On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve six years ago, my husband detected the unmistakable odor of natural gas. We were puttering around the backyard with our two young sons and newborn daughter, when the aroma wafted from a leaking pipe and through the dry desert air. After a few frantic phone calls, our gas was safely shut off, and we steeled ourselves to ring in the first week of the New Year without heat or hot water.

The children and I spent the ensuing days hunkered on the floor of our play room (a glorified enclosed porch), as I alternated between nursing my two-week-old baby and constructing toy train tracks. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and jockeyed for a spot closest to our solitary space heater.

My world shrank to the 120 square feet in that room. Our goals were modest and clear: eat, play, nap, repeat. And of course, try to stay warm.

While those days were filled with chaos and complexities, they were also achingly simple. When forced to slow down- by something as temporary as a leaking pipe, or as life-altering as a new baby- one’s world becomes very small, indeed.

I now see that week, and the subsequent years at home with my children, as a tutorial for slowing down and focusing on life’s essentials. The lessons I gleaned were unassuming and small, but their impact has been profound. 

Approach others with a generosity of spirit. What I most wanted- desperately needed– from those around me was empathy. The emotional, physical, and financial toll of being a full-time caregiver to three children was exhausting. When others offered me kindness, it was like a salve to my soul. Their compassion reminded me that everyone experiences struggles, and I should extend empathy with abandon in return.

Lower your expectations. Dramatically. On my first solo outing with all three children, I braced myself for absolutely everything to go wrong. When we successfully visited a coffee shop and walked three blocks to the playground, I felt like I had won an Olympic medal. If life’s challenges shake your confidence, start with the bar set low so that every small victory is a gift, and celebrate accordingly.

Remember that you need much less than you think. This is so blindingly, brilliantly true that it’s shocking how often I forget it. When I quit working to be a stay-at-home mom, we instantly became a family of five living off one teacher’s salary. Our definition of “necessities” narrowed substantially, and yet we survived. At times, we even thrived. We filled our days with parks and libraries- the best deals in town- and surrounded ourselves with friends. I was reminded daily that with priorities like these, we lacked for very little.      

Acknowledge your stress, and know that it will pass. While personal fulfillment during this time was high, our monetary resources were critically low. For five years, our strained finances dictated every single household decision. If I could revisit myself during this time, I would give myself permission to throw the occasional pity party. After all, life was unquestionably stressful. But I would remind myself that having small children, like all life’s major milestones, is temporary. This stress, too, shall pass.

Be present- even in your struggles. Grocery shopping with three children was something I always dreaded. One day at the store, with kids hanging from my body and the cart, the boys began softly chanting a goofy refrain that sent us into a fit of giggles. An elderly woman approached me, took my hand, and said, “You’re the most blessed woman in the world.” And I believed her. We’re all blessed when we can stop to recognize the brevity, and levity, of the moment.

As you forge ahead into the New Year, allow your world shrink. Hunker down with your loved ones in a room small enough that you can’t help but notice the details that slipped by in the bustle of the year. And of course, stay warm.