5 Blessings of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

**DISCLAIMER:  Please know that I am not advocating that being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is more difficult than being a corporate mom or the other way around.  By corporate mom I mean a mother who works in a salaried job outside of the home.  I deliberately avoid using the term “working mom” because it does give the impression that SAHMs don’t work, which clearly is not true.  The choice to either be a SAHM or a corporate mom is a highly personal one, and I think it is unfair for women to judge the moms who choose one lifestyle different than their own.  One is not better than the other. Both lifestyles have their challenges and blessings, which I will blog about later this week.  I am simply sharing my experience and hope to learn from the experiences of others.**

What are the blessings that come with going from being the primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom? 

In my previous post, I blogged about the challenges of going from primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom (SAHM).  While I do not regret my decision, the “perks” I miss the most are those that feed my sense of independence and self-worth.  Despite the downsides of not working outside the home, I have gained a whole new set of benefits that are truly priceless.

Reconnecting with my children

Even if this was the only gain from quitting my job to be a SAHM, the challenges would be totally worth it.  When I was working outside the home, I would leave the house before my kids woke up and got home just in time to put some sort of dinner on the table and get them ready for bed.  During the weekends, I had to run the errands I was not able to do during the week and perform the necessary domestic chores such as laundry and cleaning.  As a hospitalist, I worked about every third weekend, which further ate into the time I should have been with my family.  Needless to say, I did not have a lot of time left for my kids.  Now, I am here every morning before my kids head out to school.  I feed them breakfast.  I am waiting for them after school every day.  We eat dinner together every night.  I am home every weekend and for every school holiday, which is my personal favorite.  The quality of our time together has also increased along with the quantity of time we spend together.  Because I am not chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted, I have more energy for my kids.  We have had more in-depth discussions in the last six months than perhaps their entire lives.  I feel like I have gotten to know my own children better.  I am more involved with their social and school lives.  Kara and Tristan have both expressed to me that they are much happier now that I am no longer working outside the home because they get to spend more time with me.  They don’t care that we don’t have a car or a big house anymore.  They care that they are getting more attention from Chris and I.

DSCN7418

My personal well-being

Now that I have an extra 70 hours or so per week, my overall well-being has improved dramatically.  Even though I was exercising and eating somewhat healthy compared to the average American before moving to Costa Rica, I was stressed out at the brink of burn-out.  I was chronically sleep deprived and frazzled.  There were times I would not see the sun for days.  My hypothalamic-pituatary-adrenal axis was so out of whack that I never felt truly well.  I may have been somewhat physically healthy, but I had no inner peace because of my stress levels.  My heart and soul were not healthy in any way.  Since moving to Monteverde, I maintain a regimen of running, yoga, and healthy nutrition.  I spend a lot more time outdoors.  I get more sunshine.  I sleep much better.  I go on a hike with friends about once per week.  I feel so much better about myself, my body, and my life.  I do not feel stressed out.  I am so much happier.

Celebrating our 15-year wedding anniversary in the Mayan Riviera.....Pura Vida! Mayan Riviera, May 2014

I dedicate more time to my well-being.

Stronger marriage

When I was working, my marriage was not a priority. I had to cut corners and take care of the things that could not take care of themselves first.  So after work, kids, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, running errands, the dogs, and extra-curricular activities, there was not a lot of time and energy left for my marriage with Chris.  Oh we tried.  We would go out on a date once per month.  We would go on a trip just the two of us once per year.  But in the evenings after the kids went to bed, we did not talk.  I would turn on the TV and fall asleep within 5 minutes.  I was too exhausted to do anything else.  Now I have more time and energy to spend with Chris.  Our communication quantity and quality has improved.  I appreciate his efforts to be the primary breadwinner now that I am no longer burdened by that responsibility in addition to running the household.  While this may give our marriage a more “traditional” 1950’s structure, I do not resent the arrangement because I came to it by choice.  No Kramer vs Kramer here!

Exploring a new career

I am taking advantage of the extra time I have from not working outside the home to explore an exciting new career as a writer.  I am currently starting an expat/lifestyle coaching and writing company and I am writing treatments to submit to the movie and film industry.  I am also revising a YA fantasy fiction novel that I wrote many years ago in order to polish it for resubmission.  I would not have these opportunities if I was still working as a physician.  As terrified as I am of failure and rejection, I have decided to set my fears aside and pursue these dreams.  If I fail, I will have no regrets because I at least made an attempt to make this dream a reality.

Time with my parents and sisters

One of my biggest concerns about moving abroad was being so far away from my extended family.  Like many Mexican families, we are very close.  My youngest sister and I both lived in San Antonio and we would see each other quite often.  My parents lived 5 hours away from San Antonio and we usually saw them about once a month or so.  All 20 of us (my parents, sisters/BILs, nieces, nephews etc) would get together for Thanksgiving and a summer vacation where we would rent out a pool house every year.  We have some wonderful memories of those times.  I was very saddened that we were not able to spend Thanksgiving or the summer together this year.  But even though we are further away, I feel like we spend more time together.  We Skype or FaceTime almost every week.  And when we do we are able to spend more time online together.  When I was working, I never called my mom or my sisters just to see how they were doing.  Now I do.  We spend a lot more time communicating than before, even though we are further away.  I am so grateful for technology.  I know that the pendulum has swung the other way and people in the blogosphere like to write about how we need to unplug.  I dont want to unplug, because if I do, I am disconnected from my family in the USA.  We text, Skype, FaceBook, and FaceTime.  My BIL follows me on Twitter.  I do not want to lose that.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful. Papa and Pita are in the center.

Even though we are further apart, I spend more time communicating with my extended family.

The blessings of quitting my job to be a SAHM are centered around the time I now have to improve the most important relationships in my life and to recharge as a person and professional.  I have no regrets.

What blessings have you experienced from putting your career on hold to be a SAHM or SAHD?  Let me know in the comments below.  

Pura Vida!

Posted in A Question Worth Answering, Career-Life Balance, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

5 Challenges of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

**DISCLAIMER:  Please know that I am not advocating that being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is more difficult than being a corporate mom or the other way around.  By corporate mom I mean a mother who works in a salaried job outside of the home.  I deliberately avoid using the term “working mom” because it does give the impression that SAHMs don’t work, which clearly is not true.  The choice to either be a SAHM or a corporate mom is a highly personal one, and I think it is unfair for women to judge the moms who choose one lifestyle different than their own.  One is not better than the other. Both lifestyles have their challenges and blessings, which I will blog about later this week.  I am simply sharing my experience and hope to learn from the experiences of others.**

What are the challenges of going from being the primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom?

In the summer of 2013, I made the life-changing choice to put my career as an academic physician aside and move to Costa Rica to be a stay-at-home mom (SAHM).   I was the primary breadwinner for our family for eight years before this.  When Chris was teaching at a private school, I was making 3 times his salary.  When he left teaching to join the corporate world, I was earning double his salary.  He is a confident husband and father and never felt threatened by our salary discrepancy.  The decision to leave the workforce was terrifying for me, as a huge part of my identity as a person was derived from my career.  While I have no regrets about my choice, 6 months into my new life I have come to appreciate the challenges of having gone from primary breadwinner to SAHM.

Money

I miss making my own money.  That sentence pretty much sums up the most glaring downside of quitting my job.  This big change was brought to the forefront of my attention a few weeks ago when I tried to open a personal line of credit with my USA-based bank, mostly to have it as a back-up in case of an emergency while Chris was out of town .  After spending over a half-hour answering questions on the phone for the application with a friendly customer service representative, he asked me what my current income was.  I responded, “I do not have an income right now.  I am on professional leave.  My husband is the sole earner in our family.”  I have to grant it to the gentleman on the other line as he really did try to be as diplomatic as possible.  He said, “I am so sorry.  If you do not have an income, then your husband needs to open the personal line of credit with you.”  Ouch!  I would be lying if I said that did not hurt my feelings and my pride just a little bit.  Actually, a whole lot!  After spending most of my adult life as the primary breadwinner and knowing that the MD next to my name pretty much guaranteed that banks were throwing money at me, my bank’s rejection was a slap in the face.  After the initial shock and frustration of the situation wore off, I told myself that the value I added to my family was no longer measured in money.  Now, I am here for my children every morning, after school, every evening, and on weekends.  I am more involved in their lives.  In fact, my job as a SAHM is very similar to being a pediatric hospitalist in a strange way:  Pediatric hospitalists rarely make money for the hospital, but they add value in other ways such as improved quality of healthcare delivered, patient satisfaction, and through-put efficiency.  As a SAHM, I may not make money, but I add value to the quality, satisfaction, and efficiency of our family.  Regardless of my rationale for getting over my pity-party, I still have to say that not earning a salary sucks!

External Validation

I miss hearing the praise, gratitude, and adulation that comes with being a doctor.  Regardless of the current state of the healthcare system, most people out there still appreciate their physician most of the time.  Not only was I receiving external validation from patients and families, I also received it from nurses, therapists, consultants, hospital administration, unit clerks, medical students, residents, pharmacists, security guards, and colleagues.  And it felt good to be praised!  Don’t get me wrong, my kids and husband do express gratitude and appreciation for what I do now as a SAHM.  But let’s face it, I don’t derive the same level of satisfaction from hearing, “Hey mom, thanks for making these (from scratch) brownies” or “Thanks for doing the laundry” as I did for “Thank you, Doctor, for saving my child’s life”.

Time Management

When I was working full time, I still had to do laundry, cook dinner, pack lunches, and attempt to parent my children.  To survive, I cut corners every way I could and I lived by my iPhone calendar.  I entered every little detail of my personal, social, and professional life into that calendar and set multiple alert systems to keep me on task.  I had an established routine from which I did not deviate for fear of turning the whole system upside down.   If I let my guard down about managing my time effectively, I was acutely aware that my children would not be fed or picked up at school.   When I became a newly minted SAHM, I did let my guard down about effective time management.  I found myself attempting to “wean” myself from the iPhone calendar with disastrous results.  I would forget simple things like doing laundry, taking the kids to guitar lessons, or baking their school snacks.   I was not careful about utilizing the most efficient methods to perform tasks such as grocery shopping.  I had to adjust to the innate inefficiency of life in Costa Rica, such as having to go to 2 separate banks to be able to pay my rent.  I was no longer outsourcing many household tasks to Chris.  I need him to work so he can maximize his (our!) income potential.  If he spends time folding laundry, that is money lost as it is time he could have been working.  When I fold laundry, it does not cost our family money.  I found it difficult to adjust to my increased household responsibilities initially.  After a few weeks of chaos I reluctantly returned to my iPhone, and I was able to manage my time more effectively.  I planned out meals, shopping trips, errands, baking, the kids’ guitar lessons, social events, and volunteering.  I mapped out my blog and writing schedule.  I narrowed my exercise, social, and professional activities.  Old habits die hard, and I found that I thrived with deadlines and checklists even in my new life as a SAHM as I did as a mom who worked a crazy schedule outside of the home.  One of the best pieces of advice I received after moving to Monteverde was to wait at least 6 months before getting involved with community projects.  Because many of the expats that move here suddenly find themselves with a lot of time, they tend to spread themselves thin.  I was able to avoid this thanks to following this advice, and now I am able to focus on a few projects that are very important to me.  The best part is that I do have “wiggle room”.  If I need to change my schedule to help out a friend in need or if one of my kids gets sick, my life does not plummet into chaos.

The Social Factor

I have met some incredible people and made wonderful friends in Monteverde.  I have more time to socialize, and I love that the kids, Chris, and I have integrated social circles.  But it takes more effort to make friends now than it did when I was working outside of the home.  People in Costa Rica work a lot, creating a wide gap between my stay-at-home-expat-mom lifestyle, and the rest of the community.  While American SAHMs have perfected the art of mommy socializing, the practice has not fully reached Costa Rica.

After living in San Antonio for eight years, I was fortunate to have built a strong network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Because I spent most of my time working, most of my friendships were from my work.  Sure, I was friendly with my neighbors, most of whom were SAHMs and I was so blessed that my childhood BFF also lived in San Antonio.  But the biggest proportion of my circle of friends were people I met through work.  As a chronic multi-tasker, I was comfortable with my friendships with my colleagues because when we would socialize, I felt I was “getting work done.”  We could discuss patient cases, quality improvement projects, our trainees, other co-workers, educational endeavors or techniques, and research data.  Sure, we would also talk about our partners, children, and life outside the hospital, but eventually, our discussion often turned to shop talk.  We also understood each other.  They knew what it was like to be under the pressures of juggling home life, motherhood, and our high-stress job.  They understood my fears of feeling inadequate as both a mother and a doctor, because I felt I had my feet in two completely different worlds.  Also, the sheer intensity of our job brought us close together whether we wanted to or not.  Once you have shared the care of patient with someone, you are bonded with that colleague for life.  It is an intense situation that forges a relationship almost automatically.

The upside is that even though forming friendships takes more effort because I don’t have a steady social pool like I did when I was working, I have the time and energy to put forth that effort.  Though it is more challenging to find friends with common interests, views, and values, the people of Monteverde are worth the effort!   I have also continued my friendships with my friends from the US, thanks to Twitter, FaceBook, and Gmail.

Intellectual Stimulation

I am an overachiever.  I was that annoying kid sitting in front of the class with her hand raised high in the air whenever the teacher asked a question.  I was like this from elementary school through medical school.  I don’t think anyone who knew me was surprised that I chose a career in academic medicine.  I loved the intellectual challenges derived from analyzing diagnostic dilemmas.  I also loved teaching young medical students and residents how to think critically and sharpen their clinical reasoning skills so much that I made part of my career in that niche.  One of my favorite parts of my job was when I would get a phone call from an outlying hospital and the referring doctor at the other end started the conversation like this, “Well, I don’t know what is going on with this patient, and I hope you can figure it out.”  Generating a differential diagnosis was like a hot cup of chocolate with extra whipped cream on a cold, rainy day.  Nowadays, my biggest intellectual challenge is making sure I put the library books back on the right shelf at my children’s school, where I volunteer a couple of times per month.  Laundry, cooking, and running errands are important, necessary, and valuable needs that I meet for my family.  But they are not exactly intellectually challenging.  I do miss going into the hospital and having a colleague ask, “Hey, can I run a patient case by you?”  Try as I might, I do not derive the same cerebral satisfaction from exchanging banana bread recipes.

Stay tuned later this week as I will share a blog post about the blessings I have experienced going from the primary breadwinner to SAHM.

If you have given up your career to be a SAHM, share your experiences with me in the comments below!  What have been your biggest challenges?

Pura Vida!

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Reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratitude In Pictures

In the end, I am thankful for family and friends.  I am thankful that I am able to see the world, even though I own little of it.

Thanksgiving 2008, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

The "hostility" phase of cultural adjustment can be very, well, hostile!

I am so grateful for these kids, even when they are not being grateful.

Kara and I "selfie" in the Pantanal, Brazil.

I am grateful that I am able to share the world with my kids.

The "paler" side of the family. Chris's mom in the center.

The “paler” side of the family.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful. Papa and Pita are in the center.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful.

This is the view I wake up to every morning. Pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming!

This is the view I wake up to every morning. Pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming!

Spending more time outside at Selvatura Park.

Spending more time outside at Selvatura Park.

The kids and I on the beach at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

The kids and I on the beach at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Share your favorite Thanksgiving moments, no matter what time of the year they were, in the comments below.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Pura Vida!

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Happy Thanksgiving from Costa Rica! I Am Thankful For……

As I mentioned in an earlier post, for the first time in my adult life I will not be celebrating Thanksgiving this year with my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, and nephews.  In fact, since Chris is in Antarctica, it’s just the kids and I.  We have something very special planned for the weekend, which will hopefully get our mind off the fact we are not with Chris, Papa, Pita, the tias, and the primos.  We have created so many wonderful Thanksgiving memories and traditions over the years.  I have no regrets about our move to Costa Rica, but I am still sad about missing Thanksgiving with my extended family.

Like many families, one of our Thanksgiving traditions, besides eating to the point of a coma, is to go around the table sharing what we are grateful for that year.  This year, I will be participating in that tradition virtually!

I am thankful for…

…being able to take a year off from work so I can spend more time with my children and husband and reconnect with them…

Though we were dirty, hot, and gross from all the bug spray and and sunscreen, we were truly happy on this trip.

Though we were dirty, hot, and gross from all the bug spray and and sunscreen, we were truly happy on this trip.

…the opportunity to live in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where I enjoy beautiful weather, a wonderful view, weekly hikes in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, and have met wonderful friends….

A hike in the cloud forest with friends.....Pura Vida!

A hike in the cloud forest with friends…..Pura Vida!

…living in a world where technology makes it easy to stay connected with my family back in the USA…

…the blessing of simplifying my life so I can appreciate the little things like being able to sip a delicious mochaccino at Cafe Orquid, going on a hike in the middle of the week, and blogging my experiences to share with the world…

http://www.chrisgamel.com

Photo credit: Chris Gamel Photography

What are you thankful for this year?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

Posted in Family Life, Simplifying | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

3 Lessons Learned From Being Grateful

In my previous post, I blogged about ways to teach your children gratitude.  Now the big question is, Why do we care about gratitude?  Yes, this is Thanksgiving week and being thankful is at the forefront of the news.  But why is expressing gratitude important any other time of the year?

Simply put, gratitude makes us better people. Better people make the world a better place.  Having lived a “rags to riches story” and the experience of currently living in a developing country has given me an unconventional perspective on gratitude.  These are the 3 main lessons I have learned from being grateful.

You don’t have to be rich to be grateful.

I know this sounds like a cliche, but it is completely true.  When I was poor, I was grateful that I had a home, a flush toilet, a car, and enough food to eat.  Growing up in McAllen, TX, one of the poorest cities in the USA, I knew people who did not have even what we consider the basic necessities.  Even though we only had one bathroom for 7 people in the house, we never got to go on family vacations, and our meals mostly consisted of bean and cheese tacos, I was grateful.  Our parents loved us and protected us.  I had a grandmother that was home after school to take care of us when both of my parents were working.  I am not going to lie and say that as a kid I did not wish to be able to go to a restaurant or have a bigger house.  After all, that desire is what drove me to get an education to be able to afford those things.  But as an adult, I have made the realization that having more stuff has not made me more grateful.  When your principle metric of gratitude is measured by material possessions, you will never reach the peak.  There will always be more things that you don’t have.  And you cannot feel grateful when there is always something else that you want but cannot have.

I now live around people that are considered “poor” by US standards.  And guess what?  They are grateful for what they have.  Even though they don’t live in a huge house, or have an iPhone, or the money to go on fancy vacations.  They are grateful for having enough food to eat and being able to get an education.  Gratitude stems from the heart, not what you have.

Gratitude will make you a kinder person.

When you show gratitude, you will not bully the waiter when you get the wrong meal served at a restaurant.  You will show patience, respect, and kindness, and politely wait until your revised meal arrives.  Gratitude will keep you from debasing others who may not be as fortunate as you.  Instead, you will help them lift themselves up.  Gratitude will inspire you to share what you have with others, whether its time, money, or talents.  Gratitude will push you to reciprocate when someone has done something nice for you.  Act grateful, and you will feel grateful!

You will be a happier person when you are grateful.

I think what has made me the happiest in my life is being at a point where I am grateful for what I have.  I don’t live in a big house anymore.  I don’t have a car.  But I am grateful that I have more time to spend with my children and husband.  I am grateful that we are eating much healthier.  I am grateful that I am able to spend time writing, hiking in the forest, and doing yoga.  That is Pura Vida! If you don’t believe me that gratitude is the key to happiness, watch the video below…

What experiences in your life have made you grateful?  How have you cultivated gratitude within yourself?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

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7 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Be Grateful

We have all seen ungrateful kids: The child who turns their nose up on a meal served to them.  The child who does not say thank-you after opening their Christmas presents.  The child who throws a tantrum because their parent does not buy a certain toy at the store. It’s disgusting to witness.   By the way, did I mention these acts were all done by my children at some point in their lives?

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect with gratitude on the blessings in our lives.  During this time of the year and on a daily basis when scenarios like the ones above occur….I often question my ability as a parent to teach my children, Kara and Tristan, to be grateful for what they have.  Their privileged life is very different from my own up poverty-sticken upbringing.  While my Mexican-immigrant parents were just trying to survive, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our head, my own challenges as a parent are very different but equally anxiety-provoking (well, not really, but almost).  My parents did not have to consciously try to teach my sisters and I to be grateful and independent, as we learned to be this way by sheer virtue of growing up the way we did.

My job as a parent is to make sure my kids are grateful for what they have, which is difficult when life is relatively easy.  My children have not known hardship.  Ever.  This is because I worked hard to get an education to be able to give them the life they lead.  One of the reasons we moved to Costa Rica was precisely to teach our kids to live with less and to be grateful.  I know moving to a developing Latin American country is not an option for every family, so there are 7 ways to cultivate gratitude in your children.

Model grateful behaviors. 

“Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand”   — Chinese Proverb

I can sit my children in front of me and tell them all the reasons they need to be grateful and it will not make any impact whatsoever.  But if I demonstrate and model gratitude, they may actually pick it up.  Say “please” and “thank you” to everyone who crosses your path, especially to people in the service industry.  Praise your children when they remember to say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted.  Also, remember to treat others with gratitude and respect, especially in front of your children.  When something doesn’t go your way (like your flight is delayed or your meal was not exactly what you ordered), do not throw a tantrum or bully the person in front of you.  I am not saying to passively let these things go unattended.  You should address the issue to rectify the situation, but do it in a mature, calm, and respectful manner.  Otherwise, you are teaching your children that you are entitled and that when things don’t go your way you should throw a tantrum until they do.  You also teach them it is OK to disrespect others.  These are not lessons you want to convey.  You want to teach them to say “please” and “thank you” and to be grateful when someone is trying to help them.

Serve others as a family.

For her eleventh birthday, Kara asked her guests to bring canned food to donate to the San Antonio Food Bank instead of presents.  Kara and Tristan also volunteered at the San Antonio Food Bank with Chris in conjunction with the company for which he works.   As alluded in the Chinese proverb above, if you involve the child in behavior that expresses gratitude, they are more likely to understand why it is important.  Volunteer as a family to help those in need.  Participate in fundraisers for families in crisis.  Adopt a family charity.  You also don’t have to leave your home to serve others. When Don Enrique, the man who mows our lawn (with a weed sacker!) comes to work on our rental property, I have Tristan serve him a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade bread.  The first time we did this, Tristan asked me why he had to do it.  I said, “To show him that we are grateful for mowing our lawn.  It is hard work!”  I could see the light bright up in his eyes when he understood the reasons for serving this gentleman.  Sure enough, Tristan now serves Don Enrique his coffee and bread with no question or complaint.

It’s OK to say, “We cannot afford that.”

Many parents will tell you that they more they give their children the less grateful they seem.  This is because kids who are given everything learn to be entitled.  The believe they deserve everything they want, whether they earned it or not.  From the time our kids were very young, Chris and I have had no problem telling our children that something they asked for was too expensive or out of our price range.  I think children need to hear the words, “We cannot afford that”.  First, the phrase shows them that all things come with a price tag.  It also tells them that some price tags are out of reach from the family budget.  This will allow them to be grateful for the things that they are able to buy because they will understand that they are not entitled to everything they want.  They will also begin to understand that age old saying, “Money does not grow on trees.”

Include your children in household chores.

Kara is responsible for putting away her laundry, keeping her room clean, and making sure Tristan gets ready in the morning.  Tristan is responsible for keeping his room clean and putting his laundry in the basket.  Both children are responsible for setting and clearing the table at meal times.  When children are involved in household chores, they learn to appreciate the effort it takes to get something done.  They learn to feel pride in their own work and their role in helping the family.  They learn gratitude for the work others do for them.

Make your children work for something they really want.

A few years ago, Kara asked for an American Girl Doll.  These dolls are expensive, and by the time you get the doll and all the accessories, you can easily spend close to $200 USD.  I gave Kara two options: We could go to Target to buy the AGD knock-off called “Our Generation” doll, which cost about $20 USD each, or she could save up for the real AGD herself.  She chose to save up for the “real deal”.  For six months, 9-year old Kara saved her allowance and worked extra chores around the house to earn enough money for Josefina, the historic American Girl Doll of her choice.  She was so excited when Josefina finally came in the mail, along with Sombrita, her goat, and other cute accessories.  When we moved to Costa Rica, Josefina was one of the few toys that made the trip with us.  When children work for something they want, it teaches them to appreciate the toy or object a lot more.  They learn that the value of money and hard work.  They understand that they are not entitled to something just because they want it, which fosters a sense of gratitude.

Kara and Josefina

Kara and Josefina

Let them suffer a little bit.

A few weeks ago, Kara came home from school with a bone to pick with me.  She told me, “I know you brought me to a developing country to live a simpler life.  But I just want you to know, that I am the only kid in sixth grade that does not take a phone with music and headphones to school.”

To which I responded, “Kara, the reason you do not take an iPod with headphones to school is not because we cannot afford one.  It is because we do not want you to have one.”

She could not argue with that one.  I also proceeded to point out all the things she had in her life that the kids at school did not, such as the opportunity to travel all over the world.  Most people in Costa Rica have never been outside of Costa Rica.  This fact has come to her attention most recently, and she has shown more humility and gratitude about our ability to travel.

Many parents helicopter around their kids and do not want them to feel discomfort or pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, social, or intellectual.  I am not saying you should torture your kids or put them in harm’s way.  I am saying that as parents we need to stop coddling our kids so that they never learn what it is like to feel a little discomfort.  It is OK to deny your kids something they want simply so they learn what it’s like to go without something they want.  That way they will learn to appreciate what they do have.

Ironically, the privilege of travel has thrown our kids into situations where they were uncomfortable, such as sleeping on airport floors.  These experiences have made them appreciate the comforts of home, such as a soft, warm bed.

Tristan and Kara asleep at the airport in Brasilia.

Tristan and Kara asleep at the airport in Brasilia.

Why is it that my kids look their cutest when they are asleep?

Why is it that my kids look their cutest when they are asleep?

Tell stories 

I often tell Kara and Tristan my stories of growing up poor in South Texas.  They sometimes ask very specific questions about exactly how much money we had or how many toys I got.  I make it very clear that growing up poor did not make me sad, and that I am very grateful for all my parents did for us.  I am grateful for my upbringing because it made me the person I am today.  And I am grateful that I can share those stories with them so they can get a window into a life so different than their own.  Hopefully this will help them appreciate the material blessings in their lives.

We also read books and stories about children who were poor, but were happy and grateful.  Some of these include “Esperanza Rising”, “James and the Giant Peach”, “Where the Red Fern Grows”, “The Great Gilly Hopkins”, and “The Boxcar Children” series.

I know I cannot recreate the hardships of my childhood that taught me to be grateful and independent.  Honestly, I would not want to!  My challenge is teaching my children gratitude while providing them with a privileged life.  These 7 strategies have helped us quite a bit.  We are by no means perfect.  We all forget to say “thank-you” sometimes.  We are all working on this as a family, because expressing gratitude is an action worth doing.

How are you teaching your children to be grateful?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

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Why Do Gringos Celebrate Thanksgiving?

In honor of Thanksgiving, I will dedicate this week’s blog posts to the holiday.  Today I will answer the question which has been asked by my Tico friends, “Why Do Gringos Celebrate Thanksgiving?”  Later this week, I will blog about gratitude including how to to cultivate this seemingly lost virtue within ourselves and our children.

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

The Answer Taught In Schools

We all remember the story from elementary school.…..  In September 1620, the Mayflower, carrying the Pilgrims from England, landed in the new world near Cape Cod, much further north than their intended destination.  These lost passengers were mostly religious outcasts on the fringes of English society.  Approximately half of them died that first year due to cold, hunger, and infectious diseases while they lived aboard the anchored ship.  In the spring, the survivors  moved on shore to what they called Plymouth Rock, where they met a friendly group of Native Americans, including Squanto, who spoke English.  He taught them how to survive off the land by farming corn, hunting, fishing, and harvesting sap for maple syrup.  As a result of Squanto’s generosity, the Pilgrims had a successful harvest in the fall of 1621.  They invited Squanto and other Native American friends to celebrate the first “Thanksgiving” by sharing in a bountiful feast of wild turkey, corn, potatoes, and other staples from their gardens.  After multiple incarnations of the holiday were observed at the state and national level, Thanksgiving became a federally-recognized holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November since 1941.

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Through the years, many American traditions have become synonymous with Thanksgiving celebrations including big, bountiful meals with friends and family; turkey; football (American!); and parades.  The day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, is usually the day the Christmas shopping season.  A huge part of Thanksgiving celebration is planning strategies to get the best Black Friday sales!

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

….So this is the nicely packaged story you can tell your Tico or other non-American friends about the origins of Thanksgiving.  The truth behind the sweet story of the Pilgrims, though, is not as tied up in a pretty bow as our teachers taught us.

The Answer That Is Most Accurate

The reality of the history of the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit more controversial.  Separating myth from reality is difficult, and the opinions on its origins range from the bitter to the political.  The less dogmatic sources agree that the celebration we know as Thanksgiving was initially a harvest celebration, did not likely include many of the dishes we associate with it, and predated the 1621 feast.  The relationship between the Pilgrims and the local Native American tribes has also been a cause for debate, to the point that the United American Indians of New England celebrate “National Day of Mourning” on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

The Answer Within My Heart

I love Thanksgiving.  Despite its questionable origins, I think any holiday that celebrates family, food, and gratitude, should be at the forefront of our traditions.  Since we got married, Chris and I have spent Thanksgiving with my side of the family and Christmas belongs to his side.  The holiday has been a very important part of my adult life as my sisters and I have gone our separate ways.  Thanksgiving is the one time of the year we are all together and are able to share our time, food, resources, stories, and culinary skills.  We all participate in the cooking.  Except in the year 2005, our feast always includes a turkey (provided and roasted by someone other than me), but all other dishes are vegetarian (including the stuffing!) so that starvation is not an issue for those of us who do not eat meat.   I have tried to promote a 100% vegetarian Thanksgiving without the turkey, but unfortunately my family will not yield.  They all tell me that in 2005, the year I hosted a vegetarian Thanksgiving, they all ate turkey the next day without me.  Maybe someday I can convince them….

Every year, my mother, sisters, and I promise we will make less food and spend less time cooking but that never works.  There are so many dishes we want to share and enjoy!  We also talk, fight, play board games, drink lots of wine, and of course eat a whole lot of food.   You have not lived until you have played Taboo while inebriated.  We always go around the table saying what we are thankful for.  We have even filmed two short movies starring the kids during Thanksgiving.  Because of work, school, finances, and time, it is hard for all of us to get together.  But no matter what, we always found our way home at the end of November.  In addition to the context of family, I love Thanksgiving because of its focus on expressing gratitude for the bounty in our lives.  While I am grateful on a daily basis for the blessings in my life, Thanksgiving allows me to reflect on the “big picture” treasures that have been bestowed on me, and provides an avenue to share them with my family.

Thanksgiving 2008, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

For the first time in my adult life, I am not celebrating Thanksgiving with my family this year because we now live in Costa Rica.  We used to get the whole week off.  Now, the kids only get a half-day on Thursday and the full day on Friday off.  We have something special planned for the long weekend, but it will be a very different experience than our typical celebration.  While I am sad that I am not going to celebrate Thanksgiving with my extended family this year, I will still be giving thanks for all the good things that have happened in my life since moving to Costa Rica.  And I look forward to my family visiting this December!

Why do you celebrate Thanksgiving?  What are some of your favorite traditions?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

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