Confessions of a New Freelance Writer

About eight months ago, I concocted a plan to launch a fabulous career/life as a freelance writer and content strategist. I focused on my goals, took every freelance opportunity that came my way, started writing more, began laying the foundation of self-employment, and set a date to quit my job.

And then, after 13 years of sitting in an office doing “marketing,” I actually quit.

Confessions of a new freelance writer.

Here’s something about me: I’ve never not had a professional job — unless you count three weeks after I graduated from college and about four weeks after graduate school. I realize that makes me very lucky, but it also means that I’ve been very risk adverse, and quitting my job was not something I did lightly.

I’m not sorry I quit — My career in marketing hasn’t felt right for a long time, and I’ve spent years attempting to determine the next step. At my most recent job, I was teetering on the edge of a precipice — I was unhappy enough for long enough that I knew I was dangerously close to jeopardizing my opportunity to leave on good terms after six years of service that (I’m told) “exceeded expectations.” It was truly time to go. And so I went… on good terms and on my own terms.

It’s been two months.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I wade through each day unsure of where the hours go.

When I worked in an office, the days dragged. In some ways, this is better — I’m not bored — but I’m not actually getting a paycheck for being busy, and I have a feeling that I’ve fallen into the trap of working harder but not smarter.

So what am I doing? I do have a few client projects each month. Still, I spend a lot of time applying to freelance or part-time or contract opportunities — emails and applications that apparently disappear into the ether the moment I hit send… Sometimes I start to go down the Elance path, but I don’t even know where to start… I consider, then reconsider, how to market myself and to whom.

I knew it would be like this — I knew it would take time to figure it out; I knew the transition would be rough, but I was so secretly hoping that everything would work out and the freelance life would be instantaneously amazing. Here are some of the myths that I let myself believe (while at the same time reminding myself that I shouldn’t believe them). It turns out I should have listened to myself — at least the part of myself that wasn’t coming up with a freelance fantasy:

MYTH: IF I BUILT IT (A WEBSITE), THEY (CLIENTS) WOULD COME.

Last fall, I had three freelance clients and a full-time job, which meant I felt like I was literally working around the clock. With three clients, I reasoned that I had a sufficient foundation and could expect a certain amount of income when I quit my job — then one of my clients closed her business, and a few projects didn’t pan out the way I expected. I knew this by the time I walked into my supervisor’s office to give my notice, but I figured, hey, everything will fall into place. I’m still waiting for those things to start falling.

MYTH: I WOULD IMMEDIATELY LOSE 10 POUNDS.

Welcome to the land of magical thinking. Why did I think this? I’ll tell you. I thought that once my pesky job was out of the way, I would spend every morning working on my fitness while sipping an ultra-clean, vitamin-infused, superfood smoothie in my suddenly-fitting-again Lululemon yoga pants. I would cook myself every meal, sit down at the dining room table, and eat mindfully — never again succumbing to the likes of Chipotle or Panera. All stress would melt away, along with a few pounds, because, you know, I would be living the dream.

MYTH: MY HOUSE WOULD BE CLEAN, MY CLOSETS ORGANIZED, AND THE LAUNDRY WOULD BE DONE FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.

This was part of the point, after all — to function better as a family. And to me, functioning better means having a relatively clean and organized home, which is, I have learned, 100 percent impossible unless you LITERALLY spend all day, every day cleaning. The minute I think the laundry is done, my husband’s basket is full again (seriously, why does he need to change four times a day?). As soon as I finish cleaning the house, Emme comes home, pulls out 80 gazillion toys, spills her milk, and manages to smash crackers into the freshly vacuumed rug.

MYTH: I WOULD CREATE A WORK-LIFE BALANCE SCENARIO THAT WORKED FOR OUR FAMILY.

Ah… the myth of “work-life balance.” I thought I would have my day totally figured out with plenty of time for work, household management, and self-care; I would spend quality time with Emme from the time she came home from daycare to the time she went to bed, and then I would relax in the evenings. But mostly, we’re still just trying to survive and get to the next thing. And, I’m still sitting on my couch “working” late into the night. What am I even doing? Just like during the day, I’m not really sure, but nothing about it feels balanced.

None of this is to say I regret my choice, but it will take some time before I get this new life and career figured out. And maybe I won’t. Maybe it’s not the right choice for me — but at this point, I’d rather know than be sitting in an office still attempting to decide the next step in my life. At least that part is over.

Also, I would like to point out that I have made dinner more in the last two months than I had in the last two years. Small victories — I’ll take what I can get at this point. 

How We Announced Our Pregnancy

Disclaimer: I am not pregnant.

Three years ago, my husband and I found out we were expecting Emme two days after Thanksgiving while we were in Ohio. After taking four (yes, four) pregnancy tests—and carefully studying each one—we concluded that, no, our eyes were not tricking us, and yes, that was definitely a second pink line.

We somehow kept it quiet from my mom for another day before heading back to Chicagoland. We decided to do this because we knew our family would be coming for Christmas, and if we could wait it out, we could tell my mom and her husband, my sister, and her husband, as well as my MIL, all at the same time, to achieve maximum baby news excitement.

For five long weeks, I managed to act “totally normal” on the phone and make holiday arrangements until everyone arrived in Chicago on Christmas Eve. I knew I wanted to do something special and maybe a little creative, but I didn’t want to go overboard based on time and talent. So, I had these custom holiday cards made on Etsy by heathergearhart:

cover

We added a copy of the ultrasound to the left side of the card:

inside

My sister and her husband actually arrived in Chicago first and knowing that I couldn’t keep the news in for long, we gave them the card in the car after picking them up from the airport. In hindsight, this was a bad idea, because the subsequent screaming and excitement nearly caused Joey to have an accident. We told my mom and her husband later than night and, because my sister already knew, she was able to stealthily film the whole thing without my mom noticing.

As much as Christmas 2011 was not the greatest holiday season ever, due to the whole feeling-like-hell-all-the-time side effect of early pregnancy, being able to tell my family in person and not over the phone was priceless. I still love this card. I thought it was simple and creative, and it’s a special keepsake from this time in our lives.

My Latest, Perhaps Greatest, Meal Planning Tools

For years—maybe my entire adult life, definitely since Emme was born nearly four years ago—I’ve been attempting to stick to a realistic meal planning system. I’ve diligently saved recipes, made lists, and shopped weekly, only to let too much food go bad when I didn’t actually prepare the meals I had planned. I’ve spent too much money on takeout, relied heavily on frozen burritos for lunch, and defaulted to pasta + bottled sauce as my go-to dinner more times than I care to remember.

When traditional meal planning fell short of my expectations and energy, I switched up my game, trying strategies that should have helped me lighten the load—services like Blue Apron and Fresh20, freezer meals, and locally prepped dinners that you just have to heat up in the oven. They all had their merits, but nothing stuck.

But lately, I’ve found peace and some actual success with meal planning. With a few tools and one secret weapon (Spoiler alert: It’s my husband), our family manages to get dinner on the table most nights of the week (not to mention having several work-week lunches prepped for me and plenty of do-it-yourself breakfast options for everyone). How did we do it? The first step might surprise you and will definitely bring to mind therapy sessions and support groups rather than grocery lists and recipes. To make meal planning work, I had to find some acceptance.

Let me explain: Last year, I worked with a health coach for a few months. In talking to her, I realized that meal planning was a source of anxiety for me. That made me realize I had to let go of both perfection and control in the meal planning process. After years of feeling proud that I wasn’t a perfectionist, I finally realized that I mayyybbbeeee had some perfectionist tendencies and I mayyybbbeeee was an eensy, weensy bit controlling. Having a young child who makes so many things feel out of my control can do that to a person.

But I digress… Anyway, I know all of this sounds awfully intense for, you know, dinner, but when I finally accepted that meal planning, meal preparing, and meal eating didn’t need to be perfect, shit got easier. Then I found some tools to complement my new breezy meal planning attitude.

Game Changing Meal Planning Tools

PLAN TO EAT

In some ways, Pinterest might function the same way for many of you that Plan to Eat does for me. But with Pinterest, I find often myself lost in the weeds—I log in to get that one recipe I saved six months ago and three hours later, and I’m pinning lake houses to a new board, cleverly titled Lake L-I-v-I-n. Plan to Eat doesn’t offer me that kind of distraction, and while the interface leaves something to be desired, the functionality works for me and my brain.

First, it gives me a place to save all those recipes that I randomly come across. It allows me to look at a calendar, compare it to our family’s shared calendar, and schedule an appropriate amount of meals for the week (which is not seven, it’s more like two or three). And, it compiles a list of ingredients based on the recipes I choose. Is it perfect? No. But Plan to Eat gets me farther in the meal planning process with less pain than anything else has.

WEEKEND PREPPING

This isn’t earth shattering. The amount of legwork I do varies, but spending time prepping meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday always makes me feel like I’ve done something productive. This usually includes two to four of the following: Making 3-4 lunches for the week (see next section), cleaning and chopping vegetables for weekly dinners, making a breakfast casserole, and prepping sauces, meatballs, or other meals that have a longer fridge and freezer life.

MASON JAR SALADS

You know how mason jar salads were totally a thing a few years ago? Well, I discovered them like six months ago! And let me tell you: Game. Changer. Not only do they make it easier for me to eat more green stuff, they are perfect for advance planning and portable. I also figured out my optimal number of mason jar salads for the week–three. I bring the same salad three times, then do my best to make a different salad for the following week. This seems keep me from suffering from lunch fatigue. I end up buying my lunch one day a week, which feels like a treat, and I usually work from home on Fridays, so I just eat leftovers or something.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend investing in a set or two of mason jars (wide-mouth, 32-ounce jars are key). We have started using them to store everything. As for salads, they have to be filling and tasty for me to actually eat them. Here are a few of my favs right now:

Chicken, Apple, and Pecan Salad (I ditch the kale and use something like Pullman or Boston Lettuce.)

Chopped Black Bean and Corn

Paleo Taco Mason Jar Salad

Sweet Potato Pear Wild Rice Salad

TRADER JOE’S FROZEN MEALS IN A PINCH

In an effort to eat better, my default is to think that our family should be making all meals from scratch. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s not realistic for us at this point. Trader Joe’s to the rescue. We keep a stockpile of a few TJs frozen meals on hand. Our favorites are Shiitake Mushroom Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken. We serve both with rice, and often add whatever extra veggies (or for the Kung Pao Chicken, some pineapple) we have on hand.

MY (NOT-SO) SECRET WEAPON: MY HUSBAND

Remember that thing about control? In the division of labor in our household, meal planning, prepping, and cooking has always been my thing, but when I went back to work full-time in January after freelancing for a year, something had to give.

It’s not so much that my husband expected me to be in charge of all things kitchen; we just had very different ideas of how to manage a week’s worth of meals. He would eat out every meal without a second thought, while I wanted us to be eating home-cooked meals every night. Once we had a conversation about it, we found some balance. I plan our meals, do some light prepping on the weekend, and typically do the grocery shopping; he cooks.

Cooking on the week nights was always been the point at which my whole meal planning system breaks down. I walk in the door after a 8+ hours of working and 1.5+ hours of commuting, and I would struggle to find the energy to actually prepare the dinners that I had so diligently planned. My husband’s work day tends to end before mine (it also starts before mine), and his commute is less than 10 minutes on foot. When I come through the door at 6 p.m., to dinner on the table, it’s a relief, for real. In many ways, it’s the best of both world’s — I get to plan what we eat without actually having to cook it.

Anyway, I’d love to hear: Do you have any meal planning secret weapons?

Is a Freelance Career Right for You?

Last year, I left my job as a marketing professional in higher education and took a career detour (I may have mentioned this). I quit my job of six years — a field I had about 15 years of experience in — and gave myself a new title: freelance writer. Being a freelance writer seemed to be the answer to many problems. It took my career in the direction I wanted to go (writing), while giving me the flexible schedule I had craved since my daughter was born (freelance). But striking out on my own was unlike any choice I had ever made. I was starting a business after being employed by someone else since college, which was scary and unchartered territory.

Like with most life choices, I consulted the internet. I read lots of freelance websites, and many of them were helpful. But I could never find information about of what type of person is a successful freelancer — or at least, what kind of traits help a person manage the quirks of a freelance career. In fact, I even asked this question in a freelance forum run by a well-known writer, and received a somewhat rude response along the lines of “how would [she] know,” which was, you know… not helpful.

So I’m writing that post myself. After a year of being a freelance writer, I’ve compiled a few… I guess I’d call them life or coping skills that seem to be critical to not only actually building a career, but managing the vast differences between being employed by someone else and being self-employed.

A freelance career sounds like the answer to work-life balance, but here are a few things to consider before you make the leap. Do you have the kind of personality that can cope with the reality of a freelance writing career. Find out...

YOU CAN HANDLE UNCERTAINTY — LOTS OF UNCERTAINTY.

Being a freelancer, especially a new freelancer, means your income is inconsistent, the number of hours you’re actually working and getting paid is inconsistent, how much you’re charging might even be inconsistent… basically there’s a lot of inconsistency. For me, the most nerve-racking part of those inconsistencies was the money part.

If you’re comfortable hanging out in that uncertainty, at least for awhile (at least one year, maybe two), then a freelance career might be a great choice for you. I find this is only palatable if you can reasonably live without a second income, i.e., you have someone bringing home a paycheck that covers all of the bases: mortgage, bills, groceries, and so on. But even if you do have this, and we did, going from two full-time and steady incomes to one plus whatever you make freelancing, which can vary significantly month to month, can be a huge, huge shock to the budget and the system.

YOU DON’T MIND BEING ALONE.

When you work freelance, you spend a lot of time working alone. There’s no one down the hall to chat with, and you’re not in the mix with any office gossip (for better or worse). Sure, head to the coffeeshop, but chances are you’re just going to sit there by yourself. Being a freelancer is often very quiet. If you’re a person who lives in your own head, this can be dangerous. I didn’t have too much of a problem being alone, but when I ended up back in an office environment, I was practically giddy to have people around.

YOU ARE ABLE TO SET BOUNDARIES ABOUT WHEN AND HOW YOUR WORK.

Doesn’t a freelance career sound like the answer to all work-life balance issues? You can work when you want and how much you want, on projects that interest you, etc. The flip side is that being a freelancer means your start time and your stop time are entirely up to you. I often felt like I could and maybe should be working around the clock. Without the artificial boundaries of 9-to-5, stopping work (however work was being defined) was sometimes hard. For me, turning off the to-do list was difficult even during the evenings or to stop for an hour mid-day for some of that “balance” I was so hoping for.

YOU ARE SELF-DISCIPLINED AND SELF-DIRECTED.

If you’re not self-disciplined and self-directed, a freelance career is not for you. I am definitely disciplined enough (I think), and I’m self-directed when I have a project for a client, but the business of setting up a thriving freelance career means that you have to market yourself (more on that in a minute). This part was particularly hard for me. I struggled to figure out what direction I should take my writing career in (Do I pitch publications, work on the blog, or focus on marketing copywriting? Do I sell myself to a particular industry or will I take whatever I can get? There were a lot of options/questions.) There is a literally endless and mostly undefined list of things a freelancer could be doing to forward her business goals. I often felt stuck in the business of being a freelancer, unsure what would be the most bang for my time-is-money buck.

YOU’RE COMFORTABLE WITH SELF-PROMOTION.

When you’re working for yourself, you have to market your services, which ultimately means that you have to market yourself. Now, there are totally freelancing writing jobs that you can get without marketing yourself. I definitely got jobs by simply applying for them — the About.com gig is a good example of that. But, my best gigs came about from networking and reaching out to contacts I already had. One great gig I got was with a university, which came about from a letter of inquiry I wrote to a woman I interviewed with a year an a half earlier. Another came from someone I met in a running group who ended up being a VP at a higher education marketing agency. Writing that email to the woman I barely knew was hard. Talking to the VP about what I did and what kind of work I was looking for, and straight up asking her to pass along my resume to the people who make these decisions was hard. For me, self-promotion was… unpleasant — it felt like I was constantly asking for favors — but it was doable, and I got better at it as time went on.

YOU’RE CAPABLE OF ADVOCATING FOR A FAIR RATE IN EXCHANGE FOR YOUR SERVICES.

So this isn’t a personality trait, exactly, but I found that advocating for a fair rate was extraordinarily difficult and very, very important. First of all, it’s hard to find good information about what exactly you should be charging, and freelance writing rates are literally all over the board. There are people making well below the minimum wage writing for Upwork and other content mill-type sites. There are people charging over $100 an hour for copywriting services. Most publications typically have a set rate that they pay — blogs, if they pay at all, can pay as low as $25 or $50 with online media sites like Jezebel clocking in at $250. Consumer magazines typically pay more, trade magazines often higher still. In the interest of getting the work I desperately felt I needed, I had trouble asking for what truly deserved. I worked in exchange for services sometimes, my rates were all over the map, and I took whatever I could get.

Here’s the good news: I got better at this, and with a few exceptions, by late summer 2015, I had set a rate of $40/hour for copywriting services, which cut me out of the running for a lot of local and smaller businesses looking for writing services. That, I learned, was OK. But here’s the bad news: As I saw very clearly this week while looking at a freelance writer’s proposal that I should have been charging more.

YOU DON’T MIND WORKING WITH MINIMAL DIRECTION AND APPRECIATION.

I’ll give myself this much — Working with minimal direction, dealing with gray areas, and coping with missing information about what a client or employer actually wants when it comes to copywriting, I can easily live in this space. I have a sense of when to push for more direction and when not to, and my instincts on how to approach something totally undefined are often close to spot on. I don’t know how I got here, but it’s definitely one of my strengths. Writing for media outlets, I would say this is less true, but I’m comfortable with a swing and a miss, which might just be a byproduct of age and experience. The bottom line: When you’re a freelancer, no one is holding your hand, and you can’t walk down the hall to get clarification. You have to have the confidence in your ability to just move forward and get the work done.

As for appreciation, as a freelancer, you will not find an overabundance of it. You’ll have clients who are grateful and clients who like you, but you’re not really part of the team. You’re the hired help, quite literally, and the whole point of being a good freelancer — IMHO — is that you can quickly do the work with minimal direction and without being coddled. That’s what they are paying you for.

YOU’RE PATIENT.

Taking a sharp career turn to freelancer often means playing the long game when it comes to building a reputation, a client base, and an income. That marketing and self-promotion I did? I sent the email to the woman at the university in February or March. In October, I was contacted by another woman in her division — my resume had been passed along. The running group VP? I gave her my information in July. I heard from that agency in October too.

It takes awhile. Since the beginning of February, I’ve been contacted by another higher education institution and another agency, both because I had contacts who knew me, with gigs that would have paid well. I had to say no. But, it drove home the point: It takes some time to really establish yourself as a freelancer. If I would have stuck it out, I likely would have had a lot more options today than I had this time last year. But the thought of a steady paycheck and boundaries of a normal work day were too good to pass up after a year of uncertainty.

Holiday Gift Guide for the 3-year-old Girl in Your Life

Scaling back on birthday gifts might be my MO, but I (admittedly) have a tendency to want to go a bit overboard for the holidays. This year, I’m trying to keep things more under control, so I’m thinking a lot about the stage my daughter is in and what toys might have a little more shelf life than say, three days.

According to a never-ending stream of Babycenter emails, three-year-olds are getting way into creative play. They make up conversations and stories; they love to pretend; they want to have their own “big kid” items; and toys actually keep their attention for more than 30 seconds. Woo hoo! Here’s a holiday gift guide for the three-year-old girl (or boy!) in your life based on what toys have been recent hits in our house as well as what I plan to get Emme this year.

Holiday gifts for preschoolers

(1) Fisher-Price Slim Doodle Pro, Purple

At the top of the list for my daughter is the Doodle Pro, a slim, purple version of the classic Magna Doodle. Our preschooler has a mini, Frozen-themed Magna Doodle with an annoying board book attached to it, but she plays with it constantly — drawing hearts, people, and tornados (don’t ask), while she tells herself stories. An upgrade to the full-size version is well worth it. 

(2) LEGO DUPLO Ice Cream Set

I reside firmly in the no-need-for-pink-LEGOS camp, and I believe any LEGO Duplo set makes a great gift for preschoolers regardless of gender. Case in point: My daughter received the LEGO Duplo Creative Play Ice Cream set for her birthday. This gift has been a big hit in our house, and for what it’s worth, the toddler and preschool boys in her life also seem to love it.

(3) Melissa and Doug Sleeping Bag

Emme all about building forts ever since her Grandma played pretend “campout” with her over the summer. I feel like her own sleeping bag is a “big kid” item she’ll get a big kick of — whether she’s uses it to “camp,” cuddle up in bed, or build a fort. Plus, it would be perfect for those nights she decides she needs to sleep in our room (three year olds and their ability to get up and get out of there rooms!).

(4) Skip Hop Ladybug Suitcase

Similar to the sleeping bag, I’m pretty sure my daughter would get a ton of use — play and otherwise — out of her own suitcase. She loves packing up all her toys and pretending that she’s heading out (wait, what?), and a suitcase could be used for actual trips as well.

(5) KidKraft Dollhouse

Emme received this KidKraft Chelsea Doll Cottage as her BIG birthday gift, and I think it’s a great present for preschool-aged kids. There are a ton of dollhouses out there, but the KidKraft house was a reasonable size and a reasonable price compared to other options. Plus, it came with all of the furniture. Not only does Emme play with the house and furniture, but we also gave her a doll family. She makes up conversations that go something like this: First doll, “Hello! I’ve got to go potty!” Second doll, “OK!” That alone is worth the cost of admission.

What’s on the list for your preschooler?

Guest Post: How Minecraft Saved My Weekends

Even as I write this, please know, I’d rather be reading my slightly trashy Scottish romance novel. But instead, I’ll exchange a chapter of Outlander for the iPad and the chance to explain how Minecraft, the video game popular nationwide with children ages 7 to 47, saved my family’s weekends.

Minecraft Saved My Weekends | www.mommysanest.com

My 3-year-old daughter, Ellie, and I get lots of quality time. As a stay at home mom, I spend the week arranging outings, thinking of crafts and suggesting she play with her many games and toys. I also, at times, find myself counting the minutes until 4:30 p.m. when I feel minimally less guilty about turning on the TV and tuning in the entertainer of the moment — George, Mickey, Huckle, or Dora.

Weekends are much of the same. My husband is home and we take hikes, go out to lunch, and play in the yard. But for my 3-year-old, and I’m assuming for most preschoolers, there’s a certain need for constant entertainment, leaving little me time.

Having a couple hours to turn off your brain and engage in something mindless is crucial to recharge. I enjoy reading on the couch. My husband enjoys computer games. Most recently, Minecraft. (Although, for the record, he played it long before T-shirts starting showing up in Target).

So while we both have relatively simple ways of escape, it still often falls to me to fill in our daughter’s entertainment gaps. Not for my husband’s lack of trying, but largely because of our daughter’s “mommy-only” syndrome.

Enter Minecraft. I don’t remember how exactly it happened or why it worked, but one trying Saturday when I was exhausted and close to losing it, John asked Ellie if she “wanted to watch Daddy build his house.”

And so it began. On the weekends, sometimes for 10 minutes, other times for an hour, father and daughter herd cattle, plant wheat and fight zombies in the Minecraft world. They even build a “bed” for Ellie in her own Minecraft room that also houses armor stored in a “toy chest.”

Am I thrilled with the added screen time? No. Am I delighted beyond measure that father and daughter have found a quiet activity both can enjoy while I bank some quality couch time? You bet. In fact, this Minecraft bond has helped loosen Ellie’s clinginess to me. And for that, even I’d slay zombies.


Gena is a Midwest transplant living in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. When not killing scorpions, Gena writes about food and family. Follow her on Twitter @genakittner.

No Gifts Please: Should Your Child Have a Gift-free Birthday?

When I wrote about Emme’s 3rd birthday and showed off the adorable invitation, you might have noticed that “No Gifts Please” was printed under the date and location information. Yep… We asked people to skip the gifts for our kid’s birthday.

Maybe that seems horribly mean? Here was my reasoning: My daughter is the only grandchild on one side of the family; one of three on the other side. I knew her grandparents and other close relatives would give her generous gifts, and from that alone, she would be receiving quite a bit of stuff for her birthday.

No gifts please

When the guest list for her party started to get a little out of control, I started to think about the added clutter and writing dozens of thank you notes. Based on my untrained medical opinion, my blood pressure began to rise. So I started to think about requesting no gifts.

As you can imagine, the first person I consulted for advice was the entire Internet. And like most things on the Internet, the people seemed divided. Some regarded a parent’s request for no birthday gifts as an affront — they seemed convinced it was a trick. Others were totally on board.

Since the Internet is typically not to be trusted, I asked my IRL mom friends for feedback. Everyone seemed to think it was totally fine. They reassured me that no one would be offended by a “no gifts” request. They also said that people would probably bring gifts anyway (they were right).

I went for it. And many people brought gifts. That’s OK. Some people didn’t. That’s OK too. The people who did bring gifts, brought smaller items. Some people skipped the gift, but brought Emme a small token — a mylar balloon or pack of stickers. Others took the time to write a sweet message in a birthday card.

And it was all good! We did get less stuff, which was the main goal. However, the decision to ask for no gifts did have some pitfalls. People weren’t totally sure if we really meant it (we did), and a good portion of the party goers apologized for either bringing a gift or not bringing a gift. It was definitely not my intention to put any kind of pressure on my friends and family.

So, based on my experience, here are a few tips if you decide to ask for “No Gifts Please.”

How to ask for no gifts please at a child's birthday party. Tips for parents who don't want guests to bring gifts to a child's birthday party.

Keep the message simple.

I thought about trying to get super cutesy with the request that guests not bring gifts (“Your presence is our present,” etc.), but ultimately clarity and simplicity won out.

Make sure you mean it, but don’t be crazy about it.

Some people will end up bringing gifts and some won’t. If the choice people make is going to bother you — either way — just don’t do it.

Don’t send mixed messages.

People will likely ask you if you’re sure about this “no gifts” thing. A friend asked me, and I almost launched into a whole, you don’t have to bring a gift, but you know, people might bring small stuff and you should do what you want. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like I expected small gifts, which are still gifts. And I didn’t. So I just said that I meant the request and not to worry about bringing a gift.

Keep any gifts out of sight.

Often at parties, the gift table is displayed front and center. But if you’re asking people not to bring gifts, displaying the gifts can make people feel uncomfortable if they didn’t bring one. We tucked gifts away under a picnic table, and I don’t think anyone gave it a second thought after they arrived.

Don’t open gifts at the party.

To be honest, I haven’t been to a kid’s party where gifts have been opened in front of guests since Emme was born. When you’re entertaining families with young children, making them sit through an extensive gift opening session can be tedious. But if you do typically open gifts at a party, don’t if you’ve asked for no gifts. That will make people think you weren’t serious about your request and make them feel bad if they followed your instructions.

Emme had plenty to open, and at 3, she wasn’t totally obsessed with the idea of getting tons and tons of gifts — though I imagine that was the last time this will be the case. I probably won’t do it again, but we’ll also probably be transitioning to parties that are more kid-focused that family and friends focused.

A Toddler Birthday Party Picnic

On August 1, my tiny baby who was basically born yesterday turned

To celebrate, we invited family and some toddler friends to a nearby park for a low-key birthday party.

Truthfully, I didn’t go too far down the road of a “theme.” In fact, I was kind of like, meh, party in the park, everyone show up, we’ll bring the food. But then, I asked my friend Jennifer of Flying Pinwheel to design the invitation, and when she showed me the colorful picnic invite, I knew I had a theme to run with.

But let’s talk about this invitation first.

toddler picnic theme birthday

Isn’t it adorable?

Jennifer sells several reasonably priced printable invitations in her Etsy shop (I was actually torn between this onethis one and the eventual winner). She has 14 design templates available — covering many themes perfect for little kid parties — but she’s also able to custom design an invite if you have something specific in mind.

The process was stress-free and smooth — Jennifer and I exchanged a few emails, and she made updates to the text and a few tweaks to the design to make sure it was special for Emme’s day. She sent me a proof to approve and then final files — one PDF version with that could be printed with the invitations two-up, and one jpeg, so I could email the invite as well. I actually did both, so having the jpeg file was a nice bonus.

Going this route cost me about a third of what I’ve spent on invitations in the past. It also meant I could skip the hassle of waiting for personalized invitations to ship and could do all the printing at home or take the file to the local whatever-Kinkos-is-called-now and have them print it. (I, of course, chose the latter… and it took about 20 minutes). Yay for less hassle!

For the actual birthday, we kept it pretty simple — mostly because I waited until the last minute to do anything other than the invitations. We covered picnic tables in the park with gingham table covers. This was cheaper than buying separate tablecloths; I could cut them to whatever size I needed, and I still have the majority of the roll leftover. I also purchased tablecloth clips, which held the table covers in place and were tremendously helpful as it ended up being a windy day.

Because we were in a section of the park that was far from the playground, we brought toys for the kids to play with, including a few hula hoops and beach balls. We sprang for a bubble machine, which was a big hit (if you ever purchase one of these, make sure you get the refill; the bubbles go fast). For favors, we gave out novelty sunglasses, which proved popular among the toddler set as well.

Joey grilled burgers and hotdogs, and we had a princess cake, off-theme per the birthday girl’s request, from Costco — which got rave reviews, FYI. 

Despite a quick costume change because the birthday girl fell in the one muddy spot in the entire park, the party was a success. And I’m glad it’s over.

This was my punishment for buying her a new dress for her birthday.

I Am Not a Perfectionist

I’ve always worn my lack of perfectionism like a badge of honor. I smugly assumed I had figured out a secret of adulthood by embracing imperfection.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t work hard or strive for 100 percent in some areas; it just means that I know it’s not realistic to reach for some vague bar that has been set for “life” in the age of Pinterest — that pinnacle of living that encompasses everything from having your kids dressed in the right clothing to preparing homemade, healthy meals each day to maintaining an impeccable physical appearance to excelling at a high-powered career while somehow keeping your house clean.

Nope. That’s not me.

I’m cool with imperfect.

At least, I thought I was.

Then last week, I found myself in a particularly ugly spiral of negative self-talk. I was in the midst of grappling with why I simply could not do anything right ever when I realized, I may not be a self-professed perfectionist, but that’s only because I know I can’t reach that bar.

But perfection is still my bar.

progress not perfection

I expect 100 percent across the board knowing it’s simply not possible then I beat myself up for not being able to do it. And when I inevitably fail (which I knew I would), I get even more down on myself and throw the so-called baby out with the bathwater.

Sometimes, I don’t even try. (What’s the point? Failure is inevitable.)

It becomes an excuse to avoid taking chances and putting myself out there. (Why bother, really?)

And a byproduct of this perfection-seeking habit is ultimately, I don’t believe in myself.

The one thing I’ve been trying to live up to these years is impossible, and I knew that. And yet, I’ve let this attitude of “Life: You’re Doing it Wrong,” get to me.

It was, dare I say, an epiphany. Last week, I deliberately set the bar where that I knew (thought? hoped?) I could reach it and maybe hang for awhile. I cut my daily to-do list down from about 20 items to three or four. I focused on racking up small wins (I did all my training runs! I wrote an article every day! I ran an errand I’d been putting off for 3 weeks! I managed to put dinner on the table a few times!) so I could bank them later as a reminder that I am capable even though I will fall behind sometimes, even when the goal isn’t perfection.

And I reminded myself that this is about progress.

Progress, not perfection.

Hey Moms, It’s Time to Lose the Cape

When I started Mommy Sanest, I did so with the premise that I was searching for sanity in this (sometimes?) crazy world of parenting. What does sanity mean to me? It means dropping the perfectionism, the extreme styles of parentings (too many rules, man), and embracing an attitude of “good enough.”

So when the opportunity to read and review a new book called “Lose the Cape: Realities from Busy Modern Moms and Strategies to Survive,” I, of course, said yes. “Lose the Cape” is written by bloggers Alexa Bigwarfe and Kerry River, two moms who realize that being “supermom” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I love hearing how other mothers manage home and work particularly when they’ve decided that perfection can’t be the goal.

While I received the e-book for free, all of my opinions are my own.

“Lose the Cape” was a super easy, quick, entertaining, and worthwhile read with lots of great tips for moms with kids at every age and stage. There’s so much pressure — mostly from the Internet — to be a perfect mom and many of us get caught up in this ideal. Often, we feel like we’re not measuring up.

Lose the Cape

Granted, I’m kind of automatically on board with anything that combats the idea of “supermom” or “perfect parenting,” but I loved the practical aspects of “Lose the Cape.” Every chapter featured specific scenarios that we all deal with: Being a new mom, the dreaded and never-ending pile of laundry, meal planning, maintaining a strong relationship with a partner, routines, being over-scheduled, not being able to unplug from social media, and more. The strategies and advice, coupled with the examples from real moms, are very helpful. Not all of the advice was brand new, but it’s stuff that bears repeating, and there were definitely a lot of ideas I hadn’t heard before.

But moreover, I loved the attitude of the writers. I had a real sense of, “We’ve got your back,” throughout the book. Clearly they aren’t about the mommy wars, and they believe we’re all in this together. The chapter about “forming your mom squad” really drove this home. None of us can do this without support from other moms — even if that support is just listening to each other air our grievances and strategizing together.

Overall, it’s definitely worth a read for any mom who is feeling overwhelmed or is sick of living up to ridiculous standards and expectations (regardless of whether they are real or imagined). Actually, I’d recommend moms-to-be pick up “Lose the Cape” — this would be a great gift for an expectant mother as this book gives you a clear idea about the reality of early motherhood. Moreover, the book’s solid advice on different stages and situation really makes it worth while to keep on hand throughout the years.