Eight tips for achieving family life balance

elephant balancing on a ballForget work life balance. Some days I think the biggest challenge is family life balance.

In the past six weeks, we’ve had friends or family over three weekends, went to a friend’s cottage one weekend, attended two country fairs, one regatta, one baseball tournament, shuffled our work schedules so we could be home during the day for two service provider visits, and chauffeured kids to various camps, practices and friends’ houses.

Some days it’s exhausting, but most of the time it’s busy, fun and manageable. That’s because we learned the importance a long time ago of always scheduling in down time.

Here are eight tips that we’ve found helped our family maintain a healthy balance on the home front:

  1. Keep one weekend a month completely open. Dave made me promise this years ago and it’s been our saving grace ever since.
  2. Don’t feel pressured to spend time doing something you don’t want to do. If I don’t have the time or feel like baking for a potluck or school fundraiser or dinner party, I’ll just buy something. Same thing with our house—our friends and family know they are always welcome to drop by and there will be a cold beer for them, but we don’t spend hours cleaning or tidying up—they take us as we are.
  3. Keep things simple when you do entertain. I’d rather spend an extra hour with guests chatting on the dock than cooking and cleaning on a beautiful summer’s day, so we often serve what’s simplest and easiest.
  4. No matter how many chores or things need to get done, carve out one hour a day for down time.
  5. If your child asks you to play cards, read, or play a game, say yes. I remember when the kids were little, they would always want to curl up in our big green chair and read after supper. I’d leave the dishes in the sink and read with them. The dishes could wait.
  6. Know what time is most precious to you and protect it. For me, it’s the first few hours of the day on the weekends. I can face just about anything as long as I can enjoy my coffee and read the papers before jetting off somewhere.
  7. Say no sometimes. Where we live, our kids often want us to run them into Kingston for something. It can kill up to half a day since we live north of the city. If we’re really busy the rest of the weekend, and it’s not something important, I’ll just say no.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When Dave had his knee replaced last fall and I was juggling kids, work and running him to appointments, I asked my neighbour to take him to one of his doctor’s appointments—it was a huge help.

This week’s #HappyAct is to share your tips for finding the right family life balance. What are some of the things you do to keep your non nine-to-five life in a happy state of equilibrium? Leave a comment.

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The most important decision you’ll ever make

Picture of girls in newspaper

Grace and Clare on the front page of The Frontenac News

Last weekend, both girls competed in a regatta in Carleton Place. It was a long, 14-hour day, but they both did amazingly well for their first regatta and were featured on the front page of our local paper this week, showcasing their fourth place medals for the K4 500 metre race.

For years, Dave and I tried to minimize the amount of scheduled activities our kids were involved in to keep life sane, but we always knew there would be a time in our lives when our weekends and evenings would be spent chauffeuring our kids to various tournaments, races and activities.

With 4H, kayaking, hockey, and baseball we are finally there.

Life is busy and good, but it does mean we have to sacrifice our own interests for the kids, and I’ll admit, some days I resent not having any time to myself.

I was complaining this to a friend the other day, and asked her how she dealt with raising two children. She said she had felt exactly the same way, and asked the same question years ago to a friend of hers who had four teenagers. Her friend’s answer was “I just decided that this would be the best time of my life.”

In a few years, Grace will be off to university. Clare will be in her final years of high school. The day is nearing when it will just be Dave and I staring at each other over the dining room table.

So I have decided these are going to be the best years of my life. I will embrace every practice and local fair, cheer at the top of my lungs at every baseball and hockey game, and occasionally steal time for myself to keep me sane.

For I know I will never get this time back with my children. I will never be able to rewind time. I resolve to make these the best years of my life.

Planes, trains and automobiles

jeep on safari

Adventures by automobile…on safari

Planes, trains or automobile–it doesn’t matter, for me, it’s as much about the journey as the destination itself.

I’m writing this blog today on the train, my fingers skimming over the keys as the coach lurches back and forth. By the time it posts, I’ll have flown thousands of miles return to Salt Lake City, and spent two days in the car driving back from vacation from South Carolina with Dave and the kids.

Planes are still magical to me, now matter how many times Air Canada loses my luggage, how bad the food is, or how long I have to wait at the airport. As soon as the plane lifts into the air, I marvel at watching the clouds, the magnificent land formations and patterns below and the sun rise and set over the wings.

Trains take me back to my youth. I grew up beside train tracks. The trains were so close to our house, my bedroom windows rattled when the commuter and freight trains sped through our station. The train was our escape from suburbia to downtown Toronto.

I still love taking the train. You can work, gaze out the windows, chat with your neighbour, or have a coffee or glass of wine. On today’s trip, I saw a deer grazing in the sodden fields and swans gliding gracefully in an estuary near the Trent River .

And then there is the automobile. The love affair of North Americans with the automobile is well documented. For me, cars have always been more of a practical need, a way to get from point A to point B. That all changes on a road trip when you never know what adventure lies beyond the next bend and what new vista there is to explore.

This week’s #HappyAct is to channel your inner John Candy and Steve Martin and embark on a journey by plane, train or automobile—don’t worry about the destination, just have fun getting there.

Tap into liquid gold

Clare tapping a maple treePing. Ping. Ping.

As the days get longer and the late winter sun grows stronger, families and farms in eastern Canada turn to a time-worn tradition: tapping trees.

Since moving to Eastern Ontario twenty years ago, I have spent many a March in the sugar bush.

In the early years, it was tapping trees and boiling sap in the sugar shack at my best friend’s farm in Parham. For the past four or five years, we’ve tapped a half a dozen maple trees on our property– something fun to make the endless month of March pass by quickly and to teach the kids about being sustainable.

Unless you’ve made maple syrup before, you can’t truly appreciate the work and effort that goes into making that precious one litre of liquid gold.

I remember one year, when the kids were just babies, Leslie and I wading through thigh-high snow, dragging the kids bundled up in snowsuits and scarves behind us on the toboggan to tap trees. We didn’t even make it halfway to the sugar shack before giving up because the snow was so deep.

Then there is the lugging of the buckets. On our property, the maple trees are down at the lake. We store the sap and boil off outside the barn. That means lugging heavy buckets full of sap daily up our big hill. I swear by the end of the season, my arms are about two inches longer than they were at the start of the season.

Finally, the hours and hours of boiling until you hit that critical moment when the sap thickens into syrup and you can sugar off. Most people don’t realize how critical the timing is. Wait too long, and you have crystallized candy on your hands. Sugar off too soon and you’ve wasted hours of boiling to create runny syrup.

Luckily, we learned how to determine the perfect consistency and exact time to sugar off from the very best—Audrey Tarasick, Leslie’s mother. Audrey would stand over the evaporator with her silver ladle, testing every five minutes how thick the sap was by seeing if the liquid formed a half moon drop on the end of the ladle. If it did, the sap was ready to sugar off.

For us, I’ve calculated it costs us about $80 in propane to get our 4 litres of maple syrup. Sure, we could buy it cheaper, but the fun and memories it’s given us over the years are priceless.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tap into some liquid gold this month. Little Cataraqui Conservation Authority’s Maple Madness runs this year from March 11 to 19 (March Break), and on the weekends of March 25 and 26 and April 1 and 2. One litre of syrup will run you $26.25.

Girl with sap bucket

One of our first years tapping on our property

tapped-trees

The perfect pairing

Girl at food bothTwo of my favourite words in the English language are free and food. Put them together and I’m in heaven.

This year, we went to the 150th Royal Winter Agricultural Fair to watch Grace, who was selected by her 4H club show her goat Cloud. She did well, placing tenth out of 19 competitors.

Watching the kids from her 4H club do well and seeing all the animals and agricultural exhibits was great, but the absolute best part of the Royal was the food and free samples.

There are two mottos the Swinton family lives by. One is never turn down a free meal. The other is you can call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner.

Clare and I scoped out our plan of attack early in the day after grilling two regular Royal grazers at the coffee line-up. The morning run was a choice between homemade cinnamon buns or apple dumplings smothered with caramel sauce and ice cream. Mid-day, it was a toss up between the perogies, back bacon on a bun, poutine or rosti, scrumptious potato and onion pancakes with cheese and sour cream. Our afternoon repast consisted of fresh caramel corn, ice cream and fudge.

And the free samplings, oh the samplings. Smoked sausage and pepperoni. Cheese from the Ontario Cheese producers association. Granola and yogurt. Creamy chocolate fudge.

It was a free food for all.

This week’s #HappyAct is to see what free food you can score. The Gourmet Food and Wine Expo is on at the Metro Convention Centre this weekend. Some restaurants or eateries will offer freebies on your birthday. For instance, the Marble Slab Creamery offers a free ice cream to anyone on their birthday. Panera Bread, Cinnabon and Booster Juice will also give you a free pastry or juice on your birthday if you sign up for their rewards club.

If all else fails, go to Costco!

Soak out the stress

woman in hot tubA couple of weeks ago, I had a really bad week. I mean really bad. One of those weeks where you wonder why you’re slogging away at what you do and where Friday can’t come soon enough. On those weeks, I turn to the love of my life for comfort, solace and rejuvenation: I turn to my hot tub.

I love my hot tub. Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m the happy act blogger. I write about what’s really important, like the people in your life, precious moments, having purpose and being confident in who you are.

I know I’m not supposed to love material things. I believe there is an exception to every rule, and my exception is my hot tub.

I love that moment when I slip into my hot tub, and the steamy water sends tingling sensations through my spine. I sink deeper and deeper into the hot bubbling water until I can feel the jets pounding on my back, working their magic as they massage my tired limbs. I close my eyes, and become lulled by the tones of the water: the high-pitched hissing of the bubbles on the surface, the alto sounds of the gurgling jets and the rumbling of the water pounding below the surface.

Yes, just when I think I can’t love my hot tub any more, we take our relationship to a whole new level.

This week’s #HappyAct is to soak out the stress and get yourself in some hot water. If you don’t have a hot tub, try a long hot bath, or why not treat yourself to a day spa, like the Nordic Spa outside of Ottawa? I’ve heard people say it’s wonderful.

Have a double s’cream day

Girl eating ice cream sundaeOne of my favourite weeks of the year is our annual family vacation. Each year we pick a region in the States, set up base renting a home from vrbo.com and then go exploring. This year our home base was Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Here’s the house we rented this year—it was beautiful.

As always, we had a super week. We visited Gettysburg, Hershey’s Chocolate World and amusement park, Longwood Gardens, Herr’s potato chip factory, and spent a day swimming in the ocean in Chesapeake Bay and tubing on Pequea Creek, a beautiful little tributary of the Susquehanna. Everyone had horses, and we felt very privileged to be there just twelve hours after our neighbour’s horse gave birth to a beautiful black foal.

Coming home is always bitter sweet, but we made it extra sweet by having a double ice cream day yesterday. We stopped in Jim Thorpe, PA for a walk about and an ice cream cone, then had sundaes at Friendlys for dessert for our last supper on the road. I can’t think of a better way to end a vacation.

This week’s #HappyAct is to have a double ice cream day. Throw caution and your waistline to the wind just once. Why not today? After all…wait for it…it is sundae!

Empty sundae dish