Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Kindness Elves 2015 Introduction: Elf on the Shelf Alternative




Hi everyone!

It's been a while since I have been blogging - family commitments reached a new high but we are back for Kindness Elves 2015! If you are not familiar with what Kindness Elves are or what we did last year, take a look at our Constant Christmas Page!

Last year we focussed on the original Kindness Elves idea, doing things for other people and our family, on the level that toddlers would understand. This year we have had a pretty difficult year as a family, and the kids are now a little older so are inevitably changing in the way they interact with others. Erin has started school so has grown up an awful lot, Lara is in the three-nager years and Caleb, having recently turned two is now very aware of what the girls are doing and wants to join in.

This year we are focussing on having fun together, to encourage happy play, turn taking etc a little more - our kids are aged 2, 3 and 4 (nearly 5).

I will post some free resources here as soon as I get a chance to format them properly. This year, instead of posting every day, I will post every week, more often if I get the time but as with last year, please visit our Facebook page where you will be able to see our daily updates of what's happening!

New for 2015! We have upgraded our elves! They are now fully grown and with the help of Advent Elf we have got ourselves some far superior elves this year. I have attached velcro to them so we can pose them properly this year - I'll put a quick post up about that at some point soon too.

Really looking forward to sharing our Christmas excitement with you this year!


Friday, 4 September 2015

Syria Crisis - What if it was me?!




Over the last few days, social media has exploded with information, articles and pleas for help for the people who are fleeing Syria.

I don't pretend to know much about politics, and I certainly don't know an awful lot about the "immigration crisis" this country has. But what I do know about is people...

We are quick to judge those who are desperately trying to enter our country, legally or illegally, yet we have no hesitation in emigrating abroad ourselves if we fancy the idea of a "better quality of life" or perhaps move to find better work. It seems that we immediately "qualify" ourselves as being legitimate enough to do that but don't extend that to others simply because they are from different countries, cultures or circumstances to us.

It was about 4 years ago that Mr Strong and I were looking into the possibility of emigrating to Australia. We had done our research and were ready to complete our visa application forms once we had had a final "sit and think". At the time, we had ruled out moving without Mr Strong having a job to move to, purely on the basis that we had Erin and as a family needed financial stability. Had it have just been the two of us, we may have considered moving without jobs to go to, but ensuring we had our degree certificates etc with us to find jobs on arrival. Ringing any bells...?

I too have looked at the news and the situation in Calais, and wondered at times where we are failing in our policies to allow potentially violent and disorderly people to enter our country and communities. I too have wondered why our benefit system so easily supports those who don't always deserve or take for granted what they get for very little effort - usually at times when we have been struggling financially. I hold my hands up and admit there are times it hasn't brought out my best attitude towards certain groups of stereotypes. The whole situation is a grey area, and I don't believe there's a black and white solution - it all depends on individual circumstances - the same as it does in our society.

But the last few days have been truly heart wrenching. We are all people, we are all human, we are all on this earth together. Every single person has the right to be given a fair chance, to be given support in times of desperation, because if that was me in that boat, risking my family's safety - I must have been way past the point of desperation.

At some point, we decided that we owned the land we live on, and that we could buy and sell it, and therefore decide what happens on it. At some point, we decided that we have ultimate authority over everything we see, being able to live our lives by the rules we determine for an awful lot of our own gain. At some point we decided that because there are different religions, races and cultures, that some people are no longer human beings - that only certain groups are allowed to speak freely or have their own opinions, and that these groups are far superior. How wrong could we be!?

But let me tell you something... we serve an Almighty God. A God who knew each of us before we were born. A God who gave us freewill so that we could explore our own minds, and learn the identity he created in us, to follow Him and worship Him with all of our beings. A God who has unending love, unending compassion and unending understanding. Who moves in Grace and Mercy, and who wants nothing more than the best for us. A God who just waits for us to ask Him to enter our lives, to enjoy a relationship with Him, one to one.

So who are we to decide that these people aren't worthy of our help?? These people who have been put in the midst of death, danger and constant fear - who would sacrifice and risk everything just to get a helping hand to turn their world around. What they need are our open minds, open hearts and open borders.

I saw something on Facebook yesterday which was a quote taken from Paddington, about there being a time when children in this country travelled to strangers' houses, with tags around their necks, to escape from the war-targeted cities. To find refuge and safety. And the plea was for us to remember these times, when we expected our fellow countrymen to help in terrible circumstances. If anything, today's situation is far far worse, and all these people want are safety.

Firstly, there are a number of ways you can help this cause, various aid charities are getting involved - Save The Children is just one of those, along with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station who helps those stranded at sea in the Mediterranean. I'm sure there are plenty of others if you search online.

Secondly, I would ask that you continue to pray for these people, and put any prejudices aside. Being able to live free from fear is something we should all be able to have.

Finally, if you can find a way of practically helping then please do so. A friend of mine, Jess, over at Catch A Single Thought is helping by putting packages together and sending to those in need - there may be local projects who are doing a similar thing in your area. Please consider donating items of clothing etc (the projects will be able to advise what they need) or monetary donations for them to buy what is still needed.

What if it was your family, or someone you knew? Wouldn't your heart be quickened to do all that you could?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Moving House with Toddlers and Young Children




In our 6 years of marriage we have lived in 4 houses, moved counties, with various aged young children. By no means are we experts but we've found how it best works for us, particularly in the last two house moves.

3 years ago, many of you will know we moved from the Midlands to Norfolk. I moved a few times whilst I was at uni but never with a family - moving house as a couple seems so much easier than when you have to pack and unpack with one or more young children around, who either need occupying or their care needs coordinating!

We have found that it is ideal for the children to be cared for elsewhere on the day of the move if possible, but not to exclude them in the process. We have been blessed to have friends and grandparents around to cover this, even if they go to a couple of different places during the day.

By no means are we experts, but here are my top tips for moving house with young children - the last move we had 3 children, aged 1, 3 and 4; our previous move we had children aged 6 months and 20 months:

1. Plan, plan and plan a bit more!

My friends will tell you I love to organise everything, and I can be a little (!!) particular about it - but only because it means I'm not worrying I've forgotten anything (baby brain has seriously diminished my memory capacity) and therefore I'm less stressed.

I planned where the children were going in terms of childcare, and we booked a van for the day with friends to help. We planned an overlap of days so the kids could see the house the day before we moved, and I could clean it before the big moving day. Packing was scheduled and everything was set to go as smoothly as possible (you can't plan for everything but for what you can - do!).

I always work backwards - so the last week I planned in our diary what needed packing when that couldn't be done in advance, making sure I allowed for being tired in the evenings and not planning too much in. Then we could work out what needed to be done 2 weeks before and so on.

2. Involve the children

The children helped me pack their toys in advance, the ones that I knew they didn't play with often. I tend to thin out the toys over the festive period and did a similar thing here. I explained that we needed to put them in boxes to take to the new house, and to make some more room in the house. They helped put everything in and tape up the boxes, and we showed Daddy (Mr Strong) where they were so they could be put in the garage ready for the big van.

We started this as soon as we knew we were moving - about 4-6 weeks beforehand. About 2 weeks before we moved we repeated this process so they had minimal toys - obviously if they go to nursery or school in the day they will need less to occupy them; if at home all day, more will be needed to be done at a later time.

I made new bedroom door signs for them for the new house - they chose the character and we also had plenty of discussions in advance about who was sharing with who (once we knew) and if anything new was needed (we had to buy curtains) - they had some choice in it so they were involved.

Any of their special things were left until the last minute - packed in a rucksack, and sent with them so they knew they were safe, or ensured they were taken with me in the car rather than in the van!

3. It's never too early to get started

I started with the garage, and we did a big car boot to get rid of what we didn't want, need or have space for. Be ruthless!! If you've not used it in 2 years, and have no foreseeable use for it (or can afford to replace it later on down the line), get rid of it!!

Once the garage was sorted we had somewhere to store the packed boxes. All the crockery and kitchen appliances etc that we didn't use on a daily basis were packed away. So was the excess bedding, spare towels, all the stationery / desk contents and books. We also packed away the DVDs, leaving out a selection of kids ones to pack a few days before the move. Basically, if you don't use it on a daily basis, or it's not necessary on a weekly basis - pack it! A little each evening in advance means it's spread out and manageable, plus the kids don't suddenly wake up to an empty house!! Pack away your pictures on the walls and ornaments too, but make sure you explain where they are going ("a box in the garage so we don't forget to take them").

Finally, polish and clean everything as you are packing - you want to unpack clean things at the other end. It doesn't take much extra effort, honest! I make sure I've been able to clean the new house before the moving day, so that we unpack into a clean house - it's also much quicker cleaning an empty house!!!

4. Make lists

I listed everything that went into a box. I numbered the boxes that were going to be unpacked at the other end, and noted down (on the list and the box) which room it needed to be put in on moving day (also helpful for friends who are helping on the day). The things that either weren't needed in the first few weeks, or that were just going to be stored were lettered - again marking if they wanted to go in the garage or the loft on arrival at the new house.

Make sure you print a copy of this out for moving day once it's complete (and before you pack your printer away!) and save a copy in case you lose the paper one!

By the time you've packed your whole house, you'll have forgotten what got packed together and where!

5. Plan the furniture layout and measure up

Mr Strong is technical so we actually had a CAD model of the rooms and furniture so we could play around with layouts before moving day! No arguments on moving day means less stress! We measured the house up on our second viewing so we had what we needed.

We also made a note of curtain track measurements and anything we would need to get to be fitted on moving day (one of the kids bedrooms didn't have a curtain track etc). This meant I knew we had curtains or blackout material ready for the kids to have a good nights sleep from day 1.

It's also useful to make a note of where the TV, phone and socket points are for furniture planning!

6. Pack the kids stuff together

The kids rooms are always top priority so make sure everything is packed together at the last minute so getting their rooms sorted is straightforward: curtains, clean bedding, special toys, night lights, musical mobiles etc. (Even their PJ's and next days clothes if necessary!)

We have always got the kids to come back around or just after dinner so they have a couple of hours to explore before bedtime, choose if they want to put their special things in a different place, and generally acclimatise to their new home. DON'T unpack during this time - have some fun as a family - have a tour of the house, play hide and seek, watch a film together or similar. Have some downtime to relax together.

7. Prioritise and order

Decide what the most immediate needs of the family will be for the first couple of days. For us, for everything to run smoothly, we wanted our fridge ready to be switched on and useable first thing on moving day, and for the kids to be able to have the TV ready for when they arrived in case they needed to zone out after a very long and busy day. We were able to get the keys the day before we moved so transferred the fridge over (and washing machine and dishwasher) the night before the big move in order for the fridge to settle. We also moved the TV over and got it all set up.

On moving day, the kitchen was top priority - not only to make necessary cups of tea etc but also so we could be sorted for a lazy morning the following day! Buy snacks etc and if possible arrange for someone to bring lunch round for you and your helpers on moving day.

Next was the kids' rooms - we could sleep on the mattress on the floor if necessary but the kids' rooms needed to be sorted to get them settled asap.

This will all be different depending on the age of your children and the general routine of your family - try and identify the things that regulate your day to day lives and help keep everyone on an even keel.

8. Pre-change addresses etc and mail redirect

The worst thing about moving house is changing your address!! I still hold that view after every move! Make a list of what will need addresses changing before you move so that you have a reference list before your mind gets full of packing and unpacking! Do what you can in advance, and perhaps make a list of what needs changing the other side of the move. (Don't forget house insurance, especially if you are moving some things over in advance.)

We had to (by rental contract) have a mail redirect for 3 months, which has helped identify anything we missed. It also means you don't have to worry to much if you don't get around to changing your address in advance.

9. Run your cupboards and freezer down

Try and move with as little food as possible, and then book a food delivery for the day after you move (perhaps have a well deserved take away on moving day!). It's a good way to get rid of those things that have been in your cupboards for a while, even if you have a few random meals nearer moving day! You'll have enough to move without worrying about food too.

You'll need to defrost your freezer anyway, so try and go back to making do with what you have in the cupboards - you'll be glad of it on moving day!!

10. Talk about moving and get excited

I don't know if this applies to all children, but certainly for ours they loved talking about our new house. We didn't talk too much about the nitty gritty in front of them if possible, but tried to make everything fun and exciting. That being said we did have a few heated discussions whilst they were around but moving is stressful and it isn't easy being excited 24/7 about something that can be quite daunting.

Think about different aspects of the new house from their point of view - for example, we moved to a bungalow with a garden from a house without one. Lots of talks about building snowmen when it snowed, having a slide in the garden, and laughing about it being a special house with no stairs!

Don't worry if they seem anxious, you are too as an adult! But try and identify what they are worried about and either answer their questions or reassure them, even if that's very often! The more positive you are, the more they will be (even if you have to pretend sometimes!).

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I hope those are of some help to someone out there. Everyone has their own ways of doing things, this is just ours and what works for our family. Once you've had the big moving day, try and have a day to yourselves to potter around with minimal visitors - we found we've all benefited from a quiet day to get used to our new surroundings and take it easy!

I love moving house - but I love where we are now and I'm genuinely hoping this is it for a good number of years!!!

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Battleground




I have been thinking about the blog for a while now, feeling like it's been so long since I posted that I just don't know where to start!

It has occurred to me that in the midst of all that we have going on in our lives, there will never be a perfect time to write my next blog post so I should just get on with it...

Those of you that were regular readers last year will know that things went a bit quiet really from December 2014. I love writing on Constant Heart and I'm working on making time to get back to it!

The last year particularly is the hardest we've known in our marriage - not because we are any less in love, but because we have been bombarded from every direction possible with testing times. I'll hold my hands up and say I've had more than one day when I've woken up and just not known how I'm going to make it through the next hour, let alone the day.

We have had a few years of financial hardship, the last year being the worst. We've nearly lost our car, Mr Strong's job was in danger at more than one point, we had to move house unexpectedly, and family life has been demanding and exhausting. I've felt completely lost, like I have been completely drowning pretty much every minute of every day... I know how that must sound, but it's true.

We've done what we can and kept putting one foot in front of the other, and we are hoping we are near the end of a life changing and life shaping journey.

Erin is about to start big school leaving Lara in Nursery all by herself, and Caleb, well, he's nearly two and is eating me out of house and home! (I hear that's just boys?!)

Every day waking up thinking "It can't possibly get worse", or "Surely, things must start to improve soon... right!?" and then finding that something else is thrown at us is physically, emotionally and spiritually draining. But God doesn't stop in the midst of all these things.

We've navigated this last year in the complete dark, trusting that God has it all in hand. Being faced with impossible situations and seeing God completely transform them. As we have been refined and shaped, we have come to feel at our weakest, but found so much more of God.

I won't go into the details, and I might not in the future, but know that whatever you have going on right now... and no matter how impossible things seem... we can whole heartedly say that our God is a God of miracles, even in today's times.

We have learnt about praying for things, and I mean REALLY praying. I never understood how anyone could have the gift of praying in intercession - those in the church who cry out to God for those who are in need, who battle in prayer for the things we cannot see day in and day out, but boy did we learn how to do that!

Don't get me wrong, I pray regularly, I talk to God whilst I am doing regular daily things, out loud, in my head, and in my heart. But so many times in the last year particularly, I have been on my knees crying out, weeping in despair that I cannot go on any longer - and I have carried on regardless because I've had no other choice until God's perfect timing. It has been gruelling. But God has been FAITHFUL.

We're not in the clear, God is reshaping every aspect of our lives to come in line with what he has planned for us, and whilst we have been thrown things to knock us off His perfect course, He has come alongside us, with all the supplies we've needed to persevere and get off the rocky ground!

Family life is crazy right now, but hopefully you'll see me back and blogging soon!

Love Jenn


Monday, 9 March 2015

Life and it's many luxuries... some not as obvious as you think!




Over the weekend we had a lovely time celebrating Lara's 3rd birthday, with a Saturday full of fun with their cousins. There has been something in the air, that smell of warmth, of freshness, the promise of the weather turning for the better - you know what I mean - you can just feel that spring is in the air!

I had a pretty busy week last week and made two celebration cakes - one for Lara and one for a family we know at church to celebrate an 80th birthday. I did either bake or decorate every night last week but enjoyed it - it's a shame it has to fit around so many other things at the moment.

I tried making my own modelling paste - having looked at how much it was to buy ready made, I was reluctant and thankfully looked into a cheaper way around it. I found a great video on YouTube showing me how to make a basic figure, and another how to make the modelling paste so didn't think I'd got much to lose!

Well, it turned out really well, and after posting the photos on Facebook had two more requests to make cakes for people we know. Whilst I love doing it, making it a business is a little bit of a dream at the moment until the kids are all at school. It gave me hope though that one day I might get to do what I love doing (whilst that may not do my waistline any good!!).

I thought about how easy it is to create something, and that for me, making them from scratch is far cheaper than buying one, and certainly far cheaper than getting one made from a bakery as I'm not paying for the time it takes to make. For example, one of the cakes I made last week took me 6 hours to decorate, and that's not including baking the cake itself (not that it takes a huge amount of time).

I think being on such a tight budget for so long whilst we were on our journey to become debt free has made me look at the costs of things differently - whilst I'd happily pay a fair amount for a good cake (if I didn't have time, or if baking wasn't something I did), for me it still falls into the realms of luxury.

Mr Strong and I spend the weekend before last together without the children for the first time - my parents generously agreed to have the children overnight for us and I think all of us had a good time having a change of pace and company.

Whilst the kids had fun making and baking, and generally having a fab time with Nana and Grandad, we on the other hand went shopping, had coffee, went out for a meal, actually BROWSED the different departments we visited - I wasn't sure I remembered what that was like! Just doing one of those things would have been a luxury, let alone all of them. We actually bought ourselves a few new clothes in the sales, staying overnight at the local Premier Inn (saver deal booked a few months ago) and then had breakfast at a local pub after having... wait for it... A LIE IN!! So momentous was it all that I felt as if we'd just been on a luxury round the world cruise. Living on a budget, even now we are debt free, doesn't allow for regularly doing these things a lot of people would call normal. It makes you appreciate the little things, and it was simply amazing.

That was the first time we had spent any time away from the children since having them apart from one night when some friends of ours had the girls overnight (before Caleb was born), and when I was in hospital giving birth!!

Lara will start her free 15 hours nursery place soon, and so for half of the week it will just be Caleb and I. For so long I've felt like I'm only just surviving, treading water whilst desperately trying to keep my head above the waves. Having three children aged 4 and under (three under 3 years old when Caleb was born) is great but it is hard work I'll be honest. I am looking forward to having a little more breathing room, to being able to have enough of a break in the week to not feel completely stressed out 85% of the time. It's also nice to think I'll get some quality time with Caleb - having the children so close together has meant they are so used to all being together (which isn't a bad thing) but that they don't have a huge amount of one-on-one time, something that we'll hopefully get better at scheduling in one day.

We have a holiday coming up in a few months, again, this is a huge luxury! It's by no means anything fancy, a caravan on the south coast, somewhere with open spaces for the kids to run around in (we don't have a garden) and a change of scenery. We have lots of things to look forward to, but I don't ever want to lose sight of the things we learnt whilst becoming debt free - learning to appreciate the small things in life.

I challenge you to consider your every day, and what you consider luxuries. Consider those around you, and whether they might benefit from a small act of kindness to be able to enjoy one of these luxuries that you might take for granted - especially those living on a budget, with little family support or with little spare time. Random acts of kindness - the most rewarding things you could do this week!

Friday, 20 February 2015

Hopes and Resolutions

I can't believe it's been so long since I've posted, where an earth have the last few weeks gone!!!

As always, there's so much I want to share with you but just haven't had the time - I didn't make any resolutions this year, except for one - continue my journey with Slimming World.



In January, I joined my local group, having decided that with all the ups and downs we had before Christmas, that my progress was in serious danger of being thwarted by my severe lack of willpower.

I am only a few lb off being back to my lowest weight since starting Slimming World on my own last Easter, using the books from when I joined after having Erin. Since joining the group it has been much better, and although it's not been easy, the group I go to are really lovely and a good laugh!

I have recipes to share, cakes I've baked to show you and a number of things running through my mind I'd like to explore... however, one thing I will openly admit, and not feel guilty about, is that my blogging may be a little sporadic in the next few months. I'm still posting on the Facebook page when I can.

In our current season, my spare time is very few and far between, and whilst I love blogging, I simply don't have enough hours in the day so it will, for now, be taking a bit of a back seat.

One thing I would love to get started this year is far more tutorials, specifically in the area of cake decorating. I've made a few now, and I am starting to get some requests from friends and family now. The beauty of what I do (which is by no means a professional standard - one day I'd love it to be!), is that it's so simple anyone could do it!! REALLY!! With the right tools, and a bit of imagination it really is something anyone could do with a little practise.

With this in mind, there may be a new section coming up in Constant Craft that focusing purely on Sugarcraft and cake making, or it might even get a section of it's own! We'll see!

Right, back to the reality that is 3 children at home during half term, arguing and telling me they don't like each other any more!!lol! They love each other really! Enjoy your day!


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Happy New Year!

Hi all,

Hope you had a fantastic Christmas and New Year! Those of you who follow Constant Heart on Facebook will know I wasn't very well at the beginning of December and consequently the Kindness Elves were a little uneventful for at least one of those weeks! We did pick it up again but were then mid birthday and Christmas prep season so although some of it got onto Facebook, it didn't reach the blog!

I'll do a summary of the Kindness Elves on another day's post but I have to say I was glad I was struck down with it before Christmas Day (last year we were all all between Christmas Eve and well into the new year with a sickness bug - joy!).

So I am just landing after a very busy Christmas, and we are currently mid potty training (the worst parenting job I have come across yet!).

Once we've grounded properly I'll get back to the blog - there are so many things I wanted to write about but until then I am still trying to catch up on housework! (Seriously, is it just me or do you have 2-3 days off for Christmas and it results in being about 2 weeks behind!!??)

Looking forward to the good things that are already in motion for this year - the last 6 months have been particularly difficult so I'm trusting that God's leading us to calmer waters...!

At the very least, we have survived the first week back into our routine but I think we'll be having a fairly relaxed weekend ahead! Happy nearly-Friday!