Fair warning: This is going to be a long post with an unusually candid tone. I don’t share a lot of personal stories here, because I’d rather talk to you about food, but this one has been a long time coming. I won’t be offended if you want to skip it and come back next time, when there will be a new recipe! If you’re looking for the chocolate cake/cupcake recipe pictured below, you can find it here. 

It’s been quite a year, in good ways and bad, since the last time I wished this space a happy birthday. After such a particularly grueling year, you may have noticed that I needed a break, judging from the fact that… I’ve taken a (not entirely by choice) break from posting lately.

In fact, it took me a couple of weeks just to find the words, and the energy, to write this post which was I was supposed to share with you on March 11th (the actual 4th anniversary of this blog), followed by a to-die-for chocolate cake recipe that will still follow this post – just not in quite as close proximity as I had originally hoped.

Let me just get right to the point, since I don’t tend to get too personal or vulnerable in this space (why bother talking about me when we can talk about food!?), but if not in the post commemorating the End of The Hardest Year of this Blog, when?

2017

I’ve had a hard time this past year. Some of the things were out of my control, but a lot of it was squarely within my control, or should have been.

It started around this time last year, when I was so happy at home with my World’s Easiest Newborn baby, who wasn’t quite three months old, and was a calm kid and a good sleeper. (Note the use of the term was.) It was a year ago, almost to the day, that I quit my day job. There were a lot of reasons, but the primary one was that I couldn’t see myself being able to be the kind of mother I wanted to be to my son while still working an unpredictable, travel-heavy consulting job. When it came time to go back to work, I just couldn’t.

I meant to give myself a couple of months to either start building up my freelance client base doing this kind of work, or find a new full time job unrelated to blogging, but it just never happened. Time passed, but my client base didn’t grow because I had no idea what I was doing, and couldn’t focus as my formerly calm, good sleeper turned into, well, an unpredictable baby – who never really learned to sleep.

Time passed, and Bryan and I continued to feel overwhelmed and frustrated by how quickly babies change and how, by the time we wrapped our heads around what our son needed, he hit a new phase and we had to start figuring him out all over again. On top of it, we had trouble establishing a schedule, lacked any kind of predictable or consistent routine, and were all increasingly exhausted and increasingly frustrated.

We decided it was time to get some childcare so that I could try to devote myself a little bit more intentionally to building my business, so we hired a wonderful part time nanny (and my parents helped all the time). But our nanny was working for another family as well, who kept switching her schedule, so it took a long time to establish consistency with her. A few months later, we started part time day care, too – because in order to get into a full time daycare, apparently you have to get on a wait list the minute you find out you’re pregnant. So, for those keeping track: we had 4 days/week of alternating nanny care/daycare/nanny care/daycare and then my parents came on Fridays. I think. It honestly changed about every month; it felt like a full time job to keep track and the lack of consistency added to the sense of confusion and instability that was pervading our lives, rather than relieving it.

Losing my professional (and personal) identity – then finding it.

My friend Cara told me the other day “you know, I think[before they give birth] every woman is determined not to give up their identity when they become a parent. But it’s inevitable; you have no idea how much things change”. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close. We had a long discussion about how easy it is for moms to get caught up in the cycle of taking care of others, especially if they have a tendency toward people-pleasing and care-taking before they become mothers. It’s so cliche, but it’s true. If you haven’t developed the skill (and it is a skill) of prioritizing yourself and your needs sometimes, having a baby who, by definition, needs you 100% of the time, is not going to help.

And – you guessed it – prioritizing myself is not my forte.

I knew that I like working; feeling productive as part of the workforce is a major part of what makes me feel like myself. But, the combination of being exhausted and having to constantly shift my plans around the fluctuating schedule left me unable to find the time or energy to focus on connecting with clients or commit to much work, let alone devote any time to myself in a non-work capacity. So my business faltered, but I could see how it *could* succeed, so I couldn’t bear to start looking in earnest for a full time job (because that would mean basically giving up on blogging and freelance work, given the demands of an office job, plus parenting). At the same time, recognizing how my business should be growing, but also that I was working all the time and not seeing much or any progress, made me feel like a total failure.

I should pause here to note that there was a lot of serious, hard stuff going on in Bryan’s and my extended families throughout 2017 as well. It’s not mine to share, but the pressure was compounded by a lot of emotional turmoil around and involving us.

Anyway, the cycle of exhaustion, frustration, and declining morale (on my part) continued throughout 2017 until, near the end of the year, I finally accepted the inevitable and started job hunting. It became clear that the stability, consistency, and routine offered by a full time job, with my son in a stable, comfortable care situation, was becoming critical to the health of the entire family – even if it meant giving up on blogging and my longtime dream of writing a cookbook (more on that in a second).

I applied for several jobs, but ended up finding THE BEST day job I could have imagined for this time in my life. It’s a remote job (so I work from home, and can be available for my son when he needs me) with a content marketing startup (so I have tons of autonomy, get to take ownership of projects, and am helping to grow the company), and – the best part – it allows me to stay involved in the world of blogging and content creation, rather than moving away from it. Right now, I am working a lot, which has been a big part of what has ironically taken me away from this space, but I think that will balance out soon. But I was able to find a job that allows me to make a living focusing on my favorite parts of blogging, and help people manage and grow their businesses, every day.

I have always wanted to work, even after becoming a parent, and I am much happier, and feel much more like myself, with a job.

The Working Mom Dilemma

But then came the Working Mom Dilemma. I’m not talking about the guilt (there was that too, naturally), but the whole balance issue. The recurring theme in all of the most stressful times in my life is always that I don’t know when enough is enough, or I do, but don’t listen to the voice that’s telling me “ENOUGH!!” and, instead, continue to power through despite the toll it takes on my body and mind.

I added a full time job but, until recently, didn’t actually take anything off of my plate. Last time I did that, I ended up so sick that I couldn’t eat normal food and this blog was born.

I started my new job in early January, and our nanny resigned because she had to go home to deal with a family health crisis, at the end of January. I had more demands on my time and less flexibility than ever, but we still didn’t have full time childcare. Furthermore, Baby Bake was miserable – and constantly sick – at the part time daycare, so even if they had had a full time slot available, it wasn’t a solution.

We eventually found a new, full time daycare that he loves, but it took awhile. For about two months, I was working full time while also parenting part of the day many days a week; still doing the majority of the housework and all of the meal planning, shopping, and cooking; all of the miscellaneous stuff that was just easier for me to take care of (easier for whom is another question) because I was home; trying to run this blog; planning a bathroom renovation – and oh yeah, did I mention I had a full time job with a startup that is growing whiplash-fast?

From the outside, everything looked like it was moving in the right direction and, while that may have technically been true, it didn’t feel that way.

Crash

As you may have predicted, I crashed. Hard. One night last month, I started feeling a little sick after dinner, went to bed early, and could barely get out out of bed or eat anything for about two weeks. (Thankfully, Brian and my parents stepped up in a major way to help, and nothing blew up.)

I still don’t know what happened to make me crash in the first place, but I suspect it was related to adrenal burnout. I’d been in overdrive for over a year, working around the clock, getting 6 hours of sleep or fewer (and very little of it was actually restful or restorative), letting nutrition and general health slide, not doing anything to mitigate stress… you name it. I was doing all the things I (should, by now) know better than to do, and my body couldn’t take it anymore.

I was forced to rest.

I was forced to ask for help.

And I was forced to step back from any non-essential obligations and make myself a priority again.

So my house is filthy, we’ve been eating a lot of takeout, and this blog has been on an unplanned hiatus. But I’m slowly starting to feel better.

It has been a long, looooooong year (the above doesn’t even begin to cover it). But I think it’s safe to say that it ended on a high note: I enjoy my job (even though I work almost constantly), my son is much happier and healthier with a consistent routine and has a blast at “pre-preschool” every day while I work, my husband is really enjoying his work right now (even though he works pretty constantly, too), and I’m learning to take care of myself again.

In retrospect, I’ve learned a lot over the last year of blogging and living, trying to build it into a business, and failing(?) – which allowed me to find the personal and professional path I was looking for at this point in my life and career. I want to share some of it with you today, because, although this is a food blog, it would be disingenuous to pretend that health and wellness begin and end with the food we put in our bodies. That is only a piece of it, and stress is another HUGE piece of the health puzzle.

Here, in a nutshell, is what this year has taught me (in no particular order) about managing internal and external stressors and working toward balance.

1. Nothing will blow up.

Take a break. Let unimportant things fall through the crack. Ask for help.

Push the boundaries of what you think you have to do in order for the world to keep spinning, because you’ll be surprised how much of that pressure is actually self-imposed.

2. You deserve to be a priority.

That discussion with Cara really put things in perspective for me, because I finally saw, from another person’s objective, non-judgemental perspective that I had done the exact opposite of what I promised myself I’d do as a mother. I promised myself independence, identity outside of parenting, and the opportunity to be a strong role model for my son.

Instead I gave myself limits, a very narrow identity focused entirely on taking care of others, and the opportunity to be really unhappy for awhile.

The minute I started investing in myself in big and small ways, I started to turn the corner. I deserve to be a priority to myself, and so do you.

3. Trust your gut.

Since the first time I hit publish on A Clean Bake, it has been my dream to write a cookbook. Even before that, probably, but A Clean Bake has given me a greater sense of purpose because I know that these are the kind of recipes that are hard to come by, and greatly needed, if you can’t eat conventional desserts.

I had this insane fantasy that, one day, a publisher would contact me out of the blue, saying that they’d found my blog and loved it, and desperately wanted to hire me to write a book.

Then it HAPPENED, exactly how I imagined it. When we were driving home from our road trip last summer, and I was completely mentally detached from anything related to work, an email from a publisher suddenly appeared in my inbox. Seriously. It was the most surreal moment.

I went back and forth with them for a long time and, although they rejected my original proposal, we came up with a mutually agreeable concept that sounded perfect for me. But I wasn’t excited about it. It should have been perfect, but something in my gut told me it wasn’t the right time, or the right book. So, after all of that negotiation and planning, and even developing several proof-of-concept recipes, instead of signing the contract, I walked away. I never regretted it for a second.

The same thing happened when I finally decided to listen to my gut and accept that freelancing and blogging was not the right career for me right now. I enjoy blogging so much more as a hobby. Maybe lesson 3.5, then, is about knowing when it’s time to change course in life, and embracing those moments, rather than stubbornly clinging to a path that just isn’t meant for you.

4. Clear the clutter (so you can focus).

By city standards, we have a large condo, but the reality is that it’s not a lot of space for three people and a cat when two of those people are terrible decision makers. e.g. “Maybe we’ll use this someday; better keep it.” Yeah, like that.

Acknowledging that clutter both creates and exacerbates stress has led to a decluttering project which will probably take the rest of our lives, or until we give up and burn the house down (KIDDING, Insurance Adjustor….).

But it’s not just physical clutter. Clearing electronic clutter, and even mental clutter, has been just as important, if not more so, for focus, productivity, and peace of mind. I thought that would mean lower blog traffic and social following, but you know what? Once again, it’s been fine.

5. Know your worth.

One of the hardest aspects of freelancing, for me, was setting rates. I have a degree in business and have taken masters-level courses in pricing and I still struggled.

The problem wasn’t calculating a price for my work, or justifying those prices. It was believing that my work was worth the prices, and walking away from situations where a prospective client didn’t understand, or wasn’t willing to acknowledge, what your work is worth.

At the end of the day, I realized, my time is valuable, and I deserve to make a living, too.

But, of course, this applies to more than just money.

6. Identify your goals – and respect them.

Ultimately this comes down to putting your effort behind the things that are important to you, not the things you’re “supposed” to do. Releasing yourself from the “should”s in life, when you can, frees up so much energy.

Here’s an example: I hate Facebook and have no interest in devoting the substantial time and energy necessary to make those disembodied-hand recipe videos that you “must have” in order to grow your Facebook presence. So… I don’t. Maybe the ACB Facebook page would be a lot larger than it is right now, but it’s not, and guess what’s not going to be on my tombstone?: “She coulda had a bigger Facebook following…”

Sometimes, with all of the pressure to spend all your time making food videos that you hate making, it’s easy to forget why you’re doing this work. Some people really love making cooking videos, but I am not one of those people. For me, the goal has always been about sharing inclusive recipes, and (if I’m lucky) eventually writing a cookbook that will be a staple in your kitchen.

I’ve spent a lot of time letting myself get distracted from these goals, but over the last year, the exhaustion and overwhelm has made it literally impossible to do anything non-essential. I was forced to reconnect with the core question – “why am I doing this?” – and stick to the activities that supported the answer to that question. Boy, does it make things clearer.

7. Make room for yourself.

This, too, applies in a lot of ways, but ultimately, it has to do with establishing boundaries to protect the things that are important to your health and happiness.

Saying no is really hard; I hate to disappoint people. But saying yes all the time means putting others’ needs above your own (and before you know it, you’ve let your needs completely take a backseat), letting brands’ voices usurp yours (which is the reason I’ve gone back to doing very few sponsored posts), and giving all the energy you have to others without reinvesting any in yourself. This is especially pronounced for me because I’ve only recently started to realize what an introvert I am.

Making room for myself means that saying no is becoming the norm, and yes the exception.  It’s a work in progress.

8. Invest in your most important relationships.

Who are the people who invigorate you? There are certain people who, no matter how tired I am, make me feel energized after spending time with them. These are the ones who I am trying to give priority to.

9. Recognize – and appreciate – the people who invest in you.

This group includes friends, old and new, family, and even people that I’ve never met.

Though I’m not exactly the biggest fan of social media, I belong to several blogging-related Facebook groups that have afforded me so much support and encouragement as I tried to take my blog from a hobby, to a business, and then back to a (better run, side-business-y) hobby. To the many strangers whose names I now recognize from the blogging community: thank you for answering my sometimes-amateurish questions, and for taking me seriously which, in turn, taught me to take myself seriously.

To the many former strangers who have become friends online and in real life, you make this crazy hobby worth doing. I hope I’ve been able to pay forward the pointers and support that others have offered me!

More than anything though, YOU are the community that supports me, by following, reading, cooking, commenting, and continuing to return for more. “Appreciate” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word to describe how I feel toward you for all of the support you’ve shown me, so I’ll just say: THANK YOU.

10. Have fun

This is, after all, a food blog. It’s a labor of love, and it’s not, like, the key to world peace or anything. If it’s not fun, I’m doing it wrong.