I started a bullet journal before bullet journals were cool. Mine, nicknamed “Master Control” is a thick spiral notebook with all sorts of notes and lists crammed inside. A weekly calendar is inscribed on each page on the left, and all our family’s many activities and menu planning and endless tasks fill in the rest of the page. Sometimes I even use colored pencils.

I have used this type of planner since I was in my twenties. My mom did the same. I used to wonder at it, with its tiny, precise handwriting in black, felt-tip pen. She vehemently crossed things off as if to say, “Be gone, task!” But I bet Mom’s planner never had the same word, written in the upper-right-hand corner, for more than a year. Mine does. In that upper corner, rather hopefully, I have neatly penned the word HOUSE. This notation vaguely indicates my desire to come up with an organized list of manageable projects for our very old home. Instead of getting ahead of the issues, however, I typically deal with repairs with a panicked backhand whenever they lob themselves at me, and any additional improvements continue to remain untouched. Nevertheless, HOUSE has stayed firmly scripted on my journal. I could make lists of lists for our hundred-year-old home. But every week I write that single word up there, ever optimistic. Or deluded. Whichever.

Lists can be a good thing. I rarely start my day without a glance at my planner. And heaven knows I would not be able to survive a family road trip without copious preplanning about clothes and toys and, oh yes, snacks. Actually, I really just focus on the snacks. I know my priorities. But sometimes all this listing makes me rather . . . listless.

My boys were born eighteen months apart. My early mom days were spent sitting down, with one child attached to me and the other on a blanket at my feet. And then I’d switch. Sometimes I mixed it up and put them both on my lap or on the blanket. Most of the time, I was feeding one and trying to keep the other one from crying. It was tough for a while. Then—miracle of miracles—my babies got a bit older. The toddler years dawned on all of us with delightful enterprises like learning to blow bubbles and singing “Jesus Yubs Me” with such lispy enthusiasm that it brought tears to my eyes. I found my days filled with all sorts of fun activities. As a teacher, I zealously jumped into those deep waters called “Learning and Enrichment” with glee. We had Things To Do now, and life was vastly more interesting, which was good. Having a pattern and a purpose to our days is always a good thing. Setting goals and accomplishing them—also good. Being organized? So very, very good. Unless it makes you forget to see the toddler through the neatly organized trees.

I didn’t enroll my boys in Mommy and Me or Toddlers with Tunes, or any other activity that involves alliteration. I didn’t over-schedule. I didn’t pride myself on making sure my kids had the best handprint collages or had visited all the zoos in the state, or whatever. Instead, I created my toddler to-dos because I kind of feared what would happen otherwise. Downtime meant endless requests to play Candyland, and then bickering, and then boredom. All of these things stoppered up my system so quickly that I could be shut down within the first five minutes of whining about how one child’s apple slices are bigger than the other’s. I needed Things to Do to ward off these uncomfortable moments.

In my many years as a high school English instructor, I often worked with student teachers. I fondly remember one young woman who had a very straightforward plan for her classroom. “I’m just gonna print out, like, ten worksheets a day. Then, if my lesson ends early, I’ll just load ’em up with worksheets. I’ll just keep throwing worksheets at ’em and keep ’em busy. They’ll do fine.”

They did not do fine. Nobody likes ten worksheets about dangling modifiers. I gave this aspiring teacher some input, suggesting to her that waiting for a discussion to really blossom and grow can be hard but may be a better approach. Sometimes, the choicest route to learning is one that is wide open and meandering, with few directives and a lot of standing around. I know my student teacher struggled with the same thing I do when it comes to my kids: I don’t like to wait it out. It’s painful. Or boring. Or some combination of both. Scientists would call this part of the exercise “scientific observation,” which basically means a long-ish period of time where you sit by and don’t bug your cute little variables while they go and do their thing. Scientists also record notes, but that’s optional with parents. I do, though. I just call it “mom blogging.” At any rate, I may not love it, but I get it.

The busier we are, the less we have to think about our mission: rearing our kids to love God and love people.

So what is a mom to do? Can we schedule to our heart’s content? Or do we just let it all hang out and see where the toddler takes us? I think it’s both. As I look over yet another flyer in my boys’ backpacks about some other team to join or activity to attend, I need to ask the main question: Is this best for them? Or is it to fill a slot?

When I think about that endless loop of HOUSE projects and plans on my calendar, I can understand why it remains. Sometimes the tasks seem so huge, so daunting, that they remain completely untouched. Parenting can be overwhelming in similar ways. As I wade through, trying to remind my kids to floss, say sorry, eat their green beans, read their Bibles, pray without ceasing, flush the darn toilet, and on and on—sometimes it seems too much. The busier we are, the less we have to sit by and observe this unfolding. The busier we are, the less we have to think about our mission: rearing our kids to love God and love people. It can seem a tall order.

But what’s the alternative? Not even try? We must try. So we plan, and we ask God for help, and then we mess up, and so on. Nothing gets crossed off. Thank goodness.

In our house, we do have one list. It’s printed and framed in three places, and it’s our family mission statement. We didn’t write it, really. God did. And it doesn’t keep us busy. It keeps us grounded.

 Our Family Mission

1. Seek WISDOM and KNOWLEDGE and thoughtfully LISTEN.
2. Pursue a life of physical activity and fitness. Be strong men!
3. Be humble and serve others.
4. Be disciplined and self-sufficient. And never lose sight of God.