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The book I never wanted to read.

I never in a million years thought I would be doing what I am doing this morning. I never thought I would pick up this particular book to read.

And I love reading books. I am always reading at least five at one time.

I could read this book in one sitting.

I have seen it every morning on our bookshelf for five years. FIVE YEARS. I vowed never to read it because the very title annoyed me.

But as I looked at our shelf today and saw it, my curiosity outweighed my annoyance on the scale of emotions. Oh hell, why not.

The Perfect Day Formula by Craig Ballantyne.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Craig. (Maybe love is a strong word. I appreciate Craig. Yes that’s more appropriate.) Craig is my husband’s earliest business mentor. Craig is one of the main reasons why we live the life we do. I have been grateful for the relationship between Craig and Chris and Craig introducing him to running an online business.

But once upon a time, Craig had also been this reminder of being “too late” or “not enough.” Chris would beat himself up about not being able to set up the routines or systems that Craig suggested or be as “productive” while making the efforts needed to enjoy the “success” that he should be enjoying. There were deadlines and timelines that Chris would fall short on.

Chris would get frustrated and tell me about “too late” and “not enough.” I would roll eyes or we would fight. It would always start with something Craig said and me yelling, “I don’t give a flying fck what Craig says. He is a single man with no dependents! YOU have five children and a wife that is barely sleeping who has to resort to high fiving herself daily for the ‘success’ of keeping the kids alive again.”

He was also the sole reason that my husband had to travel for business leaving me at home with five children, four of which still needed maximum care 24/7 – 1 nursing, 2 in diapers, 2 co-sleeping, 4 needing bath time monitoring and bedtime rituals.

It would always start with these seven words:
“So, there’s this event that Craig says…”

I would take a deep breath and be completely supportive in the most passive-aggressive way. “Great. Just make sure you stock up on apples, cheese, and popcorn. Give Craig a hug for me.” And every time he went away, the kids would ALL get sick. It was as if the universe was cued to perform its most sadistic tricks as soon as his plane took off like the time all the kids got the stomach flu the morning he left which included me heading to IKEA for an emergency purchase for a new mattress (if you know what I mean) with five sick children in tow all wearing a mix of diapers and maxi pads. (Spoiler alert: There isn’t a story like that one in The Perfect Day Formula.)

So of course in 2015, when my husband received this book in the mail, I rolled my eyes – my standard Craig reaction. But I was in a different place in my life than I am in now: my youngest son was about to turn six that year and my head was still spinning from a good 17 years of non-stop mamahood where I wasn’t sure where I began and my kids ended – physically, emotionally, psychologically. It was all blurred lines. I had just adjusted to having a teenager and she was already turning 17. I had so many existential moments between 2013-2015 that I felt I had just stepped off a carousel ride and I was trying to find my land legs.

I couldn’t read the book. In fact, I couldn’t read any book that told me what I “should” be doing to have a more perfect life because listen, I got up in the morning and didn’t yell at anyone until 10:00am so F off. That was my “success.”

I didn’t need a single man reminding me of where I fell short. I was already Captain Self-Flagellator of my perpetually sinking ship – a wondrous feat similar to the fate of Prometheus.

I left it on the shelf. Since then, I have embarked on my own journey, developing my tools and formulas that work for my life with a husband who is self-employed and five children that are homeschooled.

But one thing I have learned in the past five years is that our bookshelf is quite a magical entity. Often the books that to call me to read (or reread) are ones that I need to read in that moment.

Imagine my surprise at the call, more like a clearing of the throat of a man I had never been too fond of not through any fault of his own. He was the other voice that Chris kept on his shoulder as I perched on the other. Angel and devil would be too simplistic a dichotomy. If we were going to talk Craig’s language, Craig was the Stoic and I was the lesser known wife of the Stoic – of course, without a name and I am not sure about their existence and how they felt about their Stoic philosophizing husbands because we never got to hear their from the wives. Or just call me the Skeptic.

I hadn’t even noticed that we had the book still – I thought we had gotten rid of it in The Great Marie Kondo Purge of 2015, another book I had rejected until my second daughter begged me to read it.

So I pick up Craig’s book and silently make the intention to be open because already the idea of the perfect day irks me, let alone having a formula for it. Maybe it’s the creative artist in me or just the mother of many that makes me skeptical. But again, curiosity and the magical book shelf get the best of me and I grab the book.

The preface begins with a quote from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher:

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Nice. Personally, I didn’t do it that way.

Flashback to 2014, pre-Craig’s book, when I started to feel a little, let’s say, off. I know who I didn’t want to be. My daughter was 16 and I was afraid of the world. And then I looked at the four younger ones and thought that I couldn’t let them out there either. There were so many things that could happen to them – like all the bad guys with candy and puppies. I was 36 years old and a basket case. There was a rage and a desperation. I didn’t want to be THIS way. I wanted to launch them in the world with trust and with that other word that would make me vomit in my throat a little – hope.

Looking back I knew this fear and anxiety was all rooted in not knowing who I wanted to be or who I even was without the identity of mother and wife. I couldn’t let them go because the world was so bad or was it that I didn’t want to let them go because I didn’t want to?

Eventually, they would leave and then what?

2014 was a year of inner work and turmoil. It was a mess I couldn’t contain anymore.

Back to Craig’s book. Craig asks the reader to imagine their perfect day. I stop and close the book. It’s only been 2 minutes and I just can’t. I have this visceral reaction to the word, “perfect.” Why does it make me cringe? I look back at my life and see one imperfect day after another. One mom fail and wife fail and daughter fail and sister fail after another. But I see them as blemished pearls strung together on a priceless oversized necklace that I wear proudly layered with the necklace I have crafted carefully over the last five years – the one that’s a little more polished, still with blemished stones, but at long last, a perfect fit.

I don’t know. Maybe I have my math wrong. The formula is not adding up. So I keep reading.

I give Craig the benefit of the doubt and imagine the day. It’s the day I had yesterday and the day that was beginning to unfold. I never actually thought my days were perfect. I just can’t imagine my life being any other way. Is that perfection or is it just good old-fashioned gratitude?

I read on confident that at the very least Craig is pushing my thinking on old beliefs that are like a bad rash – always threatening to resurface with a change in temperature or with the appearance of an allergy. (I used to be allergic to optimism or being happy.)

There’s more talk about his systems and formulas. Catchy names like reverse goal setting and always conquering something. I have had enough battles in my life: being in the “trenches” with the small ones, “The War To End All Wars” with laundry for seven people, and small “victories.”

As I reflect on my life with many children at home with me for most of their lives, I am all about the systems. A system for everything. The systems don’t have catchy names. You can hear my kids fondly reminisce about two of the systems from time to time: their “orphanage” bed system and their “prison” plate system.

“The Prison Plate System”
The plates don’t break, have separate portions for different food groups (i.e. apples, cheese, and popcorn), and they clean and stack well.

“The Orphanage Bed System”
Having a three bedroom semi-detached house in the city with five children leaves one room with at least three children. The only ways we tried to fit three children in a small bedroom:

A) A bunk bed with at least a double bed on the bottom which means two kids will be sharing a bed which could lead to a fiasco like this one.
B) Small mini beds (only found at IKEA) are kept in a row where each child can have their own bed, like in an orphanage.

Anyway, that was a couple of our systems. There was the “Anti-whack-a-mole Bedtime System” : each had a bedtime bag in front of their little bed that I made. It had their bedtime book, slippers, and pajamas. After bath time, there was no going downstairs anymore. That is, until I had to change the system to accommodate #4 who always wanted a drink before bed. Now she never had an accident so we gave it to her to avoid the bedtime drama. But that would mean whack-a-mole would ensue. Each child wanting to get up to get a drink, to go to the bathroom, need one more bedtime kiss, need one more bedtime story because they aren’t tired, because their sister is breathing too loud, etc. So then a system change happened and we instituted bedtime snack. After bath time, bedtime snack, and then that was it. No leaving the room unless you had to pee.

I had a “Be Prepared for the Worst System” for traveling in the car. We had car bags that I made to hang in front of each person’s seat in the van. It had toys, snacks, coloring stuff, extra mittens, snow pants, and of course, a change of clothes and extra diapers. There is nothing worse than not having an extra diaper in the middle of a three-hour hike. Or as my dad learned the first time he took all the little ones for an outing when he had a vomiting child in the middle of a busy shopping mall. God bless him.

We still have a system for leaving places called “When-Daddy-Or-I-Make-This-Gesture-You-Better-Get-Going System.” We have a signal that we do after we make eye contact with the kids that let’s them know we are leaving. They know that they have 45 seconds to drop what they’re doing, clean up, say goodbye, and go. I had been sick of calling ALL their names, half of which I had forgotten anyway being so sleep-deprived.

A system for chores. A system for mornings, afternoons, evenings. A system for road trips. A system for travel. A system for being in a hotel room. A system for conflict and resolution. A system for putting away groceries (little child labour assembly line never hurt anyone).

Craig made me realize that I had a lot of my own formulas too. Again I differed on the type of formulas I started to create back then.

No sleep due to nursing child + a toddler that refuses to nap + a preteen that wants to talk only at night when her siblings are asleep = Zombie Parenting aka Low Expectations – just keep the children alive

After my sleep equalized a little, I could play with variables. Before that, it all depended on sleep quality.

Coffee + Being Awake Before the Kids = A Peaceful Morning

Coffee + Being Awake Early + Exercise = A Productive Day

Waking up late due to a bad sleep night + coffee = Slow start but salvageable day.

Waking up late due to a bad sleep night – coffee = Be quiet and get out of mom’s way.

Number of children / Number of parents = Always Outnumbered – Have another cup of coffee.

The less variables, the easier it was to figure out what works. I have digressed a bit. Back to the book.

Now I am on the chapter on “How to Control Your Days.” I pause again with a little eye roll, because you know, the chapter title. But I persist. And I read something, that surprisingly, I 100% agree with.

Craig says, “The most important ritual in your life is what time you choose to get out of bed, and the best decision you can make is to get up fifteen minutes earlier.”

When I started to get regular sleep in 2015, I started the practice of waking up early before the children consistently. This changed my life. All the good stuff went up: my focus, my patience, my will power, my creative output, my time for myself, my productivity in terms of planning my homeschool lessons. In 2020, I consistently get up before 5:30am.

The next chapter is “The Essential Rules for Your Life.”

I am pretty sure “Never brush your daughter’s hair when angry” is not on his list.

Of course what surprises me is that we have a few rules in common. (We definitely differ on #4. Craig’s rule, “I act polite and courteous and do not swear.” If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know my proclivity for profanity. But I am definitely polite and courteous for the most part if you don’t effing piss me off.)

A summary of my surprises while reading this book:

  • It’s hard for me to say this without fearing you think I am full of shit but I will say it proudly, I have perfect days.
  • As much as I scoffed at Craig developing a formula for a perfect day, I have my own set of systems and formulas too. We all have a default formula or system whether we are aware of it or not.
  • Stoic quotes can be direct and dry but if the backbone of the philosophy is to take responsibility and choose how you want to live every moment, I dig it. I am thinking of reading some Marcus Aurelius in the morning to add to my “formula.” But I definitely still need my poetic prose and nature writing in the morning.
  • I am definitely not into battle metaphors anymore. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia that comes with age but those early years were also steeped in magical stories of the rain and the stars and the mushrooms. It the time of storytelling and hibernation. A final surrender to that time of life where my kids are little and I don’t have to fight it, I can just relax and cuddle all day with them because that’s all they need. And as they grow, there isn’t much that changes either except that they start to leave your orbit and have their own lives but there is no adolescence to be at war with or muster through. I also don’t want to conquer or control or fight my day.
  • I agree with most of it. The part about the need for structure to allow freedom especially; how important the mornings are; and the habits we create.
  • I didn’t realize how one personal rule I made a few years ago really shifted my own life until I read Craig’s bit on “Personal Rules.” I used to drink alcohol but then I started to notice that I did not like how I felt or who I became when two or three drinks became four or five. It wasn’t daily but it could have been daily. I wasn’t judging those that enjoyed drinking alcohol. But my husband didn’t drink and so I stopped drinking. I would have the occasional glass of something with friends or at dinner when my husband and I had date night, but then I wouldn’t feel great. My early mornings were greatly affected. And I LOVE my early mornings so I made a choice.
  • My personal rule of sleep is big too. I am committed to my sleep times. Getting to bed early and never staying up past 10:00pm has also changed my life.
  • I thought that I would find routine boring. Nope. After living in a place that provides endless opportunity for anything but boring, routine is a comforting security blanket.
  • Reading the book made me appreciate my efforts over the last five years at deliberating creating a life which really is a collection of these such attempts at routine and structure, only to fail and try again until that baby finally sleeps through the night, and then the next night, and then their own bed. And finally you are left alone again, the two of you, a day you thought would never come and a different world awaits.

It’s funny how I read this book with a “preaching to the choir” type of mentality. But in this 150-page book, an explanation of a formula in that Stoic-“It’s that simple” type of instruction, I am reminded of my own years of the blood, sweat, and tears of failing at it. My failed attempts would be at least twice the size of this book. My family can attest.

I see the names of men listed to show as example how they took the morning for themselves: Van Gogh, Hemingway, Hugo, Frank Lloyd Wright, Beethoven, and Stephen King.

But I wonder about their wives or their mothers? Or were they alone and childless? And in this moment, I celebrate my own efforts (and other mighty women’s efforts) at doing what these men could do – my own heroic attempts at waking up at dawn to do “my work.” The work of a woman who has never seen herself without an “other” next to her – feeding off her or her feeding them, sleeping beside or with. The woman’s work of actively finding a room of her own because no one will give up theirs or will only reluctantly lend it.

I agree with most of the tactics in this book with a few exceptions. I am a creature of habit but the daily script feels too contrived and I prefer creating a daily intention. Sitting in stillness making an intention for the day – instead of scripting, I make a rough sketch using pretty washi tape which I call my Book of Hours.

I actually hoped for a little more _Craig_by the end – personal details that help me connect with advice. I liked the personal stories that helped me understand now after all these years that maybe we had more things in common than I wanted to admit to including supporting Chris.

But I can’t help but feel slightly patronized as I read it. The pep talks mixed with personal accomplishment leaves me a little jaded. Then it hits me, an obvious detail I don’t want to admit: that’s how I talk about my life on this blog. I have always wanted to share with you, dear reader, personal superstar moments in hopes that you could learn from my setbacks and failures. If I have been patronizing, I apologize.

I also appreciate that he had the courage and discipline to write and publish a book. I can’t hate on that. It’s on my to-do list.

I asked some of my kids what their perfect day looks like. They are confused with the question.

One says, “Tuesdays and Thursdays. Pre-covid.”

I ask, “Why?”

She says, “Because it was filled with things I love doing.”

And another says, “When the sun is out and I can get up before half the day is gone. And I like my work. I’ve always liked all of the jobs that I have had.”

One counters that and says, “It depends. It depends on what I choose to do with what life gives me. If I feel like I made the best of it, then it’s perfect. Currently if I can sleep in, meditate, and read, it’s pretty perfect but I would add going to the beach in the early evenings to play volleyball.”

The other questions that line of thinking, “But mom is talking about _perfect._It has to be sunny. This is one condition for a perfect day. A perfect day can’t be every day.”

And the debate stops as they all continue to question perfection.

Thanks Craig for the inadvertent philosophical discussion because I pulled your book from the shelf today.

After reading this straightforward look at creating a structured life, I need a little detour from Craig’s mapped out, fully paved highway, that is for sure getting me from Point A to Point B. I want to take a scenic route that may take me in real and metaphoric circles. I turn to Upstream by Mary Oliver – which I have already read twice since buying it in 2016 prior to our move -for a little freedom in wondering. But I see that she too tells it straight and also gives me another dose of the same message that apparently I need to read today:

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

That’s my big take away from reading Craig’s book. And from the Stoics. Rules are ok when you create them and accept the consequences for not following them. It’s not the sexiest or most thrilling way to live but it does help you move closer to a life that you own.

What could be more perfect than that?

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Dave Ruel June 5, 2020, 11:47 am

    I love reading your blogs! Thanks Rozanne!

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