I recently embarked on a much need vacation to Mexico with my husband. We had a wonderful time reconnecting, sleeping, eating all the tacos, and trying to avoid looking at two exhibitionists – if you really need details on that adventure, check out my social media feeds. I love traveling to other countries and really enjoy experiencing the authentic culture; eating foods I wouldn’t normally see at the grocery store, meeting the locals, and wandering the forgotten streets – in other words, you probably won’t find me at one of those huge, beautiful, all inclusive resorts. As nice as they are, they aren’t really my style.

When I travel I seek to find a takeaway from my experiences – little tidbits or habits a particular culture embraces that I can incorporate into my life thus allowing the culture I experience to live on in my present reality. In past years some of these takeaways have included eating more fermented foods or preparing large, family style meals with grilled meat, veggies, and tortillas, or finding creative ways to bring the outdoors inside through live plants and open doors. Usually the takeaways present themselves through the culture I am visiting but not this time. This time Ryan and I went to Mexico but our takeaway unraveled from an unlikely source.

Early on, we met a young family from Denmark, mom, dad, and a few kids, including a 10 month old baby, on a dream vacation in Mexico for a few weeks. We chatted by the pool, they thought we were honeymooners (ha!) and Ryan and I discovered we might really enjoy living in Denmark but probably not with 8 kids. We learned a lot about one another’s cultures. Most families are really similar throughout the world – they struggle with kids and screen time, they desire to have fun together, and they want the best for one another and those they live and work with.

As we talked, I remembered this book I had purchased at Barnes and Nobel a few years back – a book that spoke of this concept known as hygge, a concept originating from the Danish culture – a concept of peace and home and togetherness. I questioned them about this, what it is and how it works in their personal lives. They explained how it involves being together, lighting a candle, putting another log on the fire, enjoying peace, comfort, and love within the home and not hurrying through the process to get on to the next item on the to do list but instead reveling in the moments together that bring a true depth to the meaning of life.

If I’m being honest, this concept is a struggle – especially because it involves incorporating fun times together as a family and lately when all of us are together, there’s a lot of stress and bickering and not having fun. Four teenagers who all have different, strong opinions about everything, a special needs child who has difficult needs that only seem to become more challenging as he ages and goes through puberty, a toddler who has lots of precious sass, a few more scattered children throughout the middle years and a partridge in a pear tree.  Time together is incredibly draining because it takes so much energy, and honestly wouldn’t be first choice if I completely leaned into my selfish nature, but I know to give my kids the best, they need present parents, they need parents who keep having the hard conversations with them, and they need their parents to enjoy spending time with them.

Later that I night, I dug a little deeper into the meaning of hygge through the convenience of the world wide web. This little concept involves the present: peace, slowing down, breathing, relaxing, and minimalism at the core which can be so difficult because we are oftentimes suffocated by our possessions, all of the meaningless stuff that constantly beckons for our attention when we’re home, the piles of clothes that need to be washed, all the rooms that need to be cleaned, the decorative fluff from World Market that needs dusting, the linens calling to be organized, the vehicles that need servicing, and on and on and on. So much stuff that owns us at the end of the day – stuff that steals our time away from those we love – stealing our time away from the only thing worth living for – relationships.

Hygge – stripping away the meaningless and reveling in the eternal – cultivating memories with those we share our homes with – not cultivating more possessions, and in fact, donating the items that aren’t useful to make space for time and energy to be devoted to family and the simple pleasures of life. I’m determined to bring more hygge into my home and life. Thank you for the gift my Danish friends.

Dream Team Coloring Book – A Dream Come True for One Educator.

It all started when I was an 8th grade literature teacher. I remember pacing near the whiteboard, looking at my teacher’s manual, when I noticed a quote in the book I hadn’t seen before. I wish I knew the quote (and I’ve searched for it many times), but essentially it said this: “How do you know when a society values a person? When you see that person in their children’s literature.”  I remember at the time being so struck by this idea, and how this seemingly simple concept was quite a good litmus test.

Fast-forward six years and I was now a mom to my beautiful four-year-old daughter with profound special needs. My husband and I met Abiella when she was living in Ghana and finalized her adoption a few months before her second birthday. As soon as she turned three she began attending an inclusive preschool. In her classroom, fifty percent of the students had special needs, and fifty percent did not.

On one of her afternoons off from school, I found myself in a familiar scene: my daughter was relaxing on a quilt on our living room floor while I was searching through our baskets of books and toys to grab something she might find entertaining. As I pilfered through our dozens and dozens of options, all of a sudden I was back in my classroom, standing as a teacher in the front of the room, reading that quote. In that moment, it dawned on me that out of the massive number of children’s books, activity books, coloring books, and games in our house- not one had a single picture that represented her or her world. Was it possible that my daughter had never seen herself in a piece of literature?

I began thinking about her other friends at school. Had they seen themselves? What about the young child with a tracheostomy- had he seen himself? What about the young friend with a limb difference- had she seen herself?

I later found that yes, there are pieces of literature out there (thank goodness), that are very often created by other parents facing a similar gap. I decided there could always be more and that I wanted to add to that body of work.

With the help of an illustrator, I began the process of creating an inclusive coloring book. I modeled it off my daughter’s pre-school experience. Among the pages, there are many stories. There are children who use walkers, wheelchairs, braces, splints, and sensory headphones. There are also members of The Dream Team who do not have hair, have limb differences, or breathe with a tracheostomy. I also included a happy hospital scene, as many children with medical challenges often spend quite a bit of time in these environments.  Additionally, you will be introduced to amazing children who do not have a diagnosis or perhaps have a special need that is invisible. All of these children are a part of The Dream Team (Volume 1): A group of kids who love hanging out, living life together, and enjoying the awesome magic of inclusion.

While I certainly couldn’t fit every situation into a 20 page book, I do believe it’s a start. Illustrations range from simple to complex and my hope is that individuals with unique circumstances might see themselves portrayed in a happy, positive way. Lastly, I hope this book offers a place for curious minds to ask questions when they see something that feels unfamiliar. It is certainly a coloring book for everyone.

The Dream Team Coloring Book is a free resource, and since I hit publish two months ago, it has been downloaded nearly 700 times. Many individuals have told me they are also making copies for their classrooms, clinics, family and more. This is incredibly exciting and I absolutely love seeing pictures of young children putting their own touch on these awesome pictures.

The book can be found on my website at www.marysusanmcconnell.com/dreamteamcoloringbook . It can also be uploaded into various devices, allowing individuals (like my daughter) who color with assistive technology to have fun with the pages as well.

This coloring book was a joy to create and it has been an enormous thrill to see it out in the world being enjoyed by families across the globe. Thank you Jess for the opportunity to share the book on your incredible platform.

– Mary Susan

  • Mary Susan McConnell is the host of the popular Mama Bear Podcast, a space she created for fellow women raising children with special needs. As a former middle school teacher, she has her Master’s in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment and is currently working on her Doctorate in Special Education. She is also the creator of the inclusive Dream Team Coloring Book, a free resource she developed to provide an opportunity for children with a variety of unique circumstances to see themselves in literature. In her spare time, Mary Susan likes to make pottery in her at-home studio. She resides in Tennessee with her husband, 8 year old daughter, 16 year old dog, and 10 chickens.


Aldi & Raging Women – Lessons in Grace.

I went to Aldi the other day.

It’s where I do most of our family’s grocery shopping these days since the move. I put my groceries in the car and puttered back to the store to drop off the cart and retrieve my quarter. My head was down, lost in private thoughts as I was happy to be alone for the first time in days due to the freezing temps which had shut down the school system leaving me newly employed as a zookeeper with eight bored monkeys – or so it seemed.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an old suburban slowly backing out of a parking space. The vehicle was a tad bit ahead of my lackadaisical strides, and so I began to walk in a wide circle to avoid the oncoming vehicle. I managed to move in time and allowed for plenty of space between the two of us, or so I thought, when out of the blue I heard –


Not that I was backing up or anything BITCH!”

I looked up shocked. An older, morbidly obese woman was staring at me from the driver’s seat and shaking her head in disgust. She was livid. I felt my blood pressure quickly rise and my heart begin to beat hysterically as I stared back equally as livid. I never let my gaze leave hers as I marched the cart back to the dock. I was fuming mad. If I wasn’t a woman of faith, and if I didn’t have 8 children who looked to me as an example, and if I were in an Roman arena with this woman centuries ago, it would have been a different story altogether. For Sure. But here I was, in an Aldi’s parking lot, and just as these thoughts angrily caressed my mind and began to scootch Jesus right out of my heart, she screeched off before I could give her a good solid piece of my mind.

“What is going on with people nowadays?! Where is all this rage stemming from?!”
I thought as I began to employ deep slow breaths to regain my composure and then a memory flashed – a memory from only the night before, a memory which involved me not so gracefully chewing my husband’s head off for something so insignificant when viewed through the lens of time – the lens of only 24 hours later.

And another memory from the previous long day, a bored 14 year old special needs child screaming almost nonstop “Shoes! Go to school! Shoes!” because he could not comprehend nor understand why his schedule had been interrupted by cold weather and a few choice four letter words forming in his mother’s mind as she attempted to soothe him yet again.

I was no different.

Absolutely no different from the raging woman who called me the B word, and in fact, I may be worse. She was raging at strangers while I had raged at those I claimed to love; children I had birthed and a man I had chosen to do life beside. I was her and she was me, and we were both the sum of sinful humanity.

Exactly the same.

Both in need of grace. The Almighty’s and one another’s.

This revelation caused me to pause; to wonder and to ask –

“Why was she so mad?”

Had someone died? Did she lose her job? Did her husband recently receive a terminal diagnosis? Did her husband leave her for another woman? Had to be her husband’s fault – just kidding… but I’ll never know what had caused her rage.

But empathy. And Compassion. And second chances. And a new lens which included seeing myself in her. Seeing all of ourselves in the vastness of humanity even those whose political temperaments may not align with ours or those anti vaxxers or pro-lifers or wall haters.

“And the second greatest commandment is this, to love thy neighbor as thyself” – all of our neighbors, including those we live with and gave birth to. Extending grace. Extending love.

Just keep livin