The Spelling Bee–A Primer in Parenting

Over the past several weeks I’ve met several moms that are, by their own admission, floundering. They love their children but they experience moments of great rage. They love their children but they long for quiet times without them. They love their children but guilt falls thick when they experience other longings.

I want to write more for these moms. I am one of them. I understand those wide ranges of emotions connected to maternity. In thinking about pieces I’d like to write–on grace, on truth, on self-care, on pursuing other dreams simultaneously—it struck me that it might be beneficial to start again at the beginning. This mini-series on parenting really addresses just the basics. I’ve posted these before but it’s some of the best that I have to offer these moms.

Part one: The Spelling Bee: G.O.S.P.E.L!

When Connor was in 6th grade he was in the school spelling bee. He had won the class bee. He had won the bee for all of 6th grade. And now he was in the all school spelling bee.

I quickly decided that as a mom, attending spelling bees is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. You sit there quietly in the audience and wait for the word to be announced. Once you hear the word, you spell it out in your mind, quietly, slowly and then, still in your mind, loudly, insistently. All of your brain tries to will the spelling of the word to the mind of the young speller. It’s agonizing. When it’s your child standing, waiting for the word to materialize in their heads, it almost hurts you as a parent spectator to watch. It’s excruciating.

E.X.C.R.U.C.I.A.T.I.N.G.

Younger spellers were quickly eliminated. Soon there were only 6 spellers left. Now 4. It was Connor’s turn to spell. The word he was given was ‘gospel’.

Lowell and I squeezed hands. Connor seemed to hesitate. There was a long pause. The audience had time to spell out the word in their heads several times over. Still Connor seemed to struggle silently.

Gospel. Can I have it in a sentence please? Can I have the definition?

He was using all of the familiar spelling bee participant’s stall tactics. He was grasping for the spelling of his word. Until hesitatingly, falteringly, he began,

Gospel. G…..O…..S……P……E…..L? Gospel?

Altogether, parents, teachers, students exhaled. He had spelled it correctly. The Principal of the school, sitting just in front of us, turned and said with a smile, “Wouldn’t that have been awkward to have the missionary’s kid go out on ‘gospel’?!” We all chuckled with relief!

It’s an amusing little story but the truth is I really don’t want my kids to go out on the gospel. I don’t want them to lose faith or to abandon God. We’ve made ourselves a sort of silent checklist…an unspoken, yet agreed upon “How To” guide…to help us parent our three. I have no idea if this stuff works—we’re still very much in process…but here’s the frame work Lowell and I are using, in hopes that, by God’s grace, our kids will not go out on the gospel:

  1. It’s time to simplify!

It really is time to strip down our Christianity back to the simple Jesus underneath. Really the only thing that matters is Christ. It doesn’t matter what my kids wear to church, or how they do their hair. Their choice of music might be obnoxious; the volume might be too loud. But at the end of the day Jesus is the only thing that matters.

Connor came out of youth group several months ago fuming mad! Someone had said something that infuriated him. As he climbed into the car he spouted, “I hate Christians, I hate the church, I hate all of Christianity.” Admittedly I was a little alarmed. What had happened to provoke this type of visceral response? We talked it through on the way home. As soon as we walked into the house, Lowell asked how youth group had gone. I repeated what Connor had said when he got in the car. Lowell, in response, casually said, “Well Connor, what do you think of Jesus?” Connor’s reply was immediate and full of conviction, “I love Jesus very much.” “That’s all that matters then,” Lowell said. I was a little flabbergasted at Lowell’s nonchalance. I had gotten a little bit more worked up about it. But Lowell is right. Really, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that our children embrace Jesus. Only Jesus.

  1. Remove the measuring sticks.

We’ve never forced our children to read their Bibles. We’ve never forced them to have a “Quiet Time”. Growing up in boarding school, especially when we were younger, there was a time for “personal devotions” –we were supposed to read our Bibles and pray. To help us in that feat we were given little Scripture Union devotional books. First you worked through the red one and then you could graduate to the Blue one. There was a green one and yellow one and I think, even a purple one. Spirituality became a competition all based on which little workbook you were in. When we were older, I remember reading my Bible in less than private spaces to ensure, subtly, that others might catch a glimpse of my devotion.

Lowell and I could set up a system. We could offer rewards. But I don’t want to raise “white washed tombs”—I want children who want to know God. I don’t want children who look like they want to know God. When Connor makes his bed, he pulls up the top bedspread only. The rest of his blankets lay in a nested mess at the foot of his bed. I don’t want his faith to be like his bed –only one blanket deep and thinly veiling the hypocrisy and mess underneath.

  1. Don’t be afraid of the slippery slope.

It’s scary to parent without the measuring sticks because we have no idea what’s really going on inside the souls of our children. We are out of control. If we have those types of rules in place we know if they’ve been obeyed or if they’ve been broken. They allow us to feel better about ourselves as parents. And without those rules, those mile markers, the measuring guides we have no way of knowing what’s going on. Not only are we out of control but there’s nothing to contribute to our sense of well-doing.

There is a prevailing idea in Christendom that suggests that we can’t completely throw out the law or the rules. Those suggesting this insist we need a balance. Too much grace leads to permissiveness….before you know it you’re on the slippery slope. A little bit of law regulates our behavior in good and productive ways. This type of Christianity results in us controlling behavior; it’s really just sin management.

And it simply is not true. Grace is generous and complete. The law has been erased. The only rule that remains now is the rule of love.

Our worst fears lie on the other end of the slippery slope. Sin. Licentiousness. Paganism. Hedonism.

Jesus calls us to camp out on that slope. To trust ourselves and our children to the depth of his grace. We are called to love: the Lord our God, our neighbours, our families, ourselves. If we do sin, grace pursues us and welcomes us back. We need to remember nothing is wasted by God. He takes the meanderings, those mistakes and he uses them for His glory in our story. We can know he does that with our children too.

No Child Should Have to be the Firstborn….

 

Firstborn children have the joy and burden of being first. The joy of newness and expectation, the burden of insecure parenting and wanting to get it right. No child should have to be the firstborn. But someone has to, and they deserve special applause as they teach their parents more of what it is to parent, to grow, and to love with an indescribable love.

In our family that someone is Annie.  Today, that infamous day when buildings fell and people wept so many years ago, is her birthday. So today I pause and write to our firstborn.

Dear Annie,

You turn 30 today! I can’t believe it until I look in the mirror and see the laughter lines and tear marks disguised as wrinkles on my face. And then I know – yes indeed! I have a 30-year-old.

No child should have to be the firstborn — and yet, you were. After a long labor, you ushered us into parenthood with hardly a cry. “Is she okay?” we asked anxiously. But you were fine – all six pounds four ounces of your tiny self with your bright blue eyes. You were perfect.

We took you home in baby pajamas that were three sizes too big for you. They were yellow with “Le Petite Bebe” embroidered on the front. During those first few hours at home you slept and slept – and we looked over your Moses basket with worry: “Should we wake her up? I don’t know. Do you think she’s okay? I don’t know.” We decided to wake you up.

That was a mistake. From then on we adhered to the mantra “Never wake a sleeping baby.”

Two weeks later, we moved and this began the trajectory of your life. From a Chicago apartment to a house in New Hampshire to rose gardens in Pakistan; from bustling Cairo to small-town Essex – you have lived in apartments and houses and more apartments and learned to call each one of them home, even when they hurt you.

We look back at pictures and you are so little and we are so young.

You grew up knowing airplanes and airports, thinking that Saturday morning cartoons came in two-hour videos, eating kebabs and curry before you had teeth, having more stamps in your passport at five than many do in a lifetime, and believing that Arabic is the language of the world.

You were so gentle as you taught us about parenting. You were our naiveté and our idealism; you were our youth and our mistakes; you were our uncertainty about curfews and our ignorance about boundaries; you were our energy and our travel; you were our reentry angst and our struggle to fit in the new world we found ourselves.

You have given us so much grace on this journey – and we thank you.

You are a reader and dreamer, you are a shout for justice and a ready made party. You are a writer, an artist, a doula, a friend.

You are daughter of our youth and our heart, and we love you. And so we raise our glasses to you the firstborn – resilient, beautiful, talented, funny, irritating, brave, engaging, and lover of all things champagne on a beer-budget.

Happy Birthday Dear Girl!

The Last Child

Jonathan and Stef at Stef’s Graduation from college in May

Last night we moved our youngest to an apartment. While normally at this time of year we move him to his dorm at college, this is different. This time it feels permanent. He has really left home. With his leaving, a sense of goodness and joy has gone. My daughter and I sit on the porch feeling a bit lost and not a little sad.

I wrote the words below a couple of years ago, and I read them again today, wanting to remind myself that the best thing I can do is pack him off and place him where I have placed him countless times before — in the arms of the Father. The Father who does not walk, but pulls up his robe and runs to greet his children.

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Like most parents I feel a mixture of pride, nostalgia, and relief. We’re given our children as gifts with no guarantees and no exchanges. I’m grateful for this– I’ve no doubt my parents would have traded me in for a better model several times over.

There are times when you feel in your marrow that you’re failing your kid, when you stay up late into the night pleading for mercy and grace. There are other times when you’re downright cocky thinking “I’ve so got this parenting thing covered!” only to fall flat in the next breath.

The last child gets the parent who picks the pacifier up from the floor and pops it in baby’s mouth, hoping no one sees them but pretty sure they wouldn’t care even they were seen. They get the parent who is weary of curfews and just wants their child to be quiet when they sneak in at 2am; the parent who looks at them and softly admits they wish they had tried pot in high school. They get the parent who knows that every picture their child paints is not a Picasso masterpiece, but can still look at it and say “my, isn’t that a lovely shade of blue!”

They get the parent who knows more about grace than they could have ever imagined and can say without hesitation that parenting is “but for grace…”

An opinion piece in the Washington Post written by Michael Gerson eloquently articulated many of the emotions I feel.

“Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough.” From “Saying goodbye to my child; the youngster

So there you have it. I am but a ‘short stage’, a blip if you will, in the life stories of my kids, but a blip who loves them with a fierce, protective, God-given love. A blip ordained by God to share in the awesome and terrible responsibility of parenting.

So the sun sets on the stage where I see my son most every day. Where life is lived in family–in the morning through shared coffee and silence, in the evening through shared meals and discussion.

In all of this I am reminded of the Father who loves with an everlasting love, a love “utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable”. *

And the best thing I do as I pack them off is place them where I have placed them countless times before — in the arms of the Father. The Father who does not walk, but pulls up his robe and runs to greet his beloved children.

In Praise of Tooth Fairies & Memories

We have moved a lot. My oldest daughter has lived in 17 houses in 29 years of life. My husband is on his 34th or 35th house. I haven’t counted mine.

In all the movement, creating and defining place becomes difficult and sometimes painful. What and where is home? Does ‘place’ matter? What is stability? These are just a couple of the questions that go through your mind. I write a lot about this in the book Between Worlds with a whole section devoted to “Home” and another devoted to “Belonging.”

Some of the hard parts are around what you keep and what you throw or give away. It can be agonizing going through your things, packing up place.

But in all the hard and serious moments of trying to figure this out, there are the ones that are so funny you stop and laugh until your sides ache. A few years ago we had one of those moments and yesterday relived them.

A few years ago my daughter, Stefanie, was going through one of my boxes of ‘special’ things. She found an odd and old looking bag with something tiny inside and an old note. She took one look and her face paled.

“What is this?” she asked, holding up the bag and wrinkling her nose.

I took one look and started to smile and then laugh.

“Teeth,” I said. “Baby Teeth”

She looked like she was going to throw up.

“They are from the tooth fairy.” I added, thinking that would make it all okay.

It didn’t.

“MOM! I can’t believe you kept some of our baby teeth” said the non-mom who has never been responsible for creating place in a world of movement.

Our kids loved the fictitious tooth fairy, who brought them a shiny dime from America wherever they lived in the world. And of all the teeny, tiny birthday teeth she (I) collected, these were of few of the remains. Relics of sorts. (you can tell I’ve turned Orthodox.) Something to remember when life turned more complicated.

And here is the note:

The memory comes quickly as I read it – her best friend had moved to Indiana and she no longer wanted a shiny dime. She had outgrown the dime.

So there in my small box of “keepables” are a plastic bag, baby teeth, and a note from long ago.

So in praise of the toothfairy, and memories that can’t be given or thrown away,I offer you this memory. What about you? What are your memories with children that surface in a life of movement? 

PS- she got the ticket…..

On Being a Mom & Birthdays of Adult Children

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It’s a cold January day here in Cambridge and I wake full of memories. 23 years ago today I gave birth to our fourth child, a girl, in a hospital in Cairo, Egypt.

The birth was attended by my friend, Mary – a nurse who acted as advocate, caregiver, and labor coach to many of us who lived in Cairo. My sister-in-law, Terry, had come from the United States with my niece to help after the birth and she cared for all of us well, keeping visitors close or at a distance depending on the day, and making an abundance of homemade bread that met the needs of the post-partum soul in miraculous ways.

Stefanie Sevim Gardner was born tiny at 17 inches long and a bit over six pounds. Her personality showed up quickly and though tiny, we knew she was a force to be reckoned with. At 23 she is still small — and mighty. Her middle name is Turkish for ‘my love’. Coincidentally she was born 9 months following my husband’s first trip to Turkey.

She is creative and passionate, a voice for the homeless and marginalized. As with all our children, it is wonderful and agonizing watching them find their way in the world. But mostly, it’s wonderful.

It was probably good that there was no such thing as blogs when my children were small. There were too many moments that I would have blogged, moments that may have ended up public instead of private.

Today I pause to reflect on parenting – as I do on the occasions of all of my children’s birthdays. If any of us really knew what parenting would be like, we would run to the nearest cave and hide. It is far too overwhelming a job, and we are far too inadequate.

As my friend, Rachel, put it, as moms we are never enough. We are never enough to cope with the surprises and inconsistencies of being moms. We are never enough to be everything we want to be to our children. We are frail, inadequate, far too human, and far too short-sighted. We are never enough.

Rachel says this in an essay published in a new book called Mom Enough – The Fearless Mother’s Heart and Hope: 

“I am not mom enough. Never was, never will be.

But I am on the frontlines of another war. The battles are raging and the casualties could be my children, my husband, or myself. This war isn’t about me being mom enough. This war is about God being “God enough.”

And this is what I think about when I think and pray for my children – but particularly on their birthdays. Is God enough for my kids? Can I believe that God is enough for them? Will he hear them, guard them, comfort them? More so – will they hear him, will they feel his readily offered comfort, will they allow themselves to be guarded by the Almighty God? 

There are, Rachel says, “Mathematics of Grace” and as I think about birthdays and adult children I close with her beautiful words:

“And somehow, in God’s mathematics of grace: Mom (never enough) + God (infinitely enough) = Mom enough.

Mom enough to believe and to be called Chosen, Daughter, Righteous, Honored, Heir, Forgiven, Redeemed.

Trusting in God, because of Christ, I will rise from the graveyard of Mommy War victims, victorious and filled with resurrection power. Loving and living in his perfect enough-ness, I will live to parent for another day. Never mom enough, but filled with the One who is always enough.” quoted from Are You Mom Enough (Mommy Wars) by Rachel Pieh Jones now in book form from Desiring God

Today I am grateful for Adult Children, Birthdays, and most of all – the Mathematics of Grace. 

Blogger’s note: You can get Mom Enough electronically for FREE!! Yes! There are free gifts in this world and this is one of them! Just click here. If you want it in paperback format you can purchase on Amazon by clicking here.

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Parenting Series: Don’t burn your Bridges – A Home to Come Back To

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Part three:  Don’t burn your Bridges – A Home to Come Back To

This is the final segment in a three-part series Robynn has called, The Spelling Bee. “Lowell and I squeezed hands. Connor seemed to hesitate. There was a long pause. The audience had time to spell out the word in their heads several times over. Still Connor seemed to struggle silently…He was grasping for the spelling of his word. Until hesitatingly, falteringly, he began, Gospel. G…..O…..S……P……E…..L? Gospel. Altogether, parents, teachers, students exhaled. He had spelled it correctly. The Principal of the school, sitting just in front of us, turned and said with a smile, “Wouldn’t that have been awkward to have the missionary’s kid go out on ‘gospel’?!” It’s an amusing little story but the truth is I really don’t want my kids to go out on the gospel.” Join Robynn has she shares more from the unwritten list she and Lowell try to employ as they parent their children toward a vibrant faith.

9.  Live separately.

A couple of years ago I was talking to another mother of teenage boys. She was frustrated that her son had decided to not do well in school. She and her husband couldn’t seem to find a way to motivate him. Her emotional response to her son’s academic apathy was discernible. As a Spiritual Director I wanted to help her push into her own anxieties. “Sherry, this is not your D,” I told her. “You made different choices and you didn’t get a D in math.” It’s important to live separately from our children. My children are not extensions of me. We must resist the urge to parent based on popular opinion or the opinion of others. I can’t take their rages against me personally. I love them too much to argue. As their mother, I have to separate myself emotionally and yet not be emotionally distant.

10.  Don’t sweat the small stuff

If I really believe, and I do, that Jesus is the only thing that matters…then I want my kids to pursue Jesus. I imagine because of the personalities of our children and because of the counter-cultural ways we’ve taught them to think that one or more of them will follow a different “straight and narrow” path to Jesus the Good Shepherd than through the protestant evangelical path we’ve stayed on. I’d rather they find Jesus cloaked in Orthodox clothes, or Mennonite simplicity or Charismatic Catholic garments than not find him at all.

11.  Pray like crazy!

At the end of the day, I hate to tell you but, we are completely out of control when it comes to parenting! I had to smile when another friend, a mother of two, was telling me that she had quit her ministry so her kids don’t hate God or the church. I wasn’t sure if I should break it to her or not…but there are no guarantees. We cannot control the outcomes. The sooner we admit that to ourselves the better. The sooner we acknowledge that God alone has access to the insides of our children, he has admittance to their souls, the sooner our parenting will be another admission on our part that we are not in charge. We are not in control.

Our own faith has great opportunity to grow through parenting. We recognize, quickly, our humanity, our selfishness, our desperate need for the help of Another. And we turn to our own Father, who generously gives wisdom to all who ask. He doles out parenting advice. He reassures our own fears. Simultaneously he handles our own hearts full of anxieties and insecurities and the hearts of our children full of insecurities and anxieties.

We pray often: little thank yous, little cries for help, little petitions for their souls, little celebratory yays when they’ve made a good choice. We pray through our own emotional responses that overwhelm us, our memories, our own horrors that surface as we watch our children grow through the retroactive lenses of our own upbringings. Quickly we learn to pray without stopping as parenting drives us to the very edges of who we are.

12.  Don’t shy away from suffering.

I have often prayed that God would do whatever it takes so that my children know Him, so that their faith is their own, so they know that Jesus is relevant for here and now. Surely that will involve suffering. Suffering is a theme in scripture that we cannot ignore. Suffering purifies, transforms, deepens our faith. Suffering is a privilege. As horrendously hard as it is, I have to resist the urge to protect my children from all of their sufferings. I’m not suggesting that I stand by and do nothing if I discover my children are victims of evil. But I am saying that it is tempting as parents to want to rush in and fix the disappointments and pain our children face. We want to make it better. We want them to be ok. We need to be careful here. Suffering can be the tool that God uses to make His presence known to our kids. His comfort goes deeper than ours ever can. He understands the complexities of their grief and their sorrows. He walks with them through it. We can trust him to shepherd their souls in the midst of the sadness and suffering they experience.

I don’t want to mess that up.

13.  Be the Father for them…a place to come back to.

Several months ago I was having lunch with a couple of friends. One friend’s older children are making poor decisions. My friend, in processing that, said something really profound, “At this point in my relationship with them I don’t want to burn any bridges. I want them to have someone to come back to. When they’re done being stupid, I want them to know they can come home to me.”

The story of the Prodigal son is one of my favourites for so many reasons. I love that story. The prodigal makes a really offensive request. No one is surprised by the question (–the youngest are always coming up with ridiculous ideas!) but everyone is surprised by the Father’s response. He lets him make, what to the rest of us who are sane seems like, the stupidest decision of his life. The youngest walks intentionally, deliberately further and further into his folly. He packs and moves away and wherever he goes he wastes his money in a series of bad decisions.

When the younger son is hungry and comes to his senses, he knows where he can go for food and forgiveness…but mostly for food! He goes home. He returns to his dad.  And the dad is there waiting and eager to have him. The welcome is wondrous! The father doesn’t hold back. He embraces the son, decks him out in the most extravagant clothes and jewelry, orders in the richest cuisine and throws a party.

The father was there, the person the son could come home to. I want to be that parent. There was no shame or guilt heaped on the son, no pleading and nagging for details, no tears, no manipulation. There was welcome and grace and love.

I want Lowell and I to be there for my kids to come back to. I want to celebrate every return, every pivot point, every desire to come back. I want them to know they are always welcome here at home.

Sacerdotal Services

Sacerdotal services by Robynn

As many of the readers of Communicating Across Boundaries know, I am Canadian. Initially I was here in the US on an R1 visa. It’s a religious worker visa and it really only allowed me to do sacerdotal services. I could offer the sacraments: baptize, and serve communion. I could also bury, marry, and pray.

And that’s all I was allowed to do.

I volunteered in the lunchroom at Bluemont Elementary school where our three children were enrolled.  The Principal really wanted to pay me. No one wants to be in the lunchroom. It’s noisy and chaotic, it’s loud and often out of control. She thought the least she could do would be to pay me for my ‘hardship’. But my visa strictly stated that the only work I could be paid to do was religious work. I could only do sacerdotal services. I could have prayed in the school but I think the supreme court has had something to say about that over the years!

So I volunteered. That was several years ago.

Now I have a green card and I can officially work in the lunchroom at the elementary school. Three days a week I don my plastic gloves and I serve up canned pears and apple slices. I hand out whole wheat rolls (thanks to Mrs Obama!) and I dole out green beans. After the food is served and before the next class comes stampeding through there’s time to do what I love best about lunch room duty. I roam. I visit with the little people. I laugh at their jokes and hear their stories. I open milk cartons or yogurt tubes. I tie shoe laces. I release kids to go to the bathroom and I encourage them to wash their hands when they’re done.

But ironically I find myself also performing sacerdotal services. I hear confessions and I absolve the guilty. I comfort the broken-hearted. I help with conflict resolution. I hear who started it and I ask them to be brave enough to be the one to stop it. I encourage forgiveness and kindness. I break open their sandwich containers, I stick straws into juice boxes. I call them to sit and to stand. I tell them to ‘go in peace’ as they race out the door to the playground when lunch is done.

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I wipe tables and I wipe tears.

As I walk through their tables I also offer up prayers for them. Many are lonely and afraid. Some don’t have enough food in their lunch box to sustain them. I worry for those whose nutrition is in jeopardy. Some seem so sad and terribly troubled. Some can’t eat. Their tummies hurt. I petition their Heavenly Father on their behalf. There are a few who seem already earmarked for trouble. They are already making choices that seem to determine their outcomes unless God steps in with grace. I humbly ask him to.

There’s a lovely story in the gospels where a group of mothers brought their children, loud and noisy, disheveled and disorderly to Jesus. And I love what happens. Jesus’ friends try to send them all away…but Jesus calls for the kids to come.  In the lunchroom, I do that. I quietly bring them all to Jesus. They are very noisy. Not many of them remember their manners. They don’t eat their vegetables. Their faces are messy and their hands are sticky. Pushing and shoving, giggling and wiggling, Jesus still calls for them to come.

The priest, the mom and the lunch lady have a lot in common. They perform sacerdotal services. It’s loud and messy but it’s holy work.

And now I get paid (a little!) to do it!