeling cautious about earning a reputation for being a certain type of parent. Maybe it’s just me, and maybe not everyone worries much about being stereotyped, but when you read parenting magazines and blogs, it seems that there is a name and a stigma for every parenting choice and style.

There are people who breastfeed or don’t, people who work or don’t, people who co-sleep or don’t, people who practice attachment parenting (is un-attachment parenting a “thing?”) people who are ‘free-range’ parents, and people who are deemed helicopter parents. I even recently read a criticism of parenting where the writer deemed parenting a “new religion,” and not in a good way. That was a new one for me.

As parents, if we don’t walk a perfect line of balance, we’re either too laid back or too conservative, too nice and wishy-washy, or too strict and mean. You could go crazy reading about them and choosing your stance on each type, but I think ultimately every parent must make choices as to what works for them, their kids, their beliefs, and just go with it.

I’m a particular fan of the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” and although it makes me smile when I hear it, I really do believe it. You make choices, you live with those choices, and if you’re not happy, or they’re not going the way you imagined, then you adjust and make changes as you see fit. We all have our own monkeys and circuses to worry about, we don’t need to worry about what everyone else is doing. I can worry about trying not to screw up my own kids with my parenting practices, but I can’t worry about whether others will be sending their own kids to therapy down the line with theirs.

That said, I sometimes lose sleep over the helicopter parenting thing. That’s the one I worry about the most. Why? I don’t know, but I do.

Search and rescueLately,I’ve been considering the whole helicopter parenting stigma. I’ve begun to wonder if it’s something that’s been created by the amazing technology we now have, or whether it’s a parenting style that forces technology to keep up with parents’ needs.

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

From baby monitors that allow parents to watch their babies sleep, to preschool webcams that allow you to see your children in their classes, to college “Hi Mom!” cams that let you to watch a live web cam of particular spots on college campuses – just in case your child walks by – we can see or be connected to our children anywhere, anytime, by technology, no matter how old they are.

When I think about these advances in technology, I wonder:

Would I have wanted to have that kind of baby monitor for peace of mind? Probably.

Would it have had the potential to make me crazy, watching for anything to happen to my baby through the night? Very possibly.

Would I have wanted to spend my precious 2.5 hours of preschool time sitting at home with my coffee, glued to my computer screen, watching my kids playing at school? Probably not.

Will I be glued to the college webcam screen, hoping for a glimpse of my 18-year-old walking on the quad? I kind of hope not.

Are we able to, or even encouraged to, keep such tabs on our kids beyond our empty nests because of technology? Or, is technology answering what they see as being our needs as over-protective parents?

Which is it?

Monitor, Keyboard, and MouseWe attended a middle school Back to School Night last year, and a similar high school open house this year where we were shown how to access the online parent portal to view our child’s records (absences, grades),  but also to log on and view their assignments – upcoming tests, quizzes, essays, projects. We were strongly encouraged to log on daily to stay abreast of their work and keep on top of that work.

Is it me, or is technology fostering too much helicopter parenting? Is that technology pushing us to do more than we should for our kids? Last year, I was shocked to be so strongly encouraged to check the website daily, and I remember thinking, “Isn’t that the student’s job? I have a job. This isn’t it.” By their second year of middle school, I just assumed we’d put this sort of responsibility on the students – not the parents – and most definitely so by their first year of high school.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe I’m not?

I never logged onto that parent portal during middle school. I actually lost my login information. Twice.

But here’s the thing: I knew when my child was absent, because she was here with me and I was taking care of her. That’s my job as her mother. I knew her grades, because she logged on to the student portal herself constantly to check and share them with me. And if she didn’t, I asked her how things were going and had a conversation. I got a progress report mid-quarter and a report card at the end of the quarter from the school, and saw the grades she’d earned.


When she stayed on top of the work.


That’s her job as a student.

This technology, some may say, allows us to support them along their educational paths. I could agree, but I wonder, does this technology allow us to override the conversation part of it? Are we able to parent and support our kids better from the screen than in person?

I don’t know the answer. I haven’t decided what I think about all this, but it’s definitely got me wondering.

I love technology; it allows me to work remotely and do a job I love, and stay in touch with people I love, but it also may not give our kids the tools to be responsible for themselves. It might also foster the problems colleges experience with parents unable to cut the apron springs. It might cause parents to get used to being over-connected.

I don’t know.

Do you?


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