House Mix

How we do birthdays a little differently

We have chosen to focus on experiences instead of presents for our kids’ birthdays. That means that the build up is for the trip of their choice, instead of gifts. We plan it, anticipate it and focus on that. In this post I’m also letting you in on why we do it this way, how much we spend and how I failed at packing for our last day trip!

Why do we do it like this?

The biggest reason we focus on doing something together is that we want our kids to have lots of rich experiences to remember and draw from. When they’re older they probably won’t remember what they unwrapped on their birthday, but they’ll remember the first time they pet a shark or fed a parrot sitting on their shoulder. These trips we’re taking as a family bond us together in amazing ways too!

Another reason we focus on memories has to do with our decision to limit toys. Our goal with less toys is to promote using their imaginations, to not value things and to have less clutter! For more on how I organize with kids see this post.

Because the child’s birthday will rarely fall on a day we can go on our trip, we also have cake and open their presents on their actual big day. A cake from a box, banners hung on the window and dance music playing loudly equals a party in this house!

If or when they start asking for birthday parties, we’ll use that money and turn the focus on planning a party instead of a trip.

Last week we celebrated Luca’s birthday by going to the Miami zoo. He’s a bird lover, so I was searching for something we could do with birds, but didn’t find what I was looking for. I gave him three options and he chose the zoo for his birthday present. It turns out the Miami zoo has the third largest aviary in the world! They also offer parrot feedings and he was able to be inside cages with the birds. It was such a beautiful gift to him from God.

How much did we spend?

To give you an idea of how much we spend on birthdays, we budgeted $200 for zoo tickets, gas, lunch, a snack and pizza for dinner. We could get away with this amount because the kids don’t eat that much yet so we could share lunches! But we’re about a millimeter away from being a two-pizza family though, which might not be such a bad thing since we can never agree on what kind to get. (Marcello, being the Italian that he is, likes the fancy thin kind with sparse cheese. The kids and I like thick, garlic crust with all the cheese that will fit on it!)

I also bought the zoo tickets online. Always search around to see if there’s a groupon or discount somewhere before I press that buy button. I found a package deal on a third party site for discounted tickets in addition to animal feedings and monorail tickets. I saved more than $50 by just googling “Miami zoo discount.”

In my experience, the best way to get the kids on board with the budget is to explain it in advance. Before we even got there I told the kids we had a budget and what it included. I explained we would have lunch and then an afternoon snack so they wouldn’t ask to stop at every vendor. I told them there would be a gift store and Mom and Dad weren’t buying things there today. If they want to spend their own money, they could. (They both bought lollipops with little tiger stuffies.) There were no meltdowns, like some of our past experiences, because I finally learned to let them know what to expect. By the way, I don’t tack on anything melodramatic like we can’t pay the bills or eat if we go over budget, I just tell them that we have one and that we want to be wise with our money.

So for presents, we spent about $75 this time. Luca will be turning six he has asked for Nerf gun darts and Playskool super hero figurines. In addition to these, I bought him a photo book of our day at the zoo (with a rewards coupon and only paid shipping and handling), kites for he and Adriano, basketball shorts and a little robotic swimming fish for the pool.

As they get older, the number of gifts will go down as they will inevitably get more expensive. They typically only get toys from us on Christmas and birthdays. Otherwise they can buy things with their chore money.

Consider age when choosing a destination.

I’d like to very humbly offer a thought about parks and zoos and fun destinations for kids: Start small.

A two year old probably can’t appreciate Disney World. In fact, it might just overwhelm her. She’d probably be just as content with a local children’s museum or even an afternoon in nature at the park. You’ll save some money and not be disappointed when it doesn’t go as planned. Because does anything go as planned with a two year old?

Build up gradually. Now, I’ll be honest, a lot of the reason we started gradually is because we had the kids so close together that a lot of things weren’t an option for us. Where can you sanely and safely take three babies? But now we’re seeing the benefit of starting small with things.

This might sound extreme to some, but the boys haven’t been to a movie theater yet! (Neither one would sit through one at home, so I didn’t want to pay to go someplace where I would have to tell them to be quiet the whole time!) But now they’re old enough and Adriano wants to go to the theater for his next birthday. I absolutely cannot wait to see their faces when they see the big screen! And we’ll do it up right with candy and popcorn and ice cream afterward. I’m already praying the perfect movie for him will be playing. It makes it a special experience to go with their age and capabilities instead of pushing the fast forward button.

I’ve also noticed that because things happened this way, Luca and Adriano are more likely to explore the simple things in the zoo or museum that other kids might easily pass by. The boys played on the animal statues in the photo above for 25 minutes! If we give them more and more, they’ll need more and more to entertain and keep themselves occupied. If your children are widely spaced apart, I understand this changes things and makes this idea hard to adhere to.

Did I mention I’m very humble about saying this? Especially because we basically did it on accident!

Day trip

(That’s a typical family picture for us, above. Sorry about the poor quality of these iPhone photos.) I did not do a good job packing for this day trip. I didn’t take my camera and realized half way there that Clara didn’t even have shoes! Yeah. I think I’m so excited about the kids getting bigger and not needing fruit pouches and bottles and diaper bags that I am kind of winging things a little too much!

Next time I will consult one of my own handy, dandy travel with kids checklists! Shoot.

How do you do birthdays? What are your traditions?

More birthday posts

Does prayer make a difference?


It’s ironic that I, of all people, would write a post on prayer. My prayer life isn’t where it should be. My fear of praying in public is a work in progress. And I’ll be honest with you, prayer has largely been a vague mystery to me. But despite all of this, God is calling me to be a prayer warrior — and he’s calling you too.

I have recently started devoting one hour of my morning, several days a week, to God. Maybe you’re wondering what I’m doing for an entire hour. It’s not only prayer, it’s also doing a devotional, time reading the Bible, journaling, seeking others, doing things I feel God is asking me that I have put off. This is changing my life — my everyday attitude, my relationships, how I treat strangers, my goals. Honestly it’s the reason I’ve been walking around with a weird smile on my face that I see pleasantly surprises people.

Maybe you start at half an hour or even 15 minutes, but we have to find time to make with God, scheduled and unscheduled. And I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to you, believe me. We might think that we are too busy, but God controls all things.

He can make up supernaturally the time we make for him. He needs to be a priority, because when the creator is a priority, any and all things are possible. He is not bound by our clock or space. Your time on this earth is not your own, it belongs to God. He gave it to you. He gave it to you at your birth and he’ll take it from you at your death. Time is valuable.

The enemy wants to steal your valuable time and the ways that he can do it are innumerable. The things of this world that we spend our time on will fade away. Houses, cars, boats, clothes, jobs, sports, hobbies will not cross over with us into eternity, but a relationship with God will endure forever.

And if you have small children and you think I’m crazy, my best advice is to pray for the time to study God’s word. I ask him to give me the time and it’s uncanny how the kids play nicely together or by themselves during this time. Last week Marcello said, “It’s too quiet in there. What’s going on?” To which I responded “I’m doing my Bible study.” And when he went in to check, Adriano and Clara were sitting on his bed reading books together. This isn’t the case every day, but most days it goes like this.

When I finish this time with the Lord I feel a burst of positivity and motivation. Reaching out to others, getting outside myself, has been freeing and delightful. Less self-focus in a world of “me” and “do whatever makes you happy” is so very gratifying. We have no idea what we’re missing. There is no high like helping others and allowing God to use you as a part of his plan (which, by the way, will happen with or without you).

So often people think an answer to prayer means you get something, like a reward or healing or an obstacle removed. I am an over-thinker to my core and God takes mercy on my poor little brain. I ask him questions all the time. He answers me! My most specific example recently was a plaguing question about a passage in Revelation. It took months, but then I heard a sermon specifically on this one verse! (I can’t even fathom what the chances of this would be.) Were those months wasted? Absolutely not. I studied the Bible, talked to others more knowledgeable than myself, pondered the works of God.

Another example of an answered prayer I have had recently is in regard to my occasional bouts of anxiety. I asked one night that I be healed of the tightening in my chest, the pounding in my heart and swelling in my throat. Once or twice a year my anxiety reaches a height that brings about physiological responses such as these, which is absolutely not healthy. After my prayer that night, as I laid in bed, there were no obsessive thoughts or chest tightening or wondering what ifs. I fell right asleep with no trace of fear. That was the first part of his answer to me, the next part would involve him asking me to change.

When you pray for something, you better believe that you will most likely be part of that answer. I felt a stirring in my heart that it was not good to continue on the cycle that I was on that went something like this: take something over-the-counter to help me sleep, drink coffee in the morning because I was groggy from medicine, take ibuprofen because my back hurt, drink a glass of wine to start winding back down, a pill to to to sleep again … I don’t think any of these things in and of themselves are wrong, but the way I was using them was hurting me.

All these chemicals and lack of exercise were contributing significantly to my anxiety. And this wasn’t the first time he had given me this realization, but it was the first time I decided to obey. My mom came over the next day or so and wanted to tell me about a video she had watched about anxiety. I interrupted her to tell her exactly how I believed God wanted me to change and she said “Ok, well that pretty much sums up the video.” There were other confirmations as well, but for time’s sake I’ll stop there. In my own experience, when God is leading me in a direction, he gives me two or three confirmations — the same verse repeated, a word from a friend, lyrics to a worship song.

My prayer journey so far

My prayer life really began with the Lord calling me out of comfort zone. None us like to be nudged out of our comfort zone, but that’s where all the good stuff happens! My friend, Ashby, started a small group in her home several years ago and I was extremely nervous to pray in front of the group. What would I say? I wasn’t as studied as they were. I didn’t have any practice. So I looked up some prayers to use as examples. I wrote a couple out in advance to get the hang of it. I started saying prayers out loud to my son, even though he was too little to understand. My popcorn prayers in front of my friends were getting slightly better, but still timid and lacking heart. And then something happened.

After putting in some effort learning how to pray, I actually prayed for God to lift whatever was hanging over me, preventing me from the prayer life I knew he wanted me to have. I told him I longed to speak freely to him in prayer in front of other people. And he answered me. Something truly changed in me instantaneously and the fear lifted. I’m not telling you that now my prayers are eloquent poems of praise, or even noteworthy for that matter. No, they are still on the shorter side, use plain English and get to the point — but they no longer involve fear. (You know, it’s just now occurring to me that I had to pray for the gift of prayer! That actually makes perfect sense. I see what you did there, God.)

I am a relentless question asker and these are the questions I have repeatedly asked God about prayer. I wrote down an extremely NON-exhaustive list of “answers” of sorts. They don’t go into much detail because I wanted to keep it as brief as possible (even though I know this is the opposite of brief). Many people more educated and wiser than I am have written huge, thick books on prayer, so I hope you’ll take this for what it is: my own layperson outline to ease my natural skepticism and have an effective prayer life.

Who am I to pose these questions and attempt to offer some answers? Nobody. I’m a sinner who’s looking for Jesus and if I kept these things I’ve learned to myself I’d be sinning all the more.

And then he told them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.’ ” — Mark 16:15

Why should I pray?

Why should we pray when God already knows everything? We tend to think of praying as asking God for things, but praying is so much more than bringing requests to the Lord. Here are some reasons why we should pray:

  • God commands us to pray.
  • Jesus prayed.
  • To develop a personal relationship with God and his son, Jesus.
  • To praise God.
  • To humble ourselves before the Father.
  • To give thanks.
  • To ask for forgiveness.
  • To forgive others.
  • To be prepared.
  • To get perspective.
  • To receive direction.
  • To receive wisdom.
  • To do his work.
  • To help others.
  • To intercede for others.
  • To fight spiritual wars in the spiritual realm. The battle we fight is not with flesh and blood, it is with our enemy who does his best to remain hidden.
  • And yes, also by “prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” — Colossians 4:2

Does prayer make a difference?

  • There is a war being waged in the heavenly realms. (Even String Theory proposes at least eight alternate dimensions for those of us who want to remain focused on only what we can see.) Ephesians 6:12 tells us that the war we fight is not with people, but evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world. “Your problem is in heavenly places. Prayer takes you there,” says Tony Evans.
  • The game changer in saying prayers that make a difference is to start praying for the things that align with God’s will. That’s when things really move. How do you know his will? Read the Bible, get to know him.
  • Also beware that the thing prayer will change the most is you. “If you were on a boat and threw a boat hook to the dock and then pulled, are you pulling the dock toward you or yourself toward the dock?” asks Greg Laurie. Prayer aligns your heart with his.
  • The night before his death at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for a different way, but he bowed to the Father’s will. This act of obedience saved those who believe. Without bending to the Father’s will he would not have secured our salvation.
  • Prayer is a powerful weapon. “As [Daniel] clasped his hands in prayer three times a day he acted in civil disobedience against a tyrannical regime that had outlawed such prayer. What followed, after his arrest and confinement in a den of lions, proved who had the real power,” says Philip Yancey.
  • Pouring out our soul to God unloads our burden to the one who can handle it better, Yancey also says. We might complain to people to gain sympathy, but instead we should turn to the one who has answers.
  • Prayer helps us see our family, friends and world through God’s eyes.
  • Prayer can be powerful and effective.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” — James 5:16

Why are some prayers answered and others are not?

  • If the prayer of a righteous person are powerful, then how can we be righteous? Start with removing the junk from your life that clogs your channel the most high God: negative thinking, gossiping, bad language, watching things you shouldn’t on TV, treating others unkindly and adopting our culture’s tendency of entitlement. The things that will happen in your life if you do your best to remove these poisons and other repeat sins will blow you away. If you question whether something is sin or not, ask yourself if you could ask God to bless it? Example: “God, bless this time playing a game with my family.” Yes, I think he could bless that. How about “God, bless this time on the computer looking at Facebook and making fun of ‘friends.’” Probably not. Or “God bless this time as we watch a graphic movie.” Hmmm.
  • Also, when you remove the sin I mentioned before, there is much less consequence raining down on our heads. How often we fail to see how our current mess is the direct result of our own choices. We cry “save me from this,” but it was all preventable. How much more valuable would we be to God’s kingdom if we clean up our own life so we can focus on helping and reaching out to others.
  • What are your motives? Selfish or pure?
  • Do you have faith? Do you believe he can do all things or do you continue trying in your own strength and on your own terms?
  • If you pray for something, chances are God is going to ask you to have a part in the answer. If you’re praying for hungry children, then what are you doing to feed them? If you’re praying for a better husband, then what are you doing to be a better wife? The answer to our prayers will often require our own action as well as his.
  • Are you only looking to him for prayer and answers for what you consider the “big” things in life? You have to trust him with the small things too.
  • Don’t let prayers act as an ultimatum: “If you do this for me, I’ll never ask for anything again” or “you didn’t heal my loved one so you must not care.”
  • God’s answers to prayer have no formula.
  • Are you praying for something against God’s will or natural laws he has set in order? For example, if you are praying for gravity to fail tomorrow so you can float about, he probably won’t honor that. If you’re praying for something outside his will, he won’t fulfill that.
  • Ask yourself if you have unforgiveness in your heart. Harboring resentment and bitterness results in a hardened heart and destruction in your own life. Christ forgave you, even died for you. You need to forgive as well.

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14

Why does God seem silent sometimes?

There’s a joke I think of quite often about a woman who is late to a job interview. She stressfully prays “Lord, please help me find a parking spot.” Shortly after a spot is free and she says “Thanks, God, but I already found one.” My point is maybe he is moving, but we’re not paying attention.

The Bible says he listens to us. He is faithful. Sometimes amidst trial we wonder if He is there. He seems silent to us, but the Lord is always present, always moving. An important way to remain expectant is to recall how he has been faithful in the past.

  • Keep a list of your current prayers so later you can look back and see how he has answered.
  • Keep a prayer journal. Things just didn’t “work out.” God was there, going ahead and after you.
  • What unrepentant sin do you have? God would rather forgive us than judge us. He loves a repentant heart. To repent literally means to have a change of mind. It endears us to him and doesn’t need to have the negative connotation we normally think of. It can be a sweet and intimate moment.
  • What are your idols? Tear them down.
  • God cares more about our spiritual health than our physical health.
  • Keep in mind that he often uses trials to draw us near to him. He longs for a deep relationship with us.

The LORD is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth.” — Psalm 145:18

How should I pray?

I find comfort in knowing that at least one disciple, even after spending ample amounts of time with Jesus, asked him how to pray. His response was the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours. Now and forever. Amen.

Here are some very basic ideas that can be drawn from his prayer to apply to our own prayers:

  • Pray with intimacy. We may call him Father. (“our Father”)
  • Pray with an eternal perspective and look for Christ’s return. (“Your kingdom come”)
  • Pray for God’s will, not our own. (“Your will be done”)
  • Earth is not perfect as it will be one day. (“on earth as it is in heaven”)
  • We need God and prayer daily. (“our daily bread”)
  • Ask for God’s forgiveness. (“forgive us our sins”)
  • Forgive those who have hurt us. (“as we forgive those who sin against us”)
  • Pray against temptation. (“lead us not into temptation”)
  • Pray to be saved and freed from evil. (“deliver us from evil”)
  • Pray with reverence. (“kingdom, the power and the glory are yours”)
  • Praise him. (“the glory”)
  • Recognize that even when the world seems upside down God is and always will be in control. (“now and forever”)

In addition to the Jesus’ prayer example for us, the Bible tells us even more on how to pray:

  • Jesus tells us he will intercede for us. Think of it like knowing a guy who can get you in. (Hebrews 7:25)
  • Pray with thanksgiving. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
  • Pray continually. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
  • Pray expectantly. (Psalm 5:3)
  • Pray watchfully. (Colassians 4:2)
  • Pray specifically. (John 14:12-14)
  • Pray humbly. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
  • Pray together and for each other. (Matthew 18:19-20, Job 42:10)
  • When words escape us, groans will do. (Romans 8:26)

 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

How can I distinguish God’s voice?

  • The best way to hear God’s voice is to spend time in the Bible. Does what you think he is saying to your heart line up with scripture? He cannot contradict himself. So if it doesn’t jive with the Bible, that’s not the answer. Actually, anything you would ever want to know is all there: why we exist, how to have a happy marriage, the secret to happiness, even a good diet!
  • In addition to the Bible, listening to sermons in the car and worship music on the radio has increased my sensitivity to his voice tremendously. By the way, if you think listening to sermons is boring, you are wrong! I consider people like Alistair Begg, Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, Priscilla Shirer, James Macdonald philosophers. Sometimes I loose track of what is going on around me because I’m so caught up in thoughts provoked by them.
  • Keep your feelings out of it. “We cannot trust our five senses,” says Priscilla Shirer. “We need an unchanging, objective source outside ourselves — God’s light. Do not trust your feelings or your own understanding. Feelings do not have intellect.”
  • When we ask and expectantly look for answers he tells us he will give them to us. He speaks to everyone differently, but for me it usually starts with a pull of my heart, a truth that I need to pay attention to. Then I will hear the same verse — related to what’s in my heart — more than once. I’ll hear the same thought or story three times from multiple sources: 1) bible 2) sermon 3) friend 4) song, etc.
  • Live a pure life and it will be easier to hear from him and distinguish his voice. Keep your head clear and don’t cloud it with junk of this world. Think about what your eyes see and your ears hear. Examine it and ask yourself if it is glorifying to God.
  • Being quiet and sitting in his presence is a very important aspect of hearing from God.
  • Ultimately God will answer prayer one of three ways: No, go or slow. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes it is yes. And sometimes it is go slow, or wait.

Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” — Jeremiah 33:3

I know I’m missing so many aspects here. Forgive me, I’m still a baby on this journey of prayer and have infinity to learn. But one thing I am sure of, if you want to hear the voice of God among the chaos of this world, if you want to know his will for your life, you must spend time in a relationship with him. And this includes studying his word, feeding yourself constant biblical truth and listening for his quiet voice.

So, back to my original question: Does prayer make a difference? Well, it unlocks access to the wisdom and love and mercy and holiness of the Lord God Almighty himself. So yes, it does makes a difference.


If you’re just starting your prayer journey, here are some resources I find incredibly valuable:

  • Bible study: Being involved in a weekly women’s Bible study is one of the biggest motivators I have to get in the word. We work through a book together that has four or five devotions to do during the week. It doesn’t take long and keeps me learning, growing and developing intimate relationships in Christ. The study that has opened my eyes the most is Armor of God by Priscilla Shirer.
  • Sermons: I listen to Moody radio all the time in the car and now on my computer as well. The information I glean from even five minutes of a sermon still amazes me.
  • Worship music: K-LOVE and WAY-FM are my go-to local worship radio stations.
  • Roku channels: I know of at least Greg Laurie and Joyce Meyer channels on Roku. If you know of more, tell me! When I’m in a bad mood or upset, I watch them and hearing God’s word turns me in the right direction.
  • Books: The most influential prayer book for me has been “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?” by Philip Yancey, though I understand it’s not for everyone. It’s for skeptics, not those looking for warm, fuzzy feelings. In my Amazon cart right now is Priscilla Shirer’s “Fervent: A Woman’s Battle Plan to Serious, Specific and Strategic Prayer.” I’ve heard great things about it.

Here is a desktop wallpaper I made of as I memorize this verse:

And finally, if you don’t know Jesus and you want to talk to someone about it, I am here for you. Don’t hesitate for a moment. Email me at Also, if I can pray for you in some way, please tell me how. It would be my privilege.

VIDEO: A day in the life of a stay-at-home mom

Here’s a video glimpse inside our daily life — complete with a 4 a.m. wakeup call, a frog in the house, crying (mostly from the kids), fighting and cuddles. I did miss the part when Adriano spilled his entire glass of milk on me, but managed to fit a few tips and recipes in there.

If you’re a mom of little ones you know the phrase “enjoy this time, it goes so fast” extremely well. I happen to disagree with it — it seems like my kids should be 25 by now! — but because so many people say it I wanted to make a video of a typical day for us. I want to remember how crazy staying home with three kids under the age of five actually is.

As I edited the video, I wondered if parents of older kids say this because they tend to remember the highlights, the best moments. For example, will I remember sweetly cuddling all three kids at the same time while watching a movie, or will I remember how exhausted I was and how I was counting every single minute until they went to bed? My game plan is to love and live in the present, document it as best I can and look forward to what the future has in store.

At first I thought I would do a video just for future me, but then as I got going I decided I would post it even though the quality is terrible and my videography skills are the worst. I would encourage you to do your own video too! It will be so fun to watch when the kids are grown and you think you long for “the good ol’ days.”

I’m glad I shot it on this day too, because by the time Marcello got back from his business trip I was a frazzled mess laying on the couch catching a cold. Nothing like your spouse leaving for a few days to make you see all the little things they do. I told him I’ll never leave him, I can’t handle these kiddos by myself!

Ok, here’s the video. I’m nervous to show you! It’s terrible quality and now I think I need a makeover, but it’s still accurate.