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!

On Earthquakes and Babies

“My friend is having a ‘Reveal’ party” said my daughter.

“A what?”

“A reveal party – gender reveal – where you invite people over and you have cake and you ‘reveal’ the sex of your baby”.

I laughed. “Oh” Pause “Well – we had five of those!”

Five reveal parties. One took place in Illinois,one in Pakistan, one in Florida and two in Egypt. Five reveal parties on three continents! That has to be some kind of record. The difference was this – there weren’t a lot of people invited to our ‘parties’. Just my husband, a doctor or midwife, a nurse, a friend or mom, and me. And we didn’t call them “Reveal Parties” – we called them deliveries.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

But oh how we rejoiced when we heard those words “It’s a Girl!” and a lusty cry from a newborn infant. Or “It’s a Boy!” and in our situations, even lustier cries.

Call me old. Call me unable to keep up with the times. I don’t really care. I think reveal parties are ridiculous. I think they’re over the top, I think they’re not at all about the baby, and I think they’re about Big Business. Big Baby Business.

If you want to know the sex of your baby before birth – that’s great. Have at it. I won’t judge. But if you want to do little cake thingies and party favors and Big Reveals – I think it’s crazy.

Because there’s a natural reveal party waiting right around the corner. It comes after hard work and tears and real labor – but no reveal party is like the natural reveal.

No amount of work, fun, cake, and punch can ever top the Great Reveal

The Great Reveal – when you’re holding a six pound plus infant in your arms, your throat is catching as you say ‘hi baby!’ and you see the man in your life, who never cries, with tears coming down his cheeks looking down at your tiny daughter or son in complete awe.

As a wise friend once told us, there are only two real surprises left in life – And those are Earthquakes and Babies. 

The Children’s Ward – A Guest Post

Hospitals in the developing world are unforgettable – the overwhelming need, the overpowering smells, and the helplessness that one feels are etched in the memory. But they are also unforgettable because often in the midst of all that seems unholy – there are redemptive, holy moments.

Today’s post takes us to a busy, crowded hospital in Swaziland through a guest poster, Lesley Keyter – known by many as The Travel Lady. There will be more on Lesley at the end – for now read on!

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Border between Swaziland and South Africa

As I walk into the hospital I instinctively stop breathing through my nose.

I can’t describe the smell – a mixture of urine, body odour, stale bandages, dust and floor polish. Probably fairly typical of a small under-financed hospital in a poor African country.

In 1986 at only 18 years old King Mswati III was crowned King of Swaziland. At that time he was the youngest king in the world and one of the last absolute monarchs. With a population of a million people this small landlocked Kingdom, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, relied heavily on foreign aid and volunteer organisations.

A corrupt government plus a teenage king with a taste for luxury meant that the country’s most needy were left to fend for themselves.

The hospital corridors are crowded with patients, lying on the floor, sitting in the sun, eating mealies (corn cob). Most of them show signs of horrible wounds with dirty bandages and open sores. Most are laughing and joking – it’s an African thing that even in the middle of the worst situation there is always time for a laugh. The occasional patient lies there silently suffering and in one corner an old woman looks like she is not breathing at all. Her skin is a dusty gray and her wasted legs are covered by a tartan blanket. I have learnt that it is best to keep breathing through my mouth and keep my eyes ahead.

I reach the children’s ward and pass one small ward after another until I get Ward 8. Our small group of children are abandoned but the Swazi Government refuses to believe there is such a thing as an abandoned child. It is contrary to tribal custom. So the children end up here in the hospital, in Ward 8 as long term residents. Our volunteer efforts provide nannies, toys, food and even school fees and school uniforms.

“Aish Medem – I am glad you are here” – Julia greets me as I come in. “I need help with Mandla – he won’t eat his phutu(porridge) and I am busy with the baby”.

Mandla is a hefty 4-year-old with Down Syndrome. He’s quite strong and a handful at times. I get to work, distracting him with my car keys while I shovel the porridge into him while I have the chance. Julia is working with the new baby – just 3 months old already diagnosed with TB and (we are sure but nobody says the word) probably dying from AIDS.

No sooner am I finished with Mandla – a huge clean up involving his face, hands, chair, floor and toys – than Precious needs a diaper change. She is 3 years old and this is the only home she has known. She is still not talking properly. Julia is walking around with the baby (as yet unnamed) with a deep frown making the characteristic clicking noises of disapproval with her tongue.

“What is it Julia?” I ask from the depths of the diaper bucket.

“Hey Medem, I do not know what to do about thees baby. She is very very sick but the doctor he says he is too busy and this one is going to die anyway so he cannot spare the time”. Julia’s eyes fill with tears and I can see that the doctor is right. The baby is so thin – overwhelmed by the diaper. Her breathing is shallow.

“Well maybe we can speak to the Red Cross or Save the Children,” I suggest. Surely there must be someone who can get some help to this baby – give her a fighting chance.

“Well Medem – it is in God’s hands”

Indeed, I think to myself. I’ll see who I can phone when I get home.

I feel a sharp tug at my skirt and look down distractedly. There is Mandla – his characteristic Down Syndrome eyes gleaming with delight. In his hand he has my lipstick and has managed to paint it all over his face. He looks up at me with a big smile –  a glimmer of hope in the Children’s Ward.

About Lesley

As a Navy brat Lesley is no stranger to travel.  She was born in England and in her arrived_logo (3)teens emigrated to South Africa. From there it was just a short hop to the tiny African Kingdom of Swaziland where she lived for 17 years. She now calls Calgary Canada her home and has turned her love of travel to a thriving business known as The Travel Lady.

That Dang Love Chapter!

20130117-181301.jpgOn that sneaky little Sunday tucked suspiciously between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day our minister preached an upsetting sermon. Taken from the apostle Peter’s second epistle, it was about remembering and repetition.

There’s nothing wrong with hearing the same old stuff over and over again. In fact that is how we learn. That’s how we grow.

The upsetting part was a tiny little moment of illustration.

Pastor Steve was speaking from his own experiences even from his recent past. Some of what God had been repeating to him in the quietness of his own soul was from the famous ‘love chapter’–1 Corinthians 13. You know,
​“ Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not ​dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love ​does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always ​hopes, always perseveres.”
Ministers, more than any of us, are exposed to that wonderful passage. Over the course of their careers they preach on it at countless weddings, they hear dozens of sermons on it, they deliver dozens of sermons on it. They do well to take it to heart and understand that even if they communicate in the language of their parishioners, even if they understand the heart of God and have big faith, if they sacrifice everything for the sake of those they minister to—they are reduced to nothing unless they love, and love well. Steve had been learning that again.

And then he said the most annoying thing
.
He had come to the conclusion that if he was inpatient or unkind, if he was at all self-seeking or easily angered it wasn’t the problem of the person he was trying to love–it wasn’t his son’s fault, nor his wife’s—it was his. It meant there was a lack of love in his own heart.

And that made me mad!

What exactly was he saying? It’s not my children’s fault? When they don’t listen, when they persist in ignoring me, when they are ungrateful and rude, when they don’t pick up after I’ve “repeated” it 1000 times? When they assume I’ll do something, when they take me for granted, when they leave messes and piles in newly cleaned places?

How can the anger I feel not be their fault? This anger, irritation, frustration, rage that creeps and crescendos more often than I’d care to admit — how is it possibly a reflection of my own heart?
Later at home, away from the polite piety of church, with a morning mug of coffee, I thought hard about these things. I read and reread the passage. I thought about my own heart. I remembered and reflected on my responses to real life.

And I realized it really is true.

It’s not Connor’s, or Adelaide’s, or Bronwynn’s fault. Yes, life in family can be exasperating. But that’s where we’re supposed to learn to love. It’s where we own our own responses. It’s where we honestly admit our lack of capacity to love well on our own, without a Tutor who’s name is Love. It’s where we say I’m sorry. I didn’t love well. Please forgive me.

I’m not saying that children don’t sometimes put mothers over the edge. They do. But I’m saying that I’m responsible for my own responses. Lately the love’s been spread too thin.
I asked God to lead me into Love this year. Let this be the year I learn to love, to love really, to love well.

Sometimes I Want to Put Them All In the Tub

English: Little girl hanging up stocking by fi...

On Christmas day in 1989 we had three pre-schoolers. The anticipation of Christmas, the magic of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in Cairo, stockings at the foot of their beds — it was all new, exciting, magical.

They were beyond excited.

At the crack of dawn they were in our beds. Tousled heads, Superman and batman pajamas, soft small bodies opening up stockings. By 8 we were around the tree reading the Christmas story and opening gifts, by 9 we were eating scrambled eggs and a cinnamon roll Christmas tree with bright green frosting and sprinkles.

By 10 they were a mess. The sugar, the excitement, the gifts – it was all too much.

So – I put them all in the bath tub. In warm, soapy water they played and relaxed. The bath time toys were familiar, nothing new. The warmth and relaxation calmed them down and all of life was okay.

It is now 23 years later. And sometimes I wish I could put them all in a tub. All in warm, soapy water where they can relax and have the cares of the world dissolve like all the bubbles surrounding them. Where there is nothing in their world that can’t be solved with hot water and bubbles. Where troubles wash off like the dirt on their bodies.

But. That would be weird. Because they are adults and as adults I am no longer able to solve all of life’s problems with a bath.

And this is where my thinking becomes flawed, needy of reprogramming. Because I am not the Saviour, I am not the person who can make life okay. I am not the person who can whisper in their ears that I will always be there. I can’t scrub off dirt and wrong and sin with a soft, soapy cloth.

I am one, startlingly imperfect, mom.

And that T-shirt (or sometimes plaque) that says “God couldn’t be everywhere and so he created moms” Well that’s a loaded lie right there and unfortunately that thought comes and roots its way into our heads by way of our eyes and ears and we’re duped.

But in my startling imperfection, in this tired, soft body of mine that has more dimples and wrinkles by the day, is a God who knows all about the lies I believe. He gently does the reprogramming, sometimes tenderly, sometimes more firmly. And I’m reminded that His all-sufficient, powerful presence is that much stronger than a tub of soapy water.

But I still sometimes want to scoop them up and put them in the tub.

“There’s too much hot-sauce in the Fridge!”

 

I came back after a couple of days away and walked in the house; a house that usually holds a lot of life. The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. Too quiet. And it was clean. Just the way I left it.

But the tears came when I opened the refrigerator. “There’s too much hot sauce in the fridge!” I yelled. It hit me. There are no kids in this house. None. Not one.

Five I have, ages 17 to almost 27. Each unique. Each interesting. Each creative. And they’re gone.

Like will’o-the-wisps from the movie “Brave” they were here — and now they’re gone.

But the evidence of their lives, their personalities, their stuff is everywhere.

And there’s too much hot sauce in the fridge. And too many cookies in the container. And too many toothbrushes in the bathroom. And too many coats in the hall closet. And too many cell phone chargers in the junk drawer, and too much of everything!

But mostly there’s too much hot sauce in the fridge.

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they don’t look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

But whether we have children or not, we all have those “Too much hot sauce in the fridge” moments – the pivotal moments of life’s journey where we know that life will never be quite the same. Life is, for all of us, a series of steps in adapting and choosing to move forward. Those who cannot adapt end up in arrested development.

So I’ve come back to a new season, and I know I’ll embrace it. But right now?

Right now there’s way too much hot sauce in the fridge…..

So what are your “Too much hot sauce in the fridge” moments? The moments when you realized that you were entering a new season, yet reminders of the old were present all around you? 

Another Punctuation Mark in the Sentence of Life

two speech balloons, one with an a questionmar...

The suitcase is almost packed and sits open on the floor beside some last treasured books that may (or may not) fit. Passport and other important documents are laid out, the most important pieces to the trip. He checked in online and now it’s just a matter of waiting and last-minute pieces.

My youngest is leaving home.

It’s one more punctuation mark in my life – not a comma, not a semicolon, not a question mark, but a fat exclamation mark typed in Boldface font and repeated for emphasis.

He is the surprise that marked my 35th year of life. He is the blithe spirit who only recently came into his own. He is the one who chides me when I walk too fast. He is the one who loves being served coffee in bed. He is the one who knows just when to hug all the others in the family. He is the baby. 

And he will go to my favorite terminal and board a flight for London tonight at 7:25 pm for a take-off at 8:05 pm. His destination is Oxford where he will read a lot of books, walk hallowed halls and hopefully have some fish and chips in the process.

It is exciting. This is his time — time to learn more on his own, to budget a meager allowance, to not be served coffee in bed. So we’ll hug hard and tight, pray harder, and send him off to a world that needs blithe, a world that could use more hugs. a world that doesn’t always have exclamation points.

I’ve had commas and dashes, ampersands and a lot of question marks in my life, but every time one of my kids leaves it’s an exclamation mark and today is no exception.

So Jonathan – Goodbye and Godspeed.

Seven Point Four Pounds of Perfect


She’s perfect. All seven point four pounds of her
.

Her soft baby skin swaddled up in a light baby blanket; her perfect face peeking out, a head of dark hair covering her soft spot. Her eyes, though closed, scrunch up as though she is trying to make sense of this world she has come into. Her tiny mouth purses then her lips curl up as if in a smile. Medical experts claim they don’t really smile at this age – and mothers nod, knowing the experts are a bit text-book and theory crazy.

She’s less than 24 hours old and has ten fingers, ten toes and a perfect suck reflex. She’s as perfect as the pink rosebuds on the coffee table just beginning to open, gifts from a family friend.

As I hold her I know that I am holding a miracle. A miracle; “God’s opinion the world should go on”.*

Outside the world is raging. During the hours since her birth Syria is ravaged by internal conflict, a bomb goes off in Afghanistan, people argue ‘personhood’, and humans that at one time were new-born infants bash each other with guns, swords and words.

But inside a new-born baby is held, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and seven point four pounds of lovely, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who gave birth within five minutes of arriving at the hospital. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes are worth redeeming.

She’s perfect, seven point four pounds of perfect.

*Carl Sandburg

So.Many.Stories – International Party Crashers

I love this story from Anne Bennett that gives a great recipe for adapting to a less adventurous life once you move to your passport country. Enjoy this piece on international party crashing!

I’ve lived in some pretty exotic places.  Places where a nightly blast from a cannon rattles all the windows in the neighborhood and signals that it is now time to eat after a day of fasting.  Places where your sweat begins to smell of curry after a week of eating street food.  Places where even if you were blind and deaf you would know that you are in a different world because of how the air feels on your skin.  Now we have moved back to the land where football is called “soccer”, tea is served with ice and where Coca-Cola is delivered by truck rather than on the back of a donkey.  How are we dealing with the loss of our exotic lifestyle?

We have become international party crashers.

We have chosen to live in a neighborhood highly populated with immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, Africa andLatin America.  This means that even though most of my children’s friends like Sponge Bob and pizza, their parents still prefer Bollywood movies and samosas, (or couscous or tortillas).  Friendships among children inevitably lead to the biggest event in a child’s year – the birthday party.  I always throw big birthday parties for my children, not so that they will get more presents, but so that I can show hospitality to the parents of these children and develop relationships with people who might otherwise not invite me into their life.  (Yes, I know that I’m using my children, but since they end up with more presents, they don’t mind).  Our big parties lead to invitations to the parties  of others and with that a glimpse into the culture of my fascinating friends and neighbors.

Here are a few of my favorite parties that we have either been invited to or just crashed since they were held on our communal playground:

The Bangladeshi birthday party – As my children ran around on the playground, oblivious to the fact that they were the only white faces at the party, my “American-ness” was confusing to the other adult guests.  They were all polite, but were obviously not used to the idea of an outsider wanting to participate in their activities.   When I showed an eagerness to try their food and even eat rice with my hands, their confusion turned to appreciation at my efforts to honor their culture.  We, in turn, received honor in a wonderful custom when the birthday girl fed each guest a bite of cake before feeding herself.   The fact that it was a Tres Leches cake bought at the Mexican supermarket made it all the more fun.

The Kenyan birthday party – Even though this party was held in a beautiful home in the American suburbs, it did not mask the fact that it was very Kenyan.   The older aunties busied themselves in the kitchen stirring rice and cutting lamb while the younger aunties played with a large group of excited children.  The uncles and grandfathers sat in the living room swapping stories.  The fact that half of the people there were not technically related made them no less a part of this extended, cultural family.  This warm and accepting group of people called me “Mama Jasmine” (my daughter’s name), and made me want to be part of a Kenyan family.

The Palestinian birthday party – This simple party of cupcakes and juice boxes was mostly an opportunity for the mothers to talk while the children played by themselves.  Unlike most conversations I have with immigrant women, this conversation turned to the subject of politics in theMiddle East.  Instead of trying to figure out why Palestinians think and act the way that they do in regards to the conflict in their homeland, why don’t we just ask them directly?  This birthday party gave me the chance to do just that in a non-confrontational way as we munched on neon-colored cupcakes.

And then there was the Mexican birthday party, the Vietnamese birthday party, the Afghan party and the party where the other children recited the Qur’an for the video camera while my daughter sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Spanish.  We could choose to raise our children in a neighborhood surrounded by white, middle-class Christians like ourselves, but where’s the fun in that?

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Anne Bennett is the pen name of an American wife, mother, follower of Jesus and friend to Muslim women.  She has lived in Pakistan and North Africa and is now living in a unique corner of the Bible belt where she is happily surrounded by Muslims.

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If you would like to participate in the So.Many.Stories Project please feel free to email communicatingblog@gmail.com!


Journey: One Year

A year ago on Monday we passed a milestone of parenting – we witnessed and participated in our son Micah’s wedding. There is a peculiar joy as you watch your child find a soul mate and embark on what is surely the hardest journey any two human beings will ever undertake. I watched this video made by Micah for Lauren with tears – may you enjoy this and be reminded of the mystery of marriage.

Happy Anniversary Micah and Lauren!

When Kids Kill Kids

When our daughter Annie was two years old she saw television for the first time. We were in Islamabad, Pakistan and she was invited to a birthday party of some older children. My husband took her while I stayed home with our brand new baby boy. When they came home he relayed to me her reaction to this first time of watching TV. She was watching a cartoon and the character was hit over the head with something. As often happens with cartoons, there was a bonk, birds flew over the head of the character and then the scene faded out. She began to cry. She thought the character was dead and was inconsolable. In her 2-year-old mind she was unable to distinguish real from imaginary on the screen.

This is huge. Until a child is seven years old, they cannot differentiate between imaginary and real; fantasy and reality. So when young children see television violence, it’s accepted as not only real, but a part of “normal” life.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, in an article released in 2000 called “Trained to Kill”, speaks in-depth to this problem. In nature, he says, “Healthy members of most species have a powerful, natural resistance to killing their own kind.” So while rattlesnakes bite others, they wrestle each other; while piranhas use their fangs on others, they fight each other by flicking their tails. So it is true with humans – we don’t naturally want to kill, we are taught to kill.

He talks about three ways of being conditioned to kill – the first is something we would think of when we think of boot camp. Everyone is taken and their heads are shaved, they are shouted at, they get up at unearthly hours and go through relentless discipline and violence. At the end the recruit believes this is normal. This is a perfect segue into a war zone.

The second is “classical conditioning” where violence is associated with pleasure. The author would suggest that “classical conditioning” takes place in kids as they watch violence while eating their favorite foods of popcorn and soda, or smelling a girlfriend’s perfume, all while watching horrific movie violence as “entertainment”.

The third is “operant conditioning” which is a stimulus response. This is where in target practice a target shaped like a man would pop up. If you shoot the target correctly, it will fall, and so on. Contrast this, he says, to video games, where for hours at a time a kid is pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting, getting better and better at hitting the targets and gaining points every time they do so.

The article is well worth looking at and provides irrefutable evidence of the problem: all this is teaching kids how to kill. The evidence is present in the tragedies that read like headlines from newspapers – because they are.

  • Jonestown, Arkansas Massacre 1998 – An 11 and a 13 year-old, camouflaged in the woods kill four kids and a teacher with ten others wounded.
  • Paducah, Kentucky 1999 – A 14-year-old opens fire on a prayer group at school and hits eight kids.
  • Columbine High School, 1999 – Two kids in trench coats terrorize the school ultimately killing twelve students, one teacher. 21 other students are injured and ultimately the kids kill themselves.

There are more but this makes the point. All of these have one thing in common – they are kids killing kids. It begs the question: Why are we shocked when we see child soldiers from the widely seen Kony 2012 video?

So why am I suddenly bringing up violence and kids killing kids? In the newly released movie “The Hunger Games” that is the premise and it has some people disturbed. And that is the very point of the author. My friend Stacy, who blogs at Slowing the Racing Mind, wrote an excellent post on this called “Hunger Games – Disturbing? Indeed” Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, wants us to be disturbed so that we can discuss this and question it, talk with our kids and know that there are times where we must stand up to what is wrong.

I won’t go into The Hunger Games further, as others have done a fine job of doing just that, but I would argue books like these, and movies like these, are not what creates violence in our kids. It’s gratuitous violence in movies and video games that evokes laughter as opposed to tears, mocking as opposed to compassion. That’s what we should be worried about. Crying because a 12-year-old was killed in a society’s sick attempt at control is a human response; laughing when a teacher tells you that a middle schooler ambushed a school, killing kids and a teacher, is a an inhuman response born of inappropriate exposure to violence at young ages.

It’s a big issue – What do you think?

“On June 10th, 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a definitive study on the impact of TV violence. In nations, regions, or cities where television appears there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That’s how long it takes for a brutalized toddler to reach the “prime crime” years. That’s how long it takes before you begin to reap what you sow when you traumatize and desensitize children. (Centerwall, 1992).” (from Teaching Our Kids to Kill)

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Communicating Across the Boundary of the Classroom – The F Cannot be Disguised!

Today I have the great privilege of posting over at Lessons from Teacher’s and Twits. I have followed Renée Schuls-Jacobson since early last fall and there are several things I love about Renée – one is her openness and sense of humor, the other is her ability to bring a community together on her blog. She generously shares her piece of the internet with others, so head on over to her blog to read and comment. I’ll be responding to comments there today!

The F could not be disguised. No matter how skilled my son was with the fine-point of a Sharpie, we could tell that it was not an A+ in English. If the pen smudge hadn’t given it away, then the comments would have: “Does not do his homework. Disorganized. Enthusiastic in class.”  Even though I had heard the comments before and knew they came from a drop-down list on a computer program, they still stung. Read more here….

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