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Ever look around and think: there just isn't any. more. room? It seems that as soon as we take a carload of bags to the donation center, whatever space or order we have been able to forge is almost immediately replaced with more stuff.


It's exhausting. It's defeating. It's depressing. And it can all be explained by the way our brain is wired.

Our brain on clutter

Described as anything that is kept, even though not used, needed or wanted, clutter can also be defined as having a disorganized and overwhelming amount of possessions in our living space, cars or storage areas. Clutter creates stress that has three major biological and neurological effects on us—our cortisol levels, our creativity and ability to focus, and our experience of pain.

But clutter isn't just physical. "When you have to-do items constantly floating around in your head, or you hear a ping every few minutes from your phone, your brain doesn't get a chance to fully enter creative flow or process experiences," says Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, a New York Times bestseller on controlling the flow of information in the digital age.

The overconsumption of digital stuff—like social media notifications, news feeds, games and files on our computer—competes for our attention, creating a digital form of clutter that has the same effect on our brain as physical clutter.

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Neatness and order support health—and oppose chaos.

So, what is going on? Our brains love order. The human body consists of thousands of integrated and interdependent biological and neurochemical systems, all organized and operating along circadian rhythms, without which our bodies would disintegrate into chaos. It's no wonder that the organization within our very own bodies naturally extends to the desire for order and tidiness in our homes. And, "order feels good, in part, because it's easier for our brains to deal with and not have to work so hard," says psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky.

The science of cortisol

No matter the ways, reasons and means by which the creep of stuff exceeds our ability to mentally and physically manage it—all of it amounts to stress. Clutter can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase tension and anxiety and lead to unhealthy habits. Cortisol is a hormone produced in response to stress by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).

Chronic clutter can create prolonged stress, throwing us into a state of low-grade, perpetual fight-or-flight—the system designed to help us survive. The fight-or-flight response involves the complex interaction of many body systems and organs that activate needed functions and minimize unnecessary functions during times of stress. These systems must remain in balance to maintain optimum physical and psychological health.

According to a Cornell University study from 2016, stress triggered by clutter may also trigger coping and avoidance strategies, like eating junk food, oversleeping or binge-watching Netflix.

If we are not stressed, we get most of our cortisol in the morning to get us going. Levels taper off the rest of the day if we are relaxed, enabling us to enjoy psychological and physical well being. But a messy home environment can prevent our body's cortisol levels from naturally declining throughout the day. Taxing this system eventually results in higher levels of depression and anxiety, and a lower capacity to think clearly, make decisions, and stay focused.

To supply the body with the energy needed to deal with stress, there are several physiological changes that occur with elevated cortisol levels:

  • Diversion of blood flow to the muscles from other parts of the body
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood sugars
  • Increased fats in in the blood

If there is no relief from stress, all of these changes are bad for healthy brain activity and can cause lasting negative changes in brain function and structure. Additionally, when stress raises our body's cortisol levels, our overall health can be adversely affected, including organ damage, the suppression of our immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, the lowering of our metabolism, and the disruption of our sleep cycle, to name a few.

It is difficult to maintain a state of wellness over time when our body energy is channeled into coping with stress.

Just as concerning, when we are in a state of chronic stress and not thinking clearly, we tend to only see that which is negative and reinforces our sour point of view, perceived lack of social support and subsequent poor interrelationships.

Research from a 2009 study out of UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) has shown that women who perceive their homes to be cluttered tend to have unhealthy patterns of cortisol levels. A team of professional archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists studied the home life of 32 middle-class, dual-income families with 2-3 children of ages 7-12 in Los Angeles. In the study, family members recorded self-directed home tours describing objects and spaces in their homes, during which saliva samples were taken at regular intervals to measure cortisol levels.

The data were collected for three days and compared to and correlated with vast amounts of other data previously collected over the course of four years. According to the CEFL study, the amount of stress women experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff they and their family had accumulated.

We see what is relevant to us.

It's interesting to note in the UCLA study that men did not exhibit the same results, having normal cortisol fluctuations. Presumably they were not as stressed by the amount of stuff in their home. This can be explained possibly by the results of other studies that have shown that the home is traditionally perceived as women's domain and ultimate responsibility, even in households where both partners work.

Other studies also support the finding that if men don't think the responsibility of keeping the house tidy is relevant to them, they may not be inclined to see the clutter and so are not as stressed about it.

This may be explained further in part by research that has indicated that there are distinct differences in vision between men and women, since men have 25% more neurons in their visual cortex, a part of the cerebral cortex that processes visual information. The irony is that even though the visual cortex of a man has more neurons than a woman's, men are impacted more by the things they see that they think have to do with them, and less by the things they think do not.

The science of focus


From our computer desktop, to our car, to our kitchen counter and fridge—clutter is clutter, and it affects us whether we think so or not.

In a study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, researchers monitored task performance when an individual was surrounded by organized versus disorganized environments.

Overall, subjects were more productive, less irritable and distracted in the clutter-free environment versus the disorganized environment where their stress increased.

Researchers concluded that physical clutter in our environment can overload the visual cortex, competing for attention in our brain and interfering with our ability to focus and process information.

So what's happening in our brain?

There are two neural mechanisms at work that interact dynamically when processing information. Stimulus-driven fast reactions and quick visual identification are considered bottom-up processes because they rely primarily on sensory information, whereas context-dependent motor control and directed attention are considered top-down processes because they are goal-directed. These two mechanisms work together to organize in our brain the visual stimuli—aka, clutter—in our home.

There is a reason why we have an urge to straighten up at home before we can sit down to focus on selecting a new healthcare plan.

The brain has a limited capacity to process information. To filter out extra stimuli and focus on what we are trying to achieve at any given moment, the top-down and bottom-up attention mechanisms compete. By mutually suppressing each other, brain power is exhausted, and ultimately we lose focus. Whether we know it or not, a kitchen counter stacked with mail and basket full of unfolded laundry can be as distracting to us as a toddler in the throes of a tantrum.

The science of decluttering

Now that we know what all of our extra stuff is doing to our health and ability to function, it's time to get rid of it, right?

...Oh, but if it were only that easy.

We collect things for many reasons–maybe we think we'll need to use them later, or they have sentimental value, or we spent good money on them so feel we need to keep them, even if we've never used them.

It literally can hurt our brain to get rid of things we probably made a mistake buying in the first place. Most of us can accomplish this with a little dedicated time and some degree of mild discomfort, though there are others who cannot manage to part with one. single. thing.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) states that people with hoarding disorder have a conscious, ongoing compulsive urge to acquire unusually large amounts of possessions and an inability to voluntarily get rid of those possessions, even when they have no practical usefulness or real-world value, such as old magazines, newspapers, notes, outdated clothing, or old mail.

To understand what goes on in our brain when we throw things out, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine recently studied compulsive hoarders using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scan technology. While in the scanner, hoarders considered various possessions to determine whether to keep them or not. The items were destroyed in front of them, so they knew their decision was irreversible.

The pain is real.

When people with hoarding tendencies were faced with throwing out something with personal value, two regions of the brain associated with conflict and physical pain showed greater signs of activity, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) a part of the brain involved in decision-making and planning, and the Insula, the same area that produces nicotine cravings. By comparison, people who didn't hoard showed no extra brain activity. These are the same areas of the brain that light up when you feel physical pain from stubbing your toe or burning your mouth with hot coffee.

The brain views the loss of a valued possession the same way it does something that causes physical pain. Although most people don't experience heightened ACC/Insula activity to this degree, we can all identify with the feeling of angst when finally tossing that pile of unread magazines, or those ticket stubs from last summer's trip to New York to see Hamilton.

The scientific benefits of decluttering

The good news is, those who suffer from hoarding respond well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For the rest of us... there is decluttering.

In addition to improving our mood and focus, decluttering often acts as a catalyst to taking better care of other aspects of our life. "By purging unneeded items from our homes, it is like deleting files to create disk space on your computer. Suddenly, the whole operating system is more efficient… this decreases stress and increases your effectiveness personally and professionally," says Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Joyce Marter.

Decluttering promotes:

Better sleep

A study by Pamela Thacher, assistant professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., found that "People who sleep in cluttered rooms… are more likely to have sleeping problems. This includes having trouble falling asleep at night and experiencing rest disturbances." Additionally, people who make their beds every morning experience longer, more restful sleep, especially when they use fresh, clean sheets.

Better diet

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that people who spent time in an unorganized room were twice as likely to eat a chocolate bar than an apple. And researchers at Florida State University reveal a link between hoarding and obesity, noting that "people with extremely cluttered homes are 77% more likely to be overweight."

In a more organized home, there is more time to plan and more space to prepare healthier meals, as well to relax and eat more slowly.

Better body

Research scientist and associate professor Nicole R. Keith, Ph.D., at Indiana University found that people with clean houses are healthier than those with messy houses, and tidy homes were even more of a predictor for physical health than neighborhood walkability.

In the study, Keith and her colleagues tracked the physical health of 998 African Americans between the ages of 49 and 65, a demographic known to be at an increased risk for heart disease. Those who kept their homes clean were healthier and more active than those who did not, the process of keeping a home clean constituting exercise.

Our stuff is consuming our energy and robbing us of health and satisfaction.

Since our brain is able to absorb only 1% of the visual information it gets, this suggests that information overload is real. Decluttering our home of things that bring us neither joy nor use can help us create spaces that help us relax, restore and rejuvenate.

So instead of blaming ourselves for noticing too much, or our partners for noticing too little, maybe we can just know that our brains are geared for order, step outside for some fresh air, and then enlist the family in clearing the path for a more peaceful and refreshing home.

Fewer, better, more beautiful. For the brain, less is actually more.

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No kid is born a picky eater, but there are plenty who will give you a run for your money come mealtime. Whether it's a selective eating phase or simply a natural resistance to trying something new, getting your little one to try just.one.bite can be easier said than done.

But sometimes your attitude about eating can make the most impact. A 2017 study found a direct correlation between "mealtime emotional climate" (AKA, how positive meals are for parents and children) and a child's consumption of healthy food―meaning the difference between your child trying their green beans or not could depend on how positive you make the experience.

Not sure where to start?

Here are 10 positive parenting techniques that can help overcome picky eating and lead to more peaceful mealtimes for all.

1. Make them feel special.

Sometimes just knowing you have a special place at the table can help kids eat better. Create a special place setting with dishes just for them.

Try this: We love OXO's Stick & Stay plates and bowls for creating less mess at mealtime. Not only will the kids love the fun colors and designs, but the plates also come with a suction cup base that prevents little hands from knocking plates to the floor (or in your lap). Trust us—we've tried it.

2. Take off the pressure.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Plate

Think about it: If someone kept telling you to take one more bite during lunch, how likely would you be to go along without bristling?

Try this: Instead, use the Satter Division of Responsibility of feeding, which lets parents be responsible for what, when, and where feeding happens, while the child is left responsible of how much and whether. Besides promoting a more positive environment at mealtime, this method also boosts your child's confidence and helps encourage better self-regulation of food as they get older.

3. Serve a variety.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Divided Plate

It could be that your child is bored with the usual rotation. Keep things interesting by regularly introducing new ingredients, or reworking a familiar ingredient in a new way. The familiar setting might make your child more likely to take a bite without a struggle.

Try this: Sub in spaghetti squash with their favorite pasta sauce, or add in a new veggie to a beloved stir-fry. We love OXO's Stick & Stay Divided Plate for creating a "tasting menu" of new flavors for little ones to pick and choose or using the center spot for an appetizing dip.

4. Don't bargain or negotiate.

Many kids resist trying new foods or eating at all because it gives them a sense of control over their lives. By resisting an ingredient―even one they have tried and liked in the past―they are essentially saying, "You're not the boss of me."

Try this: Instead of resorting to bargaining tactics like, "Just take one bite!" or "You can have dessert if you try it!" lower the pressure with a neutral statement like, "This is what we're having for dinner tonight." There's no argument, so you avoid tripping their "Don't tell me what to do!" sensor.

5. Serve meals in courses.

Even adults are more likely to eat something when they're really hungry. When their tummies are rumbling, kids will usually put up less of a fight even when they're uncertain about a new ingredient.

Try this: Serve up vegetables or other new foods as an "appetizer" course. That way, you won't have to stress if they don't fill up because you can follow up with food you know they'll eat.

6. Make it a game.

The fastest way to get a toddler on board with a new idea is to make it more fun. Turn your kitchen into an episode of Top Chef and let your little one play judge.

Try this: Use each compartment of the Stick & Stay Divided Plate for a new ingredient. With each item, ask your child to tell you how the food tastes, smells, and feels, ranking each bite in order of preference. Over time, you just might be surprised to see veggies climb the leaderboard!

7. Get them involved in cooking.

You've probably noticed that toddlers love anything that is theirs―having them help with preparing their own meals gives them a sense of ownership and makes them more likely to try new ingredients.

Try this: Look for ways to get those little hands involved in the kitchen, even if it means meal prep takes a bit longer or gets a bit messier. (We also love letting them help set the table―and OXO's unbreakable plates are a great place to start!) You could even let your toddler pick the veggie course for the meal. And if your child asks to taste a raw fruit or vegetable you planned to cook, go with it! Every bite counts as training that will ultimately broaden their palate.

8. Cut out unstructured snacking.

Not surprisingly, a hungry kid is more likely to try new foods. But if your toddler had a banana and a glass of milk (or a granola bar, or a handful of popcorn, or a glass of juice) an hour before dinner, odds are they aren't feeling truly hungry and will be more likely to resist what you serve at mealtime.

Try this: Stick to a consistent eating schedule. If your child leaves the table without eating as much as you think they should, remind them once that they won't be able to eat again until X time―and make good on that promise even if they start begging for a snack before the scheduled meal.

9. Model good eating habits.

Kids may not always do what you say, but they are much more likely to follow a good example. So if you want a child who eats vegetables regularly, you should do your best to fill your own plate with produce.

Try this: Pick a new food the whole family will try in multiple ways each week. For example, if you're introducing butternut squash, serve it roasted, blended in soup, cut up in pasta, as a mash, etc.―and be sure a healthy serving ends up on your plate too.

10. Don't worry about "fixing" picky eating.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Bowl

In most cases, children go through relatively consistent eating phases. At age two (when parents tend to notice selectiveness ramping up), growth rates have slowed and most children don't need as much food as parents might think.

Try this: Focus on keeping mealtime positive by providing children with a variety of foods in a no-pressure environment. And remember: This too shall pass. The less stress you put on eating now, the more likely they are to naturally broaden their palates as they get older.


This article was sponsored by OXO Tot. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Learn + Play

Every time Amy Schumer posts something to Instagram we're expecting a birth announcement, but in her latest Instagram post, Schumer let the world know she's still pregnant, and unfortunately, still throwing up.

Schumer made her "still pregnant" announcement in a funny Instagram caption, noting, "Amy is still pregnant and puking because money rarely goes to medical studies for women," suggesting that hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness that's seen her hospitalized multiple times during her pregnancy doesn't get as much attention as conditions that impact men.

She's made a joke out of it, but she's not wrong. Gender bias in medical research is very real, and something that the medical community has just recently begun to address.

And while more people suffer from erectile dysfunction than hyperemesis gravidarum, let's consider that five times as many studies are done on erectile dysfunction than premenstrual syndrome (PMS) when about 19% of men are impacted by erectile dysfunction but 90% of women experience symptoms related to PMS.

Schumer's point is important not just for women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, but for women and vulnerable pregnant people with all sorts of under-studied and under-diagnosed conditions. The United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, and bias in medicine is part of the problem.

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News

“Brrrr… I guess winter's back!" I awkwardly joked with a mom at preschool pick up today. We'd had a few warm days this week, but March in Wisconsin means that's short-lived, and it was only a matter of time before our 19 degree mornings returned.

She and I were the first ones to arrive, so I saw it as a golden friend-making opportunity for me. Before the other moms came and distracted her with chatter about grabbing coffee and going to yoga and getting their boys together to play. I thought this was my chance to make a bridge.

As the new mom whose family just moved to town, I am not in that circle. My preschool son has no boys to play with, nor do I have a coffee dates lined up, or invites to yoga or to go for a run on warm days.

And that circle—as all women know—can feel like it's impenetrable. Like once it's formed, no one else is allowed in. Being the new mom has me feeling like I'm back in 6th grade. But instead, I'm a grown woman in my 30s.

I don't necessarily think it's intentional, either. Having just left a circle of mom friends back home whom I stood and chatted with and did this very thing with every day for years, I ask myself—did I isolate any new moms? Did I brush off someone who tried to make small talk with me, hoping to make a friend? And I honestly don't know.

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So I don't begrudge the mom circle that stands tightly knit, content with their foursome.

But they hadn't arrived yet today, and I saw my chance. The weather—an easy topic, right? I wasn't coming at her with politics or organic vs. processed foods or vaccines. I chose something easy and non-controversial. Something that wouldn't get me judged. Or get my kids judged as having “that mom."

But, unfortunately, she didn't bite. The one other mom standing with me at preschool pickup at my son's new school just smiled meekly at my generic weather comment, and then turned away.

Okay. I guess that's that, I said to myself.

So, I'm 38 years old. I've done the clique-y girl thing before. I know the game. I know the difference between “Yeah! I know! Brrrr! So you're new, right? Where are you from?" and a fake smile followed by the back of your head. Not interested. I get it.

Up until recently, I didn't really care that I didn't have friends yet. We've been in our new town, new state, new school, and new house for a few months. But honestly, it's only been the past week or two that the feeling of loneliness has hit me a bit. I've been too busy being Mommy.

All of my energy—every waking moment—went to helping my kids adjust. Helping them learn their new school routines. Ensuring they were happy and making new friends. Enrolling them in activities. Learning the bus schedule and memorizing the lunch menu. Figuring out which folder is the reading folder and which is the math folder. Where are the Boy Scouts meetings? Where should my daughter take gymnastics? What baseball team is best for my boys? We needed a pediatrician. And dentist. And eye doctor. And allergist.

On top of focusing on my kids, the last few months were spent researching electricians and plumbers and painters. When does the garbage get picked up and how do we dispose of our Christmas tree? Where can we get good Chinese takeout and get my car washed? Which grocery store has the best deals and where is Costco?

But now, all of a sudden, I feel like my children are all doing okay. The house is organized and we know how things work around here.

And now I've remembered that there is one more person who needs to learn her new world—me. I haven't had a hair cut in months. I don't have a doctor yet. Or a dentist. But most of all, I desperately need some girlfriends.

Maybe not the one who brushed me off at preschool pickup. And that's okay. I've met some friendly moms who've mentioned getting together in passing. I am now navigating that awkward “when is too soon to text and/or friend you on social media so you know I want to be friends but I don't seem stalker-ish" territory.

I guess it never gets easier, this making new friends gig. The one good part, however, of this experience—is that it's given me a glimpse into my children's world. I have gotten a taste of what their first few days were like back in December when we first arrived.

I was so busy unpacking and learning their school schedules and setting up their bedrooms that I didn't take the time to sit in that experience with them. To see it from their perspective.

Now I wonder, was my daughter brushed off by a girl she tried to befriend? Was my son kept out of the circle? I now know, what that must have felt like. And I'm so proud of them for standing tall, walking into their new world, and facing that challenge head on.

We are all going to be okay, though. This is our family adventure—the good and the bad—and we will come out stronger on the other side. We will be better at facing new challenges. We will be experienced at making new friends. And next time there is a new family in town, and the mom asks me how I feel about the weather, I will be ready to give her the response I was hoping for—not the one I got.

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Love + Village

I remember being in a conversation about working moms with a few people I know—comprised of both men and women—shortly after I had had my first child. I remember it so clearly because one of the men said, "If she's working so much, what's the point of even having children?" I was so taken aback. To me his comment screamed: Why would a busy working woman even bother procreating if she's not going to dedicate herself wholly and completely to motherhood in every way, shape and form?

Like, if you're going to be a mother, then just BE a mother. Be one with motherhood. Be all in. Forget about the other things. Right?

Wrong.

You know what I've realized in my five years of motherhood? When you throw yourself mind, body and soul into every. single. thing. motherhood, you're likely going to lose sight of the uniqueness that makes you you.

Your "pre-mom" self is in the past along with sleeping in on Saturdays and spontaneous date nights. And the woman you thought you were now—this mom version of yourself—is buried so deep under diapers and goldfish and stuffed animals and to-dos and errands and responsibilities that she is struggling to stay afloat. Struggling to really see herself.

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Being fully immersed in the deep, sometimes treacherous waters of raising tiny humans is wondrous, yes. But it can also be overwhelming and all-consuming. It can be exhausting and challenging.

Then, one day, your head will pop up above the surface and you'll breathe fresh air and you'll say, "Wow, it's really beautiful up here, too."And you'll remember: Something will remind you that you're a person, not just someone's mother. It could be anything—maybe it'll be the way your partner looks at you in that dress or maybe it'll be what the yoga teacher said that struck a chord with you. Maybe it'll be the writing class you sign up for or a new job or a new community or a new lease on life. Whatever it is for you—you'll notice it.

And it'll wake you up in a way that nothing else has since becoming a mother.

I find myself on a mission now. My mission is to discover who I am exactly. I'm not my pre-mom self anymore and I'm not just this exhausted, harried, overwhelmed mom-of-three. I don't have to only be that. I can be a mother and… other things.

That being said, because I am a mother and… doesn't mean you have to label me that way.

I have a job, but you don't have to call me a "working mom." I'm simply a human who works who also happens to be a mother.

I like to workout, but saying I'm a #fitmom seems unnecessary to me. I am a human striving to be healthier.

I have dreams and goals for myself that both relate to motherhood and have nothing to do with motherhood at all, but you don't have to label me a "mom boss." I'm just a human who wants to achieve certain things in life.

I am a Beyoncé devotee, but we can all agree it would be silly to label me a "mom-Beyoncé fan," right?

Bottom line: I am more than the caregiver of my tiny humans. My worth is greater than the number of pickups and drop-offs I do in a week. I am deeper than the mountain of dirty laundry in the hamper. I am better than my meltdowns when I lose my patience and I'm worthy of cultivating hobbies, interests and passions outside of my role of "mom." We all are. Attaching the word "mom" to everything we do contradicts all of this.

What I think I am finally starting to understand is that becoming a mother is a complete transformation that happens over and over throughout the course of our motherhood journeys.

We'll figure out the mom we need to be at each stage of our children's lives and we'll figure out who we are exactly, eventually. Spoiler alert: It's going to take time. And it's going to keep changing. And we'll be growing and learning and unearthing the truest versions of ourselves over the course of our lives—right alongside our babies.

The role of mother is of utmost importance to me. I am so proud to be raising my three children. I do get an immeasurable amount of fulfillment and joy from this hat I wear. But the other hats I wear? They're so much a part of me, too, and a lot of them don't have much to do with motherhood at all. It's time our society starts valuing the other roles mothers have independent from motherhood because that's where validation happens, and that's how society proves motherhood is worthy. That's how we feel seen. That's how we get a seat at the table.

So, what was the point of having kids for that woman who works a lot?

To create another human being who she could help mold into an upstanding citizen of our future. To expand her family and lineage. To open her heart to the love that is caring for another person. To give her life meaning in a way nothing else had yet. Because, I suspect, she felt called to.

And what's the point of her working so much?

To make money for her family. To feel validated outside of her home. To continue to learn and grow in her profession. To set goals, reach them and start all over again. To interact with other adults on a regular basis. To continue this part of her life that is so ingrained in her identity. To show her children that just like men, women can have successful careers, too. To give her life meaning in a way nothing else does. Because, I suspect, she feels called to.

But the even bigger point that stayed with me from that conversation about working mothers is this: Women, just like men and non-binary individuals—just like any other human on this planet—can make their own decisions. They can decide to be a mother or not be a mother. They can decide to be the primary caregiver for their children or they could decide to work a full-time job outside their home. They can decide to sign up for yoga teacher training, join a gym, learn how to paint, go back to school or whatever.

From looking around me at all the amazing moms in my life, I believe this to be true: Mothers can, and will, decide what is best for them and their families by themselves or with their partner. What we won't do is wait around for a man, or anyone else for that matter, to tell us how we should be living our lives or to pass judgment on our choices.

We are mothers, yes. But we are also so much more.

And it's time for society to start seeing us that way.

Originally posted on Medium.

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Life

The bestseller Born To Run changed the way we think about traditional running shoes and how they interfere with the body's natural wisdom. Nearly ten years later, despite the popularity of barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, we still haven't heard much about the negative effects of shoes on children, despite the fact that research supported barefoot-style shoes for children as early as 1991.

According to that landmark study, optimum foot development occurs in the absence of shoes. Additionally, stiff and compressive shoes may cause deformities, weakness and restricted mobility. That study went so far as to say that the term “corrective shoe" is a misnomer and that such a shoe is “harmful to the child, expensive for the family and a discredit to the medical profession."

Subsequent research reinforced those findings.

  • A 1992 Bone and Joint Journal study found shoe-wearing in early childhood to be detrimental to the development of a normal arch. Specifically, the authors found a positive relationship between wearing shoes in early childhood and the subsequent development of flat-footedness.
  • A 2008 Gait and Posture study found that slimmer and more flexible shoes interfered with children's natural foot motion far less than conventional shoes did. Based on detailed analyses of children's movement patterns in barefoot-style shoes versus traditional shoes, the authors recommended all children wear barefoot-style shoes.
  • In 2008, Foot and Ankle Surgery published a review recommending small children wear a sports shoe, which is as flexible as their own foot. It stated that the impact forces affecting a child's foot during sports are small enough that extra cushioning is unnecessary. The authors argue that although the hard indoor surfaces on which children play increase the need for cushioning, as the child's foot grows there is an increasing need for sufficient mechanical stimuli to facilitate healthy development of the bones and muscles. Because cushioned shoes interfere with the foot's natural movement, they can cause poor positioning in the flex zone, thereby causing harmful stress on the foot.
  • A 2011, Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found shoes alter children's gait patterns. One notable finding was that wearing shoes decreased the movement of the intrinsic muscles of the foot, possibly contributing to weakness in those muscles. In fact, eight of the nine range of motion variables measuring foot motion were decreased in subjects who wore shoes versus the control group.

There's no doubt about it, the foot is complex and amazing. Each foot has 200,000 nerve endings in the sole alone. Additionally, the foot and ankle are home to 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. It's not hard to imagine that altering the movement of this complex web of structures would create a ripple of changes.

Jessi Stensland, founder of FeetFreex and a self-proclaimed “natural mover." She puts it in no uncertain terms, “From the moment kids are putting on shoes, they're walking wrong." Stensland explains that the foot is designed to process an immense amount of sensory input and that it's designed to move in varied, complex ways. When you put a child as young as 18 months in a supportive shoe, you're depriving them of the chance to use their feet properly, potentially for life.

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“We are meant to have a raging river of information coming to [our brains and spinal cords] through our feet to help us move our bodies through space and we have slowed it to a trickle… the moment we put [on] shoes." In contrast, when we walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces, our feet adapt by developing musculature and fatty padding to protect our feet and to fully support healthy movement in all planes. It is a classic case of “use it or lose it," Stensland says.

There is no shortage of research to indicate the many specific ways in which shoes interfere with the foot's ability to do its job, potentially triggering a variety of negative long-term effects. For example, a shoe with even a slight heel lift (e.g., almost any athletic shoe) shortens the Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia, limiting ankle range of motion. This affects the angle of pelvic tilt, which can then lead to low back pain and posture issues.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. A 2002 paper published in Podiatry Management details the many ways in which typical shoes interfere with children's gait and development.

  • Despite their flexible soles, the natural flex point of a sneaker (toward the middle) is not aligned with the natural flex point of the foot (the ball). This problem is exaggerated further if, like most parents, you buy them with a little room to grow. Therefore, any flexibility the sole allows a child's foot is rendered moot. (To understand what I mean, just bend one of your kid's shoes in half.)
  • Lace-up shoes commonly worn by children are constrictive. When kids lace their shoes tightly, the excessive pressure limits the dorsalis pedis artery's ability to allow normal blood flow through the foot.
  • Sneakers have a high traction plastic or rubber outsole that causes the foot to forcefully “brake" with every step. Note that an active child takes 20,000 steps per day. This unnatural braking forces the foot to slide forward, jamming the toes against the shoe's front edge with every step. This is the equivalent of wearing shoes one has long outgrown.

Even if you're not ready to home school or move to a tropical, casual, shoe-optional locale, there are plenty of opportunities to foster your kids' healthy foot development.

Nutritious movement

Stensland likens healthy movement to a healthy diet – a variety of all kinds of foods, including fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and some Cheetos or Pop Tarts every now and then. Just as with our diets, the effects of any junk food are mitigated by nutrient dense foods. Similarly, while there will inevitably be times when your kid needs to wear shoes, including structured shoes with a heel (e.g. tap shoes or soccer cleats), you can offset the ill-effects of such shoes by adding in a healthy dose of “nutritious movement," a term coined by movement educator/author Katy Bowman. She recommends offering kids a chance to walk on natural surfaces like sand, gravel, rocks, or wood for at least 20 minutes a day. Even if you can't do this every single day, you can at least have them play barefoot inside.

Conscious shoe selection

Dr. Gangemi, chiropractor, elite triathlete, dad and barefoot enthusiast, recommends looking for these qualities in kids' shoes:

  • Low heel height
  • Minimal cushioning
  • Flexible throughout
  • Very lightweight

Stensland has compiled a list of approved shoes for nutritious movement here, including guidelines for DIY'ers wishing to make their own.

Lead by example

For better or for worse, our kids learn more from what we do than from what we say. We can encourage them to kick their shoes off when we do the same. While it might not make sense to walk into your office barefoot, you can set an example by taking your shoes off when you enter the house, while relaxing in your backyard, at the park, or on neighborhood walks in nice weather.

Check your fear

After researching the foot and how shoes impact its structure and functioning, I realized I was scared of all the wrong things when I insisted my kids leave their shoes on at the park. I was afraid they'd step on something sharp or that they'd contract a disease, both of which are, in fact, highly unlikely scenarios. (However, I do think I'm justified in my fear of letting them take their shoes off because it would make it even harder to get them to leave the park.)

On the other hand, the prospect of depriving my kids of healthy movement, potentially for life, is far scarier than anything a barefoot adventure could throw at me, including a tearful, forcible departure from the playground.

We all want to give our children a solid foundation. It turns out, we don't necessarily need to do anything fancy or complicated to do it—at least in the literal sense. While you might need a lot of therapy and soul searching to give your kids the best emotional foundation, creating a solid physical foundation is as simple as letting them be barefoot.

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