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Happy Birthday

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Happy birthday to you.

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Happy birthday to you.

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Happy birthday, dear Johnny.

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Happy birthday

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to you.

 

Happy twenty-fifth birthday, my brother.

It would have been such a great birthday. Twenty-five is a good one.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 17

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These fifty days

In the last two months, I have lost three family members. Actually, in the last fifty days, I have lost three family members.

Three phone calls.

Three deaths.

Three funerals.

There is so much that goes along with all this, I hardly know where to start. So I’ll be spewing my feelings and thoughts to the outer space inter-webs. Here I go.

The first was my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was old, I don’t know if she was “elderly,” but she had lived her life. The strange thing was, she wasn’t supposed to die first. My grandfather learned last year his heart valve was failing and he was suffering from blockages in his veins and arteries. The surgery to repair this was very risky, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to even bother. The doctors told him he may live two years without doing the surgery, and the longer he waited, the bigger the risks.

So last fall, he and my grandmother visited us in Connecticut, seemingly out of nowhere, and got to meet their great-grandson, my son Theodore. When they were about to leave, I asked them to come visit our apartment, so I could see them one more time. We had a lovely visit and took photos. I thought it could be the last time I saw my grandfather, so I savored their laughter and presence. I hugged them tight and said good-bye on September 11, 2017.

On Friday, April 13, 2018, I was getting ready for work when I got a phone call from my mother. She was upset. She said, “Deborah, I just got a call. Grandma Devenney is gone.” At first, I couldn’t even process what that meant. She went on a trip? I have learned these last two months that your mind can trick you to protect you. It is an eerie feeling.

I learned what she meant and collapsed in grief. Out of nowhere! She was fine! How could this be?

That morning, my grandmother had woken up early like every other day to get about her work. She went to put on laundry before going on her swim, when she had a stroke and collapsed in her apartment. My grandfather found her an hour later. That was it. Instantaneously, she was gone.

I was heartbroken. I went to work just to say I was leaving. My eyes were like buckets filled to the brim; at every wobble and nudge, water splashed over the sides.

That was it. She was gone. I could hardly believe it. My poor father. My poor aunts and uncles. Out of nowhere. No good-bye, just a woman who was faithful to the end and went to be with her Savior. God called her.

The most curious detail of her death was the date: Friday, the thirteenth. Most people feared these days, full of “bad luck,” but my grandparents laughed at such superstitions. They were married on Friday the thirteenth of June. They loved that they had confidence in Christ and didn’t have to worry about such trivial things like, “bad luck.” That was ridiculous. They had Jesus, what can bad luck do?

On Saturday a week later, we loaded up the family and traveled to Quarryville, Pennsylvania. Everyone was coming to the funeral. We were all supposed to see each other at my grandparent’s anniversary party on June 9, but we were getting together early instead to lay my grandmother’s body down. I saw my grandfather, who was stoic but noticeably lost. He did not talk much, which was unusual for him. But he was still grandpa.

My parents stayed behind for an extra day, but we left Monday to go back to life. I had closure. I was sad, especially for my father, but I was happy she was with the Lord and lived a life worth admiration. She was a beautiful woman, to the very end. She was faithful to the end, and I was so honored to know her.

I went back to work Tuesday. On Wednesday, I spent the whole day at a conference learning about wills and trusts. On Thursday morning, I drove Theodore to my parent’s house before work. After getting him set up and saying good-bye, I got in my car.

Something prompted me to look at my phone that morning, Thursday, April 26. Massimo was at home getting ready for a big trip to Cape Cod to show his guitar to a luthier. Maybe I wanted to check on him? Maybe it was just the Hold Spirit. I got my phone out of my bag. I had a missed call and two text messages.

Massimo’s text messages said his brother, Johnny, overdosed, his mom was on her way down there and he was nonresponsive. Massimo said he didn’t know what to do, as in whether he should go to the Cape or not. I understood he wanted to be there for his family, but it seemed strange to me. What would he do? Johnny had overdosed so many times, why would this be different? But Massimo already knew it was different and didn’t want to admit it. And my mind was protecting me by tricking me.

I called Massimo back, right there in the car. I said it could be hours before he knows anything, and he should go. He could always come back if he needed to. Massimo still didn’t want to admit it. And my mind was still blocking the truth. We prayed for Johnny on the phone. I ran inside to quickly tell my mom, brother, and sister in law to pray for Johnny and I didn’t know anything else.

It took nine minutes to drive to work, and I was already running very late. I shuffled in and let my bags drop to the floor in my office. My phone was in my hand. It rang. It was Massimo. That was when I knew.

It was too fast. If Johnny was being taken to the hospital, there would be so much going on, no one would have a chance to call, and I wouldn’t hear anything for a while. This was way too fast. Bad news travels fast, I have learned.

I answered, watching the last bit of hope disappear entirely. “Deborah,….” “Yes?” “I’m sorry…..” He broke down. I fell to the floor, screaming. My office staff was stung by my crash, and came to me.

I didn’t know what to say, so I told him how much I loved him and that it would be okay and I was sorry. I said I was coming, and he said he was going to his parent’s house. Pat closed my office door and I called my mom.

“Mommy?……. He’s gone.” My mother gave a moan like I had never heard. She saw a storm coming, and couldn’t stop it. I could hear her heart trying to cover us all and stop this pain, but it was coming and she knew. I told her to please watch Theodore for a while and we’ll get him later, but I was going.

Patty drove me to my in-laws. The rest of the day was a stream of people and crying and calls and texts and becoming someone I had never wanted to be. It was cloudy and awful. The day was awful.

We planned his funeral and found a grave site. The wake was May 2 and the funeral and burial was May 3. Johnny was twenty-four years old. No one is prepared for that, even though his mother imagined it over and over during the years of his addiction, she still wasn’t ready to plan his funeral. It was beautiful and horrible and there are so many things I could say about it, the internet itself isn’t bit enough. But it happened and that was that. The week after the funeral was good, as good as it could be. Mother’s Day was awful and ushered in an awful week. The next week was a little better, the following was the best and worst. We went camping and I wished Johnny was there. He was supposed to be there, and had been there with us in the past.

I thought about all the things that changed in one year – one year. We go camping every Memorial Day weekend, ever since I could remember. The same place, the same meals. Last year I was pregnant with a complication-free pregnancy and thrilled because I just found out my cousin Lauren was pregnant, too. We were waiting any second for a phone call that my brother’s baby was coming. His wife was due with my parent’s first grandchild, and we were waiting for news all weekend. Phones were fully charged at all times. My sister was engaged to be married in August, and had just worked on packing her apartment to move to Germany after the wedding. She told me about how her fiance was doing at the military base. The year ahead looked busy, but exciting. Life and excited expectation were everywhere.

Fast forward one year. I had a scary pregnancy and delivered a four-and-a-half pound baby. It that turned out fine, but was stressful. My brother and his family have been all but stuck in the United States for a two month visit which turned into a year thanks to the government’s paperwork management. My sister did not get married, and in fact is no longer with her fiance at all. She did not move to another country. We have just buried my grandmother and my husband’s brother in a two-week span. This year was not what we expected at all. I have not decided yet if it was better or worse, but I have learned not to make plans.

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, over the grill outside his camper, my father said to me, “You know my dad is having his heart surgery Tuesday, right?” I said yes, and we paused. We both knew what that could mean, but didn’t want to say it out loud. His heart was not working properly, it was failing. I knew it wasn’t good because they scheduled the surgery much sooner than was discussed in the past. So we paused and let the moment pass, without acknowledgment.

On Tuesday, we learned the surgery went well and grandpa was in the ICU for recovery. On Thursday, my twenty-eighth birthday, his heart was shocked to try to get it back into rhythm after the surgery. He got through that and was doing well.

On Saturday, June 2, it was my niece Luciana’s first birthday. We had lots of family come up and had a huge party. It was beautiful and joy-filled. Luciana loved it.

On Sunday morning, I fed Theodore and fell back asleep with him by my side. Massimo got up early to bake a birthday cake for me. We were going to my parent’s again that afternoon for a graduation/birthday party. My phone rang.

I first thought it was the pastor, telling me I was supposed to be at church already for worship team. But I saw that it was my parent’s house and my mind again tried to protect me. Why do we have to talk about the plans for this afternoon? It’s just a small party.

I answered. It was my father. His voice gave it away. “Well, my dad…” I don’t remember the rest. He was gone. I knew it. I was getting the message more quickly these days. I learned how this went.

I didn’t cry right away, not until I hung up the phone. Out of all the times I had to do this in the last fifty days, this one was the most expected. My grandfather said his heart wasn’t feeling right all day Saturday, and he told the nurses he thought he was going to see his wife soon. They did everything they could, but he bled into his stomach and his heart kept pumping but he soon left this earth and entered heaven.

I told my dad how much I loved him and that his parents were so proud of him and his siblings are so lucky to have him. I said how nice it was that his parents did not have to suffer and they wanted to be together and they were. He kept saying, “They get to be together for their anniversary,” over and over.

We went to church and then to my family’s house. We all mourned and did the routine: calling everyone, eating gifted food, looked through pictures, telling the story over and over. It was like a dream. It felt so familiar. But my mind was protecting me, making it feel like a memory instead of the present.

On Saturday, June 9, we will once again wake up early and get on the road and go to a funeral. Fifty days ago, we were planning on gathering together on June 9 to throw them a sixtieth anniversary party. Instead, we will lay my grandfather’s body down next to his bride. They are already in heaven, which is getting crowded. They are with so many others we know and love. They are in God’s glory, living the life we could never dream of.

While their bodies are buried, their lives have just begun. I am left here, having buried three loved ones in fifty days. My heart is so close to my skin I can feel it. I am raw. I think I have gotten dehydrated from crying, if that is possible. I am tired. I am tired of people being sorry. I am tired of trying to convince my mind they are really gone. I am tired of being at the center of all this love and emotion. I tired of the guilt and the love and the sadness. These fifty days…. I am out of words.

 

 

 

I could never do that

I have often heard mothers of adoptees say one of the weirdest comments people make to them is, “Oh, I could never do that! You are amazing!”

It is strange to them because they do not see themselves as heroes, doing anything out of the ordinary. They are mothers. They are struggling. And they are amazing, but not for the reasons you think.

The same goes for foster parents. “I could never do that, it’s so hard!”

The same goes for working moms. “Wow, I can’t imagine. What a tough job!”

The same goes for stay-at-home moms. “Whew! I would go crazy. That is too much for me.”

People act like someone living a life different from her own is something impossible. As if the person called to that life is somehow special, a superpower, extra-human, and living with some alien-like strength they could never obtain or fathom.

It is not to say that the lives we lead are not difficult, nor that we are not worthy of some kind of acknowledgment of our hard work. The strange thing about it is that we are not heroes. We are not super strong. We are blessed and gifted and strengthened by our Lord.

One of the most commonly misquoted verses in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 10:13. People often summarize the passage and tell you, with a good heart, in a time of need, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It’s nice, but that is not what the verse says, or even what the verse means. What people are trying to say is that you, on your own strength, can and will get through this storm.

I know people are trying to be nice, but it is wrong. It is the opposite of the truth. God will give us and allow us to be subjected to more than we can handle. It happens all the time. And it doesn’t mean we are weak (although we are), it means even the strongest can’t do it on her own. That’s the whole point.

When we are weak, he is strong. We would never lean on his strength unless we were given more than we can handle.

Isaiah 40:29 says, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”

Isaiah 40:31 says, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”

Exodus 15:2 says, “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.”

So are moms of all kinds and lifestyles probably trying their darndest and working really hard? Yes. Are they heroes for that hard work? Yes. But are they doing on their own? I hope not. We can’t. We will fail. I will and do fail. It is only by God’s grace he can patch together any good out of my shortcomings. It is only by God’s strength that I can endure the storms. When I feel like I can’t do it anymore, when I am doing much more harm than good, the Lord gives me peace. He reminds me that it is not me. It is a shower of mercy.

I could never do that. I think to myself.

No, you can’t. The Lord whispers.  I can.

D. E. Barbi Bee

 

Thank you for the laugh lines

This summer, on June 30, Massimo and I will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. It feels like a big one. And I can’t believe it’s already been five years, but I can’t believe it’s only been five years.

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Married for 30-ish minutes.

We have lived in different places, transitioned to multiple jobs and I graduated law school. We have a baby, for goodness sake! We have a whole new person in our lives because of our years together.

I am different. He is different. I was very, very thin when I got married. Not unhealthy, I was just twenty-three and I was thin. I was younger. I didn’t have these lines around my eyes and mouth. I didn’t have acne scars from my pregnancy hormones, nor did I have this extra fat and stretch marks, let alone the five-inch scar above my womb from giving birth.

I am different. He is different. He is thinner and more fit now than when we married. And his hair is shorter. And he has some gray hairs peeking out. He looks older. He was twenty-one when we got married, so he should look older. He is more confident, more refined. He knows more about who he is and doesn’t worry so much. He has bags under his eyes from getting up every night to get Theodore back to sleep. Even his wardrobe has changed from when we got married.

Every time he points out another sign of his aging, another gray hair or something, he says it like it a bad thing. And for a moment – just a moment – I am sad, too. Not because he will become less handsome or lovely, but because I know our time is short. People say they don’t want to marry young, but I look back and I am disappointed I had to wait until I was twenty-three! I know that was the right timing for us, and God’s plan needed us to do more individual work before we got together, but I couldn’t wait to have all the time I could with this man. I love our team. I love our family, and knowing we are aging reminds me it will not last forever. We have a short time together. And that makes me sad.

But then, after the moment, I am met with pride and honor. Pride I get to watch this man grow older. Honor to stand by his side and count his gray hairs. The fine lines on my face are from all the smiles and laughter he brings out of me. The stretch marks and scar on my stomach are from the child we brought forth together. The weight changes and wardrobe adjustments are from the many season we have endured together.

The truth is, I want to watch all his hairs go gray. I want to watch him wear out his jeans, and buy new shoes. I want to have photos of us every year, each year with slightly more wrinkles and slightly more mature eyes. No one is entitled to grow old with his or her spouse. No one has a right to die before their children. No one has the unalienable opportunity to outlive her mortgage and reach retirement age. Every single day is an undeserved blessing. Every wrinkle and scar that comes with it are the keepsakes, the tick mark on the wall to count how long we have been given this gift.

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Thank you, my Lord. Thank you for the perfect, vacation-like days when we have napped in the sunshine or soaked in the rest and peace. Thank you for the days of hard work, when we went to bed exhausted and dirty, proud of a long day of productivity. Thank you for the every morning, when we wake up thrilled at the sight of each other.

Thank you for the days we couldn’t wait to be over, when we anticipated some relief around the corner. Thank you for the battles. Thank you for the scars. Thank you for the fights. Thank you for our flaws. Thank you for the fire. Thank you for the days I wish I could take away, to ease our pain. Oh, how I wish I could make them go away. But thank you any way.

And most of all, thank you for the laugh lines.

– D. E. Barbi Bee

Wheels and wheels

I thought stages were like steps

one after another; after one, two

But they are wheels;

spinning faster, then slower.

They stop and start.

I want this ride to end.

I want to accept, except I don’t.

I know when this is over, you will truly be gone.

For now, these wheels make me forget.

For it is a dream.

You are coming back.

You are on a trip.

You are in Florida.

Something horrible happened but it will be back to normal soon.

There are still four of you.

Massimo still has a brother.

Dad still has two sons.

You are away but you’ll be back.

Goodnight.

See you soon.

I’ll keep riding for a while.

 

 

It is IUGR Awareness Day!

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Eight months ago, I had never heard of IUGR. In fact, when my sister-in-law had to be induced before her due date because of a failing placenta, I am ashamed to say I thought the doctors were wrong. “Why would you take a baby early who isn’t growing well? Shouldn’t she stay in longer?”

Well, things have changed – a lot! I have learned about as much as I, a layperson and mom of an IUGR baby, can learn in the past eight months, ever since Theodore was diagnosed with Intrauterine Growth Restriction. In honor of this day, to celebrate these strong babies and remember those who we have lost, here are ten things you should know about IUGR:

  1. IUGR refers to a condition in which an unborn baby is smaller than it should be because it is not growing at a normal rate inside the womb. A baby who is “just small” is called Small for Gestation Age (SGA). The difference is an IUGR baby should have been bigger, but something intervened (infection, injury, genetic condition, bad placenta, poor nutrition from mom, etc.). An SGA baby is just a small baby. Both are usually smaller than ninety percent of babies their age. (More on the confusion over these terms here. Sometimes they are used interchangeably, but they are not the same.)
  2. IUGR is common for twins, and mothers with certain health conditions or lifestyles. However, there are TONS of possible causes and most moms never know what caused their baby’s IUGR. Sometimes, nature just fails and the placenta wasn’t healthy; importantly: it is no one’s fault.
  3. For those of us who do not know what caused our IUGR, we worry a lot about whether this will happen if and when we have more babies. There is a lot of conflicting data on it, but it certainly can happen. Which is scary.
  4. Many of us find out about IUGR during pregnancy, by going to all our regular prenatal appointments and through ultrasounds. Some of us do not find out until delivery. Which is why it is super important to go to all your doctor’s appointments when you are pregnant. Important.
  5. If you know someone who may have IUGR, please be supportive and helpful. It is not helpful to try to convince the person there is no problem, the doctor’s do not know what they are talking about, and the ultrasound was probably wrong. These could be true, but when you hear there could be something wrong with your baby, you have to be extremely cautious and careful. Supportive and helpful things are assisting the person in getting the nursery ready early, supplying preemie size diapers and clothes, coming with her to her many doctor’s appointments, and lending her food and help if she on bedrest.

29103580_10205023656706854_5369735055075877304_n6.  So an IUGR baby is small – so what? Like just about all health conditions, the outcomes for IUGR babies cover a broad range. Some babies are born perfectly healthy and go home right away with no problem. Some babies are lost to the condition. Some babies have some catching up to do in the size department, but are otherwise perfectly healthy. Some babies have on-going complications and require medications, hormones, or therapy to help them grow and overcome other issues.

7.  We are pretty sensitive about our IUGR baby’s size, because he or she can be small for several months to several years. So if you ever see a baby and are shocked at his or her size, please don’t ask if the mom feeds her baby. Please don’t joke that she must be wrong about the baby’s age. Just say how cute he or she is. We don’t mind hearing that, ever.

8.  IUGR babies are usually delivered earlier than their due date. Some because there is an emergency. Some go into labor early on their own. But some of us have to be induced a few weeks early because the statistical risk of still birth increases after 37 weeks for IUGR babies. Basically, our baby is probably starving inside our bodies, and at 37 weeks he or she is healthy enough to probably be fine outside (with medical help, usually), and will even thrive because he can get lots of clean oxygen and nutrients outside. On the other hand, leaving the baby inside until the due date or later could cause significant injury to the baby, or loss.

9.  Many of us have c-sections. Again, either because of an emergency or because the baby is too small to handle labor. Not all of us, but many of us. Personally, I do not see my induction and c-section as a failure or that I’m not “woman enough.” I am incredibly proud of what God allowed me to do: bring my son into this world. It is not my fault my baby was tiny. It was not my fault his little body could not tolerate labor. I am truly grateful that my baby is safe and healthy and I am, too. Was it my first choice? No. But every mom, whether unconscious during delivery or having a medication-free birth, does the same thing in labor: she is doing everything she can to get her baby here safe and sound.

10.  Finally, though they are small, IUGR babies are tough. They are tiny warriors that do incredible things. They may not all make it, but they are all fighters, through and through. And we are crazy proud of them.

How to Buy Your Very Own Home

It has been exactly two months since Massimo and I bought our first ever house!! Needless to say, this was a dream come true for us. A dream we worked hard to realize. Like most adult things, houses do not just land in your lap. You have got to work for it. With a lot of grit, sacrifice, and reliance on God’s direction, we got our keys and finally have a place to call our own.

Owning your own home is not for everyone. Much like a college education, it is something that is quintessentially “adult,” but that does not mean it will fit in everyone’s lifestyle. For us, we knew we wanted a house as soon as we could afford it. We wanted the space, independence, stability, and opportunity for investment. For these reasons, we lived below our means in the four and a half years we lived on our own. We lived in small apartments that cost less. We saved aggressively and often. We had our eyes on the prize and got there just in the time we needed.

If you know a house is something you want someday, or if you even may want a house someday, there are things you can and should do now to help. Follow these steps for the smoothest, fastest path to home ownership!

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House hunting involves a lot of flashlights and imagination.

If you want a house ever: Maybe next year? Maybe in five years? This is what you should do if a house is ever on the horizon.

1. Get organized.

In the mortgage application process, your lender will request lots and lots of paperwork from you, some from several years in the past. They may also need explanations of things like credit or income history. Later on, when you are running your own house, you should know where to find your insurance declaration and how much your last fuel bill was at the drop of a hat. It is a great idea to get in the habit of being organized now: you can get those documents to the bank in a jiffy when the time comes, and your life will be less complicated in general.

I have several binders with tabs to keep track of all our important documents: a binder for tax returns and all supporting documents from the last five years, a binder with paystubs, IRA paperwork, and other financial records in another, and a binder of bills (electric, cable, health insurance) in another. Some records I just keep digitally. And be careful: just because you signed up for electronic billing or statements, you should keep them all saved on your hard drive or cloud as well because some companies only allow you to access the last 12 or 24 months on their systems.

2. Become budget people.

You will need a budget to save up for a house, to determine how much house you can afford, and to actually run that house. There is no better time than right now to start a zero-based budget and stick to it. Make adjustments every quarter or six months, and honestly track your spending. Like tracking weight loss, it does no one any good to falsely report your spending to make yourself feel better.

We keep track of all our budgets in excel or Google spreadsheets. It’s great because I can update digital versions wherever I am, and make graphs to show progress. I have written about budgeting and the app I like before – check it out.

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3. Start to imagine your home.

So, you want a house someday? What kind? How big? Where? These are critical questions to consider if you ever want a home. Buying a three-story colonial in California is a really different process than buying a modular home in North Carolina. Some goals take longer to achieve, and having your eye on a particular type of prize can help you stay focused and get yourself in order for when the time comes.

If you want a house within the next two years: We are ready. This is what we want, and we want it soon. Let’s do this!

1. Get a separate savings account.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to separate your savings from your spending money. It prevents you from accidentally dipping into money that is allocated for something else. It makes you feel like you have less money to spend, because you don’t see your growing savings account every time you pay a bill. It makes you really consider and slow down to access that money. It will take you 2-3 days to transfer your savings money to a place you can spend it, so you have time to think. Fun cheap or free says you should have 7 bank accounts for your family. I cannot manage that many, but I do have at least 4. My favorite place to save money is Sallie Mae Money Market (I have written about them before and their interest rates have risen since then.) This account has no fees, no minimum, and you can open it online right now. There is no excuse for co-minging savings and spending money – go do it now.

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2. Save like it is a bill.

When you make your updated budget to get down to hard-core saving, determine how much you can realistically put aside every month. And then add a little to it. We make ambitious budgets that force us to find extra income and say no to extras. You do not need to do that, but commit to saving so much it scares you. In our case, we ended up saving approximately the same amount as our rent, so we were essentially paying two rents every month. Then set up automatic withdrawals to your separate savings account (like you already have, per #1, above). Every month, you will be forced to make sure there is enough money for that automatic withdrawal just like you make sure there is enough money to pay all your other bills. Pay yourself first, and do not think of it as an extra.

This changed everything in the way we saved for our house. At first, I was only putting aside whatever we had “left” as “bonus” money after paying all our other bills. By setting up automatic withdrawals, I was forced to treat this budget item just like rent and student loans. I owed myself that money. I did pause the automatic savings for a couple of months when we really needed to (like when we took time off of work when Theodore was born), but we also added extras to this account when we had a bonus or tax refund.

3. Start your must-haves checklist and scan the internet for listings.

Remember the idea of a house you started in the first section? Refine that list. Look at options available in your potential price range and location. Think about why you want a house and what it needs to do for you. Our list focused on our family and my husband’s job. We knew we wanted kids, and that my husband wanted to run his guitar shop out of our home. These two requirements set the list for us. From there, we started looking on realtor.com and zillow.com., and  set up automatic searches based on our preferences. We were inspired and encouraged to find options that fit our list, and reviewed them together. We also learned what things we did not want by looking at these options.

4. Keep your job.

When applying for a mortgage, your lender is going to want to see at least 24 months’ history at your current job. Obviously, some circumstances are not in your control and you may have to change jobs. But if you are considering it and can have some say, try to get in a job you like and keep it at least two years before you want to buy. It will simplify the process and make you a lower risk for your lender.

If you want a house in the next six months: We have been saving, we are getting tired of this apartment, and we have a baby on the way. We see the finish line!

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1. Find a realtor.

Get a recommendation from someone you trust and hire him or her. You may not know this, but in Connecticut, in most cases the seller pays both realtors out of his proceeds. You probably will not have to pay him or her, but you get the benefits of having a realtor. The realtor can help you decide if a price is right and how to frame your offer. She can get you into houses for tours, has access to the official property listings, and refers you to everyone you need: inspectors, banks, attorneys, etc. They also help coordinate and organize all the dirty details towards the closing. Realtors are very helpful.

2. Find a lender.

It is very helpful to go to a lender first, give them your basic financial information, and get a prequalification for a loan. This will give you a very good idea of your ideal home price. You can also learn about other types of loans besides a traditional mortgage, such as construction or renovation loans. They can help you have confidence in how much any given house would cost you, and a prequalification letter can strengthen your offer if there are multiple parties looking at the same property.

A tip when talking to your lender: let him or her know exactly how much money you have to spend. They may look at your bank account and see $20,000.00, but be honest and tell them you want to keep $6,000.00 after this house purchase as an emergency savings account or to help pay moving expenses. They really, really need you to be honest and it makes every thing easier to be on the same page.

3. Keep looking online and reviewing those automatic searches.

Your realtor is great, but she may not see something you happen to. In my experience, it works well when both you and your realtor are looking for places. The more properties you review together (either in person or online), the more you both know about what you want in a house. Both Zillow and Realtor.com have automatic searches that send you emails with new properties which fit your specific needs: location, price, etc.

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4. Save like never before.

You have been working hard and scraping and saving and you finally have enough for your down payment. Guess what? It’s not enough. In Connecticut, where I have closed dozens of mortgages and just purchased my own home, there are plenty of extras. There are loan and inspection costs – about $1,000.00. There are closing costs – add at least $7,500.00 to your down payment. There are also moving costs, which vary depending on how far you are going. There are also things you will have to and want to buy for your first home: curtains, rugs, smoke detectors, a snow shovel. In this final stretch, eat out at little as possible, get side gigs, and move in with relatives to save even more if you have to.

Pro tip: with most mortgages, the first payment is not due the first month you are there. We purchased December 16, and our first payment was not due until February 1 – they build in a whole month where you have no mortgage payment and possibly no rent. Use this month to your advantage, but be prepared anyway!

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It’s our’s!

People always ask me: how much do I need to save for a down payment? To save the most money in the long run, you will want to put down 20% of the purchase price. This will pretty much guarantee that you do not need to pay private mortgage insurance. But 20% is a lot of money, and that may sound insurmountable to you. So keep a few things in mind. (1) If you are a veteran, you may qualify for a house with a 0% down payment. I do not recommend it, but it is possible. (2) There are basically five types of mortgages: 3%, 3.5%, 5%, 10% and 20% down. They each have pros and cons, and different fees attached to each one. My advise is this: shoot for 5% or even 10% down (plus extra for closing costs and some in reserve for your extra savings), and you will be very well-positioned to buy.

And you do not need to have all of that to start looking. It will take a while to find the right place, so start shopping now. For us, it was seven months between touring our first house and moving into our very own home. For most people, it takes even longer.

Happy home-buying! I hope you found this advise helpful and that you can implement some of these tips to become a home-owner in no time at all! It is a big, big dream, but if you want to own your own place some day, I say go for it! It took us about two years of hard-core saving to buy our house – a blink of an eye in the long run. And now we have this adorable, perfect home in which to raise our family and run our businesses. Truly, a worth-while sacrifice.

-D. E. Barbi Bee

Favorite of the Moment: thredUP

I saw the ads and thought to myself: “90% off top brands? There must be a catch,” and moved on.

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But then my cousin sent me a referral to use the site (by the way, referrals to friends get you each $10.00 credit when the friend places her first order. But watch out – the credit does expire!), so I knew it had some credibility because my very intelligent cousin could not have been swindled.

So I dove in, and it is my new and irreplaceable source for clothing! I have already placed several orders with thredUP, and the completely online store came into my life at the most perfect time: as a new mom, I have no interest in packing up myself and my son to spend hours shopping in a brick-and-mortar only to find limited styles and high prices! Online is the only kind of shopping there is, as far as I’m concerned.

So here it is, broken down for you. Here’s the skinny on the self-proclaimed Largest Online Thrift Store and Consignment Store: the good, the bad, and the 100% my opinion.

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What is it?

I’ll tell you what it is not first. ThredUP is not Wish (an app that sells clothes, electronics, makeup, and accessories at apparently deep, deep discounts because they are actually Chinese knock-offs.). I was afraid that is what it was at first, because their claims seemed too good to be true. But it is not.

ThredUP is an online thrift and consignment shop: they sell clothes, shoes, and accessories for women, children, and babies at discounts way below their retail price. You can even get a “clean out” bag to send them your own unwanted items to add to their stock.

I cannot vouch for the authentication techniques for their designer and luxury brand goods (I know that is very important to collectors, I just don’t really go there), but I can tell you that this site sells actual, brand-name clothing at great discounts. And although it is called a “thrift shop,” not all items are used. Some items are brand-new, and labeled as “new with tags.” If you sell items on their site, you either get paid when you give them your unwanted items, or on consignment, receiving a commission when they sell.

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The Goods

My favorite feature is the user interface.  The first time I used it I exclaimed to my husband how nice it was to see a site actually built for the on-line experience! Most e-commerce sites started as in-person stores, and build a site after to go along with it. This is the opposite. It is so easy to add filters, see comparable sizes, and even similar brands. The best feature is that you can save your size and brand preferences, and when you search they automatically filter the results for your size every time! You can turn this off, and see all results, too. But, man, what a wonderful feature.

Another cool feature is the Dressing Room, where they give you recommendations based on your favorite brands and past purchases. They even save all your past orders and show you them in “My Closet,” which also has items similar to or that can be worn with the pieces you already bought.

Can we talk for a minute about their prices? I do not go around buying clothes brand-new, but if I did, I would be saving hundreds on my clothes every time I buy them through thredUP instead. Pretty much everything I get is less than $20.00. I love that I always know I am getting a good deal, instead of hunting through the clearance sections of my favorite stores. And I have never, ever had an issue with their quality. Every piece comes perfectly clean, not stretched out, and feels brand-new. They also almost always have some kind of sale going on, and you can usually get great discount codes in your email inbox.

I love shopping at thrift stores, because they save me money, they are good for the environment, and they are full of unique pieces that aren’t in every window at the mall. But the problem with going to Goodwill and others is the endless searching through racks and racks to try to find something from a good brand. I just don’t have that kind of time right now. With thredUP, I can search for specific brands (L.L. Bean, Ann Taylor, Calvin Klein, Anthropologie), or something I need in particular (a white button-down shirt, a black shift dress, a floral romper) and save tons of time from both going to a store and searching through the racks.

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The Less Goods

There is always, of course, room for improvement. One thing you may not be used to with thredUP is the way the items are presented. Clothes are put on a mannequin and photographed very well, but it is not the same fit and presentation as when a brand photographs it on models. ThredUP adds thousands of items everyday, and you can imagine that when they are trying to post inventory so quickly, they don’t have time for custom photoshoots. So sometimes the shirts are ill-fitted on the mannequin, or the dresses haven’t been steamed thoroughly. It is just something to get used to, but it never affects how the item looks in my hands.

Something else to be aware of is that they don’t have Amazon’s two-day shipping. In fact, their shipping takes a little while. It is strange how quickly I have become accustomed to free two-day shipping, when catalog orders used to take four weeks to get to your door! ThredUP isn’t that bad, my most recent order will probably take about ten days to arrive from when I placed my order. These things are not coming from China, so it is not months, but it also not Amazon Prime fast. Just be aware when placing your order for a special event.

You can’t let items linger in your cart for days. Because everything is one-of-a-kind, you can’t put something in your cart to leave it and think about it for a few days. In fact, the site only promises to reserve something for your cart for 24 hours. So you can save it, but after that period someone else could snag it. It makes sense in a thrift shop, but it is a habit I have with other sites I can’t really do on this one.

How to make the most out of thredUP

  1. Use discount codes. They often offer 20% percent off, or free shipping. But you can sign up for emails and wait for a 40% off deal! They come around often, so just be patient.
  2. Know the brands you like and your size in that brand. Every item has detailed measurements so you can check the fit, but it is best to know your size ahead of the purchase, to avoid any fit issues (There are free returns within 14 days with most items, for store credit.). While I love discovering new brands, I also love snagging items from labels I know and trust. That is the beauty of thredUP.
  3. Be aware of what the “savings” numbers mean. Every item has a thredUP price and a strike-through estimated retail price. They also compare the two and tell you how much you are saving from retail. Just be aware that although I have never seen any estimated retail price that didn’t seem accurate to me, they are just estimates of a comparable item from that brand, they may not necessarily be what the original retail price was.
  4. Look at the Condition. Every items has a condition description, in addition to the measurements and fabric. I have never had an issue with the condition of items I have bought, but you can get something that “looks brand new,” “is brand new with tags,” or “has minor signs of wear,” among other descriptions.
  5. Buy special items. ThredUP is not where you should buy your plain black socks and white tank tops. It is where you should buy maternity clothes, a dress to go to your roommate’s wedding, and a fleece pullover.

I hope you enjoy the frugal, high-end options available at thredUP and all it has to offer! I am a big fan, as you can tell, and love helping you save money!

Happy Thrifting!

D. E. Barbi Bee

On 2017

If I had to sum up 2017 in two words, the words that instantly come to mind are “Stewardship” and “Blessings.”

When I look back on this year, I cannot stop thinking, “There is simply no reason in all the world that I deserve what I have received.” Grace and mercy do not even begin to describe what the Lord has given us.

This time last year, Massimo and I stood together, arms over each other’s shoulders, looking ahead to the great grey abyss. We saw everything and nothing. We imagined what may lie beyond the fog, and feared for it and longed for it: the great mystery of the unknown. And we held each close and looked each other in the eye and said, “Let’s go.” We cannot do anything on our own, great or hard. We nodded to the Father and said, “Okay. What is there?”

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Eph. 3:20-21

2016 was a year of preparation. We grew and learned and planned for what would come next. It was not a wasted year by any means, but a year of little change and uncertainty in our own lives, while we saved and dreamed of 2017.

When 2017 started with a positive pregnancy test, we knew it would be a different sort of year. Blissfully overjoyed, we attempted to ignore the ever-mounting list of things over which we had no control, but needed figured out.

Would this baby be healthy?

How are we going to pay for health care?

How will we care for this baby?

Will I work? Will Massimo? How much time can we take for maternity and paternity leave?

What car will we drive?

Where will we live?

When will Massimo start his guitar business?

How on earth will we afford all of this?

After all the questions, came blessing after blessing. Maternity leave was determined with my ever-gracious boss. Health care was covered for the baby and I. I was perfectly healthy throughout the pregnancy, and for 75% of the time time, the baby was, too. A car was found and purchased. Our landlord allowed us to have a month-to-month lease as we searched for a house. And, last month, we shockingly moved into our very first home. (It is really, truly our’s and we can’t believe it.)

We even got cherries on top of it all. In May we learned my dear cousin and best friend was expecting her first child. Another dear friend from church welcomed her fourth child the same month, and my brother and sister in law not only had their first child, but came up to the United States for six months to let us enjoy their presence!

Despite all our many, many blessings, there were still ever-present uncertainties. Months where we didn’t know where the money would come from. Shocking news when we learned our unborn baby was not growing well and we would have to keep an extra-close eye on him. Having to pay out of our savings for an unexpected tax bill. Searching and wishing for the perfect house, but facing fruitless searches time after time.

Which is why the other word for 2017 is stewardship. Not a very popular topic, I know. It is not one we throw around often. “I hope you have a very healthy new year, and can be good stewards of your blessings!” No exactly.

But it was a theme we continued to return to time after time. When things got tight – time, money, emotions – we pledged that we would be ever-diligent in our stewardship over these resources. When resources are abundant, we are cursed with not considering that they are truly in limited supply. It is a gift to be required to consider the value of what we are using. We knew our needs, and we continuously asked God to direct our resources to meet our needs.

The good thing is, when there is little and his has to stretch far, you are forced to ask God where to put it and to make a feast out of a few loaves of bread and fish. Somehow, miraculously, truly, Massimo worked full-time all year. We went on a trip to Vermont to celebrate four amazing years of marriage. We spent days and weekends with our families and friends around camp fires, swimming pools, feasts, and birthday cakes. Massimo finished his second guitar. We bought a house and still have an emergency savings account. Despite the failure in our health insurance system leading to Massimo not having health insurance all year, his body was protected and he did not need it. We had full bellies and bursting closets and our tanks are on FULL.

I will end my reflection on this year with a small illustration of the themes of this year. Early in my pregnancy, before I even went to the doctor, the Lord revealed to me to be a good steward and celebrate the blessing of the small person presumably growing inside me. Early in a pregnancy, one is all-to aware of the high risk of miscarriage, and fears the worst. Most women even delay telling anyone about her pregnancy because there is such a high risk that it will end tragically.

While wrestling these fears, God revealed to me that there was no use in worrying, and that by pinning my hopes on passing a certain week of gestation without bad news, I would only be disappointed. He told me that even if my baby did not survive, I should celebrate its life now, while he or she is alive. That may be, after all, all I have with this unborn child. This lesson – to celebrate blessings in the moment and cast cares to another day – became even more valuable when, months later, we learned we had a high risk of losing our unborn child, despite being well past the first trimester “danger zone.”

Thanks to God working on my heart and gracefully teaching me a lesson I would need ever more months later, I was able to look over my pregnancy as a steward- a mother to this unborn baby despite the lack of control and uncertainty. Being a steward means caring for what you have for the benefit of someone else – in my case, our Heavenly Father. It doesn’t mean you have complete control over it; all it means is that you have to do the best with what you have, and leave it up to God to honor your obedience. Not does it mean everything will work out sunshine and roses. Obedience is, after all, a reward in and of itself.

D.E. Barbi Bee

 

On breastfeeding

I never understood why some women choose to breastfeed their children until beyond the child’s learning to walk, talk, and – in some cases – read. But over the past several months of my own new hobby (nursing my son), I have started to appreciate where they are coming from.

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Massimo feeding newborn Theodore with a bottle of donor milk.

 

I always assumed the question of when to stop breastfeeding would be answered for me: when my body or my child stopped nursing. I had heard so many perils and stories of bodies not producing enough milk, or babies not being able to latch, that I went into it with a very, “If it works, it works,” attitude. I tried not to get my hopes up, and was advised to set small goals when starting out with nursing.

I decided I wanted to try, for many reasons, chiefly the health of the baby and myself and saving money. I decided I would at least try for as long as I was home with him, and then when it came to going back to work we would see.

When I gave birth to a 4 pound, 10 ounce baby boy via c-section, he was too small and weak to eat on his own. I did not get to hold him skin-to-skin and attempt nursing right away, as all the experts advised to do to help aid in milk production. I did not get to see him at all for thirteen hours after he was born, let alone hold him. (When I finally did hold him, skin-to-skin, it greatly helped his breathing rate improve, and my own mood, as well.)

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We held Theodore skin-to-skin as much as we could, wrapped in warmed blankets. We always had to get him back to his crib soon, though, because being moved and held was exhausting for our tiny warrior.

From my room, what felt like miles from my son, within hours after he was born I was hand-expressing milk for my boy. My husband rushed every exhausting vile of milk to the NICU to be fed to Theodore. At first, he was fed exclusively via nasogastric intubation. For the first few feedings, the doctors had to act so quickly he was fed formula. When they were able to consult with me, we signed up for donor milk to be given to him while I worked to get my own milk to come in. He was given just 15 mL of milk every three hours, which increased by 5 mL every day. Every three hours, the doctors woke him up by taking his temperature, changing his diaper, checking his bilirubin level, blood sugar, and pulling a syringe up through his NG tube to make sure it was still in his stomach and measure how much food from his last feed was still left un-digested.

The feedings started with my milk, then donor milk to complete the total amount needed. They started by giving him a bottle, but when he fell asleep and was impossible to wake up again, whatever was left in the bottle was fed through his NG tube. The feedings couldn’t take longer than thirty minutes, or else he would be burning more calories trying to eat than he was getting with the food he consumed.

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After his bottle feeds, whatever he could not finish was fed through his NG tube. We called him our “foie gras baby” because we felt like we were force feeding him. But it helped him maintain his blood sugar and not lose too much weight.

For my part, I was on a race against the clock to get my milk to come in before the donor milk program ended. The milk was only intended as a bridge – just three or four days to get us through to my milk supply meeting his needs. Hot wash-clothes, massages, and brutal work earned me a few drops – literally – at every feeding for the first day. Many times I did not see single drop. I was extremely discouraged and hurt. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world to give him formula, but I worried about his little body having to work any harder than it needed to, and knew formula was harder to break down. I was determined to make this work.

I was set up with a pump and ran the pump for ten minutes every three hours – day and night. During the day, Massimo and I went to the NICU to change Theo’s diapers and feed him. After his feeding was done, we held him for some time before letting him get back to his crib to sleep. Then I would pump. The first time I actually had any measurable amount of milk pumped was when I was holding him during my pumping session. It was an extremely difficult maneuver, but it paid off! Just a half a day before we would be cut off from donor milk, I finally was pumping enough milk to meet his feeding requirements! I was indescribably relieved and overjoyed. For the first time in days I felt like something was actually working.

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This corner of the NICU was our home for what felt like forever. The nurses gave us tons of space to spread out and leave things there. You can’t see him, but Theo is tucked under that blanket on Massimo’s chest.

By the time we left the hospital, I was pumping more than twice what Theodore was eating. He was not yet breastfeeding, so we were in an exhausting bottle feed-then-pump cycle. It was not until he was three weeks old that we could finally stop reheating bottles of milk and he was officially nursing full-time!

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At five months, Theodore weighed about 14 pounds and smiles like crazy! He is a far cry from the warrior in the NICU.

Fast forward to Theodore being five months old: I still nurse him four or five times while I am at home, and he has two bottles of pumped milk while I am at work. I pump twice a day while at work, and have a freezer at home with more than 1,100 ounces of milk to prove it! (It is absurd to remember that we used to measure his feeds in milliliters and now measure them in ounces!) I estimate the value of all that milk to be approximately $700 dollars! His feedings take less than 15 minutes now.

It is impossible to appreciate how far this little boy has come in just five months – and how much things have changed in my life. At first, there were several days I was sure this breastfeeding thing was going to fail. He needed food, and I didn’t have it. I was trying to come to terms with it but I stubbornly couldn’t let it go.

Around 3 months old, I was afraid his nursing days were over. Theodore did not have much of an appetite and people told me he could be rejecting nursing in favor of the easier bottles. The doctors told me not to worry, but I could feel the weight of this thing being taken from me. I know it will end, some time soon, in fact. But I was not yet ready for it to be taken, ended on terms other than my own.

But he bounced back and now, although easily distracted, Theodore seems perfectly content to switch between bottles and nursing without missing a beat.

So now I am in this awkward predicament of having to chose where to take us next. When will I cut back how many pumping sessions I have a day? It would certainly free up my time and make court less stressful if I had to pump only once instead of twice. I would not be sad to say good-bye to pumping in my car in the corners of parking lots and washing countless bottles daily. When will I cut back pumping entirely? When will I stop nursing entirely?

As I said in the outset of this now lengthy post, I now appreciate where women are coming from when they breastfeed for four or five years. I am not interested in doing that myself, but it does take away the awkward, difficult decision of when to stop. You get so comfortable, so resigned and conformed to breastfeeding, that it becomes hard to remember not breastfeeding. My clothes are nursing-friendly. My schedule revolves around Theodore’s, as well as my diet. You get so comfortable, in fact, that it becomes strangely scary to go back to your old world; the previously solely-known becomes somehow unknown.

For now, I know only two things for sure: 1. I cannot pass judgment on any women who chooses to or not to breastfeed, on any woman who nurses, pumps, formula feeds, or any mix of them, nor for how long she decides or is forced to decide to do any of these things. And 2. I am extremely grateful that, like most elements of my journey into motherhood, I have had the burden of choice when it comes to breastfeeding. It is a burden I did not expect, but one I accept with honor.

I anticipate continuing to slowly transition out of breastfeeding, much less abruptly than over more time than I transitioned into it. I have a special privilege in this circumstance. And to all the other mothers out there who faced their own expectations to try to do the very best for her children, please be kind to yourself and to the other mothers who are trying to do the exact same thing.

D. E. Barbi Bee