Always, Katie


Monday, April 24, 2017

Of This Much I'm Sure: A Memoir - By Nadine Kenney Johnstone (Book Review)

From time to time, I'm asked to review books on my blog... occasionally, I agree, more often I do not. [This post does contain affiliate links - if you click the link and make a purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting Always, Katie!] When the email about Of This Much I'm Sure: A Memoir by Nadine Kenney Johnstone came across my "desk," I was intrigued by the summary her agent sent me. 

At twenty-two, Chicagoan Nadine Kenney meets her future husband, Jamie, while vacationing in Florida. She soon uproots from her home and family to join Jamie in suburban Massachusetts. Once married, the couple begins trying for a baby.   
Yet neither of them suspect just how tumultuous the path to parenthood will be.
Unable to conceive naturally, Nadine embarks upon a series of infertility treatments that wreak havoc with her health, her emotions and her marriage -- and threaten her life.  From uncommunicative doctors and internal bleeding following an IVF procedure to emergency surgery that leaves her with a six inch scar instead of a baby bump, Nadine endures nearly every trial and tribulation that infertility treatments often bring. All the while, she’s astounded that few if any doctors or couples dare discuss these.
In what seems like a miracle, she eventually becomes pregnant naturally. But the horrors are not over: her unborn son is diagnosed with potentially terminal kidney complications. For the duration of the pregnancy, Nadine and Jamie must live with a profoundly troubling uncertainty about whether and how long their child will survive.
Ultimately, Nadine is forced to come to terms with the stark differences between reality and the notion of “happily ever after” she once harbored, and to recognize that amid great unpredictability the only thing she can be sure of is the healing power of hope and love.

The summary read almost like the summary of the newest, hottest novel... National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW) was coming up, and I didn't have any labor-intensive collaborative posts on the horizon, so I eagerly sank my teeth into the book.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

10 Cool Items to Put in a Long-Distance Easter Basket (+ a neat way to jazz up your packaging!)


Do you have a long distance friend or family member that you enjoy sending holiday gifts? When I send Christmas gifts to my friends and family out of state, I always wrap the outside of the box in Christmas wrapping paper, then reinforce it with contact paper to protect the wrapping paper from rough handling in transit. 

But I decided to do something a little bit different with my friend's Easter gift this year - I wanted to make it look like an Easter basket full of grass. I used some bright green wrapping paper (got it on clearance after Christmas one year, but it's "neutral" enough for any occasion!) and wrapped the INSIDE of the box! Here's how...

You're going to need a piece of wrapping paper that goes all the way around the perimeter of the box, and is as tall as the height + the flaps extended (see pics) + 2/3 the depth (/short side, see pic again). 



Here's where the fun begins - you need to pre-crease the sides of the wrapping. You're going to be making a tube that will fit around the inner perimeter of the box. I found it easiest to make one short, random crease, then build from there. I placed the corner made by the first crease snugly into a corner of the box, then carefully smoothed the paper along the next side and made a tight crease there as well. I did the same thing with the second side of the box, then used the lengths determined that way to make the remaining folds. This meant that the fourth side had the two end pieces taped together to form the tube, with the colorful side facing the inside.







Put a reverse crease in each of the shorter sides, then fold up the corners to meet that new center line. Unfold, then pop the tube open again and use the corner creases to form box pleats. 



Place the tube (with the newly-formed bottom) in the box, smoothing it out so that the corners and edges all line up. Tape the folds in the corners down so they lay flat. Cut slits in the wrapping paper at the corners between flaps, down the length of each flap (but not into the box). Tape the edges of each wrapping paper flap to the box flaps, fold the flaps closed, and make creases at the fold at the bottom of each flap. 



Toss some green Easter grass in the bottom of the box, and you're ready to fill 'er up! 


[Some of the following links are affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, I am paid a small amount by that brand, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for the support!]

In this box, I'm including:

  • This beautiful journal from DaySpring. I think the message of "redeemed" is perfect for Easter, my friend loves journals, and has chosen a synonym to redemption as her word of the year. Perfect!! 
  • Some carrot-shaped packages of fizzy bath salts. I got the idea here and the basic recipe here, but I changed up the essential oils and used Wilton piping bags instead of their less expensive cone-shaped favor bags. (Because I had them on hand, haha.)
  • Artwork my kids made. (Adapted from this tutorial with what I had handy.)
  • Jelly Beans. She's not a big fan of sweets, but... I mean... it's Easter, I had to. :-) Probably best to avoid melty candy like chocolate bunnies - who knows how warm the box may get before it reaches its destination!?
A few other great ideas for a grown-up Easter basket:
  • Cross jewelry
  • A cute printable. (Check Etsy!)
  • Gift card 
  • Egg-shaped bath bombs. (Here's a tutorial - I was going to try these, too, but I ran out of time, haha.)
  • Cute Easter decor. (Like this DIY frame!)
  • Cookies (These look like they'd hold up well to travel, and they are SO stinkin' cute!)

Do you have an out-of-town friend or family member that you send seasonal gifts to? How do you make the packaging special? Let's chat in the comments!


Friday, March 31, 2017

The Truth About Working Dads (+ a JORD Watch Giveaway)

[This post is sponsored by JORD, and I was gifted a beautiful wood watch for my husband as compensation. All opinions and content are my own.]

Being a stay-at-home-mom is hard.

So is being a working mom.

Psychological research and countless blogs back this up, everywhere you look on social media. But do you know what other group has a tough job and I don't think gets acknowledged enough?

Dads.

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My husband, my kids' wonderful Daddy, may have the toughest job in our family. There are so many demands on his time.

He is our breadwinner. He gets up out of a warm bed every morning and goes off to a job where he sometimes feels overworked and undervalued, while his wife snuggles in for a little bit more sleep before the kids get up. 

He comes home tired in the evening, and his paying job rarely ends at the end of a business day. He often needs to be accessible to his teachers in the evenings, and answers emails or troubleshoots issues at odd hours, too. 

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When he's home, he's hands-on with our twins. He knows I'm tired from a full day of toddler-wrangling, and he loves playing and bonding with his kids. 

He does household chores, despite housekeeping being *mostly* my realm as a stay-at-home-mom... laundry, dishes, whatever needs done.

I am a big-picture, creative person, but if I were in charge of our book-keeping and bill paying, we'd be homeless real quick, so he spends precious hours out of our evenings and weekends making sure that all of our finances are in order. 

We both consider what I do with the kids all day to be my full-time job. But if keeping tiny humans safe and happy and healthy is "work" for me that doesn't end at 4pm, it's also work for him that he gladly picks up as soon as he walks through our door. I don't truly get "time off," but neither does he.

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When I think of all the ways my sweet husband spends his time, and how deliberately he chooses to spend that time in service to our family, I am so grateful to have married a true partner. 

I'm glad there's an online "push" to acknowledge and validate the work that moms do - whether they stay at home, work outside the home, or work from home - but let's not forget to give three cheers to our partners! Remember to let them know you appreciate the work THEY do, the time THEY give, too! 

If you'd like to spoil your husband a little bit and give him a beautiful accessory to thank him for the *time* he spends serving your family, you should definitely enter to win a $100 store credit to JORD, the maker of the gorgeous wood watch Ethan is wearing in the pictures in this post :-) (For context, this is the equivalent of between 25% and 72% off, depending on the watch you choose. Ethan's is the Conway in Zebrawood and Dark Sandalwood.) The best part!? Even if you don't win the $100 - you still get $25 off! Gotta love a giveaway with a guaranteed consolation prize!



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Thursday, March 9, 2017

7 Tips To Help You Find a Photographer Who "Clicks" With Your Family!


Capturing moments of our kids' lives on camera is so important to Ethan and me. They're growing up so fast, and I find myself already forgetting tiny details from their earlier months, only to be reminded by a picture snapped at just the right time or of just the right feature. We take a lot of dimly lit, blurry, candid iPhone photos, and my job happens to "require" me to get staged pictures with my DSLR from time to time, but we also really value the images captured by a professional photographer and have made it a priority to have professional photos taken of our family every few months during these early years.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's Up Wednesday: February

There's a lot of random stuff ratting around in my head and our life, and I've been wanting to get better about sharing more life updates around here, but I've had such a hard time thinking how or what to share :-) So I'm jumping in on What's Up Wednesday with Shay, Sheaffer, and Mel again, since the prompts are so great and give me a jumping off point :-)

[also: There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, I'll make a little bit of commission, and it won't cost you anything extra. Thanks!]


What we're eating this week 

Lots of mild foods... and then Mexican food. The kids and I have all had a little stomach virus, so saltines and Sprite Zero have been the mainstays. But when I start feeling better after getting sick, I always crave spicy foods! So I had some awesome enchiladas last night. :-) We've also eaten pre-made mashed potatoes a few nights in the last week, after I processed 10 pounds of potatoes in my Instant Pot. (See my spiffy way of making frugal convenience mashed potatoes here!) 

What I'm reminiscing about


I finally finished up and posted my review of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies recently, so I've been reminiscing about that wonderful trip to Gatlinburg, and spending time with Becca. Can't wait to plan another get together! 

What I'm loving

The kids got hair cuts and I got mine colored (for the first time in my LIFE!). I think everyone's hair looks great, so I'm loving it! (Even if my Sam looks like a little man instead of my baaaaby!)



What we've been up to

I've been trying to get organized - blog, home, brain... haha! I'm in a constant state of overwhelm from the process, BUT as each area is getting a little more under control, I'm starting to feel that lovely calm grow. :-) 

What I'm dreading

One of my best friends is having surgery tomorrow, and I'm dreading that for her. :-( I'd love it if you'd keep her in your prayers <3

What I'm working on


I've done a major overhaul on my Pinterest... it's maybe half done, and it has been a ton of work! I've made board covers for a nice consistent look, and I'm working on consolidating and deleting some boards that are no longer really relevant or whatever :-) I'd love if you'd stop by and maybe give me a follow! I've also worked on finding some cool avenues for finding consistently awesome pins to share, so hopefully you'll love what you see!

What I'm excited about

We're getting ready to do some big renovations at home! The kids' nurse practitioner said we'll probably need to move them to toddler beds around age 3, and when we do, we want to separate them into their own rooms. But to do that... we need another bedroom! Currently, we have a master suite, a nursery, a guest room, a craft room, and an unfinished basement. The plan is to finish the basement and move the craft room down there, then move the guest room into the current craft room, and one kid into what is currently the guest room. And redecorate the nursery into a more kid-specific theme, depending on who ends up in which room. :-) Yowza! Lots of fun planning ahead! Lots of work! Of course, we'll be doing it as smartly and frugally as we can, and sharing all the fun with y'all here :-)

What I'm watching/reading

So. Much. Clifford! The kids love watching "dog" on Netflix, and it's one I can actually tolerate, so yay!

What I'm listening to

My usual... Garth, Reba... the other fun older stuff on my iPhone. I haven't really looked up new music in a while. 

What I'm wearing


This new kimono from ThredUP! It's an online consignment store, with some really great deals! Lots of designer steals - I also got a ginormous Vera Bradley cosmetic case that looks brand new for less than $10. If you sign up through this link, you and I will each get $10 credit! And that goes a pretty long way in ThredUP prices :-) 

What I'm doing this weekend

Nothing that I can think of... hopefully cleaning up much less vomit than this past weekend! I'd be fine with just a few days of chillaxing with my favorite people :-) Ugh, it's only Wednesday and I'm soooo ready!

What I'm looking forward to in March

Spring Break!! Sorta like this coming weekend... no plans that I know of, but I love time spent with my whole little family!

What else is new?


Umm... I got new photo lights. :-) To help fight the uphill battle that is trying to take good Instagram and blog pictures during the winter. I've arranged a few more fun sponsorships and deals to share with y'all, so that's new and exciting... hm... I can't think of anything else... what's new with you?


Monday, February 20, 2017

How I Make Frugal Convenience Mashed Potatoes in My Instant Pot

We love the super-convenient mashed potatoes you can buy in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Mashed potatoes are the perfect side for a lot of our favorite meals, and it's just nice to have some we can easily reheat and serve without doing the whole cooking thing :-)

[also: There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, I'll make a little bit of commission, and it won't cost you anything extra. Thanks!]

And they're not expensive, necessarily, but I realized that I can make my own (better) mashed potatoes for much less money, and I've been pretty conscious of saving money on groceries where I can. So I've taken to whipping up (get it? haha...) big batches in my Instant Pot when I have some spare time, and freezing them in quart-sized freezer bags. Then I can just pull out a bag or two and reheat them when we want them! 

I estimate that the same amount of potatoes costs about a third to a half of the price when I make them at home as opposed to buying them premade. And it only takes a half an hour, most of which is passive so I can be doing other things in the meantime. :-) 

I like my mashed potatoes with red or yukon gold potatoes, because I think the textures lend themselves well to whipping and staying fluffy. When I'm making just one batch ahead of a meal, I choose one color, but for these big batches, I go for both. I grab a 5lb bag of each color and use about half and half in each batch.

You can easily adapt your favorite mashed potato recipe to this process, but here's the basic procedure.

Wash, peel, and cut-up about 3lbs of potatoes into roughly equal chunks. (This is all my stand mixer can handle at a time, so I work in three batches when I buy 10lbs of potatoes.)

Drop them in the steel pot in the Instant Pot.


Add a cup of water (or other liquid, like chicken broth).





Set your Instant Pot: manual, high pressure, 7 minutes. (Don't forget to make sure the valve is turned to "sealing."

After the Instant Pot gets up to pressure, the 7 minutes will begin. At the end of those 7 minutes, your Instant Pot will beep. This whole step will take around 15-20 minutes of hands-off time, so stick close, but you can do other stuff. Like dishes. Or Instagram. :-) 



When the Instant Pot beeps that the 7 minutes are up, do a quick release. If you're not familiar with the quick release, it can be a little intimidating. I jump every time, but it IS supposed to hiss, and steam IS supposed to pour out of it! When the steam has stopped and the little valve indicator floats, it's safe to open your Instant Pot.


That steel pot is HOT, so instead of pulling it out and dumping my potatoes into a colander, I just use a slotted spoon to dig the potatoes out and drop them into the bowl of my stand mixer. 

**If you have a hand mixer, you can TOTALLY make this a one-dish thing. I don't.**


From there, this is where it gets really customizable - make the potatoes however you usually do! (I know some people use combinations of milk, cream, salt, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, etc...) My standard is a stick of margarine for 3lb potatoes, and a TBSP or two of milk, added slowly until the potatoes reach a consistency I like. (The diet coke doesn't go in the potatoes, but it does go into the cook. Often.)



Scoop servings of potatoes into quart-size freezer bags - I use my ginormous Mama Bear mug to hold the bag steady and open while I work. :-)


Squeeze air out of the bag, flatten and spread potatoes out, and place flat in the freezer until hard. Once they're frozen solid, the bags can stand up or be shoved into random corners of the freezer. :-) 

I pull one or two out at a time and run a little warm water over the bag so I can remove the potato blob for thawing or reheating. You can put a frozen blob in a bowl in the fridge to thaw overnight, or just plan on microwaving a little bit longer. Microwave, covered, for 2 minutes. Remove, stir, recover, and continue to reheat for a minute at a time (stirring after each minute) until heated all the way through. Enjoy your easy, convenient, AND inexpensive side dish!


PS: If you love cooking ahead, I've reviewed some of our favorite freezer meals that I stashed while I was pregnant. :-)

PPS: If you have an Instant Pot that you love and are looking for great recipes for, I have a new-ish Pinterest board that I've been adding some delicious-looking recipes to, and making notes on them as I try them out.

PPPS: If you don't have an Instant Pot, you probably need one. ;-) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies... with Toddlers!

My family received free and discounted tickets to this attraction for the purpose of my coverage of our visit. All opinions are my own.

A couple of months ago, I shared the first in a series of posts about our trip to Gatlinburg, TN, but then that whole area suffered from horrible wildfires, and I temporarily suspended the series while we waited for the region to heal. I've been so relieved and happy to see articles and posts from the Smokies saying that things are reopened and tourism is picking back up, and I'm excited to continue sharing with you about our trip in early November!

One of the things we were most excited about doing on our trip was finally meeting up with my blogging bestie, Rebecca of Caravan Sonnet! We decided that our first meet-up would be at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, so that we could visit and keep the twins entertained at the same time. 

I went to a Ripley's attraction in my early teens, and I remember it being a little bit intimidating and flashy, so my expectations for the aquarium weren't sky-high, although I'd read that it was very nice. Basically, I was hoping it was clean and would keep my kids engaged without over-stimulating them. 

I was THRILLED to find that I'd drastically underestimated what an amazing attraction this aquarium is! Spoiler alert: this is a MUST-SEE! 

The walk from the garage was pretty long. We had our stroller and the weather was fine, so we did okay, but I couldn't help but think how rough it could have been in inclement weather or how it wasn't particularly handicap friendly. We got there early (I was maybe a little spastically excited) and waited for Rebecca outside on a low wall tucked away in a shady area, since it was unseasonably warm, and there were a lot of benches, tables and chairs, and other places to sit and rest. 




Sweet Sam was getting a little bit restless while we were waiting, so we meandered up closer to the door to watch for Rebecca, and I was holding him on my hip when she texted that she was on her way up the stairs. (Fortunately for those of us with strollers, once you've made the hike from the parking lot, everything is extremely stroller-friendly! Even for our wide double.) After lots of squealing and hugging and bouncing and "You're really here!" we headed inside.

We were immediately impressed at how beautiful the aquarium was! My eyes went wide and my jaw dropped and I felt like a little kid. :-) We eagerly jumped into the engaging path through the exhibits.




I was so pleased with how much room we had for maneuvering our wide stroller through every exhibit! I had packed two baby carriers in case we had to ditch the stroller and wear the babies, but we had tons of room everywhere we went. In fact, there was always plenty of room for others to pass around our slow-moving group. :-) Every so often, there were benches for resting (and slipping Cheerios to restless toddlers), too. So toddler-friendly!

There was a huge play area where kids a little older than mine could crawl and climb to their hearts' content, allowing grown-ups to catch up on nearby benches. Nearby, there were also touch tanks for curious kids to get hands-on with some of the cool sea creatures. This fun and educational area alone would keep kids entertained for quite a while, and is one of the reasons I think the aquarium would be a great attraction for folks visiting the area on a day when the weather is lousy. So many other attractions in the Gatlinburg area involve walking outside from place to place. :-)




If I had to pick a favorite exhibit, I'd be torn between the shark tunnel and the penguin habitat.

It's such an intense and beautiful sight to see sharks swimming on three sides of you! Our party was thankful that half of the hallway was a moving sidewalk, and half was stationary so that we could hop off the sidewalk to read educational signs or to get a closer look at a critter that caught our attention, and so that we could hop on the sidewalk with the stroller and just relax as we moved through the exhibit.








The penguin habitat, I must admit, made me squeal like a child! I just love penguins, along with most of the internet, it would appear :-) These little guys were so playful and chill... (yeah, I said it), and we were a little surprised how close to the glass they were hanging out. They seemed perfectly okay with humans being right up next to them, so we got to see them up close and personal. When you visit, check their flippers for little bands with names on them. :-) It's nice to be able to call your new friends by name, after all!





The coolest feature of the penguin exhibit, I thought, was the little tunnel for kids to crawl under where they swim, and pop up in the middle of the habitat. Similar to the sharks, I guess! I just like immersive-feeling experiences. :-) Sam and I had to check out the tunnel... It's mostly for little kids, and I wouldn't have crawled in if it hadn't been a lull in the traffic, but I'm glad I could fit so I could take him. It was a little claustrophobic, and I'm 5'3" and 145lbs, so keep that in mind if you decide to venture in with a little one.


Stinker decided on the way out that he no longer remembered how crawling works!
One of the last things we encountered was a touch opportunity with stingrays, and we got to watch them being fed, too. We opted out of touching, but they were so neat to watch!


I hope the next time you're in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area, you'll check out Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies! Our family had such a great time that I could only come up with two small things to put in a "cons" column :-) Have you been before? What's YOUR favorite exhibit!?



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